I Had Nowhere to Go plays October 13 and 14 as part of the Explorations section of the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without US distribution (but will surely resurface at Anthology Film Archives). Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
To get it out of the way: I Had Nowhere to Go is a 108-minute film directed by video artist Douglas Gordon, consisting visually consisting of roughly 80% black screen, based on Jonas Mekas’s 1991 memoir. That said, expect no less from Gordon’s film than a substantial work of avant-garde design, rigorous as it is emotional. I Had Nowhere To Go‘s marriage of form and content (not to imply that they are separable) isn’t perfect, but does evince an empathetic and considered approach in giving Jonas Mekas’s diaries another artistic form and identity. It’s telling that the only moments in which we see Mekas’s own visage are at the relative beginning and end of the film, with the rest of the film’s images being sparsely parceled out over the running time of Gordon’s film, often seeming in disjunction with the audio itself. The cause for this method is perhaps given implicitly in the informal prologue relayed in the opening minutes (after the establishment of a tense, ambient soundscape), where Mekas tells how the first image he ever made with a camera was destroyed by a Russian military officer.
This suppression of art seems to be where Gordon takes the cue to plunge the film back into unyielding penumbra, and to rely on the sonic qualities of Mekas’s senescent voice to tell the fragmented personal history of the subject’s post-WWII transition from Lithuania to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These vocal qualities are rich and invaluable, inextricable from the experiences that yielded them (whether he’s retelling stories about wartime oppression or watching movies on 42nd St), and intimately familiar to anyone apprised of Mekas’s own cinematic work (or any habtiué of Anthology Film Archives). Gordon uses this familiarity to disorient those who would walk into I Had Nowhere To Go expectant of a talking-head documentary, and even those knowing Gordon’s reputation who wouldn’t. Mekas’s voice is supplemented and supplanted by (literal) aural bombardments, illustrating the harsh bellicose events being retold—already a departure for art associated with Mekas, the man who once said, to paraphrase of his own films: “I only film happiness.”
This is precisely what reveals a significant value of I Had Nowhere To Go and its scope as a document, its interest in a side of Jonas Mekas not often seen, a point that Gordon takes to its logical conclusion, and embodies in a work that borders on installation art. It is crucial to see the film in the theater, with robust surround sound, as it is primarily a dense audio composition, reliant on the ability of the “viewer” to be properly affected by its abrasive din, and of course, Mekas’s voice, which enunciates and exclaims the words it is reciting with riveting verve. Mekas designates himself as a filmer and not a filmmaker, simply taking images and placing them as he wishes; Gordon is also not a filmmaker, but his impulse is more determined, yielding a partially strained yet vital companion to the understanding of one of cinema history’s greatest figures—and certainly its greatest midwife.