Q&A with Legendary Filmmaker Jonas Mekas
Published on February 10th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells1
I recently met with legendary filmmaker Jonas Mekas. We were originally scheduled for a chat at City Winery where he and his colleagues from the Anthology Film Archives were going to be reviewing the space for several fundraising events that are going to be held during the year as the Anthology looks to improve and expand its structure and archives. Since City Winery was in full swing with a birthday party, Jonas, who was accompanied by his son Sebastian, suggested we go to an old favorite of his where “there are no laptops and but there’s grappa,” Café Dante. On our walk there, I asked Mekas, who is 88 this year and walked at an Olympian’s pace, what films he’s seen lately in theaters in which he replied “I think I may have seen one film in the theaters in the past three years. No time!”
Amongst everything going on with Mekas and the Anthology as of late (which is a lot), a rare screening of two of his finest achievements “Diaries, Notes & Sketches (Walden)” and “Reminisences of a Journey to Lithuania” will be occurring this Sunday (02/13) at the Anthology and not to be missed. Simultaneously, Museum of the Moving Image is also showing “Lost, Lost, Lost” that same day. What follows is our conversation.
So we’re a couple months into the fortieth anniversary of the Anthology Film Archives. Tell me a bit about this significance, especially for New York cinema.
In those forty years, the Anthology has established itself as one of the key showcases of alternative forms of cinema from all over the world. It also has rightly become a depository of independently produced cinema with a focus on low budget, avant-garde productions. We’ve very dedicated to the art and business of preservation of these types of films. During this time we have build a very extensive print library of over 40,000 films. The paper materials library itself is the largest in the world in terms of the vast amount of periodicals and books. We’ve never distinguished between genres, periods or countries. All have been represented in our archives. Because of this, we have become an invaluable resource for researchers, film scholars, cinephiles and the general public alike. If anything we’re now faced with a space issue to deal with the vast amount of materials under our roof. For instance, one-third of all of these materials are in boxes and not available to the general public. We’re looking to build an extension on the building in the next three or four years to accommodate this, and there’s two variations of this which were designed by the architect Raimund Abraham who died recently in a car crash in Los Angeles. One version will cost us seven million and the other, which would give us a lot more space, will cost around fifteen million. We wouldn’t move locations but rather extend vertically.
In the meantime we’re focusing on something smaller, our sidewalk, which needs work. In March we’re throwing a benefit at the City Winery to raise $120,000 because that is what will cost to fix the sidewalk. We’ve lined up a vast area of performers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and preservationists who’ll be entertaining and attending the event. This is open to the public, of course, and we encourage people to attend in support.
Interesting. Well, I’ll definitely be attending.
Tell me a bit about the online library that’s currently under development right now.
We’re in the first stage of digitizing the print library and the materials within.
How does the process work in acquiring materials for the archive? For certain short films in particular, do you request they also come as a digital format too?
Well, first we just accept them. We get a lot from estates of filmmakers, historians and writers that simply get dropped off in boxes. And many of them haven’t even been opened yet because we don’t have the space and the personnel to be able to address immediately. We recently lost one of our archivists because of costs, which is very unfortunate. We do get great support from interns who come from all over the place who do help in the indexing process which can be very slow and time-consuming nevertheless.
Have you been up to the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) after its recent reopening?
Not yet. But I’ll be there this February.
And does the Anthology and MoMI have a working relationship right now?
No, not really. We work closer with Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and other art institutions worldwide. We exchange films and paper materials with a lot of them.
With preservation, the most important issue is public awareness and support would you say?
That’s true, but frankly, it’s money since preservation is so expensive and not much is available in terms of funding. One of our biggest supporters of preservation for us is Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. And of course if you had, say, money only to preserve three or short films a year (at roughly $60,000 each), you’d have to determine out of all those thousands sitting on your shelf which few are worth bringing to the front of the line. It’s a very hard decision since so many of these films are fading. We make a point to preserve at least up to ten films a year.
And the general public – how do they fit into this?
Usually they don’t give money. For instance, Scorsese’s foundation is heavily supported by his colleagues and other filmmakers. With the public you constantly have to be on top of for support. So it’s the industry people that usually make more of an impact with supporting preservation.
You taught at many of the biggest universities in town over the years. What are some things that the film departments could be doing in regards to supporting preservation efforts?
They’re in similar situations because of a lack of funding on their end. Occasionally they will bring classes to the Anthology or work in collaboration that way. They’re quite limited as well. And a lot of the students who are training to be filmmakers ironically don’t go to the cinema as much as you’d think they would. Or, that is, be interested in the history of cinema as an art or the preservation of it.
You must be doing something right for the Anthology to be running for over forty years, yes?
I think it’s because of its historical significance as a landmark and also because we provide such a big variety that you cannot see anywhere else, especially with certain cinema from Asia and African countries. There are so few places—Film Forum, for instance—that can show these rare films and be around for so long. There is a big variety of extremes with avant-garde, classics, indie film and silent film as well as with narrative styles at the Anthology.
How’s Europe doing in their preservation processes, particularly of avant-garde cinema?
Actually there’s far less preservation happening in London, Berlin and Paris than here. The International Federation of Film Archives which is made up of over 100 countries with institutions within each being represented. I think the U.S., if I’m not mistaken, has six. So there’s some conversation exchange being made. For instance, very little is being preserved in Africa because of the climate conditions. Those countries’ archives are very poor structurally. You can keep a colored film for ten years and then it will begin to fade. If you have it vaulted with controlled humidity and temperature then its life is extended for one hundred years and beyond. In parts of Asia, until very recently no one really cared about preserving their cinema’s history, so decades and decades of materials have been lost. Same can be said of Japan which really didn’t have that much interest in preservation until the last few decades. India and Egypt also is faced with a similar situation, especially since they produce more films than the U.S.
Talking government support, what’s the U.S. government’s role in aiding preservation?
They do nothing at all.
And the Library of Congress, what’s that about?
They basically declare that this film is important – on paper. They don’t give money to the cause, so the National Registry is on paper. So it’s up to the filmmaker, or whoever has rights to the film to go and find the financial support to be able to maintain the film’s quality.
The Library of Congress should have the responsibility of making master copies of all the films that go into the National Registry. And since film stocks are dying it’s really hard if you want to project it in film as you have to make a print of it. So to make a print of a 16mm film (which I’m doing now), you have to wait in line for nearly two or three months for the lab to get film stock for you. The Library of Congress should be establishing a lab and stock production company that films could live further into this century and beyond. Because you can’t preserve and transfer to video. That doesn’t work well. And this type of mandatory support should be done in every country as it’s their duty since film is part of its cultural and biographical history.
Even on the commercial side in Hollywood, much of their own films have been destroyed because of a lack of addressing preservation, regardless of cultural significance of the whatever film that needs attention.
Very true. For instance, contemporary filmmakers like Bogdanovich or Scorsese, even some of their earliest pieces have disappeared from the public eye.
How does support look on the local government level?
In New York, there’s the Department for Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. They’re coordinators for production companies, and anything to do with the preservation process. It’s more of a tactical business office.
So making films rather than preserving is where the financial support is?
Which is quite ironic since these films will eventually be needing preservation support of their own.
Same with television. They don’t care about longevity of what they make. In around 1974-75, often times they would keep materials for around year and then destroy them. To store the materials there’s a lot of headaches and costs involved and storage is very, very expensive. I was speaking with Norman Mailer about fifteen years ago, who said his last independent film was given around 100 prints since it wasn’t so commercial. And I asked if the Anthology could get one for preservation’s sake. Turns out they destroyed all of the copies except for one and it was “somewhere.”
What about with your own films? How do you work to preserve them?
Fortunately all my films are at the Anthology where they’re in the temperature controlled vault. The negatives and masters are also maintained and getting printed to have duplicates so they can be safe for even a few more decades. I also have quite a few pieces on my site which my son Sebastian runs for me.
I know you have a new film coming up that’s debuting at the Berlinale.
Yes, I just finished it. It’s called “Sleepless Nights Stories.” It’s about twenty-five different stories. It took me a couple years to make and has both non-fiction and fiction elements to it.
What’s next after that?
I’ll be doing what I’ve been doing for decades.