Magazine article Art Monthly

Three Reflections on Jonas Mekas

Magazine article Art Monthly

Three Reflections on Jonas Mekas

Article excerpt

December 17: Let's begin with language, with Mekas as exile not speaking American. Henri Michaux wrote somewhere of 'travelling in order to become homeless'. Compelled by history to 'travel', Mekas found a home in the homelessness of the neo-avant garde, in postwar America's photostat of the international European cultural contract that the war had torn up and tossed to the winds. And he found it too in the un-American language of experimental film.

Mekas keeps a diary. This desire to record the self in transition isn't far removed from the experience of any migrant. But immediately he aestheticises the film diary by playing with the frame rate. He says, 'films for myself, and a few friends', no different from anyone else. He just happens to fall in with the In Crowd. Through discourse and distribution he creates a culture, conscious he is also its chronicler. Equipped with accordion and Bolex, he bestows upon himself the roles of court bard and village fool.

18 December: 'Un-American' activities: Mekas going to jail for Jack Smith and Flaming Creatures and then excoriated by Smith ever after as 'Uncle Fishhook'. Mekas filming The Brig on stage after the Living Theatre, its audience having broken back into its auditorium, was closed down by the IRS as a political manoeuvre. The camera urgently, necessarily, uncast, integral to the drama in the way that Maya Deren made the camera part of the dance. Every gesture, every image halfway between agent and recorder, an invasion by the audience of the life that it was otherwise meant to witness passively.

19 December: Mekas talks, in Walden, of being a life in fragments, of not knowing how those fragments fit together, and of not wanting to know. The fragmentation of the films, as diaries, reflects that shattered condition of self - and, self-referentially, so to do these diary notes on Mekas: you, me, Kate and John alike, Jonas. Yet, of course, Mekas makes that same slide of self outside the material: there is always the editing, directing presence that reunites subject and object. Call it agency, subjectivity, the self. Mekas's project of self-meditation is one of the great autobiographical projects of the 20th century. What am I? Where am I? Who am I? But it is an interior journey conducted in relation to others, in the mediation of social life, rather than in the pages of the diary.

22 December: 'I live therefore I make home movies, I make home movies, therefore I live', soundtrack to Walden, 1964. Clearly, Mekas didn't - couldn't - put that on the soundtrack at the time; there wasn't one. It is a model of the cogito at work, from the edges, afterwards. Mekas is one of the first filmmakers to point out the hybridisation of styles, of beliefs, of faiths, that has so openly manifested itself in the past few decades. There is an overload of information - with the internet as an infinite source of, well, everything.

This overabundance unsettles me. I try to think back to what it must have been like in certain historical moments; those times that, romantically, feel much more 'specific', in which people seemed to be steadily moving forward in one way towards a better future. But Mekas always makes this melange, this fragmentation, feel like a good thing; he celebrates humanity's expression, regardless of its form and content. The source of this passion can be traced back to Mekas's life in Europe. …

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