Filmmaking in the footsteps of Jonas Mekas

David Edgar , Stuart Heaney
Thursday, 23 May 2013

Young filmmakers take inspiration from the ‘godfather of the avant-garde’ to make their own films on analogue equipment.

When our two-month Jonas Mekas season kicked off in early December last year with the man himself onstage in NFT1, it wasn’t just long-devoted fans and acolytes in the jam-packed audience, hanging onto his every word. A new generation of young, eager artists were along for the ride, there to take notes from the filmmaker often referred to as the ‘godfather of the avant-garde’, who pioneered the diary film through his intensely personal works such as Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).  [Read more and see the final films at]

Diary Workshop video now showing

Greetings friends! Just a brief posting to announce that, having now privately screened with the students’ work at the BFI and Chelsea College of Art, the diary film/video (made with a hybrid of 16mm film, HD video and separate sound recording device) of the diary film workshop with Jonas Mekas will be screening on a loop at London’s Serpentine Gallery from today.

It coincides with the launch of their new exhibition, Rosemary Trockel: A Cosmos, looking back at an outcome of the previous show.

The students’ work and the video will soon be available online at this website and via project partner websites. Check back soon for updates!

Final screenings – what I learned

Our Mekas student workshop culminated yesterday in a screening of all the complete, or near-complete films. The films covered a range of structuring and sequencing principles, all within the limits of non-narrative film-making.  I thought I’d try and list them (with apologies if I’ve misnamed anyone).

Aaron’s piece made a big impression, structured by the alternation of two tropes: flash images of colour photographs, or stills, that seemed to come from his own domestic sphere and personal history, with sequences of black and white moving close-ups of figures sucking on lemons.  The structuring device of alternation was the point for me, rather than the why of what he was sequencing.

I think it was Felicity whose piece was structured by bookending mirror image sequences of a girl walking along, then retreating down, a path.

TK brought in a swathe of home movie footage shot by her family over two (or three?) generations in Louisiana, and mixed it in with black and white material shot on 16mm as part of the workshop.  She edited together sequences of similar subjects (seaside; debutante ball; learning to walk) shot over decades, and ran a sound edit of found material (a hurricane warning from the radio in the 1970s; her grandfather playing the piano) alongside it.

The effect is of anachronistic combination – Eisenstein’s horizontal, and vertical montage.  TK is thinking about adding voiced narration, which would linearise it, maybe ironing out some of the more impressionistic creases.

Jahar and Katie’s film was edited in 5 chapters, named loosely after the content of each: Knives and Forks in Pellici’s cafe; Click Kill in the butcher’s; White Blanket in Soli’s Laundrette.  There’s something unique feeling about this piece – a 16mm documentary about this part of Bethnal Green in late 2012.

Emotional shape
Ernesto’s memorial to his father’s love of the rain was given impulse and shape by a feeling, objectified by the almost abstract shots of an umbrella; the thing standing in for the feeling.

Amir and Trevelyan chose another way altogether, their collection of semi-abstract shapes and shadows given intensity by the decision not to underscore with music.

Textual reference
Henriette’s piece ‘one day the ark came to my house’ was structured around four or five poems or pieces of prose, each sequence opening with a hand drawn graphic as a chapter marker.

Lucy and Troy both used shared footage of members of the team dressing up in animal costumes, carnival dress, ball masks, edited into rhythmic montages;one of the pieces built up garage band loops into a crazed cacophony, intensifying the repetitions in the images.

And whose film Doppelganger followed a Cindy Sherman look-alike up and down stairs, into a church, with heavy and dramatic foley footsteps?  It was Harriet.  (thanks Harriet!)

Documenting the Workshops, Part 2

Part 2: Practical sessions
By Stuart Heaney

Friday 14th and Saturday 15th December, led by James Holcombe at, Bethnal Green, London

Friday 14th
In contrast to last Saturday’s crisp beautiful sunlight, today it is pouring with rain and I’m running late, having spent the previous evening exporting HD clips from my camera onto my hard drive via my now creaking and ancient (2006 is pretty old in dig(ital)-years!) laptop until the small hours of the morning. The session is about to start when I arrive so I hurriedly set up trying to catch as much of the start of the session as I can.

First thing this morning, James talks us through what the Bolex does, how it has been used by filmmakers in the past, how to load film into it, how to expose your shots to light correctly by using light meters and the panoply of possibilities the camera opens up by using its functions. Video and audio of these invaluable instructions will follow soon, so please check back soon for an online tutorial!

Then, after a break to refuel over lunch, we return to experiment with the cameras as the students’ all form into groups. Some have their cameras loaded with ordinary black and white negative film (meaning you get a negative image, which must then be printed to make a positive), the others with a high contrast positive printing stock used for making sound on film, but which, with lots of light, can be used to shoot images. The negative, at 200 ASA is more sensitive to light, meaning it is easier to get an image under darker lighting conditions. The positive printing stock is only 8 ASA, meaning it needs much, much more light (the lower the number the more light you need to get an image), but if used well comes out with very stark, high-contrast images that have an almost graphic look. For these tests, the cameras are loaded with only 50ft rolls of film, which lasts about a minute and a half. After everyone has shot their film, the films will be unloaded into tanks in darkness (if they are exposed to light at this point they will be ruined) and developed in chemicals, just like what happened to your old family photos before digital cameras. James shows the students how to do this.

The students have fun playing around with their cameras, trying out light meters, and shoot footage indoors. I roam amongst them as they experiment, none of them seem to be disconcerted by my filming them, while they film each other, it’s all one Bolex free for all. I use one whole 100ft roll (just under 3 minutes) of film on the day.

As the weather is so stinking outside, there’s no possibility to go out and film in daylight, which would have been better for those with the printing stock in their cameras (and indeed they don’t get many images out of that film). But nevertheless, it’s for the best as today the students need to be back in the lab soon enough to process all the films in time to hang them to dry. Once dried, we take a look at them, running some on a Steenbeck, which is a machine that used to be used by editors when they worked with film and is a way of looking at films without the use of a projector. Cries of ‘wooowwww!’ are heard when some of the strange results are shown to the students. After, we try running the films in a loop on the projector and slowing the projection speed down to take a closer look.

Saturday 15th
Today the weather has improved and, while again I’ve had to stay up late to empty the video from my camera’s capture card onto the drive, I’m there in good time and ready for the day’s fun.

After a brief discussion, the students are unleashed and they immediately start rummaging through the bags of costumes and props they’ve brought with them to shoot their rolls of film. James, noticing how some of them love fooling around with different costumes and role-playing in a very improvised manner, encourages some students to see the films of Ron Rice and Jack Smith. Troy seems to be adopting a cat-woman-like persona and so we encourage her to take a look at the films of Jeff Keen and specifically the roles played by Keen’s wife and muse, Jackie.

Again, I roam amongst the students as this time they go outside to play around, untroubled by rain, recording them with HD video, but also filming them with the Bolex. That morning James rewound the film roll in the dark so that I could re-expose the same roll, making day one and day two run simultaneously over one another in a double-exposed image. Occasionally, I run the film through the camera with the lens covered so that only one image is registered (from the previous day) in those sections.

Having filmed a couple of the groups playing around with costumes and props in the park near Bethnal Green Road, I wander off to find other groups, unsuccessfully. Returning to I find they have regrouped there and we agree to go out together for a bit more filming before the sky becomes too overcast and the rain sets in – and before the winter sun sets.

We wander into a wood at the edgelands of the park where TK takes delight in filming the tree branches (much like Jonas does in Walden (1969), although I did not sense a fantastic feeling of spring in the air on that occasion) in single frame exposures, then seeks out a lone squirrel climbing up the branches. She is delighted when she successfully captures the timid creature on film. It’s at this moment when, seeing TK filming the grass, I remember I wanted to get a shot of one of the students filming the ground in an homage to the moment in Lost Lost Lost, when a flag-cloaked Jonas (filmed by Ken Jacobs, not with a Bolex, but with a Bell & Howell Filmo), on the plains of Brattlebro, Vermont, pretends to be a Catholic priest and ceremoniously sweeps the camera across the ground, like a censer, as though purifying the land by filming it. TK is willing to oblige, so I run back to the lab to grab the Bolex I foolishly left behind in favour of HD. When I return I take the shot in slow motion and then speed her up at 8 frames-per-second. The shot itself is planned and not spontaneous, but the moment is and we are having fun, so it counts.

Returning to the lab, many of us remain and continue playing around with our cameras, experimenting, milking every last moment in this space for all they’re worth, until everyone uses up their film, returns their cameras for the film to be processed and telecine’d and eventually all peel off towards their homes, their families and friends and the festive winter holiday season. Soon enough I too make my way out, for I have an appointment to keep – a screening at BFI Southbank of Jonas and Adolfas Mekas’s debut film, Guns of the Trees. That’s where we came in.

Watch out for forthcoming frame grabs from the video and 16mm film, plus audio clips from this session – please check back soon! 

Watch out also for the completed students’ productions and the workshop video , which will screen together at BFI Southbank on 26th January, then again at UAL on 1st February. Once the private screenings have been held the students’ videos and the workshop video will be available online here on this site and on the Serpentine website.

Documenting the Workshops, Part 1

Part 1: Jonas
By Stuart Heaney

At last! Finally a chance to report on the workshops. So, without further delay, let’s get right down to business.

Saturday 8th December – a workshop conversation with Jonas

Firstly let’s briefly recap on our previously discussed sequence of events (see previous posts, below, for further info):
Thursday 6th December: a private walk-through, with Serpentine director Kathryn Rattee, of the Serpentine’s Mekas exhibition followed swiftly the same evening by the In Conversation event in which we saw Jonas discussing his inextricable relationship between his work and his life, with former London Film Festival director, Sandra Hebron and Brit film director Mike Figgis;
and then Friday evening’s sublime screening of Lost Lost Lost (1976), which all the students attended as additional preparation for what follows this bright and wintry Saturday morning…


Having traveled across London on the tube from my East End home, I arrive at the Serpentine Gallery lugging heavy camera equipment across the frosty winding pathways through Kensington Gardens clutching a fortifying coffee. Greeting the young artists working at the kiosk I make my way straight through to the Education Space to begin setting up where’s Head of Education and film lab, James Holcombe, is already waiting.

Fortunately, the news arrives that Jonas is running late, which buys me a little more time to continue setting up my equipment and preparing. I have to find the optimum viewpoint to shoot the HD video using my Canon 5D MkII DSLR camera. There is a circle of seats for the discussion and a wooden chair provided for Jonas, which enables me to position and focus before his arrival. A short while later, while everyone is arriving, without realising the seating arrangements, one of the students sits on Jonas’s seat and we joke about her taking the throne. Indeed the underlying purpose of this day is passing on the mantle to the younger generation.

Suddenly, while I’m still setting up, winding on the 16mm film in the Bolex and preparing the separate sound recording device mounted in the centre of the circle for optimum sound, Jonas, followed by his son Sebastian and his friends Benn Northover and painter and philosopher Giuseppe Zevola, enters the room earlier than expected, causing an outbreak of warm smiles (but leaving me no time to move the obtrusive ladder and trestle table, leaning against the wall and in shot at the back of the room). The sunlight is gentle but crisp through the French Windows, but that’s not the only reason he glows as he enters the room. He seems surprised and delighted by the energy emanating from the vivacious young aspiring filmmakers he is confronted with, all of them eager to talk with him – and by the presence of Bolex cameras. Clutching his Sony PD150 DV camera, the fondness he retains for the Bolex is palpable and he immediately takes to recording the people in the room with his video camera, directing his lens at me, while I am filming him doing so with the Bolex.

It’s unlikely Jonas will ever know what this exchange of lenses means to me (as a younger man his work at Anthology Film Archives inspired me to train as a film archivist): to film him while he in turn records me through his videocamera lens. In a way, without wishing to overstate it, my present self is confronting him with his former self, the 16mm filmer of modest moments of joy (and this is certainly one), while his present self confronts me with my former self – until a few years ago I used to make DV video using the same camera, until I returned to 8mm and 16mm film and more recently took up HD video.

‘You’ve got a Bolex there… you don’t have any video?’ enquires a pleasantly incredulous Jonas. ‘You’ve got the video camera,’ replies James, inducing chuckles all round. Actually, the DSLR I have set up on a tripod in the corner is for the purpose of taking full 2K HD video, but the form of camera appears to have deceived him into believing that I am taking still photos, a deception that induces slight discomfort later on when Jonas expresses his antipathy towards photographers, as opposed to film and video-makers. Clearly thinking of the paparazzi type, in his experience photographers are much more invasive with their desires to get the best shot at all costs, whereas filmmakers, he says, are more inclined to blend into the background. Of course, the label paparazzi originates in cinema itself – in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, after the tenacious celebrity snapper, Paparazzo.

Inevitably, the differences between film and digital video are discussed. Though clearly he bears no animosity towards HD, Jonas himself is not drawn to it, ‘when there is too much perfection in the image there is no longer mystery.’ He is asked why he moved to video from film, a transition which occurred in the late 1980s. He says he felt at the time that he had explored every possibility with the Bolex and that he had begun to repeat himself. Coincidentally, he was simultaneously introduced to video by a friend and was offered the use of a camera (he was actually approached by Sony to test one of their cameras in 1987; it would have been an analogue tape format, such as Video8 – this was before the invention of digital video). Experimenting with the new camera, he discovered that, ‘it opened up a new window of content, and I got interested – it pulled me in.’

However, he immediately laments the lack of possibility for experiment offered by the DV camera (all the while he continues speaking, untroubled by the loud clacking sound of my Bolex). He extols the Bolex’s many functions that enable effects to be done in-camera, spontaneously, at the moment of filming – speeding up the film, slow-motion, shooting multiple single frames, in-camera fades, winding the camera back and re-exposing the film so that you get different moments from the same event super-imposed, under-exposure, over-exposure, etc. Yet, despite the limitations and advantages of both cameras (the Sony allows continuous recording with sound but can’t do in-camera tricks, the Bolex can do the whole range of in-camera tricks but has to be wound up, runs on short rolls of film, makes loud clockwork noises and records no sound), Jonas tells us he now uses his camera in the manner of an anthropologist, to study the behaviour of his fellow humans.

He agrees with Henriette, that many of the people in his film playing around and acting silly for the camera are childish because he films them at times in their lives when they are free to express their joy and to revert to a state of childlike innocence. Aspiring documentary maker Jaha is interested in his treatment of sound, particularly the use of overwhelming spiritual music, such as choirs and Jonas tells us all about how he uses music appropriate to the images, coming back to edit the footage many years after it was shot. Has anyone ever got angry with him for filming them? Only three times he says, including once when the people filmed were meeting in secret. However, there have been occasions, Benn Northover tells us when people have been more affected by Jonas’s films, rather than his filming – one man was even taken paralysed by medics after having been so moved by the experience of seeing As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000).

He seems in no hurry to leave (several times he declares, finger in the air, ‘one more question!’), but even so the time comes all too soon when we must say our goodbyes, much to everyone’s sadness. The big white door opens and he and his friends and family are swallowed up by the ethereal cacophony of his own video installations outside in the gallery space.

After he has gone the students immediately discuss the encounter excitedly, wishing he could have stayed longer. Much is discussed about what Jonas told us of his work setting up the Filmmakers’ Coop, as James talks about the inevitable problems artist-run spaces like have in securing financial support in today’s world. Yet, in spite of the doubts that hang over the future of today’s youth, there is a palpable sense that, bolstered by the possibilities discussed, the students are eager to experiment with the equipment at their disposal to capture those moments of beautiful simplicity in their own lives.

Watch out for forthcoming frame grabs from the video and 16mm film, plus audio clips from this session – please check back soon!

Watch out also for the completed students’ productions and the workshop video , which will screen together at BFI Southbank on 26th January, then again at UAL on 1st February. Once the private screenings have been held the students’ videos and the workshop video will be available online here on this site and on the Serpentine website.

Screening: Guns of the Trees (Jonas Mekas, 1961)

BFI Southbank, Saturday 15th December
By Stuart Heaney

Having completed filming of the diary filmmaking workshop sessions at in London’s Bethnal Green, I rush down to BFI Southbank on a dark and stormy night in a state of cheerful exhaustion to catch the 6:30 screening in 16mm of Mekas’s debut film: a peculiarly apposite state for the experience about to unfold.

It is a short, low-budget drama feature rooted in the bohemian culture of early 1960s New York and it bears little resemblance to the joyful yet melancholy simplicity of the poetic, quasi-documentary diary cinema he would eventually settle upon and become better known for. Book-ended with Mekas himself appearing at his typewriter as the author of the story – thus explicitly inscribing the film as literary-dramatic – it is shot through with moments of poetry and fragments seeking a form – perhaps foreshadowing his fragmentary diary work. The year following the release of this film, Mekas would found the Filmmakers’ Co-Operative. An event that would define his future direction in filmmaking irrevocably.

Jonas Mekas: Guns of the Trees on

The bohemian setting draws on the culture of the Beat Generation, represented most explicitly by the voice of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the soundtrack, here reciting some of the shorter poems published with the epic verse that gave Ginsberg’s scandalous debut volume, Howl, it’s title. Poems like ‘America’ and ‘Money’ are used to comment on the characters’ sense of alienation from contemporary American society, particularly in the era of the Bay of Pigs scandal and the race to make John Glenn the first American in space (heard in radio reports on the soundtrack during an angst-ridden walk in a park), following the twin shocks of Sputnik, the Soviet Russian satellite that also spawned the derisive term, beatnik and Yuri Gagarin’s first ever human orbit of Earth. The actual poem entitled ‘Howl’, which is represented here only with a shot panning across printed words on the page, would later form a talismanic motif for self-questioning and acceptance of the unknown (and thus, a greater allowance of chance elements in his filmmaking), when in the mid-70s Mekas returned to his home movie reels from this era to make Lost Lost Lost: ‘I don’t know where the best minds of my generation are. I’m going any direction. I don’t know where I’m going. And I don’t trust any mind. Not any longer.’


Allen Ginsberg in Lost Lost Lost
(c) Jonas Mekas

Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s bluegrass music simultaneously evokes the contemporary Greenwich Village folk club scene and the definitive traditional American music then being compiled for the Folkways label by experimental animator Harry Smith.

The story concerns the parallel lives of two couples, one black, one white and the ways in which their lives intersect. On the surface of it, the black lovers are apparently financially poorer, yet less hung-up, whereas the white couple are up-tight and assailed by a multitude of anxieties about life under the threat of nuclear war between America and Russia – a very real and threatening possibility in the early 1960s. And yet, later, Ben (Ben Carruthers) wanders the bars of up-town New York, getting drunker and increasingly angry with his impotence against the powers that be in America.


Ben Carruthers in Guns of the Trees
(c) Jonas Mekas

Clearly the casting of Ben Carruthers, makes explicit the profound impact that John Cassavetes’s film Shadows (1959) had on Mekas (it won his first ever annual Independent Film Award in Film Culture magazine). The character here takes the actor’s name, just as he had done in Shadows, implying that we are watching the same character three years on. Alongside Pull My Daisy, one sporadically prominent – and perhaps incongruous, influence that can be detected in the film’s compositional style is that of Maya Deren. Deren’s dreamlike tableaux seem to inform the desolate scene on the beach (recalling Deren’s At Land, 1944) in which an impotent Gregory fails to hack down a prohibitive sign and the alienated party scenes recall Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946).

Dramatically speaking, Mekas’s debut has often been dismissed as crude and simplistic. Yet, while fifty years on it can at times strike modern audiences as somewhat histrionic, the film is culturally highly significant and is a fascinating product of its time – it is also a seminal milestone in the development of Mekas’ vision and craft and his view of what cinema is and has the potential to be. It was made at a time when Mekas was making the transition from critic to filmmaker, a transformation undergone by the likes of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard before him (and after, Peter Bogdanovich).

Furthermore, punctuating the episodes of nihilistic alienation, there are moments of every day joy. For example, when the two couples, having met at a party, double date in the black couple’s apartment, dining together on a cheap but agreeable stew, or when the black couple play with their cats in their apartment. In one inspired scene, Gregory (a bearded Adolfas Mekas) and Barbara (Frances Stillman) take a walk in a park while Gregory talks of bullets flying from his mouth every time he opens it. Yet the voice we hear on the soundtrack is not in synch and is actually spoken by fellow player Ben Carruthers. Thus the characters put words in each other’s mouths and their sense of anomie slowly becomes a form of telepathy: a collective anxiety.


Adolfas Mekas in Guns of the Trees
(c) Jonas Mekas

Throughout the film the absence of synchronised sound (a characteristic specific to low budget films made at this time, when lightweight film cameras that could also record sound on location were expensive) is turned into a virtue as the actor’s dubbed voices are used to voice the characters’ interior monologues. This technique marks the film apart from Christopher MacLaine’s shorter (West Coast) Beat film, The End (1953), which was made almost ten years earlier and is surely an influence on Mekas’s narrative. The End, which concerns three separate suicides as the world is brought to the brink of nuclear destruction, is sardonically narrated by MacLaine himself in the third person, whereas here the film shifts perspective to the interior experiences of the characters – a technique that recalls in literature, not so much Virginia Woolf as one of Mekas’s heroes, Henry Miller, who like himself once eked out a living in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The film’s closing shot, of ragged sunflowers ravaged by modernity in a railway breakers’ yard, while Ginsberg recites his poem ‘Sunflower Sutra’, also from Howl, completes the transposition from MacLaine’s (and Ginsberg’s) early ’50s San Francisco to early ’60s New York.

Gregory, much like MacLaine’s nihilistic loners, is suicidal and driven to absurd actions in confused and impotent self-defence against the threat of the nuclear stand-off that was then just around the corner during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A condition described by the English writer Jeff Nuttall as ‘bomb culture’. Mekas admitted that the title refers to a poem by Stuart Z. Perkoff, which attempted to articulate the predicament of young people in America in the early ’60s. Perkoff maintained they felt as though the possibilities of life were stacked against them to the extent that even the trees seemed like guns pointing at them from all sides. The title has perhaps even more portentous implications in the context of Mekas’s youth in Lithuania, when he and his brother were hunted down as dissidents by the Nazis.


Adolfas Mekas in Guns of the Trees
(c) Jonas Mekas

Screening: Lost Lost Lost (Jonas Mekas, 1976)

Friday 7th December 2012, BFI Southbank
By Alex Davidson

‘I see you, I see you, I recognise your faces, each one is separate in the crowd. […] The only thing that mattered to you was the independence of your country. All those meetings, all those talks, ‘What to do, what will happen, how long, what can we do?’ Yes, I was there and I recorded it for others, for the history, for those who do not know the pain of the exile.”
– Jonas Mekas’ narration, Lost, Lost, Lost.


Jonas Mekas in Lost Lost Lost
(c) Jonas Mekas

After reading about the Jonas Mekas celebrations at BFI Southbank and the Serpentine, a friend asked me what a good ‘starting’ film would be for a Mekas novice. It’s a tricky question. His debut, Guns of the Trees (1962), about two couples during the Cold War era, might seem an easy way in, but its straightforward narrative structure is hardly typical of Mekas’ work. The Brig (1964), one of his best known films, is arguably the most accessible – and its damning verdict on the brutality of army prison life couldn’t be more relevant today – but again, its searing political critique isn’t something revisited in his later career.

Jonas Mekas: Guns of the Trees on

So it would have to be one of the diary films, films assembled by Mekas plundering his own home movie records of events in his own life – but which? The magnificent Walden (1969) was the first to be made, and features a number of well known counter culture figures, such as Timothy Leary and The Velvet Underground, but a four-hour opus may be too intense an introduction. More to the point, it covers the period of 1964-68, by which time Mekas was well settled in New York. Better to recommend a film he constructed later, in the mid-1970s, but which, perversely, covers an earlier period, from 1949 (the year he arrived in America) to 1963 – Lost, Lost, Lost.

JM_5 Walden

Walden (1968)
(c) Jonas Mekas

Mekas describes the film as showing “the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one”. It opens (incongruously, given the tone of much of the rest of the film) with a lovely shot of Mekas and his brother Adolfas smiling and waving at the Bolex camera, presumably on its first ever use. The first two reels plunge the viewer into the immigrant area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as bewilderment at the new environment and homesickness set it, with mournful Lithuanian music emphasising what has been lost (music plays a crucial part in the film). Despite scenes of celebration and festivity, the local customs in which the displaced Lithuanians participate only emphasise the disparity between their European homeland and New York. Melancholy lingers throughout the film, as a lost way of life flashes before our eyes – “I am trying to remember,” pines one intertitle.


Fellow Lithuanian immigrant and filmmaker, George Maciunas in Lost Lost Lost
(c) Jonas Mekas

The film becomes lighter in tone in reels 3 and 4, as the Mekas brothers move from Brooklyn (where Jonas was becoming increasingly frustrated) to Manhattan and become involved with the art scene – we see shots of poets Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones, and other key figures. The spirit of the age is conveyed through scenes of protest – we see demonstrations against war and nuclear armament from various groups. Reel 5 moves to Vermont – by this stage Mekas’ movies have become more sophisticated – as well as intriguing scenes at the Film-Maker’s Cooperative, we hear some of his so-called Rabbit Shit Haikus over the action. Reel 6 opens with a surprising appearance by ukulele player Tiny Tim, but predominantly documents a trip to the Flaherty Film Seminar, an annual forum for independent filmmakers held in Brattleboro, Vermont, to which Mekas and friends (including underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs, whose footage is also used in the sequence), who are there to present prints of Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra, are denied entry – despite (or perhaps, because of) this rejection by the international film body, Mekas describes the last reel as the beginning of his discovery of “moments of happiness”.


Allen Ginsberg in Lost Lost Lost
(c) Jonas Mekas

Diary films can be unwatchably self-indulgent projects, with filmmakers getting lost in their own lives at the expense of entertaining the audience. This is a charge that could never be levelled at Mekas, who transcends the personal to offer a universal experience – everyone has experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness, sentiments poignantly (and beautifully) represented in the film. Furthermore, the film is also a valuable record of a young filmmaker evolving his style – Ed Halter in The Village Voice notes how the early scenes, rich in pathos at the plight of the immigrants, echo the montage prevalent in European art film, yet by the end of the film, by which time Mekas has managed to find acceptance and happiness in his new life, the camerawork becomes freer and wilder, using the strategies of what Mekas himself described as the New American Cinema. A moving, breathtaking and unique piece of filmmaking, Lost Lost Lost is cinema at its most cathartic.

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

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

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


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?”


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.


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.”


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.’


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

F & JM zoomlapse1

(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!