With the passing of Jonas Mekas in January of this year, 2019 started with a significant loss to the film community and to film history. Mekas the filmmaker, artist, and person was a monumental figure in the realm of experimental and alternative cinema. His biggest legacy, however, was his dedication to film preservation. This is what makes the loss more difficult to process, in an age where the distribution of tangible physical media is being replaced with large conglomerate corporations who stream movies for unannounced durations and snatch them away forever without warning. Smaller films and bold experimental works are being relegated to a select few reparatory cinemas only in major cities, and specialized streaming services like MUBI and the Criterion Channel.
Jonas Mekas believed in cinema, especially avant-garde cinema, as an indispensible part of the greater culture. He believed it was an art that should be just as established in American education and spoken of with high reverence and critical understanding as any other art. In his conversations with Stan Brakhage, he mentions, “I think it’s a very unfortunate mistake to think that what the avant-garde filmmakers are doing is something very far out and not for the everyday. There is no difference between reading a volume of Sylvia Plath and watching a Stan Brakhage film. I wonder where the idea that Poetic Cinema is more difficult to appreciate come from.”1
It is embodied not only in his words but his work as well. Mekas’s biggest contribution to film culture, Anthology Film Archives (Brakhage and Mekas purposefully left out the article “The” because they assumed it would not be the only one) is one of the great vestiges of preservation and its existence is more important now than it ever was. Mekas’s films, themselves an archive of the past in their own right—a documentation of life and time passed down through history—have a similar weight of importance. His cinema was autobiographical, but it told stories of the world at large and recorded pieces of American history through his own eyes.
At the National Gallery of Art’s “Essential Cinema: Jonas Mekas” program, which screened his films in chronological order on the weekends from August to September, I was afforded the privilege to see first hand the works of Mekas’s genius. During the first screening, which was a double feature of Guns of the Trees (1961) and The Brig (1964), experimental filmmaker M.M. Serra noted in a presentation that the films we were about to be shown were in their original 16mm prints, full of rips, stains, damage, harsh whites and deep blacks. The following weekends we were presented Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), and Mekas’s arguably most heralded work, Walden – Notes, Diaries, & Sketches (1970). The retrospective prioritized the archival nature of his cinema, making sure we understood that each film was a living artifact of American pop culture history being projected in the 21st century.
The screenings also featured Q&A sessions with Mekas’s son Sebastian, readings from Mekas’s own writing, and excerpts from other filmmakers commenting on his legacy. One such quote, presented during the final day of the retrospective which included Mekas’s final film, Notes on an American Film Director At Work: Martin Scorsese (2007), was from Scorsese himself: “He was a provocateur in the truest and most fundamental sense— he provoked people into new ways of thinking about what an image was, what a cut was, what a film was, what commitment was. Who was more committed than Jonas to the art of cinema? I wonder.”2
Notes on an American Film Director is a series of excerpts from the final few days of Scorsese’s shoot of his Oscar-winning 2006 crime-drama The Departed (2006). Mekas joins the production as an observer, with Scorsese welcoming him and telling him he is “as part of the movie as we are.” This is a vast contrast from the experience of Chas Gerrettsen, who was made to feel like an outcast during his photographic documentation of the production of Apocalypse Now. Scorsese’s amicable personality shines in the film, and it makes all the more sense that Mekas, whose films embodied a joy for life and cinema, chose him as his subject.
The making-of documentary has a significant place in cinema’s history, excavating the cinematic process as a collaborative human endeavor often centered on the director. It can turn a mirror to the auteur, allowing him or her to examine themselves. It is guided by choice just as much as narrative cinema but it also has an obligation, as decidedly non-fiction, to allow the viewers to process their own interpretations of the subjects.
What sets Notes on an American Film Director apart is that unlike informative docs like That Moment: Magnolia Diary (2000)and The Shark is Still Working (2007), or psychological examinations of an auteur’s process like in Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) or Burden of Dreams (1982), Mekas remains a fly-on-the-wall, a fan, and a documentarian in the most basic and rudimentary sense.
Documentaries can be as intrusive or observational as the documentarian chooses. Notes on an American Film Director chooses the latter, to the most extreme. Like many of Mekas’s movies, its documenting of action is taken in segments and bursts, like freewheeling notes and bullet-points in a book. “Notes” and “sketches” are oft-used terms for Mekas, elucidating his workshop, rough-draft style of filmmaking. The fidgety camera movements, the lack of polish, the spontaneity of images and people colliding together, make for cinema that feels like traversing a concourse inside the filmmaker’s brain. The ideas are constantly churning and the world is full of things to record.
By allowing his camera to be at the mercy of his instinctual eye, wandering and observing the many people on set, from stars like DiCaprio and Ray Winstone to bit crewmembers scurrying around making sure the finer details are how they need to be, the atmosphere of the set is sensed instantly. I felt welcomed into Scorsese’s shoot and his process. I felt like I could stroll in and walk around and shake hands. I felt like he enjoyed being observed and he was completely at peace with the commotion of people around him. Scorsese lives for this.
During an outside scene that requires a cloudy day, Scorsese looks up as the sun shines brightly in an empty blue sky and laughs helplessly and asks his assistant director if he can “control the sun.” His self-effacing nature during the shoots, waving his arms, and half-jokingly-half-not asking his cast and crew “so… who’s in charge here?” is charming and portrays him as a team-player and genuine enjoyer of cinema and its creative process. He’s a film nerd in a very relatable way.
The legend of Scorsese, the person and filmmaker who has so many stories and narrative accounts told about him, is not of interest to Mekas. Turning the shoot of The Departed into a narrative is of least concern. Mekas allows Scorsese to simply be himself on screen and forces us to appreciate the creation of a work of art from a master artist and realize that in and of itself, this process is a piece of cinematic history. It doesn’t require additional storytelling, IMDb trivia, or talking heads explaining what they’re thinking while all of this is going on.
This is in stark contrast to the traditions of the making-of documentary. The nerve-wracking tension and weighted controversy of Herzog’s slowly collapsing world in Les Blank’s masterpiece Burden of Dreams, or the secrets and whispers and self-doubt existent within William Greaves’ meta-observational film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) are noted examples of filmmakers using the filmmaking process to reveal greater profound statements of its place as an endeavor of human endurance and collaboration. So what is the importance of Notes on an American Film Director, if its presentation is so improvised, its language so sparse, and its subject so thoroughly at ease? What can be revealed?
Notes, the word that appears in the titles of no less than six of Mekas’s films, tells the story of cinema’s history as well as its future. Like jotting down ideas and observations in a notebook, the compilation of images and sounds in a Mekas film are an active re-creation of life itself. It’s moments and images that pass by us and we experience them without having time to process their meaning until they’re gone.
Notes on an American Film Director is a collision of cinema’s past and present. It is a documentation of two old giants of cinema, both behind their respective cameras—Scorsese on the ArriFlex 435 and Mekas in SD digital video. The interior of the movie shows the creation of a studio film, its restrictions, its magic, and its detailed, scheduled, methodical process, a view of the way things have always been done in the movie world. The exterior is Mekas holding a handheld digital camera, moving it how he sees fit, unbound by anything other than his motor functions and the limits of his imagination—a signal that the future of this artistic medium lies in the hands of the independent creator, the future Mekas’s of the world.