A Conversation between Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage


The following conversation took place at Anthology Film Archives, in New York, on November 3rd 2000. It was originally recorded for Vogue Magazine, only a small portion of the conversation was actually published in the magazine. We present here a more substantive extract from a conversation between two of the most eminent figures in avant garde cinema.


Jonas Mekas: Here you are, Stan Brakhage, whom not only for me, but for most of those who write serious film criticism, or make movies, considered as possibly the number-one living filmmaker, both in the importance of the body of your work and in your influence on other filmmakers.

Stan Brakhage: And here is what you are to me: in addition to being a great filmmaker who has forged ahead in an area where you are practically unique, that is, the diary, journal film, you are the only one who has created a believable, meaningful, extended journal across most of your adult life. In addition to this, you have found a way to sponsor films that you love and to create cooperatives through which they can be distributed; to create Anthology Film Archives so that they could be preserved and shown in a repertoire and continue today to be certainly the only place for what we want to call Poetic Film. So, you have not only done these two things, but you also have this rich life as a poet. Not knowing Lithuanian, I can just read the English translations of your work, which are very moving to me. I don’t know how you keep all this going.

JM: We both have been in it all for fifty years now. You have been making films since 1953. And me, in the Spring of 1953 I moved to the Lower East Side of New York and opened my first showcase for the avant garde films at the Gallery East. I showed Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Maya Deren, and Sidney Peterson. So you see, I didn’t move very far.

SB: Well, the man who really gets something done is the one who can stay at home. Of course, ironically, you are an exile, exiled from your home [Jonas Mekas was born in Lithuania and emigrated to the United States shortly after World War Two].

JM: We lived in a century where for maybe half the world it was made impossible to remain at home. So now, I often say that cinema is my home. I used to say culture was my home. But it got a little bit confused. Nobody knows what culture is anymore. So I stick to cinema.

SB: That’s where you and I first got into trouble, with what culture was, and art. I was so frightened the social concerns of the sixties would overwhelm the long-range aesthetic possibilities, as I viewed them. As I look back on it now, I think that you were largely right, that I needn’t have been afraid for the arts in the ways in which I was. Let’s say, many of the films that came out were very stupid from a standpoint of art, or aesthetics or even craftsmanship. Still, they were crucial to the moment.

JM: When we celebrated Anthology Film Archives 30th anniversary, I got together with Ken Kelman and P. Adams Sitney and we talked about the creation of the Essential Cinema Repertory, which consisted of some 330 titles of very carefully selected films that we felt indicated the perimeters of the art of cinema. We came to the conclusion that we did not make any bad mistakes in our choices. I discovered that what I showed, what I promoted, all ended up in the Essential Cinema Repertory, the films that are now considered the classics of the sixties. There were, of course, some that did not become classics. Important works are always surrounded by some that are not that important, but as time goes they fall off. In a sense, it’s like Darwin’s law applied to the arts. Not the biggest, but the most essential survive.

SB: I was afraid the lesser works would sink the ship.

JM: They just evaporate. Your work, or that of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and Michael Snow, they just keep growing.

SB: But I also wonder if that doesn’t have more to do with what you provided.

JM: What came up during my conversation with P. Adams Sitney, was that what’s lacking today is serious or passionate writing on the contemporary avant garde film. That, of course, was my function in the Village Voice, via my column Movie Journal.

SB: I don’t know any. Is there any aesthetician or critic or any kind that regularly deals with the Poetic Cinema in the entire North American continent?

JM: There are many alternative newspapers and monthlies, but none of them cover the Poetic Cinema, They are all writing about Hollywood-kind of the film.

SB: That’s also pretty much true now for poetry, architecture, or some of the performance arts: there is no regularity of coverage.

JM: You walk into a newspaper store and you see twenty, thirty magazines on art, but inside you see nothing but advertisements.

SB: In defense of myself, one of the ways I got most laughed at, in the sixties and seventies, was when I tried to defend the word art. I finally had to give it up because it was taken away by everybody and applied to every kind of consideration. It ceased to be a meaningful word.

JM: I read a survey conducted by Peter Moore, who had a column in Popular Photography magazine in the mid-60s, where people were asked whether they felt they were artists. Six million people said they felt they were artists. Of course, when you have six million artists in one country, then you give up using the word art.

SB: Pretty soon, someone said, half the American nation will be teaching art to the other half.

JM: Some terms get so overused that you have to forget about them for a while until time cleans them up.

SB: We have other words that have suffered from this, words like “love,” “God,” “evil.” So I would say that it isn’t just film that suffered from these difficulties. All the arts, what we traditionally call the arts, have suffered from this breakdown of terminology, this lack of serious critique. Here is a discipline far older than any other we know of human beings, but when it’s taught in public schools, in fact in colleges, it’s taught as a playground for finger painting and for expressing yourself.

JM: I would like to bring something else up. When you began making films in the early fifties, and when I turned to cinema, around the same time, there were several other very important developments in the arts – action painting, the improvisational theater of Strasberg, the Happenings theatre, conceptual art, Fluxus, and video art – and it all somehow produced a thing called installation art, which has developed and grown. Now that installation art has swallowed video, film, sculpture, painting, and everything else, I meet more and more young people who are interested in returning to the very basis of their arts. At some point you have to go back to the very essence: what is really music, painting, cinema, poetry, etc.

SB: Remember, when we were choosing the name Anthology Film Archives, we thought that there should not be the article “the”, because we thought there will be other anthologies and that they would contradict our Essential Cinema list and that would set up a dialogue.

JM: No, that did not happen. We were the only ones who were crazy. Same as when Andy Warhol was making his film portraits. I thought and I wrote in the Village Voice, that the time will come when everybody will be making film portraits, because it’s so easy. Nobody imitated Andy. They cannot imitate Warhol, or Dreyer, or you. All those things happen only once, and that’s the beauty of it

SB: That’s also the great truth. I have come to an age when I mostly say “I don’t know.” That’s what passes for wisdom. Some few things I do know. One thing I know is that there’s no two people on Earth alike; all their cells are as unique as snowflakes.

JM: But the interesting thing is, that despite the fact that every snowflake has its own shape, beyond the shape there is water. Somewhere they all meet, somewhere we all meet. When people call me an independent, I usually say, no, I depend on many things, my friends, my past, what I read, all the poets.

SB: Gertrude Stein said there are those who are independent dependents, and those who dependent independents.

JM: Now I want to talk to you, dear readers. Nobody else will ever do what Stan Brakhage, or Ken Jacobs, or Kenneth Anger are doing. So we better love them, help them, and take care of them. These are such unique achievements of the human spirit, like fragments of paradise on earth.

SB: This is really that side of you that could not stand to see what you cared for and loved and respected just scuffled aside; that you deeply felt you needed to speak for them and save and preserve them.

JM: I think it’s a very unfortunate mistake to think that what the avant garde filmmakers are doing is something very far out and not for the everyday. People seem to think that our lives, or the strangeness of our lives may be of some interest, but not our work. But I think the work is universal, because poetry is universal. There is no difference between reading a volume of Sylvia Plath and seeing a film by Stan Brakhage. I wonder where ideas that Poetic Cinema is more difficult to appreciate come from. In schools Faulkner and Olson are taught in the same classes. In literature the kind of separation that is made in cinema does not exist.

SB: There is a kind of professor that knows that is he or she books Hollywood movies only, that they will be popular. They will have huge classes and secure their tenure… Whatever it is, I still continue. I am mostly painting on film now and it takes time to make twenty-four individual frames for every second, but that is really all I can afford. I can afford only a few photographed films.

JM: My own diaristic style came very much from that fact that I had no time and money to make a scripted, “conventional” film. So instead of making films I just filmed. I sometimes joke, I say I am not really a filmmaker; I am only a filmer. I film real life. I never know what will come next. The shape of my films emerges from the accumulation of the material itself. I go through my life with my Bolex camera. Here is a question for you. Let’s take a film you did in Canada, The God of Day Looked Down Upon Him. Did you see its shape in your mind when you began it, or did that shape developed as you went along?

SB: I knew from the beginning it was the third part of a trilogy. The title comes from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. This was the first summer we went back to this place on Vancouver Island where my wife was raised. I still was hairless because of the chemotherapy; I had come very close to death. So I was in the mood to see that ocean in relationship to the end, or to the night, or to the darkness. My head was filled with things like Rothko’s old age paintings, like the Houston Chapel. That Chapel saved my sanity. Also Braque, the old age Braque, the real brown period, with the wooden plow. I felt old like that, I had expected to die, and I still expect to die any moment.

JM: I just wanted to know for myself, if you had any idea, feeling of the shape before you began filming it. To make a film, a filmmaker is one who already at the beginning sees its shape more or less. But I never have that. I am just a filmer, because it’s life. I don’t know what the next moment will bring, and when I will want to film.

SB: But you’re such a stylist. You know that it all hangs together. I called you the Samuel Pepys of film because you’re a stylist in that sense.

JM: Yes, but the style and the techniques come from the content, from this procedure. I am dealing with real life from moment to moment and instantaneously.

SB: Do you ever think about money?

JM: I never think about money.

SB: I knew you’d say that.

JM: There is a space next to Anthology Film Archives where we are going to build a library for the largest collection of written material on avant-garde/independent cinema. It will cost $3.5 million. I know the library will be built. All it takes is to believe in it, and work, work, work…