Everyone agrees: there is so much crap on the Internet.
There's smarm. There's snark. There's faux outrage. And faux outrage about faux outrage. And so on.
But there is also filmmaker Jonas Mekas.
Born on Christmas Eve, 1922 in a village in Lithuania, Mekas had a typically awful experience of World War II in Europe, before eventually making his way to New York City. He became part of the art and film scenes of the 1950s and 1960s, most notably in the Fluxus movement with people like Yoko Ono. He co-founded the Anthology Film Archives, and made many films (some of which I've been lucky enough to see).
And it is a delight. From the introductory video, in which Mekas welcomes his friends to the site and plays the bugle, to the videos of Alan Ginsberg or Mekas playing with his first Sony Camcorder, the site exudes the joy of creation.
The mystery and beauty of (just) being form the spine of Mekas' work. This website is like what would happen if you'd given Pablo Neruda a digital video recorder and some HTML skills during his Odas period.
In a video from Thursday, perhaps the greatest video selfie ever made, he presents us with out-of-focus, shaky video of a bowl of apples, riffing about their importance, a hierarchy of ontology, the evils of scientific improvement, and the apples he ate as a child in Lithuania. Then he turns the camera, says, "My friends," and laughs like this: ha ha ha. "I dream about those apples. But I love this apples, too. They're not destroying us. It's we who are destroying them," he says. The camera lingers on his aged face.
He looks as if he might begin speaking again, saying softly, "My friends." Then he plunges the camera down towards the apples in a Wayne's-World-style extreme closeup.
Mekas is a voice from another time who has embraced the tools of the present moment. The random, decontextualized Internet is a perfect place to meet and enjoy Mekas' work. His style—direct, non-linear, narrated—exists everywhere on YouTube and Vimeo now.
But the spirit that informs his work is not so easy to find. Maybe it exists in the work of a poet like Steve Roggenbuck or Robin Sloan's media thingy Fish with its exhortation, "Look at your fish!" and its question, "What does it mean to love something on the Internet today?"
It's rare, though, to find a person who wants you to look at beautiful things because they are beautiful.
Looking at Mekas' work, the temptation might be to say: this work lacks coherence. It's not that easy to say what he's trying to do or "say" or create. But he offers us what I'd think of as a viewing guide to his work in this excerpt from his 2000 film, "As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty."
I have never been able, really, to figure out where my life begins and where it ends. I have never, never been able to figure it all out, what it's all about, what it all means. So when I began now to put all these rolls of film together, to string them together, the first idea was to keep them chronological. But then I gave up and I just began splicing them together by chance the way that I found them on the shelf.
Because I really don't know where any piece of my life really belongs, so let it be. Let it go. Just by pure chance, disorder.
There is some current, some kind of order in it, order of its own, which I do not really understand same as I never understood life around me.
The real life, as they say. Or the real people. I never understood them. I still do not understand them. And I do not really want to understand them.
Let it go. I do not really want to understand them.
It reminds me of what the poet John Keats said Shakespeare's great quality was: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."
Keats called this, "negative capability."
In the great gaps of silence between Mekas' clauses, in the surprise of his cuts, in the dynamic distance between his narration and the images on screen, there's so much room for uncertainty, mystery, and doubt.
In this magazine, back in 1964, critic Pauline Kael took aim at Mekas and his friends as a group of rowdy, anti-narrative lazy bums who wanted to make films without ever learning how. Kael decried the way film had turned into "cinema," and that all plotting and rationality had gone out the window. She said the traditional forms of the adventure story and mystery were done for, all part of the disintegration of the arts. Perhaps TV was behind the death of story in film, Kael suggested.
Hollywood executives of today would be surprised to hear such stark pronouncements. The cinema, such as it was in 1964, experimental and strange, is gone. A quick look at the top-grossing movies of 2012 would tell you that Kael vastly underestimated the American appetite for big, dumb stories.
The weirdos like Mekas did not turn out to be the unschooled hipster layabouts that Kael thought they were. Instead, they saw the vast potential of moving images and sound put together on a screen. And they worked as hard and as fast to find the edges of what could be done. Hell, Mekas' associate Stan Brakhage glued detritus onto celluloid—leaves and wings and flower petals. Then printed the film and ran it through a projector.
It might have been to Kael's taste, but in the long struggle to create meaning beyond products, these were the good guys.
Mekas is still working on it, now in the new media. He just can't stop seeing the world.