Idleness as an Illusion: Jonas Mekas
The first time I saw Jonas Mekas was on a poster placed next to the entry of the Austrian Film Museum in April 2013. He was lying in the grass, stretched legs, eyes closed, arms behind his head. The image looked very much like one of my favorite paintings, the Shepherd Boy by Franz von Lenbach. Something was unusual about this poster though. It was split in two, with the upper part of Mekas’ body displayed at the bottom and his red leather shoes on top. I didn’t know back then how the simultaneous presence of the man and his literal point-of-view perfectly described the filmmaker’s approach. After all, he mostly made personal films about what he encountered in his daily life. Shots from windows, on the streets, in nature, in the houses of friends; the material we are now used to see on Instagram (just much more beautiful) constructed into an almost hypnotic flow of impressions. He made films in order to prove to himself that he actually exists. Inside the cinema Mekas introduced his work by putting away with such descriptions. Slow movements, sparkling eyes, he walked with a stoop and a tired smile which makes people above ninety sometimes appear mischievous or at least cheeky. He declared: “There is nothing to describe. There is nothing to read in cinema. You cannot read a film.“ Everybody stared at him in dull agreement. He was a legend.
Born in Lithuania in 1922, he began as a poet and writer before having to escape to New York as a refugee. There, Mekas began creating a cinema culture from scratch. It was directed against the ignorance of intellectuals and the stupor of commercial Hollywood. He became a founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Film Culture magazine and Anthology Film Archives. I can only imagine Mekas running up and down the avenues of New York meeting, convincing, fighting, screaming from the top of his lungs. As he declares in an inter-title in his first collage-like diary film Walden: “I cut my hair to raise money. Having tea with rich ladies.“
The busy life in cultural fields is as much part of Mekas’ films as is his longing for home and idleness. No one showed better what draws so many of us to the cinema world. It’s not exclusively or necessarily the films. Its promise of an alternative home which welcomes everybody as long as they love cinema, merges with a preposterous expectation of idleness as cinema and it is foremost and rather naively related to leisure time. It’s an illusion, of course. Once you arrive at the new home it’s all work and dull boys. Not so much in the films of Mekas. He holds onto an idea of idleness, maybe nourished by the thought of Bertrand Russel who declared in his famous essay In Praise of Idleness how work can also be idle, depending on the approach. Mekas became the prototype for the nerdy, traveling, idealistic cultural worker / writer / filmmaker / artist, a character who nowadays keeps the keys to this idle home we call cinema. People in need of slashes, to explain what they do for a living, rarely lie around in the grass these days. There is no time.
Mekas’ film writing in The Village Voice further established him at the core of a movement that has been given many names. Let’s stick to New American Cinema, although it was neither new nor American, for America is a big country. But it was cinema, as he liked to declare.
His voice on that evening in Vienna sounded just like in the films I was about to encounter. Mekas spoke like some poets read. Next to him was Peter Kubelka. Two filmmakers fueled by enthusiasm and proud egos. They had come a long way since the 1960s repeating their philosophies about the art and its medium for decades but somehow their iterations kept them (and their ideas) young, just like a film projector stays in shape if it is used. They explained life through cameras and film material. There were film stripes and a Bolex camera in the room. As Austrian writer Lucas Cejpek later noted in relation to Mekas: “The camera sounds like a typewriter.“ The metaphor is no coincidence. Although Kubelka labeled him in reference to Dziga Vertov – “the true man with a movie camera“ -, Mekas was also holding a pen. Looking at his films as a pure flow of images and sounds, like many of us do, is ignoring the importance of language in his work. Not only are there are lot of words, written and spoken, in his films, but they channel the disjointed shots and give them meaning. Life is disconnected but (in cinema) somebody has to tell us in order for us to accept it. Mekas remained a critic in his filmmaking, a poet-critic who tirelessly commented on his obsession. In his work the terror of interpretation appears as a poem. He gives instructions on how to see his films all the time. It’s a bit like going to a new age camp in which the instructor perpetually tells you to relax until you grow suspicious of it. That is, for example, easily understandable when it comes to Mekas’ repeated notion of not making political films.
Today, I imagine Mekas as a person afraid of his images being for nothing. He had to underline their meaning by putting them all into films, showing them and tirelessly justifying their existence. As Mekas was a great writer, he managed to create beautiful illusions around his manic production of images. To be honest, I tend to forget the images right after seeing his films but I am left with a feeling much stronger than any frame could ever hold. It works so well that ever so often after seeing that poster, and later discovering his work, I want to live in his films. It’s a constant longing but alas! I tend to imitate the life of Mekas instead of the life of his films.
This article was published first in the 2022 printed issue of the magazine, still available in our online shop.