When Quentin Tarantino made up his made-up genre, the hang-out movie, did he have the films of Jonas Mekas in mind? A film buff of Tarantino’s well-known erudition is no doubt more than familiar with Mekas, the godfather of avant-garde film and co-founder of New York’s Anthology Film Archives. But does Tarantino pay tribute to Mekas when he talks about himself and his friends — Richard Linklater, in particular — pioneering their own brand of laid-back, conversation-heavy cinema? Because here, in Mekas’ latest, is the purest entry into the genre: an absolutely no-pressure, real-life, hang-out film that happens to have been made by one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century.
The Mars Bar was once at the corner of East 1st and 2nd Streets in the East Village, Manhattan. Mekas hung out there regularly for several years, always with a camera in hand — or so it seems by the changing of the seasons in the background of his footage. During his tenure, it was not uncommon to see two men squaring off in a competition to recite the best Italian verse; to see a homeless man stand up on a bar stool and expose himself to everyone’s eyes, as well as to their delight; or to see Jonas Mekas himself, the world-famous octogenarian filmmaker/critic/archivist, drinking happily under his wide-brimmed hat while shouting encouragements to other carousing drinkers in his thick Lithuanian accent.
Or, maybe it was not uncommon for Mekas’ camera to elicit these things. Despite the fact that Mars Bar was a particularly scuzzy dive in the middle of the Village — a place where, like much of New York, any and every type of person was more than likely to show up at some time or another — it did have the distinction of being the only bar to regularly have a cinematic legend hanging around trying to capture the drift and vibe of its atmosphere. It’s not hard to imagine that having an old man with an air of importance point a camera at you does something to your behavior. Undeniably, it changed the Mars Bar from a simple, beloved, copiously graffiti’d dive into the subject of an experimental film by a well-known local film figure (Mekas, either with tons of humility or none of it, leaves in many scenes of impressed bar denizens recounting how famous he is).
However it strikes you — as a plain-faced record of life passing at a dive bar or self-consciously experimental film — My Mars Bar Movie relays Mekas’ passionate feeling that the Mars Bar was a unique place. His style of hang-out film is infectious and his repeated, somewhat-drunken exclamations about love for life (particularly for “real life,” meaning that which is captured by his camera and presented unfiltered to an audience) do eventually register as the provenance of art. To any viewer, both Mars Bar and the movie Mekas has made of it may appear intermittently boring, especially if you find yourself falling in and out of step with the particular bar-vibe Mekas attempts to capture. No one ever said art would be exciting all the time — yet how wonderful is it to watch scratchy, lo-fi video of strangers for an hour and a half and come away feeling like you’ve experienced something pure.