Der „Godfather“ des Avantgarde-Kinos nahm in den 1950er und 60er Jahren an so ziemlich allem Teil, was die New Yorker Underground-Szene auszeichnete. Anlässlich der 80. Ausgabe seines einflussreichen „Film Culture Magazine“ widmet sich eine Ausstellung im Berlin nun der Kinozeitschrift. Wir sprachen mit ihm über seine Beziehung zu Andy Warhol, Barbara Rubin und Musik.

Jonas Mekas in New York

Text: Cara Lerchl

CL: It was you who got Andy Warhol into filmmaking. Can you tell us the story behind that?

JM: In 1962, me and other like-minded independent filmmakers created the Film-makers’ Cooperative in New York. At the time, despite the busy New York Underground scene, the commercial film distributers did not appreciate our work, which is why we decided to create our own film distribution center. Every evening filmmakers, photographers, writers and poets came to my loft, it soon became an energetic place of creative exchange for ideas and films. Of course Andy Warhol was there too. For months he was sitting on the floor watching the screenings, I did not even know who he was. Andy was very inspired by what happened at the loft, meeting all his personal so-called „Superstars“ there, like Ron Rice, Jack Smith and Taylor Mead. In that sense, my loft became his film school.

CL: And your relationship with Andy Warhol?

JM: I did not have much to do with him, until he decided to make movies himself. Our working together really started when I was helping him to bring his films to the public by screening them, like his first major movie called „Sleep“ (1963). He had the films, I had the place to show them. Eventually our relationship got very close, and like many of my work relationships, turned into a friendship.

Andy Warhol

CL: What did you think of his first movie footage?

JM: From the very beginning I was a very great supporter of Andy Warhol’s cinema. He came in fresh and different. While the Hollywood’s film productions were very commercial, he went to the very beginning of cinema, when you don’t even know yet, what cinema really is. He started by simply putting up a camera and letting it film what happened in front of his eyes. It was revolutionary. Unfortunately he faced a lot of criticism. People thought it was ridiculous what he did. From the moment I saw his footage, I began to explain and express my enthusiasm for his work.

CL: How did you experience the New York Underground scene, when you were young? 

JM: When I arrived to New York in 1949, I jumped into the Underground scene blindly, I submerged it openly. Coming from one decade of disruption of civilisation, the post-war Europe, it was very exciting for me to see that the art scene was so vividly alive.

CL: There was still a lot of creative freedom.

JM: Until around 1955, it felt like a dead-end in all of the art forms. There was too much repetition and cinema genres were exhausted. Until suddenly new things began to emerge within the Underground Scene. Uncontrolled ideas jumped into society. It was a very rich period that lasted untilabout 1970. There is a little novelette called “The Shadow Line” by Joseph Conrad, where he says “when you are young, you don’t care about things, you just do what you feel.” There are some moments like that in art. It is only later that you begin to understand the extend of it. You begin to look back at what you did and start repeating yourself. Malewitsch did his black quare about 100 years ago, and we are still repeating different variations of it. That is where we are at in modern art today.

Film Culture Magazine, Andy Warhol

CL: Later, in 1954, you started the Film Culture Magazine, exploring the avant-garde cinema. What was the role of the magazine for the film and art scene in New York?

JM: Many of us artists kept talking about cinema, but in New York there was still no platform to exchange those ideas. In order to bring together film, music, literature and art, we had the idea of starting the Film Culture Magazine. In the end, it helped us to feel like a family, doing something new and differentiated from conservative cinema.

Ausgaben des Film Culture Magazins

CL: The current exhibition “United Screens” is currently celebrating the 80th issue of Film Culture Magazine at Savvy Contemporary in Berlin. Why did you devote this last issue to Barbara Rubin?

JM: I met Barbara Rubin in the 1960s when she was only 18 years old, she had a very intense personality. After assisting me she started making her own films, her work became a major contribution to cinema. Suddenly, there was this very provocative film from the point of view of a young woman, which of course was noticed by friends, but not so much accepted by other people. I took almost 30 years to understand how revolutionary her thinking was at that time. When I decided to close down the Film Culture Magazine in 1995, I was planning on doing one final issue celebrating Barbara Rubin. I considered her not only a very good friend but also the most reflected filmmaker of the moment. I collected a lot of material, but never managed to bring out that final issue. 20 years later, it will finally be released this September. It will feature interviews with people who knew her and worked closely together with her, as well as her passionate letters to me.

Barbara Rubin

CL: Besides cinema, your second passion is music. Do you still make music today?

JM: Since my childhood music has always been a big part of my life. I grew up in my little village in Lithuania, where my family and I were always singing. One of my brothers played violin, the other one accordion, so I had been experimenting with all those instruments. Later some friends started a music group, I became one of the vocalists. None of it was serious, still until today we do it for fun. (erlin performance) It is exciting that we got together all those people for the event in berlin and unfortunately I could not go.

CL: If you could choose one thing that is really “worth living for” in life, which would it be?

JM: No – I could never choose only one thing. I like many things in life, I don’t have one favourite musician, poet or artist. It makes life so much richer to choose from many things.

Gruppenfoto im April 1968 in New York, u.a. mit Andy Warhol, Barbara Rubin, Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Nico, Paul Morrissey, Jack Smith, Stan Van Der Beek

The exhibition „United Screens“ will be shown as part of the Edit Film Culture! Festival until July 22, 2018 at the Savvy Contemporary Gallery.

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