Watching Jonas Mekas' three-hour, home-movie epic Lost Lost Lost (1973), I was confounded. I didn't enjoy watching it at all, but I do think there is an undeniable depth to the film that makes it important. The footage spans fifteen years, from 1949 through 1963, as Mekas and his brother Adolphas move into their first apartment in Brooklyn. They are Lithuanians living in exile, so says Jonas in the narration, in exile because they have no roots. This film, then, is about making those roots, finding companions, entering communities, and becoming familiar with your land.
Its historical aspects are the most memorable: Williamsburg in 1949, with its multi-story strata of clotheslines and dirty sheets; Times Square in the early 50s, with recording booths where you can put your voice on vinyl, political activists pushing disarmament (the slogan was, “USA USSR BOTH SIDES WRONG”); an early 50’s Stonybrook picnic, as banal a scene as ever that could be anywhere; an elevator needle indicating which floor it is on. For the most part, the footage is of people living their life.
The latter half of the film concentrates less on activity and environment and more on a camera’s mobility. Repeated, jerky zooms (in and out, in and out) and figure 8s (as well as footage of the cameraman doing those figure 8s) are now the focus of the film, and they go on for almost an hour. Avant-garde movies have the intrinsic disadvantage that most of them, at some point, cease to be revolutionary and settle into oddity.
What Mekas seems to be doing is shoving in our faces something both extremely familiar yet drastically unfamiliar. These images are of our lives, the commonest moments in the most likely of places. We sit, we stare (this is, of course, forgetting about those moments in Mekas’ film where a couple imitates Tarzan and Jane, though I’m sure some people do that to) – there is nothing extraordinary about what is in these images. So why do we feel so bored and lost in these images? We know the context, yet the fact that they belong to someone else makes them seem foreign. Not that I think Mekas has a solution, or even a discernable problem that needs fixing, but I do think that he has tapped into a natural paradox in our lives.
Mekas touches on this during one of his narrations. He says that the audience wants him to provide abstractions, but that he won’t give in. Abstractions, for Mekas, are names, jobs, ethics, and morals; in lieu of all that, he provides a face, an attitude, and a place. One can almost sense some of the Beat mentality (as regards middle-class conventions) coming out, and it wouldn’t be that far fetched, as Allen Ginsburg, LeRoi Jones and Frank O’Hara pop up in some of the footage.
The weakest part of Mekas’ film is that it does drag on, but I’d be pressed to say, “cut here” or “take this segment out.” Any of the footage seems as important to the film as the rest, any just as replaceable. Ideally, the form should be equally important to the content: they should be appropriate towards, as well as dictate, one another. The greatest of films find that the two are inseparable, and that it would be foolish to discuss them as separate parts. That no particular scenes dictate the message of the movie implies that it is the form the film takes – the home-movie – is most important.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.