A Lifetime of Cutting-Edge Filming

Maya Stendhal exhibit pays tribute to filmmaker Jonas Mekas

When the Germans came to the Mekas farmhouse in the Lithuanian village of Semeniskiai in 1944, Jonas Mekas, as he put it recently, “went out the window and into the potato field.” The last thing he glimpsed behind him was his father up against the wall, a German gun pressed into his back.

“You do not forget an experience like that. Knowing my father had that gun in his back, and I, face down in the potato field, all in bloom, white blossoms everywhere. I still remember the intensity of every smell and every color of that moment,” said the Jonas Mekas of 61 years later.

Mekas was 21 at the time. Had he any remote idea, back there, back then, of someday shooting all of life—his life and various others’—through a movie camera?

“No. Absolutely no.”

But if he had had a movie camera, what next ensued that day might have made a good short comedy in the vein of French surrealist filmmaker René Clair.

“The Germans saw that my father was just a farmer, so they let him go, but they made him get his horse and wagon to take them to the next village,” he recalled. “When the Germans stopped and went to look for food, my father unhitched the horse—and rode away.”

As Mekas told this story his hands were moving, moving, this way, that way, like a director framing a scene.

Which he denied.

“In reality,” the founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque and the Anthology Film Archives—in short, one of the world’s most indispensable film people—told Paris cineaste and art-museum chief Jerome Sans four years ago, “all my film work is one long film which is still continuing. I don’t really make films. I only keep filming. I am a filmer and not a film-maker. And I am not a film ‘director’ because I direct nothing. I just keep filming.”

A pretty good representative chunk of that lifetime of obsessive filming is now on exhibit through April 21 at the forward-looking Maya Stendhal Gallery on West 20th Street, almost at the Hudson River. The grouping in several rooms of seven “landmark” Mekas film and/or video works—short (one minute), long (78 minutes) and longer (24 hours)—is titled “Fragments of Paradise” and why not?

A print of the shortest—the two shortest, actually, welded together, “Mozart & Wien” and “Elvis,” one-minute-plus each—has just been bought by an Italian museum for $8,500, surely the first money of that size Mekas has seen in all his 82 years.

“It is to help me survive,” he said. “I was broke.”

So broke that a year ago, after 30 years residence at Broadway and Broome Street in SoHo, he sold that place and moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he is now quite happily starting all over again. The 78-minute “Letters From Greenpoint” is affirmation of the same.

I watched “Elvis” the other day. A deliberately flickering herky-jerky distillation of white-suited Elvis Presley in his last-ever concert in Madison Square Garden in 1972, it is wonderfully wedded on soundtrack, not to “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock” or any such, but to a molasses-smooth “Blue Danube” waltz.

The herky-jerk results from the stop-start/ stop-start of the Mekas finger on the camera that night in the Garden. The resultant one-minute-plus represents “absolutely everything I got” as Elvis sang and gyrated.

“I thought it funny—ironic—to put the ‘Blue Danube’ behind it, some cheap version of the ‘Blue Danube,’” he said. “And then, when the Vienna Film Festival of 2001 asked me for something to open with, I remembered this thing sitting there on the shelf and I thought, ah, maybe that will do.”

Another short, the four-and-a-half-minute “For Maya: Father and Daughter,” a video populated by two cats, begs the question whether the Maya for whom it was made was Maya Deren, America’s first and greatest avant-garde filmmaker and a woman both Mekas and I have been in love with since her death in 1961.

“The cats are my own cats, Rumple, the father, and Shiva, the daughter, and no,” said Mekas, “that’s not Maya Deren but Maya Stendhal, a very special, very dedicated gallerist, like Julian Levy or Jolas in the old days. There are not many like her.”

Maya Deren, in fact, would require tigers, yes?

“That we cannot escape,” said Jonas.

Jonas Mekas was born on Christmas Eve, 1922. Not too many people know that he is also one of Lithuania’s greatest poets. Nor that he is a survivor of ten months in a forced-labor camp at Elmshorn, Germany, a suburb of Hamburg—“actually a war prisoners’ camp, where I was in with French and Italian POW’s.” That was followed by more months in displaced persons camps at Kassel and Weisbaden.

In Lithuania, he had already been a member of a little theater group, and in Heidelberg he “bought, by chance, a book on the theory of cinema”—he can’t remember the title—“that got me very excited about the possibilities.”

Had he seen very many movies by then?

“Only what the U.S. Army sent the troops. And then, after the war, there was in Germany, among all those ruined buildings, a neo-realist movement something like what was happening in Italy.”

You must have seen German classics like “The Blue Angel” and all that?

“Oh no, no. The best I’d seen were Huston’s ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ and Chaplin’s ‘The Good Rush.’ They excited me.”

Mekas’ windmilling hands convey the excitement.

“But then I went to study at the University of Mainz, where Guttenberg came from, and this was in the French zone [of occupied Germany], so I could see Cocteau’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Then it was emptiness until I came to New York.”

That was in 1948, and by accident.

“Already my brother Adolfas [three years younger, today a professor of film at Bard College] and I had written several scripts. Our dream was to go to Israel to start a film industry—here’s a new country that can use a film industry.”

But because Jonas and Adolfas Mekas were not and are not Jewish, they were not permitted to enter Israel.

“Then we went to the consulate of Egypt. We thought: If we can get into Egypt we can walk to Israel. But again we were turned down. Then we signed up on a ship to go from France to Sydney, Australia, and in that time, while we were waiting, someone signed papers for us to go to Chicago. All right, we’ll go to Chicago. The U.N. put us on an army ship with 2,000 other refugees.

“I don’t consider myself an immigrant,” Jonas Mekas said with emphasis, in an English that has never in all these years fully or even halfway emerged from its Lithuanian cocoon. “I was brought here and dropped here by the United Nations.”

The first thing he did, wandering around the city, was rent a Bolex movie camera. A month later, having found some sort of gainful employment, he bought that instrument.

“Bolex became the love of my life. It’s a very good, very precise camera.”

Mekas went everywhere with it, it went everywhere with him, not least to the demonstrations and civil strife of the 1950s and ‘60s. I can remember being at a demonstration in Washington Square or City Hall Park at the dawn of the ‘50s protesting the mandatory shelter imposed during the idiotic atom bomb drills, and suddenly discovering Mekas up in a tree, clinging to the trunk with one hand, his Bolex pointed down to shoot the crowd, including me, in the other.

In 1954, Mekas became editor-in-chief of Film Culture, a highly informative and readable journal and in 1957, if my memory serves me, I called an unknown editor/writer with an invitation to write—or as his recollection has it, he phoned to ask why The Village Voice didn’t have a regular film column. In any event, I asked him, “Why don’t you do it?” and that’s how his weekly “Movie Journal” started in The Voice.

It was not a column of reviews. It was a column of Mekas, brash, intelligent, opinionated and wholly against the stream—any predominating stream. A year or two later, a hue and cry arose from a number of readers against Mekas—and to his defense, in a typically brilliant riposte, sprang none other than Maya Deren.

In 1961, Jonas and Adolfas created the full-length poetic-symbolic “Guns of the Trees,” and in 1962, when the feds busted Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theater (ostensibly for tax reasons), Mekas took Bolex in hand to sneak past the gendarmes and shoot a bootleg, full-length Living Theater movie of Kenneth Brown’s ferocious Marine Corps drama “The Brig.”

But that was long ago, Mekas will tell you—“and many people don’t know my work of the past 20 years at all. Here, they don’t know. But in Europe, they know. And that is why the exhibit at the Maya Stendhal Gallery is important. Now they can see what else I am doing.”

This, in fact, is a very big, very busy year for Jonas Mekas. This month a five-minute video, “Farewell to SoHo,” opened at the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art. On April 1, an exhibit of some of his papers and film prints opened at the Colton Gallery in Austin, Texas.

“In June I’m representing Lithuania at the Venice Biennale—of art, not film. They couldn’t find any Lithuanians, so they came to me. In September, the Lyon Biennale will show my work, and in late September a complete retrospective of all my films opens in Rome.”

Mekas is also in the throes of creating a video “Opera Epileptic Buto,” focused on the Japanese dance form, starring dancer Virginie Marchand and 90-something-year-old Buto performer Kaguo Ohno.

Through it all, Mekas continues his deep immersion every day in the core activities of his Anthology Film Archives—salvation, restoration, safe storage and a vast ongoing schedule of programming of every sort of non-mainstream film—in the big old brown-brick Anthology building, once a city jail, at Second Avenue and 2nd Street.

“I’ve just come from a meeting there,” he said. “To raise money to build another building on top of the building, to give us a library and a restaurant.”

In 1987, after all those years with a Bolex, Jonas bought himself a Sony video camera—“a simple Hi-8 non-digital camera.”

He brought it out, pointed it at his interviewer, handed it over for inspection. Under the lens is the inscription: “990 X Digital Zoom.” What’s that mean, Jonas?

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

The longest piece of work in the Stendhal exhibit is a “Dedication to Fernand Leger,” so phrased because Leger once wrote that he dreamed of making a film that would cover an unbroken 24 hours in the life of a family, any family.

Mekas goes him one better. He has spent years, video camera in hand, casually recording the lives of himself and everyone around him, including his family, his children, gorgeous Oona, now 30, an actress on the West Coast, and Sebastian, 22, “very deep in Chinese studies and the local cinema scene at the University of Beijing.”

At the Stendhal, Mekas’ version of Leger’s dream becomes an installation of 12 TV monitors, each running two hours of whatever Mekas shot—under the title “As I Was Moving Around, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty”—for a total of 24 hours.

Jonas, have you ever sat down and added up all those minutes of all those films and videos you’ve made, and come up with the total?

“No. Someday I will do it. Someone once said that all the books by Faulkner are one novel if you put them all together. The same with my movies.”

I am a camera indeed.