“Some called him the godfather of underground film.” “My guest tonight is Jonas Mekas, who was first of all a poet before he was a filmmaker.” “His name is Jonas Mekas, a man who I think more than almost anybody in the world epitomizes the meaning and significance of independent filmmaking.”
Those are some of the TV news voiceover soundbites that open KD Davison’s documentary about the great ringleader of American avant-garde cinema. It’s not an auspicious beginning. How can a doc about someone who championed pushing the boundaries of filmmaking to their limit get such a prosaic and obvious introduction for a film about his life? Certainly his 96 years were more than a sum of media reports from broadcasters who barely grasped his work. Not to mention, if you’re devoting the time to watch a documentary about the Lithuanian-born curator, poet, and filmmaker, you probably already know the basics about him, right?
Fear not. Davison (“The Soul of America”) seems to have anticipated these quibbles and shows she knows her audience: “Fragments of Paradise” is a more than skin-deep overview of the late Mekas’ life, one that feels like a final message from him directly. It’s a tribute to art’s power to connect, even with those who are gone.
Perhaps it’s fitting that “Fragments of Paradise” opens with those media introductions flinging superlatives about him: Mekas incessantly introduced himself in his life, becoming a jovial gad-about you’d see at festival parties, gallery openings, and the many events at which he was honored in his last years.
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote about how, just months before Mekas died in January 2019, he mingled until 1:00am at the New York Film Festival’s closing night party. (One of the first talking-head soundbytes in Davison’s movie is Allen Ginsberg saying Mekas was a one-man “social center.”) Until the very end, he’d never stopped preaching the gospel of avant-garde film and his poetic lease on life. And indeed, Mekas never stopped introducing himself in other ways too: he’d previously starred in four self-reflective documentaries by Peter Semple and showed up in virtually any documentary ever about the Beat movement, experimental cinema, or anything related to the cultural life of downtown Manhattan. His energy and his pronouncements stuck with you, in sayings like “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in poetry.”
What sets “Fragments of Paradise” apart is how much of the movie is built around never-before-seen footage Mekas shot himself. There are clips from his acclaimed diary films “Walden” and “Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania,” home movies injected with the DNA of experimental cinema that have one foot on the living room couch and one in the white cube of the museum gallery. But many clips here are being shown for the first time, such as the moving video footage of Mekas, near the end of his life, weeping and crying out “Who am I?” and asking if his life mattered.
That footage nearly bookends the movie and it lets you know right away that this is going to be an unusually unvarnished portrait. You also see him working until the wee early hours of the morning editing the footage he shot that day while his family is fast asleep. Or exploring the maze of boxes cluttering his new apartment like a cardboard Stonehenge after his divorce. And the loving footage he took of his toddler granddaughter. Mekas wrote with his camera and obsessively documented everything in his life decades before people at large started to do so in the era of smartphones and social media.
These clips shot by Mekas himself give the movie a heartbeat, and Davison mercifully stacks the best-known moments about his life upfront: how he was arrested for showing Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” his friendship with John and Yoko, how he influenced Warhol to pick up a camera, his founding of Anthology Film Archives. The biggest names who appear as talking heads — Jarmusch, Waters, archive clips of Scorsese, Warhol, and Ginsberg — arrive near the beginning, before it can get more personal about a third of the way in. Alas, one does wish that in a film about someone who championed shaking up the form as much as Mekas did that the new interview footage, of people sitting in a movie theater, talking more or less direct-to-camera, was more dynamic than William Friedkin interviewing Barbra Streisand about “The Broadway Album” at the Apollo Theater in 1985.
“Fragments of Paradise” is a celebration of Mekas, but it’s not hagiography. His ex-wife Hollis Melton candidly talks about her need to find herself outside of his shadow. Critic and colleague Amy Taubin says that his early writing for The Village Voice was full of homophobia (though that’s to set up how all the more impressive it is that he embraced LGBTQ trailblazers like Jack Smith and Jean Genet). And the film doesn’t shy away from Mekas’ self-proclaimed lack of heroism during World War II.
Davison doesn’t mention Michael Casper’s startling 2018 claim in The New York Review of Books that Mekas wrote for far-right publications in Lithuania that championed the Nazi invasion (in the guise of being anti-Soviet) when he was 19 or 20, though he himself wrote nothing anti-Semitic. But nothing in this account contradicts Casper’s research or seems to have an aim of refuting it. His nieces say that he had to flee Lithuania after the tide of the war had turned in the Soviet Union’s favor because he had written both anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet tracts. With the Red Army encroaching, Jonas and his brother Adolfas decided to retreat deeper into German territory themselves, hoping to study in Vienna, before ending up in a Nazi slave labor camp. (For what it’s worth, neither the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum nor New York City’s Jewish Museum disavowed Mekas, whose relationship with both institutions was close. The Jewish Museum just concluded a new exhibition of his work in June.)
In our “pick a side and take a stand” culture of the moment, Mekas’ voiceover about his choice to leave Lithuania during the war might ruffle some feathers: “If you want to criticize me for my lack of patriotism or courage, you can go to hell. I do not want any part of this war. This war is not mine. I am a poet.” He also reveals that the reason why the Soviet authorities allowed him to return to Lithuania for a visit 25 years later is because they were convinced that his early film “The Brig,” a filmed record of an avant-garde play, was him making an anti-American statement and the editor of Pravda wanted to honor him in Moscow first.
The prevailing attitude of Davison’s film is one of generosity, empathy, and understanding: Mekas was not a perfect person, but he wouldn’t have expected you to be perfect either. What makes him worthy of a sensitive documentary portrait is how he was as interested in filming a cockroach as he was an ex-Beatle. How he championed the work of others even more than his own. “Fragments of Paradise” isn’t interested in the myth of Mekas but the man. After a lifetime of him making introductions, this is the film that allows us to say goodbye.
“Fragments of Paradise” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is seeking distribution.