Sleepless Nights Stories (2011)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Essay Film  |   Release Date - Dec 15, 2011 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 114 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Avant-garde pioneer Jonas Mekas shot the magnificent, offbeat documentary collage Sleepless Nights Stories amid bouts of listless insomnia -- a period when he had moved into a Brooklyn flat and found himself up nights, DV camera in hand, with a desire to "wander." As such, the opus strings together various self-contained sketches of the artist interacting with friends at locales around the world. As per Mekas's elite social circle, a number of these pals are iconic personalities -- including Yoko Ono, Harmony Korine, Louis Garrel, Bjork, Patti Smith, and others. The writer/director edits unrelated segments back-to-back as a series of themed sequences, introduced with whimsical intertitles that impart structure to the material.

On the surface, this form might suggest a cinematized version of the kind of stitched-together literary autobiographies that first became a fad about ten years ago, such as Richard Kostelanetz's One Million Words of Book Notes -- a rifle through the odds-and-sods contents of the back drawer in the creator's bedroom closet. In lesser hands, it could easily have become such. But Mekas achieves results with a consistency that attests to his decades-long mastery of the form -- grounded in a keen instinct for what will most effectively capture audience interest. There are enormous and endless pleasures to be had here -- from a segment of the artist himself singing an impromptu Lithuanian tune before a band, to a poignant reflection by a young immigrant woman still reeling from the loss of her lover. And on still another level, the entire film offers up a treasure trove of small cultural gems, delivered sans context, which demonstrates an incredible level of respect for the audience's intelligence -- in the sense that Mekas never feels the need to expostulate on the background of his subjects. For example, we get a beautiful first-person assessment by the director of the fringe avant-garde helmer Marie Menken, and a touching sequence featuring director Korine and his new wife Rachel, both before and immediately after the parentage of their first child. There is also, not incidentally, a lovely monologue about singer Amy Winehouse, shot just prior to the chanteuse's death.

The form itself is rough and at times crudely shot, though it scarcely matters -- one senses that Mekas has pared away the gloss and boiled the nature of the self-reflexive documentary itself down to its very essence. As such, this is a film to savor, a rare home movie of almost complete captivation.