Jonas Mekas: The Collector

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Jonas Mekas.
Jonas Mekas.Photography by Derek Peck

Jonas Mekas is a man who clearly loves a good archive. Besides being a filmmaker, artist, writer and poet, Mekas is probably the most dedicated and genre-conscious pack rat in New York City...

Jonas Mekas is a man who clearly loves a good archive. Besides being a filmmaker, artist, writer and poet, Mekas is probably the most dedicated and genre-conscious pack rat in New York City. Over the last forty years he’s become widely known for being a co-founder and chief guardian of the Anthology Film Archive, the largest collection of underground and experimental film in the world. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when I arrived at his Brooklyn loft the other week and discovered the entire space filled with loosely stacked boxes, folders, photographs, glassines and slides of cut film reels, writings, poems, magazines, posters, and so on. They covered every available surface. Books and binders lined the walls. Nothing was overly fastidious or ordered – in fact, the stacks were actually rather loosely assembled – but there was nothing messy either. And Jonas knew exactly where everything was. At first, I was confused. I thought perhaps he was housing a portion of the Anthology Film Archives in his own living room. But he assured me he wasn’t. This was his own work, he said, a lifetime of thought and creativity and its artifacts. The next logical thought that came to mind was, How did he live here? There seemed to be no place to relax, recline, or spread out a big feast for family and friends. There was nowhere to not work. But after only a few minutes visiting I realised this is how he lives. Mekas is so consumed with the art of documenting life and collecting its leftovers that it has become entirely second nature to him, as automatic as breathing air. 

On the table in front of us, are spread out a few dozen celluloid film frames, clipped from their reels and encased in slides. Beyond them, toward me, are five or so little stacks that Mekas has placed the slides in after viewing them over a light box with a magnifying glass. He explains that he’s sorting all his old boxes of film stills – thematically no less – so they are more readily accessible as he makes new art. At 88, Mekas works every day to do just that. Within moments of sitting down he rattles off several projects he’s either just recently completed or that he’s on deadline to finish, ranging from a commission for the Jeu de Paume in Paris, called My Paris Movie, to an entry in the London Film Festival. 

Mekas has frequently been called the godfather of American avant-garde cinema, but he’s really the star of his own epic movie. Born in Lithuania, Mekas was displaced during World War Two and imprisoned in a German labor camp with his brother. After eight months, they escaped and spent the rest of the war hiding out on a farm near the Danish border. Four years after the war, he emigrated to the U.S. and quickly became involved in film. “Until I landed in New York I was one hundred percent in literature,” he says. “But the minute I arrived here I became completely and totally committed to film. Everything about New York, the movement, the sounds, made me want to speak in that language. And my work is about that, about the real life. About the daily and invisible activities that cannot be made in studios.” 

Although Mekas made a couple of narrative and documentary films early in his career, most of his work consists of what he calls diaries. These are short films of hundreds if not thousands of recorded moments from his life. And to this day, nearly 60 years after his first ones, he still shoots, edits and posts diaries on his website. The culmination of these diaries is a five-hour-long magnum opus, titled, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Glimpses of Beauty. The film was created by Mekas by hand-splicing and editing film footage and diaries spanning over 50 years. 

While watching As I Was Moving I realised that what Mekas is the real collector of is not photos and magazines and old super-8 film reels; what Mekas is the collector of – an obsessive, and ultimately deeply loving collector of – are the impermanent, fleeting moments of life. He wants to capture them all, as many as he can hold up his camera to. Yet, although there is a distinctly personal and poetic ambience to his film, as you watch it, it slowly becomes yours. Gradually you lose the sense that you are even watching a film, let alone scenes from a person’s life. Instead there is a gauzy hypnotic feeling that begins to overtake you. It’s like watching a dream, a half-life of universes, of what has happened and what is only imagination. Dream after dream after dream of this. And eventually, after a little more time watching, they are maybe not even his dreams anymore, but possibly yours. This is the gift of Jonas Mekas, artist and collector.