Bizzarri-Rodriguez on its design for Jonas Mekas’ monumental project before his death
The Paris-based design discuss the significance of the legendary director’s work and how they translated his ideals through design.
- Jyni Ong
- 1 May 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
A few months before legendary filmmaker Jonas Mekas passed away at the beginning of 2019, he had an idea for a new book. Back in 1990, the director – otherwise known as the godfather of American avant-garde cinema – witnessed the collapse of his native Lithuania over newscasts and TV footage from the US. It was March 1990, and Lithuania became the first of three Baltic states to declare independence from the Soviet Union, initiating its eventual collapse. Across the Atlantic, in his newfound home in New York, Mekas took hold of his video camera and filmed the various news stories around the collapse from 1989 to 1991.
In a unique documentation of how America perceived the crumble of its enemy, The Soviet Union, Mekas created a five-hour-long film, detailing this historic perspective. Now, in a new book published by Humboldt Books, edited by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi and beautifully designed by the Paris-based design studio Bizzarri-Rodriguez, Transcript 04 44’ 14”: Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR compiles a full transcript of the monumental film. Touching on the key political events, figures, and opinions of those pivotal days, Mekas saw the events as a Greek tragedy of sorts, where the destinies of several nations are changed by imaginable developments along the way.
“The long movie had this peculiarity of being cut-up like America TV news fragments,” explains Thomas Bizzari, co-founder of the independent design studio. In turn, the design plays on these snippets, layering the talking heads of newsreaders in a staggered frame-by-frame replay. Before co-founders Thomas and Alain started work on the project, they were familiar with Mekas’ work but not with this particular film. “He had a really clear, personal and strong intention with this book which was a lot about his personal life and his roots,” Thomas says of the project, “Jonas chose all the stills that appear in the spreads following a process that he’d defined.”
As he saw the film like a play, where the will of one small nation strives determinedly to regain freedom, Thomas and Alain considered this rationale throughout their design. Politicians and journalists replaced heroes and gods, while background sounds in the footage became stage directions. “We kept classical theatre books in mind,” says Alain on the book’s design, “and we wanted to call out these graphic codes with a contemporary interpretation.” It was also imperative to show the true nature of where the footage came from.
Shot in the early 90s when technology was still analogue, Bizzarri-Rodriguez maintained the “low res grainy texture” of the images, almost blue-grey in its appearance. It informed many subsequent design choices for the book. The designers chose an almost-coarse rough paper for example; grainy with a grey tint just like the images. The aim was to ensure a smooth transition from the screen to print, and with a huge amount of carefully considered choices, it’s a feat pulled off by the spacious yet emphatic design.
When Jonas sadly passed, most of the decisions for the book were well underway. But it didn’t stop Thomas and Alain questioning whether their final choices were the right ones. “It would have been such a privilege to gather around the book with him and know his feelings about it now it is published,” continues Thomas. Wherever they could however, the designers conveyed the rhythm and feeling of the original film into print. With copious amounts of editing and re-edition, the two founders transcribed a huge amount of minute visual gestures into text to be read.
“Mekas said that, to make a film, what a director usually does is write a script, and turn what’s on paper into pictures,” says Alain. “But in this particular case (and with most of Mekas’ projects), he didn’t write a script. He just filmed a lot of footage and several years later, compiled it into a movie. So in a way, it was like working backwards.” Asking themselves which images best represent a film which is almost five hours long, the thoroughness of this distillation proved a mighty task. On top of this, Alain and Thomas were eager to reproduce the “cut-up aesthetic” that Mekas is well known for, not to mention the flow of characters and voices that weave against one another in the original.
“These kinds of questions were our main concerns for the design,” says Thomas, “and it naturally drove the design.” Additionally, another significant aspect of the publication is its bilingual texts in both English and Lithuanian. A crucial document detailing a paramount part of Lithuania’s history, it made sense for the book to communicate in its language. But beyond that, the transcript speaks volumes on much more than the past, revealing stories of struggle and independence that are equally relevant today. Mekas’ work asks us what is freedom, how are the media and television used; topics which are as contemporary as ever today. “There are moments of freedom in it too,” adds Alain, who finally goes on to say: “To use the editor’s words: ‘This book is a tribute to independence. To friendship. To Jonas.’ We just hope our design will help readers to capture this.”
GalleryBizzarri-Rodriguez: Transcript 04 44’ 14”: Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.