“One who knows how to, as they say, ‘read’ the images, can tell everything about me.”
I first encountered film artist/curator Jonas Mekas through his columns for the Village Voice, which have since been anthologized and collected in a book-length compilation entitled Movie Journal (now unfortunately out of print). For a critic-hopeful who had been nursed on the mother’s milk of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, Mekas’ writing was bewilderingly brash; using pithy, staccato statements transcribed from audio recordings of vocal rants and testimonies, Mekas challenged contemporary trends with sharp defenses of “Underground Cinema,” a bi-coastal, independent film movement blossoming from various counterculture fragments such as the Beat Generation and Warhol’s Pop-Art School. Though Mekas would later apologize for his most daring displays of verbal effrontery (particularly his acidic take on Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and its many supporters), the book remains an essential historical document — a tour through the termitic underbelly of New York City’s arthouse scene as explored by a harried film distributor (as in the sections regarding the legally condemned “indecency” of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures) and unabashed avant-garde cheerleader.
Mekas was filming, too, throughout these years, and even earlier — he had been capturing his microcosm with Bolex footage since arriving in Brooklyn as a Lithuanian refugee in the early ’50s — and a handful of entries in Movie Journal recount the author’s experience shooting the fictional feature Guns of the Trees. But the most lasting of Mekas’ creative contributions to cinema history would be the development of the “diary-film,” a genre of movies that lack a cast, a crew, a script, or an agenda. Composed of perfunctorily shot natural events and encounters, diary films are rhythmic collages of personal observation, obsessed with the aestheticism of quotidian detail. And despite their apolitical structure, Mekas’ diary films are unmistakably ensconced in the radical zeitgeist of their production timeline, providing a poetically empirical glimpse at what it was like to be living in New York through some of its most fecund decades.
One of Mekas’ best diary films is his inaugural experiment with the genre, Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, also known as Walden, which compiles footage from the late ’60s. An illustrious potpourri of dissonant theoretical and technical influences — Mekas borrows a titular reverence of nature from Thoreau, a loving but playful spatial fixation from Stan Brakhage, and a spontaneous, free-form memoir voice from Allan Ginsberg — Walden is both a subtle sociopolitical statement and a magisterially arranged scrapbook of unforgettable images and sounds. Most of the major metropolitan icons, such as John Lennon and The Velvet Underground, make notable cameos, but the ebullient focal point is Mekas himself — watching, listening, and sharing.
After Walden was released on DVD by Microcinema in August of 2009, Mekas was prodded for some updated thoughts on his groundbreaking film.
JOSEPH JON LANTHIER: Were you involved at all in the new release of Walden?
JONAS MEKAS: No. I mean, it’s my movie, and that’s it, nothing else. It was all orchestrated and done in Paris by the company Re: Voir, and the distribution in the United States is done by Microcinema. Which I know really nothing about . . .
How did Walden come together?
It came up when the Albright Gallery in Buffalo was organizing an art festival. The organizers thought cinema should be represented besides music, theatre, and etc., and somebody suggested that I was the person. And I had been thinking about editing some of the footage that I shot during that period for a while, and this gave me the opportunity. [The Albright Gallery] paid all the post-production expenses. That was in ’68.
You’ve been interviewed before about the shooting process, but I’m curious why you decided to edit together footage from the late ’60s first, since you had been recording with your Bolex since arriving in Brooklyn in 1959. Why didn’t you make Lost Lost Lost first?
Because this was more up to date — what I was doing at that time. Lost Lost Lost was earlier material, and I was more interested in showing my current work from ’67 and ’68.
How did living in New York, in the ’60s, influence the form of your diary films?
That was my life! [laughs] It’s beyond influence!
But there seems to be something vaguely East Coast or New York about wanting to share the minutiae of your life with other people. I’m thinking specifically of the New England diary tradition.
I don’t know if sharing has anything to do with New York. I think that musicians, painters, performers — they just like to do and show. There are only some poets like Emily Dickinson, who wrote all her life without showing it to anybody. Otherwise, those who make films and paint want to exhibit their work — it’s a part of life. That’s normal.
It’s interesting that you use the phrase “those who make films,” because on a number of occasions you’ve asserted that you’re a filmer rather than a filmmaker.
Yes, because a filmmaker usually has a script, a producer . . . I have no script, no producer. I have no ideas. I just film, moment after moment, day after day. Nothing is planned. That’s very different from making a film, where you collect a team and have a script and actors and producers. That’s making a film. I’m not making a film. I’m just filming somebody in the street or . . . I don’t know, a flower, or whatever. That’s filming.
Do you consider your diary films part of the cinema vérité genre?
No. Cinema vérité was premeditated. In my case . . . there is no script, no notes, no premeditation. I just film and film and film. And then I splice scenes together. But with cinema vérité there was always a theme. Like Leacock’s The Chair, which was shot from a very humanistic point of view. There was always some reason for making the film. I have no reason. And [The Chair] is more realistic than Hollywood, than staged cinema, but the subject matter is still . . . well, they approach it the same way, almost in a Hollywood way.
But your films are almost surrealistic.
I would argue that there is no “surrealism” in my works. Surrealism was a style in a specific time period. But my films are not surrealistic, no. They’re more like poetic vignettes. And yet they are real life, with nothing staged and nothing imposed.
You’ve also said before that your diary films are more influenced by music than by cinema, which I think in particular applies to Walden.
Not that it’s influenced, but it has more resemblance to music, because I work with rhythm. It’s more similarity than influence.
But then it also reminds me of painting quite a bit, due to the way that you use space . . .
Yes, there is that, too. There are some people who say it is like dancing! Dancers also use rhythm. All arts are related in a number of ways. You cannot separate one from the other. Essentially somewhere in the center they differ, but at their peripheries all art forms connect with each other.
. . and then there are segments in Walden, like “Notes on the Circus,” that seem to be a combination of all art forms at once.
Yes . . . it’s a very condensed segment.
Why did you borrow the title of your first diary film from Thoreau?
I have a preoccupation with nature, and due to that I feel very close to Thoreau. I grew up in nature. Even in New York I’m always in Central Park. I see the trees, and I see the snow. There is very little snow in New York, but there’s a lot of snow in my New York films! [laughs]
Some have made the point, though, that there’s a stronger connection between underground cinema and Emerson. Walden strikes me as a very Emersonian film in that there’s a link between existence and the act of seeing.
Yes, very much so. Since I’m obsessed with seeing and recording what I see, that’s my life. One could say that I’m a voyeur, but I’m not a voyeur — I’m a gazer. I only want to look and record. A voyeur is someone who looks and sees something he or she is not supposed to see — it’s something forbidden. I’m looking at all the things that people see every day — nothing forbidden, everything is open. I’m just looking and admiring and getting excited about it.
When you’re filming, do you see the camera an extension of your consciousness?
Not so much an extension of my consciousness as an extension of my fingers! Like when a jazz musician plays a saxophone — the instrument is an extension of the fingers. And fingers are transmitters — extensions of your mind, your heart, your whole body and everything that you are. That’s what my camera becomes.
That’s interesting, because even when you’re not in your films the audience can feel your presence quite strongly.
Yes, through the way I’m filming and what I’m filming. One who knows how to, as they say, “read” the images, can tell everything about me.
One of the main paradoxes of Walden is that you keep repeating, almost like a mantra, that you’re happy, and simply celebrating what you see. And yet there’s a sharp sense of longing for Lithuania, which you had been exiled from.
I cannot separate my memories of Lithuania from who I am now or what I’m doing. Well, they’re fading now, but they were still very strong when I was making Walden. What you get into yourself during the first ten years or so, that’s what forms you and affects and defines you for the rest of your life. I grew up on a farm in Lithuania, then I wound up in a forced labor camp, then in New York — that’s not a normal development. Those memories are like the boosters that push the rockets into space. [They] fall off, and then the rocket flies. But those boosters — Lithuania, European culture, the early years in New York — while they’re falling off, I’m flying somewhere else.
Why did you feel the need to announce that you were content and happy in Walden?
I’m just that kind of person! I like to sing. Presently I’m singing at Zebulon, a French bistro in Brooklyn, with a group called Now We Are Here. I’m just a happy person. [laughs]
In another interview you stated that Walden was a direct reaction to Godard and that it was, in its way, a political film. Do you still feel that way about it?[laughs] That was a rather provocative statement. Godard, and some other artists in France at that time, were very political in the sense that they sided with political parties. To me, real politics are those that have nothing to do with political systems or parties. You know, Sartre and his buddies sided with communists and socialists. But my politics are like those of the Beat Generation, or even hippies, the Woodstock Generation, or artists like Buckminster Fuller, John Cage. They changed society without politics, in a completely different way. They changed the style of living — the way people lived and behaved — with no violence, and no political parties. I would say that they changed this country more than any politician.
And, you know, what’s happening now in the sciences, and the arts, and on the Internet, and discussions about saving the planet and solar energy — it doesn’t come from political parties! So that’s my critique of Godard.
That stance seems very much a part of one of my favorite of your films,Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR. You tackle a very political subject in a meta-personal and apolitical fashion.
Yes, it was very personal. I filmed [the news reports] not planning to make a film out of it. I just wanted a record of what was developing there. I’m from Lithuania, of course, so I was concerned. I videotape a lot and I never know whether I’ll use it for something someday or not. [But then] two years ago I looked at the footage again and thought “I should share this with others . . . people have forgotten how it all happened.” When they saw it in Eastern Europe and in Lithuania, when they saw it . . . many things that I show in the film were new to them because their information at that time came from Moscow. Moscow was controlling the television. So this was all news to them.
It’s a part of history, like a textbook almost. In Lithuania now they’re using this film as a textbook. They’re distributing it to schools and colleges for free, as a teaching tool.
That’s great. I also recently saw Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania . . .
Yes! It’s been blown up, though, to horrible 35mm prints!
The version I saw was taken from a VHS, so it looked pretty bad. But there was an interview from the ’80s tacked on to the end that was fascinating. At one point someone asked you to explain the creative process and you replied by saying “Well, God created us and sometimes I don’t know what he was thinking.”
Do you remember saying that?[laughs] Not exactly, no.
In what sense do you believe in God?
I believe that we are more than the flesh, that we are infinite, and that we don’t know much about what we are. I believe, really, in the soul, and in the unknown — I wouldn’t call it God. In India they don’t call it God. I’m more in agreement with Sufis in India and Taoists in Japan. Before Christianity took hold, by force, Lithuania was pantheist. I’m pantheist in a way: I believe I’m part of nature, with all the animals and trees and everything.
And your films are a way of celebrating that.
Yes! I still film a lot, every day. I’m editing now, a new cycle called 1,001 Nights. After the 365 Days project [on JonasMekas.com] I thought, what else can you do after 365 days but 1,001 nights? I’m not so sure what I’ll do with it — it will probably be released as a film in installments, and then maybe I’ll also put it on the Internet. But I’ve finished only 14 of the 1,001, and they already make up 75 minutes!
Despite the popularity of your diary films, you’re known here in the states these days primarily as a curator. Do you find running Anthology Film Archives more rewarding than shooting and editing home movies?
I do very little of curating at Anthology these days. I have a very capable team of young people running it. As for what’s more rewarding, everything I do, I do because I like to do it. So everything that I do is rewarding to me. I don’t do anything that I don’t like.
That’s a very positive philosophy.
Not positive, just down to earth and realistic. Why should I spend my time on something that I don’t like?
I think a lot of people lack the courage to do the same thing, though.
Why? Because there is money. And when there is money, people will do anything — what they like or what they don’t like. But since nobody pays me, I do only what I like! [laughs]