Reckoning with the Memory of Jonas Mekas, Godfather of Avant-Garde Cinema
“I saw no reason to doubt Mekas’s story: hadn’t he written it all down in his diaries and told it in his films?”
If I had been in New York in the 1970s, when I bought Movie Journal on Broadway at Broome Street, I would have met the lanky figure of Jonas Mekas there. He was on his way to Wooster Street, where he had a studio in one of the loft buildings that his friend and Fluxus leading man George Maciunas had converted into artists’ cooperatives. In the Fluxhouse Coop at number 80 he ran his own cinemathèque and film archive, a long-standing dream that had finally gained a foothold. In the evening he would visit a theater show of the Wooster Group in The Performing Garage, or on the corner of Wooster and Broome a multimedia jazz concert in The Kitchen.
SoHo was not yet the chic shopping district that it is today, but an artists’ village where the lofts had been discovered not only as a studio, but also as residential spaces. Mekas would greet everyone he met, certainly all the artists, from Christo to Nam June Paik, from Donald Judd to Yoko Ono, just like the filmmakers who lived and worked there, the writers and musicians. They too would greet him enthusiastically, the man with the camera who always filmed, when there was a wedding of friends, the opening of a new gallery, or a protest march on Broadway, for whatever good cause. And when he met Jackie Kennedy on the street, she too would greet him with open arms—the charming appearance in her bright red coat had a soft spot for him. If George Maciunas could be called the “Father of SoHo,” responsible for the gentrification of the old factory district, then Jonas Mekas was the unelected mayor.
Mekas’s Movie Journal had the tone of a born New Yorker, so easily he moved in the art scene of those days. It wasn’t until later, when I saw his films, that I understood that this had been preceded by an eventful history. Mekas was an exile, which, in hindsight, might also be less surprising: most cultural communities need outsiders to bring about revolutions. Mekas was such an outsider with a special biography.
He was born on December 24, 1922. Not in the United States, but in the “old” Europe. His birthplace was in Semeniškiai, a hamlet not far from the Lithuanian-Russian border, about 15 kilometers from the larger Biržai, where he went to secondary school, and when he didn’t work on his parents’ farm, he sometimes had jobs. The young Mekas was a student and a poet during first the Soviet invasion of 1940 (as a result of Stalin’s pact with Hitler) and then the occupation by the Germans (after what is known as Operation Barbarossa). Just before the Soviet troops were to march into Lithuania again, he fled to Germany with his younger brother Adolfas, convinced they would be able to study in Vienna. The flight ended in Hamburg, where both brothers were put to work as forced labor in an airplane factory.
After the German capitulation, he and his brother did not want to return to a Lithuania that was part of the Soviet Union, although their parents and three brothers and a sister were left behind there. They stayed for years as Displaced Persons in German refugee camps in both the British and American zones, until they were able to emigrate to the United States in 1949. There, Mekas became the tireless key figure and hero of New York’s avant-garde cinema, editor-in-chief and publisher of the cult magazine Film Culture, columnist for The Village Voice, and founder of The Film-Makers’ Coop and the legendary Anthology Film Archives. He was friends with all the greats of what became known as the New American Cinema and with many celebrities, for whom he had a fine nose (he even counted Jackie Kennedy among his friends). And he made movies. Quirky films, all circling around the theme of remembrance.This was a man who had been through something and nevertheless devoted his life unselfishly to a vulnerable cinema.
Mekas was obsessed with preserving memories from an early age. Before he documented his life on celluloid almost every day in America, he kept a written diary, also during the war years. Parts of this diary, which he wrote from between July 19, 1944, and August 20, 1955, were published in an English translation in 1991 as I Had Nowhere to Go. In the introduction, Mekas recalled his youth in Lithuania: the arbitrariness of the deportations under the Soviet regime, the relative calm during the German occupation, his fear of being betrayed for his modest contribution to underground activities, and his dream of being a poet.
In 1972, he made a film about his first visit to Lithuania after his emigration, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, in which his mother turns out to still live under primitive conditions in the Lithuanian countryside. The lack of running water in the small farm shocks the New York bohemian, although he likes to avoid willingly adapting to the peasant life he once left. Four years later, in Lost, Lost, Lost, he told the story of his emigration to the US and the first impressions of the promised land that he had captured with his Bolex camera, which he purchased soon after his arrival. Both films are drenched in nostalgia.
When they were shown at festivals, I liked to walk into them. Not necessarily to watch them until the end, but just to get some antidote for all those propulsive, narrative, inescapable films that don’t give you the time or the freedom to mirror your own thoughts or memories. Watching his films is an intimate gathering, as if he has shot his images only for you and projected them on a pale white wall in his own loft exclusively for you.
Mekas continued to write poems in Lithuanian all his life. He wrote his collection Semeniškių idilės (translated as Idylls of Semeniškiai) in 1947, as a Displaced Person in Germany. In Lithuania it is considered a classic. Mekas sings of his native land in a stream of lyrical memories: of the landscape, the comings and goings of the seasons, the tools to work the land, the faces of family members, neighbors, passers-by. It is an attempt to hold onto what his memories are in danger of losing their grip on, a nostalgia that still works in the English translation. In any case, the lost paradise of youth never seems far away when Mekas begins to narrate. A paradise abruptly taken away from him by the events of the Great World History, in which Lithuania was a plaything of two totalitarian powers.
I’ve always perceived it as a beautifully clear life story. As I read and heard more about it over the years, it added urgency to Mekas’s status as an experimental filmmaker: exile, nostalgia, displaced, longing for what has been lost, an obsessive cherishing of sweet memories, victim of both communism and Nazism. This was a man who had been through something and nevertheless devoted his life unselfishly to a vulnerable cinema. The writer of Movie Journal did not come out of nowhere. His cinematographic playfulness took place on the surface of a rough canvas. I wasn’t the only one who thought about it that way. Especially in his last years—he died on January 23, 2019, at 96 years old—Mekas was venerated in cinephile circles as a saint, not least in “liberated” Lithuania, which had finally emerged from the Soviet yoke and embraced their prodigal son.
Like everyone else, I saw no reason to doubt Mekas’s story: hadn’t he written it all down in his diaries and told it in his films? Until Michael Casper, in the prestigious The New York Review of Books, questioned the part of the story that had taken place during the Second World War. Suddenly I had to wonder if Mekas, the man who wanted to share everything with his audience, had withheld things from me. It put a bomb under the intimacy that I thought I could believe in during the screenings of his film.
Maybe Mekas has been struck by bad luck. If Michael Casper had not come up with the idea of setting up a new historical research project under the title “Life During Wartime: Biržai and the Holocaust in the Lithuanian Heartland” that would examine the period through Mekas’s diaries and films, he would have escaped the verification of his memories.
Casper must have seen Mekas initially as the perfect informant for his project. More than 70 years after the World War, he was still lucid and approachable and also known as someone who had meticulously documented his personal life, on paper and on celluloid—a living memory, who resided in New York. But after extensive archive research in Lithuania and several conversations and exchanges of correspondence, Casper felt he had to contradict Mekas’s memories. Moreover, he identified omissions that he did not want to attribute to innocent forgetfulness. Although Mekas stubbornly tried to stick with his memories, or was spurred on by Casper’s irrefutable documents to adjust them just as stubbornly, there was no holding on: Mekas’s memory, which for 70 years seemed like that of a reliable witness to Lithuania in wartime, lost credibility per stretching meter—at least in Casper’s eyes.Suddenly I had to wonder if Mekas, the man who wanted to share everything with his audience, had withheld things from me.
The New York Review of Books published Casper’s findings in the issue of June 7, 2018, under the title “I Was There.” In the sidebar the article is linked to the reissue of I Had Nowhere to Go (initiated by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, who made a film about it) and three recent editions: A Dance with Fred Astaire, a new collection of anecdotes, and the first edition of the war diaries of Mekas’s brother Adolfas, The Adolfas Diaries Book 1: September 1941–December 1946 and The Adolfas Diaries Book 2: February 1947–October 1949. However, nowhere do you read the intention of a book review. If the article is a review of something, then it is of Mekas himself, of his public role as someone who witnessed the horrors that took place in Lithuania between 1939 and 1945. Is it right, Casper wonders, that Mekas should be honored as an important and selfless witness to this?
Mekas, Casper first of all makes clear, is a witness who doesn’t have his facts straight. The chronology of events such as Mekas remembers in diaries, interviews, and his films does not match the data he has on hand as a historian. In certain cases this is not difficult to correct and provide years with the right events. Memories tend to clump together, as Casper will have realized. Many of the events from Mekas’s stories that cannot be traced in archives or documents turn out to be very difficult to link to dates. In Mekas’s mind they have been canonized into the unshakable novel of his life, expressed in a stream of recurring anecdotes. Casper, with his desire for objective, “historical” dates, finds it difficult to get a grip on them.
He says it nowhere in so many words, but it is clear that Casper wonders whether all this clumping together of Mekas’s memories is not a carefully erected smokescreen. You can attribute that to the professional mistrust of the historian, but I can’t escape the impression that Casper’s sense of detection has gradually been fed by irritation. After all, why does Mekas seem to systematically avoid one event in the anecdotes he so often recites: the fate of his neighbors—the Lithuanian Jews?
From Jonas Mekas, Shiver of Memory. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted with permission of DoppleHouse Press.