Notes on Mekas, Marker, and memory

Last night, watching Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, as on other occasions I’ve found my face flickering in the temporal mysteries of his images, I couldn’t bear facing the film directly. Not for a lack of attention or interest in his child-like sincerity, nor for a dearth of endearment in the the careful slurring of his words and silences – in the whirl of an eye that fragments the past the moment it’s uncovered – rather, I couldn’t sustain a gaze for if I truly fell into his spell I believed and still believe that I wouldn’t return.

Remember that scene at the very beginning of Sans soleil, where Chris Marker presents us with an image of happiness that is so totalizing in its Medusa-like rapture that it can only be seen in the “long black leader” that follows it, in its traces, in its reverberations?

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.

Of course the film Joan of Arc describes is this very one. Alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. But it’s also another film. A film of course he’ll never make. It’s a sci-fi film. He even gives it a title, Sans soleil. But it’s a film that like the happiness in the picture only exists in the margins, in the traces, in the echoes and reverberations of something which, the moment you see it, it shatters. Or do you shatter? The moment you see it, it petrifies, it collapses, and its life escapes. Or does yours?

In Iceland I laid the first stone of an imaginary film. That summer I had met three children on a road and a volcano had come out of the sea. The American astronauts came to train before flying off to the moon, in this corner of Earth that resembles it. I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away. I imagine him moving slowly, heavily, about the volcanic soil that sticks to the soles. All of a sudden he stumbles, and the next step it’s a year later. He’s walking on a small path near the Dutch border along a sea bird sanctuary.

Why this cut in time, he asks, this connection of memories?

He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.

Someone who has lost forgetting. If an image of happiness escapes into the margins in the wake of its weight, an image of unhappiness is precisely imageless, enduring only in shadows, in traces. It cannot be gathered into a frame, nor can it be imagined, hanged on a wall, hung on a tree. The unhappiness of the past is unimaginable precisely because it is not yet past.

The past is not yet past because it cannot be forgotten.

The past is a ghost, a spirit, a spectre that the present has not exorcised.

Not to forget the past is not yet to remember it.

To remember the past is for it to become past, to pass away.

But the past is a lingering pain, non-memories of injustice that can only be remembered, that is, can only be forgotten, the moment our present becomes an answer to the grievances which questions like the wind searches through us its answer. The classic moral of ghost-stories: the purgatory of unresolved pain. Neither remembered nor forgotten. Inbetween. In the interstices of time.

This is why the images of the past are not images per se. The moment they fit into a frame and hung on a wall, the past becomes a genetic justification for the present which consigns them to a past that is not properly past.

The mystical Mekas, like Marker and his non-images of the Zone – those that “at least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality” – can access this past, not yet past, but exceedingly past. But I can’t sustain his gaze. So I tweeted:

and then:

and again:

When Mekas appears in his own films he has the look of those Icelandic children, or the women in the marketplaces of Bissau and Cape Verde who stare with equality: “I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.”

I wrote that there’s something so mercurial in Mekas’ eyes when in image he looks past the camera, something that’s more cunning and knowing, more clever than the lilting naïveté of his absent eyes through which we watch his films.

This look is capable of overcoming the immense distance of time. Like the nativity of film in La jetée, where from still images emerges a look, a gesture, and a touch that reaches across times, Mekas sees more when he’s seen than when he’s seeing.

The reminisces of the journey to Lithuania, to a home that’s still there but inhabited only by a cat, are numbered 1 through 100. Mekas calls them glimpses. They do not grasp the past. They’re not supposed to. The past isn’t something that can be grasped. They intimate in a peripheral voice. They point to. They gesture. Swirlingly sparse, they fragment.

But something spills over the edges of the frames and the void between them. Time isn’t numbered. There are gaps. There are interstices. Mekas’ voice that so sincerely searches for the right word where there is none, thus his lilting, slurring, silencing, speaks through the parentheses, spills over, weaves through.

The borders of the frame and the manner in which Mekas sets them as seeing and flees them when seen work like less like Husserl’s phenomenological bracketing and more like the brackets in that chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse called “Time Passes.”


[Here Mr Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]

[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]

And that emphatic condemnation of poetry:

[Mr Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]

Even though the brackets quite literally gather the past into their embrace, what they gather is an offstage objectivity whose matter of fact tone is nothing more than a silence.

A peripheral voice, a parenthetical voice.

An intimation of.

A gesturing towards.

A Gesualdo madrigal, a Bruckner mass.

And a Čiurlionis prelude.