”What is important and what is lacking in cinema is poetry… Poetry is my Country.”
– Jonas Mekas, “Meanwhile a butterfly flies” (2002)
Jonas Mekas’s latest work begins with a montage of seemingly disconnected, flittering clips shot at various points throughout his career as an underground filmmaker. Like most of his other “diary” films, the images we see are deeply personal, and the action plays out as some kind of frenetic and unexplainably enticing home movie. Fairly soon we’re treated to a non sequitur fragment of a poem read by Mekas, which we can only assume makes sense as a larger work. But as it is, this poetry only allows us the experience of Mr. Mekas’s plaintive, repetitive voice. Which is oddly enough. In many ways the culmination of a lifetime of filmic hoarding (Mekas is unabashed about his tendency to never throw anything away), Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man builds a sense of overwhelming cohesion in its narrativeless and bracing 108 minute runtime.
“But here I am with this film. Which is just images. Images with no purpose — for no purpose. Just for myself, just for myself… And a few friends.” Mekas has gone on record before insisting that his films are not merely for himself, and that his impulse to create movies stems from a deeply held desire to share them with others. Yet with the above quote he explores his own fears that perhaps his films are just a series of purposeless images, devoid of meaning to anyone aside from himself and maybe the dozens of artists he’s directly inspired over the years. Outtakes finds Mekas grappling with this central doubt, and while that “Happy Man” part of the movie’s title is meant in all sincerity, this sense of doubt colors the film in its entirety.
“The loneliness of the filmmaker. Watching, waiting until the night when everyone else in the city is sleeping.” The images in this film cover a wide spectrum of Mekas’s own experience, but a large amount of them feature his wife Hollis and their young children Oona and Sebastian during the 70s and 80s. Some of the most lingering sequences deal directly with an obvious desire on the part of the cameraman to exist in community with his subjects, and yet the act of putting all these clips together is essentially a solitary one, and one which Mekas prefers to do after everyone he knows is fast asleep. The natural tension between the act of shooting together with his family and the distance required to edit is underlined by inventively captured moments of present-day Mekas splicing together 16mm clips on his vintage equipment — he’s used the same machines since 1969’s Walden.
“We have been here and we have not. We are travelling through the same place but on another level.” With a recurring soundtrack of choral works recorded at Mekas’s wedding to Hollis in 1974 and images primarily culled from long ago, it’s apparent that the filmmaker is attempting to find genuinely timeless moments from his life. We never get the sense that he’s trying to recapture the past so much as find a present appreciation for what’s been. These outtakes from his career are meant to establish the filmmaker’s gratitude and happiness when faced with the spectrum of his work, but we’re never sure who he’s really trying to convince. Which makes it all the more appealing.
In this film, Mekas presents to us a world of lived experience which only enthralls insofar as his entire career has made the archival footage of his life something worth studying. In this film, context is crucial, as the kind of mundane preoccupation with the minutiae of a bygone era in the hands of just about anyone else would fall hopelessly flat. As the godfather of the American avant-garde cinema, Mekas kind of created a genre with his “diary” films, and it stands to reason that at some point he would revisit his meticulously curated earlier work. The sheer volume of film he had to go through to make this stunningly coherent history is itself stunning, and the experience of watching it is exhilarating and humbling at the same time.