As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty 2000 ★★★★★ Watched Oct 12, 2019
☆"I have never been able really to figure out where my life begins and where it ends."☆
It's the little things. "Nothing important, it's all nothing," the filmmaker claims. Of course, he speaks in jest.
After spending weeks watching bits and pieces of the filmography of Jonas Mekas, at last I have made my way to the film diary that is a culmination of his brilliant career. In what unfolds as a compendium of life's memories to cherish and treasure, one of the most moving and cathartic pictures ever made is a testament to friends, family, and loved ones that make life worth living.
This is the eighth film I'm watching as part of a little film club -- Josh, George, Mr_Macaroon, Brock, Zeke, and Stuart are just some in our private group, others not on LB but in another social media page we share -- and finally it's my choice this month! So naturally I chose the magnum opus of Jonas Mekas, one of the greatest avant-garde filmmakers in history, the 4-hour and 48-minute masterpiece of masterpieces, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.
Unfortunately, I have also ruined the Film Club as a result, as nearly everyone has either refused to watch the movie, could not find time, or simply could not find the picture at all to watch. I dunno. I did. The club has now basically fallen apart as I believe no one else was able to participate. Oh well. Anyway.
This massive work is focused on his family life from the 1970s to early 1990s, filmed with his Bolex in and around New York City, the adopted home of the Lithuanian-born immigrant. Released in the year 2000 when Mekas was 77 years old, this is the "home movie epic" as the New York Times called it of his marriage to artist and photographer Hollis Melton, and the birth and childhood of their daughter Oona and son Sebastian. With countless hundreds of hours of footage, in the late 90s he begun to edit them down to one singular film, presented in thematic non-linear segments.
The next time your mom wants to watch old videos of your brother picking on you during Christmas morning, tell her you wish you had Jonas Mekas filming instead. For twenty years.
What comes across in As I Was Moving Ahead… is a life well lived. In one of the most brilliantly edited films in the history of cinema, Mekas chronicles his family with relentless intensity and depth. "Life goes on," he says several times, and "I am not making films, I am just filming." So modest. But it's far from just a compendium of fragments of a long happy life, and Mekas brings his visual and artistic flair with rapid cuts and clever editing, sped-up playback, and sounds and music that rarely sync with what's on screen.
Mekas also has a massive collection of short films. Various portions of those works find themselves here, at times chopped and screwed and at times lifted in pieces to complement new images or themes here. As I watched, I observed parts of Song of Avignon, Travel Songs, Quartet Number One, and surely others I haven't seen or didn't recognize. Mekas of course repurposes these in this huge film diary in his artistic way, particularly the first half of the twelve-reel epic.
"I guess by now you know that I do not like any suspense," Mekas admits at the beginning of the fourth reel of As I Was Moving Ahead… It is evident, but that's perhaps because he wants to make it abundantly clear what these reels mean to him and what he's trying to convey. While some may watch an avant-garde filmmaker like this and come away wondering what it was all about, Mekas -- though he is never willing to compromise his distinct style -- wants every viewer to come away from this work with a clear vision like he said. He explains here:
[This] is a record of subtle feelings, emotions, daily joys of people as recorded in the voices, faces and small everyday activities of people I have met, or lived with, or observed -- something that I have been recording for many years. This, as opposed to the spectacular, entertaining, sensational, dramatic activities which dominate much of contemporary filmmaking....The film is not conceived as a documentary film, however. It follows a tradition established by modern film poets. I am interested in intensifying the fleeting moments of reality by a personal way of filming and structuring my material. A lot of importance is being given to color, movement, rhythm and structure -- all very essential to the subject matter I am pursuing.
And that signature style of his is pushed to the limit in this epic film. Though it's clearly a work in his own exhaustively comprehensive version of a "film diary" -- much as his early pictures Walden [Diaries, Notes, and Sketches] and Lost, Lost, Lost also fit -- his oeuvre here is more explicitly about looking back in a retrospective way, on both the life lived and the life filmed.
It's best exemplified in his narration. Mekas has always provided narrative context in his film, sometimes with poetic meditation or profound personal statements. His masterwork Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania may be the most intimate use of this. But here, the narration transcends the usual ruminations and reflections and becomes something like a meta commentary track of the film we're seeing, like he and the audience are watching together for the first time. He even purposefully talks to that audience at times. "It's all here," he says in speaking about his "role" in the film. "I'm in every image….Please read these images and you will be able to tell everything about me."
And sometimes, he just plays his accordion.
Also on screen are various intertitles and text cards, staples of Mekas' earlier films. Some are esoteric and poetic, some are blunt and serve as cuts to another theme, and some just literally recount the date or event shown. You'll even know exactly when each reel ends. But it's not linear at all, so sometimes even the cheeky intertitles are worthwhile.
Before you think this night be just one nearly five-hour-long sentimental overly positive documentary, Mekas undercuts that with his relentless wit and wry humour that keeps his film in check. (There's a hilarious intertitle I won't spoil.) The ending, and lead up to that closing segment, is perfect. Still, as Andrew Chan described it, "There is innocence in this film, and it is heartrendingly beautiful."
So, even though I ruined the Daily Mosh Film Club by picking this movie, I'm not sorry for making it more known and shouting from the rooftops about its brilliance. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty is without question one of the greatest films I've ever seen. I wish it were more easily available. Please please seek it out if you are able.