Diaries, Notes & Sketches – Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost review: “an unfolding account of the early American underground”

In tribute to Jonas Mekas, who died 23 January 2019, we republish Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1977 review of Mekas’s breakthrough diary film.

Film as life: tributes to Jonas Mekas at 90

Jonas Mekas: Towards a spontaneous cinema

Jonathan Rosenbaum

from the Monthly Film Bulletin Jauary 1977

Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekas in Lost Lost Lost

Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekas in Lost Lost Lost

The revelation of Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania in 1972 – particularly in contrast to his Guns of the Trees, which was made a dozen years earlier – was the unexpected seriousness, candour, precision and even reticence of a voice that had previously been identified largely by its shrillness and stridency, in cinema as well as in the pages of Film Culture and the Village Voice. An uneven blend of poetry and posture, direct response and propaganda, Mekas’s verbal and visual rhetoric has always defined a set of attitudes characterised by extremes. And if the distance between the hideous pretensions of Guns and the bracing rigours of Reminiscences describes one of the most spectacular parabolas in ‘personal cinema’, the first instalment of his Diaries, Notes & Sketches fits quite snugly in the gap between these almost antithetical landmarks.

On the one hand, one encounters an ungainly scrapbook of self-pity, sentimentality, false naivety, sententiousness and self-romanticising martyrdom, epitomised by many of the stances adopted in the first two reels, along with some of the grandiloquent phrases and gestures which crop up later (e.g., the title, “REJECTED BY THE FLAHERTY SEMINAR WE SLEEP OUTSIDE IN THE COLD NIGHT OF VERMONT” , followed by this remark on the soundtrack: “While the guests proper, the respectable documentarists and cineastes slept in their warm beds, we watched the morning with the cold of night still in our bones, our flesh. It was a Flaherty morning”).

Lost Lost Lost (1976)

Yet at the same time, this varied chronicle also offers not only a detailed, affecting and valuable social history of a period and milieu, but an explicit reflection of the development of American avant-garde cinema over the same years through Mekas’s own growth as a filmmaker, from the arty attitudes of the early reels to the ‘abstract expressionist’, Brakhage-influenced methods of the later ones. The verbal style bridging this transformation bears further witness to Mekas’s encounter with America, and the consequences of his engagement with a native romantic tradition – from Whitman and Wolfe (evidenced by the title Lost Lost Lost and such lines as, “O, sing, Ulysses, sing your travels” and “Those were long, lonely evenings, long, lonely nights”) through Sandburg and Dos Passos (“the blood of my city, the heartbeat”, “I was there, with my camera, I recorded it”) to Kerouac and Ginsberg (the assorted, self-satisfied ‘haikus’ in the fifth reel, followed by an explicit reference to Howl outside the walls of an asylum: “No, those were not the best minds of my generation, there, behind those windows, no”).

Lost Lost Lost (1976)

Admittedly, in an autobiographical record that includes even fragments of a written diary and countless other highly personal references, one is often compelled to witness rather than judge, despite the obvious ‘atmospheric’ interventions of added sound effects and music at different times, which transfer certain memories to a more fictional and ‘impersonal’ domain. But considering the manner in which Mekas has been refining his tools over the years, the development is largely the transformation of a 16 mm camera used as a glorified Brownie or Polaroid into a veritable ‘camera-stylo’ – tracing an overall process of growth that starts to bear fruit in the delirious investigation of Joe Jones’s ‘mechanical’ drums in the third reel, and eventually progresses towards the invigorating counterpoint and alternation of contrasting footage shot by Mekas and Ken Jacobs in two country outings in the sixth.

Quite apart from this evolving stylistic interest – apparent in the editing as much as the shooting, and reflected in such technical additions as synch sound in some of the later sections – one can also observe an unfolding account of the early American underground through the events and faces alone, suggesting a local history which sharply contrasts with certain concurrent and subsequent developments in England: the pronounced political activism of Mekas and his cohorts and the corresponding avoidance of theory; the movement towards ‘poetics’ and away from ‘systemics’; the anarchic forays into pastoral settings and attitudes. For a distanced reflection on much of this material, one has to look beyond the parameters of these reels to the more mature strategies of Reminiscences, where the voice has clearly found both its style and its subject. Here Mekas is more interested in letting the past speak for itself, without either the benefits or the distorting strictures of after-thoughts.


Excerpt from Lost Lost Lost by Jonas Mekas

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