J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

NYFF ’16: I Had Nowhere to Go

As an early booster-theoretician of underground cinema, Jonas Mekas flipped for Andy Warhol, especially his outré provocations, such as screening reel after reel of film leader. It is therefore easy to imagine his enthusiasm for the unconventional approach of Scottish video installation artist Douglas Gordon’s avant-garde documentary. Essentially combining the visual aesthetic of Derek Jarman’s Blue with books-on-tape, Gordon’s I Had Nowhere to Go screens as part of the new Explorations section of the 54th New York Film Festival.

The screen will be blank throughout most of the film, allowing Mekas’s Lithuanian-accented voice conjure up ghosts from the Twentieth Century. Occasionally Gordon throws us a visual bone, like a traditional talking head shot of still razor sharp and energetic ninety-three-year-old (which makes sense) or footage of someone chopping vegetables (representing a total audio-visual disconnect).

Unfortunately, like so many citizens of the Baltic states, Mekas led an eventful life even before he became a New Yorker. He was indeed caught between the rival socialist armies of Germany and the Soviet Union. In fact, probably the film’s best story comes in the first five minutes when Mekas recounts how he took his first photograph ever during the Soviet invasion, only to have the film confiscated by a lieutenant. (Mekas readily admits this was rather sporting of the officer, considering he could have very easily taken both his camera and his life.)

Trying his best to evade both German and Russian forces, Mekas and his family existed hand-to-mouth as refugees before they finally reached Brooklyn. While the migrant experience might be intended to shoehorn in a kneejerk sense of topicality, it also reminds us there was a wide gulf in the values of those fleeing the Soviets and National Socialists and the oppressors they left behind. However, the film is probably most effective when Mekas explores the ways in which his buried Lithuanianness would unexpectedly reassert itself.

Let’s be honest, Mekas is probably the foremost “video diarist” in cinema history. If you set out to make a short-pants-to-elder-statesman documentary of his life, there should be no shortage of images. Opting for no almost no images instead comes off like an over-intellectualized strategy that comes perilously close to being a cop-out. Hearing Mekas read passages from his eponymous 1991 memoir has value, but you could get the full story and lose little in terms of the storytelling experience by listening to an audiobook recording. (If Mr. Mekas is looking for an audio publisher, he is welcomed to reach out to me here.)

If you were there for the Warhol screenings Mekas organized back in the day, IHNTG might resonate for you on a personal level, even though it never covers any of his work as a filmmaker, champion, and preservationist of the American Avant-garde film movement. However, as a work of cinema analyzed formalistically, is frustratingly anemic. Only recommended for hardcore Mekas fans, I Had Nowhere to Go screens this Thursday (10/13) and Friday (10/14) as part of this year’s NYFF.

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