On a flight to England, over the Atlantic ocean, Jonas Mekas is sitting alone at the bar filming himself.
“Everyone is asleep,” he repeats, again and again.
“Poets never sleep,” he repeats.
“I am not sleeping,” he repeats. “I have to discipline myself. I am not tired. I am not sleeping.”
He’s eating cheese crackers and canned olives, drinking beer and whiskey.
“The olives, they are not bad,” he says, a couple of times.
“I am filming myself, as I always have, as I always will,” he repeats.
He tries to sign off from his own report, but the camera never shuts off. He tries to end it again, a few minutes later, but says, again, that he can’t sleep, he has to keep filming, he has to keep filming, over and over. He films in circles: the lights of the aisle, his drinks and snacks, his dark and blurred face; the microphone crackles, “Everyone is asleep. I am not sleeping. Poets never sleep.”
He films a quote from Henri Matisse, written out: “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue.” He goes over the sentence once, backtracking every couple moves to make sure you’ve read the word fully. Then he goes over it again, just in case you didn’t catch it the first time.
He refers to his viewers — who are his viewers, here? — as, “My friends.” There is someone this is intended for.
Notes & Sketches (on the title card, Notes, Sketches, etc.) is an exercise in compulsion; he cannot stop filming because he is scared of what will happen if he doesn’t. He is creating, constantly. That he is creating a catalog of common things, worthless things, has nothing to do with the point; if you aren’t filming, then you aren’t seeing. And if you are creating, you are in charge, and you are removed. You take yourself out of the situation, a spectator.
Included here is also a film of Mekas speaking to some woman in 1997, explaining that high-tech theaters with good prints and Dolby sound systems are missing the point of “cinema,” and that true cinema will shine through a scratchy print and bad sound. He is adamant and egotistical, waving his arms and speaking loudly; the woman falls for him and his argument, silently, only speaking to tell him he is right. When she begins to ask him questions and carry the conversation further, he loses interest. His ego, as well as his fright, is in this.
Some of it is interesting, in the way that people-watching is interesting; a lot of it is boring in the same way. Filmmaker Peter Kubelka sits with his iPad and sings Gregorian chants from a book he downloaded, and then reads a poem from Leaves of Grass. He lists all of the books he has downloaded, and notes that he has the physical versions, of course, but that this compendium of knowledge and information is great for traveling. The older generation grappling with technology is prominent throughout; Mekas films on DVR cassettes. I would call his technique lazy, but that’s not quite it, nor is it thoughtless. Aesthetic is just not what drives him here. He is more interested in moments.
He sits silently in an overpriced cafe while his friends peruse a newspaper. One of them gets a muffin, and when she bites into it, she says loudly, “Yummy!” She keeps munching, sipping, saying, “That muffin really hit the spot.” She’s fascinatingly annoying. Mekas says nothing.
He walks outside his apartment, proclaiming, “Spring has sprung!” in his deep, curved accent. He films shaky, blurry close-ups of blossoms, and of a sparkling rock. Soon after, we’re in his living room as he talks about a book he is reading (World On The Edge by Lester R. Brown). “Everyone ought to read this book,” he says. I don’t think he had finished it yet at the time of the filming.
He has dinner with Agnès Varda, and Kubelka discovers one of the locations for his first film, Mosaic, by accident, walking down the street. They talk at length and say nothing. They act for the camera. He talks to the camera. It is real in the awareness that it is posed. Mekas repeats everything, films everything, says it all once more, saying nothing.