The latest home movie (with a twist) from the godfather of New York avant-garde cinema plays at Anthology for a week beginning today. The L’s Cullen Gallagher reviews.
Steven Soderbergh’s 4-hour Che (2008) is no longer the biggest revolutionary epic on New York’s movie screens. It’s been dethroned by Jonas Mekas and his five-hour Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2009). The thesis-like title manages the difficult task of condensing the scope of the movie into a manageable, albeit blunt, summary. Mekas does, indeed, chronicle Lithuania’s role in the "fall of the USSSR" — but in using his characteristic diaristic approach, the film’s straightforward narrative belies its complexity. Positioning the video camera in front of the television set, Mekas records television news broadcasts exactly as they were originally shown. He doesn’t manipulate the clips, except that the sounds of his family going about their daily lives are audible in the background. The camera, literally, takes the place of the television viewer, watching history as it happens on-screen, and powerless to do anything about it.
This sense of helplessness manifests itself in the viewer’s frustration as he is subjected to the five-hour-long uninterrupted stream of events. Mekas does nothing to alter the media’s perspective (or lack thereof) or their detachment from the drama of Lithuania’s recession from the Soviet Union. The film isn’t so much a documentary about one country’s declaration of independence as it is about the documentation of the conflict. Typically, we watch broadcast news as a reflection of the present — contemporaneous, ephemeral commentary on what is happening now. Mekas, however, takes us back twenty years to relive the flow of information as we experienced it back then, for all of its redundancies, inaccurate predictions, and cagey vagaries. The film can be considered a reflection not just on the content of the news, but on its rhetoric at the time, as well. Were Mekas (or someone else) to make a similar film of current events as they are now, they would have to make a multi-media explosion that includes Twitter, Facebook, and all the other "up to the second" updates that technology has graced us with. Pre-internet, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR captures a dependency on television that has begun to switch over to the laptop and cellphone in recent years.
Politics aide (for the moment, at least), Mekas’ latest film is a continuation of his diary films, such as Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) and Lost Lost Lost (1976). But whereas his earlier films were comprised of home movies depicting picnics, hanging out, neighborhoods, and homes, this new film documents another of our favorite pastimes: watching television. The five-hour runtime may be scary, but is nothing compared to the hours we spend in front of the television (and now computer). Mekas is peeling back the callused layers of our eyeballs to show us what we already have seen. Ultimately, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR isn’t so much an act of documentation as it is one of excavation: creating a film out of a narrative that millions have already witnessed, but showing it to them as they’ve never seen it before.