Jonas Mekas’ epic five-hour avant-garde film, As I Was Moving Ahead I Occasionally Glimpsed Moments of Beauty, was one of my most revelatory film viewings of 2011. Through dissolves, overlapping images, ponderous voice overs, text overlays, and experimental editing, its collection of fragments from home movies and nature footage was transformed into a reverie of blissful nothingness and a celebration of the beautiful simplicities of life. Sleepless Nights Stories takes a similar approach, consisting of over 20 personal segments of varied length with casual conversations and encounters between Mekas and his friends around the world, but aside from the occasional voiceover and inter-title, most of the experimental magic that made his earlier film remarkable is absent.
Although the approach is more straightforward, Sleepless Nights Stories still has an uncanny optimism that is immediately evident through Mekas’ unquenchable thirst for life. It is, after all, his sheer joy at beholding the simple things — a lizard skirting in and out of the bushes, a walk through the woods, a cat asleep on the floor — that make for the film’s most memorable moments, more closely mirroring the pure anti-narrative, film-diary approach for which he’s famous for helping to start back in the 1950s and 1960s. The unfortunate part is that the remaining 75% of the film is simply Mekas in everyday conversation with people he knows; one even gets the sense that he throws in clips of the most famous people just for kicks — how else to explain the pointless 10-second clip of Björk driving him to the airport?
The conversations and stories themselves vary in interest. The best are both funny and creative, particularly the three clips with Harmony Korine and his wife, which are playfully cut together and acted with the kind of bizarre dry humor you’d expect from an 80-year-old Mekas collaborating with Korine. The worst, however, are dry and lifeless, not necessarily because of the content of the conversations — which veer from religion to wine — but because their presentation is dull and leaves the viewer feeling as if they’re sitting just outside a circle of friends and eavesdropping. Where As I Was Moving Ahead… reshapes the intensely personal into something universal, almost cosmic, Sleepless Nights Stories merely lingers on the personal, and the mundanity that was so magical in one film is now rendered just plain ordinary and dull in the other. While Mekas’ approach alone makes this film somewhat noteworthy, there’s really no reason to check it out unless you’re already a fan of his.