Jonas Mekas at 90

by Simon Collings

Jonas Mekas has just turned 90 and the Serpentine Gallery in London is staging a major exhibition to celebrate his life and work (until 27 January 2013).

I first encountered Mekas in the late 1970s. ‘Notes and Diaries of Jonas Mekas’ is how I remember the title of the Oxford University Film Society screening. I recall a particularly moving sequence, the camera racing through a field of wild flowers, the beauty of the moment fleeting, ungraspable. Other sections dealt with the experience of displacement and exile in America. The film made a powerful impression on me with its visceral sense of loss.

Back in the 1970s film meant celluloid and projectors. Viewing the work of experimental and visionary film makers like Mekas was not easy. One of the great things about digital media, DVDs and downloads, is that so much of this material is now available – see or search YouTube. The work lends itself well to viewing privately on a computer or TV screen. The artist describes many of his pieces as ‘home movies’, made for himself ‘and a few friends’.

Mekas was an obsessive filmer, recording endless hours of material – street scenes, social gatherings, the birth and development of his children, his cat sleeping, a tree in flower in Central Park, anything and everything that attracted his attention and interest. This footage he cut and spliced into sequences, with an accompanying sound track – music, conversation, ambient sound, his own commentary, silence. He used written sub-titles to provide context or to make a point.

The images rarely follow a chronological order. They jump around in time. Image and sound have connected but independent lives. While Mekas made many short films, he’s at his best in the longer pieces. The cumulative effect of the changing images and moods over an extended period is extraordinarily moving. Here is life, Mekas tells us. I don’t understand it, but here it is, and it is astonishing.

In Walden (1969) there is a wonderfully choreographed sequence of boats going in and out of the harbour at Cassis. Shot from a fixed position over several days, the film has been spliced together to create the sense of a single day, with many sudden jumps, the whole speeded up. Fast cutting, accelerated frames, multiple exposure, and blurred focus are all techniques Mekas uses to heighten the emotional impact of his images.

Walden also includes sequences about anti-Vietnam War protestors standing in the cold in New York, ignored by passers by. Most people are indifferent to the sufferings of others, Mekas seems to say. Later we see footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono staging a ‘bed-in’ for peace. Film of Allen Ginsberg and friends chanting Hari Krishna in the street is preceded by a dazzling sequence recreating the excitement of a night at the circus. Everything is observed, nothing is evaluated. In another section the film maker and some of his friends clown around for a German TV crew making a documentary about underground cinema. Nothing is serious, everything is serious.

Mekas grew up in Lithuania but had to flee the country in 1944 to escape the German invaders. He and his bother Adolphas were provided with false papers allowing them to study in Vienna but their train was redirected to Hamburg where the German authorities consigned them to a labour camp. After the war they spent several years in camps for displaced persons before travelling to New York.

Reminiscences of the Journey to Lithuania (1971–72) captures the sense of rootlessness experienced by Mekas’ compatriots in the USA, and their attempts to hold on to the old culture. It goes on to record the journey he and his brother made in 1971 to the village where they grew up. The reunion with their mother and the rediscovery of their home after 25 years’ absence is haunting.

Mekas is well known in Lithuania as a poet. He published a volume entitled Idylls of Semeniskiai about the village of his childhood. The commentary for Reminiscences is strongly influenced by this poetry. The film itself, like all of Mekas’ work, is a visual poem.

Mekas became an important figure in the New York avant-garde art world in the 1950s, writing on cinema for The Village Voice and founding and editing Film Culture, a journal of independent cinema. He was also a founder of what became Anthology Film Archives, preserving vast amounts of experimental film from the 1950s to the 1980s. Stan Brakhage, P Adams Sitney, and Peter Kubelka who co-founded the archive with him feature frequently in Mekas’ movies. Andy Warhol also makes cameo appearances.

In a later work, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) Mekas summarises his artistic credo. ‘Nothing happens in the film,’ we are told, it is ‘just images and sounds, passing through as they go’. No suspense, no drama, no plot, just images as he finds them, taking reels at random from the shelves in his editing room. But we are also told ‘This is a political film,’ a simple statement made without further elucidation.

Moving Ahead recapitulates many themes from earlier work – meals shared together with friends, snow in New York, the ecstasy of summer, the children growing up. There is a lovely sequence in which his baby daughter Oona runs around to a jazzy sound track, the film speeded up. The accompanying title says: ‘The ecstasy of the first walk/run.’ These are fragments, some of which contain ‘everything there is’, he tells us. He meditates on the passage of time, the meaning of memory, of beauty.

Towards the end he addresses his children Oona and Sebastian, and his wife Hollis. ‘What will these images mean to you?’ he asks. ‘If you have memories of these moments they will be very different from my memories. But this is how I saw it when I was filming it. Perhaps I was filming my own childhood, my memories of my own childhood, when I was filming yours,’ he says.

The sense of loss, of a lost paradise, is strong in Mekas’ work. But his outsider’s sensibility, the newness of America, and the process of discovering the country also inform his art. The gift of life, the warmth of friendship, the many moments of unexpected beauty, they are all here. ‘I understand nothing,’ Mekas says. ‘I celebrate what I see.’