Interviews

Jonas Mekas on the Poetry of Filmmaking and Living

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Still from ‘Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches’ by Jonas Mekas (image courtesy the artist)

Throughout the entirety of his decades-long career, the avant-garde filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas has purveyed a world of his own specific making. In the storied, hours-long film Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, the immediacy of each moment — sunlight on a girl’s legs, Stan Brakhage walking through a park, a cat nibbling on Mekas’ croissant, women rallying for peace in Times Square, John Lennon and Yoko Ono enacting their bed-in — is bestowed with poetic significance. Mekas states in the same film: “I live, therefore I make films; I make films, therefore I live.”

There is no real separation between his art and life, or between the mundane and extraordinary. Mekas, one of the artists who helped jumpstart the Fluxus movement, still uploads video diaries to his website, documenting conversations, snowstorms, and flowers on windowsills. In this sense, his work feels as relevant as it did upon his 1949 arrival in New York; while media has shifted dramatically, Mekas keeps working, adapting to every passing decade.

Born Christmas Eve, 1922, in Semeniskiai, Lithuania, Mekas was interned at a Nazi labor camp before living in a Belgian Displaced Persons camp, studying philosophy at the University of Mainz, and immigrating to the US with his brother. In addition to Mekas’s numerous films (and cofounding the Anthology Film Archives in New York), he has published over 20 volumes of written work; he often uses the terms “filmmaker” and “poet” interchangeably. There is a scene in Walden — it is wintertime in the park and crowds of people move this way and that. His voice narrates: “Cinema is light, movement … light, heart beating, breathing, life, frames.” One might argue that, at its core, human life is comprised of little else.

Obsolete Media Miami, a self-described “experimental art project, a picture and moving image archive, and resource for artists, designers, and filmmakers,” will present a screening of Walden at the Miami Design District’s Palm Court this Saturday. The screening runs concurrently with Jonas Mekas: Let Me Introduce Myself, an exhibition featuring his short film, Destruction Quartet, at Gallery Diet. In light of these events, we spoke with Mekas about the passage of time and the inherent poetry of both filmmaking and living.

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Still from ‘Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches’ by Jonas Mekas (image courtesy the artist)

Monica Uszerowicz: You’ve felt artistically inspired since childhood, writing and drawing even then. In what ways has your own past inspired you to live the way you do?

Jonas Mekas: All of my past is in me. And whatever I do is determined and tinted by it. But there are also things in me that were inherited or given to me by angels, which are completely out of my control. Whatever I do is a product of both Earth and heaven. I try to be completely with Earth, to live and work instant by instant, in the present moment — that’s where my diaristic preoccupations come from. The heaven part I cannot control.

MU: Much has been said about the nonlinear format of films like Walden. But you’ve said yourself you don’t see time as linear, anyway. Can you reflect on your perception of time?

JM: I work completely linearly. I film, I videotape, day after day, and I string all those pieces together, and when they are seen, they are seen in linear time, second after second after second. But my living — much of the time I do not live in a linear way. I live ecstatically! Vertically!

MU: In an interview with The New York Times, you said, “I choose art and beauty … against the ugliness and horrors in which we live today.” At Gallery Diet, you’re screening Destruction Quartet. In front of the lens, can devastating experiences take on the quality of beauty?

JM: All my work, with the exception of the Destruction Quartet, is a celebration of life around me, a celebration of life in its different joyful manifestations. I do, however, believe that destruction has its own positive, unfathomable reason of being. Destruction of the Berlin Wall was certainly a positive event. Destruction Quartet is a meditation on four different aspects of destruction.

MU: You said the haiku is “the art-form which absolutely comes closest to reality and is also the formal ecstasy of what poetry can achieve.” How is film like poetry?

JM: Poetry is a state of being, of attitude. It’s an exalted, ecstatic state of living, of seeing, of experiencing: [an] intense, intensified way of seeing, perceiving reality, both in art and living. There is poetry in literature, in cinema, in dance, in all of the arts. In literature, haiku form is the most condensed form. Many different emotions and experiences of real life are locked in those few syllables.

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Still from ‘Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches’ by Jonas Mekas (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

MU: In Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, you wrote, “The democratic possibility for everyone to have a chance at self-expression through art doesn’t yet mean that each of us can make his ‘art’ anything beyond personal therapeutic action.” With new technology, art has become even more democratized. What do you enjoy about this? What is disappointing?

JM: Art is not democratic. One has to learn to see, to hear, to perceive. But it’s there, and accessible to everybody; that’s the democratic part of it. All the tools — typewriters, brushes, pencils, bodies, cameras, computers — are also available to all, or almost all. I think it’s good that it’s available, including YouTube. And what’s done with those tools is all about the same. But then, somewhere, somebody, very invisibly, makes something that transcends the tools, the bodies, the media, and produces something that is full of paradisiacal whispers, ecstasies …

MU: Also in Movie Journal, you discuss “the spiritualization of the image” — that we are nearing the ability to create cinema directly from our dreams or visions, adding that movie making has less to do with technology and more to do with the human spirit. I was hoping you could comment on whether you feel filmmaking has reached this “spiritualization.”

JM: Nothing can be recorded unless light can fall upon it and bounce back into the lens. Things and situations, to be filmed or taped, have to be real. You cannot film dreams, imaginations. But what I choose to film or tape, and how I film it or tape it — that’s something else. One can just blow into a saxophone, or one can play it like Armstrong. That’s where “the spirit” — or call it “Muses” — come in. Either they come or they don’t come. But in order for them to come, you have to be ready, you have to prepare yourself for them, you have to work on it constantly and all the time. No imagination will produce it.

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Still from ‘Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches’ by Jonas Mekas (image courtesy the artist)

MU: You’ve been known to encourage hopefulness even in bleak times, stating that the Aquarian Age is still on the horizon. Do you still feel this way? Many of us feel discouraged about the state of the world, and take comfort in the honesty of work like yours.

JM: You ask me about the affairs of this world. They are, of course, pretty grim. And I would certainly despair if I believed that everything on Earth depends only on humans. And of course, all the miseries in which we are, on all continents, are caused by us, by humans. But I have read my Jakob Boehme, and I have read all the prophets, and I have heard whispers of flowers and winds and songs of birds, and I have seen sunrises and I have sat by peaceful brooks and yesterday I was walking through a Brooklyn street and I saw crocuses blooming, and forsythias, and a very fragile, gentle blue flower, the name of which I do not know — so I know that there is something much stronger, much more unfathomable, than us, the humans. So do not despair!

Obsolete Media Miami will screen Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches at Palm Court (140 NE 39th St, Miami Design District) from 7pm–10:30pm. More information and tickets available hereJonas Mekas: Let Me Introduce Myself continues at Gallery Diet (6315 NW 2nd Ave, Miami) through April 30. 

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