We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Cheese and Worms: A Conversation with Jonas Mekas

The godfather of the American avant-garde discusses his writing, the Inquisition, the New York art scene, and digital technology.
Ben Nicholson
Jonas Mekas' As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty(2000) is showing April 3 - May 3, 2018 in the United Kingdom.
“Dear Mrs. S.:
 Life is going on. Nothing new, but we are very busy. Factories and our film obsessions. We have joined a couple of experimental film clubs, just to find out more about what’s going on and to meet people. We even screened some of our footage for them.”
—Jonas Mekas, I Had Nowhere to Go
From those inauspicious beginnings, Jonas Mekas became the man regularly referred to as the godfather of the American avant-garde. His films were landmarks of the independent film scene, essayistic diaries that bristled against the prescriptions of commercial cinema but more importantly brimmed with vitality. Like kaleidoscopic patchworks of New York life they shared intimate moments and gave—indeed continue to give—an evocative glimpse into a teeming cultural epoch.
More than just a filmmaker, he was a pivotal figure in the New York art scene of the 60s and 70s, described by Sean O'Hagan in the Guardian as "a writer, a curator and a catalyst." He was friends with Jackie Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg and the Velvet Underground, he collaborated with Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí. For the past six decades, he has been a figurehead in the city's cinema scene; setting up Film Culture magazine in 1954 with his brother Adolfas and co-founding Anthology Film Archives in 1970.
Prior to all of this he had fled Nazi occupation in his native Lithuania, endured years in a forced labour camp, and subsequently, after the war, a displaced-persons camp in Germany. Through all of this, he kept diaries which were later published in various forms—most prominently in I Had Nowhere to Go. They’re matter-of-fact in style, often relaying simply the events of the day punctuated with witty observations of his own and the mordant humor of compatriots.
Before meeting Jonas I was informed that he would rather spend our conservation discussing his writing than his films. He had just returned to his hotel in London from a literary pilgrimage to a local pub called The Lamb which is reputed to have been frequented by the likes of Charles Dickens, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and lies in the heartland of the famed Bloomsbury Set. We grabbed a seat and talked about the Inquisition, the New York art scene, digital technology and being a 'filmer' rather than a 'filmmaker'. 

NOTEBOOK: So I gather you'd prefer to talk about your writing today, rather than your films?
JONAS MEKAS: I'd rather talk about what I'm reading!
NOTEBOOK: What are you reading at the moment?
MEKAS: I am rediscovering Virginia Woolf, that's what I'm presently reading. I just read A Room of One's Own and The WavesThe Waves is very special. Some compare it to—prefer it to—James Joyce. It's quite complex, I don't even know how she wrote it. I can figure out James Joyce, I cannot figure out the beginning chapters of The Waves. It's like it's three dimensional. Joyce—as complex as he is, and intellectual—is horizontal, linear. The Waves is amazing; three-dimensional sentences. You should read it; you will see when you read it.
NOTEBOOK: Noted! So what prompted the return to Woolf?
MEKAS: Reading A Room of One's Own. I've tried several times to read The Lighthouse and I've never passed page 20, but now I will go back. It's not that it's difficult, but I find it... somehow I just could not connect to it. Now I feel like I have one foot in, I'm deeper, so I may [connect]. I'm meanwhile getting involved with [Ivan] Turgenev, but I will come back. I will go through all of Virginia Woolf. 
What I'm reading now is mostly from before the turn of the century—some of it from the 13th Century! [Laughs] I'm reading always three, four, or five books at the same time. So one of the books I'm reading is transcripts by Carlo Ginzburg of questions and answers from the records of the Inquisition. During the Inquisition sessions, they used to have a secretary who wrote down everything that was said by the accused ones; and not only what was said but pauses, sounds they made. Everything could be used against you. Those transcripts are amazing because this guy was a miller, sounds like a simple person, but through what he says you learn what the whole population—not the ruling class or the academics of the time, but the more simple people—believed in, and how they lived. A lot is revealed. Funnily, the book is entitled The Cheese and the Worms because at one point the inquisitors asked him: “So, how was the world created? How did we come into existence?” This guy said: “Y'know, it's like cheese,” [laughs] "it sits for a long time and the worms come out. It just happens." And that's how we came into being. Just like that!
NOTEBOOK:  I mean, that makes a lot of sense.
MEKAS: Yes, exactly. [Still chuckling] Things like that are in there, so: interesting reading. I'm also discovering that there is much more laptop literature of older times than we think. It's amazing how much managed to survive. You can read and read and there is no end.
NOTEBOOK: In Nowhere to Go your voracious appetite for books is clear. Would you say literature was your first love?
MEKAS: And still is, maybe, more than cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Did you always want to write as well?
MEKAS: I never wanted to write, I simply always wrote. [Chuckles] I never thought about it, it just happened.
NOTEBOOK: Even before your diaries began?
MEKAS: Even before I could write I made drawings. My early drawings began at age six or seven. Then I learned to write and began writing, keeping farmer's diaries, very down to earth—no introspection, nothing personal. My early diaries were so factual that you could draw them like the lens captures what's in front of it.
NOTEBOOK: Some of your poetry, particularly Idylls of Semenškiai, has a similar observational quality. I assume you were writing that later on, looking back at your hometown?
MEKAS: Yes, that was when I was already in Germany, immediately after the war when I was 21 or 22. Those poems are very factual, down to earth, I used to call it 'documentary poetry.'
NOTEBOOK: Do you think it was inevitable that your films would also have diaristic qualities?
MEKAS: Of course I'm still the same person only enriched by experience—time, exposure to different arts, et cetera—but it all comes from the same place; it's all me. Each medium presents different aspects: what you can do with cinema you cannot do on paper, what you can do with the body's movement in dance you cannot do in cinema. That's why the Greeks were smart, they had seven muses—so we have at least seven aspects to us. They reveal different things. You can be obsessed or concentrate on this aspect or that and there are periods where I was only a poet, only in writing, and then somehow I gravitated slowly, imperceptibly, with no reason, into—deep into—cinema. How I ended up, it's not so easy to tell, for somebody who came very late to cinema. I was 15 when I saw my first film, but until I landed in New York, and I was 27, I had not seen any decent movies. I'd only seen second-rate movies that the American army used to drop in the displaced person camp. But then it hit me: "This is it."  
NOTEBOOK: What were the films that you saw when you got to New York that had that effect?
MEKAS: Whatever was playing day after day at the Museum of Modern Art. One day it was the 20s avant-garde, then Hollywood classics, commercial classics. There were at least 10 different film societies that showed non-commercial cinema, genre cinema, avant-garde, independent, et cetera, et cetera. Suddenly I was surrounded by cinema. And of course, there was also poetry which was very active—the arts in general.
When I landed in New York, all the arts were beginning to move into transitions; theatre moved into 'Happenings'; in music, John Cage was coming in; in painting, abstract expressionism; architecture was Buckminster Fuller with his new ideas about the spaces in which we lived, which affects what we are. Everything was changing—ballet, dance, music, and cinema. So I arrived at a very fortunate, interesting, exciting period. The old was fading out, and the new just coming in and it culminated in the 60 and 70s. New York was, for ten years, the centre of energy. By 1970 one could not say New York was it, the same things were happening in London, many many places.
NOTEBOOK: How do you think that compares to now?
MEKAS: Now is very complicated. In that period all of the arts and styles of life reached their own classic, academic peak. Now I think we are in a transition, somewhere, with digital culture and who knows what’s next. There is technology in which we are already in quite deep, but not in the center yet. I think we have no idea—no perspective—where this will go. It’s so international, so universal. You cannot compare with the 60s, or the previous periods of excitement in living and arts. We have no idea, no idea. Y’know, I’m more or less watching, or dabbling in some of these, but those who are in the very center—who grew up with it—I don’t think even they know where things will go. But there is a lot happening, and not everything is visible. 
All I know is that it’s easier. One dream has been realized, and the dream is the dream of Cocteau, who at one stage said 'cinema will be as easy as the pencil—that’s when cinema will have arrived at the level of other arts': and that’s where we are. I have my camera in one pocket and my pencil in another. I can use one or the other, that’s where we are. And dissemination! When we created our Filmmaker Cooperative in 1961 we thought: 'Boy, this is terrific. Now we can distribute our films, and who cares about Hollywood. We will develop our own network.' And we did! But still we had to make prints: those films are scratched, sometimes after one screening they’re done, they break. Now, just record something, in two minutes your friends see it. So it’s a different situation.
NOTEBOOK: There are lots of people who look back before digital cinema with nostalgia.
MEKAS: I’m not nostalgic, I’m realistic. I’m a farmer boy. The cows move at 5 in the morning, you have to go and feed them. I accept for granted that technologies change, everything keeps moving, nothing is static. That’s the essence of this solar system in which we are. The complication comes in here only because we are still in the capitalist society, you see. So somebody who makes cameras decides, 'I should change something there so they will have to be the new kind of projector' and that keeps happening. Sometimes you have a load of stuff and you cannot look at it anymore. And everything falls to dust, all those tapes—early video tapes, audio tapes—self-destroy unless they are kept in archival conditions. And YouTube may have millions but it will just disappear. What will remain? Darwin’s Law applies to everything even to videos, to art; what will remain will be what people like and want to keep, so they make copies, exchange with friends, and the rest disappears naturally. Of course in nature, in evolution, it’s not always what survives is the best, sometimes the most active, ferocious does. But I think most, it has to be intense enough for somebody to want to preserve it and share with friends and see again and again. It has to be something intense, not just something empty. 
Although those 'nothing' films have anthropological value. You see many bad, bad Hollywood movies or imported movies from some little country nobody shows here, but my excuse to show them at Anthology Film Archives was always: 'Why should we want to show only the masterpieces?' I want to show those bad films because it’s like in all ages, people used to go to distant countries to pick up some perfume or some plants they did not have at home, and made huge long trips, so that every country, and every area, and every movie good or bad has something special.
Not the same in writing—when the writing is bad there’s not much to learn. But even so, I’m organizing my books now and I looked at some and it’s like going to another world completely. How people lived, how they interacted. I discovered one book from the 3rd century and that is a cookbook. A cookbook! From the 3rd century! The whole book is about 300 pages bilingual—Greek and English in translation. So many things have been done before and you don’t know they exist. Ten ways of preparing fish.
NOTEBOOK: Do you ever think about that anthropological value your writing might have, either now or in the future?
MEKAS: No. Whatever I do I don’t think about the value; I do just because I need to do it. I don’t think about who will see it, or how they will see it, or if if it will be seen at all. I just like to do it for no purpose. And that’s the same with the diaries. You just do it. One writes like a bird sings—it’s not writing for a newspaper, it’s for no purpose. Most of the diaries written—millions of people kept diaries—the only ones with a purpose were those done on ships, ship logs. Otherwise, it’s habit. Necessity. And you don’t have to be a writer—a housewife can write a diary: Diary of a Housewife. 
NOTEBOOK: And do you think of your poetry that way as well?
MEKAS: Yes. Yes, my poetry I consider that I don’t write it at all. Because it doesn’t take time. You just write it out; you don’t think, you don’t plan, and it doesn’t take time. Poetry actually doesn’t need time, in fact it’s very bad. Maybe Dante had to do that—maybe Dante had to have a schedule [laughs]. If you write an Epic, that’s something else.
NOTEBOOK: You once described yourself as a filmer, rather than a filmmaker.
MEKAS: Yes, this is similar because for me a filmmaker is one who works with a script and has a producer and knows what he or she wants to do. I don’t have any plans, I do not want to have any scripts, I have no idea what I will be filming, or what I will be doing with it. So, okay, call me amateur filmmaker. Nothing serious.
NOTEBOOK: And how you decide when it’s time to put footage together into a piece?
JONAS MEKAS: Sometimes somebody asks me: “Do you have anything new?" And I say maybe, if there’s some money. That’s how I finished Walden and it was the same for As I Was Moving Ahead…: I said: 'If you pay all the expenses, I’ll show up and have a film.' Sometimes it’s my own thing. Like A Letter from Greenpoint, my friends were asking: 'How’s your life going in Greenpoint?' so I said I would show them. So I put all the footage together and it was done.
NOTEBOOK: How similar is your approach with your writing?
MEKAS: Slightly different Okay, Idylls…, that series ended. I knew I was not going to add anything to it, it’s like a complete cycle. Another cycle was in Cassis in France, I was there for a month and I did one. There are individual pieces that are not connected with any cycle, of course. It’s a slightly different process.
NOTEBOOK: And speaking again of Idylls..., I’ve heard you mention before about preferring to write poetry in Lithuanian.
MEKAS: My last Lithuanian volume was maybe seven years ago. I think that was my last poetry written in Lithuanian, because I’m reaching that period when some nuances of the language are becoming covered with dust. Some of the language in Lithuania has progressed in the 70 years since I left it—my Lithuanian is still the language of 1945. So at some point you begin to switch. The new adopted language becomes easier to express certain nuances than the one in which you were raised. But I still have a lot of unpublished Lithuanian material, so there will be another book, but it’s mostly old, not new. Mostly now I write in English.
How will this conversation be used? Internet?
NOTEBOOK: Yes, online.
MEKAS: Okay. Here. If you want a snap, I’ll give you one of my English poems. From my last reading this was still in my pocket. You can snap it and use it on the piece. It has not been published before.
Mostly what I write now, is in the form of letters to friends—there’s a whole book of letters. My next book will be 50 years of my diaries, called I Seem to Live… and it’s very, very big. The last 100 pages or so will be letters; my letters to friends. It picks up where I Had Nowhere to Go left off, it dissolves into it.


Jonas MekasInterviewsLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.