The year was 1964, early January. From Knokke-Le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival, where Barbara Rubin and I created a scandal when they forbade us to show Jack Smith’s film Flaming Creatures, we proceeded to Paris, where we spent some time with Roman Polanski as our driver—we had a car, a tiny car but a car. Eventually he gave up when Barbara decided to go swimming in the Seine. We could not persuade her not to do that. So we left her by the Seine and went to La Coupole.
It was during that trip that I revisited Nico Papatakis. I had met him some years earlier, during the re-shooting of Cassavetes’ film Shadows. In 1950 Nico helped Jean Genet to make his only film, Un Chant d’Amour. It was a legendary film, which few people had seen even in Paris. The censors did not allow it to be shown in the theaters. So I asked Nico if I could take a print of it to New York. Nico wondered why I wanted to take that kind of risk, but I was very determined about it. So now we were at Café de Flore and in my huge raincoat pockets I had the film. To make the transportation safer, we divided the print into several rolls.
Since the travelers from Paris to New York usually were checked very thoroughly, I decided to go first to London for a day and then arrive in New York from London instead. You have to know that Paris in 1964 was considered by the customs people a smut city. On my previous return from Paris to New York they confiscated two Olympia Press books I was carrying in my bag. London travelers were not being checked so carefully at customs. That was the advice given to me by Bryan Gysin in whose home I was staying in Paris. So that’s what I did.
On the plane from London to New York I got into a conversation with my neighbor, who happened to be Harold Pinter. He was on his way to New York for the opening of one of his early plays. As we were talking, we discovered that we knew some of the same people, including Nico. So I told him what I had in my pockets. We discussed the best strategy to deal with the customs guys. The plan that we devised was that he would go first, since he had more stuff. I usually travel very light. I was to follow after him.
And that’s what we did. He got his huge suitcase down from the running belt and we moved towards the customs guy of Pinter’s choice. I followed him almost like a servant. The customs man surveyed us and asked Pinter to open his suitcase, which Pinter did. The customs man peeked in and his face went strange: there was nothing in the suitcase but some thirty copies of Pinter’s play.
“What are these?” asked the customs guy.
“It’s my play that is opening on Broadway next week,” said Pinter, calmly.
You had to see the face of the customs guy! He lit up, his eyes lit up, he went all gaga. Here is a real Broadway playwright, a celebrity, a suitcase full of plays! All excited he motioned to a couple of other customs guys:
“Come, take a look: this guy has a play on Broadway.
They all surrounded the suitcase staring at it in an awe that I cannot describe to you. And since they seemed to ignore me completely, and I had no suitcase, I just walked through. Then I turned around and waved to Pinter. I could see from his face that he enjoyed the way the affair went.
I proceeded towards the exit with the print of Un Chant d’Amour in my raincoat pockets.
JONAS MEKAS has often been called "the godfather of American avant-garde cinema."