Jonas Mekas on capturing “real life” on film, poetic filmmaking and more in Miami New Times
March 24, 2016
“Every form of cinema is like a big dream with many different branches. It can tell stories or make documentary films or newsreels, and you can also write poetry. You can look at life poetically.”
This is what Jonas Mekas told me when I asked him about the editing of his first epic diary film, Walden (1969). He will be in Miami this Saturday presenting his own personal copy of the near three-hour film to benefit Obsolete Media Miami in its quest to match a Knight Arts Challenge grant won last year from the Knight Foundation.
The Lithuanian-born Mekas began making home movies when he arrived in New York City with his brother Adolfas (who died in 2011), in 1949, after they both survived a Nazi work camp. Mekas bought a Bolex camera as soon as he could afford it and began documenting his life in America. Before any of those films came to public light he was an exhibitor of ground-breaking films in New York City and was one of the Village Voice’s first film columnists. He is also a poet who became known as a pioneer of avant-garde film.
It wasn’t until the early ’60s that he started making movies himself, beginning with a feature film in 1961 (Guns of the Trees). A series of documentary shorts followed, until Walden became his first epic home movie. This weekend, on Saturday, March 26, he will be present at a screening of his own personal copy of Walden, which is one of two events meant to introduce Mekas to his Miami fans. Tonight, he will be at Gallery Diet, in the Miami neighborhood of Little River, for the opening night reception of an exhibition dubbed “Let Me Introduce Myself.” It will feature some of his photographic art as well as a four-channel film installation.
He has visited Miami in the past for talks at universities long ago and a panel at Art Basel Miami Beach back in 2011. However, the 93-year-old has never seen a heroic reception as both Gallery Diet and OMM have planned for him.
He still lives in New York City where he first settled in Brooklyn, upon arrival from Europe after World War II. He describes his first three years in Brooklyn as “very, very depressing.” He then moved to Manhattan, or, as he described it, “escaped” there. About 10 years ago he moved back to a now revitalized Brooklyn and loves it there. “To me, Brooklyn is like a new Paris,” he says. “All the best new music places and even eating places, there is so much more variety, and it is so much more real and human than Manhattan. Manhattan is too much of a business kind of place to me. I find it boring. There are museums and things like that, but those are like islands that are very important.”
Our conversation turned to his work, including his thoughts on reality, how he brings the mindset of a poet to editing film and a musical quality to his filming.
“It’s so difficult to record life as is,” he mused, “and then you look at it so many years later, it’s the same as looking at fiction because it’s no longer there. It’s only memories, and you have to fill in the rest with your own imagination. It becomes part of a fiction, fragments recorded with the camera, and documents of the period, of course. What has been recorded by cameras, as life goes, is a great source of information of how people lived, how they were dressed in real life, not in a Hollywood production, but in real life, so it’s very valuable in that sense.”
He says, when he shot Walden, which he calls an example of his “diaristic” or diary filmmaking, he used his camera as a jazz musician would an instrument. “I used the camera like a jazz saxophonist uses an instrument: improvised, and when you improvise with your instrument — in my case it’s a Bolex camera — it’s controlled through your fingers. It’s my temperament, by what I am, same as a musician when one plays, it’s how the musician feels at that moment … You will see in Walden that’s how I am. That’s how I see reality. I don’t see reality as some slow, static thing. To me the reality I see is vibrating and full of different dimensions.”
This sometimes involves images that are unrealistically sped and a sprightly editing style full of rapid jump cuts. He says this is reflective of the poet within him. “When you write poetry, it’s not the same when you write a novel, where you have characters. There you cannot rush too much because the reader should be able to follow some idea of the characters. You write in slow, clear sentences, but in poetry you make jumps. It’s more condensed because you are not telling a sort of narrative kind of story, which is like, one could say, horizontal, like a story. But it’s more vertical, so Walden, in a sense, takes a form that is diaristic and real life but also it’s like a haiku, a Japanese form of poetry. It’s a different language, the language that is poetic.”
Finally, I ask him what it feels like to look back at his life through his career of diary films. He laughs and says, “My fingers know better than I do,” before laughing some more.
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To read more of my conversation with Mekas, including what work he will share at Gallery Diet, the importance of Obsolete Media Miami and showing films in their original format, jump through the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog logo, below, which just published my article previewing Mekas’ visit to Miami:
Let Me Introduce Myself, opens Thursday, March 24, at Gallery Diet with a reception with Mekas, from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. The exhibition will remain on view through April 30: www.gallerydiet.com. On Saturday, March 26, Mekas will be present for a 16mm screening of Walden and a Q&A afterward with Mekas at Palm Court Event Space in the Miami Design District; reception at 7 p.m. followed by the screening, which starts at 8 p.m. For more information, visit: www.omm305.com. For tickets, visit: eventbrite. Portrait of Mekas by Jacques Kasbi. Otherwise, all images are actual film frames from Walden courtesy of Obsolete Media Miami.