Happy birthday, Jonas!

By Stuart Heaney

Greetings friends and fellow diarists,

Today is Jonas’ 90th birthday and to celebrate, we offer all you diarists a a few stanzas quoting from one of his diary poems written in New York 10 years ago on the day before his 80th birthday. As you will see it was written at a time of sadness when his friend, fellow filmmaker and co-founder of Anthology Film Archives, Stan Brakhage, was dying of cancer. It also expresses his antipathy to the world of consumerism embedded in this time of the season and his belief in the irreversible entropic decline of Western civilisation that, according to Jonas, we are presently undergoing.

You might think that seems a curiously pessimistic note on which to celebrate a man’s life to date, particularly one that has been dedicated to expressing the joy of life in the small but lyrical art forms, but you’d be forgetting that his worldview and the poem itself expresses a great deal of tender and altruistic humanity, as well as pessimism – it also reminds us at this time of year that material acquisition is not the greatest thing to celebrate in the midst of deep winter, but instead to consider the overlooked and the marginalised, realising the importance of togetherness and community, which is the best of human society. Perhaps most importantly, it also expresses Jonas’ resistance to “growing up”, which could very well account for the long and healthy life he continues to live.

But tomorrow is my birthday and I should feel
more grown up, especially at my age, I should know more
about the real ways of this world.
But I don’t.

The world passed me by, I missed it, I only heard
noise and I saw blood in newspapers and salesmen on TV
selling things I have no use for.
I only own two pairs of pants, some shirts, ran out of
socks last week.

So where am I? The ultimate failure, according to the
statistics and evaluations of real life authorities
in Terra anno 2002 — just before my birthday,
which is tomorrow /same as Joseph Cornell’s and Louise
Bourgeois — Happy B’Day, Joseph, and Chère
Louise/.

NEXT DAY:
We all had a lot of music and dance and wine at
Anthology, and the Indians, the Uta Nation came and blessed
the avantegarde, they never did that for
Hollywood. And the Bear Boy sang a Uta Nation song in
our honor. And the snow was still falling
outside.

JM_3 Paradise Not Yet Lost

Still from Paradise Not Yet Lost (1979)

From ‘End of the Year Letter to Friends’, 3rd January 2003 in Letters, etc.

For the complete poem, go to Poems on Jonas Mekas’ website.

Serpentine Gallery: Jonas Mekas

by Georgia Korossi

Image

Jonas Mekas
Mekas with his Bolex in Lithuania 1971
© Jonas Mekas

The Serpentine Gallery is a remarkably suitable setting to host Jonas Mekas’s work. Its location stretches inside Kensington Gardens where trees and ornamental flowerbeds surround the gallery’s building from the South to its North rooms. All his life Jonas Mekas celebrated the small forms of cinema. Its lyrical forms, the poetry of what it is to live, notice and sing. The diary impulse of Mekas’s new feature-length film, Outtakes from the life of a happy man (2012), is idyllic in this architecture and pastoral setting.

The introduction to the Jonas Mekas exhibition is written by Mekas himself:  “In putting together this exhibition I faced one of the hardest challenges of my ‘artistic’ life. The reason for this was that the Fates had endowed me not only with a long healthy life, but they also saw that it was extensively productive. So here I was at a crucial ripe age, with all my work scattered all around me, spreading across a wide range of directions, and me, facing a challenge: what should I show, what should I share with others?”

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Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), 1969
© Jonas Mekas

Mekas has a strong online presence with his brilliantly designed website where one can see and read selected works and more recently a new DVD boxset of his films has been released in France. So, his work is accessible, but as a leading figure in avant-garde and independent cinema with works spanning a 60-year career, the majority of it is made on film.

In 2011 his film Sleepless Nights Stories (2011) and co-directorial work with JL Guerin, Correspondences (2011), screened at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. A year later he is back in London to mark his remarkable activities as filmmaker, poet and independent cinema producer since he arrived in New York in the late 1940s, following a long and difficult journey from Second World War stricken Lithuania.

Mekas’s long journey would be unimaginable to capture in the gallery space, limited as it is to just a small number of rooms. Or could Mekas’s body of work make sense of the gallery space? As I walked through the exhibition, I realized these boundaries were in constant flux. The more I looked through this survey of Mekas’s work with moving images, poetry and photographs dating from the 1950s to the present day, the more I discovered about his manifestos for promoting avant-garde cinema and its filmmakers alongside his support for independent cinema from abroad.

Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man 2012Installation view, Jonas MekasSerpentine Gallery, London

Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man 2012
Installation view, Jonas Mekas
Serpentine Gallery, London
© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Selected especially for the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, To London with Love (2012) is a portrait of the London-based avant-garde filmmakers in a set of 25 photographic prints from 16mm frames. These are images Mekas recorded with his Bolex camera during his visit to two landmark events that took place in London’s National Film Theatre (NFT): the International Underground Film Festival in September 1970, and the International Independent Avant-Garde Film Festival in September 1973.

But Mekas’s support for the international avant-garde film community is not just a part of his life. It’s his family and more importantly his life diaries in moving images and words. A series of 80 prints that are on display, My two families (2012), are all extracted from his captivating new film featuring in the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, Outtakes from the life of a happy man.  The 43.2×27.9 cm wall display not only gives the viewer an insight into Mekas’s film but, also a rich glimpse into the lives of his family, friends and colleagues. It includes Anthology Film Archives’ patron Jerome Hill alongside filmmakers and artists such as Harry SmithKenneth AngerPier Paolo PasoliniHollis FramptonAndy Warhol and Salvador Dali.

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Award Presentation to Andy Warhol, 1964
© Jonas Mekas

Nevertheless the material included in the exhibition, are fragments of the monumental experiences in the artist’s life. Mekas himself wants to be called a ‘filmer’ instead of filmmaker and he tells me: “My greatest challenge is to get to the essence of the situation and not to destroy it”. With his 16mm Bolex camera, also on display in the exhibition, he recorded a tremendous amount of diary footage. During an interview with Scott MacDonald in the early 1980s, Mekas said: “I really live only in my editing room. Or when I film.”

An admirer of the American avant-garde filmmaker and painter Marie Menken, Mekas’s sensibility in the editing room followed Menken’s style leaving much of the original material just as it was filmed. Both Lavender (2012), a selection of films presented in a block of 16 monitors, and Dumpling Party Installation (1971) are essential to understanding Mekas’s editing style reconstructing his experiences at the viewer’s will. His sensitivity to the moment, as shown both in these works and his Outtakes is that of, as Polish poet of Lithuanian origin Czesław Miłosz puts it, “a poet and a poet of things observed and preserved on the film reel.”

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As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, 2000
© Jonas Mekas

Together with Peter Kubelka, P. Adams Sitney and Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1969. To this day Anthology largely showcases avant-garde cinema alongside many other activities promoting and caring for the work of independent filmmakers. Its original fabric banner designed by Jerome Hill, is among the objects in the exhibition and laced next to Laboratorium Anthology (2011), a record 101 min long film celebrating the work undertaken by Anthology Film Archives.

Mekas’s Serpentine exhibition is a celebration of his recorded life-memories. Written in the dust of time, they are glimpses of beauty in the adventures of his long journey, unfolded and experienced in the present. Quite rightly Czesław Miłosz’s text sits next to Mekas’s mixed media installation of the 29 poems cycle (a series of poems Mekas wrote in 1946 while in a Displaced Persons’ camp), Idylls of Semeniskiai, and reads: ‘How many Europeans have lost their homelands in this turbulent twentieth century? Millions, and there seems to be no end…Those who become exiles lose not only their possessions. Trees, meadows, fields as seen in their childhood are taken from them. And yet if they write about their lost countries, they are, in a way, privileged, and I am going to explain why, upon the example of Jonas Mekas’ poems.’

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Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), 1969
© Jonas Mekas

The Jonas Mekas exhibition of film, video and photographic works at the Serpentine Gallery runs from 5 December 2012 to 27 January 2013.

Brief Glimpses of Beauty: The Films of Jonas Mekas season curated by Mark Webber runs at BFI Southbank from 6 December 2012 to 28 January 2013.

Jonas Mekas In Conversation

by Alex Davidson

Photographs by Stuart Heaney

F, M & H wide

(c) Stuart Heaney

Starting a few minutes late, last night’s In Conversation with Jonas Mekas at BFI Southbank opens with an enthusiastic introduction by former London Film Festival director and tonight’s master of ceremonies, Sandra Hebron. Earlier that evening, film director Mike Figgis (also on the evening’s illustrious discussion panel) offered to give Mekas a lift, but took a wrong turn at Waterloo Bridge and inadvertently ended up in a traffic jam on the wrong side of the Thames. Not that Mekas was fazed – when Figgis turned round to apologise, he found him obliviously filming with his camera. This need to film is key to understanding Mekas’ oeuvre – as he states in the interview, “I don’t film to preserve. I film because I have to.”

Click here to listen to an audio podcast clip:
Mekas-In Conversation 1- Reel Fiction

JM alone 3

(c) Stuart Heaney

The evening is initiated with a beautiful extract from his latest work, Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man. After, Mekas takes to the stage with agile aplomb, belying his almost 90 years, the ensuing interview focuses predominantly on his early experiences of cinema, and his first works as a film diarist. Just as Alfred Hitchcock could be cruelly dismissive of his own work, so Mekas is startlingly unpretentious about his methodology – his compulsion to film has led to an enormous library of film and video footage, as well as thousands of hours of audio. Every film is carefully catalogued – “I don’t trust my brain” – for revisiting later. Despite their age, the films are in remarkably good nick, still bursting with vibrant colour. The reason? Taking inspiration from Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, he frequently screens the films, not allowing them to rest and be eaten away by chemicals, Mekas claims.

Click here to listen to an audio podcast clip:
Mekas In Conversation 2 – I Don’t Trust My Brain

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(c) Stuart Heaney

Lost, Lost Lost, one of his most celebrated films, was completed in 1976, despite featuring footage from his arrival in New York in 1949 to 1963 – the intense, painful homesickness of that era made it too harrowing for Mekas to revisit any earlier. Despite this, Mekas remembers the excitement of discovering American cinema – after being weaned on Soviet propaganda in Lithuania (his only western film experience was seeing a forgotten melodrama, preceded by a Mickey Mouse cartoon, when he was 14), he describes galloping away from his factory work with his brother, Adolfas, at 5 in the afternoon to make every 5.30 screening – “we were dry sponges ready to absorb everything”. Two months after arriving in New York, he bought his first camera and started filming, usually around immigrant communities.

Click here to listen to an audio podcast clip:
Mekas In Conversation 3 – Return and Exile

He is cheerfully mocking of the meaningless moniker often attributed to him – “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema” – preferring to describe himself as more of a midwife. Certainly by his arrival in America, figures such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger were already well established. Hebron reads extracts from his diaries at the time, including his confident manifesto – ‘A Few Advices to a Beginning Filmmaker’ (sic). While some draw laughter from the audience (“Ignore scripts. Shuffle pages around like Orson did”), the final pointer – “Invent cinema from the beginning, as if no one had done it before you” – draws applause.

JM alone 1

(c) Stuart Heaney

The Q&A is thrown open to the audience. Some questions he refuses to answer – “that would take a book!” he replies to broad enquiries about the New York arts scene. No, he doesn’t watch much on YouTube – he simply doesn’t have the time. His great bugbear is so-called “creative people”, who endlessly reinvent objects perfected by craftsmen over centuries for no particular purpose – “I would send all modern designers to a distant island, surrounded by sharks.” A Lithuanian woman in the front row grabs the mic and exalts his artistic standing with the excitement a teenager might show Justin Bieber – her love and admiration for Mekas’ work is palpable.

Why does the experience of exile make so many brilliant filmmakers? “It also makes many bad filmmakers”. A final question leads to the grim summation: “America is falling to pieces”. Fortunately the evening ends on a light note – when Hebron, a former London Film Festival programmer, reveals she watched 400 films last year, Mekas is unimpressed – “in time I made 300 films.”

M & H1

(c) Stuart Heaney

Watch out for more audio podcasts from this event coming soon!

Enter Through the Workshop

By Stuart Heaney

Euphoric greetings to you all!

What a fortuitous opening to the workshop programme we had yesterday at the Serpentine. After some introductions and explanations of the workshop programme in the Serpentine’s Learning Space by no.w.here‘s Head of Lab and Learning, James Holcombe, the BFI‘s Education Curator, David Edgar and myself, Stuart Heaney, editor and administrator of this website, the students all introduced themselves to the group.

It was encouraging to meet such a group of bright, creative, perceptive and friendly young people – all with plenty of enthusiasm for new experiences and challenges (in fact, I must confess the strength of talent in the room was almost tangible). All of the students are undergraduates or younger and all of them have had some experience of either video production, photography or other related visual artistic practices, moving and still, but they are all eager new initiates to working with celluloid film and to poetic diaristic forms.

After some getting to know one another we all headed out into the exhibition space, which at present is nothing short of a wondrous grotto, and were taken on a walk-through by the Serpentine’s Head Curator, Kathryn Rattee, who treated us to her considerable expertise. Here some of us spotted Jonas himself wandering around and briefly chatted amiably with him.

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With a much more insightful review of the exhibition by our own Georgia Korossi, writer and curator of the BFI, forthcoming on this site I won’t go into too much detail here but, at a glance, highlights include: a new 16 monitor-screen work entitled Lavender that forces the viewer to use the footage in its parallel universes as the raw material to edit one’s own film in the mind’s eye, simply by moving the eyes around the screens in whatever order one subconsciously chooses (or doesn’t choose). That’s an idea that one of Jonas’ contemporaries, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, once referred to as “eye-ball kicks”.

The show also includes audio recordings by Jonas; his collection of 16mm Bolex cameras; blown up prints of clusters of his film frames; a video monitor showing a 1970s loft party with Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Andy Warhol, with polaroids taken at the event blown up and mounted adjacent to the screen; and not least a touchingly elegiac new film by Jonas entitled Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, which is Jonas’ swansong to celluloid film and which shows him making some final edits to 16mm film strips using a splicer: he now makes video work only.

An excerpt from that very film was the note on which Sandra Hebron opened her In Conversation interview with Jonas, along with British film director Mike Figgis, that evening. Again, I won’t dwell on this as, segueing neatly from this appraisal, the next post will be a report on that event by our own expert writer and curator, Alex Davidson, also of the BFI.

JM walk 2

Back in the Learning Space, we closed the walk-through with the students by treating them to some introductory short films by Jonas (although not without some technical hitches with laptops and projectors – how reliable our cutting edge digital technologies can be!): including silent footage of the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (the area where Jonas first lived in New York, which is now very trendy and expensive to live in but was then dilapidated and occupied by poor immigrant communities) from the very late 1940s and early 1950s (re-edited in 2002) and finally a beatific four minute film of a Hare Krishna parade from 1966 in which the film is sped up to a rapid pace, slowed down and multiple images are layered over one another (all of which was done using the Bolex camera only with no post production, except to add the asynchronous audio).

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Our next appointment will be the sold out screening of Lost Lost Lost at BFI Southbank this evening (with a review by Alex Davidson to follow next week) The students and curators will all be there and we’ll be busy reporting on it for those who are not lucky enough to make it! Tomorrow we will be joining Jonas and the students at the Serpentine for an informal chat at which we hope to learn from him some suggestions on how we might work to achieve our own diaristic films.

Until then – stay tuned for further developments folks, they’re coming thick and fast!

Getting set

By Stuart Heaney

Well howdy there, all you friends and budding audiovisual diarists!

We at the Jonas Mekas Diary Film Project are getting really excited as the time draws near when Jonas himself will be with us in London to lead a workshop in diary filmmaking, providing our talented young students with guidance and sage advice gleaned from over 60 years of making handmade independent films and of being an activist, journalist and irrepressible advocate for independent film. Of course that’s not all he’s here for: his visit will coincide with the launch of major retrospectives at BFI Southbank and the Serpentine Gallery – alongside further retrospectives at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Anthology Film Archives in New York celebrating his amazing 90th birthday – with no sign of anyone stopping him from doing what he loves anytime soon!

We’ll be busy providing you with frequent blogs, explaining the types of processes the students will be working with and reporting on the whole season as it unfolds, giving everyone the chance to be included in this fantastic once-in-a-lifetime series of events, whether or not you can be there in person. Not only will we be actively blogging about it in text form, we’ll give you the chance to experience it close-up with photos, video (including some shot on 16mm film with the same type of Bolex movie camera used by Jonas himself), audio clips and links to resources all across the web.

Check out this clip of Jonas’ film, As I Was Moving Ahead (2000), for a good example of the kind of material we’ll be working with. This clip shows how Jonas has spent his lifetime attempting to understand the chance encounters of his strange exile in America from Lithuania. The students are encouraged to explore the ideas represented here and think about their own experiences, travels and family lives.

Furthermore, we’ll be providing you with context and background with resources including an online tour of Mekas’ life, work and his most enduring achievements, plus pages introducing the lasting legacy of those achievements: the people, places and networks that enable these types of films to be seen now and by future generations. We’ll also point you in the right direction to find out more online and to further viewing and reading.

Here are some delectable dates for your diary, all you developing diarists!

Wednesday 5th December: the Serpentine Gallery’s retrospective show opens with a new work by Jonas  – we’ll be there right at the opening and we’ll tell you all about it.

Thursday 6th: Our students will meet and have a walk-through at the Serpentine Gallery where they’ll get a first-hand private experience of the show and Jonas’ work before they get the chance to see Jonas interviewed In Conversation with former London Film Festival director Sandra Hebron and British filmmaker Mike Figgis in NFT1 at BFI Southbank that same evening. That’s probably about as close to our idea of a perfect day as it gets!

Friday 7th: the BFI’s retrospective screenings of Jonas’ work, curated by Mark Webber opens with Lost Lost Lost (1976, 178 mins) and the students are encouraged to attend – we’ll blog about it and show you a clip or two. In the meantime, if you want the chance to see it, get your tickets here.

Then throughout December we’ll be blogging about the major screenings in the BFI’s retrospective of Jonas’ work.

Sat 8th: at the Serpentine Gallery, Saturday Seminar with Jonas – the students get to meet Jonas himself and hear all about his ideas and his work and to ask him for advice on how best to approach the diary videos and film work they will make on the course.

Wednesday 12th: an evening with Jonas Mekas and Friends at the Serpentine Gallery – music, poetry and surprises as Jonas holds court with some of his friends.

Friday 14th and Saturday 15th: two day-long practical workshop sessions at no.w.here with filmmaker and head of the lab and education dept at no.w.here, James Holcombe. James will take us through how the Bolex camera that Jonas used works, allowing the students to shoot, process and handle 16mm film so they can explore its textures and physical characteristics. On the second day the students will shoot and develop rolls of film that they will later use in their diary video work. These two days will be among the highlights of the workshop programme because no.w.here is the successor organisation of the London Filmmakers’ Co-Operative, which was founded in London in 1966. It was directly inspired by the Filmmakers’ Co-Operative that was founded in New York by Jonas.

Over the holiday season the students will work on their video productions. They will have access to the BFI’s digital edit facilities during that time.

12th January 2013: there will be a Jonas Mekas Study Day at BFI Southbank, including screenings and discussions with a panel of experts, led by curator Mark Webber.

26th January: the workshop culminates with screenings and discussions of students’ work in the afternoon. Then, that evening students are invited to attend the final screening in the BFI retrospective, his most recent film and tour through the twilight of Jonas’ insomnia, Sleepless Nights Stories (2011). It features Bjork, Harmony Korine, Yoko Ono and other friends. You can read a review here.

Finally your last chance to to visit the Serpentine show will be on Sunday 27th January.

WOW – what a packed programme, eh folks!

We’ll be back next week to tell you all about the opening of the Serpentine show, the launch of the workshop programme and Jonas’ In Conversation – so stay tuned and check back soon!

Welcome, friends

The Jonas Mekas Diary Film Project is a workshop programme intended as an introduction to working with the diary form as a cinema of free and poetic self-expression. It is aimed at young people with little to no experience of working with film and video and encourages the students to explore the relationship between themselves and the medium, engaging with their past and present, their friends and families and their immediate environment, putting ordinary lives into the frame, exploring the beauty and the poetry of the every day.

The workshop will take place in London, England and will be led by one of the true pioneers of the diary film, Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian-born New Yorker who has been a tireless champion of independent cinema for over 60 years. It coincides with twin retrospectives of his work at BFI Southbank and the Serpentine Gallery.

This site is a resource that will chronicle the workshop – a diary of the diaries, as they evolve – and will form a legacy for the project, allowing all you young students around the world who are hungry for creative development, but who are unable to participate, to also get something out of the workshop. We hope it will encourage you too to go out there with a video or film camera and make something personal, honest and truthful.

The workshop is a partnership of the BFISerpentine Galleryno.w.here labUniversity of the Arts, London and Anthology Film Archives. Find out more about BFI Education here at our blog site.

This site is in development so please check back soon for updates.