a journal of modern society & culture

“Fragments of Paradise . . .” A Conversation with Jonas Mekas

On January 23, 2019, the Lithuanian filmmaker, poet, critic, and curator, Jonas Mekas, passed away. Mekas arrived in the United States in 1949 after having spent years in forced labor camps in Nazi Germany and, following the War, displaced persons camps. He went on to help establish major institutions of American avant-garde cinema, including Anthology Film Archives, Film Culture magazine, and the Filmakers’ Cooperative. He is best known for his films Guns of the Trees, Walden, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, and Lost, Lost, Lost. A longtime member of Logos’ editorial advisory board and supporter of the journal, he was also a recipient of Logos’ first Siegfried Kracauer Lifetime Achievement Award for Film Criticism for his work as the founder of the film column of the Village Voice. The following interview with Mekas was conducted by the editor of Logos, Michael J. Thompson, in 2004 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Q: As I was preparing for this interview, I was going through some of your older writings, some of your diaries, and I came across something that you wrote back in the 1960s and you wrote: “The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath, is morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring.” Today, isn’t it the same situation?

A: One could use the same rhetoric, I guess, today. I mean, let’s face it, it was, shall I say, not a clash but a rebellious attitude of those who were just coming in directed against those who were there and established so those kinds of statements were the incoming powers and were never one hundred percent rational or just. They’re just in the context of the time, I mean, emotional, they’re not necessarily rational. Today, well, you could say that about cinema but one could say that about all of the arts all over the world. You see, that’s why one thing you could find in the New York of the 1960s in the world a very concentrated, very emotional, very very intense groups of people that stood out and everybody noticed. If you look today, they were times when one would say “this place is the capital of the arts,” but New York really was in the sixties and seventies and everyone was looking at it from other continents also as the center of something exciting happening there, as the capital of the arts.

You cannot say that today, there is no visible, intense movement in any city in any country so in that sense one could apply what I said that the breath has run out of, the enthusiasm, there is no great temperament visible anywhere. But the reasons may be different. I think the reasons are that the world, because of the sciences, communication technologies have become more unified in a sense so it’s dissipated. Admittedly something happens here, something there, say in Tokyo, in Melbourne, in São Paulo. They begin the dress the same way, buy the same shoes, so it’s this democratization. The negative, I’d say they’re the negative effects of democratization…

Q: And globalization….

A: And globalization, which we did not have then.

Q: But you did have, if not a global kind of sensibility you still had an avant-garde movement that had some kind of affinities with one another in placed like Germany, France, New York, Japan. There were still painters and writers, even surrealism or abstract expressionism…

A: It was like, to us in 1960, that was history, that was past, not present. As far as the present was going, in New York, in America there was the avant-garde, or experimental film by some twenty people, not much more than twenty and we knew everybody and then there was Hollywood. Of course there was developing something else in between like thirty-five independents and feature lengths, so that’s it. So, French realists, that was in Europe and long ago; Dadaism, that was maybe thirty some years ago in 1960, maybe thirty-five – that was history. It’s difficult for me to sometimes put, I mean, when I begin to think that what we did was thirty-five, forty years ago, that’s history.

Q: That’s interesting, because it seems to me, when I look back at the twentieth century and I put New York avant-garde or underground film movement in some kind of context, what I think of is dates like 1908, 1916, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s music, the poetry of Celan in the 1950’s, but in every case it seems to me the avant-garde was supposed to break with what you just described—conformity. The avant-garde was trying in some way to break through commodification…

A: That’s what between 1955 and 1965, the artists, filmmakers, were doing and that’s how we felt. That’s why we started Film Culture magazine and it’s there that John Cage at the beginning comes in and the Happening theatre and the music there, beginning ’58, ’59 and there you begin to see that and they were all doing something opposite, something completely different, not rebelling but you could call it rebellion. Or literature, I mean, when Allen called the poets of the first anthology “The New American Poets”

Q: Allen Ginsberg?

A:   No, Allen is the last name, John Allen. Allen was the editor of the anthology for “The New American Poets” and that’s where I took the new American cinema. As a guess, there is a new American poet, but there is also a new American cinema. The “new” meant they were really breaking out, there were all the others but “we are the new,” these are the new and it was a really ground-breaking anthology.

Q: So now there’s nothing new because…?

A: There must be something new…

Q: Maybe there’s something new but there’s no movement…

A: No there’s no book that becomes suddenly or slowly visible and they would speak for themselves and everybody would write articles you know in all the papers like they did in the sixties but there was Warhol, there was the underground. I mean, there were always headlines…

Q: So you mean there’s nothing sensational?

A: Now maybe they made it into sensation but we did not do it for sensational reasons.

Q: But it became sensational to the outside.

A: Maybe rappers come closest to it. In painting there is nothing, there is nothing, nothing exciting. There was something happening in the installation art which of course goes back to the sixties, but there was nothing there exciting either. Now, is there any visible excitement in literature at this point? I haven’t heard about it, maybe on the internet, maybe there is something. They would probably say we are now a different civilization, different technologies and we are looking for excitement in the wrong places. I’d say that is a possibility. Even those who were not of the same generation made all those exciting things in the sixties, even the older generation noticed it and they were looking into it, rejecting, accepting or criticizing but there was nothing of “ok, I’m in a different generation, I’m trying to search, I’m not a doctor, I don’t see it.” Maybe things are happening in the sciences and maybe in music. There’s a lot of activity in music, I think.

Q: What about, you mentioned before different civilizations…what about literature and film that’s coming out of cultures that are outside of the west, say Asia or Africa, Latin America. I mean, this may not be anything formally experimental, but is there something new there?

A: As far as I know it’s not happening in South America. I think Africa in music, according to some people who I have been following, African music was very exciting twenty years ago. Now some of them became so successful that they became commercial. So in independent cinema, in the avant-garde, like when I go to Paris as I’ve been for the last five years it’s been much more exciting than New York, much more. And it was very close to the excitement that existed in the New York in the early sixties, they have their own lab developing and all are not unimportant all over France. So, in publication there are many more books and various other publications that come out in Europe, France especially. But in New York, in the United States, there’s not much published here at all.

Q: What about some of the other things that you’ve written about that I’ve seen for decades, that I’ve noticed you’ve picked out time and time again. Is identifying Hollywood as this kind of institutional and cultural problem, because of the problem of commodification, now my question is has the avant-garde maybe, or parts of the avant-garde been taken up into the machine, into the commodification machine? I mean, Greg and I were talking before and he mentioned how you could have a shower curtain with Jackson Pollock on it, I mean you could have a Mondrian’s work became…

A: The closest that the avant-garde has come to is, I think that in principle it can never become a commodity. It’s the same as poetry can never become as popular as prose. They cannot exploit it. It’s unexploitable. Criterion Collection issued a package on DVD so it’s more accessible. They packaged Joseph Cornell, because Cornell is known as an artist. He has much wider appeal, but those are exceptions.

Q: Ok, that’s an exception, but does the whole phenomenon of DVDs for example, does that lead to the destruction of the experience of film?

A: In the sixties when they came out with the original, they came out with Super 8; everybody thought that now we can make copies everyone will buy and that will be cheap and that included Warhol, it included everybody. We made some copies, nothing happened, there was just an excitement and after a few months we realized….when video came then again some filmmakers said thought that now we can put it all over the world. In a sense, some of these films cannot be put on video; they lose their color and entertainment. Now DVDs rectify this a little bit, they approximate the original.

Q; Well we’re sitting here in Anthology Film Archives where people come to experience these films in a group setting…

A: If seven people come to see Brakhage’s films, it’s a big deal and whenever I bring Echoes of Silence there is always one person.

Q: So is there any kind of social experience in seeing cinema anymore? Is that important?

A: That is what is lacking. We can put Brakhage and some other films on DVD but there is no network similar to that of commercial film/video network to disseminate these films. They won’t put money into it. It’s still expensive to produce a digital copy and nobody wants to put that kind of money in because who will buy it? So there are limitations, very simple economic limitations. That’s why the print quality is still in six hundred copies, twelve hundred copies not twelve thousand because who will buy it? How do you promote poetry? I think that there are certain dramas, certain arts that are more limited in appeal because they appeal to more subtle aspects of our existence, being, mind and they cannot be promoted. They resist promotion. Promotion would destroy them. Some forms of modern contemporary dance cannot be.

Q: I think of the music of Luciano Berio, he combines music and theatre and how listening to it on DVD is impossible, you actually have to be there and experience it in an attempt to prevent commodification. Is that the case too with avant-garde film, that it just resists inherently being sucked up into the machine of commercialism?

A: I think the language, the content of the avant-garde film, creative film does not appeal to masses. It requires a certain kind of, not education, but familiarity. You have to learn the language of film.

It’s like a little joke I have. I grew up in this little Lithuanian village. At home, we spoke a local dialect, but there was already the official written Lithuanian language. So I went to the primary school and I had to learn the official accepted Lithuanian dialect. Then, at the same time at the gymnasium, high school I guess you would say, I had to learn Latin and French. Then the Russian army rolls in and they say Latin is totally unnecessary and French is unnecessary, now you learn Russian! So we all learned Russian. And then two years later Germany comes in and the Germans occupy Lithuania and now Russian is no good, the German is good. So we begin learning German. During the War, I end up in a forced labor camp near Hamburg. I lived together with Italian war prisoners and French war prisoners and so I think it is a good occasion to improve my German. So I begin to learn local German and there I discovered that even some Germans don’t understand local German, they speak Platdeutsch. Then I begin to learn Italian and discover from talking to other Italian colleagues that I’m really learning not Sicilian but Roma dialect of Italian. And so it went until the American army comes and now we are learning English. By the time I end up in New York, I had enough of all those languages because I learned a lot of languages. Now I will learn the language of cinema. That’s what I did in Germany in the displaced persons camps. My brother and I got interested in cinema because now we can talk in a language that everybody will understand. So we come to New York, we get a Bolex and we begin to film. We went to screenings and shows. Then we begin to show our work to others and the others say, “what is this? We don’t understand you. This is not cinema.” So then I realized I learned the wrong language of cinema, so now I’ve written on cinema in whatever language I want. That’s the end of the joke.

Modern poetry was one thing in the nineteenth century. It changed with poets like Ezra Pound. Different language, different content, different film. One can be educated into something, but one has to already desire it – have an inclination – a movement towards it otherwise there will be a block. You cannot educate somebody to read well. One has to want, one has to desire movement then you can begin to educate. Otherwise, it’s empty.

Q: Does this reflect, this gets into a couple of different issues, I mean, say the days of Beethoven or the way Beethoven was understood and appreciated or Mozart or say even in Greece with Greek theatre, the way that it was art the entire community could understand and it engaged the entire community. Is the avant-garde the result of a kind of shattered culture, fragmented? People like Adorno talking about the culture industry, kind of dividing everyone up into different groups and segments, is the avant-garde the result of this kind of aesthetic elite that’s keeping alive some kind of sensibility.

A: Maybe in the Middle Ages the elite existed only on a social level, elites were those very educated, richness also meant availability of education. I mean, in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth centuries there was a prince but this prince could also write symphonies and now wealth and social class is only money and no education. So those were times where you’d meet someone else who was maybe writing poetry that you would like or making music that you would like, you would have to go by carriage, it would take weeks to meet them or across the ocean two months. I am just thinking of all those Americans who went to Paris by boat, so it was more difficult for those little groups to emerge. I think it’s much easier now. I think it has something to do with advance of civilization, communication that some groups of, say, musicians, poets begin to communicate and get together. Little special groups emerge that differ very much from the general, wider group, the accepted the culture. You can call those little groups you elitist. They are concentrated, intense centers of advancement in various arts.

Q: So in that case, has the avant-garde served a function only for those who participated in it?

A: What is the avant-garde in cinema? People say Maya Deren was a mother of the avant-garde, but she was the close to the end. She was not the beginning, she was the end. She was educated in Switzerland, in Europe and we don’t even know yet what she has seen there but she brought the tradition of the European avant-garde and she knew them all and she closes the first European avant-garde. And after that comes Markopoulos and Brakhage and all the new American avant-garde come in not only, but with a different content, a different language. It was the same with painting. De Kooning and all those guys developed a different language for painting at around the same time.

In the sixties, some filmmakers got very, very angry. Markopoulos used to say that “television is stealing some of our techniques we should sue them.” No, the changing language becomes intellectual property of the whole culture, for everybody, all the people. You cannot legislate it, so the avant-garde, those that are really interested in poetry and cinema in the avant-garde of course we look at those films and look again and again and you read poetry. For all the others, only some aspects appeal. Not only television but some of the techniques have been accepted in narrative cinema, the fast cuts and sort of shorter takes. That has become part of the new language of narrative cinema. If you look at Douglas Sirk and if you look at any contemporary narrative filmmaker, I mean there’s a huge influence of the avant-garde.

Q: So the avant-garde then only wanted to change the language?

A: No, no, for the film avant-garde I think there is different content. Brakhage maybe was the most radical, we always say he really contributed most to changing the language of cinema. When he started making his Songs on 8mm film, they were very different from his 16mm films. He started them because his 16mm camera was stolen. He ended up with 8mm because he was thinking about what this camera could do. What can I do because it’s more impressionistic, no detail there on 8mm. As opposed to let’s say fifteen hundred dots per frame, you only have one hundred dots per frame so it had to be very personal. His films showed just little reactions, little songs about himself. The technology determines the content and the form. It’s very difficult to determine what came first. I think that first Brakhage had something in his mind, some idea, and then comes the question of how to do it, the form. You cannot create Brakhage’s Songs with a 35mm camera, it. You cannot move as freely. The image is different. So I think that at the very beginning there is the content, which is a very nebulous kind of thing, you can’t even describe when Dog Star Man was finished, you can’t tell exactly what the content of that film is. There’s moving, climbing, struggle, it’s still very poetic.

Q: So the avant-garde equals simply experimentation?

A: No. This is one of my heretical statements: the avant-garde, experimental film, has nothing to do with experimentation, absolutely nothing to do with it. There is much more experimentation in Hollywood. We go to the center. When Kenneth Anger made Fireworks, he was driven, he knew exactly what he wanted. The film was done, I think, in one evening, something like that. He just had to do it, and he did it as he felt he had to do it. When Stan Brakhage does something, he knows exactly what he is doing. It’s like the woodworm burrowing through. The only difference is if the woodworm finds some hotspots, he goes around them, that’s a Manny Farber’s theory. It’s very natural and there’s no experimentation. In Hollywood, sometimes they try this, then that. Even when the film is finished, they show it to the audience and listen to what they have to say. If the audience says, “we don’t like that,” they cut it out. If you cut one millimeter of a Brakhage film, it will break. There is no experimentation, there is only execution. You don’t experiment when you write a poem, you just write. There’s no experimentation. These are all terms imposed on this area of cinema and they don’t make much sense.

Q: So then John Cage…

A: Did not experiment. He executed certain ideas

Q: He just thought differently, experienced the world differently.

A: Very radically and drastically so. Experienced it for first time in a new way. Again, the literal meaning of the avant-garde is the first line, those that are first hit by the bullets.

Q: So with the fading of the avant-garde in terms of its energy, what happens now?

A: That means there are no great, no drastic, no new ideas that come from the spheres of arts.

Q: And when they don’t come what happens?

A: People have become very pragmatic. Just think of the growth of the film schools, all those thousands and thousands of students who just want to go and make something in the industry. All those grants that are being given, like the Jerome Hill foundation. Hill was a friend and helped us to really make avant-garde film visible. When he died, the Foundation was taken over by practical bureaucrats and now the Foundation is giving grants every year. I just looked at who they gave grants to, they gave I think five grants in the spring session and there was not a single avant-garde film. One was a social documentary, one was feminist, one was something for minorities. The films have to be practical, serve the community and not antagonize anyone. These choices, I thought, showed how Jerome was betrayed by those who followed. This money exists now just to help graduating film students to make films, but not for the avant-garde.

Q: So it’s interesting you say that these films were something that had to serve the community, don’t antagonize, don’t be radical, don’t be different.

A: It’s like this: to apply for a grant for instance, you have to know what you’re doing, what the film is called, this and that. How can one who is doing a poem with a camera submit it? So, they have the grants. Ok, I want a grant, but I cannot tell you myself what my film will be. It may just be a failure. Give me a grant because of my past achievements, trust me. That’s how it should be. The Jerome Hill Foundation for instance should change their guidelines completely. They should give grants based on past achievement, not because someone is able to write an interesting presentation.

Q: This gets into the issue of technology and how this impacts form. This impacts the artistic impulse. Wouldn’t the inexpensive growth of digital film, editing equipment, and the fact that you can do all this work on the computer make it easier for those people who are up and coming?

A: But it was always easy. It was always easy and difficult. The classic body of the American avant-garde between 1945 and 1970 was created without grants or support. The American avant-garde was created without the grant system establishment. The fact that something was easier makes no difference. It actually just makes it easier for all the bad work. It increases the production of bad cinema. It should be difficult. It should be a little bit difficult, that it takes an effort. You really have to want to make a film so that you put an effort. You slave to get some money, you go and steal the camera, steal the film and that’s how it has been done. And when everything becomes easy then nothing is important.

Q: There’s a line that I picked out from Walter Benjamin and it says “A magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work an actual distance from reality, a camera penetrates deeply into its web.” There’s something unique about cinema as opposed to other arts.

A: But I don’t see such a difference. The painter penetrates into reality and most of the filmmakers remain on the surface. I mean, I think he was too enthusiastic. He got carried away talking about cinema

Q: But isn’t there something about movement, dynamism, isn’t there something about that? You have centuries and centuries of painting, but there’s something so dynamic about film itself.

A: Yeah, but there are some who say there have been moving images for thousands of years in development. We’re talking about surface and penetration. I mean Jung and Freud are working around the same time that cinema emerges. Jung, you could say, would say that you can tell everything from the surface and Freud will say you can tell everything from the dreams. Jung is dealing with the surface and the symbols that are expressed. Freud is penetrating deeper.

Q: Can I bring up something you told me about when you were talking about your own films? In another interview, while discussing your diary films, you said you weren’t merely recording events, but that just by virtue of your approach through the camera you were actually changing the event

A: There was a period when I was still following the old language of documentary film. I filmed in longer little cuts, takes of five seconds, ten seconds. At some point, it did not satisfy me. I had to break down reality. I had to introduce myself into it. When I film, I am looking at something. I have to look at that specific thing. There’s a reason why I’m filming it now and the object has to reflect that reason otherwise it will be just a thing out there. I have to introduce myself by breaking it down into single frames and by changing light varieties and speeds. That introduces the state I was in when I wanted to film it. So in other words I’m filming the tree but still I’m putting myself, merging myself with it so that when you see the state I was in when I perceived it.

Q: So why is it important to do that?

A: For years I filmed the snow, snowing and snow and I was always unhappy. I kept something going, the same subject until I thought, “ahh, I’ve got it, this is what I feel, this is what I feel when I see snow.” So, it’s not just straight filming. It’s filming in a certain way, merging myself with the subject and the instrument that I’m using. Of course, what I’m filming is my memories. There’s some reason and I don’t know that reason, but it comes from the past. I will give you one anecdote: I used to visit Richard Foreman some summers. We would drive and look for the places where we could stop. We would drive around for sometimes half an hour and nothing would appeal to us. I realized that we were looking for places that seemed familiar, but that meant that we were not discovering anything new. We were only stopping because it was familiar to our memories or dreams. So, we decided that we would use our watches and decide to randomly stop at fixed times no matter what. We eliminated memory and familiarity and had a great time. You stop and discover something new and different. Very often we just keep relying on memory.

Q: So why is that important?

A: I just have no choice. It’s like an obsession. That’s how I am, I just have to. I admire poets like Jackson MacLowe, that period where he was very mathematical. He had a system. His feelings, memories, emotions are bracketed. I don’t know if you are familiar with what he did in the sixties, seventies in his poetry. He applied mathematical systems to his poetry. It’s totally mechanical but it’s great. I don’t do that. I guess my past has something to do with it. I was so rooted in my village, so much in my community when I grew up. I was so deep in it that, when I was uprooted by the War, I was pulled away from it so abruptly. To tell the truth, only now am I beginning to come to a point where I’m a little bit more free.

Q: This interests me because of what you were saying before about filming, about yourself, about the way you see it changing the object. This reminds me of Wordsworth with the poem Tinturn Abby when he talks about how my vision actually changes the object and the result is the poem.

A: Those who do experiment change the context.

Q: So is your conception then more romantic, the idea that the human being, the emotions take precedent over any kind of abstraction?

A: Yes, I think I am walking a very, very delicate, very dangerous balancing line like a tightrope walker. When I was watching my most recent film, As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, I became very conscious of that because when you work with material that is so close to you, in this case my family, then it is very easy to fall off into being too romantic, too sentimental, too emotional. But I think I have managed to keep across that stretch without falling down, but it was an effort. I cut out for instance a lot of material consciously that would have dragged. It’s very, very close to falling down. That is what one has to be conscious of. That is a problem with this kind of diary film.

Q: You have spoken often of your films as “efforts to preserve bits of paradise.”

A: Again, I think it comes to my childhood. I think I had a very happy childhood. I enjoyed the nature and the work. Now, when I go through my life with my camera, be it film or video, there are certain moods, there are certain situations, that awakens those feelings. Some memory of something familiar is awoken. So it is still connected with my childhood. But then it gets more complicated because then you see what I came to believe in, what humanity is all about, what my function here is, that belief doesn’t have to be so pronounced, it’s maybe in the background somewhere. Often examples come from eating and drinking. It could also come from poetry.

I feel one of my duties is to try to preserve what has been achieved already by those who lived before me. I have to do everything to help it remain here and preserve for those who will come after me. I consider it a duty almost. I’m more and more aware now of those who lived in other centuries. I would be betraying them, the best minds of humanity. I have to help continue their works.

Q: Especially during this ebb.

A: Yes, yes. I just finished this project called Utopia Station. A dozen artists from all over the world were invited to present reports on the subject that could be exhibited. In segment number four, I pledged to all those who lived before me not to betray their work but continue their work. Those are the fragments of paradise.