Back in early March, a couple of days before I left New York, I had the honour of interviewing Jonas Mekas at his Brooklyn home for the Japanese magazine Libertin Dune‘s 15th issue, out now and available in Japan and New York. Follow Libertin Dune on Instagram for a peek inside the issue. With thanks to Kazumi Asamura Hayashi and Masaki Naito for allowing me to publish the English version here. Portrait by Jacqueline Harriet.
Opening the pages of A Dance With Fred Astaire, the latest book from Lithuanian American filmmaker, poet, and artist Jonas Mekas, is like falling down a rabbit hole. Non-chronological, it puzzles together anecdotes from six decades of adventures at the heart of New York’s avant-garde film world. While the history books trace the outline of the era’s events and achievements, Mekas does the colouring in. The bustling social life of ‘60s Manhattan is rendered as vividly as the struggles its heroes endured, and icons like Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and Jackie Kennedy are revealed as idiosyncratic human beings simply trying to make sense of the world just like the rest of us. Along the way, Mekas shares glimpses of the spirituality that a lifelong commitment to the arts — he founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1970 — can sustain.
The 95-year-old has a knack for telling stories in a loose, intimate fashion, as if he’s known you forever. It was pouring with rain when I visited his library of a Brooklyn apartment on a grey March afternoon; all around him were shelves and tables filled with his archives. A sleek and wiry black cat called Pie Pie, who used to belong to his daughter Oona, made herself comfortable on the table between us as we talked. Witty and razor-sharp, Mekas smiles with his eyes and speaks with genuine excitement. It’s not hard to see why the best and brightest of the New York scene were drawn to him.
I’m really enjoying A Dance With Fred Astaire. How did the book come together?
Sometimes when I am with friends, as we’re eating and drinking, some memories come that relate to what we are talking about, and later I wrote them down. They were recorded during a period of maybe 10-15 years. Then at some point, I had so many of them, I thought, Why not put them into a book? It’s a form of autobiography in a way.
It features many giants of the avant-garde New York scene of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as introducing the reader to less familiar characters of that era. It’s a really beautiful journey of discovery.
[In my life,] I have worn many different hats. I seem not to be able to stick to one area. I seem to be a vagabond. Sometimes I am pulled to one direction and then I’m pulled to another one. Because I live with no plans — I go where I feel I am needed.
Where did your curiosity come from?
I am not that curious! I don’t think I am. I go, as I said, where I am needed. It’s something that has to be done, but nobody else can do, or wants to do, or knows how to do. Almost all the projects I initiated — like Film Culture magazine or Film-Makers’ Cooperative or the film department in the Village Voice — it had to be done, but nobody else was doing it. Or somebody needed [something], like Jackie Kennedy needed someone to teach her children film. So I fell into that position. It just happened with no plan, no effort.
In the book, you talk about the excitement you feel when you see something you’ve never seen before in art and film.
Yes! That sense of excitement. I get into it when I see something unique and something special, and yes, I get excited about it — with no restraint. It does not always have to be a work of art, poetry, or film. It could be a person, like Peter Beard. When I met Peter Beard for the first time, as a person he was so unique, so full of energy, and very much interested in nature. And we remain friends since ’62, ’63, when I first met him. So it could be anything that has energy. There is a certain energy that is contagious. Same as a work of art can be the energy, beauty can be contagious. To me, at least.
Your friendship with Barbara Rubin is very much alive in this book.
Barbara, she was an amazing person. Spector Books in Leipzig this summer will be bringing out a book of her letters to me. Her letters will show some of the same energy. She was a contagious person.
What was the energy running through New York in that period like?
We are in the beginning of the ’60s, in transition from the ’50s, when all the classical art forms and styles of living that we had came to an end, and new forms in theatre, in music, in every art were emerging — everything was changing. So it was very exciting period, and that was where Barbara Rubin appeared. She was a trouble-making teenager, so suddenly she found herself in the middle of the most active period in New York. She immediately got submerged in it and met everyone and became a very key person in that mixed, exciting family. Going from Jack Smith to Warhol to Velvet Underground to Bob Dylan, and all the smaller personalities. And they were not always the easiest personalities, and not always talking to each other even. But she managed to work and accept, and they accepted her, all of them.
One of the things you did back then that had to be done was finding the money and resources to support the important work of the avant-garde film community.
That was one of my functions. I was the Minister of Finances, the Minister of Defence, Minister of Propaganda. [Laughs.] Yes, all those.
You mention people like Hiro Yamagata and Jerome Hill in the book, who both acted as patrons to many of your contemporaries.
Hiro Yamagata, he came in a little bit later [in the ’90s], but I introduced him to Allen Ginsberg. It was actually a very funny story because at that point Hiro Yamagata wanted to paint portraits of all the important persons in the arts in America. I don’t know what he actually completed. But he said, “I want to meet Allen Ginsberg!” I said, “Oh, I will introduce to Allen. Because as it happens, today his photography show opens at New York University gallery. So come because I have to be there.” So I took him to the opening. It was not open yet. Allen was still hanging his photographs. I introduced them and I had to do something, so I left them talking. Then a few days later, I met Allen in the street: “So you had a good talk with Yamagata?” He said, “Who is this person? He just bought my complete show!” [Laughs.] He bought all his photographs, the whole show. Later he became a big supporter of Allen, and Allen wrote an introduction to one of his books.
These days, brands seem to have become the new patrons of young artists.
You see, that is the scene today. But if you go to the ’50s, there was no such market yet for artists, especially for film and video artists. You could not survive from what you were doing. There was no tradition yet. Now some video artists can sell their work and [there are] galleries that show, and, of course, we have the whole business art collectors scene. But not in the early ’60s — even big names like Andy [Warhol], when I met him he was not known, he hadn’t had a big show yet.
Do you think that brand involvement in the arts has a negative or positive effect?
The way I see it, it has a negative effect on art. [In the early days], there were no foundations supporting art, neither individual foundations like Guggenheim or Ford, or the state or the city. There was no tradition. I remember some of the filmmakers, they all came in around 1970, after the ’60s were already over. I used to meet in the ’80s some of the filmmakers and I remember asking Paul Sharits, “What are you doing? Another movie?” “No, I’m not making another movie because I applied, but I did not get a grant.” So the dependence on sponsors began.
Or, okay, you go into the new Whitney Museum — when it opened, I went and I saw those big, huge spaces. I remember the original Whitney, when it was still on 8th Street, in a little place, small rooms; it felt like home, almost. So I was telling my friends, “Go and see the new Whitney because you will see a museum designed for big art.” Then the Whitney Biennial came and I go to the Biennial and there are only big pieces. There are no small, personal pieces. So I asked one of the curators who was involved, “Why it’s only big pieces?” She said, “We did not find small pieces. If we would have found, we have spaces upstairs, we could have exhibited them there.” But what artist wants to be in a closet in the attic? Artists want to be together! So now already the space dictates what art [is shown].
Have you heard about The Shed? The biggest art structure for presentation, for dance, for music. It’s conceived as a space that will be able to change the shape, the size, adapt itself. It will be opening, I think, next year. Huge! So everything is only for the big art, but where are the other places for personal, small pieces? Now art is made for [being] like a subsidiary to the airports, hotel lobbies, bank lobbies. Decorative, in a way. Okay, in the old centuries, the church [was a big space for art], but the churches had so many other little spaces that you could put [your art] besides covering the whole ceiling or the wall.
I wonder how much attention span feeds into into it—
Just to interrupt, I was afraid that that would [also happen] with MoMA. But I went just last week to see Stephen Shore’s photography, which is an amazing [show]. The largest photography exhibition that I have ever seen — he deserves it. What they did was they built almost a room within a room, a museum within a museum. Some of the new spaces are also big, but not as big as the Whitney.
Fortunately, in cinema, the big theatres have disappeared. They’re getting smaller and smaller — 70 seats, or under 100. And, of course, the whole internet situation now permits a very personal communication, like sending a postcard. So it’s very unpredictable what the effect will on public cinema, and on the different forms, technologies, and the theatres.
It seems the biggest problem facing avant-garde cinema in the ’60s was censorship, of which you write in the book.
Censorship and the lack of public exposure. With the creation of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, we managed to create our own venues. Mostly through universities and colleges. We never succeeded getting into those 3000 or 4000 [-seat] public theatres across the country. Even the [films] conceived for the wider public, like Shirley Clarke’s films, had a very minimal run, maybe 10 theatres or 20. And it was very expensive. I remember Shirley Clarke released The Connection in ’62 I think, and after it ran for a year or two here and there, I asked her how did it do. The film cost around $200,000, and I asked, “Did you make a lot of money?” “A lot of money? I received a bill from the distributor.” It enumerated how much for publicity, how much for making prints, this and that, and it ended in a deficit and a bill for I don’t know how many thousands of dollars.
What are the problems facing avant-garde cinema today?
It’s very difficult to tell who is making what and where. The biggest, largest chunk of it is on the internet, but you don’t always know where and under what name you should look. I will jump to the ’60s and ’70s. In the very beginning [of avant-garde cinema], you knew almost everybody who was making films or, later, video. You could say, “I have seen everything made in New York.” Then around the ’70s and into the ’80s, it begins to explode. By the end of the ’60s, you have Gay and Lesbian Cinema, Asian American Cinema, Native American Cinema, Black Cinema, all those different branches emerge. And you had to be from the black community or from the gay community to know who is making films in that community. So if you have a survey of what is being done in 1980, you had to have representatives [from each community] who knew what is being done. That’s why at Anthology Film Archives we introduced different festivals. We began with Gay and Lesbian Festival, because that was the only way to see [what was being made]. They curated it, people who knew what is done there.
With the internet, it became totally impossible to know what is being done and where. So I think it will take some time to gain perspective because there is some kind of Darwin’s Law that can be applied to the art: survival of the fittest. That’s not what survives because of the technological aspects, but pieces that people like and want to see again and again. So I think from all those millions and millions of pieces that float around now, there will be some that people of different persuasions, races, backgrounds see something special in and want to keep. They won’t permit it to disappear. When people say, “Oh, YouTube, everything is going…” No. There will be some pieces that will remain. And some of it, of course, will remain for pure human interest. Some pieces I have seen on YouTube are with birds and animals, they are so unique and so spectacular. We could not record it before, with huge film cameras. What survives is not only art.
Some of the literature that survives is also biographical. I was just reading a book by Athenaeus, a Greek. I found it in the street! A cookbook from the 3rd century BC. We’re kind of traveling around subjects here.
That’s the best way. What else are you reading?
Not much that I am reading is contemporary. I tried many times to read Virginia Woolf’s The Lighthouse — three times I started — but then I got to The Waves, and it is amazing. Everybody should read The Waves. It’s not easy reading: The Waves is not written in normal grammatical sentences, it’s written in three-dimensional sentences — a little bit Joycean. And of course, A Room Of One’s Own, every woman should read, and every man should read.
In your brief interview with Anna Karina in A Dance With Fred Astaire, you make a reference to the Women’s Liberation Movement. That is still going strong, not least with the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood. I wondered what you thought about that?
Women and students will change America. It’s coming, yes. It goes beyond America, actually. It’s already beginning in Asia. It’s easy to try here, but in some of areas of Asia it’s very dangerous for women to start a school.
Do you follow what Hollywood releases?
My favourite film is Lady Bird, it’s an amazing film. You should see it. It’s very simple, a series of scenes, a young girl growing up. If you go to my website, I have my little review. I taped Greta [Gerwig] talking about the reasons why she became a filmmaker. It’s a very moving personal statement, which I put on my website. It is a film that can only be made by a woman. It cannot be made by a man, because its subtle observations could not be seen and put into the film the way she did it. It’s very well made.
Also, Three Billboards — the performance of lead actress [Frances McDormand] is so amazing. And, of course, the subject is very timely: the rape of the daughter.
One of the things that comes through very strongly in your book is your spirituality. What informs that?
I grew up in nature. Some of my reading includes a lot of sufis and mystics, like early Ibn Arabi. My mother was very spiritual, so I think there is some influence there.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
Yes, I do. I believe that this is one stage, and then you go another, and after that still another. All philosophers and religious prophets, the further back you go [in your research], the more you understand those steps that lead into other dimensions. We have lost that understanding, that’s why I am going back to the old literature, before Plato, where I find more truth. Of course, the real tragedy began with the Industrial Revolution, when everything became so practical: jobs, jobs, money, money, buy, buy, buy more. That’s where we are today, which is leading to ignoring the nature, ignoring the results that we have today in the world. We don’t talk to each other, we fight each other, because of the neglect of the spiritual part, and neglect of education in schools. The arts are out, but sports are in. In the old days, Plato participated in the Olympics — he was a wrestler. Sports were there, but the spiritual aspect was also strong. Now we have only the physical aspect, but no spiritual aspect.
I am not a pessimist. There are still millions of individuals that retain work on the spiritual part of humanity. But if those who run the countries are pushing only the practical aspects, then humanity suffers. I think we are in that period now. But somehow the Earth and humanity eventually takes care of itself. There are some bad periods, but we are still moving ahead. If we don’t destroy ourselves with the technology, then we will pick up again the spiritual part. But maybe we should pick it up now, before we self-destruct. I’m not giving up. But we have to be aware that we are in a dangerous period: technology has progressed far ahead of the mental and spiritual and moral development. That affects the Earth, the nature, which is beginning to make itself visible and we are still ignoring.
Did you ever contemplate retiring?
No! I don’t understand what retiring is, really. Only if you do what you don’t like just for money, then, of course, if there is a chance of retiring, you take it. You escape that boring job. But what I do, it’s not even a question of liking or not liking, it’s something that I must do. That’s my nature; it’s part of me.
Plus, I am doing so many other things. I have a big show now in Seoul in Korea. This year I had two or three books out besides A Dance With Fred Astaire. There is a new edition of I Had Nowhere To Go. There will also be Conversations With Film-Makers, which is going through the final stages. But my main work in this period is building a library on top of the current Anthology Film Archives building. I’m adding another floor and a cafe on the side. The cafe for our survival, and the library for the huge amount of paper, reference materials, books, periodicals, documentation, posters, and also audio materials related to cinema. They’re all boxed, not available to scholars, research students. So that’s a $12million project. But I managed already to raise $6 million. So another year, maybe, of fundraising work and then maybe we can begin building construction. I will never stop doing what I am doing. Like a bird singing, you cannot stop. That’s how I am.