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 no.w.here 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 Nowness.com.

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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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