Tonight the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens will be screening for the first time in the US, director Jonas Mekas's most recent film, A Letter From Greenpoint. It's a lovely, personal movie filled with vignettes and Mekas's musings about leaving SoHo for Brooklyn after 30 years. He moved from Lithuania to New York in 1949, where he organized the first downtown avant garde film screenings, founded the Anthology Film Archive, worked as a critic for the Village Voice, ran with the New York art crowd like Andy Warhol and John Lennon, and captured his own life in intensely personal film diaries. He really hasn't stopped going since. Those who are aware of avant garde film's history in New York may think of Mekas's work as being in the past, but he insists that like cinema, he is never static. Gothamist met him for a drink at Pete's Candy Store in his newly adopted neighborhood of Greenpoint recently to discuss what he's been up to lately from his big move and trips to Japan to making short movies for the iPod.
So tell me how the reception and screening with Moving Image came about.
They just called me. The first screening of it took place in Paris on Dec. 1st, 2004, so it’s almost 2 years ago, but nobody was interested to see it or show it here. I am more known in Europe than here. Here they only talk about me like, Oh when he was there, Warhol, the ‘60s and they don’t know that life continues. I make new things and I have shows. And most of my new work is seen in Europe, not here.
I understand you first started out as a critic, when you first came to New York.
Yes, but first I was involved in organizing screenings of the avant garde. The first screenings took place in 1953, on Avenue A and 1st St, in the Village. Very close to where Anthology is now. I didn’t move very far, about two blocks. Then there was a gallery, a cooperative with a group of young people from around Orchard Street and Ludlow, it was called Gallery East. I knew some of them and they said, Oh you’re interested in film why don’t you show some films in the gallery. So that’s how I started the screenings.
And did it seem right away that there were people who were interested in the avant garde?
Oh no. There never was and there never will be. The same as poetry books which sell dozens of copies and prose sells more, in millions of copies. Avant garde film could be compared to poetry in literature. It’s a sensitivity. It’s not entertaining. Or it’s entertainment is on a different level. There are those who are interested in poetics in forms of cinema. They do not express anything directly, only indirectly.
Can you tell me a little about your process?
I always carry my camera, sometimes I carry two or three cameras and I film. There are moments where I want to pull out my camera and film. I don’t know why, but I feel like filming. It’s very casual, as you can see from them. It’s like making notes and it’s all from real life.
How do you keep track of when you shot different things?
I have thousands and thousands of hours, and hundreds and hundreds of cassettes, but I keep lists. I index everything. There are books. I go through it and every cassette is indexed, so you know, if I need this or that or that, I can find it. And I know more or less what period. It’s all in my head but it’s also in the cassettes and it’s also in those lists.
Then when you put the films together, you use a computer?
My head is my computer. Then of course, also the Apple computer, but I know more or less what I want. So A Letter from Greenpoint, the reason why I made this was that when my friends would say, Okay, now you are in Greenpoint, you left SoHo, so how do you feel? How is life there? I could say, Okay. I will show you. I will put my footage together and you will look at the film and you will see how I live a new life in Greenpoint. It’s like sharing with friends my new life. That’s more or less how it originated.
And what made you want to move to Greenpoint?
Oh, well it made no difference. I had to move somewhere, it happened. So I picked up the Daily News and I could’ve moved anywhere. By chance there was something that wasn’t too expensive and large enough, I need a large space, in Greenpoint. So I went there and I took it. Just one ad.
Just one place?
Just one. I have no time too look, I’m too busy to compare. It was good enough and it was quiet. That’s it.
What do you think of this neighborhood? It’s very different from when you lived in Brooklyn before.
Yes, but it was the same with Soho. I was at the very beginning of SoHo, on 80 Wooster. That was where SoHo began, that was the first cooperative building established by George Maciunas. That was my first place. And then I moved around, stayed at the Chelsea Hotel for several years, then in ’74 I settled down on the corner of Broome and Broadway. For 30 years I was there. So I saw the whole change. There was no SoHo. It was just a miserable section of neglected miserable stores, and shops all going bankrupt. And then it became cheap and chic. So here I am, with a new set of friends and a new set of places, involved in local activities. Like I’m the film editor of the Brooklyn Rail. It’s a monthly publication which is maybe one of the best in the country on cultural matters. This is actually a place where Brooklyn Rail writers meet usually, at Pete’s Candy Bar. Poets, painters, writers. Greenpoint, it’s attractive. I like that it’s not commercial. It’s got a different kind of energy. Young energy, less commercially minded. Here people come to do their work, to show it to each other and they continue working. And it was not too expensive, though it’s getting more expensive of course. But that’s something else.
What projects are you working on now?
Between December 2004 and this spring, I have been working as a cameraman really, with a filmmaker, Virginie Marchand, who besides being a filmmaker, is a Butoh dancer. She was making a feature length film in Japan, so I went there. I am also in the film as one of the actors and I was one of the camera men for her. I have been filming a lot of her dance. But the project is of Virginie Marchand, I am only helping. For three months, this is a project with Maya Stendhal gallery, a project of iPods. I am making 365 iPod films, 2 minutes to like 5, 6 minutes long. Short. They will be released one for every day of the calendar. So there will be one iPod released every day beginning with January 1st, or maybe somewhere in November. So I have been working now for about three months and I finished about 60, 65 of them, and I will continue for quite some time. Though I’m involving other people, like Scorsese, Jarmusch, John Waters, and Virginie Marchand is doing 10 iPods in India, in Bollywood. You can download on iTunes or you can go to Jonasmekas.com.
What are you looking for when you are making a film that you know is going to be projected in such a tiny way?
Something that works small. My movies in a sense, they look like they’re made for iPods. Also, they must be intense. Some will be entertaining. They will be very cheap, something like $2 to download. You can put now on an iPod, the one that I have, 1,200 hours of film. There will be iPods coming with the image that’s much larger. Instead of holding it like that, you’ll be able to turn it and the whole thing will become a screen.
It’s so great that you’re working in that medium.
Technology is always something that changes. You can not remain in the past. You’re moving ahead. Nothing is static. There are new energies. Cinema is never static, it keeps moving ahead.
A wine reception begins at 6:30 pm, with the screening of A Letter to Greenpoint and the Mekas short Williamsburg, Brooklyn starting at 7:30 pm. Mekas will be there in person. Image courtesy of the Moving Image, still from A Letter to Greenpoint.