Jonas Mekas: reflections on avant-garde cinema

Jonas Mekas photographed by Benn Northover

Lithuanian-born American filmmaker, poet and curator Jonas Mekas died peacefully on the morning of 23 January, a month after his 96th birthday. He was born in 1922, on Christmas eve.

Mekas arrived in New York City with his brother Adolfas in 1949, where he bought his first Bolex camera with borrowed money. In 1954 both brothers started the Film Culture magazine and in 1958 Jonas began his Movie Journal column for The Village Voice.

In 1962 he founded the Film-makers’ Cooperative, while the following year his film The Brig was honoured with the Grand Prize (Documentary) award at the Venice Film Festival. In 1964, he initiated the Film-makers’ Cinematheque, later named the Anthology Film Archives, his powerful legacy for it is one of the best-known archives today of avant-garde cinema.

Jonas Mekas made more than 65 films, compiled from thousands of hours of footage, including a number of his signature diary films, including Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), showing his adjustment to a life in exile in New York. His thoughts on the “rich potential of art” in cinema have distinguished him as a major champion and promoter of avant-garde film. He has also written around 20 books of poetry.

In the fall of 2012 Mekas visited London when I caught up with him to reflect on avant-garde cinema, identity and film preservation. It was on the eve of a two-month BFI tribute to his work curated by Mark Webber – Brief Glimpses of Beauty: The Films of Jonas Mekas – and an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery with the title Jonas Mekas: Survey of a cinematic lyricist.

Following a long-stretched email communication, the interview was sadly left unpublished and forgotten. So to bid farewell to this gentleman, I looked back into our thread and interview feedback notes to bring this sweet memory of our meeting in Kensington Gardens to life. The meeting’s liveliness on that sunny morning in October six years ago is captured and carved on my memory forever. Farewell Jonas Mekas.

What is your greatest challenge as filmmaker?

My greatest challenge is to get to the essence of the situation and not destroy it. Try to record it, to take it, film it in such a way that when I project it, the mood, the atmosphere of that situation is still there. And that is not easy, I’ve discovered. You have to choose the right moment and do it, catch it. How, I cannot tell you. It’s something to feel because it’s invisible but could also be visible. As I participate and I am part of the scenes in my films, like in Sleepless Nights Stories (2011), it becomes more complicated.

Sleepless Nights Stories (2011)

Marie Menken, the painter and filmmaker, is celebrated in Sleepless Nights Stories by raising a glass of wine and performing a wonderful Lithuanian song with your friends. Were her films an inspiration to you?

When I saw her work in 1961-62, I saw that somebody else was concerned with similar things and was going in a similar direction. Marie Menken had been working in that direction for quite some time, doing it quite well. What I saw was that somebody else was interested in spontaneity. So that meant I was ok: somebody else was working in the same direction.

Is identity important in your work?

There is me, there is the camera and there is love each way for film. What I am, I am. And my concern is that the situation dictates. I love to write all day – except when I sleep [Laughter]. So the situation is there all the time. But I choose to film only certain situations. Now why that situation and not any other? I want to film that situation and whatever provokes it. That is memories, the total me, what I am, the past that connects. It’s memories of when I was seven and when I was 14, they all come together and I react when something happens in front of me. That is a totality in myself.

Left to right: P. Adams Sitney, Jonas Mekas and Peter Kubelka inside the Invisible Cinema theatre

As the founder of one of the most important and perhaps the first repositories of avant-garde cinema, can you explain the role of the archive?

In my case it came from necessity, like everything else I do. When we created the Film-makers’ Cinematheque (later Anthology Film Archives), preservation and archiving was not part of it. It was formed in order to create a record of real cinema and show it again and again. But we wanted to have the best possible prints to screen and we had to locate where the originals were to enable us to produce the best possible new prints.

Then we realised that very few knew where the originals were. We had no choice but to go into film preservation and create the appropriate temperature and controlled conditions and save all that had deteriorated.

When we started the work in the 1970s, films made in colour in the 1940s and 1950s were ok but were reaching the end of their life expectancy, so we intervened just in time with a very intense film preservation programme to rescue those films from the early American avant-garde that were about to disappear.

There was very little money for preservation so we had to choose which ones were the most endangered and there was a lot of detective work trying to check every film.

Jonas Mekas with his Bolex camera

How did the art gallery come to supplement the cinema for screenings of artists’ films?

Independent cinemas are gradually disappearing, so filmmakers began to look for alternative spaces. In the gallery you could experiment with film presentation. You could screen a film straight through one single projection, but you could also have multiple screens and do something else. That’s how installation art developed. There’s no separation between film and video art. Cinema for me is one big tree with different branches that change. The novel, for example, is a main branch and then different writers come in, so there are changes within that one branch.

Similarly, in film there are different branches that come in – video art and taping – but they are still the art of the moving image. Technologically, taping with video cameras or producing work through computers is like painting using oil or watercolours. These are different varieties but still they’re part of what is called painting, part of what are called moving images. For the galleries, the variety of moving images is part of their remit, no matter how or where they were made, and what form they take. There is so much variety, something we’ve enjoyed since we first began to trace video art in the 1960s.

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