Moment by Moment by Moment: Reflections on Jonas Mekas’ 365 Films

By Tom Smith

jonas-mekas-benn-northover.jpgJonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas is often referred to as the ‘godfather’ of American avant-garde filmmaking, having fulfilled numerous roles in promoting and cultivating experimental film in America. It is his own filmmaking, however, that should ultimately be seen to be his greatest contribution. For over 50 years Mekas has been documenting his life on camera and producing highly personal works such as Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Walden) (1969) and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976). Despite editing his material into feature length works, Mekas has always been keen to emphasise the autonomy of each moment he captures on film, stating that: ‘I have to react with my camera. Interact and react. Maybe I’ll pick up one or two minutes or just a few seconds of film from that situation. These are then individual little songs, and then I string them all together. Each one is complete in itself […] so one can look at them like a series of little poems, or songs as I go through life.’ [1] So when in late 2006 Mekas announced his ambitious new project of releasing one short film for every day of 2007 – via his website www.jonasmekas.com – it marked the point where he was now able to present his footage as a collection of individual ‘songs’.

Simply entitled 365 Films by Jonas Mekas, the resultant work is fascinating in its diversity. In his previous work Mekas would arrange footage in accordance to some logic of theme or chronology, but in the 365 Films we are confronted with day-to-day with dramatic shifts in year, location, and subject. The films usually involve social encounters: parties, meals, concerts (Sonic Youth, Madonna, Patti Smith, Lou Reed), film presentations at Anthology Film Archives (Louis Malle, Norman Mailer, Ben Vautier), or trips abroad (Japan, France, Finland, Lithuania). In some of the films Mekas is simply alone exploring the environment with his camera, or in others delivering monologues into it on subjects ranging from poetry to Paris Hilton. Predominantly the films have no correlation to the date on which they were released, but there are a few exceptions. For instance, on September 11th Mekas presents footage he had shot of the twin towers on the day of their attack; or on the birthday of a particular friend he will dedicate that day’s film to them, with dedicatees including Yoko Ono (February 18th) and Gregory Corso (March 26th).

Mekas allowed the films to be viewed for free on the day of their release, but after that date each film was then modestly priced at $1.99 to download. Distributing his work through the internet has allowed Mekas to present a more expansive range of material with which the viewer can enjoy a selective relationship. There is no expectation to view the work in its entirety, as the films – although only lasting between two and ten minutes per-day – amount to a total running time of just over thirty-eight hours. Nevertheless, when considered as a collective whole, the 365 Films neatly encapsulate the concerns of all Mekas’s work to-date.

walden-jonas-mekas-2.jpgWalden, 1969

The same thematic concerns are still present (identity; a romantic concern with nature), as well as the same recurring visual interests: friend’s faces, food, children, the ground, flowers, trees, and the effects brought about through the changing seasons. But by presenting his encounters as self-contained moments rather than elided to act as part of a unified work, the manner in which these thematic and visual concerns are presented is much more relaxed. If we compare it to Mekas’s first completed diary film Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Walden), then this point becomes much more apparent. The film adopts a chronological structure that is interspersed with inter-title cards to help provide context for the images. However, throughout Diaries there is a recurring instance whereby a fact is stated on the inter-title of an event, only for the proceeding images to have the vaguest connection to the written word, as they instead explore Mekas’s own obsession with nature.

This tension between text and image results in the context for his encounters creating a forward narrative focus for the text which is not the same as what interests him with his camera. Even a culturally significant moment such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed in” is not exempt from Mekas’s personal agenda, as for the majority of the time he zooms in on the boxes of flowers behind their bed. The captions beneath each of the 365 Films provide a more accurate description of what is contained in each film – there is still present within these moments the same visual concerns – except that we are able to appreciate the fuller context from which his images are drawn. So, for example, Mekas can focus on a vase of flowers in the middle of a table while we hear him converse with a friend.

This shift in our engagement with the work has not only been a result of distribution methods, however, as the most significant factor in shaping Mekas’s new work is his abandonment of film in favour of video. The majority of the footage that comprise the 365 Films dates from the late 1980s up to 2007, so virtually all the ‘films’ were shot on video (Mekas has pinpointed 1987 as the year of his conversion). This shift has resulted in a markedly different shooting style for Mekas. Where his use of film was based on creating as much spatial and temporal disruption as possible – making use of quick whip pans, crash zooms, and super-impositions – his use of video is defined by long uninterrupted takes that contain little or no alteration in his shot composition, with Mekas employing zooms or pans predominantly for the purposes of privileging a speaker or isolating an element that interests him. It is a far more restrained approach that, unlike his use of film, bares little trace of anything that could be called an individual style, with the camera being used more for the purposes of unobtrusively recording than aggressively constructing subjective meaning.

happy-birthday-to-john-jonas-mekas.jpgHappy Birthday to John, 1972

Although these two approaches represent polar opposites in terms of style, they both articulate the same idea that has run throughout Mekas’s work: that filming is an act of preserving and celebrating the present moment. His approach to film grew out of the fact that film stock was too expensive for him to employ long-takes, so he would instead only capture short bursts of images: a style that emphasised the vibrant uncertainty contained within the present moment.

The comparatively cheap cost of video as well as its durational capabilities has allowed Mekas to amass vast amounts of footage that respect the ‘real-time’ of encounters. Despite dispensing with urgency, the approach gains in expressing Mekas’s personal enjoyment of the present. Not only can we often hear him laughing from behind the camera, but the compositions are usually not defined by his looking through the viewfinder, with the camera often being balanced on a table or held at waist level while he walks around, so his concern for the manner in which his encounters are represented is reduced. With video Mekas has moved from being a selective filmmaker to a more indiscriminate one. An illuminating example of this occurs in the film for December 12th: Mekas is at the New York Museum and a security guard comes up to him and requests that he turns off his camera while he walks around the gallery, to which Mekas replies: ‘But this is my life!’ Mekas is seen walking away from the guard, only for him to return later and secretly film the exhibits. Mekas does not find the artwork particularly interesting (in fact he mocks it outright), making it apparent that his exclamation ‘but this is my life!’ is not referring to his professional occupation, but that this is his life, and therefore it should be recorded.

What Mekas seems to find most useful about video is its sound capabilities. Due to technological and economic limitations Mekas did not employ direct sound regularly in his film work. This meant that when he eventually came round to editing the material he would enforce a retrospective voiceover on the images that would allow a reflection on what he had filmed. With video, however, its direct sound capabilities mean that Mekas is able to narrate his feelings within the moment of his encounters, thus collapsing any reflective distance from what he has filmed. The use of sound has also meant that the rhythms of his individual encounters are allowed to come to the forefront. In his film work his diverse set of silent images would be shaped by the unifying rhythm of long repetitive passages of music, which is why it is unsurprising that so many musical performances permeate the 365 Films. With sound we can appreciate the natural rhythms of the environment he inhabits: the bustle of people walking the streets or the collective murmur of groups talking in restaurants or at parties. The sound acts as another means of bringing us closer to the immediacy of the moment of filming.

walden-jonas-mekas.jpgWalden, 1969

In filming and editing moments from his life, memory and its formation are obviously at the forefront of Mekas’s practice, as his work will ultimately act as a way of fixing memory. Mekas usually allows a large amount of time to elapse before editing footage together that will shape his (and invariably our) memory of the events and people that populate his films. Mekas has made a number of films dedicated to individual friends, such as Zefrio Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Macunias (1992) and Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1996). But these films were edited together a number of years after their subjects’ death. However, an interesting turn occurred during the 365 Films, when, on November 10th, the death of Norman Mailer was announced. Mekas had already released footage of Mailer in the film for July 10th, with the writer introducing a screening of Wild 90 at Anthology. A few weeks after Mailer’s death, on December 3rd, Mekas released further footage of Mailer comprising some interviews and the infamous fight scene at the end of Mailer’s film Maidstone. It is unclear as to whether Mekas had already planned to release this material as part of the project, but if not, then it must represent the quickest time-span in which Mekas edited footage together for its memorial purpose. In 1997 Mekas was able to make Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit within the same month that Allen Ginsberg passed away. However, within the context of the 365 Films, Mekas was able to distribute Mailer’s film much more quickly and allow the final shape of this sprawling work to be defined by an occurrence that happened during the course of its making.

There is also a concern in some of the films with revisiting sites from the past. This manifests itself most obviously in the films where Mekas goes back to places in order to document any changes that have taken place through the passage of time. Examples include a visit to the train station where the Lumières filmed Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (February 27th); visiting the site of Joseph Cornell’s old house (May 3rd); and exploring the various locations where Warhol’s Factory used to be situated (December 27th), with Mekas also pointing out the place where he filmed Warhol for the last time before his death. These films are particularly poignant because they act as confirmations of the change that all Mekas’s work implicitly anticipates through their desire to celebrate the present moment of filming.

In a conversation with filmmaker Harmony Korine (April 3rd), Mekas reveals that the last time he visited Korine’s apartment six years previously he had filmed ‘five or six hours worth of material’, but that he still hasn’t got around to looking at it yet. From amassing so much material in one evening, it is more than likely that Mekas has an extensive archive of unviewed footage that will never become part of a completed work. Just as a writer keeps a notebook containing jottings of ideas that are never returned to, Mekas is collecting more images than he will ever be able to review or reflect upon. This disproportionate ratio in filmed to viewed material allows Mekas to experience a much more manipulative relationship with his images when he does eventually view them, as the excavation of meaning is now predominantly fostered through the editing process rather than the moment of filming.

lost-lost-lost-jonas-mekas.jpgLost Lost Lost, 1949-1963

The approach he adopts with video of allowing the camera to run continually works on the idea that everything has the potential to be significant upon reflection, while his use of film was firmly rooted in selecting moments that seemed significant enough to film in the first place. Rather than being a negotiation between the events that stimulated him to pick up his camera and the retrospective understanding of that footage, Mekas now only decides what is of consequence afterwards. Which images are of importance is largely dependent on the context of when he views the material, with it being likely that completely different elements could interest him at different times. The images are now much more malleable in the understanding that Mekas can draw from them and, with so much in his possession, we also can hopefully look forward to seeing much more in the future.


Endnote

[1] Tessa Hughes-Freeland ‘An Interview with Jonas Mekas’ in Naked Lens: Beat Cinema ed. Jack Sargeant, London: Creation Books, 1997, p120.


Visit www.jonasmekas.com

A series of video interviews with Jonas Mekas are available to watch on Peoples Archive.

Tom Smith lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. He begins a PhD this autumn in Edinburgh.

Top photo of Jonas Mekas by Benn Northover.