Jonas Mekas’ The Brig
Jonas Mekas’ The Brig is a fake documentary about ten confined soldiers in a U.S. Navy ship and the three guards who beat and humiliate them. After the title of the film, "The Brig", the next title is “March 7, 1957 - U.S. Marine Corps – Camp Fuji, Japan – 4:30” Then Mekas goes on showing the daily lives of the soldiers, which consists of beatings, degradations, unnecessary cleanings and senseless rituals. The audience is expected to constantly question the reality of what is on the screen while being moved by the illusion.
In an ordinary Hollywood film, the audience takes it for granted that the work is an illusion and in an ordinary documentary the filmmaker makes it obvious that people in front of the camera are real and that they are not acting. These methods help the audience situate itself in relation to the work. In The Brig, Mekas never explains whether he shot the film on location in a U.S. Navy ship or not. On one hand, the events and the way they are improvised make everything seem real. The lighting and the brig itself are particularly realistic and Mekas’ camera that seems to react to circumstances magnifies that effect. On the other hand, it seems impossible that he would be allowed to shoot all that brutality. Moreover, the people do not seem to notice that there is a camera in the room, which is impossible under the circumstances. It is only at the very end, in the credits, that a title explains that the film was actually written by someone and acted by the performers of the Living Theater.
As audience members, we are not only supposed to question The Brig but also to experience it. For example, the fact that we are never allowed to see anywhere outside the room, along with the facts that the walls or people are always too close to the camera and that the lighting is dim creates a very claustrophobic environment. The sounds are also depicted realistically as if we hear what the person shooting the film hears. For example there are many scenes where we watch an isolated incident but also hear all the other things that are happening in the room (i.e. people shouting, someone being beaten, etc.) Moreover, as I mentioned before, the camera seems to react to events, as if Mekas does not know what is going to happen and when (which seems to be a reasonable assumption). There are many shots where we expect the guard to hit the prisoner, so we focus on his stomach and the camera does the same (guard sometimes hits him sometimes not). In other shots, we hear something from outside the frame, so we want to see what is happening on the other side and the camera turns to that side. We know that somewhere in the world, right now, a similar thing is happening and watching sixty-eight minutes of plausible and realistic degradation makes the already claustrophobic experience almost unbearable.
Near the end of The Brig, the camera pulls back and the whole room seems like a stage. The light goes down, it is the end of the day and the prisoners are allowed to sleep. Like them, we are free from the painful experience. The credits explaining that it was all just an illusion add to our comfort. However, the ambiguity of the whole experience created by Mekas’ decision to not let his audience know the reality from the very beginning still remains in our minds. Being so much moved by an experience despite the fact that it might not be real is obviously absurd but that is exactly what happens every time we see a film. Mekas accomplishes to call attention to this fact in a very powerful way.
- An interview with Jonas Mekas on the Senses of Cinema web site
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