"I have never been able, really, to figure out where my life begins and where it ends. I have never, ever been able to figure it all out – what it’s all about, what it all means. So when I began, now, to put all these rolls of film together, the first idea was to keep them chronological, but then I gave up; and I just began splicing them together by chance – the way that I found the on the shelf…. There is some kind of order in it, an order of its own, which I do not really understand, same as I never understood life…"
So begins Lithuanian American filmmaker Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. Made in 2000, when Mekas was in his late 70s, the film is a kind of documentary poem made up of home movies shot over a period of around 30 years. While it certainly contains all of the familiar accoutrements and markers of classic home movie footage—his children, birthdays and landmark occasions with family and friends—at no point across its 288-minute run time does it feel quotidian in a way a film of yours or mine might (in my case, most certainly do). Instead, it is an incredibly evocative assemblage of memories, a kind of collage of a life that defies categorisation.
Now, this may be in small part due to, as Mekas himself says, the film being somewhat disordered; but much more likely is the fact that Mekas is no ordinary filmmaker—or diarist for that matter, making writing about him an unusually daunting prospect. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, it feels an impossibility to bring the same kind of poetic lyricism to bear in writing as he seems to do so effortlessly in film. When I first encountered his work, in the form of Diaries, Notes and Sketchesa.k.a.Walden (made between 1964 and ’69), it seems apt that I did so in an art gallery. The beautiful, woozy film, a tribute to the New York avant-garde in which he was so immersed, was completely at home among the other works of modern and contemporary art. As a portrait of those times, it succeeded in painting a picture every bit as vibrant as the artists working across other mediums with which this film was grouped (Picasso, Tillmans and Victor Burgin among them).
Because his inclusion in so rarefied a setting was not in the least bit jarring, I naturally presumed that this was the work of an artist who just happened to use film as a medium. It was shortly afterwards, when I read in the film magazine Sight & Sound’s September 2014 issue that Diaries, Notes and Sketches a.k.a. Walden had been selected in its poll of the ‘50 Greatest Documentaries of All Time’ that I gradually came around to the reality that yes, while of course he was an artist, this, first and foremost, was a filmmaker. It just so happened that I had never before seen a film quite like the ones made by Mekas. Perhaps some of his unique qualities were borne of experience.
Mindful of the looming threat posed by Nazism, Mekas fled Lithuania with his younger brother Adolfas in 1944, only to be stopped and detained on a train bound for Vienna. Subsequently, the pair were taken to a labour camp in Elmshorn Hamburg. They later escaped, however, and hid on a farm on the Danish border until the war was over. After spending another four years in German displaced persons' camps, Mekas studied philosophy at the University of Mainz before eventually leaving for the US, settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, along with Adolfas. Barely two weeks after their arrival he bought a Bolex 16mm camera and began to document his life: “Since 1950 I have been keeping a film diary… When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant. Either you get it now, or you don't get it at all. To go back and shoot it later, that would mean restaging, be it events or feelings. To get it now, as it happens, demands the total mastery of one’s tools […] It has to register the reality to which I react.”1
As if making up for those lost years evading the Nazis, Mekas has said: “Since I had missed so much, I decided to remain 27, you see, because there was so much to catch up, and I am still trying to catch up.” From thereon in, things moved quickly. A fervent cineaste, in 1955, he cofounded influential periodical Film Culture with Adolfas. Considering the era in which it was conceived—deep into Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age (where genre and the studio system still ruled)—it wasn’t a magazine at all confined to (or, indeed, very concerned with) covering the mainstream. Instead, it was a platform from which to advocate for underground cinema and those behind it; highlighting the work of avant-garde filmmakers, John Cassavetes, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger were just some of the recipients of its annual Independent Film Awards. In addition, from 1958, Mekas kept a weekly column in the Village Voice.
Ever an enemy of apathy, rather than traditional film criticism, he used his ‘Movie Journal’ to rail against the establishment, while also staunchly supporting the movement that would come to be known as the New American Cinema. In his own words, “I had to take a sword and become a self-appointed minister of defence and propaganda of the New Cinema.” Not content with being responsible for running Film Culture, and writing a regular rabblerousing column, in 1962 he was involved in founding the Film-Makers' Cooperative. Hot on its heels, in 1964 came the Filmmakers' Cinematheque, which in 1970 would become Anthology Film Archives, “an international center for the preservation, study, and exhibition of film and video, with a particular focus on independent, experimental, and avant-garde cinema.”
Remembering those years at a sold-out event in London last week, Mekas was in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, for a screening of another of his films—2012’s Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man—and to discuss his recently published book, Conversations with Film-Makers. Collecting many of his interviews from that Village Voice column, it is a testament to the pivotal role he played at that time and reads like a who’s who of the era, including Warhol, Brakhage and Cassavetes, as well as Susan Sontag, Carolee Schneemann and Claes Oldenburg. Whether it was a role he sought or not, his work as a filmmaker, critic, agitator and organizer led him to being something of a cultural barometer for the period, earning him the title of the godfather of avant-garde cinema.
If all of this talk of the past suggests that that is where Mekas now resides, such assumptions are quite wrong. As fellow filmmaker Harmony Korine has said, “Jonas is a true hero of the underground and a radical of the first degree – a shape-shifter and time-fucker… he sees things that others can't… his cinema is a cinema of memory and soul and air and fire. There is no one else like him. His films will live forever.”2