Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde
Directed by Chuck Workman
The American film avant-garde is in need of an approachable documentary that could make its staggering accomplishments more readily accessible to a wider audience. Or an erudite documentary that could spark discussion among those already in the know. Or, for that matter, a merely serviceable documentary that might invite in a few outsiders and let those who are well-seasoned a chance to enjoy some old favorites. Unfortunately, Chuck Workman's Visionaries is none of these things, and less. A sometimes random array of film clips and interviews, this doc has almost nothing to say, other than that the film avant-garde can be defined by its opposition to Hollywood. Of course, anything that is not mainstream can be defined by its opposition to the mainstream, but that's hardly of interest in and of itself: what's interesting is the nature of the alternatives offered. Any discussion of such matters, though, is apparently beyond the reach of this film.
In terms of structure, I could imagine Visionaries having taken two routes. It could have chronicled Jonas Mekas's tireless efforts to set up institutions (Film Culture, The Filmmaker's Coop, Anthology Film Archives) that would serve as public housing for avant-garde cinema. Or it could have used Mekas as an anchor to explore the shifting styles of avant-garde film, the way one period of filmmaking led into another, or didn't; the disjuncture between different modes of avant-garde filmmaking. A really skilled filmmaker may have been able to do both these things, but Workman does neither—he skirts both.
The result is that a lot of top-notch talent is horrendously misused. Not just the filmmakers covered, but critics and scholars such as Scott MacDonald, Amy Taubin, and Fred Camper, who all make appearances. Anyone familiar with any of these people's writing will sense that Workman has cherry-picked their broadest, most general, and thus least interesting statements. At one point, as if in critique of itself, the movie lets Taubin say that, "Much more important than the films themselves were the ideas behind them." But any discussion of these ideas is exactly what Visionaries is lacking. P. Adams Sitney, the sort-of Harold Bloom of avant-garde cinema, shows up, but the footage of him seems to be taken from Jim Shedden's 1998 movie Brakhage—which leads one to assume that Sitney refused to participate in any direct way in Visionaries, another testament to his intelligence.
It's not just that Visionaries lacks insight and structure, but that there is almost not a single moment that doesn't feel like a missed opportunity to explore something potentially interesting. At one point, without much commentary, a clip from a student film of David Lynch leads into Tony Conrad's The Flicker, which leads into William S. Burroughs's Cut-ups, which in turn leads into Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom The Piper's Son. The juxtaposition seems random, but in its randomness it could have been interesting—if we were offered something, anything, to connect these movies to one another. Well-read avant-film buffs will know that the Conrad and Jacobs films were both thought to be totems of "structural" filmmaking; but what's the Lynch doing there? The Burroughs is provocative as well, but equally inexplicable. And what's structural filmmaking anyway? The film could have taken the time to explain why, in the 1970s, films as different in style and tone as The Flicker and Tom, Tom were grouped together under that label. But, perhaps I'm missing the point. Maybe the lack of analysis is due to the fact that Visionaries is not meant to be a standard talking-head doc, but rather a Histoire(s) du Cinema-style assemblage that speaks for itself. But if this were the case, the films, and the individual moments taken from them, would have to be carefully chosen, provocatively woven together; the juxtapositions would have to say something in and of themselves, and they don't.
All this might be forgivable under the banner of good intentions were this film not so relentlessly smug. Workman seems intent on congratulating himself for his interest in this type of moviemaking. He takes his camera to a student film festival that is only incidentally being held at Anthology Film Archives and asks the attendants if they've ever heard of Jonas Mekas or the American film avant-garde. Of course they haven't, but it's unclear what this proves, except that Workman wishes to play into the worst clichés about proponents of the avant-garde; that they are self-congratulatory whiners, perpetually proud of themselves for their specialized knowledge but completely unwilling, or unable, to elaborate on the nature of that knowledge. This is, in my experience, not generally true of avant-garde film fans, and surely Workman is aware that he could have taken his camera to Anthology on any random day and found a cadre of nerdcore screen-heads who not only know about Jonas Mekas and the American film avant-garde, but also could offer considerable enthusiasm and insight regarding these subjects. This would have been an affable and enlightening exercise; but then, alas, Workman would have had no one to feel superior to.
The only real delight of the film is watching Mekas be. Perpetually mercurial, Mekas has taken on the role of grey eminence with a charming ambivalence: you often get the sense he'd still prefer to be seen as slightly disreputable, out on the street raving about the pleasures of independent cinema, getting himself arrested. Somewhere between a warmer, polite Jean-Luc Godard and a more honest and forthright Werner Herzog, Mekas shares with both men a propensity for the over-emphatic aphorism. In talking about the demands that avant-garde cinema often puts on the viewer, Mekas says that the films are "like orange juice concentrate, you can add a glass of water and make orange juice." Unfortunately, for the most part, trying to get something meaningful out of Visionaries is more like trying to turn water into wine.
June 4-6 at Anthology Film Archives