Jonas Mekas, 1998
A lifetime of cutting-edge filmmaking
Exhibit pays tribute to Anthology Film founder
By Jerry Tallmer
When the Germans came to the Mekas farmhouse in the Lithuanian village of Semeniskiai in 1944, Jonas Mekas, as he puts it today, went out the window and into the potato field. The last thing he glimpsed behind him was his father up against the wall, a German gun pressed into his back.
You do not forget an experience like that. Knowing my father had that gun in his back, and I, face down in the potato field, all in bloom, white blossoms everywhere. I still remember the intensity of every smell and every color of that moment, says the Jonas Mekas of 61 years later.
He was 21 at the time. Had he any remote idea, back there, back then, of someday shooting all of life his life and various others through a movie camera?
No. Absolutely no. But if he had had a movie camera, what next ensued that day might have made a good short comedy in the vein of Rene Clair.
The Germans saw that my father was just a farmer, so they let him go, but they made him get his horse and wagon to take them to the next village. When the Germans stopped and went to look for food, my father unhitched the horse and rode away.
As Jonas tells this story his hands are moving, moving, this way, that way, like a director framing a scene.
Which he denies.
In reality, the founder of the Film-Makers Cooperative, the Filmmakers Cinematheque, and the Anthology Film Archives in short, one of the worlds most indispensable film people told Paris cineaste and art-museum chief Jerome Sans four years ago, all my film work is one long film which is still continuing. I dont really make films. I only keep filming. I am a filmer and not a film-maker. And I am not a film director because I direct nothing. I just keep filming.
A pretty good representative chunk of that lifetime of obsessive filming is now on exhibit through April 21 at the forward-looking Maya Stendhal Gallery on West 20th Street, almost at the Hudson River. The grouping in several rooms of seven landmark Mekas film (and/or video) works short (1 minute), long (78 minutes), and longer (24 hours) is titled Fragments of Paradise, and why not?
A print of the shortest the two shortest, actually, welded together, Mozart & Wien and Elvis, one-minute-plus each has just been bought by an Italian museum for $8,500, the first money of that size Jonas has surely seen in all his 82 years.
It is to help me survive, he says. I was broke. So broke that a year ago, after 30 years residence at Broadway and Broome Street in SoHo, he sold that place and moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn where, in fact, he is now quite happily starting all over again. The 78-minute Letters From Greenpoint is affirmation of the same.
I watched Elvis the other day: A deliberately flickering herky-jerky distillation of white-suited Elvis Presley in his last-ever concert in Madison Square Garden in 1972, it is wonderfully wedded on soundtrack, not to Hound Dog or Jailhouse Rock or any such, but to a molasses-smooth Blue Danube waltz.
The herky-jerk results from the stop-start stop-start of the Mekas finger on the camera that night in the Garden. The resultant one-minute-plus represents absolutely everything I got as Elvis sang and gyrated. I thought it funny ironic to put the Blue Danube behind it, some cheap version of the Blue Danube. And then, when the Vienna Film Festival of 2001 asked me for something to open with, I remembered this thing sitting there on the shelf and I thought, ah, maybe that will do.
Another short, the 4 1/2-minute For Maya: Father and Daughter, a video populated by two cats, led one to inquire whether the Maya for whom it was made was Maya Deren, Americas first and greatest avant-garde filmmaker and a woman both Jonas and I have been in love with all the years since her death in 1961.
The cats are my own cats, Rumple, the father, and Shiva, the daughter, and no, says Jonas, thats not Maya Deren but Maya Stendhal, a very special, very dedicated gallerieste, like Julian Levy or Jolas in the old days. There are not many like her.
Maya Deren, in fact, would require tigers, yes?
That we cannot escape, said Jonas.
Jonas Mekas was born on Christmas Eve, 1922. Not too many people know that he is also one of Lithuanias greatest poets. Nor that he is a survivor of 10 months in a forced-labor camp at Elmshorn, Germany, a suburb of Hamburg actually a war prisoners camp, where I was in with French and Italian POWs. That was followed by more months in DP camps at Kassel and Weisbaden.
In Lithuania he had already been a member of a little theater group, and in Heidelberg he bought, by chance, a book on the theory of cinema he cant remember the title that got me very excited about the possibilities.
Had he seen very many movies by then?
Only what the U.S. Army sent the troops. And then, after the war, there was in Germany, among all those ruined buildings, a neo-realist movement something like what was happening in Italy.
You must have seen German classics like The Blue Angel and all that?
Oh no, no. The best Id seen were Hustons Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Chaplins The Good Rush. They excited me. His windmilling hands convey the excitement. But then I went to study at the University of Mainz, where Guttenberg came from, and this was in the French zone [of occupied Germany], so I could see Cocteaus Beauty and the Beast. Then it was emptiness until I came to New York.
That was in 1948, and by accident.
Already my brother Adolfas [three years younger, today a professor of film at Bard College] and I had written several scripts. Our dream was to go to Israel to start a film industry heres a new country that can use a film industry. But because Jonas and Adolfas Mekas were not and are not Jewish, they were not in that year permitted entry to Israel.
Then we went to the consulate of Egypt. We thought: If we can get into Egypt we can walk to Israel. But again we were turned down. Then we signed up on a ship to go from France to Sydney, Australia, and in that time, while we were waiting, someone signed papers for us to go to Chicago. All right, well go to Chicago. The UN put us on an Army ship with 2,000 other refugees.
I dont consider myself an immigrant, Jonas Mekas says with emphasis (in an English that has never in all these years fully or even halfway emerged from its Lithuanian cocoon). I was brought here and dropped here by the United Nations.
The first thing he did, wandering around the city, was rent a Bolex movie camera. A month later, having found some sort of gainful employment, he bought that instrument. Bolex became the love of my life. Its a very good, very precise camera.
He went everywhere with it, it went everywhere with him, not least to the demonstrations and civil strife of the 1950s and 60s. I can remember being at a demonstration in Washington Square or City Hall Park of refusal to take shelter during one of those idiotic, insane atom-bomb drills, and suddenly discovering Jonas Mekas up in a tree, clinging to the tree with one hand, his Bolex pointed down to shoot the crowd, including me, in the other.
In 1954 he became editor-in-chief of Film Culture, a highly informative, highly readable journal of, well, film culture, and in 1957 when, according to me, I called this unknown editor/writer up with an invitation, or, according to him, he called in to ask why The Voice didnt have a regular film column, I said: Why dont you do it? and thats how his weekly Movie Journal started in The Village Voice.
It was not a column of reviews. It was a column of Mekas, brash, intelligent, opinionated, and wholly against the stream any predominating stream. Some one or two years later a hue and cry arose from a number of readers against Jonas and to his defense, in a typically brilliant riposte, sprang none other than Maya Deren.
In 1961 Jonas and Adolfas created the full-length poetic-symbolic Guns of the Trees, and in 1962, when the feds busted Judith Malina and Julian Becks Living Theater, Jonas took Bolex in hand to sneak past the gendarmes and shoot a bootleg full-length Living Theater movie of Kenneth Browns ferocious Marine Corps drama The Brig.
But that was long ago, Jonas will tell you and many people dont know my work of the past 20 years at all. Here, they dont know. But in Europe, they know. And that is why the exhibit at the Maya Stendhal Gallery is important. Now they can see what else I am doing.
This, in fact, is a very big, very busy year for Jonas Mekas. This month a five-minute video, Farewell to SoHo, opened at the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art. On April 1 an exhibit of some of his papers and film prints opens at the Colton Gallery in Austin, Texas.
In June Im representing Lithuania at the Venice Biennale of art, not film. They couldnt find any Lithuanians, so they came to me. In September the Lyon Biennale will show my work, and in late September a complete retrospective of all my films opens in Rome. Hes also in the throes of creating a video Opera Epileptic Buto, starring dancer Virginie Marchand and 90-something-year-old Buto performer Kaguo Ohno.
And with it all, there continues his deep immersion every day in the heartbeat activities of his Anthology Film Archives salvation, restoration, safe storage, and a vast ongoing schedule of programming of every sort of non-mainstream film in the big old brown-brick Anthology building, once a city jail, at Second Avenue and 2nd Street. Ive just come from a meeting there, he says. To raise money to build another building on top of the building, to give us a library and a restaurant.
In 1987, after all those years with a Bolex, Jonas bought himself a Sony video camera a simple Hi-8 non-digital camera. He brings it forth, points it at his interviewer, hands it over for inspection. Under the lens I see the inscription: 990 X Digital Zoom. Whats that mean, Jonas?
I dont know and I dont care.
The longest piece of work in the Stendhal exhibit is a Dedication to Fernand Leger, so phrased because Leger once wrote that he dreamed of making a film that would cover an unbroken 24 hours in the life of a family, any family.
Jonas goes him one better. He has spent years, video camera in hand, casually recording the lives of himself and everyone around him, including his family, his children, gorgeous Oona, now 30, an actress on the West Coast, and Sebastian, 22, very deep in Chinese studies and the local cinema scene at the University of Beijing.
At the Stendhal, this version of Legers dream becomes an installation of 12 TV monitors, each running two hours of whatever Mekas shot under the title As I Was Moving Around, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty for a total of 24 hours.
Jonas, have you ever sat down and added up all those minutes of all those films and videos youve made, and come up with the total?
No. Someday I will do it. Someone once said that all the books by Faulkner are one novel if you put them all together. The same with my movies.
I am a camera indeed.