The Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center in Vilnius is named in his honor, but there was a time when the icon of avant-garde cinema was not so welcome in Lithuania. He and his brother had fled likely arrest by the Germans during WWII, but their émigré status made them suspect in their native land. However, Mekas was able to return to his home village in 1972 for a family reunion he duly documented in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, the second in a twofer of Lithuanian-related films programmed by MUBI.
In some ways, Reminiscences is a perfectly representative Mekas film, but it can also be considered an outlier. It is not, strictly speaking, one of his “diary” films, but it is acutely personal. It features his rather idiosyncratic (and sporadic) narration, which also makes more of an exception within his oeuvre.
Although he briefly touches on his time in Williamsburg (which is like a foreign country) and Vienna, the core of Reminiscences consists of “100 Glimpses of Lithuania.” Instead of a smooth narrative structure, they provide and series of telling images and episodes, much like the fragmented memory of an exile.
Viewers watching Reminiscences who know Mekas by reputation might be struck by how easily “Mr. Anthology Film Archives,” the living dean of living experimental filmmakers, re-acclimated himself to life in rural Semeniškiai village. In 1972, his mother still did the cooking outside, over an open fire. Yet, Mekas is clearly nostalgic for his old home.
Inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, Reminiscences is sort of the thin edge of the wedge for avant-garde film. Even if Mekas and “Saint” Peter Kubelka (who joins Mekas in the final ten minutes) mean nothing to you, the film serves as a time capsule of early 1970s life in rural Lithuania, including the collective farms. Mekas has an eye for both significant and mundane details that together really paint a full, immersive picture.
It is hard to imagine the Semeniškiai Mekas visits could remain frozen in time all these years. In most ways that is probably a good thing (starting with the country’s political independence from their Soviet oppressors), but the hearty peasants performing traditional dances most likely also represent a rarity today. Mekas edits it all together with a rather sly sense of humor. His aesthetic is an acquired taste, but if you only see one of his films, this is the one to choose. Recommended for viewers receptive to the intimate and the experimental, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania starts its 30-day MUBI rotation this Monday (Christmas Eve).