Jonas Mekas is known worldwide as the “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema.” The story of the Lithuanian-American filmmaker, poet, and artist is now crystallised in a beautiful documentary, directed by KD Davidson, that is part of the DOC NYC 2022 line-up.
Fragments Of Paradise is divided into chapters that alternate original black and white footage with modern coloured moments that capture the protagonist in his later years. He was a cinematic polymath like no other: critic, author, distributor, moviemaker. Jonas Mekas emigrated to New York in 1949 and over the following seventy years drove the rise of the independent film scene. He inspired countless artists, like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Andy Warhol, John Waters, Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Jim Jarmusch (several of these are interviewed in the documentary). Other interviewees whose lives have been touched by the encounter with Jonas Mekas include Amy Taubin, Ken and Flo Jacobs, MM Serra, Penny Arcade, Lee Ranaldo, Phong Bui, Greg Smulewicz Zucker, Lolita Jablonskienė, Vytautas Landsbergis, John Mhiripiri and Marina Abramovic.
All those who crossed Jonas Mekas’ path were drawn to his inexhaustible spirit and belief in the transformative power of cinema. Not only did he produce his own work, but he was a fair and fervent supporter of his colleagues ever since he reviewed underground films in the The Village Voice and Film Culture (the magazine he started with his brother Adolfas, that was the American equivalent of the French Cahiers du Cinéma and the English Sight and Sound). Jonas Mekas was fond of the poetic exploration that could be provided by filmmaking, notwithstanding the rules that were habitually applied to the medium.
He championed exhibition and pioneered distribution and preservation institutions, which led him to the foundation of the The Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the Anthology Film Archives, to preserve a repertoire of independent cinema. He traversed the counterculture of the Sixties, that was nevertheless characterised by a harsh censorship, and introduced a new genre of rebellion in film. Jonas Mekas was by all means a visionary, a guiding spirit who showed that there are no limits to the art of motion pictures.
Whereas his brother was more outgoing, Jonas was often lost in his thoughts — although he never expressed it openly the traumas of his early life under Nazi occupation stayed with him, and the documentary tenderly grasps this state of being. KD Davidson’s documentary funnels this condition, creating an enticing storytelling by coalescing thousands of hours of his own video and film diaries, exclusive tapes and unpublished audio recordings.
Fragments Of Paradise genuinely provides an intimate look at Mekas’ life and work, portraying his craft as well as his family background. We meet his Lithuanian nieces, Ina Mekaitė-Guogiene and Edita Mekaitė-Rubinienė, his ex-wife Hollis Melton, and his children Oona and Sebastian Mekas. Hollis, Jonas and their kids lived for thirty years in “The Loft” in SoHo that became the intellectual salon where people like Allen Ginsberg and Salvador Dalí gathered to share creative ideas. Mekas used this place as an archive and set for his experimental films. It was his home and Cinematheque, where the personal and artistic sphere were intricately intertwined, as was his entire existence. The camera and film reels were an extension of his persona; the birth of his children was seized by Jonas’ lens, as were all the moments of his life, distinguished by his chase for beauty amidst the profound loss that left him with a melancholic flair. The camera was the balm to his wounded soul, and the moving images he captured of the daily scenes and personal celebrations were the testament of those particles of bliss that make life and art meaningful.
Fragments Of Paradise has conquered the festival circuit, from the 79th Venice International Film Festival to the 49th Telluride Film Festival, from BFI London Film Festival 2022 to the American Film Festival 2022. Director KD Davison shows great sensitivity with her third feature, in chronicling the personal and artistic journey of this extraordinary figure. She conveys an uplifting oeuvre that catapults viewers beyond the limitations of conventional thinking, into those elusive “fragments of paradise” defined by Jonas Mekas that cinema can uniquely provide.
Final Grade: A
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