Is a film that is almost devoid of its main component still a film? I Had Nowhere to Go, a new project by Douglas Gordon that is screening at the New York Film Festival, only features a handful of images throughout its 97 minutes. The rest of the time the audience is staring at a black screen — at a few crucial moments it changes color, but for the most part you are enveloped in darkness. It’s a strange feeling. In the traditional darkness of a movie theater, the projected light focuses your attention, telling you where to look. The process is ritualized and familiar. In Gordon’s film, if we’re going to call it that, there is little visual instruction. We’re left to make our own film in our head.
Thankfully we have a guide. I Had Nowhere to Go is based on the eponymous diary by the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, first published in 1991, which details his experiences in both forced labor and displaced persons camps during World War II, and his eventual arrival and early experiences in New York City. Mekas’s disembodied voice narrates the entire film, reading sections from the diary unchronologically, with the occasional addition of sound effects to punctuate the more intense entries. We only see Mekas twice in the film, and the first time is at the very beginning: prodded by a voice off-screen, he begins with a story about the first image he remembers making. When a Russian officer saw him snap a photo, he came over, pulled the film out of the camera, and stomped it to pieces. “That was the beginning of my life in film,” Mekas wryly adds.
The inclusion of this story at the beginning is a playful nudge to the viewer, considering the absence of images we’re about to experience, but also provides the film with its conceptual framework. Does the fact that Mekas’s first image was destroyed make it any less powerful? Would a recreation somehow take something away? What complicates these questions is that Mekas has spent his life in film creating what are commonly referred to as diary films, such as Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches) (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971–72), and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976). Images are clearly important to him, and his obsessive documentation and presentation of his own life and those around him over the last 50-plus years seems to have its origins in the experience with which Gordon begins his film. The diary entries Mekas reads that date from after his arrival in America — about living cheaply in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or his lonely stories to coworkers about a girlfriend who didn’t exist — are more detailed yet less urgent than his descriptions of air raids and life in the displaced persons camps. When you intimately know the threat of memories disappearing, you become more attuned to the importance of capturing them so they can’t escape.
Gordon takes Mekas’s lost first image as the genesis of a new kind of cinema. Other ways of looking have always dominated his work, from the slowing down of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in the installation 24 Hour Psycho (1993), to multi-screen projections such as Through a Looking Glass (1999), which presents different variations of the same images from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) manipulated and reconfigured. I Had Nowhere to Go is the logical extension of these experiments — the only way left to look is at nothing at all. In his narration, Mekas also complicates our viewing experience, encouraging us to listen to his words as “fragments,” and, later, as “a letter from a homesick stranger,” before instructing us that we’re “welcome to read this as fiction.” Like in his films, what is present is less important that what is missing. Occasionally, an image appears in the film — a gorilla that stares at the camera, a pot of boiled potatoes — but they are abstracted, with no direct relation to what is being said. They exist to remind us of what is usually there before we are pulled back into the dark.
It’s also crucial that I Had Nowhere to Go is presented in a movie theater and not a gallery setting. As an installation, the project would take on a different, more fragmented dimension. You have the choice to walk in and out. In a movie theater you are trapped, so to speak, forced to experience the totality of what is being presented. And it’s clear that Gordon wants to hold the viewer in one place, wants them to look and listen for an extended period of time. We’re preconditioned as viewers to expect certain things when we sit down and stare at a screen—you allow yourself to be confused and accept mystery, or to be overwhelmed by emotion, because there is a clear path ahead. Gordon, by eliminating the light, has left us in the shadows to find our way.