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!

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