Life of a Happy Man
The legendary avant-garde filmmaker, poet, archivist, and activist extraordinaire Jonas Mekas just turned 90, and his output is as unflagging as ever. He has had an endless string of exhibitions since the fall of 2012: his series of Wiesbaden photographs, Images Out of Darkness, at James Fuentes Gallery (New York); a selection of photo prints from postwar Williamsburg, Williamsburg, B’klyn 1949, images from purgatorio, my first New York home, at Galerie du jour agnès b. (Paris); simultaneous retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou (Paris) and the British Film Institute Southbank (London); and a large installation of prints, sound pieces, and the premiere of his new film Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man at Serpentine Gallery (London). In addition to his forthcoming retrospectives at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in São Paulo (January 30 – February 17, 2013), the Festival Internacional de Cine Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City (February 22 – March 3, 2013), and the Austrian Museum of Film in Vienna (April 5 – 29, 2013); and exhibitions at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague (January 24 – April 22, 2013) and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City (February 2 – May 19, 2013); he was recently honored with a Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres from the French government. On this occasion, the Rail has asked Jonas’s friends and collaborators to speak to his legacy.
P. Adams Sitney
Energy: (a) from Saint Teresa, his patron; (b) it’s genetic; only death slowed down his brother, Adolfas.
In 50 years, I’ve never heard him say he was tired. He does sleep: I’ve seen it twice—once under an editing table in New York (1963), once on a night train from Italy to France (1967). He has total focus: one thing at a time, whether it’s writing, editing film, bar-hopping, tending his children, managing an office, although he might pull out his camera to film a moment in any those activities. I met him when he was turning 40. He is as active and determined now as he was then. His social life has steadily expanded, while ours has contracted. None of his energy is wasted. He will pursue a project or an idea to the end, and then cut it loose when all hope is gone. He has astonishing capacities for work, but he knows his limits and never exceeds them, putting off a film, a book, or a trip until he is confident he can see it through. Apparently no regrets.
Greatest Contribution: impossible to choose.
1. He is one of the greatest avant-garde filmmakers, the prime force in the diary mode, with no hint of decline at 90. Walden, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, and As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty are his masterpieces.
2. He was the most widely read critic and champion of other avant-garde filmmakers in his weekly Village Voice column.
3. Founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the central distribution outlet, 1961 till now.
4. Founder and editor-in-chief of Film Culture, the most important American film journal of its time.
5. Co-founder and long-time director of Anthology Film Archives. Thus, he was instrumental in the preservation and exhibition of the most significant avant-garde films.
Jonas Mekas is the only Guru in my life. When I came to New York after college, trying to become a playwright but already disillusioned by most of what I saw in the theater—I happened upon an early screening of underground films organized by Jonas at the Living Theater. The material touched me in a way that little in the theater had.
And later, when my first wife and I read in the papers that Jonas and Ken Jacobs had been arrested for showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. Amy (Taubin) and I immediately telephoned Jonas’s office (at the Jonas-created Film-Makers’ Coop) to offer to help in any way we could. As a result, Amy began doing part-time office work, and we got to meet Jonas, and were even invited to screening of new films in the Coop office before they were screened in public. I shyly began to speak to Jonas, and I realized he was like no one I had ever encountered. Almost gruff, but at the same time sweet, innocent (within his sophistication), and always cutting directly to the center of every subject. Spiritual in fact. And I remember a young Barbara Rubin (an amazing artist and personality in her own right) saying “Jonas is St. Francis for our time.” And indeed he was.
With little money himself, he selflessly devoted every waking hour to raising money for the increasing army of young filmmakers around him. I would sometimes accompany him to meetings with well-known people in high society, as he tried to raise money. And an ever widening group of “chic” people seemed to recognize that behind the surface-scruffy image of Jonas, there resided a pure and noble soul.
I learned from him by word and example what it means to be selfless. And that 24/7 working for others led to the unique fast cutting diary film style that produced such beautiful Haiku like results, inventing a way to film his own life, turning momentary reality into poetry.
So many moments with Jonas that I would realize, after they had passed, constituted for me, his hidden teaching.
One Zen-like blow he administered to me when I referred to a young woman, not untalented, who looked to Jonas as a father-figure. “But Jonas,” I complained, “she’s really crazy.” And Jonas, after a slight pause, a twinkle in his eye, telling me “But you too, no?” Of course he was right. And I grew a little from that deftly administered blow, from my one and only Guru.
In this country, Jonas Mekas is most closely associated with the American avant-garde film movement that he did so much to cultivate and promote. But looking at his work solely through the lens of the American context misses something of its cosmopolitan and humanist character. A major theme in both his films and poetry is the redemptive power of everyday aesthetic experience in the wake of tragedy. Certainly, this theme is important to a host of American artists. However, it takes on new meaning in his work when we recall that Jonas directly experienced the destructive totalitarian experiments of Nazism and Stalinism. His native Lithuania was occupied by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Like the rest of Eastern Europe, it was the site of many of these regimes’ worst atrocities—the atrocities that prompted Theodor Adorno to declare that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.
Unlike Adorno, the near destruction of humanity leads Jonas to vigorously affirm and defend the humanizing capacity of aesthetic experience. In this respect, Jonas’s work can be seen as an uncompromising response to the great tragedies of the twentieth century. The use of aesthetic experience to access the humane when confronting the inhumane is a theme with an old pedigree that transcends geographic boundaries. It can be found in the Mahabharata and in the writings of humanist poets like Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. Jonas is one of the great artists who recognize the humanizing force of the aesthetic through everyday experience.
Jonas is a greased pig. One should know better than to attempt catching Jonas in words. Better to stand back and say he’s mercurial, a clown, the original performance artist; he delights in things happening. Till Eulenspiegel.
A what-fools-these-mortals-be kind of guy, his energy is one of delight. And that’s only one side of him! Uprooted, he only dimly senses we all are, if not geographically then by the acceleration of change, though of course nothing changes regarding who has the power in most any society. MONEY TALKS AND ORDERS COME DOWN and there he’s a realist. He said to me, during W time no less, “I’m so far to the Right, Republicans are communists compared to me.” In order to calm me down Flo told me, “He knows your buttons, he’s playing with you.” And, seeing that I’ve witnessed and experienced so much other than terminal selfishness from him, it comes upon me to shake it off. Figure he can’t help it, that myself as mechanism can be triggered and that’s not particularly good. I think he thinks God put him here to let the air into our brains.
Our film tastes sometimes concur. Then I’m impressed by his perspicuity! But he also steps out to see Westerns, and with other illustrious film-artists I don’t wish to embarrass. (Stan Brakhage! Peter Kubelka!) Fucking movies, the worst.
Yes, some of his own films are treasures. His writing conveys scenes and situations with no sign of strain. His film criticism can be extraordinary (he came out for us when nobody was) but jump when he sends himself over the edge. His institutional bestowals like The Filmmaker’s Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives and, earlier, The Filmmakers Showcase have been life’s blood of cinema. He stood up with George Maciunas when the unions were coming down—brutally—on screenings. He even diverted crucial funding towards Millennium Film Workshop when the cruds threatened its existence. The indispensable man! was designed to loosen us up and himself not stay in one place or in one posture long enough to stiffen.
Jonas hangs out with the young generation. He has many more friends who are active now, exploring new dimensions of creativity, than old friends from the old days. So he hears their stories, listens to their music, responds to their work, their excitement, their passions, their questions, their dreams, and thus he appeals to their sensibilities in his own work. He is in tune with his time, which is today. He thinks only of the present, the here and the now, what is happening every day. The young ones thus can only get excited by this wise old crazy hyperactive friend of ours—and they work in every discipline.
Hanging out with young people keeps us young.
Jonas Mekas is a keeper of visionary chronicles. Each of his films and poems is a venture unique as individual perception can make it. The intensity of emotion absorbed into remnants of memory becomes the standard to appraise a world of crucial changes over time, in effect to assess how keenly individual sensibility can gauge the cultural ferment. Keynotes throughout are friendship, family, and “the tradition of soul,” with redeeming evocations of childhood. In each sequence of documentary moments, the films tend to advance available occasions and persons, with many recognizable for their celebrity, and the author’s voiceover ruminations delivered entirely in English. A progressive paring down has distinguished the poetry of the published books. In 1948, the long-lined Idiles (Idylls) came out with near-epic, nostalgic panoramas of seasonal farming rituals. A short-form love sequence Geliu kalbejimas (Talk of the Flowers) appeared in 1961, and Pavieniai zodziai (Words Apart), in 1967, was down to an extended, word-per-line stammer. Although Reminicensijos (Reminiscences) in 1972 returned to the long line for a nostalgic record of transitional postwar refugee life, Dienorasciai (Daybooks), written between 1972 and 1980, consists of more abrupt lyrical fragments. While the output ranges from quasi-oracular declamation to briskly hermeneutic intimation, including folk charms, fables, childrens’ rhymes, all his language stems from its root in the Lithuanian vernacular common to the poet’s native region.
For Jonas at 90
Our fields stay open
to the sun-charged
late harvest calm
a growing snow
the night go
your own way
suspend in time
a word you find
the inside out
as outside in
To signify a world
we haven’t seen
or heard of yet
Secured at every
In lifelong song
I met Jonas when I was 17 years old.
Jonas was mythic even then, one of the Pantheon of Creators who defined the art world I entered, like a major planet in the stratosphere, a Jupiter or a Saturn or a Neptune, and I, a small person on Earth looked up to these artistic and cultural giants. I was never aware that Jonas noticed my young work with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous or with Warhol, or that in my 30s when I started to create my own work, that Jonas was aware of it although he was always friendly.
When Jack Smith died in 1989 I was 39 years old. I invited Jonas to Jack’s apartment to see what Jack had written about him on his walls and to tell him about Jack’s death.
Jonas, in his modest, direct, and intelligent way, understood what others did not and Jonas asked me to write about Jack’s death for Film Culture.
When I was 42 he came to see my play Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! His response to the work was enthusiastic, lucid, and generous.
At 43, I received a call that Jonas was receiving a prestigious award and that he had personally requested my presence as a friend.
It is hard to put into words how stunned I was, what that meant to me, the sense of true recognition it gave me. Jonas Mekas is my friend, a beacon of inspiration in a too often mediocre world.
Jonas has always stood firmly in the vanguard of the American art world.
He valiantly stated, “We are not the counterculture, we are the culture.” His focus has always been on the work and he has never been a respecter of status, recognition, or public approbation.
Jonas only respects originality, commitment, and accomplishment, for this reason alone he would shine brightly in an otherwise dimly corrupt world. Jonas has always been the rarest of all artists: an artist advocate, one who has always supported, promoted, and sustained the work other artists. Then there is his extraordinary body of work, both as a poet and filmmaker.
Jonas’s appeal is that of an artist who creates continually, freshly, from youth to old age, with no regard to fashion, he continually makes the world new, for himself and for the rest of us. But there really is no point in talking about age when one speaks about Jonas Mekas because youth is a quality that has nothing to do with age, one either has it or one does not, and Jonas has this quality of youth, an overflowing generosity of spirit, of enthusiasm, of possibility. Jonas is poetry in action.