"You may think I am crazy," Jonas Mekas wrote in one of his 1963 "Movie Journal" columns in the Village Voice, "[but] the day is close when the 8 mm. home-movie footage will be collected and appreciated as folk art, like songs and the lyric poetry that was created by the people." In the future, he predicted, we will come to appreciate "travelogue footage, awkward footage that will suddenly sing with an unexpected rapture" since "time is laying a veil of poetry over them." History has borne out Mekas's prophecy: the decades since have seen the emergence of the diary form through artists as varied as George Kuchar, Sadie Benning, Joe Gibbons, Shigeko Kubota and Michel Auder, working not only in small gauge film but later with various hand-held video formats, from Portapak to Pixelvision and beyond. With the advent of YouTube, the possibilities of the video diary as expressive means have only grown: witness how Oliver Laric, Petra Cortright or Guthrie Lonergan suss out the "unexpected raptures" of generation Web 2.0.
As a filmmaker, Mekas himself has been one of the major practitioners of the form, typically working retrospectively: to create his multi-hour films Diaries, Notes & Sketches (Walden) (1969), Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), he culled bits from years of 16mm footage, shot off-the-cuff with his Bolex while hanging with friends and family and journeying the world through the realms of art and cinema, and edited episodes together into epics that ponder the passage of time. Given his accomplishments-- as one of the most important promoters of American independent cinema, he helped create the Village Voice film section, pioneering distributors The Film-Maker’s Co-op, Anthology Film Archives, and Film Culture magazine-- Mekas' usual crowd happens to include many now-- legendary names: Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, the Kennedys, and Stan Brakhage are only among the most widely famous, populating his screen along with a multitudinous who's who of the history of experimental film.
In 2007, Mekas took his filmmaking online, using his website Jonasmekas.com as the platform for a project called 365 Films, posting a new video each day for the entire year. Intended for "eye-pods" (as his May 31 entry puts it), many of these tidbits are created from now-archival film and video diaries years or decades old, while some employ content shot only days prior to posting. This week, Anthology Film Archives will screen a selection of the 365 Films theatrically as part of its Mekas retrospective From Diaries to Downloads, allowing viewers to sample the evolution of Mekas’ practice. The program will include conversations with fellow filmmakers Peter Kubelka, Harmony Korine and Ken Jacobs, trips to Apollonaire's old apartment building and Nostradamus’s castle, Mekas flipping through fading Billy Graham footage on a flatbed and vehemently defending Britney Spears from reporters (posted months before Chris Crocker). Each daily dose is under 10 minutes, and their effect is collective; a years' worth of these forms a digital approximation of the monumental quality of his long-form films.
Some individual pieces stand out as substantial works in their own right. On March 1, Mekas posted a remarkable diary shot in the nosebleed seats of a Madonna concert. Created apparently in-camera in a single swooping shot, traveling from the unheroic figures of the singer and her dancers on a scuffed stage to the unreal images of mega-sized video screens above her, the video becomes a compelling exploration of scale and thereby a deft deflation of celebrity apotheosis. Quickly made yet perfectly formed, this tiny work is testament to the work of a filmmaker who has perfected the art of the seemingly casual diary as a vehicle of precise expression. - Ed Halter
Image Credit: Jonas Mekas, March 1 (from 365 Films), 2007