Ahead of a new retrospective of his work, the now-90 year old legend of underground filmmaking talks archiving, editing, wine and Winehouse.
Jonas Mekas, now 90 years old, has long been nicknamed The King of the American Underground due to his near-lifelong commitment to independent cinema and independent film directors. Known for his dazzling 16mm 'diary' films from the 1970s which offer intimate chronicles of the town of his birth (Reminiscences Of A Journey To Lithuania), the displaced denizens of New York (Lost, Lost, Lost) and the general joys and pities of life (Diaries Notes and Sketches), Mekas is now subject of a full retrospective at London's BFI Sounthbank and an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. LWLies met the great man to talk archiving, editing, wine and Winehouse.
LWLies: When was the last time you were in London?
Mekas: I don't really remember. I come so seldom to London. Nothing brings me here. I was here for the premiere of As I Was Moving Ahead in 2001. I come every five years. I don't have much to do here.
Do you have many friends here?
In 1970, in the fall, and in 1973, there was a huge, international gathering of independently working filmmakers. It took place in London. There are images at my exhibition of some of the filmmakers who attended those events. It's my tribute to London independent filmmakers.
Do you get many young filmmakers asking you for advice about filmmaking?
They don't need my advice! I have bumped into a few.
You have an exhibition of your work on at London Serpentine gallery. How long did it take you to assemble?
Most of what you see here was produced during the last year and half. It's all new. Even if the images or the negatives 65 years old, I had never made prints from those negatives. So all prints were produced within the last months.
How do you store your archive footage?
They just sit there. No special storage. I'm not an archivist in that sense. There's a pile and there's some boxes. They survive. Art materials that are produced today will not survive very long. In the earlier decades, the first half of the last century, the materials survived much better than those that came from the later, careless decades when people forgot to care about things. Now, everything has to last a short time. That includes buildings. We're so anxious to replace everything with something more up to date.
So how do you store your digital footage?
Cassettes? They just sit on the shelves. My High-8 video cassettes, ever time I want to use them I have to retransfer them. All the equipment from 15 years ago is gone. It's not usable any more.
When you're editing digital footage, do you every delete anything permanently?
I never delete anything. I permit it to disintegrate by itself. Why should I delete? What I receive on my computer, like emails and messages, or course I delete. But footage that I record, no, I do not delete. I used to do that with my film and I regret it immensely. That was a horrible mistake. One should never throw out anything. In time, perspective changes, and some of the material you once thought was total nonsense, you look at it 15 years later and you realise how unique some of it is. One needs time perspective. I do not throw out anything now. Except old newspapers. I don't collect them.
Do you revisit your archive footage quite often?
It's impossible to revisit everything as I have thousands of hours. The film footage material I review almost every year. I edit. It helps to preserve them. It helps me to get rid of chemicals that collect on the frames and eat away at the stock. Airing your film footage, video footage and audio tapes is essential. If we permit audio tapes to grow old, they sit there for years and they are eaten up. The same with our own minds and our imaginations. Everything that is not being used disintegrates.
Do you have big collection of music, it's a big part of your films?
I don't collect music, I collect sound. Radio, places I go, the park, concerts, street sounds, conversations. It home, when friends get together, I record. It's all from a tiny pocket recorder. None of it is done professionally. It's all casual, amateurish home recordings.
How random is your recording process? Do you have to hear something and then chose to turn on the recorder?
It's the same as with my images. It's not planned. Something hits me and I begin to tape. Now, the camera picks up sounds with the images. When I filmed with my Bolex I couldn't do that. I used to carry a tiny recorder in my pocket.
Do you like having the ability to record sound at the same time, or do you prefer to keep them separate?
I have no preference. Of course, at one time I disconnected the sound from my digital camera so it only captures the images, but in the end you might as well record it then omit it later.
Your editing style is often referred to as 'random'. Are you okay with that classification?
It is and it isn't. It's a combination. The first edit is random, reflecting the way you picked up the material. Then you begin to organise it. You condense it. You eliminate repetitions or things that don't contribute to some mysterious vision. There is always organisation taking place. It's organised randomness. Take John Cage, are his performances down to total chance? No, the fact that he's selected the instruments and placed them at certain points on the stage means there already is a certain system within the randomness. Any improvisation is random, but the if you're a jazz musician, the next few notes depend on the notes that came preceded them. You have melodies or combinations or rhythms which you have to stick to. A musician is creates what emerges from him.
Have you found that organising this footage has become easier over the years?
No. It's always challenging.
Do you ever start assembling a film and give up on it if it's not working?
If you feel it's not working, you leave it for a few days and look at it again. Only then you can discover if something isn't happening. The outtakes film in the exhibition began at twice the length you're seeing it now. I felt that something didn't work. It took quite some time to edit down. There were six or seven different versions and before I settled on the one you see now. One can lose perspective if you keep re-watching. You get physically tired with the film and that's no good.
Do you have someone with you when you're editing?
With digital, I have someone with me who can work the software and use it very quickly. I know what you can achieve, but it helps me when I have an operate with me. It's just a technical person, though.
Do you find that editing is very different for you moving from film to digital? The cuts don't seem as sharp and abrupt on digital.
You don't get that sharpness in the image itself. The sharpness is produced by the energy bouncing and the light when you project a film. With digital it's there on that surface. It's a different process. The impact of the image is completely different. Otherwise a cut is a cut. With film, there are frames. With video, technology permits you to break down a second into 24 images. But they are not frames. They are not physically defined like they are on film. It's the separation which makes them sharper. In video there is no separating line. So I think you're right – because that line does not exist in digital, you can never get the cuts to be that sharp. It would be odd if both media were exactly the same. If watercolours looked like oils it would be very strange. And wrong.
Your work seems to offer this vision of happiness.
It's just my state of being. Every work that someone creates reflects one's state. Of course, at its deepest level my work can only reflect me. Despite all the horrors around me I don't see why I should sacrifice myself and fall into the same moods and states as everyone else. I see it and I know I cannot change it but I don't want to be part of it.
Does it ever make you sad seeing all this past happiness on film?
Of course we know that there are many places in the world where children aren't having such a good time. We see it on the television and read it in the papers. It's horrible. In general, in a normal situation, childhood is a period of happiness and carelessness. When we go up we are somewhere else. When I see my childhood images, it doesn't make me happy. But if I see myself laughing, I usually laugh too. Even today.
I love the scenes in Lost, Lost, Lost where you and Ken Jacobs are transporting a copy of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures to a film festival in Vermont.
It was meant to be a part of the Flaherty Film Festival where they gave us time for a screening of Flaming Creatures. The sleeping time in that part of the country was 9.30pm. But the organisers thought that film should not be seen. We were disappointed, but we also found it a little bit funny. So we're very happy. You can see us fooling around and filming each other. But on film, the feeling of disappointment is not the same as the feeling of sadness. They deprived their guests of seeing this great film and expanding their vision.
Are all these other artists happy to be in your films?
They're friends. They're not other artists. I don't film them as artists. I don't care about that. There is nothing special, and nobody mind me because I'm not a filmmaker when we are together. I'm just one of them. We're just friends. Sometimes they film me, sometimes I film them.
Do you ever direct?
No. I did that when I made my first film and it was one big mistake. Some like it. It's a period that I was never happy with.
One of your most recent films is Sleepless Night Stories in which there are people drinking a lot of alcohol.
No, no we never drink alcohol! It was wine.
But wine is alcohol.
No, please. We don't drink alcohol. We drink only wine or beer. Alcohol is used for scientific purposes. Or to clean floors. No, please correct yourself. You could kill yourself by drinking alcohol.
Was that part of the process of that film?
No! That's life! Do you never drink any beer in London? I'd guess you'd drink something two or three evenings every week? Do you not want to have a good time? When you film, have some wine! Why not? It's normal. Unless you are a Mormon or some kind of religious fanatic. Otherwise, from time immemorial, people had wine. Wine is part of life. We're not drinking, we're talking, conversing, and we happen to have a drink.
You talk a bit about Amy Winehouse in that film. You say she was a working class hero.
We had some wine and we were excited and we were listening to Winehouse. I don't know what 'working class' is. Worker is a modern invention. Working class? I don't know what animal that is. I cannot divide humanity into classes like that. I would prefer to divide them into stupid and clever. No, I'm joking…
Are you a fan of popular music?
I'm not a fan of anything or anybody. I like all genres and all periods. I respect certain performers. Winehouse was a great performer.
How often do you revisit Lithuania?
Maybe every three, four years.
Do you still have relatives there?
I have one brother. Now I plan to go there only if they will recognise Palestine as a free independent state. So I'm not going there until they change their minds. They were very happy when others recognised their independence, but when somebody else wants to be independent, they vote no, or they abstain, which is the same as saying no. England is guilty also. England wants to be free, but England does not want others to be free. Huh?
The Jonas Mekas season runs at BFI Southbank until the end of January.