Life can sometimes feel like a Jonas Mekas movie, especially when Mekas is there.
On a weekday afternoon, the legendary avant-garde filmmaker sat by the window of Anyway Café off Second Avenue in the East Village, across the street from Anthology Film Archives, the haven for experimental cinema he co-founded over 40 years ago. He was sipping a Russian beer and discussing his latest diary film, "Sleepless Nights Stories," when suddenly a young woman wandered into the establishment and called 911, inexplicably demanding an ambulance because she was scared to walk home. She provided no details, and the police called to the scene appeared nonplussed.
"A lot of people don’t feel safe in this city," one of the officers sighed. "What your ailment?" As she grasped for words, Mekas — inconspicuously seated in the shadows — reached for his video camera and hit the record button.
Mekas turns 89 this month and remains more active than many artists a third of his age. For years, he has maintained a legacy on New York’s independent film scene that includes his roles in launching Film Culture magazine and the nonprofit Filmmakers Cooperative. In the ’60s, he hung with Andy Warhol (providing the camerawork for Warhol’s "Empire"), Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon. But while that era ended long ago, Mekas never stopped.
"It makes me mad sometimes when interviewers ask me about Warhol or Lennon," Mekas said in the distinctive Lithuanian accent familiar to anyone who has seen his deeply personal films. "OK, so I can tell you they each had two legs. With these questions, people are trying to drag me back to the past. I have no time or interest in the past. All those people who were there were my friends and I honor them, but I’m somewhere else now."
In addition to "Sleepless," which premiered to packed screenings in Berlin earlier this year and follows his bar-hopping escapades and lively, philosophical dinner-table conversations, Mekas recently completed a piece commissioned by the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris entitled "My Paris Movie," gathered 15 years’ worth of footage for "My Mars Bar Movie" about the famed Lower East Side pub that recently shut down, and collaborated with filmmaker José Luis Guerín for "Correspondence," a record of video diaries the duo exchanged. He’s also planning to publish a second volume of his diaries, following up on 1991’s "I Had Nowhere to Go," collecting personal writings from the 1960s.
And he has a very active social life, as his films attest. In "Sleepless Nights Stories," he hangs with the likes of Marina Abramovic and Harmony Korine, not to mention experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, a longtime friend who appears in much earlier Mekas works like his seminal 1972 "Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania." In that film, Mekas revisited the community decades after fleeing it during World War II, joined by his brother and fellow filmmaker Adolfas, who died last May.
While many of the people from Mekas’ life have come and gone, he finds solace in new faces. "Most of my friends are younger," he said. "They have a certain energy. I’m bored in the company of people older than 40 or so, because in this civilization, people fall into routine." He cites Joseph Conrad’s 1917 novella "The Shadow Line" as his guide.
"Conrad writes about how, at the beginning of life, you just don’t care about anything, you just do it," Mekas says. "When the shadow line comes, you begin to look back and focus on memories. I’m only interested in life before the shadow line."
Much of that perspective comes across in Mekas’ recent diary films, shot with a handheld digital aesthetic and composed of small exchanges and ruminations. "Sleepless Nights Stories" (which opens today at Anthology for a one-week run) technically serves as a sequel to 2005’s "A Letter from Greenpoint," which tracks Mekas’ decision to move from his longtime Manhattan residence to a roomier spot in Brooklyn.
As the film closed, Mekas lamented to his camera in the middle of the night that he couldn’t sleep. "Sleepless Nights Stories" opens with that lamentation and then finds Mekas heading out to chat with friends and random acquaintances about whatever comes to mind. Abramovic bemoans a recent breakup. Mekas complains to Jacobs about an oil spill in his neighborhood. He wanders the woods telling stories of his youth in Lithuania, then cuts to another off-kilter exchange. Yoko Ono, Bjork and Patti Smith have cameos, as does Mekas’ son.
Structurally, the diarist took cues from the Arabian anthology "One Thousand and One Nights," but he had headier concerns. "I’m really continuing a discussion of what a story is," he said. "The challenge is to get to the right moment. It may not be a big moment–it could just be the unwrapping of a bottle of wine sent by a friend–but it’s like a ritual." That continual slice-of-life approach departs somewhat from Mekas’ earlier movies, including "Lithuania" and "Lost, Lost, Lost," which compiled large volumes of film from decades of accumulation. With these more recent efforts, to watch the movies is to know the man.
Mekas attributes the shift in the focus of his work to the advent of the video camera. He first started using a Sony camcorder in 1989, when he had been struggling to find the film stocks he typically used, and never looked back. "The nature of the video camera really makes you focus on the present," Mekas said. "Since I have always been a diarist filmmaker, not one who stages scenes with actors, it has always been about the present moment."
Video allowed him to shoot for longer periods of time and collect more events throughout each day. "Every tool of making moving images comes with its own world," he said. "It always opens up a different way of looking at reality."
Digital technologies have also opened Mekas’ potential to interact with fans of his work. He posts videos and news updates to his website. He’s an avid email user. "In 1962, we created the Filmmakers’ Co-op because nobody wanted to distribute our films," Mekas said. "If we had the internet in those days, we wouldn’t have needed the Co-Op."
Of course, Mekas’ praise for digital distribution has more to do with the capacity to distribute experimental film to a larger audience than any sort of profit motive. "We never made much money, anyway," he said, referring to likeminded avant garde peers like Stan Brakhage. "Now, we’re really not making money."
That assertion has a darker side. Over the last two years, Mekas has been engaged in ongoing litigation with Harry Stendhal Gallery over somewhere in the neighborhood of $650,000 worth of his artwork that the gallery has sold without paying him a dime. Among these items, 40 prints from Mekas’ "Fluxus" installation have been displayed at Cipriani in Lower Manhattan, where they were sold for $200,000. Mekas said he hopes to force Stendhal to declare bankruptcy so he can reclaim the remaining works, but has grown frustrated with the process involved in reaching that goal. "The American legal system permits the one who is accused to drag it along," he sighed. "So now this is wasting my time."
Not that he hasn’t found room to pursue other concerns. While battling for money owed, he has long been contemplating ways of raising more. Next fall, he hopes to finally make progress on long-gestating plans to expand Anthology’s architecture to include a larger library space and a café. Mekas has contemplated holding an auction of eccentric personal items he has collected over the years (including a box containing Allen Ginsberg’s beard, won in a bet) to amass the $1.2 million needed to complete the construction plans. Naturally, he doesn’t expect to raise that kind of budget from his films.
"I could never live from my filmmaking," Mekas said. "You do what you do because you want to do it, you have to do it. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy."
Speaking of crazy: The conversation reached a halt as Anytime Café’s shocked patron finally got her ambulance. A medic arrived and cast her a bored look. "She doesn’t need a hospital, she needs an insane asylum," Mekas muttered. Instinctively, he once again reached for his camera.