‘As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty’… on vodka!
Ever wondered what a Terrence Malick movie would be like if he shot it on a camcorder and Ivor Culter did the music, oh, and that it was almost five hours long? Then ‘As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty’ is the film for you!
“Keep looking for things, in places, where there is nothing.”
Well, talking of nothing, that’s how the inside of my skull feels today. Christ, I’m hungover!
So last night’s viewing was Jonas Mekas’ ‘As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty’ and as we knew it was going to be a long film we thought we might need a few drinks to get through it. Unfortunately it is five hours long and our choice of liquid fortification was vodka so by the end of the movie we were fucked as, by the final hour, one of our group was rolling around on the floor drooling water all over his sleeping bag from convulsive laughter whilst the cat walked through the kebab sauce and covered my shoes in parma-ham. You know, these movie nights of ours are really turning into evenings of high-brow, cultural sophistication.
Fortunately, ‘As I was Moving Ahead…’ is such an enjoyable film that the alcohol was totally redundant. Critic turned filmmaker Jonas Mekas was obsessed with filming everything being the sort of person who, obviously, felt happier experiencing life through a view-finder. He filmed his wife, his cats, his kids (a lot!), the socialising with his varied group of hip friends and, as the back-drop to all this, the city of New York through the seasons.
Now as an old man at the end of his life, he has edited all this footage that spans a couple of decades into a sort of extremely high-end home movie over which he provides a voice over providing his thoughts and feelings but also stating occasionally that this film “means nothing” and apologising to the viewer that “nothing is happening” whilst sporadic title cards declare “This is a political movie” or “nothing is happening”.
Of course all these are lies as EVERYTHING is happening, all of life is here. But as it is Mekas’ family we are watching I think that is to make it more about the universal concept of family rather than specifically his. He also informs us, in a somewhat gently patronising way, to “read the images” the way the French taught us. This is not so much about his family but cinema itself and whilst these images are nothing more than some guy’s home video footage of his family, Mekas was a professional, and very artistic, filmmaker so a huge amount of what we see is truly gorgeous.
Split into twelve chapters of around twenty minutes each and all accompanied by a brief introduction by Mekas himself, usually opening with a wonderfully dead-pan statement or an apology for boring us (he never does), makes the entire five hours much easier to digest and never a tough watch. And some of the sequences are wonderful. The is an incredible “scene” of Mekas and his wife at Cape Cod during a storm and as images flash before us of trees and grass whipped up into churning, flowing masses by the elemental energy of the wind whilst the rolling sea and spray is buffeted into similar swirls, we really feel we are there, that we have had the same memories and experience.
This use of the personal to describe the universal is most evident with his quotations of both the poet William Carlos Williams — “That is the poet’s business, not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal” — and the educationalist John Dewey — “I discovered it quite by chance. The local is the only universal, upon that all art builds”. This might be Mekas’ life but it is also everyone’s.
Except that this film, like all film, is a lie! Sure, Mekas filmed vast swathes of his life — first steps of a child; parties with Andy Warhol, Allan Ginsberg and Dizzy Gillespie; his wife looking beautiful and fey in meadows of grass — but this, by its nature, is selective. Of course he is only going to capture the lovely and beautiful moments, so what we don’t get are any arguments or accidents or family tensions etc. If his wife threw a plate at him I can’t imagine he’d want to pick up his camera to record that so we what we have is a very idealised view of a life. But as Mekas states near the opening — “People are bad; cinema is innocent.” He knows this film is a lie.
But this is about someone towards the end of their time on this planet reminding us, and themselves I guess, to appreciate the “ecstasy” in life, of thunderstorms or those first steps a child makes and of friends, the joy of time with people we love and how that time passes so some idealisation is allowed.
The film also finishes strong which was a relief as, at certain times, the unrelenting positivity and declarations of “love” and “ecstasy” were in serious danger of tipping the movie into the twee realms of having the central message of a birthday card or inspirational poster. Yet fortunately Mekas undercuts excessive sentimentality with his ever present wry wit and the ending (and Mekas’ closing statement) had us in howls of laughter, although that might have been vodka… and the beer… oh yes, the wine too. I’d forgot about that. Christ.
In closing? Oh, the editing is fucking incredible in this movie too. Anything else? Oh yes, we got into a drunkenly heated argument about whether or not the film was actually “political”. One of us said “Yes, it was” using the “the family itself is a political organisation” argument whilst our friend in the soaking wet sleeping-bag said “he was talking shit” and I was shouting that “Mekas was fucking with us” as I pulled the parma-ham off my shoes. It was a scene, man.
‘As I Was Moving Ahead I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty’ is a wonderful, moving, visually impressive and beautiful piece of work. By the end we were all somewhat delirious, not from the vodka, but from the feeling of having experienced an entire life in an evening and come to feel and know the vast love that that life contained.
“I do not know where I am. I do not know where I am! But I know I have experienced some moments of beauty, brief moments of beauty and happiness, as I am moving ahead, as I am moving ahead, my friends! I have, I know, I know I have experienced some brief brief moments of beauty! My friends! My friends!”