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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
SB: Do you ever
think about money?
JM: I never
think about money.
SB: I knew you’d
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…