In Reel 2 of Lost, Lost, Lost, the first volume of Jonas Mekas’s diary film, Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, Mekas’s commentary of his early life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as an immigrant and refugee drifting from factory to factory, accepting a series of temporary jobs as an assembly worker is presented against a typewritten letter that poses the instability of his employment history within the broader question of his true character: “Is it in my nature, or did the war do that to me? [A]m I a born D.P. (Displaced Person) or did war make me into a D.P.?” For Mekas, the rootlessness and transience not only expresses an immigrant’s homesickness caused by his physical separation from his native country and family (for reasons that are broached in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania), but also a melancholy in realizing the impossibility of returning home again. A collage film in six reels shot between 1949 and 1963, of which the earliest footage was taken from a Bolex camera that Jonas and his brother Adolfas had purchased on loan a week after arriving to the United States under the immigration status of “Displaced Person” from Lithuania, Mekas’s hesitant, measured commentary reveals a harbored sense of dislocation and estrangement that finds community in a shared, unarticulated longing and resignation to an innocence – and paradise – lost.
Not surprisingly, Mekas’s earliest sequences are located within the (hollow) semblances of home itself, from portraits of fellow displaced persons who gather in silence at neighborhood parks and summer retreats in Stonybrook, Long Island, their wounded gazes betraying a despair over a distant homeland, to participating in cultural festivals that only serve to emphasize their dislocation, insularity, and quaint incongruity from cosmopolitan, modern-day New York City, to religious rites of passage that celebrate the continuity of family and ethnic traditions. In Reels 3 and 4, the refuge of sameness, commiseration, and impotent nostalgia that pervades the first two reels gives way to inspiration, liberation, and activism, evolving from the interiorization of grief (a loneliness that is reflected in Mekas’s descriptions of his many long walks during his earliest days in New York) to the exteriorization of social commitment and action. Geographically, Mekas marks this transition through the brothers’ relocation from Brooklyn to Manhattan, auspiciously on 13th Street in Greenwich Village, which also serves as an introduction to the creative community of artists such as poet Allen Ginsberg and filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and involvement in the nuclear disarmament campaign and the peace movement. Chronologically, this synthesis of creativity and politicization is reflected in the production of Mekas’s experimental feature, Guns of the Trees (a time that also marks the filming of Adolfas’s own feature, Hallelujah the Hills), as well as his assumed role as social documentarian, chronicling the zeitgeist of protest and unrest. In Reels 5 and 6, the development of Mekas’s confidence as a filmmaker and integration into the New York art scene is reflected not only in his day-to-day experimentation (in particular, a playful, wandering camera self-portrait that suggests an embryonic version of Frans Zwartjes’s Living) but in his equally comical attempts to be admitted to (or more appropriately, crash) the Robert Flaherty Seminar. In essence, Mekas’s transformation becomes tied to his relationship with the creation (and resolution) of fixed images: first, in its frozen (and implicitly idealized) memories of a lost homeland, then subsequently, in the apparatus of capturing transience and passage within his own elusive (and often tangential) journey home. This idea of human experience coming, not to full circle, but to non-intersecting, collinear points within a spiral continuum is poetically encapsulated in the footage of Mekas filming his friends at a Long Island beach where, years earlier, he had visited with people from the Lithuanian expatriate community. Replacing black and white with color film, displaced persons with artists, Mekas captures the integral image of the artist as perpetual observer, outsider, and exile.
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