Sunday, 10 August 2008


AN EVENING IN THE COMPANY OF JONAS MEKAS, organised by CLOSE-UP and SPOOLPOOL at CAFE1001, Thursday 17th July 2008. BIRTH OF A NATION, Curzon Soho, Saturday 19th July.

I wasn't sure why so many people had turned up, packing Bar 1001 on Brick Lane to see Jonas Mekas. Sure, the man - as the poster said - is the Godfather of American independent cinema, but many a master of the experimental film has shown films to tiny audiences at Lux or the Tate. Maybe it was a sixties nostalgia fest, drawn by the ever appealing resonance of films on John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol. Whatever, the word was out about Mekas, and a packed crowd watched four films and were ready with questions in an engaged Q&A.

The films themselves began with Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (1963) in which Warhol is handed a basket of fruit and vegetables and distributes it amongst a tableau of Factory regulars including Baby Jane Holzer and Gerard Malanga. The film has the slowed, slurred feel of Warhol's films, a result of screening at silent film speed of 18fps what was shot at the sound speed of 24fps. Indeed, given Mekas ongoing relationship with Warhol - he was the cameraman on Empire, and premiered many of Warhol's films at Anthology Film Archive - the film is both tribute and homage. If it seems stylistically and thematically close to actually being a Warhol film - the use of shifting tableau, the consumption of vegetables and pop music soundtrack being devices Warhol himself used - then this too emerges as testament to Mekas own ability to take on the qualities of what he was viewing, finding an instinctual, empathic visual style for what he observes.

The diaristic side of Mekas the film maker, capturing with his bolex the incidents and moments of domestic life amongst families and friends, was the subject of This Side of Paradise (1991) and Happy Birthday to John (1971-95). Both highlighted Mekas fast, fluid, mobile camera, responding to the people around him, as they ate, chatted, and played. Indeed, although highly attentive to the multitude of gestures and activities within large groups, there is a remarkable specificity about what Mekas and his bolex are attracted to. No shots of people isolated or alone, no shots of flirtation, seduction, or anger. Mekas creates images of a happy commonality, of friendship that operates within an expanded notion of family. In Happy Birthday John, Viva is no longer the sardonic seductress of Warhol films, but filmed, baby in arms, having found a quiet space away from the party to breast feed.

The degree of fame of the participants in these films also articulates some of their tensions and contradictions. Mekas is fully aware of the celebrity and iconicity of his subjects. Happy Birthday to John playfully uses intertitles to depict Lennon's birthday celebrations as those of a King receiving poets to his court, whilst the "plebeans" - as an intertitle announces - can only gather, excluded, outside. But the films then document these celebrities not within the world and images and activities of their fame - although there are shots of a Lennon/Ono concert - but largely within the realms, again, of friendship and family. The ideal seems to be for the domestic realm to absorb and dissolve these cultural icons, leaving not named figures but a film of anonymous gestures, traces, fleeting multitudes of figures, that depict a spirit and atmosphere of a particular time and place.

In the Q&A Mekas was visibly angry at a question about his relationship to Warhol, declaring himself fed up of talking about personalities and wanting instead to talk about cinema, as well as noting that anything we might want to know about his relationship to Warhol was visible in the images themselves. But perhaps such a question - keeping the film within an orbit of relationship - is a logical outcome of watching such a film. The celebrities mix of fame and longing, aspiration and ideal, the relationship between their cultural presence and their daily lives, are also an articulation of the melancholy that can pervade Mekas' films, the awareness of the gap between image and reality, or, as P.Adams Sitney observes in the Summer 2008 issue of Artforum:

Jonas Mekas, the great film diarist who can never shake off the painful fissions of isolation despite the hectic whirl of social and familial life he records... he continually goes questing for what he calls "the ecstasy of old and new friends." (362)

Such a gap or pain is not, of course, unique to Mekas but can seem a logical consequence of a film-making based on a heightened sense of everyday pleasures. Ken Jacobs concludes his film Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-63) - about which Mekas wrote in his wonderful 1965 essay "Notes on Some New Movies and Happiness" - by observing that he has lost touch with almost all of the people featured in the films series of playful, joyful, theatrical vignettes.

The final film at Bar 1001, Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Macunias (1992) continued this diaristic style of film making, chronicling a variety of Fluxus events and scenes from the daily life of Macunias. It had a different feel from the night's other films by virtue of its soundtrack, comprising Mekas reading a series of journal entries documenting his relationship with Macunias in the months before his death from Cancer. Like the illness itself, the film has a tension from the degree to which Macunias illness is apparent to others. Indeed, most of the time Mekas voices the details of doctors visits, stomach complaints, loss of appetite and encroaching death, against images of Fluxus events, river trips and vacations, that are characterised by life and joy. As well as depicting the reality of Macunias' illness, this contradiction also seems to be part of how Mekas' images can be beset with doubt. Elements of personal testament also feed into the films sense of itself as historical document: shots of handwritten schedules for Fluxus concerts recording Macunias' role as organiser and collator.

In the Q&A Mekas was bold and forthright. In addition to his anger at the Warhol question, he presented his work as an intuitive, instinctual, engagement with the world around him, something which he refused to intellectualize or attribute to broader purposes and motivations, either social or psychological. He agreed with an audience suggestion that he filmed in a state of delirium, noting that the speed and rhythm of his films came more from decisions made at the time in response to stimuli than to any complex editing process. He declared he always made films for himself first and then for his friends. There was throughout a romantic sense of the autonomy and uniqueness of individual vision of the independent film artist, whose very nationality is as a citizen of the "nation of cinema."

Mekas' films are testimony to the importance of this intuitive, non-intellectual space of creativity. But such responses also raised the question of how Mekas intuitive film-making relates to his work as critic, programmer, archivist, and campaigner. A question about whether film-making was a "hobby" for Mekas seemed to touch on a lot of these questions. Sections of the audience seemed to laugh at the outrageousness of such a suggestion, whilst Mekas responded by appropriating the word as a self- description to the extent that it expressed an activity engaged with through passion and enthusiasm, evidence of what he termed a "non-mechanical" relationship to the world. But underpinning such a question was also a query about the status of his work: the economic conditions which make it possible; the processes whereby films of domestic, everyday activities become screened at festivals, in galleries and in private and public collections.

A large audience also gathered at the Curzon Soho on Saturday 19th for a Q&A and a screening of Birth of a Nation (1997). This 80-minute film compiled portraits of 160 independent film makers through the same style of diaristic collage. Curiously, a lot of the first half of the film prompted the thought that film makers are those who have realized that other people are the interesting ones to observe and record.

Or maybe Mekas is just not a film maker attracted to the more formal behavior of conferences and professional gatherings at the ICA in London or the Anthology Film Archive in New York. It was when the settings were more domestic and informal - and when children were present - that Mekas' film making seemed to regain its zest, deriving its energy and rhythm from the subjects themselves, rather than using its own techniques to try and give visual interest to groups of film makers lingering rather statically, listlessly and artificially on the South Bank. A soundtrack of Wagner and Hermann Nitsch emphasised the desire to give stature and recognition to both the film makers and the ephemeral gestures and events chronicled.

Mekas' film also repeatedly looped back to self-portraiture, including a sequence of images of him posing theatrically at a table. In the Q&A Mekas said there was no reason for this, that the shots were film tests that he decided to include not for egotistical reasons but because he was also one of the nation of independent film makers. The Q&A also found Mekas in iconoclastic mood. A Birth of a Nation, Mekas commented, saw film-makers aligned with the Klu Klux Klan in the way they pursued an independence of vision - for Mekas "the invisible, but essential nation of cinema" - without concern for what others thought of them, or broader social and political realities.

Like declarations of himself as a "mindless" and "thoughtless" artist, such claims were modified by the films themselves, and their complex, beautiful tangle of anonymity and theatricality, self-negation and self-promotion, life and death, happiness and melancholy, engagement and withdrawal, substance and intangibility.