Up with the Angels

Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971
by Jonas Mekas
Columbia University Press, 2016

Conversations with Filmmakers
by Jonas Mekas
Spector Books, 2018

I once went to a screening of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket where Paul Schrader, there to introduce the film, went into an unprovoked harangue about how easy all of us in the audience had it, how in the sixties, foreign films “were screened on sheets, without subtitles,” were viewed from folding chairs or the floor, and more that I can’t remember about the torments of pioneer cineastes who suffered myriad ordeals so people like us could one day watch Art on screens, and from padded seats. I nodded knowingly; barely into the aughts, I had sat in the basement of the Hoboken VFW on a collapsible stool and watched John Cassavetes’s Faces, projected on a white wall. Secured in the lineage, newly empowered with elitist disgust, I turned around, shaking my head woefully at the spoiled wretches who had never established the bona fides that people like me and Schrader…I mean, Paul…had.

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Jonas Mekas would have thought both of us foolish for violating two key elements of cinema, Schrader for not being more welcoming and empathetic to an audience that had sought out a film of such rare grace and beauty, and me for obvious reasons, not least because I had used the experience to bolster my vanity rather than eliminate it. As Mekas, our most eminent underground filmmaker, proselytizer, and archivist wrote in one of his Village Voice columns, collected in Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971, “our egos have to die upon the entrance of the auditorium if we want to understand and grow though art.” And if there’s one main theme that runs though not only this book but his voluminous output of writing and films, it’s the necessity for the death of the old and the birth of the new. Hardly an original theme, but for Mekas, it was the only theme.

He was born in Lithuania in 1922 and raised in a farm family, so frail and sickly as a child that other children called him “Death” or “the girl.” He wrote poetry; then, as Germany advanced through Europe, anti-Nazi leaflets; then, unsurprisingly, he had to flee the country. He wound up in a labor camp during the war, displaced persons camps after. Arriving in America, he found scutwork, saw films, saw more films, bought a 16mm Bolex camera, and soon became, according to Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker in his introduction to Movie Journal, “the single most important defender and promoter of the American avant-garde cinema movement, which gradually came into existence from the 1950s to the 1970s.”

Equally adept at artist, activist, and administrator, he’s led a life that inevitably requires a lot of commas to characterize: writer, filmmaker, diarist, critic, anti-censorship crusader, and most comprehensively, ringleader of what he variably refers to as The New Bag cinema, Baudelairean cinema, free cinema, underground cinema, noncommercial cinema, poetic cinema, personal cinema, Expanded cinema, the American New Wave (“to avoid confusion,” Mekas suggests, perhaps a little too late, “let us call it the Ninth Wave”), or, his preference, the New American Cinema. IMDb has him as director of 47 films (not including ongoing video projects), his most renowned being marathon film diaries like Walden (1969) and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), impressionistic portraits of himself, his comrades, the offhand and the quotidian. He fought cultural wars few know about (most notably on behalf of gay filmmakers Jack Smith, Jean Genet, and Kenneth Anger), co-founded Film Culture magazine as a forum for critical debate, the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque to screen underground films and the Filmmakers Co-Op to distribute them, and with Anthology Film Archives, his red-brick fortress in New York City’s otherwise hopelessly gentrified East Village, he established a permanent home for the archiving, preservation, and screening of the crucial works of American avant-garde cinema (and foreign films, which are frequently shown without subtitles, albeit on screens).

Quantitative achievements aside, his reputation lies in his tireless promulgation of a utopian credo, that cinema, as David Curtis put it, “could be a first-person-singular affair.” All of Mekas’ work has been, in one form or another, personal documents, and while Movie Journal was ostensibly a critical forum, it’s less about the state of the avant-garde than of Mekas’s place in it. Championing a largely unheralded community of eccentric, self-sufficient, uncompromising filmmakers working with non-existent budgets, it’s spirited mix of reportage, self-analysis, and cris de coeur, as much an account of a burgeoning art form as the invention of a post-war self, an extended manifesto proclaiming underground cinema to be building blocks of a new world consciousness. It’s also very funny.

But before any of this, there was the war.

There’s nothing like savage ideologies and eight-figure body counts to instill a sense that Life and the New were one and the same, that originality in thought and deed was the greatest act of rebellion. “I Had Nowhere to Go,” his diaries from 1944-1955, shows a trajectory originating with bitterness toward the despotic regimes ravaging Europe, and culminating in declarations of independence from the forces that had brought him, and civilization, to the present moment:

I prefer to go into the future blindly. I do not want to take any of your junk on this blind journey. This blind journey is not of my choice. The generation before me, your generation, the generation that put me on this journey, didn’t produce any reliable maps or compasses I can trust.

No, I don’t want any life preservers.

I plunge into the deepest unknown.

Those who are afraid – let them cling to the carcass of Western Civilization.

For Mekas, the boundaries between art and life, had been eradicated by the catastrophe in Europe, and if the diaries show him with an unclear sense of who he is, they also state with utter clarity the force that led to this uncertainty:

You are welcome to read all this as fragments, from someone’s life. Or as a letter from a homesick stranger. Or as a novel, pure fiction. Yes, you are welcome to read this as fiction. The subject, the lot that ties up these bits is my life, my growing up. The villain? The villain is the twentieth century.

There was no escaping that villainy, and it would take Mekas a few more years before he found the means to fight it. In New York, the journals shift to drudgery: assembling toys, gluing labels onto Pepsi ads, scrambling for money, longing for home. Like many others, Mekas started the 1950s with an existential crisis, and one need only ponder the cumulative misery of the mid-twentieth century European immigrant to make understandable the appeal of an avant-garde, a ceaseless drive to move forward and away:

What’s all this for? What’s the point to my life here, doing what I’m doing? To live in order to work? This work produces nothing. It’s like working in a forced labor camp, in Elmshorn. Time passes, week after week, and so it will keep on while I slave working in the factories, in machine shops, drinking copper dust, enveloped in an endless loneliness. And there won’t be any British to liberate me either…

So he liberated himself. Replacing discontent with devotion, he directed his energies into watching films, writing about them, establishing venues to screen them, and starting in 1962 with Guns of the Trees, making them himself.

In retrospect, the worth of the largely forgettable Guns of the Trees was in helping Mekas realize that traditional narrative was another remnant of the old world best left behind. His aesthetic breakthough came a few years later when he filmed a production of the Living Theatre’s The Brig, a brutal portrayal of a Marine Corps prison that won Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In a Movie Journal column Mekas described it as virtually a spiritual ordeal:

I remained inside the brig, among the players, constantly stepping in their way, disrupting their usual movements and mise-en-scènes. My intention wasn’t to show the play in its entirety but to catch as much of the action as my ‘reporter’ eyes could. This kind of shooting required an exhausting concentration of body and eye. I had to operate the camera; I had to keep out of the cast’s way; I had to look for what was going on and listen for what was said; I had to make instantaneous decisions about my movements and the camera movements, knowing that there was no time for thinking or reflecting; there was no time for reshooting, no time for mistakes: I was a circus man on a tightrope high in the air. All my senses were stretched to the point of breaking. … I became so possessed by what I was doing that it literally took me weeks to get my body and all my senses back to normal.

But the ultimate point of underground cinema was that after the shock to the system, there was no normal to return to.

One of the reasons that underground film is so difficult to define is that it is a genre that contains multitudes of films wildly disparate in method and effect, allowing for literally any sort of technique, anti-technique, content, or non-content; it encourages idiosyncrasy, and, frequently absent plot, the films tend to induce descriptions that can’t help but sound monumentally unappealing to anyone without a point of reference. (Andy Warhol, whom Mekas considered the premiere filmmaker of the era, was typically savvy in concocting projects easily described in one sentence that provided accurate summary and highlighted the deadpan hilarity of the concept.) The commonalities of the genre can be oversimplified as a personal directorial voice devoted to uncompromised originality, usually undermining every established code of cinematic quality, vocabulary, and expectation. Thus a motley band of sui generis stylists including Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken, Maya Deren, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger could form a pantheon that was somehow sensible and cohesive.

If you just said, “Who?” five times, you’re exactly the person Mekas is writing for. Seeing that a genre so profuse, wayward, and incomprehensible to the masses needed an explicator, Mekas simply walked into the Village Voice’s office, asked why there wasn’t a regular movie column, and was offered one. Reckoning that there were already plenty of forums for reviewing Hollywood films and lambasting underground cinema, he instead chose to “take a sword and become a self-appointed minister of defense and propaganda of the New Cinema.” Part soapbox preacher, part stand-up comedian, part penitent, he spent the next sixteen years issuing missives devoted to his preoccupations with cinematic truth and his innate resistance to anything official, with the Hollywood Industrial Complex serving as a synecdoche for the oppressive forces of the world as a whole.

The columns generally avoided international directors (though Antonioni was a particular favorite) and homed in on American filmmakers; he felt the existing post-war avant-garde too beholden to surrealism, which had established templates that were not providing the sort of nourishment the soul craved following the barbarism of the war. That nourishment came via the New American Cinema, which for Mekas begins with three films. John Cassavetes’ Shadows (a largely improvised piece of guerilla filmmaking about an interracial relationship) is where “The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught…for the very first time.” Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (wife invites a bishop for dinner, husband’s bohemian pals arrive, conflict follows) and Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (a filmmaker chronicles a group of junkies waiting for their dealer to arrive), “clearly point toward…new ways out of the frozen officialdom and midcentury senility of our arts, toward new themes, a new sensibility.” Very different films in terms of content and style, they shared for Mekas the key function of the New American Cinema: ameliorating the psychic ruin of our fragmented civilization:

this moody, suffering new art, really is not a forecast of disaster, but a joyous sign that there is a deep despair going on somewhere in us – that not everything is so air-conditioned (as we used to say) and dead in man – for we know that the deeper our despair, the closer we are to the truth, to the way out.

An intriguing perspective, until you realize that the decidedly unhilarious The Connection was a party compared to some of the work Mekas would go on to advocate, and that the way through and out was a potentially Dante-esque process:

  1. Watch the films

  2. When necessary (and it will be, frequently, necessary), force yourself to stay for their entire, interminable duration

  3. Register boredom/confusion/rage/anguish

  4. Deal with it

  5. Rapture ensues

Such was the case for Mekas, anyway, and for everyone else too, if they’d just stop watching things like The Love Bug and park themselves in front of a screen to watch, for instance, Warhol’s Empire, which is a static shot of the Empire State Building lasting eight hours. If that sounds unreasonable, think of what’s to be gained:

If people could sit and watch the Empire State Building for eight hours and meditate upon it, there would be no more wars, no hate, no terror – there would be happiness regained on earth.

Think of the method as a little like cult deprogramming, with Mekas an inordinately poetic exit counselor. Ultimately, the point is that like any road to salvation, the demands of underground cinema are not easily traversed, and certainly one of the factors that have kept more people from familiarizing themselves with the genre is that it’s often difficult to see how the material filling the space between idea and actuality could possibly be engaging to anyone besides the filmmaker and Jonas Mekas. As Richard Brody observed, “The so-called poetic or underground movies that he parses and praises make for a fascinating and alluring parallel world of cinema that, for the most part, sounds great until it’s actually seen.” Calvin Tomkins noted how, “devotees grew accustomed to sitting through two hours of relative misery for every ten minutes of filmic revelation.” And John Lennon declared, “Avant-garde is French for bullshit.” Lennon came around (becoming friends with Mekas, and making some dubious contributions to the genre), but his dismissiveness reflected the general viewpoint of anyone in the Movie Journal decades that had regarded, let’s say, the novel as the ideal means for exploring the Human Condition, and was being told that something like Warhol’s Eat, where the artist Robert Indiana spends about forty minutes eating a mushroom, was now performing a similar function.

Mekas insisted that it did, and if you were willing to deal with the narrowness of your conditioning, bliss awaits. Ever have an epiphany? Mekas had them on a weekly basis. Here’s Kenneth Goldsmith’s description of Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma:

It begins with a dark screen and a woman narrating from The Bay State Primer, an early American grammar textbook that teaches the letters of the alphabet by using them in sentences derived from the Bible, then the rest of the film is mostly silent. It presents us with a recurring structure that perpetually moves throughout a 24-letter alphabet via various signs in New York with words that propel the film along. Gradually other images are added to the loop, some of them themselves slowly developing as we arrive at them the next time around. It concludes with a man, woman and dog crossing a snowy field, while several narrators each narrate one word at a time read from an 11th century treatise, "On Light, or the Ingression of Forms", by Robert Grosseteste.

And here’s Mekas’s reaction to viewing it:

Ah, what a difference between Zorns Lemma and all the ‘serious’ commercial movies that I occasionally praise! I am ashamed. Every time I step into a commercial movie theater I lower my standards, I lower my demands, I lower my intelligence, I muddle my sensitivities, I descend down to the level of the people! Down with the people! Up with Angels!

This is not an atypical response. Movie Journal is awash in hilariously hyperbolic gush. This being the sixties, all roads lead to Warhol, and when Mekas writes that while attending the multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, “there are moments…when I feel I am witnessing the beginnings of new religions,” or when he first characterizes The Chelsea Girls as worthy of James Joyce and then as “a holy terror…our godless civilization approaching the zero point,” it’s tempting to attribute these comments to the specific sort of madness Warhol inspires in his admirers. But praising the efforts of his contemporaries with flights into the mystic is a Mekas trademark. First noting that “it is impossible to capture in words a film which is, basically, a poem, and which affects us not by its story but through its visual associations and symbols,” he gives it a shot anyway. Of Marie Menken,

She sees the motions of heart in a tree. She sees through them and beyond them. She retains a visual memory of all that she sees. She re-creates moments of observation, of meditation, reflection, wonderment. A rain that she sees, a tender rain, becomes the memory of all rains she ever saw; a garden that she sees becomes a memory of all gardens, all color, all perfume, all midsummer and sun.

We are invited to a communion, we break our wills, we dissolve ourselves into the flow of her images, we experience admittance into the sanctuary of Menken’s soul. We sit in silence and we take part in her secret thoughts, admirations, ecstasies, and we become more beautiful ourselves. She puts a smile in our hearts. She saves us from our own ugliness.

What saves the columns from their own flamboyance are counter-balances of self-deprecation (“I can’t figure out why I like Antonioni’s movie more than my intelligent friends do. Am I really a moron? I was very good in school, particularly in mathematics”), Zen (“Filmmaking in itself is no virtue. It is much better to lie on your back and count the clouds”), and, not least, humanism (“The most avant-garde position for man today is to take a stand for the mind and for the intelligence”). Plus, it’s hard not to be inspired by his surety that our viewing potential is so much grander than we realize. He’s like a father convinced that his idiot children are geniuses, and the American masses are his idiot children.

Mekas speaks the language of the saved, and the degree to which you find him endearing or insufferable will be in direct proportion to your openness to conversion, and to your faith that there is something truly at stake here, even if you’re not sure what. In a telling bit of reportage, he devotes a column to questions overheard in the lobby following a screening of Warhol’s Sleep, a film of John Giorno sleeping for five and a half hours, that effectively encapsulates the range of befuddlement characteristic of the moment:

What does Warhol’s Sleep do? What doesn’t it do? Is it cinema? Is this the ultimate extension of Pop Art? The slowing down, stretching a detail to its limit, to what maximum effect? Using the screen as a sounding board for the viewer’s dreams, fantasies, thoughts? An exercise in hypnosis/test of patience? A Zen Joke? If it makes you angry, why? Can’t you relax and take a good joke? Running? Where to? Searching for Art in Sleep, doesn’t it betray our own pompousness? Why do we go to cinema? It abandons the usual movie experience for what? Pure cinema, no fake entertainment, no fake stories, isn’t that something worth trying? Does this bringing down to absurdum mean that we have to start from scratch, to forget all previous movie experiences? Doesn’t it remind us that there is not much sense in rushing? Doesn’t it remind us of the secret, almost unnoticeable motions, variations? What was wrong with those few who sat through all the six hours of the movie? Were they sick, or were they capable of satoris and delights where we are not capable of enjoying? What did it do to them, what did it really destroy or start in them, what did it germinate during those six hours which we missed – an experience which we missed in our silly (and/or sick) haste?

Those that didn’t ask questions let their irritation get the best of them. After a screening of Sleep, a theater manager reported that “one red-faced guy very agitated, says I have 30 seconds to give him his money back or he’ll run into theatre [sic] and start a ‘lynch riot.’” Mekas himself was assaulted in a bar by someone who didn’t like Guns of the Trees, and was physically threatened for praising Bonjour Tristesse. Walkouts were rampant; most of the audience at a screening of Jerry Joffen’s work left, victims of their own impatience, “annoyed that there was no immediate art ‘experience,’ no immediate aesthetic shock.” And during a section of John and Yoko’s Apotheosis where “for five minutes we see nothing but the white screen,” the audience responded with “loud cries and exclamations and whistles: The peace and love generation couldn’t face the peace of the white screen, they couldn’t face themselves.”

These are objective assessments, the tone here more mournful than angry; Mekas saves his vitriol for critics, distributors, a particularly fidgety MOMA projectionist, and most resonantly, censors. Mekas fought continuously on behalf of Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic Scorpio Rising (the censorship campaign instigated by protests from the American Nazi Party who took umbrage at the desecration of the American flag), and was arrested in 1964 on obscenity charges for screening Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Jean Genet's Un chant d'amour. What the Nazis thought of all the flaunted penises in the latter two films is unknown, but Mekas’s general sense of outrage leads to some of his more florid ‘he’s crazy/he’s right’ proclamations:

Whoever suppresses a work of art for whatever reasons builds another armor, another cancer in the subconscious of man; he deprives mankind of its deeper knowledge of itself; he takes away a part of its soul; he prevents man from further growth toward heaven; he keeps man in darkness and vulgarity.

As for Flaming Creatures and Scorpio Rising, they are being screened by angels in heaven with the perfumed projectors of eternity.

Maybe that last line sounds better in Lithuanian. Clearer and easily agreeable is, “the biggest perversion I know today is our doings in Vietnam, and the biggest pornographic display is the World’s Fair of New York.” Ambiguous and more fun to contemplate is, “it is awful when man’s sensitivities are being castrated, when man is reduced to one or two kinds of perversions instead of five or seven.”

The book is packed with these sorts of provocations and juicy aphorisms, and if you’re at times baffled by the strands of Mekas’ reasoning, he sympathizes; at times, he can barely keep up with himself (“God, there are so many things to think about in the world. I wonder if I’ll ever think them all out. Anyways, I’m trying. Where was I?”) and chokes occasionally on his own medicine (“Whatever value masturbation itself may have…I found it pretty ridiculous and very depressing to watch movies about masturbation”). But, enlightenment. It’s a process.

Conversations with Filmmakers cherry-picks interviews from the collected columns (and a few years beyond), offering a beeline to the personalities and some of the choicer idiosyncratic commentary. Oversized, handsomely designed, it’s a coffee table book for sophisticates, with moody black and white photos of the era, ads, flyers, ephemera, enigmatic stills of film frames and filmmakers at work and rest (a shot of Stan and Jane Brakhage in what appears to be a log cabin, looking particularly Mephistophelean, their child positioned under the point of a fireplace bellows, is disturbing on numerous levels). It’s great fun to peruse, and the equal time given to voices other than Mekas’ heightens the humor, camaraderie, and pathos; he doesn’t solicit their comments on the villainy of the twentieth century, merely how they’re bearing the effects.

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For all the pleasures the book provides, it’s a little guilt-inducing to own; the conversations are frequently focused on poverty, obscurity, and Sisyphean weariness, and its difficult to escape the sense that many of those interviewed couldn’t afford the book they’re profiled in. When Mekas asks Taylor Mead, one of the stars of the genre, to quote a few lines of his poetry, Mead offers “Don’t idly ask me/to dinner dear because/dinner is very important/to me. I’m very poor.” And, it seems, too exhausted to enjoy his success:

Mekas: What have you seen in the world?

Mead: All the different people trying to run over each other in their automobiles and riots in Athens that never became violent except on the side of the police and handsome beautiful people dying to make love but afraid to because other people were ‘watching!’ and some people actually making love regardless and gypsies who are still wild and dangerous and tame people just as dangerous and incredibly endless, physically beautiful cities and towns and buildings like the United States never dreamed of.

Mekas: Are you having a good time?

Mead: I guess so.

But if you can get past that morose undercurrent, it’s terrifically entertaining. Mekas is at his most impish, his questions a parody of vapid celebrity interviews:

What do you read in your bathroom? Who are you? Why did you make the film? Wouldn’t it be better just to sit on the bank of a river and do nothing? You don't think your film will now send everybody who is interested in male sex to Greece?

And there’s not an idle thinker among his subjects, all of whom shed some insight into the endless challenges of creating art within limited means. For underground cinema, Stan Brakhage’s comment, “I didn’t have enough film to waste trying to create symbolic structures,” is typically pragmatic. Storm de Hirsch’s solutions for her animated short Goodbye in the Mirror are routinely inventive:

I…had no camera…[but] I did have some old, unused film stock and several rolls of 16 mm sound tapes. So I used that – plus a variety of discarded surgical instruments and the sharp edge of a screwdriver – by cutting, etching, and painting directly on both film and tape.

And George Kuchar’s response to Mekas’s “Why are you wasting celluloid, why are you making movies?” is quintessentiallly flavorful:

At the age of twelve, I made a transvestite movie on the roof and was brutally beaten by my mother for having disgraced her and also for soiling her nightgown. She didn’t realize how hard it is for a twelve-year-old director to get real girls for his movie. But that unfortunate incident did not end our big costume epics. One month later, Mike and I filmed an Egyptian spectacle on the same roof with all of the television antennas resembling a cast of skinny thousands. Our career in films had begun.

Mekas’s esteem for the underground titans is boundless, and contagious (if the five-part interview with a stunningly insightful and articulate Stan Brakhage doesn’t seduce you into recalibrating your perceptions of art, nothing will) but the selectivity of Conversations only hints at what I see as Mekas’s greatest message, one that runs through Movie Journal and his life’s work: inclusivity and equivalency. Perhaps the key to meaningful immersion in the New American Cinema is to accept Mekas’s assertion that it “is not a movement – it is a generation,” and all it took to join the ranks was to pick up a camera:

Home-movie-makers all over the world are being asked to film and send to the Co-op whatever happens around the town, this city, country; whatever is exciting, terrible, or beautiful for others to see and to know. We have to start doing this right now. Let’s record the dying century and the birth of another man. … Let’s surround the earth with our cameras, hand in hand, lovingly; our camera is our third eye that will lead us out and in and through. … Nothing should be left unshown or unseen, dirty or clean: Let us see and go further, out of the swamps and into the sun.

This is what separates Mekas from the rest of us; when we watch super 8’s or videos of our infant cousin’s birthday party, father’s retirement party, or first wedding and find only nostalgia for a dream of familial harmony, he sees the elevation of man.

To our great good fortune. Because what keeps Movie Journal and Conversations from being of their time but not mired in it is that voice, the continued relevance of his message, and the enduring quality of works that are still fresh, provocative, and ripe for discovery. Mekas can be a bit of a Pollyanna, and like anyone in love, he often makes himself a fool. But it’s foolishness of the holiest sort. There simply is no one else like him in American culture, one who advocated for an art that would guide humanity’s emergence from its greatest cataclysm, and who devoted his life to sustaining, protecting, and nurturing that vehemently anti-commercial, frequently reviled, endlessly fecund art form for almost seventy years. If that’s not a definition of cultural heroism, I don’t know what is. The repetitions in Movie Journal leave you with salvation fatigue, and were certainly easier to digest in weekly servings. But if you’re going to be pummeled with a message, you could do a lot worse than the insistence that the modern world is a chaos we all share, and that salvation from it is just one weird film away.

Steve Danziger is a writer living in New York.