Lives & works in New York (United States) Very active in: 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, Current decade
By Kay S. Abaño
Remembering Jonas Mekas
I remember him… his eyes constantly squinting, looking down and around; he tells his story as if it were his very first chance to do so. His body carefully bobs back and forth as he waves his arms emphatically, as his memories continuously flow out from within.
Watching a Jonas Mekas interview is much like getting lost in the wonderful stories of that adventurous uncle who?s been through the world and back, and is fervent to share a piece of his wandering soul to those who are willing to open themselves to it. Listening to him answer simple questions is in itself a direct experience of creative and purposeful passion, where it seems one could take part in an earnest effort to get what is left of the past out of his being. As if to somehow free himself from possession by those memories that, despite his famously personal film diaries, have haunted him all this time.
It was Christmas Eve, 1922. Semeniskiai, Lithuania. In this quiet farming village in the center of the world, Jonas Mekas was born. And here he had lived, and learned to sing. As a young boy, he was constantly trying to sing out events in his home as they commonly do in their village. A custom much observed by his father, a Lithuanian tradition adored by the young Jonas. He sang about people and places around him, events that surrounded and affected him. And now he believes that his films are simply a continuation of this practice, a perfection of that storytelling done through recollection and song. Oh, sing Ulysses, sing. Talk about the places you have been, tell what you have seen.
I remember Jonas Mekas… he has that rare ability to not only represent life, but also capture it in its essence. After seeing his films, especially some of his earlier film diaries like Lost, Lost, Lost and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, one would come to believe that he has used the medium as a way of dealing with what he?s been through- a youth cut short, a dream denied, and a journey back home forbidden. But instead of the unhindered release and freedom one would expect to feel after seeing his films, the persistence of memory- his memory- infects his films with a profound intensity and hidden sorrow, which are heard and felt in his voice, in his poetry, in his longing glimpses on life around him. His works subtly but firmly plead for attention, and humbly ask his viewers to remember with him, and listen to what he?s got to say.
It was there in his hometown, in Semeniskiai, that young Jonas had started to become obsessed with books and poetry. He published his first collection at the age of 14, and by 17 had already been publishing an underground newsletter. By this time, the Germans had already been occupying Lithuania. So the news reports they had managed to gather from the radio and some poetry he had written were all published in secret. And only when his typewriter was stolen did they stop and decide to leave for Vienna. Go west, an uncle told them. Go west and discover the world. And so they did. But the German army would cut this journey short, and instead send Jonas and his brother to a forced labor camp in Elmshorn, a suburb of Hamburg. In 1945, they managed to escape the labor camp only to be detained near the Danish border. They hid in a farm for 2 months until the war finally ended. And it was then when they began living in a series of displaced persons camps.
It was there… it was there in those camps, where Jonas and his brother Adolfas first discovered the world of films. They went to see John Hustons The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which inspired them and created in them an interest in the medium. They also saw The Search by Fred Zinnemann (1948), a film about the lives of displaced persons, the very kind of life they were living at that moment. That inspired them aversely, making them quite angry, creating a need to correct that naive mistake Zinnemann had made in representing the exile. They then began writing their own scripts, and vowed to make their films soon as they could afford a camera. From then on, both Jonas and Adolfas would spend most of their lives making films. And all throughout, the original motive would remain the same- to protest against what cinema was, and to harness all the possibilities of the medium that lay ahead. With this conviction, the brothers finally moved to Williamsburg, New York on October 29, 1949.
Jonas Mekas Remembers
Yes, I was there. I recorded it, for others, for those who do not know the pain of the exile.
The chronicler. The keeper of memories. The Filmer. This is how Jonas Mekas sees himself, and this is exactly how he has come to be known in the world of cinema. His intentions were clear from the very first moment he arrived in New York, and as soon as he got his first Bolex he and his brother started recording life around them. They started filming whenever and wherever they could, using it to practice for the feature length and documentary films they were hoping to eventually make. Up until the 1960s, Jonas had not realized the value of the footages he had been gathering. In 1967, after being offered by Gerald O?Grady to exhibit some of his material at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, Jonas edited his frist diary film. This was called Diaries, Notes, Sketches, or simply Walden.
But Walden was only the first of a series of diary films that were to delve deeper and further into his past. Using an immediate and instinctive filming and editing style that was to be uniquely his, and with the poet in him ever present, these diary films are sung and celebrated rather than simply edited and narrated. This can be fully experienced in his next film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971?1972), an emotional journey from New York back to Lithuania after 25 years in exile. In this film, the audience has the privilege of accompanying Jonas back to his home, back to his mother, back to the fields and the water wells, and back to the road he once took to leave it. An experience that is both painful and sweet, we share Jonas? sheer joy in rediscovering his home, in remembering every seemingly trivial detail of it, and his quiet pain in having to leave once again. It is a touching experience that leaves the viewer reluctantly content as Jonas finally confronts his past.
Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) is yet another memoir, a look back to his first 10 years in New York. With this film, Jonas returns to the mid-60s, the early stages of his diary films, and compiles images of immigrant life in America from the eyes of an exile. A teacher and his students, a summer outing, street protests, and a Lithuanian wedding… I am trying to remember, a caption says. Another film imbued with hurting and longing, he speaks of the small countries, its people, and wonders what they could possibly do for their homeland. He stresses that he is there with his camera, to remember and record, for those who do not know the pain… It is a sentimental film in black and white, accompanied by music and Jonas? distinctly poetic narration.
With an equal amount of fervor and sensitivity in chronicling life around him, he?d also devoted himself to guarding over the art form that, to him, was not being protected enough. He began defending and promoting avant guarde films when he first started writing as a film critic for the Village Voice in 1958. As he was then in the midst of a very exciting moment in American film culture, he would later be inspired to create the movement called New American Cinema, with its proponents including Amos Vogel, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, and Gregory Markopoulos; and consequently, the New American Cinema Group would be formed in 1959, providing a new model for the distribution and exhibition of independent films. The collective then became the Film-makers? Cooperative in 1962, and soon after, similar groups came together in San Francisco (Canyon Cinema) and London (The London Co-op), based on this model. In his passion and enthusiasm for the medium and the transformation it was going through, he often declared the need for all films to be given a chance. Therefore, in both his writings and his initiatives in the film community, Jonas never failed to champion this intention. I had to pull out, to hold, to protect all the beautiful things that I saw happening in the cinema and that were either butchered or ignored by my colleague writers and by the public.
Inasmuch as his involvement in the defense of independent cinema saw great changes in its propagation in North America, his own creativity found its release. Jonas Mekas would move on to become a prolific filmmaker, writer, and poet, continuing his series of diary films with In Between (1978), Paradise Not Yet Lost (1979), and his major cinematic work in the 1980s He Stands Alone in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life (1985). And these are merely the tip of a long list of film and video works that would take him all the way to the new millennium, including a return to older footage meant to create a number of film elegies- Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol , Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas , Happy Birthday to John , and Birth of a Nation . It was also in the 1990s when Jonas began working with video. Some of these works include The Education of Sebastian or Egypt Regained (1992)/(1994), Scenes from Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit (1997), Letter from Nowhere- Laiskas is Niekur No. 1 (1997), and Laboratorium (1999).
He then began the new millennium with the epic As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), a very moving portrait of his family life. He continued editing old footage afterwards, including the Kennedy family portrait This Side of Paradise (1999), another Living Theater performance in Mysteries (1966-2001), Williamsburg, Brooklyn (1950-2003), and Mozart & Wein and Elvis (2000), a one-minute film commissioned by the Viennale Film Festival that uses footage taken of Jonas? mother 27 years earlier. Other notable video works during this period are: Autobiography of a Man Who Carried his Memory in his Eyes (2000), Notes on Andy?s Factory (1999), Remedy for Melancholy (2000), Ein Maerchen (2001), Notes on Utopia (2003), and Letter from Greenpoint (2004). He has also created installation pieces such as 2003?s Dedication to Leger- a room full of video footage that amounts to 24 hours when viewed linearly. He also created a sound diary installation at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2005, which featured sounds and voices heard during the 1960s.
The flow of ideas does not end there. Emerging from a creative parallel that is almost equally tireless and unabated are his written works. The majority of these come from the 1980s, including the translation and editing of his personal diaries, a couple volumes of poetry (Jonas published poetry throughout his life, mostly in Lithuanian), and a compilation of press notes from his screenings and Movie Journal column, which he had left in 1976.
Let's record the dying century and the birth of another man… Let's surround the earth with our cameras, hand in hand, lovingly; our camera is our third eye that will lead us out and through… Nothing should be left unshown or unseen, dirty or clean: Let us see and go further, out of the swamps and into the sun.
With this call to arms, the relentless Jonas leads the way in the proliferation of independent cinema. As an organizer and a film activist, the champion and protector of independent films. With this he clearly shows his faith and devotion to the art and the artists, and takes the movement further into the bright future. One fine example of his undying efforts is the Anthology Film Archives, founded in 1969 together with P. Adams Sitney and Jerome Hill. It opened as a film museum, screening space and library in 1970. A year later it gave birth to the Essential Cinema Project, a bold attempt by Jonas, Stan Brakhage, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, James Broughton, and P. Adams Sitney to establish a canon of important cinematic works. And after almost 40 years of determined efforts, mostly helmed by Jonas himself, the film archives has grown to include video programs, a new filmmakers series, and archival projects. One fine offspring of independent cinema's devoted midwife whom, both professionally and personally, never ceased to remember.
As this endeavor carries on, and as he conjures up more cinematic potions to allow and encourage us to sing out life as he does, he is inevitably taking us further into newer forms of filmmaking that demand as much commitment as it does love and remembrance. A simple lesson every filmmaker and film enthusiast could learn from Jonas Mekas' limitless field of ideas, and the very life he is living.
1- SENSES OF CINEMA: Interview with Jonas Mekas by Brian Frye
2- SENSES OF CINEMA: Jonas Mekas article by Genevieve Yu
3- Peoples Archive: Video Interview with Jonas Mekas