This Side of Paradise: Fragments of an Unfinished Biography

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“I am for art we do for each other as friends, for ourselves.”

– Jonas Mekas, Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto

Throughout his career as a filmmaker, writer, poet, and founder of Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas has championed the personal and visionary possibilities of cinema. For Mekas, a consummate modernist, filmmaking is not only a powerful poetic-diaristic medium but also a means of engaging spontaneously and vigorously with reality. Like Stan Brakhage, Mekas insists that above all else films should be about “seeing with a camera,” a conviction that has been realized throughout his long tenure as an avant-garde filmmaker. Eschewing such ‘artificial’ devices as tripods, special lighting, props and even extensive post-production editing, Mekas developed a distinctive style of filmmaking that might best be described as a marriage between avant-garde poetics and ‘home movie’ amateurism. Relying stubbornly on handheld camerawork, in-camera editing, natural lighting, and the providence of his own whims and impulses, Mekas has sought to restore a sense of emotional immediacy and authenticity to filmmaking, as well as to tell simple and elegant stories.

In the process of relentlessly probing his own experience, Mekas has uniquely documented the lives of some of this century’s most luminous artists – George Maciunas, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Harry Smith, Tony Conrad, Allen Ginsberg, Nam June Paik, and Andy Warhol just to name a few. The spirit of many of Mekas’s films is one of shared experience and celebration of life, and this is nowhere more clearly manifested than in his depiction of the Kennedy family in This Side of Paradise: Fragments of an Unfinished Biography (1999).

The title of the film seems like an ironic reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel of the same name, which describes the East Coast private school milieu (with some of the novel actually taking place in Long Island). In contrast to Fitzgerald’s pretentious, self-consumed characters, the Kennedy family as filmed by Mekas appear unselfconscious and carefree, deeply engaged with one another and their surroundings. Completed in 1999, Mekas’s virtuosic film is composed of footage shot during several summers he spent in New York City and Long Island at the house Lee Radziwill (Jackie’s sister) rented from Warhol in the late 1960s, and became a popular destination for Kennedy family vacations. Less overtly diaristic than works such as Walden (1969) or Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), Paradise is a schematic, tactile portrait, and in terms of its tone and structure has more in common with Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1963-90). The artist’s pixilated touch is nowhere more evident than in the casual, spontaneous scenes of the tightly knit family, which rush by like intense and private memories. As it turns out, Mekas brought his Bolex to Montauk to introduce Catherine and John Jr. to filmmaking at Jackie’s invitation (she thought it would provide a useful distraction in the wake of J.F.K.’s death). The resulting footage, culled from what would otherwise be mundane shots of family activities in and around the beach house owned by Andy Warhol (who appears sporadically throughout the film), is transformed in Mekas’s hands: techniques such as over/under exposure, flash frames, single-frame exposures, and jumps back and forth in time all create an atmosphere of continuous rupture and repetition that infuse the images with a potent mixture of slipperiness and intensity. Through these visual metaphors of temporality, Mekas paints a complex, evocative portrait of the iconic family, and those “summers of happiness, joy and continuous celebrations of life and friendships.” (1)

In Paradise, Mekas the artist recedes into the background. Unlike many of his better known films, the voiceover that has come to be associated with Mekas’s nostalgic tone is eliminated here, and the artist himself appears only a few times during the film. Sounds are mainly diegetic (though non-synchronous) and serve to reinforce and intensify the imagery. Intertitles (another of Mekas’s trademarks) appear only occasionally to provide a loose sketch of locales and time periods.

The first shot of the film takes us inside Jackie Onassis’s apartment on Park Avenue where we see her playing with her dog and laughing as if sharing a private joke with Mekas behind the camera; later, the scene is repeated in reverse, with Jonas playing with the dog (and Jackie behind the camera?) This sets the tone for a playful, reciprocal relationship between filmmaker and subject that helps to forge a unique bond of trust with the viewer. The following sequences in Jackie’s and Lee Radziwill’s apartments are intercut with close-ups of childhood photographs of Jackie – riding a horse, posing with her mother, and playing. This dialogue between past and present is developed throughout the film, and points to an important theme in Mekas’s oeuvre – filmmaking as an analogue of memory.

Mekas constantly weaves together celebrations of the present moment, immediately and unironically present on the screen, with elegiac and ironic allusions to a presence that is forever absent to the camera lens. (2)

Much has been written about the function of memory and loss as a theme in Mekas’s work; but there is another factor that helps establish this notion of a “presence that is forever absent”. Namely Mekas’s positioning of himself as a historical subject. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the practice of editing a film long after it was shot. For example, Lost, Lost, Lost, shot between 1948 and 1963, was not completed until 1976. He Stands in a Desert, which began shooting in 1968, was not edited until 1985. Paradise was edited 30 years after it was shot, and this seems to be a significant factor in the way that it makes Mekas’s own memories somewhat scrambled and unresolved. By allowing such a time lag to exist, Mekas partly undermines the spontaneity of the act of shooting, allowing the temporal distance that separates himself from his original footage to factor prominently into the work, and as a result, the emotions, whims and impulses which Mekas valorizes in the act of shooting are clearly subjected to another process of inevitable decay and reconstruction. In the case of Paradise, one has the distinct impression that the moments of the film, which shudder and pulsate with life, resist finite representation. By positioning his filmmaking sensibility so squarely in the present tense, Mekas seems to be saying that the “present that is forever absent” pertains not only to memory but also to the province of immediate experience itself.

In many sequences in the film, the sense of struggling to hold onto the moment takes on a nearly visceral quality. In one early sequence, “in Chinatown,” Jackie and Caroline try on hats in a tourist shop. The scene stands out as one of only a few that have been noticeably altered through post-production techniques; in this case, the scene has been optically-printed and slowed down, creating a dreamlike, underwater quality that is reinforced by the sounds of waves (which serve as a prelude to the beach footage that follows). The other slowed-down sequence, which occurs later in the film, a tennis match, seems almost arbitrary in its selection, like an event that sticks in the memory for unknown reasons. The next title reads, “Oh, yes, the summers of Montauk:” in the sprawling yard behind the house we see John Jr. and Anthony Radziwill wrestling and smearing shaving cream on each other. The boys are a boisterous and gregarious tandem – their similar physical appearance makes them seem all the more inseparable as they oscillate from boyish competitiveness to boredom. Shots from around the house and on the beach, which dominate this section, are saturated and often overexposed, lending them a sun-drenched quality, as if one has just emerged from a dark room. The profusion of light that drowns out the image in such shots has an auditory parallel – the obliteration of environmental sounds by gusts of wind that rush over the microphone.

In one of the next sequences, a title card informs us that on the way to Montauk, “the children were so bad that day Lee had to leave them on the roadside.” It is clear that the punishment is intended more as a facetious reproach than a stiff penalty, for the next card reads, “when later we picked them up they rode on the top of the car.” The camera cranes around the open window to capture the boys jostling each other on top of the car (which appears to be moving at a brisk clip!)

This Side of Paradise: Fragments of an Unfinished Biography

The film then switches back to the beach, where Tina and Caroline swim in the waves and the boys play with Peter in the sand. A camera technique appears here which is used a great deal throughout the rest of the film: the image slips out of the frame as if it has been “washed away,” apparently the result of an intentional, improper loading of the film reel. The section entitled, “a walk to South Hampton” is composed almost entirely of short, stroboscopic bursts of image, sometimes as little as a few frames at a time, that produce a nearly hallucinatory effect when combined with the ‘slipping’ sections of image. In the corner of the frame the manual shutter can often be seen, an unintentional effect which reinforces the physical contiguity of the camera, filmmaker and subject, giving these discontinuous montage sequences a surge of intimacy. Sound in this section shifts back and forth from ambient, environmental sounds to music – in this case, a drumroll that recurs throughout the film. While often such sounds reinforce the images, at other times they seem to work against what’s seen, making the picture harder to grasp. For example, frequently the sounds of audible conversations are interrupted by waves, as if the listener had suddenly fallen out of earshot.

In “home scenes” we see the family gathered for Tina Radziwill’s birthday, and here the film seems more clearly delineated along the lines of a typical “home movie.” As Jeffrey Ruoff has observed,

Mekas [has] found in home movies an aesthetic form suitable for his own filmmaking, calling on our associations with home movies to infuse his films with nostalgia. Many of the scenes of his family and friends clowning for the camera are virtually identical to actual home-movie scenes. (3)

In addition to the candid and intimate nature of the filmmaking, the many ‘mistakes’ cultivated by Mekas for aesthetic purposes – over/underexposure, flash frames, etc. – which could easily be taken as errors by an amateur, are elevated to visual signifiers of lyricism and spontaneity, important hallmarks of the avant-garde tradition. Accident is also an important element, and is courted by Mekas through the chance encounter of images shot at different points in time. As he has stated of his own work,

I am always trying to capture on film what I really like. I think I know why I make films but I cannot tell you why I choose to shoot a particular image. I base my judgment on intuition and instinct, instantly reacting to what I see in front of me. I do not think about memories or anything when shooting. (4)

This subordination of conscious decision-making to the rule of intuition belies the careful process through which the films are assembled and edited, as well as their unique status as historical documents. It is difficult not to read many of the scenes in Paradise in light of their unspoken historical context – J.F.K.’s and Bobby Kennedy’s death, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. Filmed with such intimacy and sensitivity, certain sequences take on a chilling poignancy. Some examples: Tina and Anthony Radziwill raising a giant American flag outside the house; a football game on the front lawn, rendered in short bursts of action, reminiscent of the Kennedy’s famous football games on the lawns of the White House; Andy Warhol playacting as a monster with Catherine in the front driveway; Anthony and John Jr. dancing and singing to the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” But here the symbolic is deeply embedded in the quotidian, and as viewers we are made aware of the way in which history is embellished and distorted, as well as our own tendencies to project narrative content on such fragmentary images.

In another “home scene” one of the boys interviews Mekas on tape, quizzing him on how to win a chess match in four moves (he doesn’t know); later John Jr. introduces himself: “This is John Kennedy, reporting for NBC news…” he then proceeds to read jokes, “What is Helen Keller’s latest book?” (Around the block in 80 days), “What is the Italian statue of liberty?” (Mekas – “a giant macaroni?”) John Jr. concludes, “This is John Kennedy providing amusement for you,” as we see him writhing on the couch, pretending to be attacked by a fake rat. Later when we see Lee, Anthony and Tina all pointing cameras back at Mekas, the filmmaker seems to be posing for his subjects, an actor behind the camera. In “home movies,” one of the last sections of the film, Lee is shown loading a Bolex 8mm projector while Jonas sits at a table eating food and drinking wine, tipping his glass at the camera and otherwise indicating his enjoyment of the meal. The act of filming has become inseparable from living. Speaking of her experience watching Mekas shoot film around the dinner table, Marjorie Keller perhaps best summarizes Mekas’s vision of filmmaking:

Dinner is prepared; children and guests gather. When there is a gap in the work to be done, or in a moment of sheer enthusiasm, Mekas will pick up his Bolex, ready right there, loaded with a film in the making, and rattle off frames, a few or many… More often, he is so circumspect with the camera that I do not notice when the shooting stops and he takes his seat again at the head of the table. He moves as if dancing between domestic life and artistic production. (5)

Endnotes

  1. Jonas Mekas, quoted from Anthology Film Archives October 2001 calendar, p. 3
  2. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 360
  3. Jeffrey K. Ruoff, “Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World”, in David James, To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 295
  4. Mekas, quoted from an interview with Ryuta Imafuku, April 4, 1996, www.cafecreole.net, in a discussion at Arts Space A, Saporro Japan.
  5. Marjorie Keller, “The Apron Strings of Jonas Mekas,” in To Free the Cinema, p. 93