Seeing Things Differently: A Journal Entry on Jonas Mekas
by Julian Garcia
“In memory of Jonas Mekas, who helped to lead American cinema out of the boardrooms and back into the streets—and knew that it needed a home and then built it.”
— Richard Brody
“No! Cinema is not 100 years old! Cinema is young! Cinema is always beginning! The real history of cinema is the invisible history -- history of friends getting together, doing the thing they love. For us, cinema is beginning with every new buzz of the projector, with every new buzz of our cameras! Our hearts jump forwards, my friends.
— Jonas Mekas, 1996
Jonas Mekas, who passed away at the age of 96 last week, was in love with the invention known as the camera. With it, he captured all the beautiful and lovely things that people often overlook, ignore, take for granted—a row of bushes, a woman planting flowers, his mother getting water from the well in the front yard of his Lithuanian home. With these images that spanned across films like Walden, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, and Travel Songs, Mekas showed that nature was just as capable of creating art in her backyard as humans were. Inside these films, and many others, Mekas created dizzying hyper-images of sights and people and color, and imbued them with a sense of excitement that seemed to ponder, how will these wonderful aspects of life surprise me today? In answer, all the flowers, trees, and good, excited, and curious friends seemed to respond by saying that their very existence was enough cause for celebration.
A second will go by in a Mekas film and you will have seen an entire parade of color and light and people tickle your eyes, and in turn, gently nudge the beauty receptors in your brain to make you smile from ear to ear. This doesn’t mean that he was strictly filming memories—in fact, he was always on the opposite end. Everything he filmed had to do with the now, the present, what was happening in front of him. That made all the difference between the saccharine remembrances of narrative “personal” filmmaking (say, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, for instance) and the prosaic and poetic qualities of his diary films. But nay, he might say, I should not point to what is ugly in a piece celebrating his work and his life—“Cinema is always beginning!” he said again and again. He always kept his eyes open to the new.
Mekas’ films, and to an even larger extent, his writings on film in Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema (1959-1971), were the great liberators of my life. At this point, Mekas has been gone for a week. I am still not cured of my “Jonas blues,” as my friend calls it, and I’ve found it shatteringly difficult to locate the words to describe how special a figure he was in my life, and how wide his philosophy and images cracked my mind open. More than anything, Mekas taught me to see anew, as all the great poets do, but instead of the poet inflecting your ideas and experience with words, he showed me, without any alteration to the image, that beauty exists everywhere in its natural form. Beauty was seeing your friends dance like hooligans in the living room. It was watching villages shrink from a moving train. It was looking at a missing brick or a broken window. These were all reflections of his desire to encourage people to “continue looking for things in places where there is nothing,” as he says in As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. It was also a desire to fight for the artistic rights of the film poet, in that films about christmas lights and snow falling and dead moth wings had just as much right to be called a film as any scripted (predictable) and technically perfect (sterile) films playing at the largest cinemas nearby.
Mekas’ love of “less perfect but more free films” was emblematic of his desire to rip cinema away from gentility, neatness, artificial trappings, and pretensions of dull and formulaic films. He argued that non-narrative films—at least non-narrative in the sense of the films he loved and championed—were not “experimental films” that were tested in laboratories, but were extensions and expressions of the beautiful shapes and colors and people that were in the filmmakers’ lives. They were the “New” and the “Poetic,” as he often referred to them in his writing. At one point, he proposed, “shoot all the scriptwriters, and we may yet have a rebirth of the American cinema,” as he felt sitting down to write what could be captured immediately by a camera ultimately stifled ingenuity and spirit. Above all, his advice and tireless examples told a lowly filmmaker and writer such as myself that there were literally millions of miracles happening everywhere around us, and making a film about them to exalt their beauty was a worthy activity to dedicate your time to.
Before Mekas, films were nothing more than aesthetic joys or drugs that made me happy while I was with them but could never make me a happy person on my own. After Mekas, I began to appreciate that which my senses could not pick up on and felt able to enjoy life outside of a television screen. His advice on movies was akin to his advice on life, as in when he revered the movie camera for capturing the subtleties of a face in Movie Journal:
“Why don’t we forget literature and drama and Aristotle! Let’s watch the face of man on a screen...as it changes, reacts. No drama, no ideas, but a human face, in all its nakedness—something that no other art can do. Let’s watch this face, its movements, its shades; it is this face...that is the content and story and idea of the film, that is the whole world, in fact.”
Why let these words be restricted to just movies, or paintings, or photographs? With fire like that in his words, it opened my eyes to the contours of a face in any place, regardless of whether I was in a movie theater or on a park bench. It made all the mundanities of life surprising, moving, ticklish, and it made things many people consider ugly to have their own inherently beautiful qualities.
I guess I thought Mekas would live forever, still commenting sharply on the status of film today, wielding his camera like a sword of beauty, finding worthy things to look at all around him. Now that he has gone, having done the work he was made to do, he is probably celebrating, dancing, drinking, playing his weird Lithuanian horn, with the friends that he cherished but passed him by—Shirley Clarke, Marie Menken, Ron Rice, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Stan Brakhage, John Cassavetes, Maya Deren, and the like—and they are probably glad to have finally found him again.
A dear friend of mine said that his work was outside time, and now that he has passed on, the rest of forever might have caught up to him. Not all is lost in that regard either; he left a blueprint, with his films and with his words, on how to continue the work that he started, as he made “raving maniac[s] of the cinema” out of all the people he moved. He inspires me to continue bringing my camera everywhere and making my own film poems, capturing my friends and the places that move me on film, and being a great appreciator of the big nothings that, really, hold all the beautiful mysteries that my soul could ever want.
A note from the author:
Many of Jonas’ long-form work can be found on fandor.com, namely his magnum opuses Lost Lost Lost and Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches. However, you can find much of his short-form work, which he considered “works complete in themselves, separate from the main body of my film work” on jonasmekas.com (for free, I might add). His books, including Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971, are also essential reading and can be found here.
— Julian Garcia is a Film Correspondent for Siblíní Journal. Read more of his work here.