Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR

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Televisual
by Michael Joshua Rowin

Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR
Jonas Mekas, U.S.

From 1990 to 1991, long before the era of TiVo and YouTube, avant-garde pioneer and proponent Jonas Mekas spent at least four hours and 46 minutes in front of his television with a video camera, recording news programs and live reports as a way of documenting the long awaited independence of his native country of Lithuania and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that’s more or less the body of the four-part Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR. From a man who considers himself a “filmer” rather than a filmmaker, it’s a simple but bold take on the diary form with which he has become virtually synonymous, as well as a video project that almost 20 years after its conception now takes on—due to foresight or just a coincidence in the timing of its completion—layers of conceptual and immediate meaning in a radically altered media landscape.

Mekas’s shooting begins with the peak of Lithuania’s democratic independence movement in January 1990 and Gorbachev’s desperate visit to the country to quell the peaceful uprising; it ends more than a year later with the newly sovereign state surviving a Soviet blockade and a small-scale military response and earning a place among the united nations. Historic events are largely communicated through the three major television networks, plus an ascendant CNN (that channel’s coup, the Gulf War, is the cause of speculation that the United States is going soft on the USSR just as Lithuania is seeking allies), in the form of generically edited news reports, interviews with world leaders, and roundtable discussions featuring experts and observers, all chosen according to Mekas’s hunger for information and his channel surfing abilities. Anything not related to Lithuania’s quest for freedom is instantly jettisoned. Off-screen commentary intermittently intrudes, as when Mekas quips, “They will blame the Lithuanians,” upon seeing a USSR representative putting some spin on the economic stalemate between the two governments, or when a child beyond the frame cheers the sight of Lithuanian leader and first president Vytautas Landsbergis. Aural signposts of the era abound: primitive electronic gurgles from Duck Hunt and the corny theme song of Who’s the Boss? waft in from a (presumably) adjacent room. Most importantly, conspicuous, unelided evidence of Mekas’s “production” remains intact, such as a hand coming into frame to change channels, jostling and fumbling of the camera, and a calling out for someone to bring him a fresh battery.

What makes Mekas’s video “experimental” (and worthy of a theatrical screening) while some anonymous user’s Digicam recording of the Obama inauguration merely rates as a two-star “nothing special” on YouTube? Duration, for one thing. It may seem pompous to propose epic length as a marker of importance, but meaning in this case emerges as much from the filmmaker’s willpower to see the project through as it does the viewer’s ability to stick it out. Warhol’s insane Empire—one of the great challenges/stunts in the history of cinema—serves as this idea’s gold standard: a tourist shooting the Empire State Building for a minute is prosaic; a provocateur offering eight hours of footage of the skyscraper shot from a single fixed camera position goes so far beyond any reasonable demands on the human attention span that it amounts to a dare and an assault on the assumed limits and boundaries of art for simply having been accomplished.

Of course, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR doesn’t quite approach the extreme level of anti-cinema perpetrated by Empire (which was photographed by Mekas, not at all coincidentally). Despite shaky framing (which usually puts the television screen off center), pixellated cathode ray images, wavering volumes from different channels, and the constant hum of ambient room tone, one can watch the programs Mekas has recorded as pure historical documents. And yet the same visual abrasions repeatedly undermine such “transparency,” thus inviting another question: why bother watching this thing when we could just as easily visit the archives and access the shows? Beyond the fact that Mekas has already done the work for us, the signifiers of his mediation place us at a significant remove from the content, jolting us from a “normal,” comfortable viewing position to one of self-consciously absorbing and processing media. In short, we’re watching someone (or, as per the camera, something) watch television. It’s an unsettling experience, and we start noticing things: narratives manufactured onto chaotic events, broadcast conventions grafted onto otherwise blank slate visual material, and professional voices (the cast of characters is remarkably familiar: Jim Lehrer, Ted Koppel, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, David Brinkley, Sam Donaldson, Robert Novak, among others) intoning scripted reductions of complex global situations.

More than this, the avant-garde home-movie form Mekas has defined over the course of half a century applies just as categorically to this strangely fascinating video. After all, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR documents a man so enthralled with the revolution occurring in his native land that he can sit glued to a screen watching any related information and debate—from the simplified to the in-depth—in anticipation of the once-thought impossible and in hope of televisually participating in some of its glory: the epitome of the quotidian. And because it documents a time when news and images were delivered less in fragments and more from a limited set of technological and distributional options, Lithuania combines the unabashed amateur aesthetic of the home movie with a time capsule’s reminder of our antiquated consumption of images. After that initial “Why?”, it becomes irrefutably clear that Mekas’s found footage experiment couldn’t be less frivolous. It opens up endless avenues of inquiry and inexhaustible ways of understanding how both he and we look at the media that surrounds our lives. All because he pointed a camera at a TV.