Jonas Mekas' charming trifle is just about as accessible as experimental cinema gets.
There’s simply no stopping avant-garde godfather Jonas Mekas, who, at 88, continues to record the dinner parties, art openings and assorted other happenings around him with all the curiosity and good humor of a far younger soul. Picking up where “A Letter From Greenpoint” left off, with Mekas battling insomnia in his new Brooklyn apartment, “Sleepless Nights Stories” bills itself as a modern-day “Arabian Nights,” stringing together casual video-diary entries like so many stand-alone folk tales. Though Mekas’ style is just about as accessible as experimental cinema gets, this charming trifle won’t make it far beyond cinematheques and sprocket operas.
Armed with a 16mm Bolex, Mekas began documenting the seemingly mundane moments in his life long before Facebook and reality TV made such ceaseless self-examination fashionable. These days, he’s upgraded to a lightweight DV camera that functions as both a third eye and external memory bank. Visually speaking, there’s nothing particularly artistic about the compositions, with Mekas unsteadily holding the device at arm’s length or simply setting it down on a table, though the scenes themselves are nearly always juicy, offering a fly-on-the-wall record of whatever intellectual mischief he happens to be pursuing at the moment.
“Stories” begins in Mekas’ apartment with the Lithuanian poet-philosopher surrounded by boxes from his latest move, but swiftly escapes to travel around the world and, for those willing to indulge his fanciful sensibility, into past lives as well. “Praise be to Allah!” exclaim the hand-typed intertitles, injecting a sense of upbeat irreverence between the various scenes, which typically amount to unedited, single-take snapshots of Mekas visiting with various acquaintances, some more recognizable than others: Trolling around downtown New York, Mekas catches up with Harmony Korine before and after the birth of his son Lefty; Louis Garrel makes a brief appearance in Paris; while singing folksongs in Luxembourg, “Free Radicals” helmer Pip Chodorov accompanies Mekas on the ukulele; and toward the end, Bjork generously offers him a ride to the airport.
Though auds will certainly amuse themselves watching for such personalities to pop up throughout, Mekas is actually quite modest about the company he keeps, selecting scenes for whatever self-contained magic lies within. It’s fun to imagine a banal conversation with bigger luminaries left on the cutting room floor in favor of something the director found more deserving of inclusion, like a visit to the park in which friends marvel at how elephant-like an old tree trunk feels to the touch.
In most cases, Mekas presents these assorted vignettes at face value, with only a minimalist title card for context: No one could possibly anticipate the “America’s Funniest Home Videos”-worthy mishap the “Caroline in Reykjavik” chapter holds, for example. Elsewhere, he chooses to supply new meaning to old footage via the addition of whimsical voiceover, unlocking the poetry in the prosaic. Though often the wisest one in the room, Mekas is first and foremost a good listener, and the film’s most memorable stories come from unlikely sources, as in an ex-junkie’s recollections of hitting rock bottom.
Running time is an arbitrary concept for such a project, with “Stories” alternating between stretches of spellbinding fascination and utter tedium.