There is something to be said about the lost art of sitting and listening to another person’s story – and it precisely this something that Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas says in Sleepless Nights Stories. At 89 years old, Mekas has racked up an impressive catalogue of stories and shenanigans from around the world and established himself something of a reputation as the ‘godfather of American avant-garde cinema’.
Armed with his DVCam, Mekas creates a cinematic notebook of a life through a lens, divided by typed title cards into chapters he recounts to deal with his insomnia. Through Mekas, we sit opposite infamous performance artist Marina Abramovic as she complains about her lack of a male companion and her desire for 1950s domestic bliss over dinner. Later we share the warmth of a meeting with Patti Smith at an art opening, toast the ‘middle class voice’ of Amy Winehouse, dance with Yoko Ono and share a taxi with Bjork – the life Mekas has lived becomes so meta and entangled with celebrity connection it becomes surreal.
Sleepless Nights Stories celebrates a life of red wine, hotel room philosophy, celebrity, art and self-documentation – yet somehow with a modesty that rarely accompanies such things. At times it is difficult to understand why he chose certain ‘stories’, with each tale seeming so unrelated, but these fragments are in Mekas’ control, drawn from his memories of his ‘actors’ who inspired him in some way with their anecdotes, thoughts and interpretations. This is personal cinema, created for Mekas himself that he has kindly shared with his audience.
While Mekas’ selection of these ‘stories’ shows these people have had an influence on his life, the clear adoration shown in their interactions with Mekas’ prove the feeling is more than mutual. As a protagonist behind the camera, Mekas is warm and approachable, as if his very nature encourages the uninhibited tales from his friends – but at the same time he is an eccentric, disregarding what the audience might want to see and instead only showing us what will tell his story.
The title itself starts its own story – are these nights sleepless because of Mekas’ insomnia? Because of the sheer number of stories he has to be told? Or because there is just so much to see, so many people to meet and so little to do it all? Whichever, Sleepless Nights Stories is a unique look into the enviable life this fascinating octogenarian has created for himself. And what makes his life all the more enviable is that these stories are only the start of Mekas’ latest project, 1001 Nights – meaning there are only more to come.
Sleepless Nights Stories will be screened at the 55th BFI London Film Festival (in partnership with American Express) as part of the Film on the Square strand, on Tuesday 18, Thursday 20 and Saturday 22 October.
For times and venues, visit the BFI website.