A wealth of immediate and intense beauty on display in Jonas Mekas's Walden can be found in the pleasures of watching a frantic kaleidoscope of circus performers, deep green grasses, and the amusement of children and friends at play. Walden is unique in that it has many such moments that can be viewed separately from the film as a whole, like reading a favorite poem from a collection. And just as more familiarity with a poet's world increases appreciation for [End Page 148] each individual poem, so too can the experience of watching Walden be deepened by viewing the film as a whole and knowing something of the world in which it was filmed.
Walden is a collection of diary films created by poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas from the spring of 1965 through the summer of 1968. According to the filmmaker, these filmed diaries were never intended to be shown publicly but were meant to be exercises in form that would help him master the intricacies of the handheld 16mm Bolex. Mekas wanted to capture images around him instantly so that no moment would slip away unfilmed due to hesitation over technical issues. The spontaneity of the filming often makes Walden feel like a home movie, which it essentially is. However, the connection to the home-movie style is more of a spiritual kinship wherein Mekas embraces the amateur, allows for "mistakes," and generally accepts the consequences of immediate expression, ultimately integrating those consequences into an aesthetic.
There is a feeling of continual invention and discovery throughout Walden. The only consistency in the shooting and editing styles is in the joy of abandoning forethought for a passionate connection with the film and the people and events depicted. On display is an encyclopedic litany of avant-garde techniques: rapid montage, superimpositions, portraiture, various film speeds, and abstraction, just to name a few. The film's many intertitles, jumps in chronology, and both aural and written commentaries lightly hold together these imaginative cinematic diaries.
Viewing Notes on the Circus, for instance, provides a fascinating example of the shifts in meaning in each element of the film. This twelve-minute section of Walden consists of five uncut hundred-foot rolls of film that document several performances by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and were shot in a combination of fast-motion and single-frame styles. The dreamlike intensity of Notes on the Circus seems to mimic saccadic eye movement. Mekas's Film-Maker's Cooperative catalog entry for this film states that it can be viewed without sound for the "film purists." When viewed silently, the film appears frantic and blindingly chaotic. The musical accompaniment by Jim Kweskin's Jug Band provides a levity and buoyancy that is not necessarily found in the images, and the music acts to conceal the danger and intensity of the visuals.
Mekas's achievements as filmmaker, poet, and founder of the Anthology Film Archives, the Film-Makers' Cooperative, and Film Culture journal are probably familiar to most readers. Less well known are the dozens of friends and associates who appear in Walden. Enjoyment of the film does not depend on an intimate knowledge of everyone who appears onscreen (many are left unidentified), but certainly the more one knows about the events depicted, the more accessible the film becomes. Re:Voir's new box set of Walden goes to great lengths to provide a context for the work and to deepen the experience of viewing it. Packaged with the two videocassettes is The Walden Book, which includes an essay on diary films by David E. James and an appreciation of Mekas by Jean-Jacques Lebel. The book also includes a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire film, transcriptions of the title cards, and descriptions of the scenes and sounds. For some scenes, there are explanations of what is actually shown, usually including direct quotes from Mekas. Other scenes are explained through reminiscences from friends that relate to the events that are shown. Each person of note that appears onscreen (such...