“Immigrants to America do not ‘adjust’ to America, They rather resign to it. They live in a state of resignation.” Jonas quotes Eduoard de Laurent’s as he records the realities of his and Jonas’ new life in America. Jonas chronicles ironies, hypocrisies, dangers and triumphs as he and Adolfas were creating New York’s avant-garde film world, that eventually went international.
~Previously on ‘I Seem To Live’
– Underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas lands at Rikers’ on obscenity charges for screening Flaming Creatures, establishes the New American Cinema Co-op, the nexus for dozens of underground filmmakers~ & more movie mayhem with Salvatore Dali, Orson Welles & but still lives on coffee & starves as he establishes the most cutting edge filmmakers of the 60s Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Shirley Clarke, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Robert Frank, et. al.
~~upcoming in Part2 of Jonas’ diary~ A Song for Avila, St. Theresa ‘s roses on Time Sq. Roberto Rossellini, taking on the cops’ payoffs, film ‘Diaries’, the Warhol shooting, the birth of Wooster St. Cinematheque, Jonas’ j’accuse to the international festivals Jacqueline Kennedy’s favorite film~ Jonas Mekas’ Walden II.
Ostensibly a diary of filmmaker, film journalist Jonas Mekas ‘I Seem To Live’ a philosophical & artistic survival guide of a Lithuanian immigrant, a stranger in the strange land of New York City, were he careened from assimilation to self-alienated, observed, started an arts movement and completely assimilated. Part immigrant memoir, part art treatise, part philosophical manifesto of the arts vs. the world of commerce, politics and American culture.
Adolfas was back from the service and part of Jonas cast and crew for his movie Guns in the Trees, shooting on location in Manhattan, the New York countryside and New Jersey, encountering law enforcement, starvation, constant harassment by police in the city and in rural areas, for shooting without permits or on private property. Mekas’ film was re-released in New York in 2019 with a positive re-review in the New York Times.
He was also on the set of artist Robert Frank’s legendary avant-garde film ‘Pull Your Daisy’ written and narrated by Jack Kerouac. Mekas has unannounced poetry entrees including the brilliant poetic portrait of Peter Orlofsky. (there is film of Orlofsky dancing with Nico at a VU performance with Jonas looking on has surfaced on YouTube).
Mekas may not bore his compatriots on the state of the film arts, but he records all his commentary throughout his dairies, he is, in retrospect among the most adroit observers of both commercial films in the US and the serious filmmakers and the entire post-WWII auteurs in Europe/
By the mid-60s Mekas was still running the Cooperative, planning the Cinemateque on Wooster St. Raising money and networking for some 30 filmmakers, packaging the film ‘Expositions’ and getting them on the international film festival circuit, and still writing & editing Film Culture.
Mekas was not only major presence in the New American Cinema, he was becoming disenchanted by the whole subculture. He had to remind the most successful directors – Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger that they were part of the collective and should not put themselves forward as representative of NAC ourvre.
Mekas was starting to be resentful of being prevented from making his own film because he was so preoccupied with the constant demands of FC, NAC and running the Coop.
Still out of money to the point that he had to remind people that while he was working to get money for their productions, he was weak from not having enough money for food. Still, he reports in diary, that “His colleagues who knew how he lived, treated me like I was independently wealthy.”
And Jonas was presenting Warhol’s early movies that were playing with every perception and satirical implications of ‘underground’ film. Jonas recognized that they were part of Warhol’s art revolution and living underground culture documented in ‘My Hustler’ ‘Naked Restaurant’ and Chelsea Girls. Mekas also was involved with events with the Velvet Underground and hosted their first public performance at a convention of the American Psychiatric Association.
Jonas presented what ended up being ‘A happening’ at the Coop with Gato Barbieri’s quartet performing and Warhol’s gang, rockers, poets, literati, jazz luminaries and coffeehouse denizens.
Meanwhile, he was also on the scene in Europe. In London an independent film organization was forming and reaching out to Jonas to advise and collaborate as they got established. He was more involved with the international festival circuit. Despite complaining about being kept from making his own films as he tried to organize the co-op
He was honest with everyone around him, yet still carried everything on his shoulders to keep the underground film production, distribution expanding. He never abandoned artists he respected even if he knew they were taking advantage of his time, influence and not contributing in the spirit of the co-op.
Of the avant-garde filmmakers who were being seduced by making it big, he was just as wary. He saw the hubris of redundancies of so called ‘underground’ films. The pitfalls of being outrageous for outrageous same. Meanwhile, he rejected any notions of censorship as nothing more than.
He was busier than ever. Only managing to schedule an hour or two a day to write and film his own projects. He had convictions and integrity and passion for the art form as being by design experimental, socially relevant and anti-Hollywood.
What he admired about Hollywood were the cinematographers, actors, writers and directors who realized their vision despite the studios. His admiration extended to such film heavyweights as Howard Hawks, Hitchcock and Welles. But mostly dismisses Hollywood as products of commercialism and trended public taste.
Jonas also is harsh to European cinemas, especially film festivals criterea for prize winners. He participated in festivals under certain conditions that supported the filmmakers. He was invited to be on festivals juries, which he turned down on principal, because judging ‘best’ films was not just absurd to him, but designed for exploitation.
Even as he was a revered film journalist for Village Voice, he was venomous to film ‘critics’ specifically and in general questioned the whole journalistic field as irrelevant to the understanding of the art of cinema. Meanwhile, he continued to work on his film projects. He was in demand internationally as a lecturer on film arts and NAC initiatives and expositions.
Jonas applied for and was awarded a $40,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to (he lobbied for $55,000) for the purchase and renovation of was to be the Wooster St. Cinematheque, that would be a film center that would not only preserve and present NAC and avant-garde films properly, but would not be subject to any industry rules. It would be a nexus for The Film Culture community and Coop operations.
After a year renovations on the two floors the Cinematheque would occupy, the city kept closing it down for minor violations, but the real reason was that Mekas refused to pay L & I officers payoffs. Mekas even filmed them making their shakedowns, but the fix was in with judges, officers and city cronies.
As fines and shutdowns mounted up Mekas wrote of the Kafka-eque situations and some of his most beautifully poetic passages (as well as rage against the machine) fill these pages.
Jonas continued work on “My New York (or American) Testament with his later films “Walden II” “Diary” and “A Song for Avila” which he describes so movingly in his diaries. However distracted by his pioneering efforts for vanguard film arts and on behalf of the Coop’s roster of filmmakers, Jonas proved he had as much say artistically, and vitally always challenged himself not to become what he despised in the film industry, whether it was out of Hollywood product created by producers or if it was an equally exploitive arthouse film.
Jonas as a Lithuanian refugee poet and now in print is his epic prose poem is finally in ‘I Seem To Live.’
^morepoetryfromthenightssincewe’relockedin&Aprilispoetry& jazz month~
Right Before I met Vincent
or the unBeatbeating
“the room was full of drunk poets and I don’t know what. (fr. Jonas Mekas NYdiary1958)
then Right before I met Vincent in 1959 the year Billie Holiday diedwhose last performance I attended and whose life and death hangs me out still. I lean against the outcry mourning the death of jazz singing Pissed off and absurd we of the Mercury lounge reading. I hate NY readings when it turns into a bloodsport.
but we swigged it outJacko was there and gCorso,and Allen, of course, Burroughs (who invitedme) They were with me onthat stage back to front 7:30Read read readby 7:40 (what is that line in AllAboutEve)about there being a ‘MacBethish air.’
7:45, my body, my heart, my flask.
TJean, my luv
was past soused/Corsosososo, & Gerald was doing the Malanga frug offstage & still
reciting his poetry all night long,
Gerald had the best beats
though everyone was too smashed to really drink it in
except Allen diagonally there was always there was Allenbreathing heavy presided over the fallout
was the voice of wetbrain sobriety&
Leroi knew when to exit
a Columbia celebrawl
div>some even took it as livingdead theater
more like a pissing match
yep, it got ugly loving each other’s work
of loving each others work we took off our dukes and found out that we hated each other after all.
I was called a fouffyfaggotrepeatedl by some hidden
voice & of course Allen kept laughing
he lives for stuff like that.
Hardly a put down, he was penciling
in the holes for Howl
aumaumaum, those Beats
They really can be crashing bores
not to mention act like a bunch of pimpless whores Kerouac yells to me“You’re ruining American
Poetry O’Hara”and I yell back“That’s more than you fuckin’ ever did for it.”So TiJean love, I’m not going to Frisco…I’m staying here
It’s going to be a bubonic plague of a summer
To say that I hate everybody almost
as much as I hate myself would
be dramaqueeny. then John said fuck off you poseur I stumbled over Allen’s potsandals
then dropped my shot and attempted an escape Gerald kept frugging as Edie looked on
then I met Vincent there swaying on the sweaty threshold he asked me to dance, and so anyway
Before the rain Tore off some baleful heart in private pictures Of sordid songs beat chroma in alley footfalls other shadows that quit the sounds in the stolen cornet A dreamer’s dream of lost memories In abandon hotels hand on that shattered note
clutching cold promises night sweats in whispers through a calypso coma
Driving red ’55 Alfa
your blonde hair &
silver scarf catching wind tide against my neck & you made me sing ‘Where or When’ & you cradle my horn/like it was our boy in your arms & laugh
& you dangle your foot out the window to feel your arch to the wind, while my
toes curl around the gas petal
that day somehow became nothing/
yes, I pissed you off bad
/over the fucking moon bad
and so, goodbye
You can’t chase him down in that torn door To that empty hall that lullaby street our condemned psalm of sexless escape shadow in shadow bleu let the puddles bust open onto that pocked room Lapel against the mangled collar Clinging to fevered hair. Then he shoots the stars into that vanquished nirvana
pictures of godless eyes Of mercury wings On the wounded heart Crouched over blue scorched notes Ash, smack, whiskey, burn, whiskey, more
This place is full of drunk poets and I don’t know what.” underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas writes in a 1958 journal entry, And those poets he was drinking with would include Kerouac, Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Buraka), & Peter Orlovsky. It is just one of Mekas’ prose snapshots in the first publication “I Seem To Live: Vol. 1 – 1950-1969, his sprawling 1000+ pg. diary that is a sprawling epic prose verite of underground and bohemian New York City.
Jonas died in January 2019 at the age of 96, so it is particularly poignant that Spector Books published this important record of an underappreciated Lithuanian-American artistic visionary at a pivotal time.
The publication of ‘I Seem to Live’ coincides with the recent screenings of the Mekas brother’s landmark film ‘Guns of the Trees,’ which along with Robert Frank/’Jack Kerouac’s ‘Pull My Daisy,’ John Cassavettes’ ‘Shadows’, Gregory Markopoulos’ ‘Serenity’ and Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’, however unheralded, represented a pivotal revolution in American films as they reflected sociopolitical movements ignored by the Hollywood studios system, which were becoming not only cultural irrelevant, but crumbling under their own excesses.
‘I Seem To Live’ is Mekas’s manifesto to all artists, indeed a survivor’s guide for all artists to overcome all obstacles not only to produce creative work but, in this case, a warrior like pursuit in the name of free artistic expression.
A poet himself Jonas he has been called by cine-files the “godfather of avant-garde cinema” in the US. With his brother Adolfas they wrote and published Film Culture magazine, established the New American Cinema (NAC) and Mekas’ Coop, the artist co-op (Coop) he ran out of his apartment which became a locus for poets, musicians, filmmakers, & other visual artists. Crucially, as busy (& stoney broke) as Jonas always was during this period in New York, he was part of the international network of filmmakers including that included the cinematic zeitgeist coming of Europe.
war, survival & artistic refugee
Jonas and his younger brother Adolfas fled Lithuania when the Soviets seized the country back from the Nazis after WWII. The brothers were interred in forced labor and DP (displaced persons) camps at the end of the war. They were on one of the last boats of the camps that sailed to America in 1949.
The brothers moved to Brooklyn, and considered themselves DPs in NY and at tried to make their way and careers in a new country. They were intellectuals, and had interests in photography and film but meanwhile they had to immediately get jobs. Adolfas enlisted and was back in Europe fighting. Jonas found temporary jobs through the immigration placement service, eventually getting a job in a print shop.
Ostensibly a diary of filmmaker, film journalist Jonas Mekas ‘I Seem To Live’ is also a philosophical survival guide of a Lithuanian immigrant, a stranger in the strange land of New York City, trying to create an underground film movement in a money-driven business.
Jonas may have been a rebel filmmaker, and all the while a classic compulsive diarist. In fact, among the best in the form. Put him in the class with Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, Ned Rorem, and Serge Prokofiev (yes, I’ve read them all), & a few others.
The rhythms of his daily writing are journalistic, poetic, stream – of –consciousness with all the vigor of a consummate journalist and an inspired poet. He documents the immigrant experience in during the 50s & 60s, a defining time culturally, socially and certainly in film arts as the studios busted up and international and independent cinema was part of an art revolution in New York.
The hefty volume is peppered with photos, letters, illustrations, government papers, newspaper clippings (several on artists who were dragged before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings) of Mekas and his expansive world of artists, writers and film luminaries from rebel directors Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures) and gay filmmaker Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising) to Hollywood titans like Orson Welles. Jonas also guided Andy Warhol on his first experimental films and abstract artist Yoko Ono.
Their masthead Film Culture Magazine was launched with a roster of professional writers including Andrew Sarris, Edouard de Laurent, Arlene Croce, Eugene Archer, Peter Bogdanovich and George Fenin the dedicated staff of the first issue of the magazine, meanwhile so desperate for money that they eventually made a loan from Lutheran monks in New York, and were eventually sued by the order for non-payment of the loan (they eventually paid the monks back.
After Adolfas’ US military service, the brothers moved to from Brooklyn to Manhattan and were immersed in international cinema. They founded Film Culture Magazine, and brought together filmmakers, writers, cinematographers hosting lectures at the 92 St. Y and makes-shift locales. , Meanwhile they were trying to make their own experimental films, revolutionize how films could be made independently. They were in constant debt, but kept writing, filming, borrowing and occasionally stealing, under whatever the dire circumstances to keep working at it.
Meanwhile, Jonas was writing everything down about their trials of starting a magazine and codifying an independent film community in New York. Living day to day, hand to mouth.
Edouard de Laurent “Immigrants to America do not ‘adjust’ to America, They rather resign to it. They live in a state of resignation.”
Part immigrant memoir, part art treatise, part philosophical manifesto of the arts vs. the world of commerce, politics and American culture. Mekas quotes Emerson, and in and also writes of the urban wilderness from his outsider point of view.
Equally admiring and damning of American culture. Recognizing from the start the possibilities of a vivid social experiment of a melting pot of cultures in New York, but also very aware of racism, sexism, poverty and the failures of the federal government to treat citizens equally. And the rabid anti-intellectual era of the 50s that McCarthy and his cronies targeted socialists, communists, gays, artists and anybody HUAC tagged as subversive.
He is constantly discussing the state of the arts in the US, and is a sharp observer of both commercial films in the US and the serious filmmakers and the entire post-WWII auteurs in Europe.
You would think that there would also be a record of Jonas’ personal life and relationship, and there are scant entries and not in detail, but you get the general sense that he had an active romantic life.
Adolfas was back from the service and part of Jonas cast and crew for his movie Guns of the Trees, shooting on location in Manhattan, the New York countryside and New Jersey, encountering law enforcement, starvation, constant harassment by police in the city and in rural areas, for shooting without permits or on private property.
send in the cows
They rolled with the punches and often kept the camera rolling even as the cops gave them shakedowns & gun wielding farmers. Mekas and rag-tag production crew soldiered on when their money ran out, their cars broke down (fortunately Adolfas was a good mechanic. They ran out of film all the time, they had to borrow Movieolas to edit their own films.
There are hilarious mishaps while shooting all of which Jonas chronicles in his diary. They had permission to film on a cow farm and the cows continued to stampede away, and at one point they ended up hiding in the woods, when they were located, the actors had disappeared.
end of part 1– upcoming in part two – Jonas lands at Rikers’ on obscenity charges, was with Andy the night Andy he got shot, & more movie mayhem with Salvatore Dali & other legendary artists and more about his social activism during the turbulent 60s. & for dance historians Jonas was on the scene at Judson Church for the pioneering work of postmodern dancer-choreographers Anna Sokolow & Erick Hawkins, et. al.
Editor Anne König notes in her afterward that Vol. 2 of ‘I Seem To Live’ covering the Mekas brothers from the 70s to 2011, that there will be an index. Konig also explains that just two years before his dead, Jonas worked with translators and transcriptions of his hand-written text and assembling some 2,000 pages of text that constitute his diary scanning 60 years.
the hours echoing or enfolding quietly, lighted in children’s weather remembering what surreal brilliance was gone by elsewhere forgotten
a terminal luster on a missed eclipse of forecasts, unapocalyptic As a test of secular faith As a wire that all is forgiven in flight or forgotten by the promontory of water and shadow sometimes liquid
silhouetted swept back in a hollow tide
(the scribbles of the dooms are for selfcursed minds)
wouldn’t imagine lilac would dance out through the breeze in quite this way. so precisely free or that there would be that suspension of venal clarity that is only told in the buried rock I thought all there was to do to survive was vanquished by the fight that made us breathe,
and not condemned I recall the nights’
infinite silences before the resolutions of Bach’s notes
Are you quiet
Are you quiet
To get by
Have you made me
An all gods
Dead or alive
or a lyre
That keeps us safe
Leads me inside
to stumble into Paris
liberate me over
The fields of the dead
Are you with me
Are you with me
This time as you were before
Where we didn’t leave that
bombed villa for two weeks
Before we were both starving
In the woods
Are we quiet enough
Running along this rivers
of the dead vanished but hearing
the whispers of the dead
I know you don’t want
To hear me
Because you think you can
Save us another way But you did come to me in…
beats to 16ths damnation fragments recline Deep in another dream
visions of Mercury’s flight to Delos That burnout like a silent horror movie
but on this afternoon we lay around waiting for some guests who said they might arrive,
but have no intention of letting them in
let us escape now
He is of Lustrous Emotions O negative to my Oe’er negative most campy vampirique inked my body, then I thought the light in his body is the neural charge the eternal flame & afterburn together composer=architect=composer dreamers’dreamer dream
later Keeping them out slugging a bottle ‘52 Chateau Margaux rabid laughing drunks in our madrigals shadows disappear on torsos the dignity…