Jonas Mekas’ ‘Diaries, Notes & Sketches’: City Chamber Music

A little while ago we looked at the city symphony on this blog. This got me thinking about how we could use the term to think about the American Avant-Garde film movement. More specifically, how the term could relate to Jonas Mekas, and his 1969 film Diaries, Notes & Sketches a.k.a Walden. The film is essentially made up of six reels of home-video footage that plays out like a stream of consciousness, a collection of impressions in high zoom. The often jittering visuals, which fluctuate between slow and static and chaotic and sped up, make for a viewing experience that is both tense and nostalgic at the same time.
This diary of city life has a lot in common with the city symphonies of early cinema. Most obviously perhaps, the film has no clear narrative structure. Instead it focuses on the ebbs and flows of urban life. The film even invokes the silent tradition using text inserts. There are also remarkable similarities to Dziga Vertov’s city symphony Man with a Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1929). The film plays with the notion of linear time. As Man with a Movie Camera takes place over a day in the city, Diaries, Notes & Sketches is seasonal, charting an elemental year in the city, including snowfall, leaves, and rain. The birth of a baby boy (announced by an intertitle as the birth of Blake Sitney) has its parallel in the birth scene at the beginning of Man with a Movie Camera, and the footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their famous bed towards the end of the film is reminiscent of the opening scenes in Vertov’s masterpiece that show the moment before the city (metaphorically and literally) wakes up. However, crucial differences are immediately obvious – the positioning of the birth and bed moments towards the end of the film symbolically turns the Man with a Movie Camera on its head. Diaries, Notes & Sketches is in dialogue with this cinematic tradition and subversive of it.
The classical overtures and piano concertos we might associate with the soundtracks to the city symphony films (played as a live accompaniment and constantly changing) are still present in Diaries, Notes & Sketches but are supplemented by everyday sounds such as radio static and the tapping of typewriter keys, as well as Mekas’ own voice-over. These audio-visual allusions to the printed word and to the man behind the camera evoke hand-written diaries and journals, and play on the traditional role of the diarist as an archivist of urban daily life. Diaries, Notes & Sketches can thus be thought of less as a symphony and more like chamber music – performed on a hand-held Bolex camera. The film’s visual music is in its editing, which oscillates between ponderous languor and breakneck speed. Like any good piece of classical music, it has moments of crescendo and moments of stillness and diminuendo.
Unlike many city symphonies that bring a kind of geometric visual order to urban chaos, and thus attempt to grasp the city, the style of observation of Diaries does not pretend to own or know the city space. The viewing experience mirrors the experience of using an editing table: fast-forward, isolate an individual shot, linger over it, cut, and continue. The camera’s is not the proprietary gaze of modernity and progress, but rather a furtive peek from an upstairs window into a confusing melee. The gaze in Diaries is also nostalgic somehow. We are reminded that New York does not belong to this diarist: Mekas immigrated to the United States in the 1940s from Lithuania. The film is peppered with intertitles referring to some distant and elusive notion of ‘home.’ Titles like: ‘thinking of home’ or ‘I thought of home.’ Longing becomes a daily activity, a habit just like riding the bus. Thus, rather than isolate the migrant experience, the film seems to universalise it. This is also true on the level of visuals. The speed of the editing rhythms and the constantly twitching camera mean that habitual actions never become habit. The viewer is constantly positioned as an outsider, adjusting to a strange, psychedelic experience: the experience of watching the city through a kaleidoscope. The camera is placed on public transport and takes journeys at strange speeds that distort time – twice sped up, once on the mode of transport and then again in the editing room. The images now whizz past so quickly that they appear superimposed. Commuters become geometric shapes, impressions rather than people. This implies that a city is beyond ownership, beyond citizenship and beyond property – we are all just passing through its streets. Diaries, Notes & Sketches makes no distinction between the citizen and the migrant or tourist. Instead it invites us to read the city as a travelling space. New York, and by extension any metropolis, turns us all into migrants – on the subway, in cars, buses, and thoroughfares – constantly on the move.
And in this chaos, there are spaces that remind us of what it feels like to be at home. In a sense then, the film becomes a symphony only when it dwells in the private sphere. Everyday objects (dinner plates, books, household implements) are shot in extreme close-up, with a focus on texture and geometry. This layering of texture is the visual counterpart to leafing through a family album or touching clothes left hanging in a wardrobe after someone’s passing. Private moments are juxtaposed to public experiences – dinnertime and bedtime reading are intercut with wedding scenes, walks in the park, flashbacks to protests in the streets, and newspapermen selling public events. The private dimension of this lived urban experience is visually grounding and gives the viewer solid, stable points of reference in the moving city. The camera rests in enclosed, intimate spaces after it rushes through the streets. Long sequences are shot in private rooms, looking out into the public sphere at a remove.
Nature is also an important visual theme for Mekas, and in the context of the film seems to be associated with childhood experiences, stability, and home. It can be read as symbolic of a return to innocence. The final sequences of the film take the viewer out of the built-up city streets and into a wide-open green space, evocative of a trip to the country. We watch in close-up as bare feet walk through green grass. And then we return to a private interior, missing out the city streets altogether. Private spaces are linked to nature – with their tiny windowsill gardens that are made to appear as large as Central Park as they are filmed in extreme close-up, their window-box flowers taller than trees.
The film begins and ends on the diarist in his private room. The banal and quotidian is thus elevated to the status of the grandiose and exceptional. Mekas raises personal memories to the status of public memorials. Private gardens become as important as public parks. Form and content seem to reflect each other: this personal history of the city runs counter to national narratives and is told in a cinematic form counter to national cinema (i.e. Hollywood). Diaries, Notes & Sketches is less a symphony performed in a concert hall, and more quiet music playing in a private room – a symphony to private space.

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