Jonas Mekas’s first memory of using a camera is inextricably linked with his first memory of censorship. “Two days, three days after I bought my still camera,” he tells me, “the Soviet army marched in. I was just a farmer’s son. I went to the dusty road where they were marching, tanks rolling and thought, ‘Now I will get my first picture.’ I snap. An officer, some lieutenant runs to me, grabs the camera, rips out the film, and trails it on the ground, before rubbing it in the dust with his boot. That’s how the first image I took ended up. That symbolises my times.”
Beneath his beret, the Lithuanian, dubbed the godfather of American avant-garde cinema, blinks owlishly and smiles. We are at the Serpentine Gallery in London, where an exhibition celebrating his work is one of three major retrospectives this winter to mark his 90th year. The Pompidou Centre’s season dedicated to his work began on November 30, while the British Film Institute started screening his films on December 6.
I put it to him that this annihilation of his first work may account for his almost pathological dedication to recording life around him. A life that shifted from the faultlines of a Europe buckling under war to a New York where the surge of postwar energy allowed Warhol, Dalí, the Beat poets, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and others to thrive in an atmosphere where Mekas was one of the guiding spirits.
The Serpentine’s unenviable job is to cram into its space a representative cross-section of work by a man whose filmic output now covers more than six decades – his most recent film has been made specially for this exhibition. His most famous film out of more than 30 – Birth of a Nation (1997) – covers four of those decades, his restless staccato camera movements allowing us fleeting but intimate insights into the lives of 160 representatives of the underground movement. In the exhibition, images from the film flicker out from a bank of four monitors – a presentation that suits the fragmented home movie style of his work, with its jump cuts, shifting exposure, rejection of establishing shots, variable focus, and mischievous leaps in time and location.
His style has influenced film-makers from Martin Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch, from Mike Figgis to Harmony Korine. Yet it’s also the content that has you goggling, as Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Anger, Roberto Rossellini and Andy Warhol – even a shadowy Charles Chaplin – are among those who fall briefly under the lens’s gaze before it skids on to the next image.
“A lot of them weren’t known at the time,” Mekas says. “When I first met Andy [Warhol] he was at screenings of movies in my studio sitting on the floor, Yoko Ono wasn’t well known. It was about filming friends and real life – all the meetings were very casual, very normal.”
Mekas was part of the provocative Fluxus art movement. Founded by fellow Lithuanian George Maciunas, Fluxus staged absurdist artistic happenings, among the most famous being the one where Maciunas fed hay to a piano. One of the exhibition’s most fascinating films shows Maciunas, Mekas, Ono and Lennon together at a party. I ask Mekas whether he thought that Lennon, like so many who came into the orbit of Fluxus, had the mentality of an exile because of the hatred surrounding his departure from The Beatles. “I don’t think he ever forgot where he came from,” he replies. “He felt good in New York but you could read almost in his eyes that he was somewhere else.”
Mekas, of course, is not just a filmer (he rejects the description film-maker) – it’s his work as curator, writer and artistic co-conspirator that continues to make him a vital presence in the alternative film world. He arrived in New York after years in displaced persons camps. The second evening after he and brother Adolfas were sent to the US by the UN (officially to Chicago, though they never left New York), they went to a screening of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Fall of the House of Usher. The importance of the preservation, continual discussion and showing of independent and avant-garde films has never left him.
By 1953 he was running his own screenings, in 1954 he and Adolfas launched the magazine Film Culture, by 1958 he was film critic for Village Voice, and in 1962 he was founding director of the New York Film-makers’ Co-operative, champions of avant-garde cinema. The work of his Anthology Film Archives – started in 1969 in collaboration with figures including Stan Brakhage and Jerome Hill – is celebrated at the Serpentine in the Laboratorium Anthology 2001 video.
The Serpentine’s great success, however, is that, despite the wow factor of those with whom Mekas has associated, it manages to focus on the poetry of his work. He refuses to be described as a poetic filmer. But as text extracts of his Idylls of Semeniskiai show (he is a well-respected poet in Lithuania), his love of ellipsis and talent for emotionally charged images has translated into the work he started doing when he bought his first Bolex camera. His latest film, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man – the central immersive installation – is profoundly moving. These random scenes from his life have a Proustian feel, as his children play in fields steeped in sunshine, or we look down from a plane on to the Baltic Sea.
Perhaps most haunting of all the works on display here is his 2010 World Trade Center Haikus. Here the Twin Towers appear, almost by accident, in a series of images taken over the decades, as the backdrop to a picnic, as a view from a riverboat, or, most strikingly of all, half-swallowed by cloud. “I am not recording memories, I am recording reality,” he tells me – and this sequence proves that, on top of his many achievements, Mekas remains so important to us because his voracious appetite for recording everything around him has made him the great accidental witness of our time.
‘Jonas Mekas’, Serpentine Gallery, to January 27, www.serpentinegallery.org; Mekas’s films are on show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (www.centrepompidou.fr), to January 7, and at the British Film Institute (www.bfi.org.uk) in London until December 16