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.