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"I Have A Certain Kind Of Perspective" - Jonas Mekas Interviewed
Val Phoenix , January 2nd, 2013 02:43

Val Phoenix chats to avant-garde cinema veteran Jonas Mekas, whose work is showcased at BFI Southbank and the Serpentine Gallery this month. Photograph by Liz Wendelbo, courtesy of the BFI

Marking his 90th birthday with retrospectives in London and Paris, avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas has ample opportunity to reflect on his life and career, the one informing the other. Born in Lithuania, interned in Germany during the Second World War and arriving with his brother Adolfas in New York in 1949 as a displaced person, Mekas has always been the quintessential outsider adapting to unfamiliar or even hostile surroundings.

Seeking out experimental film screenings such as Cinema 16 in his new home, Mekas eventually became a documenter, critic and archivist for the budding experimental scene, founding the Film-Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives, as well as shooting his own 16mm films, such as the features Guns of the Trees (1962) and The Brig (1964).

However, his preferred format became the diary film, compiling years of footage shot on his Bolex into extended works, such as Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches) (1969) and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976). Among those who turn up in these films are his family, as well as New York icons Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Yoko Ono, plus Mekas’s filmmaking colleagues Barbara Rubin and Peter Kubelka, whom he considers his other family.

BFI Southbank's continuing Brief Glimpses of Beauty season celebrates the Mekas back catalogue, ranging from Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-72) to Birth of a Nation (1997), alongside works by his peers. The latter include Marie Menken, Ken Jacobs and Stan Brakhage, who feature in the Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema collection.

At the same time, the Serpentine Gallery is showing some of his mixed media work, including stills, installations, poems and films he has adapted for galleries. The exhibit also features the premiere of a new piece, Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man, a 68-minute montage of his life in New York, with a voiceover declaring the film has "no purpose", other than to record beauty.

Inhabiting one corner of the gallery is Reminiszenzen aus Deutschland (2012), a narrative presented non-chronologically of his time in German forced labour camps and displaced person camps from 1944 to 1949, in which he quotes his diaries, as well as the German wartime writer Wolfgang Borchert.

Although Mekas himself demurs, one can see the two 'Reminiscences' as bookends of his life and career, contrasting his early life in Lithuania with his time in confinement in Germany, before he was able to start his life as a filmmaker in the New World. He spoke to the Quietus at the Serpentine Gallery.

Well, it's a pleasure to meet you. So, you now have two things happening in London: a retrospective at the BFI and this exhibit at the Serpentine. Tell me a bit about this work, because, in the introduction to the catalogue, it talks about how this exhibit was supposed to be about the future.

Jonas Mekas: Not the future. This one is about now, present. All work that you see here, with one exception, has been produced during the last two years. That means it's all present, now. It's not future. Film camera cannot film either past or future. But, the present I can extend back a year or two. But, I cannot do anything about the future, unfortunately or fortunately.

OK. I wanted to focus on a couple of works. I was interested in this idea of the reminiscences, because you have the film showing at the BFI, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, and this work at the Serpentine, Reminiszenzen aus Deutschland. Are these two works meant to be seen together? Are they kind of bookends?

JM: No. It just happened so that there was an exhibit on the history of the Fluxus movement in Wiesbaden, Germany this summer, and they knew that I had spent some time in Wiesbaden after the war in a Displaced Persons camp there. So, since I was a very close friend of George Maciunas, of Fluxus movement, they wanted that I make available something from my work. So, I decided on that occasion to print some of the negatives from that period and some of the footage about that period, that I have taken, and that was the result. It was made for that occasion, by demand. So, I took that occasion to collect and that's it.

Was that a difficult process?

JM: No, it's work. I know what I have. I had to locate some of it. Then I had to print. Then I had to structure. It's just work.

But, I mean in terms of what it meant to you, that time.

JM: No, that time is far away. I can look back from a different perspective, from 60 years' perspective. That's a different period of my life. I can look at it very – not objectively. I still look as myself. It's personal. But, I have a certain kind of perspective.

Do you think you need a certain amount of time to pass before you can look at something like that?

JM: Yes, some events in one's life are sometimes so close that you don't really clearly see. That applies to writing, also to certain events in one's life, when one needs some perspective in order to see from another angle or from several angles.

Why did you choose the Wolfgang Borchert writings?

JM: Are you familar with his writings?

I only know a little bit about him. I know he died very young.

JM: Because we – myself, my brother – we identified with the way he felt after the war. He had a very short life. He died at the age of 26. His main writing was during the last year of the war and the two years after the war, and he felt disillusioned and, like, lost there and homeless, same as we were lost and homeless. So, we somehow got together. We felt very close. I felt very close to his writing. Immediately after the war, his writing came to a climax. That's when we could see his writing in the periodicals that came into existence after the war. There were no books, just pieces in magazines.

Did you actually pick up German in the camps?

JM: Some. More reading German than speaking it. But, yeah. We had no choice.

Well, let's talk about Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man. This is the newest work.

JM: Yes, I finished it two days before I came.

There's quite a lot of you at the Steenbeck making it, so the process of it is sort of embedded in the film, as well. In it, you're talking a lot about "the real" and about memories and beauty. The introduction to the exhibit says – and I'm paraphrasing– "I am blessed with the ability to forget unpleasant things". Is this a kind of survey of lots of beautiful things from your life?

JM: The film consists of little pieces taken out – that's why it's out-takes – from other films, material that did not fit into other completed films. So, it was sitting there on the shelf, and I thought for this occasion I should do something with those bits. So, I got it all together. Originally, it was film, not video, and then I began condensing, reducing that amount. And then I decided also to include the process of making it as I was working on the viewer and the film technology, which I videotaped. And the only way I could then present the final version was on video, because I had to incorporate both film and video, so you see the final result is on video. The same with sounds. The sounds that are used are also from my life – singing nuns and so forth. Those are actually from my wedding. So, it all has to do with my life, images and sounds.

Details of the two Jonas Mekas retrospectives in London can be found at the BFI Southbank and Serpentine Gallery websites.