Thursday, 8 October 2009

His Name Is Jonas

(originally published in The Pictures zine Issue 1, mid 2008)

Since the 1950s, Jonas Mekas has lived the life of a film-maker, his ever present camera capturing every shade of the scenes he passes through, be they John Lennon's birthday party, Warhol's factory, late night cab journeys or walks in the park with a girl. In his diary films, Mekas brings out the poetry in living and shares with his audience the travels, thoughts and experiences of a man completely devoted to capturing the essence of life in moving images.

Over the decades Mekas has played a central role in the nurturing and development of underground, personal, experimental film - call it what you will. His film column in the Village Voice famously championed the likes of Warhol and Brakhage as the vanguard of a new film movement that he dubbed the New American Cinema. Mekas' Film Culture magazine was launched as an American response to the French Cahiers du Cinéma. By co-founding the Filmmakers Co-operative, Mekas and his contemporaries sought to create a community - a family as he calls it - to work on, produce, appear in and screen eachother's work. When questioned about his patronage and work in the avant garde film world of the '60s and beyond, Mekas likens his role to that of a midwife, working to care for and to nurse a film movement that is still proving its significance and influence today.

Mekas' work rate has not diminished over time. Last year he produced 365 films, one a day, which were distributed over the internet. They range from explorations of Scottish castles to conversations over the breakfast table, but his voice and filmmaking spirit are present in all of them.

The Pictures was lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend an evening with Jonas and his friends, crawling the bars and restaurants of Soho. By the time it came to sitting down for the interview, (many) drinks had been had and connections made, and perhaps it is not the most solid piece of journalism, but stands well as an artefact of the night. I should add that Jonas finished the interview with a joke, but my tape ran out and the joke was lost. His musings on romanticism, Youtube and the determination of a Capricorn, were caught in full...

THE PICTURES: About the filmmakers co-op, you had this idea of a new American did that work logistically? How did all these individual filmmakers find eachother, and how did you go about setting something like this up?

JONAS MEKAS: It was very easy, already getting together, creating a co-operative, New American Cinema group. That was in 59, 60, 61, 62. We got to know eachother at the screenings. There were various places in which we screened our films. Everybody was always there. If there was a screening for the avant garde, experimental, what they used to call independent, personal film, everybody was there. They knew, then they were there, so it was very easy to meet and to know eachother. It was our, you know, we were all interested in the same kind of, more or less, cinema, so we knew eachother. So when it came to the creation of teh filmmakers co-operative all we had to do was let everybody know, come on that day, and we were meeting to discuss the possibility of creating our own distribution centre, everybody was there, like a large family. And in those days it was not thousands, there were only a few, couple of dozen filmmakers, not thousands like now. Millions.

TP: When you were writing the Film Culture magazine, writing for the Village Voice, you championed what was considered, at the time, underground film-

JM: Passing information, yes yes.

TP: Do you think that kind of filmmaking still exists in modern times?

JM: Modern? Modern? What kind of expression is that?

TP: I mean, just, now. Now, do you think there is such a thing as underground film, or do you think underground film has become more a genre than an actual thing?

JM: Underground today is on the internet. Not in cinema, because film does not practically exist anymore, so it's video, video, it's all in certain. Underground today maybe is Youtube. If you look for some equivalent I would say Youtube.

TP: I think that's different though.

JM: Well of course, different medium, different dissemination.

TP: But everybody is far apart, nobody meets eachother the same way.

JM: Yes.

TP: Do you think it's an important thing, for people to get toether?

JM: They get together through the medium of the internet.

TP: But they never meet eachother.

JM: It's different, they don't have to meet eachother.

TP: Do you not think that's a little sad though?

JM: When you have one million of them, how can they get together? It's a different, completely different situation. You can always invite on your website, locate say a place in Soho in London and at a certain hour, time, be there, I'm there, I would like to meet you, those who are in close vicinity.

TP: That's true.

JM: I challenge you...

TP: There's no need to challenge me, I already tried.

JM: OK, OK, so you, now... so it's a different time, different medium, somewhere else and you cannot recreate the past. You could make find examples if you would go back to, OK, we are talking about what we did in the '60s, so now you go back to 40 and we are now 40 years, 50 years from there. Now go back 50 from the '60s and we are in 1910! In 1910 it was unimaginable, it was not what happened in the '60s, 65, so it was, I don't know maybe not such a big gap as 65 and 2008, but I mean 1905 and 1965 there was an immense gap, almost similar to this one.

TP: Speaking of 1910, the film we saw tonight, your "Birth of a Nation", it had a scene where you filmed Charlie Chaplin, and it seemed to me like maybe your films had something in common with Chaplin in that you had these cameras and you just figured out what to do with them by yourself, there was no 'I'm going to be a filmmaker so I have to stick to these rules', it's a case of working out what you want to do...

JM: I don't get what you're saying now.

TP: Well, when Charlie Chaplin started making films, all he had was a camera and himself and his friends and he figured out how to make films...


TP: And when you were making films, you had a camera and you figured out what to do with it yourself, and along the lines various people have done that. Do you see any of that happening now, or do you think-

JM: Yes, people are still, only now it's a different instrument, now it's a video and different varieties of digital taping, little cameras, whatever, telephones, different means of capturing moving images, and it's happening and everybody's doing it, there's no... Only now that it's so easy and for Chaplin it was not so easy and cost a lot of money.

TP: I really liked that actually, where he was sort of kissing everyone from the balcony, it seemed like a nice reference... I wanted to ask, your films always seem a little bit romantic to me, like the way that you film people and the world, it's obvious you have quite an affection for it.

JM: Yeah but still they're real, what I film is reality, they're real, the camera is real, the lens is real, the recording's real, so it's reality. The idea of romanticism is in your head.

TP: Maybe romanticism is the wrong word, maybe optimism?

JM: Even that is only in your head because what I film is reality.

TP: That's true, but the way you film it...

JM: Haha, try to get out of that.

TP: It's subjective, it's not in my head, that's from your head.

JM: What I choose to film, you mean that the moments which I'm filming, the people during that moment are very, in a very romantic situation?

TP: No no, not a romantic situation. Let me try to phrase it in a different way. You make the things that you film look very beautiful.

JM: Beautiful? No, I don't make them beautiful. The camera catches what there is. I don't make, I don't ask them to put on make-up or behave one or other way, a sweet or beautiful way, I catch reality as it is!

TP: Maybe it is in my head...

JM: No, no, we are discussing a very important subject, because I have been, I have read many times people write this, I'm a romantic, da da da, but still, I film only what there is, I don't make it up. No directing there, only life as it is.

TP: But you choose what parts to film.

JM: Well, you have to choose, otherwise I'd have to film 24 hours non-stop. I don't do that, I just choose certain moments that say, moments to which I react that I feel like I should record for myself those moments. I don't say you're wrong but I'm trying to understand how this works, why people refer to it as romantic.

TP: I think because you film some people on a day out with their babies, or you film children learning to do things, or swimming in the sea...

JM: Yeah but that's all real, I'm filming life, daily, realistic. I'd even consider the possibility to call myself a realist, naturalist filmmaker.

TP: Yes, it's entirely realistic in that those things are real and do happen, but there are a lot of other things that happen.

JM: Yes but I'm not interested, I cannot cover all, I'm not interested in absolutely everything, you know I cannot film or be interested in everything, I would have to film 24 hours a day.

TP: But the parts that you do film seem to be the more optimistic parts. I mean, I haven't seen all of your films so can't say.

JM: Optimistic, that's a very very... I mean, what you mean probably is parts in which people are happy and they're celebrating and alive, they're singing or you know, there is no...

TP: Yes, they celebrate life, but not life as being happy, but you know the interesting parts, even if somebody's sad, it's interesting, they're not just sitting there moping.

JM: No, I'm not interested in recording miserable moments. That doesn't mean that I'm a romantic.

TP: I guess what I'm getting at is, a lot of people my age who've seen your older films, it's like what you were saying in the talk today about how you don't want to get nostalgic about anything. People look on these films as kind of nostalgic visions of a time they weren't born...

JM: Yes.

TP: Do you still see the same things now? When you made your 365 films, did you still look at the world the same way, do you still see the same things as interesting?

JM: Yes, in that respect there is no change. I don't see any change. I'm still recording those moments when people are happy, singing, dancing. I see no difference, no change, and actually maybe increased- No, no change. I want a copy of this. Can you send me a copy of this?

TP: Of course. I was going to ask about politics, and i know you said up front you've got no interest in specific politics in a sort of Godard way-

JM: I am and I am not. My understanding of what, to me there are positive politics and negative politics and I'm not interested in negative politics. Negative politics to me are all those politics that are now considered as politics. Positive politics are the politics of Buckminster Fuller, of the beat generation, of John Cage, of Fluxus and many scientists and poets, those that change our deep, they have contributed more to the change of style of living, of attitude to life, to what we are than all those others, the negative politicians, the real politicians are only contributing to it negatively.

TP: That sort of answered the question I was going to ask. I was going to say the films you make are very personal, and this reminds me of your films, you know the Truffaut quote about the films of the future will be filmed by one person and they will reflect their experience to the whole world but-

JM: But he said that at the time when that was happening. He was a little bit out of touch with what was happening, but that's OK, we can forgive him.

TP: I always found his films not that interesting...

JM: 100 Blows is a great, great movie still. If he would not have, he did not have to make anything else after that, and I don't care about all the other films that he made after that.

TP: I haven't actually seen that one...

JM: You haven't seen it?? That's why you don't like Truffaut. That's the only film that you should see and forget all the rest. And that film is a masterpiece.

TP: I'll make sure I do.

JM: Do that in the next 10 days.

TP: So your films are obviously made from a very personal point of view.

JM: Every film is.

TP: But the times you were filming in were very politically active times, and the times and people you were filming, there's inevitably an element of those politics in your films. Do you think that film in itself, and you've sort of already answered this, do you think it's passive and records what's going on, or do you think it's-

JM: Film, or a piece of videotape or film, and there is a camera, it's of course passive, but you use it. It's you who does something with it. Of course it's passive, but then you take it, put it in your camera, you point at something and you do something with it and than it's all you. The camera of course is always passive, but what you do with it...

TP: Do you think it can affect change?

JM: There is nothing in the whole universe, absolutely nothing and it has been proved by the scientists, I think all of them agree, that there is nothing under the sun that doesn't affect, that doesn't have an effect on anything else. Is there something?


JM: Black holes?

SM: When something enters

JM: Then it does not have an effect?

BENN NORTHOVER: But doesn't time come into the effect, it happens?

JM: Yeah, but we are so far away from black holes.

BN: Well, (inaudible) films...

JM: Forget it, we don't want to get into the black holes, which they are going to create in Geneva, the little ones...

TP: In terms of ways of getting films out there, I don't know if they're up there with your consent or what, but quite a few of your 365 films are up on Youtube.

JM: I don't know who puts them there and I don't care. Sometimes I notice they're putting parts of them there, they're not in their entirety, but they're there, and I don't know how the system of Youtube works, and in my case I don't care because I don't have millions of people buying my work, and I know that some commercial filmmakers are very concerned and they have forced now Youtube to, there is right now a big something going on about the copyright and how to stop this, and I'm not very interested, but it's going, something is happening, they want to prevent it, or get money from it, or stop it, take off, whatever. That's not my concern because I'm too small.

TP: Maybe it suits a certain type of filmmaker. I read an interview with Harmony Korine where he said he wanted to use Youtube.

JM: But unfortunately his films are not produced by himself, there are producers of his films and they would not do that, they want money back, so if he would produce himself, he could put it there, like I put everything there. I have no producers, I am the producer, Korine has a producer. But I like him.

TP: Is it true that you have hundreds of hours of footage produced with him?

JM: Not hundreds, but at least 50 hours of footage of Korine, maybe more.

BN: The last time we saw Harmony he was saying that you would release it together.

JM: The last time was like only a month ago, he was signing a book.

TP: What you're doing at the minute, I watched a lot of videos through Youtube, the progression in style is quite noticeable, especially I think that your literal voice comes through more, you speak more. How do you find that, and where do you see it going?

JM: I don't know yet, I don't know yet.

TP: Doing the 365 films in 365 days too was very impressive.

JM: And it was challenging. And I'm a Capricorn. When I put my mind on something I don't want to give up and I don't want to let people down, I want to, I'm sticking to it, so it was to do it and not to miss a single day, a Capricorn cannot miss a single day, and I had to do it, no matter what.

TP: Being a filmmaker, you've said that some people are artists and some people aren't and either you're born one or you're not...

JM: One cannot produce an art movement artificially, neither with money nor schools.

TP: But do someone who said they wanted to be a filmmaker, what would you think would be the most important qualities?

JM: Those who really really are artists, filmmakers, they don't say that, they don't say "I want to be", they just do, they know, they are, and that's the only thing they want to do. The same in music, the same in poetry. "I want to be a poet". You either are a poet, you are a filmmaker, you just do it and you don't say "I want to", you say "I am". "I want to", they won't say that. So those that say that, put a cross on them, finished. They are not filmmakers.

Illustrations by Katherine Hardy

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