Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 24th, 2022
Fragments of Paradise (KD Davison, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas (1922-2019) came to the United States in 1949. By the mid-1950s, he and his brother Adolfas had firmly established themselves in the American avant-garde film movement, starting Film Culture magazine in 1954. Mekas would go on to develop a well-earned reputation as the “godfather of underground cinema,” influencing the likes of Andy Warhol, John Waters, and others. He also became the first film critic for the now-defunct Village Voice. In 1970, he was one of the founders of New York’s Anthology Film Archives, a cinematheque and exhibition space devoted to independent movies that still exists to this day.
All of this, and more, is explored in Fragments of Paradise, director KD Davison’s new documentary about Mekas. I was no particular aficionado of the man at the start, yet the film completely drew me in thanks to a vibrant compendium of interviews, archival footage, and the work of its subject. By its conclusion, even a neophyte can appreciate the skill on display, both from Mekas and Davison.
The documentary’s title refers to how Mekas saw the films he preserved at the Anthology Film Archives, each a valuable sliver of a larger heavenly treasure that is cinematic art. He himself was the ultimate scrappy artist, spending 70 years filming—first on actual film and later on video—daily visual diaries that he would occasionally edit into longer pieces. We see excerpts from these movies of his, watching Mekas grow old in front of us. And we hear testaments from those who learned from, and were inspired by, his life and mission.
Davison (The Soul of America) divides the movie into four parts, breaking them up with intertitles either drawn from Mekas’ own films or made to look as if they are. She photographs all her interviewees inside movie theaters, keeping the visual focus on the passion at the heart of everything. This doesn’t mean we don’t learn personal facts about Mekas; quite the contrary, there is the history of his time in a German forced-labor camp, the reason he fled Lithuania, his marriage to Hollis Melton, and his beloved children Oona and Sebastian. The entirety feels like a complete portrait, even if Davison can’t quite land on the perfect ending, appearing to almost wrap things up many times before finally doing so.
Though Mekas survived two decades into the 21st century, his is very much a 20th-century tale, wrapped up in the creative and political tumults of the first part of his life. He could be impish and he could be moody; the diaries show an enormous range. Above all, he was a towering intellect and innovative thinker and maker. May his own fragments of paradise coalesce into a beautiful afterlife.