Jonas Mekas: In Conversation

Joans Mekas. Photo: Julian Vigo.

Mid December 2012, I was lucky enough to meet up with Jonas Mekas at the Serpentine Gallery in London. We sat down for a talk that I have never managed to transcribe or work on until now. And this fact has has niggled at me for many years. To be fair, I was heavily pregnant when we undertook this interview and the world was as tumultuous as my new residence in the UK as a scholar-filmmaker making inroads within a country whose class system was only faintly inscribed upon me through PBS and Dickens. The New York where I first met Mekas over twenty years earlier when I was barely an adult seemed a much more hospitable environment for a struggling filmmaker. Yet, it was here in London’s Hyde Park where I would finally sit down with the very person whose work as a filmmaker I long admired and whose pioneering of the Anthology Film Archives in New York’s East Village helped to buttress my film education. For me, the entire meeting seemed upside-down relative time given that I had seen Jonas over the years as a graduate student in New York City from the late 1980s and then later teaching at NYU and CUNY. In fact, along with NYU’s Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media, Theater 80 St. Marks, the Thalia and Thalia Soho, Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre, the Film Forum, and the MoMA’s Film Library, the Anthology Film Archives was a standard locus of my film education.

So, when I think of Mekas’ amazing film center, I can’t help but remember all the amazing films that hit my soul: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) and the amazing works of Shirley Clarke, Joseph Cornell, Maya Deren, among many other independent artists whose work would otherwise have fallen into obscurity. The Anthology Film Archives was this place for me to see cinema which represented the production of film that I was making—film made on a shoestring and far from Hollywood budgets and whose subjects tended towards class conflict, economic struggle, and political justice, themes far from the interest of most commercial productions.

Realized in 1970 by filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage, Anthology Film Archives was conceived to be a showcase for the “Essential Cinema Repertory collection” within its larger manifesto of film as art. The Archives’ Essential Cinema collection was “intended to encourage the study of the medium’s masterworks as works of art rather than disposable entertainment, making Anthology the first museum devoted to film as an art form.” Although the Essential Cinema project was never completed, it still serves as an excellent overview of cinema history with the Anthology Film Archives continuing its mission to screen cinema and offer avenues for new filmmakers to highlight their creations.

So when Jonas Mekas and I sat down to discuss the 2012-2013 Serpentine exhibition of his work, “Jonas Mekas: Survey of a Cinematic Lyricist,” we started in real life. Again, I was massively pregnant and just before meeting with Mekas, someone from the Serpentine had given me a plate of food which I was more than happy to devour.

Mekas: Don’t just sit and talk you know—you have something to eat. That’s the French part of friendship and spending time together.

Vigo: Do you think that we’re losing that part of our culture today?

Mekas: Yes, absolutely.

Vigo: Why do you think that is?

Mekas: Our civilization is not promoting human relationships and the conditions are not there anymore for not our being together. Our mechanical-industrial civilization is not the same as rural or older society when there was no television, no computers. Now, all that new technology takes our attention all the time, everywhere. Well, I mean human relationships which are still the most important thing that there is on this planet.

Vigo: True, but many people perceive cinema as a form of media as they would perceive, let’s say Facebook and Twitter. Yet, I view Facebook as a way of removing us from the social, creating a “false social” where people can talk with their thumbs superficially, but people don’t get together anymore. They talk about getting together, they talk about eating together, but they don’t really do it, as our society moves towards, I don’t know what end. Given this paradox of media today, how do you view new media in light of the the kind of media you create? Do you think there’s any kind of interplay between these two spaces of the real and the representational?

Mekas: Well, technology is still moving. I think we are both caught in civilization and within a technology of which we have lost control. Like we want to perfect more and more and more and more, which creates more technology, more dependence on technology. And then to continue to develop it, we must destroy the planet more and more. So I think at this point I think we are going towards a dead end, the way I see it. It’s strange that, we had an election in states and you know, nobody discussed these issues. Everybody think that everything is the economy, the economy. What will happen to that economy? They are talking about plans for 20 years, 30 years ahead. You know, all the crisis 10 years ahead, but that, they forget that in 10 years we may run out of water, we may run out of water and that the oceans will be higher and there will be completely different problems and different needs. The economy may become a secondary matter. Nobody discussed this during the election. It’s strange.

Vigo: Well was the secondary candidates, the independent candidates did, but they were sidelined by the media. In fact, neither main candidates discussed the people protesting, the Wall Street, you know, protestors who’ve been there for a year, which I found very interesting. Did you make it down to the protests this past year?

Mekas: Yes, you can see some pictures on my, website. I don’t know if you can look up on my website.

Vigo: Thank you. I will check that out then. I was very impressed by the pieces I saw downstairs, especially beginning with the photos of you as a young man. Sitting in front of the train with a hat with other people. It was very beautiful. And here we are, that was 1947?

Mekas: Yes. Interestingly from ‘46, ‘47 and ‘45.

Vigo: And how, how did you make your way over to New York?

Mekas: I was brought here by United Nations refugee organization and then dropped into New York. Yes. From just five years being in a displaced person camp after the war. I did not go to America by my own choice. I would have gone somewhere else probably. I was just dropped here luckily. I was to dropped to NewYork at a very good time just the beginning of huge changes in all of the arts and the excitement moving into the beat generation and then John Cage and then all the art happenings, theater and music and everything began changing by ‘55. And I was there in the middle of it. So I’m very happy that I was dropped in New York.

Vigo: As well as John Cage’s music and Merce Cunningham’s new dance company. So, how did you discover making cinema? Or rather, how did you find yourself amidst this culture of so many different artistic expressions?

Mekas: The cinema was also going through changes. And so, I found that many young people are ready where we’re trying to develop different kind of forms of cinema. They were not happy, not satisfied with the narrative, commercial simple-minded productions that they were going into different directions. So, they were influenced by other movements in the literature and arts like the trees, the more abstract expression is more “action painting.” These changes also affected the cinema. All art moved forward like into different and more open areas in all of the arts you want. In dance, you had Rainer. I arrived when a certain kind of classic period had ended and the dance of Martha Graham and Balanchine. It was great, but this was like a final statement on all of those developments in all of those arts, and then new ones were coming in. So that chapter was closed. I came at the end of one and the beginning of another. I came to New York.

Vigo: From Lithuania to New York—by boat?

Mekas: Yes, by the Army with 3,000 others.

Vigo: And you had brothers there as well? Did they stay back in Lithuania?

Mekas: I had five brothers: one brother came over and he ended up at Bard College. And he stayed there for twenty-five years where he created a film department and he ran it until he retired.

Vigo: So when I see your early images of the streets of Brooklyn from when you first arrived, what prompted you to film this? What brought you to the cinema?

Mekas: No clear answer can be given why one does in any of the arts, why one begins to dance or sing or do whatever. One gesture moves slowly—it’s not suddenly, slowly. At some point, you discover you are in the middle of it and you don’t even know how it all started. Especially in my case because I saw my first movies only when I was 15. There were no cinemas, no radio, no television, in my childhood. There were only songs. We sang our songs, that’s all.

Vigo: What are the films that you first saw that impressed you?

Mekas: Uh, nothing really impressed me until I came to New York. I did not see anything really that was any. I saw some movies that the American army brought over—just cheap, second rate, westerns. No masterpieces of cinema, no classics.

Vigo: And, when you got to New York?

Mekas: Well New York it was every day and every night classic film programs in the Museum of Modern Art. There were several film societies showing non-commercial, avant-garde cinema, classic cinema from the 20s, 30s and the new avant-garde that was emerging. New York was very alive.

Vigo: Your films seem to be influenced by, not a formalized documentary style, but there is an essence of a post-cinéma vérité in much of what you are filming at this time.

Mekas: Of course, the cinema back then. There were the documentaries which scripted cinema in the ’30s to the ’40s. Then cinéma vérité tried to avoid scripts but it was still guided by preconceived ideas even if there was no script—they went in to real life, but with certain ideas and what they want from it to pick up to show on television usually. And that is continuing today. Cinema techniques are used on television, uh, life drama and docu-dramas. It is a little bit scripted but some of is that much scripted. [laughing] And I began like this That’s all I knew, that’s all I had seen. But I had seen it in Hollywood, I had seen it right on a documentary like a British documentary was classic cinema for me until I came to New York and realized that are other possibilities—that cinema is a big tree with many other branches. Some of them are tiny and I met people, young people with cameras trying to develop those branches. Many windows suddenly opened with this thing called cinema. And that’s where I left the documentary and I transcended cinéma vérité and went into my own kind of dualistic personnel cinema.

Vigo: Well, the “Dumpling Party” installation, which I watched last week. You notice that’s the Andy Warhol, obviously John and Yoko. Were you documenting a moment?

Mekas: No, it was my camera was part of the moment. John had just bought his Polaroid camera. He was taking Polaroids and I was as always, you know, I was snapping and then some other people took my camera and they took pictures of me. It was part of life. That’s what life today consists of—not only of us but we told the things around us and cameras are an inseparable part of life. Today, it’s now telephones. Yes. And whatever is on the table, you can drink and eat and take pictures. It’s part of this style of life.

Vigo: So the modern day still life has to include the camera next to the fruit?

Mekas: Almost, yes. It’s part of it too. Yes, it’s very much.

Vigo: I notice also in many of the films I saw downstairs, I could pick out who is your family because I could see your child and the many images from the late seventies. When I went finally to see this latest project of yours, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, I was struck by how these are outtakes, but they are also condensed parts of your life that became on their own a new work.

Mekas: They somehow did not fit into other finished films, or similar takes or shorts that I did not want to have much of the same. So I put it on the shelf. But now I decided for this occasion to do something to stream them all together.

Vigo: And it’s more than just a stream, I mean..

Mekas: Well, I put that stream together. Of course, you work for a year…

Vigo: But it’s a very beautiful collection because you get a sense of not you so much as what you have seen. I mean, yes, one could say that we see pieces of you through the film, but you have seen, many years and we are shared this vision.

Mekas: Also, it’s not just myself because the film in itself is reality and fiction at the same time. You make film and you then share it with others.

Vigo: Well it’s quite a beautiful piece. I was very impressed by the nuances and there’s a certain sweetness that comes out as well as in the outtakes from Allen Ginsberg’s death that you filmed. And I was curious about that because also, I’ve taught this film to my students at NYU and many of the students didn’t even know who Allen Ginsberg is, of course. So you’re teaching them well, giving them a piece of history. But what was really beautiful about that film was just the way you utilize the camera to be a presence and to be an observer in this very sacred moment.

Mekas: Yes, one moment could be sort of invisible camera initially. Again, it’s invisible becomes invisible, but itself invisible but sees everything.

Vigo: And has that experience from filming, let’s say Allen Ginsberg’s death experience, did that also change the way you perceive filmmaking in any sense?

Mekas: No. Well, I mean, I applied what I knew, to that occasion.

Vigo: Have there been any moments in your career that have radically changed the way you think about film making?

Mekas: No. There were important works, but they only confirmed my direction of filmmaking. So people like Marie Menken and her casual kind of filming is just one example.

Vigo: I moved to New York in 1988, and one of the first places I went to see the cinema was Anthology. Also, the then Saint Mark’s movie house, and the Thalia Soho. These were the three places I would go to sort have my own “university of cinema” and create knowledge for myself. And one thing that struck me always about the Anthology Film Archives was, of course, the fact that it challenged the limits on commercial cinema, that commercial cinema necessarily imposes. I spent one Christmas back in ‘88 watching Butterfield eight at the Saint Mark’s theater and I got to see Pasolini on your screens and it was very rare to be able to see Pasolini screened anywhere. So, I looked towards anthology is a place to be able to go in and discover a different nuance in cinema. But today, is that possible outside of these kinds of constructions such as Anthology Film Archives?

Mekas: There are very rarely a few places. Lincoln Center is beginning to open more and more. It was very narrow and very restricted until like a couple of years ago, but now the new generation is taking over. The New York Film Festival and the Film Society as well. And then they are opening it to some today younger cinema from around the world that would have been impossible 10 to 15 years ago. The presentation of Peter Kubelka’s work this Fall is a unique example.

Vigo: Where do you see cinema going with changing technologies?

Mekas: It will continue. They have not settled down on any one technology—they keep changing every two to three years. So we are in transition, and I have no idea where it will end. All I know is that the video cassettes that I want to use some of the footage from the 1990s, I have great difficulty in transferring them to new formats without distorting, destroying it. Then the video art of the seventies of which collections from several of all the video artists we had at anthology, it cost us a lot to try to preserve and to transfer to contemporary and current formats so that they could be seen. And it keeps changing, it’s going to keep changing.

Vigo: Right. I noticed your camera, in fact. It’s a cassette—

Mekas: Yes, they are not making this camera anymore. I got it on eBay. And when this one goes, I will have to switch to a different camera. Because one can get a camera on eBay.

Vigo: When I walked into the gallery last week, you were there with the camera filming around. I seem to always see you with cameras in your hands. Yet, there is an aspect of your work that has always appealed to me as much as your images—that of your connection to music in your films. How did this evolve?

Mekas: Some of my involvement with music is just by chance, circumstance. Some are big project just like the music like I mentioned before. Where I come from, we always have the fields, so whatever we did, we always had music. Back in New York it actually began with Sandra when I met Sandra in Chicago and when he wanted to give a performance in New York. I was running Charles Theater on Avenue B on 12th Street. I gave him midnight performances at the Charles Theater which were Sandra’s first performances in New York. Then later, when I had space and a filmmakers’ cinematheque, many of these events took place on Wooster Street in Soho, then on 41st Street in Times Square with the likes of George Maciunas and the Fluxus. Even Phil Glass when he came back from India gave his first performance in these spaces. Then Lou Reed and his gang needed space to practice in the cinematheque and the same with Ornette Coleman. With all of these musicians we had a working relationship.

Vigo: So you were able to use the venues in multiple ways. Of course, there’s the growing industry now of music and image. I mean both in mainstream cinema and then also in more avant-garde approaches to cinema. In the recent years we have seen how cinema departments have exploded, with departments adding specialities such as “writing music for cinema” programs. So, on the one hand, cinema within academia became very business oriented with the professionalization of this field, and on the other hand—

Mekas: —the cinema itself exploded.

Vigo: Exactly.

Mekas: In ‘65 I could say that I know absolutely every filmmaker in the United States and even though in England and France. Five years later I really think that would be absurd. It was impossible to talk to about American avant-garde film—we had to talk about black cinema, native American cinema, Asian-American cinema, gays cinema, lesbians cinema, etc. [laughing] And it branched out. And then the new technologies video and all. Now it’s like the dream of Cocteau came true and you know. So cinema you will be able to write poems and camera still becomes like a pencil.

Vigo: Exactly. When I was watching To London with Love (2012), I was standing next to a couple, they were in their late sixties, early seventies, and they said, “Oh, there we are.” And they are pointing to themselves in your video and they knew you when you came here to London back in the early seventies to make this film. And they were the ones that organize the film festival that you were at. And I was thinking about this, because years ago there were very few specialized film festivals and now we have so many—Asian-American film festivals, Gay and Lesbian, etc. But aren’t all of these facets of identity somehow over slides, overworked in the sense? Like when I see your film or should I say like going back to Allen Ginsburg’s funeral, there we have a wonderful cinema—it’s gay, lesbian, it’s straight it’s the village, it’s, you know, the nineties. It’s a bit of everything and we don’t, maybe we’re too affixed to these names, these identities, you know? And when does, when do you stop to become a Lithuanian filmmaker or New York filmmaker or both? And then, you know, these identities that we’ve sewn ourselves into seem to mean very little…

Mekas: I think it’s disappearing. I think now it’s more like just a filmmaker or an international or just a movie maker, video maker. That’s it. It is disappearing, it’s at a point where those divisions, why nationality within the sort of family of artists, filmmakers, dancers–it’s still those who are writing but then it is more difficult because of their language barriers. But otherwise, these divisions are disappearing. The same as everything else have legalized what we eat, how we dressed, how we this, how we that. The reaction, like for now we have in Japan, the reaction against the westernization of of Japan. But I think it’s too late that you cannot go back because the problems become universal. The problems will be of food, of water, of air, of ocean. They are no more local, all the disasters, all of their problems, tsunamis, are no more just Japan or Philippines or somewhere, we have a tsunami here in New York practically in the East Coast. So everything and nothing can be just local anymore.

Vigo: It’s true. I mean we are living in maybe cinemas that are an equalizer of all language, you know, that transgresses ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

Mekas: I think that’s what brought me partially I think into cinema because nobody, I could not communicate in Lithuanian. If I wrote my poetry in Lithuania and nobody would, I wrote it because I was still in Lithuania, but I could not communicate with anybody else while with my images could.

Vigo: Right. Tell me about your jacket. When I look at your jacket, it looks like a factory.

Mekas: It’s a French workers Provence jacket.

Vigo: Exactly. I was thinking of a Renault factory worker jacket.

Mekas: Yes, yes. French workers. I’m a worker.

Vigo: Okay. So is this a statement on the proletariat then?

Mekas: I guess like it. But I am against the deal or concept of a “worker.” I do work, I make films. When I was on a farm, what we did in this spring had to be done that spring and what had to be done in the summer was done in the summer. But we were not workers. Workers is a modern invention and I detested because they do only for money, they work for money and they will do anything for money. You know I always give examples, they told us that the torture instruments that were used in the Soviet Union by KGB were made by workers. See, so again, I’m against it. Once, I wrote an Anti-Workers Manifesto. I think you can see it maybe on my website. And I was very much attacked for it. I’m still against workers.

Vigo: So if we’re not workers then, what are we?

Mekas: One has to do what has to be done and has to love. Same as…you know that’s why we have also this system of retiring. “You know you haven’t retired yet?” If you do something that you don’t like, of course, you are anxious to get tired. If you do make what you love, you don’t worry, you cannot retire.

Vigo: Yes. [laughing]

Mekas: So all these workers and they have systems of what happens, you know when you retire at the age of 65, 63.

Vigo: I hear you. I agree. I think retirement is cruel. It puts people in the category of an old racehorse that needs to be taken out. In the West, we do live in a very categorical way. Many people believe that you do this at this age, you should have this done by that age and you don’t have your 401k plan? Oh, no! The obsession with savings accounts and preparing for the future. Worrying about the future has is the new war mentality.

Mekas: Exactly. I got married when I was 52 or 53 when many of my contemporaries were retiring.  And you know, my concept of living is different—I got measured by this civilization.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: