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Walden (Diaries Notes and Sketches)

Posted by martinteller on February 27, 2016

Three years ago, I watched Jonas Mekas’s epic 5-hour “diary film”, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. I fell in love with it and placed it among my top 100 films. Mekas’s home movies were edited into a sustained ecstatic burst of joy and delight, a celebration of love, family, nostalgia. And yet it was with some hesitation that I made a blind purchase of this new Blu-Ray collection, featuring this, his first diary film. Would the gamble pay off?

Well, yes and no. Walden is much in the same spirit, jittery handheld footage melded with an often unrelated soundtrack, highlighting moments that Mekas felt worth highlighting. And some of these moments are indeed beautiful and sweet and filled me with that same sense of joy. But too often Mekas is more concerned with events than moments. Early in the film, the first appearance of The Velvet Underground. Near the end, John and Yoko’s “bed-in”. Significant events in cultural history, but even though Mekas was there, the personal perspective is lacking. And he doesn’t bring anything to make them interesting, either. It’s just… yep, you were there to film it.

Although some two hours shorter than As I Was Moving, it feels longer. When the movie gets into that wonderful, random rhythm it’s fascinating. But there are three sections where it gets rather bogged down. One is a visit with Stan Brakhage and his family. While there are a few items here and there that elicit a smile — Stan’s wife Jane riding a mule, for example — it spends too long just documenting rather than finding the special parts. It’s boring in the way we expect home movies to be boring. Another section spends far too long at the wedding of film historian (and with Mekas, co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives) P. Adams Sitney. Clearly Sitney was a close friend… so why does this feel so distant and impersonal? It’s mostly a bunch of people milling around in a tent. And lastly, there’s a section entitled “Wendy’s Wedding”. I don’t know who Wendy is, but for what must be 7 or 8 interminable minutes, we watch her dance in a nightclub, wearing her bridal gown and caught in stuttering fragments by the strobe light. Fun and interesting for maybe a minute or two. Mekas tries our patience.

If this sounds like a lot of kvetching, it’s because I had hoped for a more consistently enjoyable experience. Mekas is perhaps still finding his voice here (speaking of his voice, his spoken musings on the soundtrack are still wonderful). One of the most memorable aspects of As I Was Moving was his clear love for his wife and children. This was before they were part of his life, so some of the best scenes here are when he delights in the loves and children of others. I would say about 70% of the film is what I wanted… the rhapsodic observations, the latching on to images of beauty, the reminder to take a minute to enjoy life rather than just living it. He needs to apply more of his personal touch to that other 30%. Hopefully Lost, Lost, Lost will be more successful in that regard. Rating: Good (73)

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