I Seem To Live ~Vol. 1- 1950-1969
~The New York Diaries Jonas Mekas~ with entries by Adolfas Mekas
~ book designers: Fabian Bremer, Pascal Storz ~ editor: Anne König
1000pgs. illustrated; photographs; archival footage
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.