Jonas Mekas

Filmmaker, poet, artist

Photo credits: Benn Northover

MY PARENTS TAUGHT ME about everything that basically, deep inside, I am. Later, in my years of travels away from home, I added on top of it a thick layer of Civilization, like icing on a cake.

Jonas Mekas

WHEN SOVIET TANKS ROLLED INTO LITHUANIA, I was still living with my parents in a small farming village. As it happened, just a few days earlier, my older brother Povilas had given me a small photo camera. So, as my parents and neighbours looked fearfully from behind closed window curtains at the Russian tanks and truckloads of soldiers rolling along the dusty country road, I myself, as befits a future chronicler of the essential moments of our civilization, ran to the road and click, I snapped the first picture of my life. But even before the sound of the click had gone, a Russian soldier, a lieutenant of some kind, ran to me, grabbed the camera out of my hands, ripped the film out of the camera, threw it to the ground, and rubbed it into the roadside dust with his boot. Then he pointed to the house and shouted in Russian, something that I understood with no need to know Russian: “Run, stupid, run to the house, before I…” And that was how my life in film began…

I DO NOT FEEL too optimistic about the future of Western Civilization… We are far on our way towards destroying both Earth and Heaven (Spirit).

LITHUANIA, which was so elated when Iceland recognized its newly regained independence, now, by not recognizing the rights of the Palestinian people to have their own Independent State, is losing the right to its own independence.

Displaced Persons Camp, Kassel, 1948

WHILE ESCAPING THE FORCED LABOR CAMP NEAR HAMBURG DURING WWII, and after nearly being caught by the military police in Flensburg as we tried to cross the border into Denmark, my brother Adolfas and I managed to mix ourselves in among a large contingent of German refugees from the East. That saved us. Together with the German refugees, we were sent to help the local farmers who needed workers, since most of the men were in the army. That’s where the end of war found us: on a German farm in the little town of Havetoft. The farmer didn’t ask us any questions; he was just happy we knew the farm work.

I CANNOT IMAGINE what would have happened to my brother and me if we had remained in Lithuania. In 1971, when after 25 years we were allowed to visit our mother, she told us that soon after the Russians had reoccupied Lithuania, the secret police came to the house and asked for us. When our parents told them that they didn’t know where we were, the policemen got all the cows, horses and other farm animals out of the stable, lined them all against the wall, and then, with my mother and father also against the wall, they started shooting – killing all the animals, but skipping my parents…  And then, laughing loudly, they left…

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1950

WHEN I ARRIVED IN NEW YORK IN 1949, after five years of Displaced Persons camps in postwar Europe, I thought that angels had dropped me by the gates of Paradise… Actually, the final destination, arranged for me and my brother by the United Nations Refugee Organization, was Chicago, where jobs in a bakery were waiting for us both… But as we looked at the skyline of New York, we said, “Here we are, and here we are going to stay! It would be stupid to go to Chicago when you are in New York!” Yes, this was our choice. No room, no bed, no money, no job. But we took that chance. We were like two empty sponges, ready to absorb everything that we had missed during the wars and occupations, but was ready for us now right here, all around us. And we submerged into it completely and totally and blindly…

TRUE BEAUTY… yes, the true beauty… It’s all in the eye of the beholder…

Jonas Mekas

To the man, the woman he loves is beautiful, no matter what the others think… And you have to read the reviews of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony when it was premiered: they dismissed it as an ugly, noisy failure. Or Stravinsky… Or Van Gogh… Times change, the tunes change…

THE 365 DAY PROJECT: In 2007, I decided to make and put a short film on my website every day. It began as a personal record of my life. But since my life is very busy – I wear many hats, as they say – the project soon expanded far beyond the personal. It became a kind of anthropological activity. The challenge was to capture some essential moments of life around me. I had to be very open to everything that was going on around me, no matter where I was, and not to miss a day even though I did a lot of traveling that year. It was a very, very intense year.

At the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, New York, 1962

FOR ME, BROOKLYN IS the future Paris. Ten years from now, people will think twice: go to Paris or go to Brooklyn? The best choices of good restaurants, music places, cafes, bistros and bookshops are in Brooklyn these days, not in Manhattan. At the same time, Paris is becoming a new Brooklyn… and San Francisco, yes, someone described it well as a “crumpled Brooklyn”…

But what I just said above is 360 degrees away from what Brooklyn was in 1949, when I settled down in it. I was in Williamsburg, which was one of the poorest parts of Brooklyn, but it was also a part in which many of the Eastern European immigrants, including Lithuanian immigrants, had settled down. Here I was, before the gates of Paradise, that’s how I saw New York, but I was in Purgatory. After the Inferno of Wartime, Occupations, and five years of Displaced Persons camps, here I was, in Purgatory. It took me three years of hard work until I managed to escape from Williamsburg into the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my real life began.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, circa 1952

MY FIRST MOVIE CAMERA was a 16mm Bolex camera I bought some three months after arriving in New York. It served me well for a good number of years until one day, somewhere around 1958, a young filmmaker friend borrowed it to film protesters trying to prevent an American nuclear submarine from entering the harbour of New York. At one point, the little rowboat the filmmaker was using turned over, and my Bolex ended up at the bottom of the sea… The filmmaker, Ray Wisniewski was his name, being a good swimmer, managed to retrieve it from the shallow waters of the harbour. But the salty waters did permanent damage and it never worked again, so I had to get my second Bolex. (I used up five of them, in my film-making life…)

I DO NOT LIKE TO TALK about cinema, I only like to make it. I am a maker, not a talker. I love silence more than talking.

Jonas Mekas
Photo credits: Benn Northover

I NEVER THROW ANYTHING OUT… If something comes into my loft, then it must have a meaning, it must have been arranged so by angels. Some have referred to me as an “archivist” because my place is so full of stuff. But no, I am not an archivist. I do not collect things; I just do not throw anything out. And I know absolutely where everything is; I can find the smallest item from ten years ago in a minute. You see, I am a diarist, and I never know what I will need and when, for I use it all in my work. All the stuff in my place is my working materials. In that regard, I follow my father: he always had a lot of stuff behind the barn, he never threw anything away, and he always found a needed piece from the pile. When there was a need, he was sure he had it…

I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER MEETING Aldous Huxley… I have been blessed to meet, spend time, and work with many “famous” people, but this meeting was very special. The meeting took only two or three seconds. It was in 1956. I happened to be in Los Angeles. I don’t know how, but while speaking with my host, the subject turned to Huxley’s small, intense book, The Doors of Perception, and I told him I had never read it. OK, said my host, tomorrow we’ll go to the Edmunds Bookshop and buy it; you have to read it… As said, so done. Next day we go to Edmunds, I look through the standing special selection shelf, and there it is, there is the little book. I pick it up, I open it, I look at the text; then, for no great reason, I lift my eyes, and right across from me, behind the shelf, I see this tall, intense-looking man, also holding a book and looking into it. Then he lifts his head, and for two seconds we stare into each other’s eyes, only two or three seconds, only that long. Then we go back to our book business. I had never met Huxley, I had never seen a picture of him, but I was absolutely sure at that moment, as our eyes met, I was absolutely sure it was him, and I found it to be a very normal thing that he was, at that moment, there. And I was not surprised at all when my host touched my elbow and whispered, “That’s Huxley; did you see him?”

BEING ARRESTED ON OBSCENITY CHARGES FOR SHOWING THE FLAMING CREATURES AND UN CHANT D’AMOUR FILMS was a very normal thing for me; it was nothing very special. I believe that one should do what one feels is right, even if it goes against the established rules. It’s humans who make rules, and it’s humans who change them as society changes. Artists are usually the first to challenge the established rules. And the times have proved me right: two, three years later, the obscenity laws were abandoned in New York.

With the Lennons and George Maciūnas, circa 1971

ONE TIME, AT 80 WOOSTER STREET, GEORGE MACIŪNAS’ FIRST COOPERATIVE BUILDING THAT HE CREATED IN 1967, George invited John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol for supper. At that time he lived in the basement of the building, which was part of the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. Since he had no money to rent an apartment, I gave it to him to work and live there. On this special supper evening, he served his famous dumplings. He was very proud of his dumplings, but I always thought they were the worst dumplings I ever ate, or rather tried to eat. They were made from pre-mixed dough, and they tasted really bad. But, amazingly, everybody seemed to enjoy them. Warhol had a great respect for George, though George himself was sceptical about Warhol’s art… But he did like the films Sleep and Eat.

THE FLUXUS MOVEMENT IS what you make of it. After George Maciūnas, the father of the Fluxus movement, died, some thirty Fluxus artists were asked to give their definitions of Fluxus. Every one of them came up with a completely different definition… To me, the answer is simple: Fluxus is George Maciūnas. There was always a little smile in whatever he did, a game, some playing-around. He was very, very serious about everything, but at the same time there was always a tiny smile on his face. And that is what Fluxus is, and that is what the world needs today more than ever: a little, subtle, light smile. Who said it? “Angels can fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously…”

© Courtesy of Jonas Mekas

VERY OFTEN, GEORGE MACIŪNAS AND I WOULD go to a Swedish smorgasbord restaurant in Manhattan. It’s no longer there. It was George’s favourite restaurant because you could eat as much as you wanted for the same set price. Before we went there, he told me, he would fast for a couple of days so that he could eat more… He was very, very poor in the Sixties; he lived on pennies. Most of the art he produced during that period he gave away to friends as gifts, or he sold it for as little as was needed to survive that day.

AVANT-GARDE FILM IS OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD BECAUSE of its historically inherited, but unfortunate, referential “category” name of “avant-garde.” Actually, what we have here are the non-narrative, poetic forms of cinema – the equivalents of which can be found in literature, in the various forms of written poetry. It’s time that film criticism and film history is brought up-to-date, and that cinema is discussed in its different forms and not in terms of “genres” imposed by writers familiar only with public, narrative cinema.

BOTH SALVADOR DALI AND JOHN LENNON had a capacity for inventing, at any moment, totally unpredictable twists in any situation. They were like improvisation machines. The secret, I think, was in their permanently open sensibilities, into which any new idea could jump in, without resistance, at any moment.

Jonas Mekas

MOST OF THE TIME, ANDY WARHOL WAS in his Factory, his studio, which attracted many admirers both locally and from outside the city. I don’t know any other artist who was so open, made himself so likable to strangers. He was like a father to them: never scolding them, always accepting them as they were, and often giving advice, too. He even gave me some advice one time when I was involved in something and asked my helper to pick up the phone. It was Andy on the other end. “You should always pick up your phone yourself,” he said, when I came to the phone. He always did when I called.

With Andy Warhol, 1972

FEW PEOPLE KNOW that I am a specialist in potato pancakes! Actually, I am also a specialist in wheat pancakes… Those of my friends who have eaten them cannot eat pancakes anywhere else…  I learned the craft from my mother. It’s an art that cannot be learned in cooking schools.

I DO NOT LIVE ACCORDING TO PLANS BECAUSE I do not have any, and anything that comes by itself is usually more interesting and better. Long ago, I noticed that the decisions that came naturally were so much better than the ones I made.

So I quit making plans and making decisions. I rely totally and completely on angels, and they seem to enjoy it, because they keep me very busy…

Jonas Mekas

AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD OCCASIONALLY I SAW BRIEF GLIMPSES OF BEAUTY is a film focusing on my family life. It’s a long film, close to five hours. It had to be long in order to really pull the viewer into the ambience of my life. Because it’s not about some single “dramatic” event, it’s almost about nothing. It takes time to get into the feeling of the “nothingness” of everyday life: its pleasures, its moods, small insignificant events. They have to pile up, slowly, to begin to gain meaning and sense. It’s all about the meaning of life…

Photo credits: Paulius Kazlauskas

“I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE, REALLY, TO FIGURE OUT WHERE MY LIFE BEGINS AND WHERE IT ENDS.” WHY?  It’s a big Why. I have always been, since age 17 or so, involved in public activities, both aboveground and underground. And it was never by my own design, but by necessity. It was so in Lithuania, it was so in the Displaced Persons camps, and it was and still is in New York. Film Culture magazine, the Village Voice Movie Journal column, Film-Makers Cooperative, Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, Anthology Film Archives, etc. etc… It was me and it wasn’t me who was doing it all. I really didn’t need any of it for myself; I was perfectly happy with my poetry. But somehow it always fell on me to do it all, coordinate it all, beg for money for it all, and go to jail for it all, so much that most of the time I wasn’t sure anymore who was doing it all, I just executed it all like in a trance, and what was really done by me and what was done by angels became one, inseparable part of my life and the times.

But while all of that was going on, the real me – a small country boy, a farmer boy – I was still lying under the trees in the woods of my childhood, on the soft moss, looking at the blue sky, listening to the insects, the birds, the leaves of the trees, and dreaming…

Jonas Mekas

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