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Fragments of Paradise [Film Review]

Jonas Mekas, had he lived, would have been 101 this year, but Fragments of Paradise (Kunhardt Films) keeps him very much alive. To many, he was the Godfather of Experimental Cinema; to others, a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. He was also a devoted father and husband. All those roles are seen in K.D. Davison’s wonderful documentary, which looks at Mekas’ career and dips into the endless hours of footage on which he recorded his everyday life on his 16mm Bolex camera. It’s this footage that tells his story most effectively.

Young Jonas and his brother Adolfus fled war-torn Lithuania and, via the traumas of a forced labour camp in Germany, found themselves in New York City in 1952. Starved of culture in their homeland, they devoured art, theatre and cinema in New York. “We were Hungry, Thirsty for Art.”

The film shows beautiful footage of the City in the 1950s in grainy black and white, and documents those early days in Brooklyn where Mekas found a new home “…in cinema.”

Punctuated with more recent footage of Mekas, prior to his death in 2019, aged 96, Davison’s film is in part a straightforward biog of a true artist but also a meditation on life. We see an exploration of a quiet, good-humoured man, struggling financially but influencing so many, finding love, making a family and finally succumbing to his true passion – film, and paying the price.

Filmmakers as diverse as John WatersPeter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese all pay tribute to Mekas, not merely due to his 16mm masterpieces but also due to his skills as a curator. In an attempt to match France’s Cahiers Du Cinema and Britain’s Sight and Sound, Mekas launched his own magazine Film Culture in December 1964 and wrote extensively for Village Voice, exposing the world of cinema to a new generation of up-and-coming filmmakers.

But it was his venture into actual film curation that opened the doors of possibility to these future legends. His Film-makers co-operative celebrated controversial and largely unseen movies, including Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio RisingJack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, and Jean Genet’s censored Un Chant D’amour, which led to police intervention due to its “obscene” nature. He was also the first person to screen John Water’s Mondo Trasho, of which Waters is eternally grateful, saying of Mekas’ curation, “That’s how I got my film education.”

He also showed his own films, film critic Amy Taubin said of Mekas 1961 debut feature, Guns of the Trees, “It was the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen,” and vowed never to go to the Film Co-operative again. The vow was short-lived, and she continued to experience the films of Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Day there. Later she would work with Mekas in his Anthology Archive.

The impact of Mekas’ work is voiced throughout by those he influenced most. Performance artist Penny Arcade sums his work up well, “Jonas’ personal cinema represented an entire vocabulary of symbols and signifiers, and there was no goal.”

Director Jim Jarmusch, who shot scenes of Coffee and Cigarettes in Mekas’ Anthology Archive building, likens Mekas’ camera to Woody Guthrie’s “This guitar kills Fascists” guitar – “This camera destroys pre-conceptions of what is filmmaking.”

In addition to being a filmmaker and curator, his talents as a poet come to light in the sequences where we see footage of the Mekas brothers returning to Lithuania to visit their family home. While interned in the labour camp, Mekas maintained his sanity by writing insightful and emotional poetry. Vytautus Landsbergis, the first Head of Parliament (1990-92), is interviewed, praising these works. Ironically the scenes filmed in Lithuania for the purpose of this documentary are very cinematic, unlike the realism of Mekas’ own films.

We see footage of Mekas and his disciples setting up the Anthology Archive in 1970, a project that would take over ten years to complete. Storing over 6,000 films in their canisters, Mekas was in the never-ending process of restoring and protecting the filmstock, whilst continuing to collect more. Eventually, he would expand this project to a museum and cinema.

In 1987, Mekas replaces his Bolex camera with a new Sony camcorder, and the aesthetic of his film journal changes completely, but perhaps becomes even more intense as there is no processing needed.

The film moves gradually away from Mekas as a curator towards the last third and shows footage of him as a family man, romancing and marrying Hollis Melton and bringing up their children Oona and Sebastian (who also worked on producing this documentary). There are fascinating images of Mekas’ home life in their New York “loft,” entertaining artists regularly at their long wooden table in the kitchen. Allen Ginsberg is a regular.

As the film draws to a close, I personally found it to be an incredibly difficult watch. After 30 years, his marriage breaks down, his filmmaking taking precedence over his devotion to Hollis. They continue to inhabit opposite ends of their home, but when they eventually split, we see a tragic cycle of Mekas talking to his camera to ease the mourning of the relationship. After tearfully admitting, “My filmmaking saves me… saves me,” we witness one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever witnessed on film as he breaks down in tears to his camera, crying, “What is me, what is my life all about?…  Do I still have time.. to do something about my life?” before dashing his camera onto the floor.

Images taken beyond this breakdown of Oona’s daughter playing in Mekas’ house and of him forging a stronger relationship with Sebastian are uplifting but incredibly emotional. His voiceover tells us, “It’s all little daily scenes, personal celebrations, joys and miracles, little moments of paradise that are here now. Next moment maybe, they are gone.”

This is more than just a biography, it is a beautiful portrait of a special individual, and many will identify with him as a human; I certainly did and have the tissues to prove it. For anyone interested in Underground cinema, this is essential viewing.

Director: K.D. Davison
Producer: K.D. Davison
Starring: Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, John Waters, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich
Production Company: Kunhardt Films
Distributed by: Cinetic Media
Release Date: September 2022 (Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival)
Run Time: 98 mins

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