‘I’m an Outsider. I’m a Monk. I’m Somewhere Else’

Interview with Jonas Mekas

Stefan Grissemann

You did a series of short video films recently: one a day, for the whole year of 2007 – that’s 365 films which you made publicly available on your homepage (www.jonasmekas.com). What is it that intrigued you about this format?

You can do with those films whatever you want. You can carry them on your iPod, literally in your pocket. You can download them and screen them wherever you want. You can use any existing technology on them.

Your friend Peter Kubelka is much more fundamentalist about film than you. In his opinion, digital film and cinema, as he defines it, are very different material.

To me, the art of moving images is something else: you can include anything there, any technology that produces moving images is part of the moving image art. Same as in painting: you can get passionately attached to watercolours – and there have been artists who use only watercolours, because they master it and love it. When you work in film, if there is a screen and a projector, it has to be film! You cannot mix film and video on the same machine. While editing you can use images from all kinds of sources and technologies, but the final product is either film or digital because any technology can only do one thing. But this is of course an open question: for Peter it seems right to make films that you cannot transfer to video. It will not be the same. That’s true. So, in his own way, he’s right.

In your diary films, your celebrations of the moment, you have always accentuated the very fleeting quality of film.

But that’s not up to me! I do not accentuate that – it is part of the material. Film is not eternal. Everything is fleeting. How much is left of 12th century art? And film is even more fragile. What’s left of cinema produced one hundred years ago? Not much!

But it seems to me that you actually endorse that fragility, the melancholy of the transitory image.

I do not even think about it. Everything is fragile. I film what I feel I have to film, so I film! When you paint or compose it’s the same thing: you don’t tell yourself that what you create should last one thousand years.

Amy Taubin has written about your 365 films, that the experience of walking with them – loaded on her iPod – in the streets ofNew York was almost uncanny. She saw what you saw, on the road, in motion; the films to her seemed to possess a sort of ‘ghostly presence’.

I do not understand what she means by that. Why is that ghostly? It’s presence, very simply. Those films are present.

Do you like the fact that cinema can become portable?

Yes. Like books. One of the recurring dreams of my childhood was just that: holding certain images, clinging to them, carrying them with me. This has become reality.

Your net-films were used much?

Oh, yes. People from all over the world downloaded the films – mostly on the first day, when it was free to do so. There were hundreds of thousands of downloads. This new technology permits me to immediately share what I treasure. It doesn’t make money, but it’s shared. Avant-garde and independent films don’t have to make money.

As an artist you are strikingly open to new technologies and ideas. You do installations, you work digitally, you run a film theatre …

Sure, why not? Why restrict yourself?

Other people tend to get stuck at some point with ideas they had in their youth.

No, no. I keep moving.

And that still doesn’t feel exhausting?

No, it’s fun! It provides me with new adventures; new possibilities constantly open up in front of you. Why not use them?

You coined the phrase ‘Baudelairean Cinema’ long ago …

That was not mine, no. That term came from Ken Jacobs. No, wait: I did coin it, but he had made a film called Baud’larian Capersin 1963 – and I grouped it with a few other films under the label ‘Baudelairean Cinema’.

Where is cinema as you love it today?

I love all of cinema. I love today’s cinema, yesterday’s cinema and tomorrow’s cinema.

So there are a lot of films around that interest you.

Yes. I can watch anything, good or bad. As you know I’ve been connected with Anthology Film Archives. We have a lot of junk in our vaults. We have thousands and thousands and thousands of films. And that’s not only classics. When technology kept changing and video took over, the film labs ran out of work. They began closing down and giving away their film collections; many of those ended up with Anthology. That included documentaries, musical and television films: just a lot of junk. Nothing important, no classics, no masterpieces, no nothing. But as time went by and attitudes changed as to what the art of moving images is, we discovered that much of that material could be re-used; they are like little cells of knowledge. You could make moving image dictionaries with that material. You could make installations or use it for completely different purposes. So it’s all very valuable, very important material that suddenly becomes available – to make art with it. But the material comes literally from the street, like trash.

When I last talked to you years ago in Berlin, where you were showing As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), you told me that there were some thirty-thousand films in the Archives.

It’s more, actually. Now it’s closer to a hundred-thousand films. There are people still at work indexing the films.

It’s not even close to being complete?

No, we don’t know. Every day there are new discoveries.

Today, every time American film critics have to handle a serious, formally challenging piece of cinema, they keep wondering: is there an audience?

Art is not created with the expectation of a huge audience. Whoever does art, be it music or poetry, does so because he or she wants to do it. The audience could only be one’s friends, it could be a few hundred, it could be thousands or millions. That either comes – or it doesn’t come. But it does not determine why one writes a book or creates a painting. No museum survives from attendances or sales alone. It is usually sponsored by some crazy individual. Or a few crazy people run it for no salaries, like at Anthology: our people practically work for free.

As a writer, you renewed film criticism in the ‘60s. Do you feel your legacy is maintained? Do you see people writing as passionately about films as you did? Or would you claim film criticism is in crisis?

It was always in crisis. Sometimes, for brief periods, some individual appears who is more obsessed and writes with more passion. Some magazines gain intensity for six or seven years – and then quickly become routine outlets: Cahiers du cinéma orSight and Sound are just routine film magazines today. But they had their golden ages. I do not know any film publication today that has any intensity, anger, passion, obsession. It’s all very practical. Criticism has become just descriptive. You never know if a film is supposed to be good or bad. You have to see it for yourself – and make your own judgment.

Do you miss radicalism in film culture?

I don’t know, really. But then I have been very, very busy during the last ten years. So I see very little and should not pass any judgment. I do not read the film books that come out, not even the latest reviews. Still, I am passing a judgment – because I think one does not have to read and see everything to realise how bad it is. I only see glimpses – but I can see that there is no fire, no passion, no obsession. But something may come up, you know, any moment. You cannot plan art movements. They come when and where they like. For a time, Paris was the centre of the art world, then it was New York. Now I do not see any centre so far. It seems equally divided: it can be in Tokyo, in Beijing or in Buenos Aires.

A few months ago you opened an Arts Centre in Vilnius (in Lithuania), right?

I did not open that – the city of Vilnius did.

But they named it in your honour. Content-wise, you have nothing to do with it?

Well, I am helping with ideas and materials: for instance, my Fluxus collection went there. The Arts Centre opened with that. But that was their initiative, their idea – and they have to run it, I do not have time for that. I do my work, I’m a maker, not somebody who runs an Arts Centre. But it’s great that the Fluxus collection is in Lithuania now, because my great friend George Maciunas was not represented there; they don’t even like him there. The old guard of the artists and the academicians think the whole Fluxus movement was a joke. They never realised that we need some jokes in art, too!

How do you discipline yourself to do all this work?

I try not to discipline myself.

You simply work when you feel like it?

Yeah, well, my 365 films needed a lot of discipline. That was very challenging, because I had to do it every day. I had decided not to miss a single day. So I did not miss. Without a certain kind of discipline, there cannot be any art.

You once said: ‘It’s in my nature to do one hundred things at the same time and work on one hundred levels’. Is that still true?

Yes.

You’re a multi-tasking personality?

Yes, and that is sometimes not so good. I miss out on many things.

Your style and themes have always been highly personal. Do you see yourself as an artist of privacy?

I’m not really much more open than others. There are some areas which I have never opened, really. I deal with a camera and a specific lens – so I can only deal with things that this machine can record. You see, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller were writing – and you can write about anything. In cinema, you can only catch what a camera can see and record. It cannot record what I think or feel. That could only be written down. Then the question is: what and how am I filming? Anyone can read Miller’s words, but it needs a lot of experience to read images. So I say: I’m there, you know? By the way I film you can tell everything about me, if you know how to read those images. There is an old argument about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It was claimed that Dostoevsky’s work was so psychological, insightful and sensitive; Tolstoy’s writings, however, were seen as detached or epical. Others claimed Tolstoy was as sensitive and fragile as Dostoevsky, only more transcendent. And it’s true, it was there, hidden somewhere: you have to know how to read it.

You make a film and on screen there’s presence. But what you show is also past, isn’t it?

Yes, and then I edit material sometimes only many years later. What you see is past. I am already somewhere else. So I am presenting my films from where I am now. Therefore, I am making fiction out of it.

There’s always a certain amount of fiction involved, right?

Yes, and then it becomes more complicated: when presence and past merge. There is very little distance. It’s very immediate.

What does realism mean to you? Is there any meaning to the – highly problematic – term cinematic realism?

I would cross out the word cinematic! That thing does not exist. One films. That’s it. There is reality: a thing that I can film, an event, whatever it is, a human being, a flower, a street. Whatever exists – and to what I react. I live twenty-four hours every day. Every hour has sixty minutes, every minute has sixty seconds. But on one given day, I might film only twenty seconds. So, of course, that doesn’t represent my life – but it presents something that was important to me. A moment. Why did I film that moment? For some reason, I felt I should film it, without knowing, without rationalising. I just had to do it, and that’s all. Therefore, in essence, maybe those twenty seconds define me, you see – not the other twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes and forty seconds. Maybe that little moment is essentially me. Who knows?

The element of chance is a definite artistic category in your work.

Again, you can go back to Dostoevsky in that respect. It is all about the moment when two people meet, that one second when they really click and understand. So seconds can be very important.

I’d like to pose a strange question: is there truth to cinema?

Everything is true. Everything. Is. True. Every object, every situation is. What is, is. And what is, is true. Truly there.

So there’s never anything untrue in films? Lies do exist, right?

Oh, lies are true also! They are true lies. A lie is a real thing. To some people it may not be a lie, to others it will be. But it is true. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that’s not true.

But what about all the works of art that ring so untrue?

That’s something else. In a movie that is badly acted there seems to be something wrong with it. It doesn’t look true. But that’s a question of acting. Or let’s put it that way: One of George Maciunas’ favorite films was Roberto Rossellini’s The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966). He loved it because Rossellini had recreated every dish, every costume of the period – and George really knew about that. He wanted to see the film again and again because of that realism. Everything in that film had been created the way it should be. One can measure the truth that way. Then there are other films on the same period, where the director brings in his own fantasies about what people of that era ate, how they dressed, how they behaved – without studying really carefully. You can talk about truth that way: about forms of period representation in paintings or films. Then you can talk about the truth of an actor representing. In those terms, you can debate true or not true. But otherwise, even the mistakes or the bad acting in bad melodramas still reveal a lot about people, periods or art production.

As a director you can also make clever use of wooden, unnaturalistic acting.

Sometimes bad acting is actually very good. Peter Kubelka, for instance, liked this theatre group in Vienna very much; they performed the same folkish theatre over and over again. He loved that because it was so amateurish. Through this amateurism, something much better was revealed than people like Laurence Olivier or Jean-Louis Barrault could ever have hoped to achieve. That was a different truth, straight from the people. Truth in art is a very complicated subject.

In an essay, David E. James called your work – from writing to preserving, from exhibiting to filming – a heroic cultural activity’. Do you feel heroic at all?

No. I just did what I wanted to do, what I felt I should be doing. What I was obsessed and possessed to do. Maybe I did not even know why I was doing it.

You were brought up in Lithuania. Do you feel you were initiated by nature, by animals, by village life?

I was not initiated by nature – I grew in nature.

How much did that prepare you for the urban subculture that you encountered in New York City from 1949 on?

I don’t think it prepared me at all. Even now, I do not really fit into the city and its culture and civilisation.

You still see yourself as a misfit in New York?

Well, misfit …  I’m an outsider. I’m a monk. I’m somewhere else, I have my own life, my own small set of friends. I moved around, lived at various places, but I practically never went beyond 14th street, never further up. I was totally downtown. Now I habe managed to escape even downtown, I live in Brooklyn these days. So I have my own village, my own small town. New York consists of one hundred villages, you know?

But that’s an aspect of New York that you like: the feeling of a small town – as opposed to the aura of the Megalopolis?

But that’s what cities are. I do accept cities as they are. I have five favorite cities – five or six, anyway: Cairo. Naples. Maybe Barcelona. Paris. Marseille. Tokyo. Not Vienna, I’m afraid. I like the city because maybe half of my best friends live here. But as a city – no.

In spite of the fact that your relation to Vienna goes back a long time – and that the city turns up lovingly in films likeReminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972).

It’s true, my good friends Peter Kubelka, Hermann Nitsch and Raimund Abraham were born here. I think I organised Nitsch’s first three performances in the United States, then of course the premiere of Peter’s Unsere Afrikareise (1966) in New York.

What is it that you love especially about the cities you mentioned?

You can get lost in them. I like this feeling, not knowing where the hell I am. But I could not get lost in Vienna, I think.

To work for Anthology, you said once, was a ‘constant, endless struggle’. Is it still that way?

Well, yeah. There is no money. You witness films falling to dust and you want to preserve them, so you go and make telephone calls, asking for money, money, money. That’s my struggle, my work.

Interview recorded Vienna, April 2008, where Jonas Mekas received the Austrian Badge of Honour from the Curia for Science and Art. Thanks to Nika Bohinc of Ekran magazine (Slovenia) and Regina Schlagnitweit of the Austrian Filmmuseum.


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