A personal film in perhaps the most extreme sense of the phrase, Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) is entirely composed of home videos recorded at various points during the adult life of its director. As Mekas reminds us throughout, there is no narrative, and essentially nothing happens in the film. Rather than edit the videos together in chronological order, he groups them in loosely defined themes, though the extent to which each clip belongs in its section and no other is surely debatable. Because what As I Was Moving Ahead goes for, more than clear autobiographical representation, or even personal essay, is to ponder the way we watch a person’s life, and in doing so, how we watch life.
The images in the film are specific to Mekas’s life, of course: the birthday parties and walks in the park included in the film were experienced only by Mekas and those around him (and the point of view included is typically that of Mekas, as we are led to believe that he is usually the one holding the camera). That said, they are general in their type, as most viewers of As I Was Moving Ahead will have attended a birthday party or walked in a park. Where Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) used specific events in one character’s life to speak to the beauty of the quotidian regardless of one’s age, nationality, or gender, As I Was Moving Ahead asks whether these minutiae can even capture a single person’s life, let alone any general conception of existence. The shots in this film do not remind us of Mekas’s particular memories, as most viewers were not present during the events depicted, so it can be said that they are unique experiences to Mekas himself. At the same time, however, we feel as if we have learned almost nothing about Mekas’s life; attempting to construct a biographical or even psychological profile of Mekas from the images in this film alone would be a fool’s errand.
Life, then, might not be so easily captured by images on a screen. Mekas is in every frame of the film, as he says, because everything depicted means something to him and was included because of his personal relationship with it. Look, for example, at how the editing draws attention to particular objects or people. A few rapid shots might give way to a longer shot resting on Mekas’s wife’s face, the relative length of time spent here seemingly correlated with Mekas’s desire to commit this image to memory. We might see a rose from a couple different angles in quick succession, the shape and color of the object bursting off of the Super 8 film because of the attention given it. The personal motivation for the inclusion of these images surely gives us some idea of the iconography important to Mekas’s view of the world, but it gives us few clues regarding what to do with this knowledge. We might be able to tell that Mekas loves his wife, but any extrapolation to a supposedly “deeper” meaning would probably be faulty, or at the very least presumptuous. Similarly, it is not apparent how this knowledge could be applied to the viewer’s own life. This is not to say, however, that As I Was Moving Ahead should be read in an experiential way, like La libertad (Lisandro Alonso, 2001) might demand to be viewed. Instead, the film can be seen as some sort of warning against egregious assumption when watching a film, and the insights it does give regarding Mekas’s worldview should not be expanded unnecessarily.
This idea might be pushed further through the use of sound in the film, which threatens to draw artistic or spiritual readings in the everyday through the juxtaposition of classical music and images of ordinary events. At one point, for example, images of swans in a lake are matched with music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Whether this takes a Duchampian perspective on the question of whether the images are art or not (i.e., it is art, because Mekas says it is art) or a more ironic and perhaps defeatist point of view (i.e., it is not art, because it does not look like art compared to Tchaikovsky) is certainly up for debate, and the fact that the film asks a question so integral to art in so lucid a manner is evidence of the film’s brilliance. I would venture to argue in favor of the latter perspective: just as grandiose orchestrations of songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “O Christmas Tree” serve to elevate simple facets of everyday life to the level of “high art,” so does the elaborate music tend to leave the amateur footage in the dust at times.
But such an assertion is certainly problematic, as As I Was Moving Ahead, though composed of this found footage, is as moving an artwork as they come. At some point when watching the film—and it will surely hit different viewers at different points—one starts to see some sort of majestic sublimity to the everyday images that carousel around the screen. Mekas himself might protest this reading, but there is truly something beautiful, in perhaps an unexplainable and impulsive manner, to each individual shot. For they are remnants of Mekas’s past, as curated by Mekas; not only are they moments from the life of the director, but moments that he saw fit to preserve in the film as a way of personally remembering them and of committing them to the shared cultural memory. The death of the author is itself destroyed, with seams showing through for the film’s entire runtime that draw attention to the beautiful singularity of these images. We might learn very little about Jonas Mekas during the film, but we get to see small parts of the world through his eyes for a few hours, and if we take that for what it is, then what a powerful art form cinema can be.