Legendary American filmmaker, critic and artist Jonas Mekas was at the Toronto International Film Festival to present I Had Nowhere to Go, his collaboration with Turner Prize-winning artist and filmmaker Douglas Gordon (24 Hour Psycho, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait). We were fortunate to have a brief window to discuss the film, based upon Mekas’ diaries during World War II, with Jonas, whose influence on American cinema cannot be overstated – particularly the creation of ‘New American Cinema’ and his continued work in the exhibition and preservation of film at Anthology Film Archives. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron.
How did you and Douglas Gordon first start working together?
We have known each other for quite some time and I like what he is doing: I like his cinema, I like his films, I like his attitude – his intense interest in the possibilities of cinema. Of course, he’s not only in cinema, but has done other work in arts and recently I saw in Basel, actually, an opera that is very, very intense. He did not do the music, but he created the narrative and he directed it. It’s one of the most intense theatre experiences that I’ve been in. It’s a very intense work, the title was Bound to Hurt.
Did he approach you with the desire to this project and did you know the selections [from your book I Had Nowhere to Go] that he would use beforehand?
No, he read the book some years ago and he always had – what I’m telling you is what he told me: he read this book and as time went he kept remembering certain parts. Then two years ago he asked me to provide him with an audio version of the book. So I read the whole book, I gave him the audio version, and that is where my work on this film ends. I just provided the audio version of the book. From there he picked up himself, it’s completely his choice and what he did with it. Until I saw the film at the Locarno Film Festival I had no idea what he was doing. I was very, very, very surprised what he did: the choices, not in chronological order, the way the memory works. Memory after you read a book and think about a book, you keep jumping through it, not in chronological order, but in the way it jumps into your memory.
When you eventually saw the images, what was your reaction? I know in the film you mention that these memories are ‘retinal memories’ – they exist in your eyes, they can’t really be made.
Or in your mind. You see, it’s very real, this film is very real because what I wrote down, I wrote when it was happening during the war and during the post-war period. It was very real to me, very real when I wrote it down, and it’s me who is reading it. Then the film itself, as it’s projected, is very real. Some people say, “Oh, but there is no image.” But there is the voice and the voice is very real. To put any images, you cannot recreate that period. You would need to be Cecil B. DeMille and millions of dollars to recreate the wartime and the life of a displaced person in camps. It would be fake. Now it’s truthful, it’s real truth, it’s about what it means to be a displaced person – what it means to be a refugee, what it meant in the twentieth century and now, of course, we are going through the same. As far as the form and no images, especially for Canadians, it should not be a surprise because Canada has Michael Snow and he has done all that before. So Michael Snow introduced the film viewer already to all the formal aspects that you see in this film, there is nothing really new.
Or in Guy Debord…
Or Nam June Paik. It’s always very, very real. Not what you see in a public, commercial cinema where you constantly have to have some drama or melodrama in front of your eyes. Here sometimes you end up that you listen, you permit the voice and then you can imagine the rest.
It’s interesting how Douglas uses the images, because some of them remind me of your work – snow is a motif that comes up – but also how he’s working with the text. He’s creating images that occur before the voiceover deals with that subject matter. There’s a structure that the film has with sound and image, what was your reaction seeing that?
I have seen the film only once before, so I have to see it more myself to see the more subtle aspects that you don’t notice the first screening. It’s more complex than one would immediately think. Whatever images he’s using in the film – and there are very, very, very few – it’s his own interpretation. It’s not the images maybe that I would use. It’s also his film, it’s about my life, but also what he feels reading the book and thinking about maybe that period. It’s me, but also Douglas. The film is also Douglas Gordon. Of course, I wouldn’t make it, it’s not my film, it’s his film.
You tend to mention the importance of the present for you and capturing the present, being present in the present, and this film is Douglas pushing back into a period that you don’t use that much in your own work. What was that experience like for you, given your 365 Day project and interest in the present?
When I was reading some of it and being completely somewhere else, sometimes I felt that there was some humour there. I had an aptitude – I was looking at it from a completely different angle from where I am now, looking at the past from now. You know, it’s a different perspective. So some of my concerns during that period there, when it was all happening, now from a distance of sixty years or more, looked sometimes almost funny.
I found it interesting that it ended with the accordion, which is something that comes up in your own work and you discuss the Lithuanian folk songs. You call them ‘sad folk songs’.
Yeah, he brought in some from where I come from, because you cannot uproot – it goes through different stages, but the past, the origins of where you come from remain somewhere in subtle ways. In a way, they affect and determine your actions. The childhood came in through music, bits of music and songs, yes.
You’ve said that these songs are sad, but when you sing or engage with them, you feel happy.
Sadness is an essential part of human existence, even when you’re most happy and joyful, I think that some sadness of some humans on this planet hurt. That goes, of course, to all the religions of history: who are we, where do we come from, where are we going to… If there is no feeling of sadness, it’s a little bit fake, it’s not real. Sadness is an essential part of human experience, yes. Essential sadness, not weeping or depression, it has nothing to do with that. It’s the sadness that has some zen in it… transcendental sadness that is part of who we are.
I wrote down some folk lyrics that appear in As I Was Moving Ahead [Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty], where there’s a song that says, “I do not know where I am going to and going from” and that reminded me of the title. That seems to be a zen-like belief, an acceptance of not knowing.
Yes, that’s a reality. I am telling now, when people ask “where are you?” or “what’s it all about?” that you have to read Jakub Berman, the seventeenth century shoemaker/philosopher/mystic [laughs] to understand, it gives all the answers to humanity. I have been re-reading Jakub Berman. He’s not very well known, but I think everybody should read him today. A German shoemaker, but one of the most influential mystics of humanity.
What did you think when you first heard the sound design of the film?
It’s me listening to me, but also when it’s projected there in the auditorium, when you hear it there, it’s me and not me. It’s not me when I’m just talking. Also, when I was seventeen in my early period, I was studying theatre, so reading to me is also not reading for myself, but also for others. It’s my text, I’m reading it and remembering as I’m reading, but I’m reading also… not exactly for others, reading and thinking comes from the text itself. It’s like I’m making something in itself and it’s already not-exactly-me anymore. When I’m listening to the film, it’s me and not me, because when I was reading I was creating with that text already something else. When I was reading, it was me who was reading, but also not me. Like an actor on stage, you know, you are also a character in the play, you are somebody else. When I was reading, I was already somebody else. So when I’m watching the film and hearing myself, I’m interested.
It’s interesting that Douglas changes the sound of the audio at certain points, it sounds like you’re speaking through a different mic…
Yes, some may have come from… the recording took me many days, many stops and starts, it took 30-40 hours of reading. Some of the difference in voice and volume may have come from there, but he had complete control of the materials, yes.
I know you’ve talked about digital as invisible technology because you don’t see the process, just the results…
Yeah, the same with film, the audience does not see your editing room, the labs in which the print was made, you just see what’s on the screen. The difference is in the energy, the film when you project it, film on the screen, and the light bounces on screens that are specially made to absorb and bounce the light. It’s a different energy and video is completely something else.
What did you think about this film having different filming formats? It’s a digital presentation, but he’s shooting on…
That’s very normal. We had that in the plastic arts. We had that in painting, it depends what substances are used to put colour on those canvases. Is it watercolor? Is it oil or ground stones or whatever inks and pencils? It determines what the effect is and how it works. Also, the sizes of canvases or on paper or whatever else it is… now because of all kinds of chemically produced substances. That variety we have in other arts, in cinema and moving images we don’t yet have, it’s just the beginning of that variety and there will be more. I accept it as very normal, I don’t say that, “Oh, now that there’s no more film, the art of moving images is dead.” No, that’s nonsense. It would be like accepting oil painting and dismissing all the other varieties of art. I think proliferation will continue and it will be part of the richness of the moving images. I think what Douglas did, which is also in the form, what you do on that screen and how you manipulate sounds and images and the screen itself – the light itself – those are the dictionary you pick up. There are many different possibilities that you can do and that’s what makes it so exciting.
When you saw it in Locarno, did you feel any synesthesia? It seemed to me through the sound, especially with the shots of food, there are different senses being triggered at once, but they’re rearranged in an interesting way – a deliberately confusing way.
Usually when you see a movie, you don’t think of the sound. You know that the image is there, but you don’t even remember the sound. Here, it’s there, you cannot ignore it. There is much in what is being said in the intonation – the colour of the voice, the voice itself – that comes through in this film. I’m reacting to what I’m reading, remembering as I’m reading. And that’s where the problem will be for this film when it’s shown, let’s say, in Brazil or Afghanistan, where they won’t understand the language. It’s like me listening to some of the rock music. I never get the lyrics, I have no idea what the lyrics are, but you get it from the tone, from the voice. All those singers, to me, until I listen many times – Dylan sometimes is very clear in his lyrics, but sometimes even Bob Dylan isn’t exactly… you hear one thing and you find out later that’s not what he was saying. Even in Afghanistan or Japan, they won’t understand what I’m saying, I wonder really what the affective reaction will be, I’m curious. A lot will come through the voice, the colour of the voice.
What are you working on right now, do you have any projects on the go currently?
I keep up working with my website, little pieces occasionally, but I make a lot prints from the images of my films. I pull out some frames and produce a series of prints. This year, last year and the coming year will be a lot of… this year I have four books coming out, two have already come out. There’s the Scrapbook of the Sixties, that’s my writings about other arts, not cinema. Then the Columbia University Press brought a new edition of Movie Journal. There’s a book of conversations with filmmakers that will be coming out and book of memories and anecdotes from the sixties and seventies that will come out by the end of the year. I have also finished a huge, huge volume of my diaries. The book I Had Nowhere to Go was published twenty years ago and covers from the day I left Lithuania and ending 1953 in New York. I finished now all my diaries beginning in 1953 to the year 2000. Huge, like 1500 pages with a lot of illustrations. I have written so much that now I’m just putting it all together. I don’t have to write any more, I just organize what I have written already and bring out volume after volume.