A sound-based portrait of 93-year-old filmmaker and writer Jonas Mekas’ life in exile
Weronika Trojańska 19/12/2016
“I said to my soul, be still, and let dark come upon you Which shall be the darkness of God”
T.S. Eliot, East Coker (No. 2 of “Four Quartets”)
When Soviet tanks thundered into the Lithuanian village of Semeniškiai in 1940, Jonas Mekas, hidden behind a wall, began to record them with his camera. After a while, a Russian soldier came over to him and confiscated the film. Mekas was seventeen years old. He has never seen this first footage of his. When Scottish artist Douglas Gordon was the same age, he applied for a creative writing course. His teacher asked him what he thinks, at seventeen years of age, is the most important thing in becoming a good writer. “To continue reading?” Gordon answered. “OK, just go to art school and continue reading,” the teacher responded, and that is how Gordon became an artist who works closely with words and literature.
Three years later, in 1991, Jonas Mekas, already an internationally renowned avant-garde filmmaker and artist known for his independent films, published his memoir, “I Had Nowhere To Go”. At almost 500 pages, the book (distributed by Black Thistle Press) is an intimate account of the life of a young boy who must live in an oppressed country and various Nazi camps until he is finally able to reach the American continent. This often painful, diaristic record of a Displaced Person, however, does not lack a frolicsome sense of humor. Although very personal, the book conceals a much more universal story: “that of the emigrant who can never go back, and whose solitariness in the New World is emblematic of the human condition; (…). This is a lyrical, essential spiritual anthropology”, wrote American critic Philip Lopate in his review of Mekas’ book.
Jonas Mekas made his first autobiographical film at the age of 46, and from then on, he committed his filmmaking to this very subject. In 1972, when he was 50 years old, he completed the three-part “Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania”, which starts with an etude featuring Jonas’ and his brother Adolfas’ first years as immigrants in New York. Then the scene jumps to the year 1971, and to the Lithuanian village where Mekas was born; eventually, the last part of the film takes the viewer to the labor camp in the suburbs of Hamburg where the brothers spent almost a year during the war. “I talk during much of the film, reminiscing about this and that. Mostly it's about myself, as a Displaced Person, my relation to home, Memory, Culture, Up-rootedness, Childhood. There are a few Lithuanian songs,” wrote the artist.
Douglas Gordon often works with the disruption of perception, and he makes his audience aware of the transience of subjectivity and the meanings of things. At the age of 50, Gordon – a recipient of the Turner Prize (1996) and known for his 24-hour-version of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” – released the film “I Had Nowhere To Go”. The 97-minute-long film brings Mekas’ personal prose to the big screen, and has already been shown at film festivals in Locarno, London (at Tate Modern), Toronto (TIFF), and most recently, in New York City (NYFF).
When the film starts, there is only a black screen. People often begin to comment that there is probably something wrong with the projection, as the blackness lasts for more than a few seconds. The audience calms down when footage of Jonas Mekas appears on the screen. After a short while, the image disappears, leaving the screen black for most of the duration of the projection; the audience remains silent until the very end.
The core of the film consists of Jonas Mekas reading his prose memoir, which concentrates on the first decade of his exile. He talks about his life in an occupied country, his first camera, and the advice on love that his coworkers in Brooklyn gave him; he sings a few songs and plays an accordion. He sounds just like he does in his own films. The soft tone of his voice – which still has a distinctive Eastern accent even after more than 60 years of living overseas – constructs the narrative and gives the film a rhythm. And here is where most of the similarities between Douglas Gordon’s film and the films created by the seminal Lithuanian filmmaker end. Prima facie, “I Had Nowhere To Go” is everything that Mekas’ films are not. It is the negative of Mekas’ films, but only seemingly.
For ninety percent of the movie, the viewer sees a black screen that is interrupted from time to time with random images of peeled potatoes, cooked beetroots, footprints left in the snow, or gorillas behind zoo bars. These short clips of footage appear like afterimages – distortions of vision; only here, what we perceive is blackness, and the bias is the image. They are like those scenes that appear under your eyelids when falling asleep or waking up from a snooze, when you are still oscillating between sleep and wakefulness. The darkened space brings to mind the camera obscura, in which a pinhole cut in a box allows light to enter. The images created inside come and go.
But the darkness itself is never empty, just like silence is never totally deaf. The black screen acts like a curtain that reveals what is not being seen, or like a monochromatic painting with a surface that has been marked by the hand of the painter. The French intellectual Roger Caillois suggested that “…while white space is eliminated by the materiality of objects, darkness is ‘filled’, it touches the individual directly, envelops him, perpetrates him, and even passes through him”. The ebony superficies are a continuity of space, and thus, it is also never flat; on the contrary – it is tangible, as it invites the viewer to conjure up the images himself. It can also conceal the impossibility of depicting the unimaginable, the displaced memories of trauma and oppression. When the shot comes to the end of the reel, it becomes black. “He wrote me: one day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black”, says the narrator at the beginning of Chris Marker’s “Sun Soleil”.
"You’re welcome to read all of this as fragments from someone’s life, or as a letter of a homesick stranger, or as a novel, pure fiction. Yes, you’re welcome to read this as fiction. The subject, the plot, is my life,” wrote Jonas Mekas in his memoir. The fragmented, non-chronological narrative of Gordon’s movie resembles those of recollected memories that come to mind in the most unexpected moments. Gordon read the book “I Had Nowhere To Go” while on a train, traveling somewhere in Germany. And then he forgot about it. After a couple of years, the text began to come back to him – its fragments started to haunt his mind like the returning ghosts of Mekas’ experiences.
“The novel is a movement: the revelation of ideas, which succeed one another, emerge and interact, playing against one another. And poetry is movement, reflecting successive impressions, contrasting and linking together sensations, states of the soul”, wrote the French filmmaker Germaine Dulac in 1925. Therefore, writing poetry could be seen as a montage, and a poem – as a movie. “I am a poet”, says Jonas Mekas in both his book and Gordon’s film. The editing happens in the viewer’s mind.
The darkness, which is both cultural and optical, intensifies the feeling of dejection and melancholy; this, in turn, is then intensified even more by the sound of air raids and explosions. One can’t escape the evident references to both recent incidents and historical ones – not only the tragedy of World War II, but also to the reality in which we live now. The black screen creates a space for reflection. “I always kind of wanted to make things stop”, said Douglas Gordon eight years ago, in a talk that he gave at The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.
It is inevitable that one will think of the whole history of works, especially films, that have been made by artists about other artists. However, Gordon’s film – which is, indeed, a very direct way of referring to Jonas Mekas’ persona – is not an attempt to create a portrait of an artist. “I Had Nowhere To Go” is not a collaboration, nor even a conversation. It is a vision. And as with his other works, Gordon puts fiction into real life, and his real life into fiction. “One of the most important things about Jonas, for me, is that he doesn’t influence – he inhabits. He inhabits cinema, he inhabits sculpture, he inhabits life”, explains the artist.