by Travis Jeppesen on January 19, 2014
There is a whole other history of cinema out of which Jonas Mekas falls—kicking and screaming, alive and elastic to the necessities and vicissitudes of this thing we call life. One has to be thoroughly drenched in it to attain such a position as Mekas’s, and for evidence, one doesn’t have to look further than the films themselves, which capture a politics of the banal and everyday despite their author’s frequent assurances that he has no overarching plan, no real understanding of what it is he is doing. The films are political precisely because Mekas allows experience to serve as his sole structuring device. His cinematic submersion into total presence has been at the root of all his activities from the beginning—for he knew no other way. This not-knowing is what Mekas might term “beauty”; for the viewer, it is the spiritual impetus that compels us to go along for the ride.
It makes total sense that Mekas, a displaced person, would end up making films from a positionless position. It is also not coincidental that Mekas, after surviving Central Europe’s attempts at civilizational suicide in the Second World War, would wind up a resident of his century’s capital of displacement: New York. Once there, he and his brother Adolfas procured a Bolex camera and immediately began filming their lives in this baffling new world, to which they would both make a massive contribution as artists. Jonas Mekas would soon find himself at the very center of New York’s downtown underground film-making scene.
Just as the Abstract Expressionists required a dose of the old world, which came in the form of the great German painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, in order to come into being as artists, it is hard to imagine how their cinematic counterparts on the Lower East Side in the 1950s and ’60s would have turned out without Mekas’s contribution. The roots of Mekas’s sensibility, more ‘Russian’ than ‘European’, can be traced back to Soviet filmmaker and film theorist Dziga Vertov. Thanks in no small part to Mekas’s influence, as well as that of Maya Deren before him, one could read the downtown New York underground filmmaking scene as Vertovian in many of its aesthetic ambitions.
In The Man with the Movie Camera and his voluminous writings on cinema, Vertov articulated his principle of the “kino-eye,” which considered the cinematic apparatus as a means for revealing the true nature of reality and thus liberating the masses from the bondage of servitude to capital. “From the viewpoint of the ordinary eye,” writes Vertov, “you see untruth. From the viewpoint of the cinematic eye (aided by special cinematic means, in this case, accelerated shooting) you see the truth. If it’s a question of reading someone’s thoughts at a distance (and often what matters to us is not to hear a person’s words but to read his thoughts), then you have that opportunity right here. It has been revealed by the kino-eye.”1 While Vertov took as his grand subject the building of socialism in the USSR, Mekas, beginning his work at a later date, had already seen the tragic failures that such utopian schemes often descend into and the human expense that results. Here is where Mekas’s “kino-eye” departs from Vertov’s. From Walden, his first major accomplishment, onwards, Mekas’s concerns were immediately diaristic, and yet political, albeit in a more subtle way than Vertov’s could ever be. Mekas’s camera became an extension of his being, constantly on-hand to record the peregrinations of a Baudelairean flâneur. In fact, it is probably not much of an overstatement to characterize Mekas as the Charles Baudelaire of New York City. Just as the poet’s wanderings through the capital of the 19th century, Paris, formed the basis of his oeuvre, so did Mekas merge with the camera to become a moving machine, generating audio-visual poems of city life almost as a by-product.
The camera as an extension of the eye, of one’s being. All those who traveled along such a path—among them Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and Bruce Conner, to name but a few of Mekas’s fellow travelers—felt it within themselves that film, the vehicle to which they had dedicated themselves, and with which they had merged as they became artist-machines, had the power to do more than merely tell stories. Or else, it compelled them to tell stories in truly different ways, outside of the narrow conceptions of Hollywood. The underground film-makers were far away—geographically, aesthetically, and spiritually—from that model, in which the neurotic fears and banal desires of the middle class are spotlighted and attention spans are capitalized upon in order to generate an endless stream of copies. Instead they assumed the possibility of an entirely different means of cinematic transmission and representation, unthinkable to the mid-century mainstream, which was largely complicit with the McCarthy witch-hunts that had only just recently ravaged American society. Each of these filmmakers had his (or, admittedly less often, her) own individual style, with Mekas’s being the diaristic—which, in cinematic terms, is the home movie.
How, for instance, does one begin to make sense of the first major diary film, the 180-minute-long Walden, described by its author as simply “materials from the years 1965–1969, strung together in chronological order,” interspersed with random reflections, philosophizing, and bursts of music? The film is of course a major archival landmark of the decade, capturing as it does a number of the era’s luminaries, including Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Allen Ginsberg. Besides that, as its title suggests, it serves as Mekas’s own version of Walden, the famous tome by the 19th-century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
So here we have a Lithuanian poet-filmmaker standing between Thoreau and Vertov—two unlikely figures, the American Transcendentalist and the Soviet Revolutionary. Two radically disparate visions of reality. But are they, really? And is Mekas’s stance between them really so uncanny? What more suitable position could one adapt as an immigrant in New York from a country behind the Iron Curtain? “We loved you, world, but you did lousy things to us,” Mekas reflects in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. Mekas’s quest has been to locate his own mystical Walden, realizing, unlike Thoreau in his idealization of nature or Vertov in his eulogy to the city, that this Edenic realm is not likely to be found anywhere on Earth, but in the people that surround one and the experiences shared.
The diaristic mode is, from the standpoint of consumption, rife with problems for the viewer. The key to Mekas’s films, perhaps, is not to watch them, but to attempt to drift into them. His films are what those of a conventional bent call “experimental,” because they refuse to do our thinking for us. “This is a political film.” The message flashes across the screen several times, and yet his films are political in no obvious way other than their form, which is often rooted in the seeming senselessness of the collage principle, the anarchy of the chance technique. As Chris Kraus has noted, “Since diary-writing is subjective practice, it’s more fragile, looser, messier. As a transcription of live thought, diary-writing’s destined for confusion because the mind does not stay still for very long. As an art-making practice, it’s incoherent and therefore essentially flawed.”2
Adapting the diaristic mode to cinema has allowed Mekas to be at work virtually all the time, bringing his camera with him everywhere, and thus annihilate the divisions between art and life. One is, in a sense, always at work while never working – just being. His 2001 epic, As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, consists of 320 minutes of film made throughout his life, randomly spliced together and featuring occasional voice-over ruminations from the author. At some point Mekas announces, “By now, you must have realized I am not a film-maker. I am a filmer.” Mekas takes on the role of the amateur, the Sunday painter, not to demean his product, but to assert the viability of a cinematic vehicle that is markedly other in design. He has no other choice; this is the language he has forged out of compromise with the world he was thrust into. “But while we are confined to books,” writes Thoreau, “though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method or discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”3 Jonas Mekas made that choice a long time ago. Walking alongside him, we are reminded that vision, an active agent, is nothing less than the life force itself.
1. Dziga Vertov, “Three Songs of Lenin and Kino-Eye,” in Annette Michelson (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (trans. Kevin O’Brien). London: Pluto Press, 1984, p.124.
2. Chris Kraus, “Shit on My Sleepmask,” in Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, p.139.
3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.192.
Originally published in Jonas Mekas: The Fluxus Wall, as part of the exhibition at BOZAR in Brussels, 2013.