An Interview With a Man of Contradictions

When Jonas Mekas arrived in New York after years of war, Nazi labour camp and displaced persons’ camps, he felt that he had to make up for lost time and, with a sense of urgency, he dived into the New York art scene, in particular into the avant-garde film world. He has, in the past, described that period as ‘It was all here, now, new, fresh! I was 27 and I decided to remain 27. Because I had lost those ten formative years; they were taken away from me.’ The year was 1949 and only weeks after arriving, he had bought his first camera, a Bolex, and had started recording the world around him. A new life was within reach. Many years and many films later, he is still working, creating and fighting for the survival of independent cinema.

Recently there was an exhibition about the filmmaker at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Arts in Prague. Several shows have been organized in Europe in connection with Mekas’ 90th birthday late last year, including retrospectives at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, British Film Institute Southbank and the Serpentine Gallery in London. I caught up with the organizer of the exhibition in Prague, a long time friend and colleague of Mekas, Jaroslav Andel, who mentioned a few reasons why there have been a multitude of exhibitions about him this year: ‘He’s older, so that’s one reason. Another reason is that people realize that he’s an important figure. Few are like him.’

For more than half a century, Mekas has continuously been challenging our notions of cinema and storytelling, whether it is films from his early days like The Brig (1964), which won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, or his most recent work, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012). Andel believes that the secret to this remarkable longevity lies in the fact that he develops with the times: ‘He lives in the present. People get stuck in the past, things that they created and developed. Then they stop. It’s not easy for them to start from the beginning. But you have to do it, so that you don’t become a reproduction of yourself. He’s not repeating himself and he’s responding to the world. He’s part of it, he’s contributing.’ Mekas is not just a filmmaker, but also an accomplished poet, writer, critic, organiser and promoter, and as such, he wears many hats. In the early 1960s he founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and later the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. In 1969 he had a major part in setting up the Anthology Film Archives in New York, which is now one of the largest collections of avant-garde films in the world. Throughout all of this, he kept filming everything and everyone who crossed his path.

Mekas was born in the village of Semeniškiai, Lithuania in 1922. His involvement with the resistance movement during the Second World War forced him to escape the country as a young man but his journey was cut short when he was stopped in Germany. He spent the following eight months in a Nazi labour camp outside of Hamburg. After the war he lived in various displaced persons’ camps and from 1946-1948 he studied philosophy at the University of Mainz. In 1949 he reached New York where he has been living and working ever since. He is mostly known for his diaristic approach to cinema and his extensive body of work consists of many films which look more like moving collages focusing on various themes taken out of everyday life, than traditional movies as we know them. There is never a plot in the traditional sense, nor any pre designed narrative which pushes a particular idea or story. The scenes are often jumbled together in a haphazard way which one might say imitates the randomness of life.

A man of contradictions in many ways, Mekas’s vision is clear and still at odds with much of the commercial film world. His films are straight-forward and simple and yet difficult to grasp. The content most often consists of images of life around him, and in that sense the premise is local, and yet the films bear a sense of universality. What is more, his notions of the political and the beautiful, although expressed with conviction and passion, can be interpreted as being intangible and evasive. It is possible that these contradictions, in themselves, are what make Mekas as an artist, and his work, so interesting.

Labels versus Identity

Nowadays his reputation has reached such magnitudes that he is often referred to as the ‘Godfather of American avant-garde cinema’, a notion he finds to be absurd and dismisses completely. ‘In the first place, I am a filmmaker. That is the primary definition of what I do. I film. Secondly, I am an independent filmmaker. I am not working for anyone, I am in control of all aspects of my movies and videos. And if one wants to go into more detail, and ask what kind of movies I am making then my answer usually is that I am working in diaristic forms of cinema.’ Mekas has indeed championed the idea of the diary style of filmmaking as his body of work, for the most part is highly autobiographical. His films have not only been labeled as being avant-garde, but also ‘experimental’ and ‘underground’ to which he reacts as follows: ‘And, of course, I am absolutely not an ‘experimental’ filmmaker because I never experiment. And it’s even more absurd to refer to me as a ‘godfather’ of the ‘avant-garde’ cinema because there were several generations of ‘avant-garde’ filmmakers before I ever touched a camera,’ and adds ‘The ‘forefathers’ of ‘avant-garde’ cinema are clearly referred to and honoured in all film history books – Melies, Richter, Man Ray, Dulac, Leger Duchap, Deren, Epstein, Kirsanov, Cocteau etc. But what I do is not related to them. I am closer the brothers Lumière. I work with actual real life around me trying to record essential moments of humanity today.’ Mekas has been inspired by the documentary style of film making which is characteristic for much of early cinema and he even dedicated one of his most famous films Walden (1969) to the Lumière brothers.

Fame versus Obscurity

Mekas’s name is unavoidably linked to such iconic figures as Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Carl Jung, Nico and Patti Smith, just to mention a few. The reason is that his films have often shown glimpses of the lives of these individuals. In 1990 he released Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1990); two years later Scenes from the Life of Georg Maciunas (1992) was released and four years after that Happy Birthday to John, in reference to John Lennon. Furthermore, he recorded the first public performance of the Velvet Underground and took part in the making of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964). These are just a few of the projects that Mekas has completed and which have involved celebrities and yet he distances himself from the idea of having been directly inspired by these collaborations or that these individuals stand out more than any of the others depicted in his films. Rather, he seems to see them as just having been individuals who happened to be in his life as friends or acquaintances, and therefore part of his body of work. He states: ‘I have not worked with anyone in writing my poetry or making my movies. As far as ‘influence’ goes, I have been influenced by all the poets, painters, musicians, film-makers, dancers etc etc — of all periods and all countries and all genres. Also by most of the people I have known. And places I have been. Everything influences me.’

Private versus Public: Diaries of a time traveler

In some ways, Mekas’s style is close to documentary, as he aims to record his notion of reality and visions as truthfully as he can. At first glance his films seem incredibly personal. In one scene of Walden (1969), he does not shy away from showing the financial troubles he had at the time by filming lists made on how much is spent on different food items, and in other films he discusses loneliness and exile in a frank and direct way. He makes no claims on objectivity or any excuses for being at the centre of everything that he creates, either directly or indirectly. In some ways it can be argued that he and his friends and loved ones are his primary subjects. As for which film he finds to be most personal, he exclaims, ‘All my movies are equally personal.’ However on closer examination, the viewer may realize that Mekas never really gives anything away or strikes the viewer as being vulnerable. As the camera operator, director and editor, he is always in complete control of how he and the world are presented. Although often in frame, Mekas still maintains a strong sense of privacy and elusiveness. He seems to want to present something beyond his own flesh, as if he were a vessel through which lives and times are stored for posterity. He says, ‘Besides the immediate enjoyment while one sees them, there is a certain natural ‘value’ in much of what I record with my camera, as a testimonial of the period in which I live, for those who are interested in the past of humanity.’ Being an avant-garde filmmaker he certainly does not believe that a film needs a linear storyline and often dismisses traditional ideas of script. His intention is not to convey a specific idea or a predetermined notion. Instead, he seems to be a time traveller, connecting different eras, personalities and moments with a camera and creating little time capsules that look like fragments of a whole; which is ultimately never revealed to the viewer in its entirety. When asked who he makes films for, he answers: ‘Mainly for myself. But I share them with others,’ and on the topic of what he wishes audiences to take away from his films, he responds: ‘I have no such wishes. I only want my friends to enjoy my movies while they are seeing them.’ Over the years, he has filmed hundreds upon hundreds of glimpses into life; whether it is Andy Warhol on a beach, Jackie Kennedy smiling into the camera, his mother standing in front of their old house in Lithuania calmly observing him, or simply a cat pacing the room as the afternoon sun shines in through the windows.

The Old versus the New

Andel states: ‘The way he worked with the medium was for most people something that they under-appreciated. It looked amateurish, although as we know today it’s the opposite. It’s highly sophisticated in terms of rhythm and editing,’ and adds ‘the way he handled the medium is, in some ways, basically what would be developed in modern media much later; for example social media and Facebook – this kind of documenting every moment of every day.’ He pauses, as if in thought, before continuing with a sense of certainty: ‘But there’s still a difference because today this popular phenomenon is often criticized for being narcissistic but you don’t find that in Jonas’s work at all. It has to do with his notion of beauty and grasping the uniqueness of every moment of our lives visually.’

Although Mekas started shooting on film he has not stagnated technologically and he has made the switch to video. The first film that he shot on video was Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008). Although it was shot during the years 1989-1992 it was released only a few years ago. He has even praised video as being a means to record reality with greater authenticity. His ability to develop with the times was made quite evident when, in 2007, he started the 365 Day Project, where he recorded different aspects of his life every day and posted the footage online for 365 days.

The Political versus the Beautiful

Mekas has in the past referred to his work as being devoid of big political themes and yet it is hard to miss the presence of heavy themes, such as feelings of alienation and displacement in some of his films. In Lost Lost Lost (1976), the sense of loss and desperation is apparent. He has previously described the film as being a depiction of ‘the mood of a displaced person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one.’ However, the notion of hope and rebirth is never far away in his work and there is no trace of helplessness to be found in any of the scenes, just quiet observation and contemplation of the end of an era and the commencement of another one. In Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), he returns to Lithuania after a twenty-five year absence. The film is a soft and nostalgic, yet sober, depiction of his home, family and friends. A documentation of a time lost and temporarily regained. Andel wrote in a book about the Prague exhibition, that Mekas’s ‘compulsion to capture a moment in its authenticity and singularity…’ as springing from ‘…the loss and unreachability of one’s home resulting from the situation of the exile. Hence the search for a lost childhood paradise and the effort to regain it through art, which has the form of recording and distillation of rare glimpses of beauty, bound, bound to the fleeting nature of the moment, to its fragility and vulnerability.’

Despite Mekas’ experience of war, confinement, displacement and a life in exile, it seems that he has made a conscious and stern choice to stay away from heavy socio-political subjects in most of his films. However, he sees the matter in a different light and refers to his work as political when asked why: ‘Just the opposite! I consider that choosing beauty and small, almost invisible daily pleasures, is a political act! I chose Muses of Art as against Mars. I pose Beauty and Simplicity against all political parties that promote animosity among the people. I am choosing St. Francis and Santa Theresa, John Cage, Beat Generation, George Maciunas, Buckminster Fuller who improved our style of living, made our lives more beautiful, versus all political big names of the last 100 years, who only produced misery, suffering, horrors. My work is propaganda for Beauty and Happiness!’

Nothing is ever really explained in his films but somehow the viewer cannot reproach him for it, as he never aims to create a chronological historical account of political events on a general level. Maybe there is not even a need for explanation. Maybe the images themselves inspire the viewer to observe the beauty in the moments recorded, reminded of their transience and illusiveness, therefore making them ever more valuable. Mekas is merely recording his part in history, as a man with a camera, communicating with his friend, the viewer, through visual poetry and by doing so, suggesting that brutality is always trumped by beauty, however fleeting and fragile.