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Jonas Mekas's "Sleepless Nights Stories"

"The movie indulges a few too many whims, but it's never less than alive."
The DailySleepless Night Stories

Louise Bourgeois in Sleepless Nights Stories


"Jonas Mekas," begins Nick Pinkerton in the Voice, "88-year-old Lithuanian-American poet, filmmaker, co-founder of Anthology Film Archives, and all-around proselytizer for the avant-garde, has spent the last half century or so with a motion picture recording device of some sort running at his side — who could better relate to Christopher Isherwood's I Am a Camera? What Mekas sees (and narrates) is periodically fashioned into a movie, Sleepless Nights Stories being the latest."

"Mr Mekas has said the idea for the movie came from his reading of One Thousand and One Nights," notes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "The connections between that collection of Arabic-language stories and folk tales and Mr Mekas's movie — which consists of some two dozen intimate vignettes — are not immediately apparent, despite a sporadic 'praise Allah' in the movie’s handwritten intertitles…. The camerawork and the editing in this introductory scene, as throughout, are jagged and seemingly crude. Mr Mekas makes little attempt to smooth out his transitions between takes or scenes, which only reinforces the intensely personal, even handmade nature of the work."

"Under the influence of insomnia and red wine," writes Eric Hynes for Time Out New York, "Mekas meanders, muses and trains his inquisitive camera on everything from obliging friends (Ken Jacobs, Marina Abramovic, Patti Smith) to errant lizards, possums and postcards. Underlying the artist's scattershot narrative and amateurish, out-of-focus aesthetic is an unflagging faith in the arrived-upon moment, the poetry of spontaneity. The movie indulges a few too many whims, but it's never less than alive."

Bill Weber in Slant: "The camera, often sitting on a tabletop or held low to survey a small lizard or some humble country shrubbery, is a tool of hardy utility in Mekas's hand, and the looseness and fluidity of this pan-narrative feels more like that of a jottings-filled notebook than a fully crafted work, but whether he's complaining about a booze-free Sunday on an upstate visit or providing the voice of a front-porch possum, Mekas emerges as a character of sweet and vibrant curiosity, asking with transcendentalist conviction when a walk in the woods reminds him of his rural boyhood, 'I was part of nature. How can I return?' His gentle self-inquiry is as disarming as the sight of him shimmying on the dance floor with Yoko Ono, or of his spirited bellowing of a Lithuanian folk song in tribute to a long-absent friend."

Eric Kohn talks with Mekas for indieWIRE. At Too Early, Too Late, you can read Mekas's contribution to the catalog for Tacita Dean's Film, "A Mini Manifesto Re: Cinema."

Sleepless Nights Stories is at Anthology Film Archives through December 23.

Update, 12/16: For Susanna Locascio, writing for Hammer to Nail at Filmmaker, "Mekas and the film itself are what December should be but is not: warm, funny, and immediately accessible, but also fueled by spirit(s) and melancholy."

Updates, 12/20: Amy Taubin for Artforum: "Harmony Korine, the subject of one of the more intricately edited 'stories' — three chapters that take place over four years condensed to about two minutes — laughingly describes Mekas's shooting technique, how sometimes he just parks his camera on a stack of magazines or a sofa arm—always teetering on the edge — turns it on, and walks away. But not too far….  On one occasion, he says he felt as if he himself were a tree, as if he were one with nature. It was, he says, the greatest moment of his life. As he recounts this experience, what we see is forest shot with a constantly moving handheld camera, the imagery like quick — and quickly discarded — sketches until, just once, a close-up of intensely green leaves comes into focus, filling the screen. As a depiction of a 'peak experience,' this one is close to perfect and all the richer for its poverty of means."

"Sleepless Nights Stories deals more directly with the present than perhaps any other film that Mekas has made," writes Aaron Cutler for Idiom. "In previous work, Mekas memorialized dead friends with their images; here he speaks about them directly, whether Amy Winehouse or the late, great filmmaker Marie Menken. He's speaking for them just as he speaks at other times for trees and animals, doing all the talking for creatures that can't talk for themselves — while also, rather blatantly, speaking for himself. His monologues are long-winded, rambling, disorganized, incoherent, and wonderful. Because he delivers them in a loving spirit, they can't help but charm."

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