Jonas Mekas has been making movies ever since he stepped off the boat from Lithuania to Ellis Island in 1959. These films have covered a diverse array of topics and have ranged from the provoking and intellectually challenging to the downright bizarre. Known colloquially as the ‘godfather’ of American Avant-Garde cinema, he has put out an extensive body of work. Recently, his 365 Day Project has been showing at the PHI Centre here in Montréal. With absolutely no idea what to expect, I went down to take a look.
The exhibition, titled In Praise of the Ordinary, took 38 hours of video footage shot in daily increments over the course of a year, and compiled it onto 12 separate screens. Every individual screen represented a month in the artist’s life, and the films shown on each were played in chronological order. The Festival du Nouveau Cinéma and the Foundation for Contemporary Art put on the whole affair, with guest curator Anna Kekeres there to ensure the exposition went as smoothly as possible.
Saying things went ‘smoothly’ is a subjective definition, but none of the logistical drama typically associated with conceptually complex exhibits was present. To give some idea of what the exhibition was like, the opening video depicted Mekas giving an earnest and inspiring speech about the nature of film in a workshop before dancing to 1930s Eastern European music for the rest of the video. At one point during the dancing, the word ‘terrorist’ flashed onscreen, and was never seen again.
Many of the films were interesting enough to hold my attention, despite the mundane subject matter. Some were even genuinely moving; a 30 second clip of an empty coffee shop with a lazy tune playing on the radio made me feel inexplicably nostalgic. On the other hand, some films were just plain strange—one was just a woman’s feet, and nothing else, for six minutes straight.
On the whole, the movies were distinctly reminiscent of a bygone era and came off as heartwarming more than anything else. Mekas contrasts the old-time lifestyle shown on camera with the digital means by which the exhibit is presented, almost poking fun at modern ‘videographers’ who seem bent on recording things 24/7. The reason people aren’t normally filming every second of their lives is because the majority of those seconds don’t merit being captured on film. Again, it’s art, and thus, subjective; but good on Mekas if he’s lampooning this mentality, as I think he is.
The man himself is charming and friendly, though brief in his explanation of the exhibit. The crowd present at the opening seemed to really enjoy the films, though I did see a few faces walk away from them sharing my distinctly confused expression. I went in not knowing what to expect, and left feeling confounded—though a little happier, I think.
Jonas Mekas’ In Praise of the Ordinary has been showing since Oct. 11, and will be open until Oct. 26 at the PHI Centre. Admission is