“Just watch these images. Nothing much happens. Images go. No tragedy, no trauma, no suspense. Just images. For myself. And for a few others. One doesn’t have to watch. One doesn’t. But if one feels so. One can just sit and watch. These images…”
This quote comes nearly two thirds of the way through Jonas Mekas’s 1969 filmic essay Walden. For some viewers, it’ll be too late to explain just what he’s about. For others it’ll be unnecessary. But for an essentially plotless film that clocks in at three hours, this thesis has always been lurking in the background. Someone may as well say it. And it may as well be him.
And yet, so much happens here. Mekas is at the epicenter of New York art. He finds himself filming—and sitting in with—Andy Warhol, Eddie Sedwick, Allen Ginsburgh, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Velvet Underground (during their first appearance), Hans Richter, an anonymous German film crew, John and Yoko, and Stan Brakhage. Yet all this amounts to a small percentage of what’s on screen. Mostly it’s Mekas as observer of his friends, environments, and the anonymous people of New York. He’s a master of jump cuts, double exposures, and asynchronous sound. The sequences are loosely connected through a series of typewritten intertitles. But mostly these are images. Nothing much happens.
Except it does. Primarily centered in New York, the film takes diversions: A train ride to Millbrook, a visit to Hans Richter, a stay at the Brakhage family farm. Sequences of New York hyperactivity are set against serene country life. At various times we get shots of Thoreau’s text for Walden. It’s all our eyes can do to grab the gist from the text block before we are thrust back into construction work, parties, and traffic. Walden is a canonical text for man’s retreat into nature. But with Mekas it’s not that simple.
Like Warhol, Brakhage, Akerman, and others, Mekas treats the celluloid a bit like a canvas. At one point, using the audio of the movie camera as soundtrack, his narrative breaks it down for us: Film is just one image at a time, strung together mechanically. Yet, stack these images up and you get motion blur, disjunction, overlap. When you watch this film you just let it take you. Sometimes you go to the circus. Sometimes a protest. Sometimes you go to to a wedding.
Actually, you go to a lot of weddings. At least five of them. They start with intimate ceremonies, graduate towards grand Long Island affairs, and end up with a strobe-lit rave-up. Mekas comes out variously as friend, observer, and paparazzi. Weddings, like seasons, provide touchpoints to our lives. In Mekas’s camera they’re also deeply indicative of how things change.
Protest is another recurrent theme. Chaos another. And also, peace. This is what makes New York and its surroundings so perfect for Mekas. At one point he goes with a German film crew into rural New Jersey. The crew wants to capture the quintessential “American independent film experience” for German TV. When they can’t quite concoct it there, they head back to the city to shoot some boho slice-of-life sequences, before Mekas wanders off and finds peace in his own personal shoot in a park.
It’s a bit of a joke but it’s kind of perfect for Walden. With Mekas, we’re never sure whether it’s the country, or the city, which is his true Walden. He bounces back and forth with camera in hand, admiring a sunset and then a subway. Because, as a refugee, he seems neither at home in chaos or peace. He just works it out with images.