Birth of a Nation

Jonas Mekas’s 1997 film of the experimental scene takes its name from D.W. Griffith’s landmark feature because, as Mekas puts it, the independent movement is “a nation in itself,” one that offers an alternative to the industry Griffith helped found. The chief luminaries are here, from Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, and critic P. Adams Sitney to related figures like artist Shigeko Kubota and theater director Richard Foreman, though the sound track is mostly music rather than their voices. “This is not a documentary,” declares one of Mekas’s few intertitles; made in his signature style, the film connects brief shots of faces and figures using jump cuts or surprising shifts in locale. His abrupt, almost anarchic rhythms intensify each image, as a profile, a gesture, a pair of eyes, or two figures striding become like apparitions. The film is filled with events–lectures, meetings, dinners, filmmaker Peter Kubelka teaching cooking–yet few are seen for more than a few seconds. Often the subjects are walking somewhere, yet we rarely know where, and as the occasional titles make clear, geographical dislocation is key to the film: we’re in Toulouse, one title tells us, but then we’re back in New York with no additional cue. Mekas’s “nation” is a network of almost invisible human connections, the brief encounters and glances offscreen that he captures so lovingly, but with such sharp focus on the instant that he avoids sentimentality. Kino-Eye Cinema at Xoinx Tea Room, 2933 N. Lincoln, Friday, October 2, 8:00, 773-384-5533. –Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.