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Godfather of the avant-garde: Jonas Mekas

INTERVIEW! Mekas on shaping New York’s cinema culture and the state of modern film criticism. From July 5-8 the Edit Film Culture! days pay tribute to Mekas with films, an exhibition and a concert (Silent Green).

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Photo by Liz Wendelbo

Jonas Mekas on shaping New York’s cinema culture and the state of modern film criticism.

The term “living legend” might be a horrible cliché, but how else to describe a giant of avant-garde cinema who survived a stint in a Nazi forced labour camp, worked with Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon, and, at the tender age of 95, shows no sign of slowing down? Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas also played a key role in shaping New York’s movie culture, co-founding both the Anthology Film Archives, a centre for indie cinema that endures to this day, and the influential Film Culture magazine, published from 1954 to 1996. The legacy of the latter is being celebrated in Berlin throughout July at “Edit Film Culture!”*, which combines a film series, an exhibition, and a festival featuring a live musical performance from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

How do you feel film criticism has changed since the days of Film Culture?

I’m not sure that there is much real film criticism these days, at least not in English. When I decided with my brother to publish Film Culture, it was very much connected to New York. Back then, in 1954, Britain had Sight & Sound, France had Cahiers du Cinéma, but in the United States there was nothing of quality. Yet there were many young people in New York who loved cinema – I’d see them in cafes arguing about films – and we thought there should be a platform where serious fans of cinema could exchange ideas. What I now see in mainstream publications is a lot of enthusiastic, descriptive writing that reads more like publicity material.

What inspired you to set up Anthology Film Archives? Surely you already had enough on your plate as a filmmaker?

When Anthology Film Archives opened in 1970, there was already a huge backlog of independent and avant-garde film for audiences to work through, and we felt that we needed to take stock and assess the state of cinema. At that time I was also running an initiative called the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque, where new voices could show their work. Some of them were very good, but it was more of an open forum. With Anthology Film Archives, we decided to form a committee and curate a selection of films that represented the best of the artform – we called it the Essential Film Repertory. We selected around 300 titles, but then Jerome Hill, one of our founding members, died of cancer, so the project ended there. The original idea was that it would continue indefinitely, and we would add new titles from different countries. You have to be a little bit crazy to do something like this, as you open yourself up to attacks and disapproval. But I hope that one day some other crazy person will step in and bring it up to date!

You were very quick to adopt digital technology and the internet – would you say this has had a broadly positive impact on your work?

We always have new technology, and new ways to create moving images, so it really has nothing to do with positive or negative. But generally, I’d say that any new development is a good thing. Suppose as a painter you have only inks, but no watercolours and no oils. You can get along fine with just inks, but it’s even better when you have oils and watercolours as well.

Have your working methods changed significantly over the years?

Of course they’ve changed! I grew up on a farm in Lithuania, and you use different tools for different aspects of work. And the tools change, so the way you work has to change as well. You use a video camera differently from how you use a movie camera. You can’t use a sword the way you would a bullet.

Do you consider yourself an American filmmaker?

No, I simply consider myself a filmmaker. I don’t belong to any country. I live in the United States but I don’t really know the United States. I only know New York, or rather, certain parts of New York. I think I identify more with people from the third century than with people of today – I don’t really want to be part of the modern word!

You’ve been a very generous champion of other filmmakers and artists throughout your career…

That’s not true! I promote the films I like, the filmmakers are attached by default. If I say I like Hollis Frampton, it has nothing to do with what I think of him as a person. But sometimes when I really like a film, I have the desire to meet whoever made it, so then the connection becomes more personal.

Throughout your career, you’ve documented your own life. Where do you think this impulse comes from?

It’s simply in me, it’s an integral part of me. In my film Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, I explain in the narration that even when I was six years old, I was documenting my life and keeping a diary. I was always interested in my immediate surroundings, and film is perhaps the best way to explore these – you can only record what’s in front of your lens.

You’re treating us to a concert when you come to Berlin – do you devote a lot of your time to music?

Music has been part of my life for as long as I remember, it stems back to my childhood in Lithuania. Where I come from, every evening you’d get together to sing. I still remember hundreds of Lithuanian folk songs – the melodies, if not the lyrics. One of my brothers played the violin at village gatherings, this made a strong impression on me. My father was a farmer but also a carpenter, and he used to fix our neighbours’ instruments. And my uncle was a Protestant pastor, and I stayed for several winters in his attic while I was studying. Every morning and evening, he’d go to the church next to the house to play the organ. So I was exposed to different forms of music from a very young age.

People tend to assume it was easier to be an uncompromising artist in a major city in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. Would you say that’s true?

I’d say it was easier, simply because it was so much cheaper to rent space. I paid $14.95 a month for my entire apartment. That wouldn’t pay for a night in New York today, maybe not even an hour! So it was always possible back then to find some kind of small part-time job to cover your living costs.

You’ve achieved so much over your career, but do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

The only reason it looks like I’ve done a lot is because I’ve lived so long. When you take into account all the years I’ve been working, it’s not so impressive! My dream right now is to finish what I started with Anthology Film Archives. Back then, I spent 10 years fixing up a building I bought for peanuts. But eventually I got tired of raising money, and we opened with the theatres completed, but without the library and cafe we had planned to build. So now we’re trying to complete the centre as it was originally conceived. Every year we lose money, so a cafe in particular will save us financially. It’s a $12 million project, and we’ve raised around $7 million, so if we continue raising money, maybe in a year we can start building. Much of the money so far has come from artists who donated works of art for us to sell. So to all my friends in Europe, if you know an artist who loves cinema, please ask if they’d consider donating one small piece to Anthology Film Archives, to help secure our future. The art of cinema needs you!

MEKAS IN BERLIN: The tribute kicks off on July 5 at Silent Green. On July 7 friends of Jonas Mekas play a concert alongside a solo show from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. A complementary exhibition, opening at SAVVY contemporary on July 6 explores the history of Film Culture magazine. The Edit Film Culture! Mekas tribute, July 5-8