mercredi 2 mars 2011

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt - Here and There

Jonas Mekas

Pip Chodorov: 1. What remains today of what was the great era of the New American Cinema. What remains from a theoretical, aesthetic, political and cultural point of view?

Jonas Mekas:
Now that is like with the growth of a of a tree or a person. A young tree, a young person, a young person, let’s say 15 years old, I would say that is where I would put the new American Cinema of 1965, the new American Cinema – like a 15 or 17 year-old young person, very rebellious and not trusting the parents. And then this person grows up, grows up and maybe this person is now 40 or 50 years old and of course, this person who is now 50 or 60 years old has still – has developed from the person who was 15 or 17 and maybe in the closet somewhere keeps little memories and memorabilia, some toys from the – from the age when he or she was 10 or 12 or 15, but this person is now a grown-up person. So we have the newer man, the cinema of today in United States, same as everywhere else, has incorporated all the linguistic, thematic, technological, stylistic achievements of 1960 and incorporated and transcended and is completely somewhere else. A person who is 60 is no longer the same who was 15, though he contains inside, inside of that person… whatever, whatever I do now, today. began long, long ago, it’s all in me and I am somewhere else and doing something else. Ok. That is answer to question one.

2. How does it feel when so many travel companions have left the scene? From Warhol to Ginsberg, and most recently Brakhage? What do you think was their lesson?

There is no lesson, only the work. They all did their work, they all contributed to their own fields, be it poetry or cinema and actually we are talking about three very, very important persons in their fields. Warhol, Ginsberg, Brakhage. They defined the poetry, the painting, the cinema of their times and they pushed it forward again thematically, technically in any way that you can look at it. The cinema today would not be what it is without Brakhage or Warhol or poetry wouldn’t be what it is without Ginsberg, without Howl, without Howl.

3.Your role as critic and cultural activist were central to the spread of the underground cinema, and even more. Do you think you sacrificed time from your activity as filmmaker or have you always seen the two activities as parts of the same thing?

I have never been able to analyze myself and understand myself. Why I do what I do. I always did things that had to be done and nobody else was doing. Nobody was writing about the… Now I will interrupt here: this term underground. Those terms are always very very artificial – we never considered ourselves underground filmmakers. We were always filmmakers. Those terms: underground, experimental, avant-garde are always added from, you know, from the outside for the public, wider public. You know when you try to make them understand what we are doing or… Those terms they come and go. We consider ourselves in the first place filmmakers. So, I never understood, I never analyzed myself and I cannot do that. I am the worst person when it comes to self analyses of myself. So I started writing for the Village Voice because nobody else was writing and it had to be, that information had to be passed to the people. I began Film Culture magazine because there was no other magazine, periodical, journal writing about cinema while there was already Cahiers du Cinema in Paris and Sight and Sound in London, United States had nothing. So I had no choice but to start. I had to start Filmmakers’ Cooperative because nobody else wanted to distribute our films. I had no choice. Later with the screenings, with the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, with Anthology Film Archives, when nobody wanted to show our films and preserve our films there was no choice – it had to be done. So what I do is only when there is no choice and nobody else is doing it, so I am doing it. Now my poetry and my filmmaking is on the side. On the side, because let’s face it, if I would be making films all the time, I would have by now so many films that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. So it’s good that I am, you know, busy with other things. Plus I have a clear conscience, I can make my films and write my poetry because I am doing some other things for the, for my friends. My friends, not the society, I don’t care about the society, I don’t know the society, humanity, I don’t care about humanity. I do what I do for my friends. And for myself, but not think about myself but some crazy necessity to do those things that I do. Ok, we can go and go and there is no end.

4. Do you think that experimental cinema is still alive and well today?

I have to begin with now, let’s see what the Italian says: “Pensa che il cinema sperimentale oggi…” yeah, that’s the key. Cinema sperimentale… We do not experiment, we do not experiment. We are not interested really in experimental cinema. The best of the – well when you talk about film, approximately we say “avant-garde” and “avant-garde film,” when we talk about Brakhage, or Kubelka or with Bruce Baillie or Isidore Isou, yes, yes, we don’t talk about experimental film because we are not experimenting. We do what we feel should be done and how it should be done. We have problems some times, you know, when we work really going towards achieving, towards what we think should be done and how it should be done, but there is no experimentation. Experimentation takes place sometimes in science and I could say that maybe sometimes in Hollywood, when they try different versions of the film in order to achieve the maximum public interest, but what we do, we just… When a poet writes a poem, when a composer composes, when a filmmaker makes a film, there is no experimentation involved. We just pursue our, ok call it a vision or the image or the shape or the images that we see and we want to achieve them, and we just go after them and we get them. So of course that cinema that began with Lumières and maybe even before Lumières is continuing, and cinema, that is the art of moving images, will continue with different technologies, different instruments to make moving images and you know computers and videos etc, and we use them all, we are very happy to use them all and they are all equally good. Same as in painting you can inks, you can use oils, you can use – you can ground, like Della Francesca local, you know, stones that you find and you feel them, and use them, and you paint with them, etc, etc. So it’s all available and it is here today and it will be here tomorrow. You can call it experimental cinema – I don’t mind it because that terminology means nothing it’s all nonsense.

5. Your cinema is a work in progress. Something that seems to have no beginning and no end and that travels parallel to your life. How would you define it?

Parallel – actually it’s in the middle. It’s my life, my cinema is my life. That’s what you do. What is one’s life, it’s what you do, your friends, your relationships, what you eat, what, how you behave, your filming – it’s my life. It’s not parallel, it’s the center. It is, it’s part, it’s the center of my life. And of course the question states that it seems to have no beginning and no end. I have to contradict this statement in this question because it had a beginning and it will have an end. It began when I saw, when I got, when I rented my first Bolex in 1950, late ’49, and I began filming, and of course, it will end when I die. So it has a beginning and it will have an end. And as long as I am alive and I have my videos and my video cameras and my Bolex, I will continue doing it and that’s my life.

6. Can you speak to us about Italian Notebook? It is a project bringing together images shot in our country, and which should be nearing completion soon… At what period did you go back to these shots and how did you edit them together?

We are talking here about footage that I shot in Italy in 1966 and 1967. I have been in Italy many times after that but I have not edited that footage. The footage that I have edited now, and is part of something that I call the Travels, my travels, Travels, and is being shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, during the summer and it will be shown in Rome in November, in Roma, is about 15 minutes from 1966 and ‘67. I had much more footage but I reduced it to about 15, maybe actually like 18 minutes. It’s silent. I have struggled very much with the sound part of it, but I had recorded many sounds during the same period in Italy, but I decided to be with silence. So that’s about all I could… a lot of single frame activity and that’s about it.

7. From the past few years - with the spread of digital video - the original distrust of video by many of your colleagues has disappeared. You also shoot now with a video camera. But I’m also thinking of an indomitable filmmaker like Ernie Gehr. Do you believe video is also better adapted to the diary form of filmmaking?

No, you can write a diary with your pen, with your typewriter, with your video, with your Bolex, with any… I mean, diary, what is a diary? Diary is a notebook that you keep when you have time, you know, you pick up little pieces of material as you go through your life if it’s a camera, or you write down in the evening what you remember, etc. But as far as the video of course in 1970, between 1970 and 1980, filmmakers, the avant-garde filmmakers in New York had a very irrational attitude to video. They put it down, they thought that it’s inferior, that they are superior, that cinema, motion picture camera is superior to video camera, which, you know, I never subscribed to. I always said that every tool of making images produces different kind of images and they are all equally valid, that an 8mm camera is not inferior to the 70mm camera, that it all depends on what you want to do. Same as inks, you can then, a painter can use, you know, an ink brush or an oil, or Michelangelo goes and paints the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel with oils or whatever – they all have their purpose, depends what you want to do. So the mistrust of video began disappearing around maybe 1985, somewhere there, when the video art came on its, I would say, had already created a body of video art like classics, and one could have a perspective on what has been achieved. So the filmmakers began – or those who really mistrusted video like Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, two major filmmakers, they slowly went into video and now they say it’s ok, video is ok. So it’s a question of accepting new tools of making moving images. And I think that video – computers have not yet been, computer imagery has not been yet accepted by major avant-garde filmmakers in United States – that I think is a question of time, question of time.

8. Do you like the ways in which artists are using video or do you believe that there is an inflation of the moving image in contemporary art?

Contemporary art? There is so little of it. It’s all installations, there is no – I don’t even know. I mean, Since Joseph Beuys everybody is an artist, so I, when somebody says “Do you like the ways in which artists are using videos?” I don’t know what we are talking about. Because there are… but in 1968 in United States there was a questionnaire by Popular Photography and six million people answered that they think they are artists. So today there should be like twenty million artists at least. So now video – also the same questionnaire asked who has 8mm cameras and we found out – through Popular Photography – that in 1968 there were about eight million 8mm cameras in United States. Now that is not that many less than video cameras today. Now, but I think that video.. Naim Jun Paik in 19.. even still in 1980 he used to laugh at us sort of jokingly because, you know, he is a smart guy, that you know, our films will fade and self destruct and the video will survive. And now our films are still there and video is sticking and peeling off and is not surviving. So, and I have seen 8mm films from 1940 and 1930 – 1935 in perfect in Kodak, Kodak emulsions – perfect color, beautiful color from India, from various places – they are still surviving. And the video materials that I have myself filmed in 1987 are already fading. So, of course there are many many millions of video cameras, but I think that very, very little will survive. It’s identical, the same thing as with 8mm cameras, home footage, home footage of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s etc. So it’s ok, there is no problem and most of the – much of the video cameras are being used in installations now. And of course it’s valid, anything that is – anything under the sun that is available for reaching, a painting or an installation or, of course anybody can use it and it’s good, and it’s the end result that is important, it’s working or not working. And so it’s perfectly legitimate. I am one who is totally completely open to in any work of art to use anything that is around us. No restrictions should be put forward. Inflation of the moving image? To begin with, I miss, when I go to any bienalle, when I go to any museum of new works, I miss, I crave for light and color, light and color. Paintings, old-fashioned paintings. Color, color. I want to see color because color does something to you. I crave and I don’t see it. I don’t think that there is a single painting at the Venice Biennale this year. Ok there are some paintings, I saw it, but there is no color and there is no sense of light, there is no sense of light. It’s all installations, it’s all intellectual, all political. I give up on contemporary art, I give up on contemporary art.

9. Has your relationship with the Lithuanian culture and community, that you have described on various occasions over the years, remained unchanged?

Yes, I mean I am still very close to what’s happening in Lithuania and I do not always understand it and they don’t always understand what I am doing because you see there is something about small countries that they are very possessive. If you leave them they immediately declare that you are an outcast, that you have betrayed them, you have left them and they give up on you like, ok, Fluxus movement, George Macuinas, they don’t even want to know much about him. Some people, because they think that he did most of his work in New York, in United States, therefore he is an American. But he always considered himself a Lithuanian, same as myself, I consider myself Lithuanian and a New Yorker, not an American, But to them they are beginning to even call me an American - it’s ok I don’t mind it - but I am a New Yorker and I am a Lithuanian. So during the last ten years, five or six of my books have been published in Lithuanian and most of my relationship is with the young generation, the younger generation. I had a play. My play, my play - I have a play - opened a theatrical season in Vilnius this last season and it was the most successful theatrical production during the last ten years over there. But most of the audience was a very young audience, not the older generation, and I thought it is good now there is theater reviving, finally people are coming to the theater, but they were mostly young people. So it’s a very sort of curious relationship that my contacts and my work there is mostly with youth and younger generation. The older generation I don’t have much contact.

10. Do you think that in the USA today it is still easy to make culture and above all “counter-culture”? Is there still space and opportunity for a really independent filmmaker like you?

I am not that independent, I depend on so many things. I depend on all the great poets, all the great filmmakers, all the great composers. I am not independent at all. But counter-culture… You see the word “counter” in English has another meaning also and that is if you go to the store, you know superstore, you pay, they say a “counter” this is business going there. So the counter-culture in the United States I think is very much business. I don’t see a great counter-culture there. There is, I would say, a question of the difference of generations. Generation, I think that people under 25 are much more international, I would almost talk about some international maybe culture, but I don’t see any specific counter, specific United States counter-culture, unless I, you know, I don’t have the right context. But since all my contacts are usually very young, under 30, I think I have, I have some understanding what’s going on there. That maybe counter-culture, what was in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a political radical movement, counter-culture today is a very conservative, conservative republican kind of young generation which could be considered counter-culture. No I really don’t see counter-culture. You know, I see that the younger generation is very international and does not neither – ok let’s take an example, of Iraq, and Israel and Palestine. I don’t think any of them are really taking any clear… any of them really understand what’s going, because I think that they all see that they are all lying, that they’re all - it’s all a political game and it’s very difficult to take one stand or the other. So it’s like they are watching but it’s very difficult, they are not taking any… I think that those who are marching and those who protested, went to Washington against the Iraq war, they were sort of outcast leftovers from ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘60s radical movements and some of the younger, of course, people joined from inertia, but there is no real understanding of what side to take, because they are all… they are all there is so much fake fake fakedness. So, I mean let’s face it, how can you ask Palestine to, to… how can you support Israel if Israel has ignored more United Nations resolutions than Iraq ever did. Now I consider myself a Palestinian. I am a Palestinian. Imagine you are a Palestinian and Israeli comes into your house, to your house, and says I would like to buy your house, then your farm. And Palestinian says, no this is my house, this is my farm, I am not going to sell it. Why would I sell my house? Ok, you don’t want to sell your house let’s go out - it’s mine now, I have soldiers behind me, I will take it. I mean what country, in what civilization can a situation like this be accepted? So, I don’t understand, I don’t understand the western civilization, I don’t understand United States, I don’t understand any country, and of course Israel. These are criminal activities that are happening every day so I… I, I quit on politics, because it’s all very… it’s all criminal.

11. What do you think in general about the rising hatred or at least the incomprehension that the rest of the world is nurturing for your country?

My country? My country is cinema. My country is cinema, my country is culture, my country is poetry, my country is not United States, my country is not Europe, even Lithuania is not my country – that was where I was born. I am completely somewhere else now, so let’s not talk about that. But I can talk about… It’s all a question of power, it’s all a question of politics and… I mean take any country, I mean ok, France. France opposed United States in Iraq, or Iraq in it, but why? For what reason, what was behind? You know, it’s a business reason, political reason, so it’s all a joke, for me it’s all a joke, I am not interested in it, I am not in politics and I am in poetry. Poetry will save the world. Ok, that’s it.

12. On July 1st your film on the Living Theatre will be projected in Naples. Can you speak to us a little about your relationship with Beck and Malina’s group?

The Living Theater is being honored, is being celebrated, in Naples in July this year and it has been very important in my life. The Living Theater was a very young theater group in New York that began about 1950 and my first contact was around ‘53. They were located on Broadway and 100th street, uptown New York. The first thing I saw was in 1953, The Ghost by Strindberg, and in ‘56 and ‘57 Brakhage had his first New York show at the Living Theater there. That’s where I met Brakhage, that’s where I saw the first five films of Brakhage and that’s what changed my attitude to cinema, so it was a very important place for me. It was an electrifying image, the first five films of Brakhage at the Living Theater. It was organized by Marie Menken, Hans Richter, and Willard Maas. And then it continued of course. So later I filmed several of the Living Theater productions: The Brig, Frankenstein, Mysteries and that’s what’s being shown in Naples. Mysteries originally was a silent piece, there was no sound. You could only hear the feet of the performers. So I asked Phillip Glass to do a soundtrack for it sort of, he improvised the soundtrack which will be played with the film at the Naples presentation. Which actually will be… well actually there was one screening of the film at the Agnes b. gallery, then there was a very strange screening at the Venice Biennale with no sound, no Phil Glass and half of the time out of focus I guess, which I considered the third worst projection of my films ever, the Venice Biennale – so that this screening in Naples will practically be like world premiere.

13. I imagine you still have mountains of filmed material from over the years still unedited. Will we someday get to see it on the big screen?

Yes, I still have a lot, I still have a lot. But now I have even more video, so there is a lot, there is a lot, you will see more of it during the coming years.

14. Which of today’s young experimental filmmakers do you esteem most highly?

Now the question here is what do we mean when we say “today’s”? Because that has been actually a a very interesting problem in the arts today. Do we just look at it like go back only two or three years or do we go ten or fifteen years? In other words, should an artist become immediately famous, like one begins to paint and two years or three years later the artist wants to have already a retrospective at the Whitney or Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and that has been a a phenomenon, a new, new thing in the arts is this immediacy now that everybody wants to be recognized immediately. So, but when I speak about today, be it painting or cinema, today to me is like, I give ten, I could even stretch to fifteen years. Because it takes time, there are, you know, you begin then you begin to develop and search, it becomes clear what you are all about. So in any case question, if there is a question about today’s young experimental filmmakers then I would talk about filmmakers of the beginning of let’s say 1980s, last twenty years. And there is a good number of them. I would not, I won’t bring here individual names, but I will just say this: that before 19.. let’s say 85, between 1970 and maybe ‘85 there was a period of political activities that affected very much the avant-garde, what you call experimental film, that is with the women’s liberation, the gay-lesbian liberation, the minority cinemas, the black, the Asian American – I am talking now about the American situation scene because I think very similar scenes, situations took place in other countries in Europe, etc. And the emphasis was always very political, that we have not been recognized, we are equal, we have to be recognized and we are as good as anybody else. By, I would say ‘85, ‘90 if you come to ’90, that period almost was coming to an end, everybody has made their statements, everybody more or less got recognized: that’s ok, you are black, that’s ok you can also make films, you are gay but of course you can also, you know, make films. So we are entering now a period when all those different groups can begin to think also about cinema. Cinema did not matter during that period, the political aspects, politics dominated. So I wrote that period off, myself, though I know the importance, it was important, it had to be done, but to me it was not that interesting because as cinema very often it was not all that interesting. There are exceptions like any, like the newsreel in December 1970, Newsreel Group documenting political activities was created. But only the very first ones, like three or four films, that were cinematically sort of interesting, there was a certain energy, and later it became a routine kind of political activity. Same in all those other areas. So I think that it will take some time to to see what really happened during the last ten years. And because I usually used to say that in 1965 I could tell absolutely I had seen all the avant-garde films and all the documentary films, I knew who was doing what in Chicago, in San Francisco, in New York, today that is not possible - that was not possible already in 1980 and today it’s totally impossible for all the different groups. So you have to go to the Asian Americans to find out what is really happening there to find out what has been achieved, you have to go to the various women’s groups to find out what there, to gay and lesbians there, it’s such a split, such a division, not like in 1964 when you went to the filmmakers cooperative and everybody was there. So of course one can name certain filmmakers but I won’t name them yet.

15. Do you like the fact that for the past few years, mainstream cinema has been calling more on the techniques and languages of experimental cinema or rather is this harmful? I’m also thinking of the MTV esthetic.

It’s like this. Already in 1965 or somewhere there, Gregory Markopolous used to walk into the Filmmakers’ Cooperative office and say “Look, I was watching television and you see they have been stealing from us, they have all the techniques from Vanderbeek, single frame already there, they are stealing from us, we should sue them maybe.” And that is where it began. So I used to say: “Look, but nobody can even reproduce the films or or or to use – it’s part of the vocabulary it’s whatever is contributed by Vanderbeek or by Brakhage or by Markopolous, it’s incorporated into the vocabulary of cinema, these are clips of cinema and it’s open for everybody to use in their own way and when you look at them you won’t say that this is a Vanderbeek film, because it is a completely different thing.” Actually Markopolous ended up by suing, there was a case connected with him that had to do with a term “film as an art” or “film as art” there was a case in Germany where he sued for the use of the term. Like he used the term and nobody else could use it. But that goes against all the intellectual property laws, I mean if I could then sue, I mean if every philosopher, every poet would begin to sue for certain expressions, for terms, what would happen? Of course I did not support him and he was very angry about it, and he lost the case. But you know that it comes to that. It’s part of the cinematic language, whatever the avant-guard filmmakers have achieved and produced technically or in any other way is now a part of the language of cinema and nobody has - it’s public property and everybody can use it.

16. What do you think about the attention and the interest paid to home movies, that this form has finally been confirmed in this way for several years?

I’m not so sure that home movies have been really accepted as anything. The more that now everybody has there are now all these millions of video cameras I don’t see any change in the situation. Only some of the avant-garde again filmmakers have been discovering and using that footage to make some new works with it and to use it… to make something with it. I know that anthropologists… already I attended a conference in Philadelphia in 1972 and there was a conference on home movies by anthropologists. Anthropologists took them very seriously, because they felt that from the home movie maker’s footage on various, like, a birthday party or a wedding, or travels through, they can… there is information about the thinking and feeling of a certain period reflected in home movies that for anthropologists is more useful than to watch some Hollywood commercial movies of the same period. Anthropologists have been studying and collecting home movies already for a good thirty-forty years. But that’s a very specific scientific kind of usage.

17. Why have you begun to make video installations? What aspects are you most interested in exploring?

Video installations. I am not so sure that what I am doing is a video installation. If I have three different videos now running at Venice Biennale, each one is presenting a different, different content and I am not so sure if that is what really an installation is. To me an installation is a… is a video installation like is one thing with many, many aspects, details contributing to that one… ok, maybe it is, maybe it is, maybe it is a video installation. Because, ok the subject is utopia and I have three videos. One video – me talking about what I think about the idea of utopia, ok. That is sound and you can hear me talking actually against utopia. Then the other video is artist’s utopia Soho, New York – artist’s utopia which ended up as business utopia. Then the third video is Williamsburg, Brooklyn, immigrant’s utopia, 1950s, which then became an artist’s utopia and now it’s turning slowly into business utopia. So of course all three are connected so you could say that it’s an installation. Why did I do it? Because I was asked by Hans-Ulrich Obrist to contribute something, to join the project, and I thought you know that’s how it should be done. There was a necessity to fully, sort of, to as fully as my time allowed to present my thinking about utopia and it required sort of a mini-installation, so it is an installation. Yes, I guess it is an installation. But why not? Why not? I mean is it a big deal? I can do anything I want. Why not? Who is going to tell me no? We are so narrow. We lose our sense of humor – the worst thing in video and film and art in general is to lose your sense of humor. You should be free and open and do whatever you want. What’s the big deal, no rules, breaking rules is one of the most interesting things that I have discovered. It’s fun to break the rules! Now we can have wine. Now what else do you think they want to know? What else do you want to know, my Italian Friends? Now I don’t know why, now I will tell this on tape, that we… Now I live in New York the scene of 8mm film, Super-8, is very active. Then our friends from Paris, France, come and we find we bring their films and we see that the scene is also very active, very active, and maybe more active then in New York. Then we begin to see that it’s active in England also, and Germany but we have not heard yet anything about Italy. Now why? Why? I mean then the question is, is there really nothing happening in Italy or it somehow does not reach us, or does not reach even Paris? Now why? And that is a big question. That is my big question.

In Pesaro they were very impressed with all the French Super 8, people working in Super 8 and that you could get black and white film, and different film, because in Italy they said you can’t get Super 8 film, that in the past ten years it completely disappeared.

It’s a part of the problem, in South America, in all the Eastern European countries in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. The reason why there was no experimental avant-garde film was this tradition of working in 35mm film, because that’s professional, this professionalism. So out with professionalism! Spit on it, step on it! Professionalism, professional attitude. 35mm I think that affected very much, because it’s so much more expensive That is why don’t, we don’t – we still don’t see avant-garde from South America, or when we see it it’s in 35mm stiff, conventional, heavy, written, scripted and maybe the same problem we still have with Italy I think. Too much professionalism kills living cinema. Get rid of professionalism that’s my advice. Become amateurs again. Fools, become fools like me, and Pip and Benn.

An interview with Jonas Mekas by Pip Chodorov. Paris, July 2003. Trouvée sur Spoolpool.

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt - Here and There

mardi 1 mars 2011

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 ( What is it that intrigued you about this format?

Jonas Mekas:
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 of New 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 Capers in 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 or Sight 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?


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 like Reminiscences 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.

Stefan Grissemann and Rouge October 2008. 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.

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt - Here and There

Jonas Mekas

Juliet Helmke: What was the impetus behind borrowing money for that Bolex camera two weeks after you had arrived in New York?

Jonas Mekas:
Because I wanted to make movies! [Laughter.]

Helmke: Did you always want to pursue filmmaking?

Not always. I was born on a farm and when I came to New York I was already 27. So imagine the many, many things that preceded that. But I had arrived at that point where I wanted to make movies. And to make movies, you have to have a camera. Just to begin to fool around.

Noah Dillon: What was your youth in Lithuania like? How did you come to realize that you wanted to be an artist and/or a writer? Was there some pivotal moment or experience that encouraged you? Did your parents support this desire?

I think, and I am not saying this as a joke, I was first hit by the Muses when I was about 6 years old. One evening I improvised my first rural epic poem to my father, all very down to earth, very realistic, about the work my father did that day, going to the mill, taking horses into the pasture, etc. I remember that moment as if it happened today. I remember my voice, I remember the intensity, I remember how my father listened to it in amazement. He could hardly believe it. All I have been doing since is trying to approach the intensity, concentration, and ecstasy of that moment, of that evening. And yes, my father and my mother always knew I would be leaving the farm for something else, and they always supported me. Because I was needed on the farm I was taken to primary school only when I was 9. So I started reading and writing very late. But from age 6 I began keeping a diary in pictures, drawings. As soon as I learned to write, at age 9, I began writing it, and writing poetry. I published my earliest poetry in children’s magazines at age 12. I buried all my early diaries and writings, since they contained stuff against Soviets and Nazis, before running from Lithuania in 1944. I have no doubt they have well rotted by now.

Margaret Graham: In your films, old and new, there seems to be a distinct rejection of time as a linear entity; the past is the present is the future. Was this a conscious decision in the editing or did it manifest naturally as an extension of your personal philosophy?

Actually, I’m making video now. Video cameras record images on tape, movie cameras record on a filmstrip. Both films and videos are moving images, motion pictures. But the instruments are very different. The same is true for painting: the different means available all lead to the same end. As to conscious decision making, I do everything automatically and intuitively. I’m neither a psychologist nor philosopher and therefore don’t know much about it. I suspect that it’s a combination of unconsciousness and consciousness, guidance or knowledge. I don’t think I’m stupid. When I have a need to film something, it comes from the unconscious, but will go on to touch upon the conscious. It’s very difficult to distinguish them.

Taylor Bell: Your work seems to focus on the past and the concept of transience—the constant comings and goings of the people around you. Why do you think that is, and how does cinema allow you to re-discover this theme?

Really? Can you name me one example where people talk about the past? Besides, the video camera can film only the present, what’s there now. I cannot film the past. The footage that I’m recording right now while talking to you will be past in one year. So I have 60 years of past material, but nobody in it talks about the past. It’s always about now: drinking, singing, and so on. As time goes, it becomes past. And it will be.

Caroline Dumalin: Yet in the 365 Days Project, which is dedicated to your loved ones, your deceased friends and peers are equally present as the living. I’m referring to your visits to Jean Genet’s prison and Joseph Cornell’s house and the use of archival footage of Harry Smith and Nam June Paik. Do you consider video a supreme medium for remembrance, more so than any other today?

I happened to be there in Paris, in that area where Genet was in prison. I didn’t plan on videotaping it beforehand. It just happened. It’s nice to have some documentation of important figures, writers, poets, who have affected your life. They’re like your friends, so you record a memory, you pay tribute to them. It’s very normal.

Sara Christoph: Your relationship with the camera is indeed remarkably natural. It almost feels like an extension of you, as if it were an integral part of how you process the surrounding world. After the 365 Days Project was over, in January of 2008, did you go through any sort of withdrawal, or did you continue to film for a little bit?

No. [Laughter.]

Christoph: One of the films in the Pieces series posted on your website narrates your experiences in Andy Warhol’s Factory on East 47th Street. You discuss his screen tests as being one of his most original contributions to the art world, one that is often overlooked by museums. I’m wondering how these film portraits influenced you, and if there is a connection with your recent video work, considering the often direct relationship between your face and the camera?

I was just stating a fact. It was not a question of influence at all. Everybody’s doing their own thing. Although in some cases there are influences. One way or the other, all of us influenced each other continually, often by confirming something. For instance, around 1960, I began filming with my Bolex camera and became especially interested in orchestrating with single frames. Then I saw Marie Menken’s work, and she had been doing the same thing since 1955! It’s not necessarily influence, but a confirmation that you’re on the right track.

Dumalin: On the day marking the middle of your project, July, 2007, you admitted that you were still “struggling with the images of reality, how to imbue it with, transport it into poetry.”

Mekas: It’s a big struggle and I’m still struggling now. Poets have always struggled. The haiku, for example, is the art-form which absolutely comes closest to reality and is also the formal ecstasy of what poetry can achieve. In cinema, the camera can only film reality, that is, what is in front of it. But how to achieve this formally? It’s a question of essence and how to structure it, so that it can contain reality and at the same time transport it into a completely different plane! It is a challenge I think that poets have—and we will be facing it forever. I have been trying in the 365 Days Project, I continue to try today, and I will keep trying until the day I won’t be able to try anymore.

Dumalin: It’s interesting that you put the concentrated form of the haiku and reality side by side, seeing as life itself is often a bothersome storyteller, wearing us out with irrelevant plots, repetitions, and digressions. Did your struggle specifically involve finding beauty or highlights in each and every day of the year, like it usually does for most people?

Highlights come from what you are, what interests you. You go through life as a sleepwalker until something unexpectedly stops you, jumps at you, touches you, and then you look. There are sounds all around and suddenly you listen to something. Why? Because your whole past dictates to which things you are attracted at certain moments. You notice something and you don’t know why.

Dumalin: Like an antenna?

Ezra Pound’s “Artists are the antennas of the human race.” Yes, there is no answer as to why you suddenly stop, notice, or film something. It’s not just with haikus, there was also a period when the poet William Carlos Williams went down to reality.

Graham: Apart from the haiku, what are your thoughts on the dichotomy between form and content in art? Is one more important for you than the other?

In 2001, the architect Raimund Abraham invited me to teach a cinema course at the Cooper Union. The course title was something like “Beautiful, Inescapable, Absolute Relationship Between Technology, Form, Content, Style.” You cannot detach any of those things. As to technology, what you can do with 8mm, you cannot do with 35mm and vice versa. Likewise, what you can do with inks you cannot do with watercolors or oils. The tools already determine the subject. Every new tool, like video or internet, opens up completely new possibilities of content. And it brings with it something else that did not exist before. So it’s all interrelated, absolutely connected.

Graham: I believe that also goes for Ezra Pound’s idea of making everything new. In our day and age, artists are mostly concerned with the formal aspect because of the feeling that the content has all been done before, it’s all been said before. But how it’s said——

You cannot create new art just by concentrating on new forms! But on the other end, you see, this crazy concentration on new forms could pull in the content. Some people get obsessed with some formal thing. To really bring it to life, you may need a new technology.

Dillon: In that regard, can you explain what video means for you now as opposed to film in that early period?

It’s something very basic. For instance, the Bolex is very different from the Mitchell, which is one of the key cameras in Hollywood commercial cinema. When I carry my Bolex and see a moment happening, I subtly press my button and the camera rolls and captures what’s in front of it. With video, I see something, I pull out the camera, I connect the power, and press it. By then already four seconds have passed. The climax of the event is gone. Video gives me the post-event. That’s one thing. The Bolex got me into restructuring reality completely by means of single frames. With video you can only do that by editing with new technology. But not while taping; it runs continuously. So I got involved, very involved with exploring the possibilities of single, long takes, without editing. I gravitated to real life situations. Video also permits you to go into any situation. You don’t have to carry lights! It’s a different tool. With video, my editing became choosing those moments where I succeeded in catching unique moments of real life. And it has nothing to do with what I did with my Bolex, with colors, and rhythms. That ended around 1990. One of the reasons I switched from film to video was that sometimes when I was traveling abroad, or going to universities, they had seen my films and they asked, “Can you show how you do it?” That’s finished. Because if I would try to show them, I would just imitate what I did before.

Tom Winchester: When you interviewed Emile de Antonio in 1969, he described his work as “collage” and claimed that such a method is necessary in film, to make the real come out of all that mass of footage. Do you agree?

Not “necessary!” That doesn’t matter. More and more filmmakers were recording reality. That was the reality. And of course, de Antonio thought that was already a lot of material. Then video came in! Imagine what he would say about that amount of material! [Laughs.] It’s very normal, there’s nothing special about it. Every filmmaker shoots one hundred times more film than what you see on the screen as a final. And the same happens now with video.

Aldrin Valdez: In the January 12 entry of the 365 Days Project you mention that you didn’t feel like doing anything particular that day, apart from listening to beautiful music. Could you elaborate on the importance of music in your life?

There’s not much to say. I grew up in a village where everybody sang. There were no orchestras, no rock bands, no nothing. But in the evenings, on the weekend, after and during work, we were always singing. So it became part of my life very early on.

Graham: What would you do if you couldn’t make movies anymore?

I would do what I did before I came to New York. When I did not have a camera, I was writing. One’s obsessions or drives gravitate to the means that permit one to do what one wants to do. In the displaced persons camp in Europe, you could not get cameras or film. But here I could get it. So I did. One always works. Or, maybe, I wouldn’t do anything! Who knows?

Helmke: The way you film people is quite informal and, from what I understand, it’s easy for the subjects to forget they are being filmed.

People don’t usually take me seriously. [Laughter.]

Helmke: In that case, do you have to be aware of their reactions?

No! We are here, right now, in this room, by this table, but we are not consciously trying to be aware of each other. We are just here, sitting, conversing. We are just being what we are. So it’s the same whenever I’m filming whatever I am. The awareness is there, but we don’t think about it.

Helmke: Have you ever hesitated to exhibit anything that you have captured on film?

No. I never film anything that is improper in some way. I don’t know what I would have to film in order to be embarrassed by it later. I don’t get into such situations. I am a very normal human being with a very normal life. If I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed that I filmed it so badly! And if I have done so, then I cut it out and throw it out.

Lee Ann Norman: When you were writing about film of the’50s to the ’70s, the country was in a state of great cultural, political, and social transformation.

Same as now.

Norman: Exactly. So I was wondering how you see the role of experimental film in society in the present? Do you suppose it has changed from then?

It never really had a role. [Laughter.] It was always part of cinema, as an art. The avant-garde is like a frontier, the frontline of cinema. And all cinema—including Hollywood—reflects reality. In fact, sometimes the worse the film the more it reflects real life. The other thing is that it has become more complex since the ’50s. Imagine cinema today as a big tree with different branches—as there is with literature or any other art. There are narrative as well as non-narrative or more abstract types of branches. Narrative forms can branch into drama, fantasy, musical, film noir, detective, western, etc. Then, of course, you have documentary: journalistic writing in newspapers and magazines, and cinéma verité in cinema. Non-narrative forms were developed after 1950, mostly in the United States. Later, in 1980, England and France took over. So, what’s the function of literature and poetry? What’s the function of narrative and non-narrative cinema? What happened is that, until the ’50s, cinema could express only one part of what we are all about. That is: the desire to listen, stories, experiences, of say 1,001 Arabian Nights. But we also need to express those older, more subtle parts that cannot be expressed through narratives, through characters, through protagonists, and instead only in literature and dance and music. Very indirectly cinema had to develop all those other forms. And it has developed in those last 60 years, so that now cinema is a full art just as literature or any other art and just as our human experience can be expressed through cinema. That’s what happened! That’s where we are.

Dillon: Your writings from the ’60s and your later films have a deep moral sense to them. What kind of morals, do you think, were driving your films in that early period?

Muslim, Christian, Rosicrucian, Taoist, Pantheist. Where I come from, I’m basically a Pantheist. Does that answer your question? [Laughter.] It’s right to be nice and good. Be free and do everything that you wish as long as it does not interfere, damage, or hurt others. There is a limitation to freedom. I don’t believe in total freedom.

Jillann Hertel DelTejo: You do seem free of institution, yet your work is being taught all over the world in film and media studies programs. What do you hope—if you hope anything at all—is being relayed about your body of work in these sort of institutional settings that you would want students to take away?

I don’t know what people get from my films or writings. Each one gets what one needs at that moment and at different times. I don’t know. I cannot answer that. I consider myself a maker of things. I’m a farmer. You can do whatever you want and keep moving ahead. I’m still moving ahead.

Suzanne Brancaccio: In your writings from the ’50s and ’60s, you express an obvious distaste for Hollywood cinema.

No! I was very much into Hollywood cinema! I actually began in writing scripts—I want that to be known. I started Film Culture magazine in 1954. It came from a bunch of friends: Peter Bogdanovich, Andrew Sarris. We spent our nights on 42nd street, which in 1953, ’54, ’55, had like 15 movie theaters playing all night. Different genres or the same films, we knew it and we loved it and that’s why we started the magazine. And it was, for 10 years practically, dominated by writings about and interviews with Hollywood directors of the world, meaning the world, Hollywood. And then, 10 years later, I noticed that there is so much coverage already of commercial cinema, and that there was so much happening in the independent field—the avant-garde as it was called, “underground”—and decided that I should give more space to that. In the beginning I was reviewing Hollywood and independents at the same time. I was the only writer on cinema in the Village Voice. And then the time came around, ’58, maybe ’62, when there was so much happening not only in commercial film, but also in the independent film, for instance the Nouvelle Vague was coming. I felt it was impossible for me to see and cover everything. I told Andrew Sarris, my co-editor at Film Culture, “You cover the commercial, and I will just concentrate on the independents.” That’s when a new sort of direction came in.

Nayun Lee: What if you did not live in New York? Can you imagine your work and life without New York City?

No, I cannot do that. May be I would have become another Joseph Conrad. Because just before I got my papers made by the United Nations refugee organization so that I could come to the United States, I was enlisted to work on a ship between Le Havre, France, and Sydney. So before I was called to the ship, suddenly somebody in Chicago made some papers for me to come work in a bakery in Chicago. And I said, “Okay, here I come!” But then the ship landed in New York, by miracle. I came out on the 23rd street pier, went up a few floors, looked through the window and said to my brother, “New York! We’re in New York! Chicago? We would be crazy to go to Chicago! We are in New York!” [Laughter.] And that was it.

Brancaccio: In Letter to Penny Arcade, you attribute a lot of who you are to New York, a place that you say “saved your sanity.”

In the post-war period I think I was becoming totally disillusioned with everything. Finished. I did not believe anything. So, when I came to New York, I was suddenly like, look, there is something interesting, something alive, something exciting.

Brancaccio: How do you think your experience here has shaped who you are as both an artist and a person, in relation to your earlier years in Lithuania?

In Lithuania I was in paradise. Then I was thrown out of paradise. No use in talking to you about paradise, because paradise, in my childhood, involved a lot of humanity, imagination, and poetry. And then you are suddenly thrown out into reality and into the West. In my childhood there was poetry, and the rest was prose. Both are real—they are part of the same.

Ambereen Karamat: Can you tell me about your poetry in relation to your film and writing?

I only answer this indirectly. We have now, what, seven arts? And those seven arts express a different aspect of our being, our experience, our total memory, the needs of our bodies down to the deepest atoms of our being. There’s dance, there’s drama, there’s singing. If we would need only one, if it would be that simple that we could express ourselves only through, let’s say, dancing, that would be great! But, we are more complicated. We cannot express all that we are and progress further only through dancing—we have all these other aspects. What I’m trying to say, what I can express through poetry, I can only do through poetry, not through cinema, motion, or images, and what I can do through moving images, can only be done through that. So it’s like different aspects of my being, the totality of what I am, my experience. We need cinema and all those arts—not for self-expression or recording the past, but as a tool for moving forward and growing. Self-expression, creativity…who needs it! [Laughter.]

Marco Greco: In your essay “Experimental Film in America,” you wrote that the mistake of those filmmakers who try to adapt James Joyce’s stream of consciousness method to cinema is that they adopt no moral stand. Do you consider experimental film within the same category, meaning, is there morality within experimental film?

Everybody has moral sense, whether it’s experimental or not experimental. You may have a kind of weird morality. But what is morality? How we perceive humanity and our relation to it? That’s unavoidable, that’s part of it; you cannot separate it. We are moral even when we are immoral, whatever morality is in any given society. But you cannot detach it, it is there. How you relate to other human beings, that’s maybe what morality is.

Graham: It seems like you’re filming all the time, and you say that you’ve been filming since you got a camera. And you have hours and hours of these motion pictures in storage. Do you ever watch things that you’ve filmed? How much time do you spend watching your films in relation to how much time you actually spend filming?

The early film stocks were made of nitrate; they were fragile and inflammable. Some museums, like the Museum of Modern Art, never screened them because it was dangerous. But then they discovered they were deteriorating, melting, and becoming gooey. But Henri Langlois, who ran The Cinémathèque Française, was always screening the originals, and his originals were always in good shape! And why? Because he was constantly airing them, and the Museum of Modern Art was holding this precious old stuff that was “dangerous,” and because they were not aired, much of it was self-destroyed. And Langlois was always laughing, “Enjoy, screen those films, they like to be screened!” And his prints survived and now MoMA is borrowing them. [Laughter.] Likewise, I discovered that my film color footage from 1950 is still in good shape, because I never put them in any special place. Those which were kept in rooms and remained unlooked at, faded, and eventually chemicals gathered and destroyed the film. Books like to be read, music likes to be played, film likes to be screened and seen, and the same with video, people, drinks, and everything else.

Dumalin: You recently presented at James Fuentes’s gallery work titled “World Trade Center Haikus.” It brought to mind the Destruction Quartet from 2006, which you showed exactly one year ago at the same location and also incorporates your old footage of the WTC Towers. In both films, 9/11 is detached from its date. In Destruction Quartet it is seen from and connected to earlier damaging histories, such as the demolition of the Berlin Wall. “World Trade Center Haikus,” on the other hand, is mostly composed of archival footage of your family and, therefore, seemed to me like its intimate, gentler counterpart. Did your emotions toward the event change a lot between the making of both films and do they account for this in your eyes?

Both pieces came by pure accident. Destruction Quartet was an answer to Liutauras Psibilskis’s request to participate in a show in Sidney that he was putting together around the theme of destruction. I reviewed all the film and video footage that I had regarding “destruction.” The four pieces that I chose from my material cover a wide range of destruction: political, terroristic, and artistic. The new piece, “World Trade Center Haikus” was a result of me going through unfinished, unedited film material which was beginning to fade, and it was about time that I did something with it. As I was going through it, I discovered that I had many, some 50 different views of the World Trade Center that I had filmed between 1970 and its destruction. Just around the same time, as I was going through the footage, James Fuentes called me telling me that he wanted to open his new gallery with my work, preferably with downtown material. That was it. I made the decision right there and then to make my own Hokusai cycle, “WTC Haikus.” It was all dictated by the footage itself and by the call of a friend. While pulling out the WTC footage, however, I decided to leave some of the preceding and following footage in, which was, in most cases, family footage. That personalized the haikus and made them more intimate. I did not want it to be just plain buildings. I have to tell you that I liked to look at the buildings from a distance but whenever I had to be inside the WTC buildings, for one reason or other I felt a kind of terror and was happy to leave them. I never felt good inside them, for what reason I do not know. I did everything to avoid them. By the way, in 2005 I went to Mount Fuji, hoping to film it. I stayed near it for three days but the clouds that covered Mount Fuji never parted, and I never saw it. I went back to Tokyo without seeing it or filming it.

Dumalin: The beginnings of Fluxus in SoHo have received a great deal of attention lately. Billie Maciunas published a memoir of her late husband George around the same time that the book Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo was released. At the launch reception of the latter on September 21, you shared some inspiring stories about George’s commitment to the cooperative. The present focus on historical Fluxus made me wonder about the legacy of Fluxus as art today. Is there still a place for its ideas in these times? Do you see any young artists working in a similar spirit now?

Fluxus’s most intense period ended, I think, with the death of George Maciunas in 1978. But again, like the seeds planted by the other art movements of the 20th century, they are embedded in whatever artists are doing today. But there is a sort of neo-Fluxus movement happening very actively in Lithuania. Some 10 months ago, in a Soviet era Health Ministry building, a Ministry of Fluxus was opened, with many daily activities and many—maybe a hundred or more—rooms available to artists to do their stuff. I was there this past May and I found it very exciting. Nothing like that is happening in Paris or New York. The way I see it, Fluxus resembles in some ways the Warhol phenomenon. Both Warhol and Maciunas produced so much work, that every year or so a new aspect of Warhol is being presented for the first time. It will be same with George Maciunas. I think, for the next 10 or 15 years, exhibitions devoted to different aspects of Fluxus in museums. Which means, Fluxus is not yet history.

Dumalin: The activities of Jonas Mekas certainly aren’t. A large retrospective of your work, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, has been scheduled to take place at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2011. Can you reveal anything about that or future projects you feel passionate about?

Next week I will be in London and that’s where we’ll make the final decisions regarding my Serpentine exhibition. All I can tell you now is that it will consist of several installation pieces I have shown in other galleries or museums, including “World Trade Center Haikus.” But most of the works, films, videos, installations, etc., will be new. I have been very busy these last three years and much of what I’ve done nobody, not even my friends, has seen. To coincide with the Serpentine exhibition, there will be other satellite exhibitions of different aspects of my work taking place in Budapest, Vilnius, Paris, and a few other places. To answer your question about what I am doing now, I just completed a two hour movie, Sleepless Nights Stories. There are about 20 stories in it, it’s a new kind of narrative. It’s not like anything else I’ve done before. And now, for the next couple of months, I will do nothing much else but work on completing and editing all of my film footage that I still have on my shelves, fading. It will be my last movie as a film, my Fading Film. I say “nothing else” but I know at the same time that I’ll be putting more stuff on my And who knows what else I may become involved in during the next weeks and months? I am a very weak person; I do not know how to say no.

Entretien de Jonas Mekas avec Juliet Helmke, Noah Dillon, Margaret Graham, Taylor Bell, Caroline Dumalin, Sara Christoph, Tom Winchester, Aldrin Valdez, Suzanne Brancaccio, Nayun Lee, Ambereen Karamat, Marco Greco, and Jillann Hertel DelTejo, trouvé ici.

Parc de Sceaux

Eugène Atget - Parc de Sceaux