Monday, February 18, 2008

Jonas Mekas and the Diary Film

In his lecture on the Diary Film, how does Jonas Mekas distinguish a written diary from a film diary? In what ways do his films document both objective reality and Mekas’s own subjective reality? Why are “non-professional” techniques important for this filmmaking process?

Jonas Mekas explains that in a written diary one will sit down, usually at the end of the day, and reflect upon the events of the day. Alternately, with a film diary, the goal is to capture the author/cameraman's feeling at the moment of filming. With a written diary, one has the advantage of thinking and considering how one feels about a certain topic before committing it to paper. On the other hand, a filmed diary requires the filmer to be in the moment, such that whatever they are feeling or thinking in that moment comes through on film, or whatever they decide to film becomes telling of their emotional state.

Mekas' films are objective in the sense that what he is filming does, in fact, exist. His films of New York include trees, streets, any number of things. He shows New York as it is. However, hs films are subjective in that what he decides to show represent his own version of New York. Mekas states that friends of his who had seen his Diaries preferred his version of the city. "This is not my New York," he quotes them as saying. "In your New York I'd like to live. But my New York is bleak, depressing..." Mekas singles out a particular tree, which most would not consider representative of New York City.

We can see this idea at work in many other directors' works. Spike Lee's view of New York is decidedly different from that of Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese. No two people see anything, even their city, the same way. While the buildings, the people, everything is all there, the feeling with which these films are made are all from a different perspective and mood. And even though directors like Woody Allen or Spike Lee make straightforward narratives rather than personal diaries, they remind us that even a polished product like Manhattan or Do the Right Thing can show the same city or street corner in drastically different lights.

Diary films need a sort of 'non-professional' technique, because in essence, these are images from the filmmaker's eye, what s/he sees. If a person decides to shoot something using a dolly rig or crane, the object in frame won't change, but it's meaning, the emotion it instills, will change. Fancy camerawork, lighting setups, and any number of other altering factors work agaisnt the 'real life' aspect of whatever is being filmed. It helps that something be shot simply, because less of the artifice of filmmaking intrudes upon the object itself. Shooting an image without a tripod, handheld, brings it closer to being a 'real life' portrait. This way, the camera is physically in the operator's hands, and we then also get their own personal movements worked into the shot itself. This is as personal as a diary film can get.

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