I want to celebrate the small forms of cinema, the lyrical forms, the poem, the watercolour, etude, sketch, portrait, arabesque, bagatelle and little 8mm songs. I am standing in the middle of the information highway and laughing, because a butterfly on a little flower somewhere just fluttered its wings, and I know that the whole course of history will drastically change because of that flutter. A super-8 camera just made a little soft buzz somewhere, on New York’s Lower East Side, and the world will never be the same.
The godfather of avant-garde film turns 90 on Christmas Eve
Jonas Mekas, hero to successive generations of film-makers, from Martin Scorcese and Jim Jarmusch, for whom he is his ‘leader and mentor’ to Mike Figgis and Harmony Korine who cites him as a ‘true hero of the underground’.
This post is a very eclectic way to say happy birthday (su gimtadieniu!) to Jonas Mekas (b. December 24, 1922, Lithuania): filmmaker, artist, poet, and the guru of the avant-garde and independent cinema. Here you will find a fabulous mix of poetry and film-poems, extracts from interviews and Jonas’ memoires. Enjoy!
Bits of Bio
Mekas arrives in New York in 1949, bringing with him his first Bolex camera to record brief moments of the world around him. He quickly becomes a central figure in the burgeoning arts community, including Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, film-makers Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. Mekas writes the ‘Movie Journal’ column in Village Voice, sets up and edits Film Culture magazine with this brother Adolfas, and founds the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives (which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011).
How it all started: The story told in first person
How it all began: My first still camera
Now I will tell you how it all began.
I was sixteen.
My older brother Povilas had just given me a present: my first still camera!
It was a very, very exciting moment of my life. I kept it under my pillow, treasuring it, waiting for the moment to use it. I had only one roll of film so I didn’t want to waste it on just anything. I wanted my first pictures to mean something to me.
I didn’t have to wait long. Only a few weeks.
It was the summer of 1940.
Our village woke up to the rumble of tanks and heavy trucks full of Russian soldiers as they moved, enveloped in a cloud of country road dust past our village into the heart of Lithuania, the event that became known as the first occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union.
I took my camera from under the pillow and ran to the road. The moment had come! It was an event I couldn’t miss! I was still blessed by innocence, as I sat on a stone wall at the edge of the road and began recording this historic event, as my parents and older brothers watched it all hidden behind the closed windows. No, I couldn’t miss this event, the dust, the soldiers, the tanks. Click click click I went.
This ecstasy lasted only a minute or two.
I saw a Russian soldier running towards me. He violently tore the camera out of my hands, he violently pulled the film out of it, he threw the film roll on the ground, in the sand of the roadside, then he rubbed it into the ground with the heel of his boot. Then he pointed his hand towards my house and shouted what I understood, not knowing Russian, as run run, you stupid, run, or else. Which, of course, I did. Later I was told, by older people who knew better, that the Russian soldier was very, very nice to me, he could have been much worse, much, much worse.
This was how my life in photographic arts began.
This was also the beginning of my political education.
An excerpt from Jonas Mekas' forthcoming book of anecdotes, A Dance with Fred Astaire
IMAGES OUT OF DARKNESS. Reminiscences of a Displaced Person. Postwar Germany 1945-1949
Mekas the film-maker
Bringing a poet’s sensibilty to the diary film style
Mekas vision is unique in its ability to capture personal moments of beauty, celebration and joy. In the 1960s, he has become best known for his ‘film diaries’ in which he records, with great sensitivity, his day-to-day activities as well as those of his peers from the film and arts community in New York.
Jonas Mekas. From In Between, 1978. Mekas and Salvador Dalí, fooling around during one of Dalí’s “happening” events, l964. © Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas. Happy Birthday to John 1996. John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Museum of Syracuse, 1971. 16mm film frame © 2012 Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas. As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty 2000, 16mm film (colour, sound), 285 min. © Jonas Mekas
As I Was Moving Ahead is a record of subtle feelings, emotions, daily joys of people as recorded in the voices, faces and small everyday activities of people I have met, or lived with, or observed — something that I have been recording for many years. This, as opposed to the spectacular, entertaining, sensational, dramatic activities which dominate much of the contemporary film-making.
Now, all this has to do with my understanding and belief of what acts really affect the positive changes in man, society, humanity. I am interested in recording the subtle, almost invisible acts, experiences, feelings, as opposed to the tough, harsh, loud, violent activities and political actions, and especially, political systems of our time. As a film-maker, I am taking a stand for the politics that have been practiced by some of the artists of my generation who believe that more essential, positive contributions to the upholding and furthering of the best in humanity, have been made, say, by John Cage or Albert Camus, and not by the great political figures of the 20th century.
The film is not conceived as a documentary film, however. It follows a tradition established by modern film poets. I am interested in intensifying the fleeting moments of reality by a personal way of filming and structuring my material. A lot of importance is being given to color, movement, rhythm and structure — all very essential to the subject matter I am pursuing. I have spent many years developing and perfecting a way of catching the immediacy without interfering with it, without destroying it. I believe that some of the content that I am trying to record with my camera and share with others, can be caught only very indirectly though the intensity of personal involvement.
Click here to watch the excerpt from the film As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.
Mekas the poet
Frieze: What images keep you company in the space where you work?
Jonas Mekas: A picture of St Teresa of Ávila, a photograph of myself aged four, and a panoramic cityscape of Vilnius
(Excerpt from a questionnaire by Frieze Magazine). Click here to read more
Winter, don’t ever be over. So that Spring
never has to show up, and no armies can
come marching in on us, while they’re still waiting for Spring. Wild
forest creatures will stay calm asleep, dreaming of
Winter, don’t ever be over. All will stay shut in
at home, sleeping all the while, with the vile evildoers, tramps
and wheeler dealers all frozen stiff, all will be drinking
with prostitutes, like children in their innocence
until the Spring,
which is never to come.
Don’t show up, Spring. Keep all your
blossoms, smells, kisses and crusts —
I want to stay calmly drinking my wine
with old friends — while it’s still winter,
while the armies haven’t marched in yet —
O snow, keep on snowing, as deep, impenetrable,
cold, as in the winter of 1812,
until it’s Spring,
that’s never to come.
Translated from Lithuanian by Vyt. Bakaitis