New York

‘I’m Like the Last Leaf of a Big Tree’: A Conversation With Jonas Mekas

He was the Voice’s first film critic and a revolutionary figure in independent cinema. Now 94, he's still making movies, publishing books, and has big plans for Anthology Film Archives.

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“You were here before the beginning, and you’re still here, after the end.” I’m paraphrasing Citizen Kane, but the line seems apt for my conversation with Jonas Mekas — the 94-year-old filmmaker, artist, critic, poet, photographer, cinema owner, and all-around underground impresario who transformed film criticism, filmmaking, and exhibition throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Born in Lithuania, Mekas first came to New York in 1949 as a refugee; he had been imprisoned by the Nazis, then found himself stateless after the Soviets invaded. Plunging himself into the underground film scene, he became the Village Voice’s first full-time film critic in 1958, and continued to write his “Movie Journal” column until 1975, fervently championing independent and experimental cinema. (Before that, he had co-founded Film Culture magazine, where Andrew Sarris, later also a Voice film critic, published his crucially influential essay on the auteur theory.)

Mekas didn’t just write about movies. He made them, he showed them, and it would be fair to say he lived them. Much of his prolific cinematic output was built around footage of his everyday life. (Start with his masterpieces — Walden, from 1969; Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, from 1972; Lost, Lost, Lost, from 1975; and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Glimpses of Beauty, from 2000. The first three are available online on Fandor.) By founding the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in the 1960s, he made it possible for underground filmmakers to bypass traditional distribution schemes. The Cinematheque eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives, which continues to be one of New York’s essential screening venues.

But the past tense doesn’t fit Mekas. He still makes films; he still writes, teaches, programs, and champions. This man who worked with Andy Warhol and John Lennon and Lou Reed and Maya Deren might be the least nostalgic person I’ve ever encountered. And he remains more excited than discouraged by what he sees in the world — even when he’s perplexed by it.

There’s a hilarious story in your new book A Dance With Fred Astaire, about the first issue of Film Culture and some Franciscan monks.

I had no money, but we felt there was a need for a publication on cinema. We had to do it. And we also believed that maybe it [would] sell enough to pay the bill for the first issue. So, we persuaded these Franciscan monks who had a printing shop on Willoughby Street in Brooklyn to print it, and we would pay them back in a month or two after the magazine came out. But there were no sales. And the monks sued us! We said, “Monks, you people of God, how can you do that to us?” But they took us to court, and you know where the court was? It is the present home of Anthology Film Archives. Corner of Second Avenue and 2nd Street, which was the local courthouse. And I still have that summons. [Laughs] When that courthouse closed, we purchased it and it became Anthology Film Archives. It’s a courthouse in which Jacob Javits worked, in which Harvey Keitel had his first job, as a court stenographer. When we had the premiere of Ulysses’ Gaze, Keitel walks into Anthology and he panics. I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “These bad memories. I worked here as a courthouse stenographer. It was horrible. The most horrible job I ever had!”

How did you first start writing for the Village Voice?

It was a new, young paper, and a lot was happening. There was already a lot of coverage of what was going on in poetry readings, galleries, presented freshly with new sensibilities, but there was no coverage of cinema. And of course theater was already covered by Jerry Tallmer. I asked Jerry, “Why don’t you cover cinema?” I was already publishing Film Culture, so I was very much involved in the whole movie scene — not Hollywood, but independent. He said, “Oh, we have nobody here, you want to do it?” I said, “Sure, I will do it.” This was in late ’58, but a lot was already happening in France — the nouvelle vague was already moving in. I tried to deal with all the aspects for two or three years. Then I said, “This is too much. Too much is happening.”

Is that when you brought in Andrew Sarris?

He was studying journalism at Columbia University. His closest friend was Eugene Archer. When the first issue of Film Culture came out, one of the teachers, Roger Tilton, who was also a filmmaker, said, “Oh, you must need more writers. I have two guys. One has just demolished Eisenstein’s Potemkin, and the other just demolished Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” I said, “I want them!” And that was Eugene Archer and Andrew Sarris. They became part of Film Culture. That was in ’54, ’55. So in 1960, when I needed to bring in somebody to help me, I immediately talked to Andrew Sarris.

When you were working as a critic, were you able to make a living at it?

Not for a number of years. I think I got four dollars or something a week. By 1965, 1967, I think I got a hundred and some. It still wasn’t very much, but I could pay the rent. But writing about films was a necessity. It had to be done. It’s not for money. Film Culture, from the beginning to the end, nobody was paid.

So many of us today think of the 1950s and ’60s as a period when one could make art and still survive in New York, but reading your pieces from that time, it’s clear that it was a real struggle, for writers and artists and filmmakers. People like Ron Rice were starving to death.

Yes, yes. No filmmaker survived, including me, from the work. Even [Stan] Brakhage, when he was alive. Most of the filmmakers were teaching somewhere. I worked as a cameraman in Graphics Studios. It’s a photo studio where we did the international edition of Life magazine. I did still-camera work.

What I love about reading your reviews from the sixties is that, even though you and Sarris were friends and colleagues, you weren’t afraid to call him out in your reviews.
 
Yeah, because we argued every evening, beginning with our first meeting. [Laughs]
 
When people talk about that period of film criticism, they usually divide the world into Pauline Kael vs. Sarris. But you presented a third alternative, advocating not just for certain films and filmmakers, but for a specific form and distribution system of filmmaking.
 
I bypassed, so to speak, yes. Like what we did in other areas. The creation of the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, we created an alternative possibility for showing films, and we bypassed all the commercial outlets and networks and created our own. The same with the creation of Film Culture magazine, or Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, or Anthology Film Archives now. I keep repeating this, but the cinema, like any other art, is like a big tree with many, many branches. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but all of them are important, and the smallest ones sometimes are more important than the big ones — because they catch the light, the sun, they feed the big lump of the tree. So the function of Anthology Film Archives, as it was that of the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, is to help and protect those little branches of the big tree.

As you know, the print edition of the Village Voice is ending.

Yes. No big surprise, knowing how many other publications are [doing so]. It’s the new normal. Because the Voice already had changed. I think that the biggest changes began when Clay Felker took over [in 1974].…

Is that when you left?

A year or two later. I never attended the editorial meetings, but Andrew Sarris went. He liked to have his say. And he said that at every meeting, whenever Felker would say, “What do we need this ‘Movie Journal’ for? Who is interested in this independent cinema?” Sarris would defend it. At some point, I said, “I don’t want you to defend me. I will just say goodbye.” And there were other reasons.

Because you were becoming more involved in Anthology?

Very involved. In fundraising, trying to fix the building. And in ’77 there were several other publications writing about the independent cinema. I was not the only one anymore. I also think that a reviewer’s responsibility in whatever area they work should be to see everything. And I could not do that. Anthology needed me too much.

When you first started Anthology Film Archives, did you think it would be a quick process?

I thought it would be faster. Anthology originally opened at The Public Theater, on 425 Lafayette. But when our main sponsor, Jerome Hill, died two years later, the contract was not extended. So we moved to 80 Wooster St. Our library was growing, the film collection was growing, the filmmakers were dying – we ended up with collections from estates. I had to look for a bigger space, and then noticed that this building was still there, a shell, because everything was ripped out — every piece of metal. For $50,000 I bought that building. But we needed money to fix it. Thanks to Agnes Martin, we had the beginning monies to start working. Then came Black Monday, and the markets crashed. It took years, but we re-opened to the public in late ‘88 and beginning of ‘89. Ten years.

Tell me about the expansions you’re now planning for Anthology.

Don’t call it an “expansion.” It’s a completion. We opened in unfinished form, because a library was always in the plans, and a café was always in the plans. I wanted to make it like a complete museum. We have accumulated so much documentation, paper materials, books. The basement is loaded with boxes, and in storage we have boxes and boxes of materials that must be displayed and made available to all the many students and scholars, researchers coming. Books, publications, periodicals, photographs, documentation on individual filmmakers, film societies. It goes back to the ’40s.

In the original plans that the architect Raimund Abraham designed, the library and café were there. [But after ten years] I got tired of raising money. So I said, “Why don’t we open just as we are, and we’ll do everything later.” But now that future, that “later,” is now. The budget is $12 million. We have about half of it. We had an art auction; we raised $2 million in March. Maja Hoffmann matched it with $2 million; her pledge is to match up to $3 million. And we have applied to the New York State Council in Albany for $2 million. Now we need the film industry to come and help us. Where are they? They want to use us, but they don’t want to help us. Most of the support is coming from the artists, but where are the commercial filmmakers? After all, I’m building the library of cinema, and it’s not only for the avant-garde.

The commercial cinema borrows from the avant-garde all the time, yet they rarely support the avant-garde.

Not that they borrow. The so-called avant-garde expands technology and the language of cinema, which then becomes part of the vocabulary in general. Digital would not exist if there had not been home movies, and an interest in 16 and 8mm, interest [in the idea] that cinema would become part of everybody’s home daily life. That necessity, that interest, that desire eventually led to these changing technologies. Hollywood did not need 8mm or 16mm or digital; they just wanted everybody to go to their big movies. Digital came from the home movie, from the independents, from the personal cinema. Now digital technology is being used to make money again.

As a filmmaker, how did you develop your style of single-frame exposure, or undercranking the Bolex?

I used it, but you can find it already in the ’20s, the accelerations. In the area for non-narrative cinema it came very much through Robert Breer, and Marie Menken, and Peter Kubelka — the single individual frame as the basis of cinema. I just discovered that the Bolex camera is very suitable for single framing and changing exposure, underexposing, overexposing, speeding up. But it was already part of the cinematic language. I did not invent it.

It helped me to condense reality, and to put my feeling of the moment into what I was filming. I compare it with somebody who plays a musical instrument, like saxophone. Your feelings translate into your fingers and how you play it. The same with a movie and my Bolex. My temperament I put into it, guided by the many possibilities — to speed up, to overexpose, the single frame — all connected directly with my feelings. Same with a painter and brush — which way you move the brush, what you do, you do it all with no thinking. Because you cannot think, “Now I will go right, now left.” No, you have to have mastered your instrument well enough that you do it with no thinking.

You’ve always called yourself a “filmer” instead of a filmmaker.

Yes, because to be a filmmaker you have to have a purpose, an idea of what film you want to make. And I have no ideas and no purpose. I’m just filming. I never know what I’m going to film.

Do you feel like the image is losing its power at all today?

The images are there; maybe our attitudes are different. The reasons why some images don’t work, maybe they’re overused. OK, we had Malevich and that was 105 years ago, and when you go to museums, galleries, you still see Malevich, de Kooning, or Pollock, or a few others. It’s variations, variations, and so of course by repetition it loses meaning until somebody comes with something really fresh.

Or something shocking. I was thinking of the refugee situation — for example, the photograph of the young Kurdish boy washed up on shore in Turkey, which seized the world’s attention.

There have been many, many other images. Of course, it’s a very sad and dramatic image. In the world we have so much cruelty that we have become immune to certain aspects of cruelty and sadness and misery — we don’t react to it until something like that sums it up in a much more intense, condensed manner. Certain images sum up certain situations — like, you know, the guy with the flower in front of the tank.

People who are there, they go through it. But to us, it’s, you know, a newspaper headline. And maybe that’s good in a way, because otherwise we would be all trembling and end up in mental hospitals, thinking all the time about how the bombs are falling. I knew a young woman once who was so concerned with what was happening in the Vietnam War that she began imagining that she heard the bombs explode in Vietnam. And from that sensitivity, she ended up in an insane asylum. At the same time, of course we have to be concerned and we have to know about it, and help how we can.

As a displaced person, as a refugee at the end of World War II, you were in the middle of some of these tragedies.

I went through it, so I know. I can imagine what they are going through, though in a different way. And it’s worse than what we went through after the Second World War, because we had the United Nations. We had UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration]. They fed us, they took care of all the displaced-person camps, and they would come with the trucks and planes and deliver food, and nobody stopped them. You cannot do that today. Now, it’s a very tragic and sad situation.

In Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, you say you still feel like a displaced person.

I was still very much at the time. It was ’71.

Do you still feel that way?

No, no, I’m completely somewhere else. I was somewhere else already when I visited Lithuania. I was looking back, remembering. There were some people at the time who were asking me, “Where do you come from?” So I told them: “OK, I will show you some details of my life, of where I come from, and what was still left.” Because in ’71, Lithuania was already very much incorporated in the Soviet Union on every level, but there were leftovers of the previous centuries and decades — and that’s what I filmed, with some glimpses of what was there now.

Did your experiences as a displaced person feed your desire to film everything, to chronicle all the details of your life and the people you came across?

Already from my childhood, I was recording life around me. When I could not write, I used to make drawings. When I learned to write, I began writing down. And when the camera became available, I began taking still pictures. And when I could buy a movie camera, I began filming. Of course, when I was six and seven, I was still in Lithuania, and it was nice and peaceful, and neither Germans nor Soviets were there, but the need was there already. So I was not displaced. I was there, roaming and happy and very much rooted in that reality. Same as I’m rooted now here. I have no interest in the past. I’m only concerned with the present moment, with what’s happening. The past, I would like to wipe it all out. All the horrors that the world is going through today because of the memory of the past. All their nationalisms, all their religious fanaticisms are from those memories.

But your films are often about memory.

No! No! No! My films are about the present moment. You cannot film a memory. But yeah, how I film is affected by what I am made of — from the moment when I was born, I was made by every moment, every second I lived, and already even generations before were in me already. Otherwise, how would I learn to speak or anything? So, I’m like a last leaf of a big, big tree that goes, you know, centuries and centuries back. So that whatever I do and say, how I film, is affected by what I am. But what I film is now — not a second before, not a second that will come, but what is now, the present moment. And that is not memory.

Your new book A Dance With Fred Astaire is a little like a memoir.

One could say it’s an autobiography in the form of anecdotes, or part of an autobiography — just a fragment of my life. I have met a lot of people in my life. But the relationship was always a working relationship. I’m not one who admires somebody and wants to meet them. I’m too busy. If you look through the book, there are so many big, well-known people, and one then thinks, “Oh, that’s name-dropping.” No, these are all people I was working with. My life somewhere touched their lives or their lives touched my life. Today you meet on a website, not in cafés. And maybe the number of communities now is much wider. OK, we had in the ’60s, like one hundred filmmakers. Now we have ten thousand, or millions. So, the communities were not so big back then.

We recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico. You were there back then, with Lou Reed and Warhol and Nico, and so many others, helping come up with all these crazy ideas, like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of give-and-take today?

It takes the emergence of certain personalities during certain periods, and around those personalities there is energy that is created like a heart of the hurricane. And then, you know, of course there was Warhol. But we don’t have such hurricane hearts within Manhattan now. I don’t see it. I’m not putting it down, but I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Is there another world that I am kept somehow out? [Laughs] Sometimes I’m dreaming that I’m missing something because I have no access to that world. The Velvet Underground attracted those who were 17 and those who were 27 and those who were 37. They all flocked. There was one platform — one. Now, maybe there are several. The digital age, I still don’t have full understanding of how it all works. And I don’t think we have, any of us.

But you see, one thing that sort of keeps…not bothering me, but coming into my mind, is that we should not look at this situation as good or bad. That’s just what it is. It’s easier to say, “It’s bad.” But it’s maybe good that we have this period, because then it will jump into something else.

You never seem discouraged by this stuff.

I think it’s just chaos between transitions, between some basic technologies. OK, technology has gone ahead of us. We are not ready for it in our minds. Humanity is lagging behind technology. I hope that we will somehow catch up.

But that’s of course why the politicians are able to manipulate humanity and our impulses. When we watch Rachel Maddow and see what the Russians did….“Oh, really? And we knew nothing about it?” There was another world about which we had no idea at all.

You have to read the current Nobel Prize winner [Svetlana] Alexievich and see how a political system can change the people and how people become helpless and they just do what they’re told. But eventually that system collapses, and the people come back. If you read history, you see that those horrible periods always pass. I think we must be in that transitional period where so many horrible things are happening, and then we will emerge on the other side.

Is it because you lived through so much early on that you’re so optimistic about these things?

Yes, I believe in the human spirit, the mind. And the world was not invented by humans. We are its products. Maybe we will not survive, but nature will survive.

You’re 94 years old. How do you keep so busy?

What else is there to do? You just keep working. I don’t go to the beaches. I don’t like oceans. I don’t like to sit and have small talk. I have nothing, so I have time. I write; I make my movies; I read. I just reread practically all of Cervantes — not just Don Quixote, but his other novels.

What’s your average day like? Are you a routine guy?

I don’t. After my day passes, I feel like I have done nothing. [Laughs] Right now, I’m taking inventory of my life. Because the place in which I live is a little bit expensive, and I have no income really anymore. Nobody buys my work. So, I have to move to a cheaper place. I have to move a lot of stuff into storage. So, I have to decide what I have to really keep, what I really need in my work, and what I don’t need.

What keeps you going?

This glass of wine keeps me going.

What else besides wine?

The whole history of human development. All the poets, all the saints, all the people that are in my library, that produce the best dreams of humanity. I’m part of it, and I cannot betray it. So, I have to be with them. I cannot be with the politicians. I am with the dreamers of humanity.

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