The Eternal Exile: On Jonas Mekas’s Cinema of Memory and Displacement

June 9, 2022   •   By Dante A. Ciampaglia

IN HIS “LETTER FROM the mad heart of an insane world,” published in 1962 along with the release of his first film, Guns of the Trees, Jonas Mekas refuses to explain what the film is “all about,” its story. “There is no story,” he writes. “Telling stories is for peaceful and content people. And at this juncture of my life I am neither content nor peaceful. I am deeply and totally discontent.” Mekas understands that this admission will shock those who see him as a lyrical poet, as he was primarily known then, and he’s fine with it. The film’s Cold War–era existentialism — indeed, borderline nihilism — is a necessary, emotionally violent consequence of creation: “I know that the periods of darkness are really periods of birth. The anxiety, the trembling of my generation, that to some of you may seem just an aimless desperation, is really the first condition of rebirth, of a more conscious existence.” “My anger is not for sale,” he writes; “my anger is here to do some work.”

Mekas’s multidimensional career — as filmmaker, critic, organizer, activist, instigator, artist — was a sprawling monument to that effort, to seven decades of digging the ditches necessary to seed a better, more cultured, less barbaric world. There’s Film Culture, the magazine he co-founded with his brother Adolfas in 1955 as an American Cahiers du Cinéma, celebrating auteurs and underappreciated studio directors, and as propaganda for the New American Cinema, championing filmmakers like Shirley Clarke, Stan Brakhage, and Ron Rice. There’s the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, run out of Mekas’s Manhattan loft, an underground screening room and avant-garde clubhouse attracting the likes of Jack Smith, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol (whose relationship with filmmaking began at the Co-Op). And we can’t forget “Movie Journal,” Mekas’s proto-blog-style film criticism column in The Village Voice, which began in 1958 and which soon became indispensable to a burgeoning generation of filmmakers ranging from John Waters to Martin Scorsese. Also, don’t miss the film-frame prints, which helped get cinema artists into galleries. And the beacon at the center of it all is the Anthology Film Archives, co-founded by Mekas in 1970 as a permanent home for experimental filmmaking and keeper of the underground flame.

Undergirding it all are the images Mekas captured with his Bolex camera and, later, his camcorder. He documented everything — people, events, parties, nature; the consequential and mundane; nothing was irrelevant — and, beginning with the frenetic Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches in 1969, Mekas sculpted this footage into diary films, a form he pioneered and that anchored his art. These were often features that could run into and beyond three hours, but there were also briefer mediations and what we’d now call “content” — quick-hit videos that anticipate ephemeral Instagram Reels and spastic TikTok narratives. Occasionally he’d shoot and distribute a film quickly, especially when working digitally, but more often he assembled new projects by mining old material. Lost Lost Lost, released in 1976, was constructed from film shot between 1949 and 1963; the footage in Scenes of the Life of Andy Warhol, released in 1990, spans 1965 to 1982. This wide temporal span serves both creative and therapeutic purposes, allowing Mekas to curate versions of and views into his life that invite projection and interpretation by filmmaker and viewer. “[O]ne has no control over one’s own image,” he said at MIT in 1970. “But whatever I left, whatever is there, you can tell from this film more about me than I could. It’s an open book, I’m the living character of these film pages. […] That is, if you know how to read it.”

Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, an exhibition organized by guest curator Kelly Taxter at New York’s Jewish Museum and on view from February 18 through June 5, is the first American museum survey of Mekas’s cinematic practice, a focused effort to read his films as a decades-long meditation on memory and the toll of permanent dislocation — the primal forces that fueled his discontent and accompanying creative impulse. It’s an exhibition that would be relevant at any time, but after two-plus pandemic years of incalculable loss and upheaval, and as a genocidal war of conquest rages in Eastern Europe, the show vibrates with palpable urgency. (Mekas, who wasn’t Jewish, programmed Film-Maker’s Co-Op screenings at the Jewish Museum in the 1960s. It’s that connection that earns him a place in the institution’s galleries.)

It’s a sensation created by the show’s relative spareness as much as by the films themselves. A display case at the entrance contains artifacts from Mekas’s life — identity papers, early notebooks, photographs. Beyond that is a dark room of 12 screens, oriented in a semicircle, that run a three-plus-hour program of film excerpts drawn from 11 films. At the exit are 32 glass-plate collages of film frames. There’s some wall text and program notes, but otherwise we’re left to the work. A disorienting choice, perhaps, especially for those only casually familiar with Mekas and his films (a robust cohort, I’m sure, even in New York). But it’s a space that encourages deep engagement, focused attention, and intimate communion with a filmmaker Taxter describes as “a protagonist in the cultural history of the twentieth century.”

Mekas, who died in January 2019 as the godfather of American cinema and patron saint of the underground, entered the world as a poor Lithuanian farm boy in 1922. He fled his home in 1944 to avoid capture by Soviet troops driving out Nazi occupiers; landed in Nazi forced labor camps; spent four postwar years as a displaced person on the run from Stalin; and, in 1949, finally arrived with his brother Adolfas in New York. Mekas kept a diary while navigating those tumultuous years in Europe and taking his first tentative steps in America (published in 1991 as I Had Nowhere to Go). His filmmaking emerged from the diaristic impulse, the 16mm Bolex he acquired in 1950 providing the physical and emotional distance Mekas needed to root himself in a New York he found bountiful but alienating. “What could I be but a voyeur,” he wrote on August 6, 1950. “A Displaced Person as Voyeur. Immigrant as Voyeur. A good title for my life, right now.”

He tried out narrative storytelling with Guns of the Trees, tapping into early-’60s anxieties of nuclear and spiritual annihilation and the independent, DIY ethos of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959). But it was with Walden that Mekas settled on the diary film — three hours of fragmentary footage from his adventures in New York circa 1965–1969, assembled in a hurly-burly style that plays with visual presentation (film is sped up, slowed down, overexposed, double-exposed) and aural reception (wind, traffic, click-clacking typewriters, and music cues form the soundtrack). We see people eating meals, goofing off, and walking the streets. There’s a wedding-party-as-Happening, edited to imitate freak-out strobe effects. We’re brought to the foot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Bed-In for Peace.

If you take him at his word, Mekas arrived at this form accidentally. All that footage he shot with his Bolex sat, untouched, under his bed for years. “But around 1964 I looked at it and I realized what I was doing. I was keeping a diary! I was keeping a ‘camera diary,’” Mekas said in 1969. And like a diary, these films can be consumed all in one sitting or selectively, ducking into this section or that for five minutes or an hour or however long you want to inhabit the space.

It took 25 years, but that almost-forgotten material became the “six painful reels,” as Mekas described them, of Lost Lost Lost, a much less spastic and far more ruminative work than Walden or Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972). Lost covers the Mekas brothers’ first years in New York, acclimating to their new home, wrestling with what they left behind, and making sense of their lives as exiles. It’s set to Lithuanian songs, diegetic sounds, and Mekas reciting his poetry. He also adds narration that externalizes his internal struggle. “I have no idea what winds are driving me, and where. But I chose this way. This way without directions. I chose it, myself. And here I am,” Mekas somberly intones over black-and-white footage of a midtown New York protest for nuclear disarmament. “So let me continue. I don’t want to look back. Not yet. Or not anymore. Ahead, ahead, I’m pushing.”

Indeed he was. After Lost, Mekas released a few short films (Self-Portrait in 1980; a decade later This Side of Paradise), then, in 2000, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, a 285-minute excavation of three decades’ worth of material and a sendoff to 16mm. He traded in his Bolex for a video camera (the costs and hassle of shooting film got too steep), and, unconstrained by the limits of physical media, his work evolved. The camera really could be everywhere — bars, dinner parties, trips abroad, the set of Scorsese’s The Departed — and the forms his diaries, notes, and sketches could take were endless. On one end is the 45-second A Daydream (2010), a shot of a tree bookended by Mekas, close-eyed; on the other 365 Films (2007), a year-long project of releasing one short piece a day (by turns rousing and pedestrian) to be viewed on the iPod Video, the apex of Mekas’s experimentation with the fragmentation of time, memory, and storytelling.

Mekas kept making films until the end, spending the night before his death working on his final feature, Requiem (2019), a fitting, albeit haunting, coda made up of images of soaring natural beauty contrasted with crushing scenes of inhumanity, scored to Verdi’s Requiem. Mekas himself occasionally appears — touching a flower, encountering a tree — as if to confirm, as he wrote on October 29, 1950, “But here I am. I have chosen culture over barbarism, fascism, and communism.”

Every film he made was, in some way, a reckoning with that choice and the trauma of forced uprootedness that led to it. His images can be as lyrical as his poetry, brief and chromatic encounters with natural beauty in a gray and manufactured urban environment — the record of someone innately attuned to his place. But these exist in a continuum whose central pull is the crushing otherness he felt in New York as a Lithuanian refugee. It abated in the years subsequent to his arrival, as he rewired New York’s art and film scenes, but specters of himself as the “eternal Displaced Person” manifest throughout The Camera Was Always Running. It’s difficult to watch Lost, Warhol, or As I Was Moving Ahead, for instance, and ignore his outsider status. These may look like home movies (at times they actually are), but they’re shot by someone who will always be an interloper, a voyeur.

Or maybe not. His proximity to wealth, power, and celebrity does confer a kind of insider’s insider status. Because of how open Mekas’s memories are, and often how fungible, it can be tricky discerning what’s real, imagined, or simply found in the edit. “Mekas was a storyteller who put forward written and visual narratives about his life,” Taxter writes in her catalog essay. “His diaristic forms rested on memory: the comingling of facts (the world he saw) and perceptions (how the world felt). That potent mix of seeing and feeling is not only a hallmark of Mekas’s work but is precisely why it is so poignant.” Indeed, Mekas invites us to engage with his work, if not skeptically then not entirely literally. “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,” Mekas wrote on January 10, 1948. He was 25 then, but the sentiment sticks to everything he created — fragmentary reflections of someone editing life and experience into a narrative that makes sense to him, or just suits the moment.

This is something all humans do to make sense of experience, but for those, like Mekas, who have experienced physical and existential crisis, it’s a heightened coping mechanism. In 2018, taking him at his word, historian Michael Casper challenged numerous declarations Mekas made throughout his life about his wartime experiences in Lithuania, particularly his awareness of the mass execution of Jews in his hometown, given Mekas’s involvement (as a writer and editor) with virulently antisemitic Nazi-sanctioned newspapers. The essay ruffled feathers in certain corners of cinemadom at the time, and Taxter confronts Casper’s assertions and the dustup in the exhibition catalog.

But the Jewish Museum has chosen not to engage with the controversy in its galleries; visitors familiar with it will surely debate the merits of that decision. Rather, the focus is squarely on the films and their view into how one complicated, contradictory filmmaker processed, over a lifetime, his violent and permanent displacement. The show is only a sampler, but it’s enough to send us down the rabbit hole of Mekas’s deep, rewarding oeuvre. And despite its austere, hushed setting and the challenging themes of exile and trauma scaffolding the enterprise, this long-overdue survey is an exaltation of a survivor who used cinema to document, preserve, and, as he said in 2015, “celebrate the reality and life and friends and everything around me the very moment it happens.”

Three years after his death and 60 years after the release of his first film, the world has again gone mad, culture is increasingly conservative and ephemeral — and Jonas Mekas’s films are here, again, to do some work.

¤


Dante A. Ciampaglia is an editor and culture journalist in Brooklyn. His writing about film, architecture, and design has been published by The Paris Review, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. He created and co-hosted Cineopolis, a podcast that focuses on movies and the cities that made them. More of his work can be found at etnadac.com.

¤


Featured image: "Jonas Mekas (6457343183) (cropped)" by BurnAway is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.