The decades-old cliché goes, watching other people’s home movies is hell frozen over. Strangely, this is true only if you know the people, and it’s their vacation in Tahoe that you’re forced to sit through after a few cocktails and a bellyful of spinach lasagna, as they narrate the landscapes and sigh at their own kids’ antics and wistfully recall the best restaurant sea bass they’ve ever eaten. As Daffy Duck said, I demand that you shoot me now.
Removed from that cloying context, though, home movies are raw and beautiful cinema, mysterious, bewitching and filled with the melancholy for the passage of time, as anyone who has seen “Capturing the Friedmans” (I mean that heartbreaking 8mm footage of the roof-dancing girl, whose demise tipped the whole family into doom), or Ken Jacobs’ “Urban Peasants” (family home movies, edited together without intervention) knows. In fact, the allure of old home movies has always been mixed up with the legacy and syntax of a lot of American underground film – both schools, if they’re mutually exclusive, take their power from the elegiac nature of film, the unprofessional beauty of found light and landscape, and the spontaneous energy of real life. Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan has for years hosted a home movie night, for which ticket buyers bring their own reels for projection, as if family movies shot for private contemplation were avant-garde art and vice-versa, which of course they can be – closer to modern lyrical poetry than movies ordinarily ever get. Mekas’ own work as a “new American cinema” granddaddy, his body of work running on for over 50 years, is comprised mostly of “diaries, notes and sketches,” as his 1969 opus “Walden” is also titled – he’d take his Bolex everywhere and film everybody and everything, and this three-hour portrait of the late ’60s is an indelible time capsule, both of the time and place, and of Mekas’ sensibility as a intuitive artist using his camera to interface with the world.
He is interfacing in the crazed, frantic jumble of “Walden” (hardly a single shot stays still or lasts for more than a few seconds), but he’s also documenting his landscape (peopled by scores of underground legends like Warhol, Gregory Markopoulos and Stan Brakhage, plus John & Yoko, Judith Malina, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Peter Beard, Carl Dreyer, Ram Dass, Barbet Schroeder, Edie Sedgwick, Timothy Leary, ad infinitum). The movie is never just a record of Mekas’ travels and daily lingering; it’s also a dream portrait of an artist’s life, full of hanging out, but hectically reimagining the world as a shake-&-bake cascade of sensations. Whether we’re on the Bowery or at the Brakhages’ mountain cabin or at a lavish Newport wedding (complete with helicopter), Mekas’ take is jumbled, jittery, often double-paced, and strictly observational – the feeling is that this movie intends to keep up with daily events, instead of slowing them down and controlling the flow. It is a home movie, full of kids and dogs and sunsets, but that only means it embodies the life it reveals. The simplicity of Mekas’ approach embraces its own contradictions.
The DVD package from Microcinema is something else – the discs come boxed with a thick paperback volume (in French and English) of Mekas’ extensive memoir annotations (plus interviews and critical exegesis), indexing the personnel and telling the story of every single shot in the film, plus a fold-out poster which charts the film and its soundtrack’s details, “frame by frame.” To my astonishment, it seems we do not live in a film culture that allows 40-year-old epic avant-garde “diary films” to be forgotten or neglected.
Amateur home movies make up the spinal cord of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s “Trouble the Water” as well – wannabe New Orleans rap artist Kimberly Roberts took her camera out when Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the coast, when anticipation and Army trucks were all there was to see, and she continued to shoot footage through the storm and its aftermath, giving us a harrowing water-level perspective from the attics and rooftops and co-opted rowboats of the city. It’s nothing less than the firsthand record of the fall of an entire American city, like a modern Pompeii, and Roberts is a born doc-maker, always looking for the telling composition and putting herself on the line. In fact, “Trouble the Water” belongs to her, and she should be listed as a co-director; the accompanying material is nothing we haven’t seen before (such as FEMA’s Michael D. “Brownie” Brown pronouncing that “we’re prepared for the worst!”). There’s ample food for discomfiture here, for many reasons – nearly everyone in Roberts’ neighborhood has facial scars of some kind, and the post-Katrina visions of freeway shoulders filled with entire families sitting on lawn chairs, waiting for something to happen, is almost surreal. But if it weren’t for Roberts’ tough and breathless footage, it’d be merely a retold tale of calamity and official disregard and institutional racism. Thanks to her, we are there, and it’s not just politics.
“Walden: Diaries, Notes & Sketches by Jonas Mekas” (Microcinema DVD) and “Trouble the Water” (Zeitgeist Films) are now available on DVD.
[Additional Photo: Kimberly and Scott Roberts in “Trouble the Water,” Zeitgeist Films, 2008]