I n t r e v i e w
Just like a shadow ...
Jérome Sans speaks to Jonas Mekas
I know that you don’t take yourself seriously, but you are considered as a cult figure and you have influenced different generations of film-makers and other artists. What do you think of that?
To begin with, I have to say that I am not a thinking person. People think too much. And they take themselves too seriously. I live without any plan. My greatest discovery was when I understood that I don’t have to do anything: all I have to do is to permit things to happen, not to be in their way. I am not sure I have influenced other film-makers or artists. My function has been that of a midwife who helps fragile, newborn things to survive the first steps in this world. My function has been that of a guardian who tries to protect helpless newborn young things from attacks by the Establishment. To take oneself too seriously in the arts, or life, is foolish. Art or life without humor is not worth living.
You became a film theoretician, writing day by day history of the underground. Minister of propaganda of the New American Cinema. What does it mean being a critic for you?
It’s like this: a critic, as it’s known in film magazines and the daily and weekly press, is a person who passes judgments on films. This one is bad, this one is good, etc. I never really passed judgments on films. From the very beginning of my Village Voice Movie Journal column in 1958, I wrote only about films that I liked. I was a film enthusiast, not a critic. I am not a film critic, I never was.
I always felt that my function was to relate to the readers some of my enthusiasm about the films that I liked. When I see a film and I like it, I want to share my enthusiasm for it with others. There is so little in this modern commercial world that is really and truly exciting, I mean something that reaches deep into your soul, that it’s very important for me that those little fragments of beauty, of Paradise, are brought to the attention of friends and strangers equally. That’s why I began writing for the Village Voice.
Why did you create in 1967 the first cooperative building for artists at 80 Wooster Street, a cooperative which began Soho?
The real creator of Soho was George Maciunas, the Fluxus guy. I only helped him. We were friends since childhood, practically. When in 1967 he came up with the idea of creating the first Soho cooperative building on Wooster Street, he needed an $8,000 deposit on the building, so I said I’ll try to get the money. It was Jerome Hill, to whom I devoted my film “Notes for Jerome”, who came up with the money. He wanted to help the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, he wanted us to have our own place. So I got the $8,000, and George’s sister Nicole pitched in with a few more thousand, and we took the building. The rest is history. That’s how Soho was born. Why did we do it? That was the only thing to do if you wanted to have a cheap place to live and work in those days. Of course, later it became one of the most expensive places to live or work. But not in 1967. In 1967 the area was totally dilapidated. It was the genius of George Maciunas to see the possibilities the area offered. I have to add one more thing. And that is the crucial contribution to many key art organizations of the Sixties by Jerome Hill. I have to tell you frankly that without Jerome, Film Culture magazine would have closed by 1960. Without Jerome, neither the Film-Makers Cooperative nor the Film Makers’ Cinematheque would have survived. Without Jerome there would be no Anthology Film Archives. And no Soho. Jerome was an incredible, visionary person. And he trusted me totally.
Since 1950 you have always carried your Bolex camera, all day long and everywhere. Why this desire to record everything?
I have no real answer. All answers that I have given to this question in the past could be wrong, they are all inventions. One of the answers, usually, is that as an exile, as a displaced person, I felt that I had lost so much, my country, my family, even my early written diaries, ten years of them, that I developed the need to try to retain everything I was passing through, by means of my Bolex camera. It became an obsession, a passion, a sickness. So now I have these images to cling to … It’s all ridiculous, I think. Because what I have, after all, is already fading, it’s all just like a shadow of the real reality which I do not really understand. When you go through what I went through, the wars, occupations, genocides, forced labor camps, displaced person camps, and lying in a blooming potato field – I’ll never forget the whiteness of the flowers, my face down to the earth, after jumping out the window, while German soldiers held my father against the wall, a gun in his back – then you don’t understand human beings anymore. I have never understood them since then, and I just film, record everything, with no judgment, that I see. Not exactly “everything”, only the brief moments that I feel like filming. And what are those moments? What makes me choose those moments? I don’t know. It’s my whole past memory that makes me choose the moments that I film.
Why this single frame technique, and not some other newer, “advanced” technology?
It took me approximately fifteen years to really master my Bolex so that it could really and automatically and spontaneously do what I wanted it to do. I always compare it with what a saxophonist, a jazz musician does: he practices for many years – until the instrument begins to follow the most subtle movements of his fingers. It would be destructive, even stupid to suddenly change your instrument only because somebody invented a new instrument. I am a very busy man. I have no time and no need or desire to change my tools, my Bolex. Especially since Bolex is a very precise camera, very suitable for my kind of filming.
You have been recording everything around you, in your film diary, your personal life and your cultural life, the New York avant-garde of the 50s and the 60s and 70s as the center of your life of that period. Why?
I usually film my friends, or my family. As it happened, all the people who played a central role in the life of the arts in New York during those decades, they were all my friends. And, of course, most of them were not yet famous at all. We were all involved in the same thing. We were like a large family. We knew each other, we helped each other. And of course, sometimes we argued. It was an incredible period. Why did I film it all? I have no real answer. I think I did it because I was a very shy person. My camera allowed me to participate in the life that took place around me. My film diaries are not like the diaries of Anais Nin. Anais, whom I knew, she organized about her psychological adventures. In my case, the opposite, whatever that opposite may be, may be the case. My Bolex protected me, while at the same time giving me a peek and a focus on what was happening around me. Still, at the very end, I don’t think my film diaries are about the others or what I saw: it’s all about myself, conversations with myself.
Your day-by-day chronicle in the Village Voice Movie Journal is a fantastic series of texts and statements which are actual and radical and with no mistakes. But do you have any regrets or corrections to make?
No, I have no regrets and no important corrections to make. The films which I praised in my Movie Journal have all become classics. My only regret is that on one or two occasions – I do not remember what it was – but I remember that I became, regretfully, a “critic”, and criticized some films. I should have never done it. One should write only about films one likes and stay away from films one doesn’t like.
From Allen Ginsberg to John Cassavetes, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, through Norman Mailer, Salvador Dali, Hermann Nitsch, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon … to whom you were very close; to Surrealism, Fluxus, Beat, Pop, Actionism, New York cinema … all very different personalities but they all shared new attitudes based on a poetry of freedom and spontaneity.
It all comes down to something like this: Here I am, a shy thin boy whom everybody in my village, when I was seven or eight, they all thought, ah, poor boy, he’s about to die. So, years later I come to New York, and here I am, a farmer boy, and I do not want anything but to write my poetry and make my films. But Fate had other plans for me. All these people kept coming my way, George Maciunas, Salvador Dali, Jackie Kennedy, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and everybody else; I didn’t need them and didn’t know them and was not looking for them. As I said, I just wanted to write my poetry. But we were all brought together: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger. No, I was not looking for Salvador Dali: he was a legend, I would have never dared to bother him. But he became curious about me and came to visit me unannounced, with Ultra Violet, to my 414 Park Avenue South loft, and we became friends. Andy Warhol sat on the floor of my loft for months, watching movies, before I found out who he was. The point I am trying to make here is that it all happened by itself. I had neither time nor desire to meet any of these people, I was always too busy, as I still am, not even having time to eat, and my stomach has shrunk from not eating; living just on Italian sausage and goat cheese and garlic and wine, so that now I can barely eat anything. Anyway, once a psychic woman looked at me and told me that my incarnation lineage has gone through Giordano Bruno, some feisty Spanish Lieutenant, and George Washington. When she told me that once I had been George Washington, it explained to me everything: why I was in America and why all these people circled, gathered around me and why it all happened by itself, very easily …
But back to your question. I think that my acceptance and enthusiasm for what was happening during that period in America came from my cultural starvation in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I was now very excitable and sensitive to anything that was new in art. Actually, I have to tell you, that my life in New York has been even more complicated by the fact that, according to my Japanese horoscope done for me by Yoko Ono on a napkin at the Paradox Café on the Lower East Side, in 1967, I was here on this planet Earth as a very young, inexperienced soul whom everybody was supposed to help … I am not sure how this goes with the George Washington story … Anyway, the paradox of this Paradox Café story is that I ended up by helping others, and not in reverse …
Freedom? Spontaneity? It’s very interesting how one’s deep personal obsessions or needs can color and even twist one’s perception, of others. I am rereading some of my early diaries, my writings on Bill Burroughs, and John Cassavetes, the controversy about the first and the second versions of Shadows, and I begin to understand that my criticism of Cassavetes’ second version of Shadows was not based on what Cassavetes wanted to do but on what I wanted to do and was doing … The spontaneity was more important to my life than to Cassavetes’ life.
When they first appeared, you were the only one to understand the importance of Andy Warhol films (“Sleep”, “Eat”) and write positively about them. Why so, and how do you consider his films in the context of his other work?
I get very excited when I see something new coming into the world. Andy’s films had a monumental newness about them. So I had to tell about them to the people, I had to write about them. There is something in my character that if I see something that I like I have to share that experience with others. I cannot enjoy even a sunset by myself: somebody else has to see it with me. Why didn’t others immediately see the importance of Andy’s films? It’s difficult to tell. New York intellectuals and artists, they liked Hollywood, or else they liked classic avant-garde cinema. But “Sleep” didn’t fit into it. It takes a sense of adventure to see it for what it is. Let’s face it, even today, all the people and museums that buy Andy’s paintings have very little interest in his films. There are entire areas of his cinema, such as the hundreds of film portraits taken at the Factory that are totally unknown and neglected even by the museums that own and handle Andy’s work. But I consider that even those portraits constitute one of the most important undertakings in portraiture in 20th-century art. But when are we going to see them? Museums don’t care about them. And, of course, “Chelsea Girls” – it’s a monumental, fantastic work. But who shows it? So things haven’t changed that much since the Sixties.
What did Andy Warhol think about your films?
He liked especially “Walden” and saw it several times. He also liked “The Brig”. It was after seeing The Brig, and learning about my filming techniques which were very simple, that he decided to begin to film with sound. What I did, I used a newsreel style Auricon camera that records image and sound on the same strip of film, simultaneously. He liked that idea and began filming with an Auricon camera. That’s how we shot “Empire”, I was the cameraman. There was a funny discussion: should we film the Empire State Building with sound or silent … We decided to film it silent. And yes, he liked “Notes on the Circus” very much.
Is “film d’art” for you a pejorative term?
It’s a very confusing term; besides its pretentiousness. In America, beginning with the Fifties, movie theaters that showed films made in Europe or anywhere else outside Hollywood, were called Art Theaters. Even today, anything that is shown in America in subtitled versions, is called art films. But we know that neither Lumiere Brothers nor Mélies nor D.W. Griffith nor Rossellini nor Eisenstein made films d’art. Even Godard didn’t make them. Brakhage doesn’t make them. We make films. So what kind of animal is this film d’art? I don’t know. Do you know what eight million people in America answered in 1966 when they were asked if they thought they were artists? They said yes, they thought they were artists. When George Maciunas began creating cooperative buildings in Soho, in 1967, he used to ask the people who wanted to join the cooperatives, “What do you do, what’s your profession?” If someone answered that he or she was an artist, George used to say, “You say you are an artist? So you pay double.” He hated people who considered themselves artists and not just painters or film-makers or musicians.
You were the only one to fight for new forms in cinema. Is that why you were so close to all other “underground” artists, poets, musicians, etc?
Somehow we were all together, one family. And there was a great intensity in the air. Poetry readings, jazz places, cafés, where we would gather attracted me because of the energy, intensity. We were one intense, ecstatic family. Maybe not in body, but in spirit. This doesn’t mean at all that we all agreed with one another. Some of us didn’t speak with one another for months, even years. Still, we were together.
Besides writing, after 1953, you organized screenings of avant-garde films in various places in New York before opening Anthology Film Archives.
In the Spring of 1953, I escaped Brooklyn and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to 95 Orchard Street. Very soon after that, I began my first avant-garde film screenings at the Gallery East, corner of Avenue A and 2nd Street. That was the beginning. Gallery East was an offshoot of the Tenth Street crowd, De Kooning and all. That’s how it all began. The Gallery East series was followed by at least ten other showcases, including Film-Makers Showcase, where Warhol’s “Sleep” opened, and Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” was premiered, and Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”; and then there was Film-Makers’ Cinematheque on 41st Street where most of Andy’s later work, including “Chelsea Girl”, was presented. All this happened before Anthology Film Archives were opened in late 1970.
Why did you create Anthology Film Archives?
In 1968, I received a call from Jerome Hill, a film-maker and friend who spent half of his life in Cassis, France, and the other half in New York and Big Sur, California. He said his friend Martinson, who was then Chairman of the Public Theater, one of the most important theaters in New York, called him and offered space in his building on 425 Lafayette Street, for a film theater. Jerome asked me if I wanted to do something there. I said yes. So I invited P. Adams Sitney to run the new project, which we decided to call Anthology Film Archives. We invited Peter Kubelka, Stan Brakhage, Ken Kelman and James Broughton to help us to set up a new kind of film museum for the avant-garde and classic cinema. One of the most controversial aspects of it was our creation of what became known as Essential Cinema Repertory Collection. It consisted of some 310 titles, mostly avant-garde, but also some classics, such as Renoirm, Rossellini, Eiseinstein, Vigo, etc. These films that made up some 110 different programs were the basic repertory of Anthology Film Archives, a repertory that reflected the most exciting achievements in cinema. The basic reason for having such a repertory was this: The period between 1957 and 1967 was the most productive, the most inspiring period in the arts in America. During the same time, if we take, for instance, the year 1960, we had in the United States only a dozen universities and colleges teaching film; by 1967, according to the American Film Institute’s survey, there were 1,200 universities and colleges teaching film. Each of those 1,200 film departments, besides teaching Hollywood film or commercial cinema, they had to show to their students some programs of the independent, “underground” cinema. But since they hadn’t seen much, because they were not in New York or San Francisco, they kept calling me or P. Adams Sitney for advice, what to show. I had to do all the work for them: select films, write notes on the films, locate the distributors, etc. I did it once, I did it twice, I did it ten times, twenty times and more, but I had enough of it. Why don’t we get a little committee of people who know avant-garde film and prepare a list of films that we approve and send that list to all the schools that call us for help? Every film on the list is important for one or another good reason. That’s how the Essential Cinema Repertory Collection was born. We had many meetings, our little committee of five, during 1970–1974, and we selected 310 titles. We intended to continue, but meanwhile our main sponsor, Jerome Hill, died, and our work was interrupted and never completed. Still, what we voted in, during the 1970–1974 sessions, into the Repertory, constitutes the basis of American and international avant-garde cinema until the year 1970.
What is the present activity of Anthology Film Archives?
Anthology remains the most active showcase of independent avant-garde cinema in the United States. At the same time, I have to say that the field of independent cinema has become so wide, during the past thirty years, that no single institution can cover the entire field. Where we differ from all other film showcases and museums or archives in America is that we are the only institution that is also very deeply involved in the preservation of avant-garde cinema and we run the largest library in the world of paper materials, information on the avant-garde. Our film holdings presently comprise over 12,000 titles, most of them independent productions. We have very little money for the preservation of films we hold, but we don’t give up searching for money.
Critic, archivist of the works of others, why are you simply not just making your own films?
Several complicated reasons contribute to this complicated situation. First, if I see a film that gives me aesthetic pleasure, if I see that a film is endangered, I have to do everything I can to get money to preserve it so that others can see it and have the same ecstatic experience ten, thirty years later. Reason two: I am not a rational person, I never know why I do what I do. Reason three: I have no money to complete my own films or preserve them. None of my films are preserved. And most of my footage filmed during the last twenty-five years sits on the shelf unfinished because I have no money. I don’t even have money to eat, telling the truth. I dream of eating … I don’t have to tell you that I get no salary from Anthology Film Archives: there is no money for salaries at Anthology. But this problem of food or eating is not exactly new in my life. In the early Sixties, when I had to put all the money I could find into Film Culture and Film-Makers Cooperative, Jerome Hill had made an arrangement for me to eat at one West 61st Street restaurant on his account. That saved me. In the mid-Sixties, it was David and Barbara Stone who fed me when I was really desperate. Brakhage told me once that when he came to New York in 1955 he was so poor, he used to pick up leftovers of sandwiches from street garbage cans. Naomi Levine used to get very angry with me when I refused to take her to restaurants. No, I never go to restaurants to eat. I have no money, I used to say. She didn’t believe me. Because she thought I was a millionaire incognito …
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not complaining. I am telling you this only because I want posterity to know how the American avant-garde cinema came into existence. Our films were more important to us than our own lives, health, anything. I am perfectly happy with my Italian sausage, and goat cheese, and garlic, and wine, and I only wish others could be as happy. Imagine, running one of the most important film museums in the world and doing it without any salary? Crazy, of course it’s crazy. But we are very happy, all of us at Anthology. Crazy and happy.
Do you think avant-garde films have to stay where they are and not try to jump into the big distribution system?
The truth is very simple: nobody wants us. You can jump as much as you want, but you’ll fall back to where you are. You know the story of the frog that wanted to be as big as a bull? … By the way, a bull is a Wall Street symbol … The truth is that cinema which used to be called underground or, now, independent/avantgarde, is by its very essence more complex, more demanding than what the “big distribution” systems are selling. We don’t fit into the airport bookstore class. Same as in literature: poetry is being printed in two or three thousand editions, but novels, even the worst ones, are printed in millions. It’s not realistic, not a good thinking to expect that Brakhage or Isidore Isou will suddenly be sold in the airport racks by millions … Humanity is not there and I don’t even think it should be there … There was a time, in the Sixties, when Brakhage and Markopoulos wrote scripts for which they tried to find Hollywood producers, and I used to laugh and tell them, good luck. I knew Hollywood because I had spent some time there, and I knew most of the Hollywood people. I knew that Stan and Gregory were dreaming, they were idealistic, they were poets. Later, Shirley Clarke flirted with Hollywood. It also ended in zero. All of the new so-called New York school film-makers such as Morris Engel, Lionel Rogosin, Emile De Antonio and Shirley Clarke, had Hollywood dreams.
How many films have you made and to how many hours would it all amount to?
Film-Makers Cooperative, in New York, a cooperative that distributes films by some 500 independent film-makers, distributes 25 of my films. They all add up to about 25 hours. The film which I am editing now will be about six hours long. In addition to the films, I have issued five videos that add up to ten hours. In reality, all my film work is one long film which is still continuing. I don’t really make films: I only keep filming. I am a filmer not a film-maker. And I am not a film “director” because I direct nothing. I just keep filming.
Why is cinema so important to you? What does cinema mean to you?
I am not too sure if cinema is really important to me. My obsession with filming has nothing to do with what I think about cinema. I just have to film. I have no choice. If I don’t film I get sick. It’s madness. I am being pulled into it by an irresistible force. That’s about all I can say about it.
What is the future of cinema? Godard said “cinema is dead”.
To say that cinema is dead means as much as saying Piero della Francesca is dead. Or Cézanne is dead. Godard likes to say things like that for effect. He likes effects. As for myself, cinema is not restricted to celluloid: to me cinema is the art of moving images, no matter on what material it’s created: video, computers, or anything else. Godard should spend some time with the new, 18-year-old generation who have revived the super-8 cinema. Then Godard would say, Ah, cinema is only beginning.
Why are commercial and experimental films always opposed to each other?
They are not opposed. The idea of opposition has been planted in people’s minds by people who know neither cinema nor the laws of life. Is poetry opposed to prose, to the novel? Of course not: these are two different forms of literature, and they run parallel. Is an étude or song in music opposed to a symphony? Of course not: these are different forms of music. The same in cinema. Or life on a farm: is a cow opposed to the sheep? The sheep gives wool and the cow gives milk, but they are not opposed to each other. They eat from the same meadow and sleep in the same barn. Same with the avant-garde and commercial forms of cinema. None of them are opposed to each other. Anthropological film. Educational film. Narrative film. Films on art. Poetic, avant-garde film. Essayistic film, etc. These are all different forms of cinema. None of them is opposed to another.
What do you think about professionalism in cinema?
A good professional is a good craftsman who knows how to build a house exactly like his father used to build it; or make a wheel, or bake good bread, or make good wine, cheeses, or anything else. I admire craftspeople, they are true professionals. But I hate experimenters who destroy our bread and dwelling places and wine and yogurt and everything they touch because they want to improve on what has been tested by hundreds of generations. But, of course, what I say here about professionals has nothing to do with art. Artists are never professional craftsmen, because gods have propelled them and possessed them in order to expand the human possibilities, of what they now call human potential. They are in the front line where they meet all the bullets and bayonets. And no past lessons, no professionalism will save them: they have to invent new technologies and new forms in order to record new sensibilities and new emerging content and help to form that content. The craftspeople, the professionals, the more they remain faithful to the past, the more useful they are to humanity. But imagine Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger or myself hiring a professional to shoot our films. It’s my heart and my nerves that control my fingers and the rhythms of my films. Avant-garde cinema is totally “unprofessional” in that regard.
You use all the technical imperfections in your film.
In a diary form of cinema, technical imperfections are part of the content and part of the form. They reveal aspects of inner and outer reality that could not be caught through technical “perfection”. Technical perfection, in truth, does not exist. Any perfection, any technique has to be measured by the content it attempts to capture. An overexposure, a clumsy movement can be more “perfect”, as far as the content goes, than any “steady” or “properly exposed” footage. So it’s all relative. Like Einstein’s curve of time and space.
You never use any story boards, never reshoot and never use crews … Isn’t that some kind of adventure?
My filming techniques are determined by my reactions to what I am filming. I am not filming reactions; these are my reactions. Therefore, nobody else, no team or crew, no advance “story board” can help me – this is real life that cannot be put on any board because it’s totally unpredictable. And what’s more, I usually film only those moments where there is a celebration of life, excitement, joy. And, of course, it’s a sort of adventure, because everything is unpredictable. Adventure of the camera, what I can do with the immediate moment, how much and in what way I can capture the essence and the ecstasy of the moment, will I get it or not? So I work frantically with my Bolex. And when I work with my Sony, it’s not that much different – I mean, as far as the concentration goes – as I am desperately trying to get to the heart of the moment. So, of course I have to do it all by myself, because it’s me who is excited about it all. No teams, no hired cameramen, no sound people. It’s just me, my camera and life around me.
Can we then speak about a spontaneous creation, as the real “cinéma vérité”?
Here you have touched one of my sensitive spots, with the word “creation”. You see, I do not really believe in creation. I have always insisted that what I do, I do from necessity. When I film something, I don’t film it because I want to create something. I do it because I want to capture the essence there in front of me. When I film, I try to go directly to the essence, to what I feel is the essence, and this has absolutely nothing to do with “creation”. I just film it. That’s all. As far as spontaneity goes, I am not sure if there is any other “creation” other than a spontaneous one, or improvised, be it me, or Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, D.W. Griffith, or Adam Mickiewicz, or Renoir. Cinéma vérité? That was a term used to describe a certain style, a certain way of filming “real life”, films usually concerned with certain themes that society was interested in. Cinéma vérité grew out of the excitement caused by the coming into existence of light portable cameras with sound. So we had Jean Rouch and Richard Leacock and many others. They made films of either social or anthropological interest, some great films. But I am somewhere else. My films are totally of no interest to society. They are totally useless to society.
You have said that your editing is done during the filming.
Another word for editing is structuring. Structuring in art takes place on many different levels: it’s the rhythm of your heart, it’s light, movement, color – it’s something that gives life to your film. And of course, it can be done only during the moment of filming – or painting, or composing, or writing – when one is totally and completely lost in what one is doing, making, “creating”. And I am not talking only about my own style of filming. I am also taking about Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard and Preminger. Preminger told me once that when he films he shoots so that later the “editors” would have no choice but to leave his footage as it is: he didn’t give them any other choices, he hated studio editors.
You said that, in your cinema, you are going back to the Lumière Brothers, to the beginning. Does this mean that you think that between then and now almost nothing has happened?
No, I don’t mean that. A lot has happened. The whole history of cinema happened. But in every art there are periods when a lull comes in, everybody somehow gets tired and decadent, when we forget what cinema is all about. Then it’s time to go to the beginning and refresh our senses and our imagination, to clean it out from all the junk, and start afresh. Just the camera, a roll of film, and you. Rediscover cinema anew.
Don’t you think there are today other moving image technologies, maybe easier than motion picture cameras?
In every art, there are constantly new tools being added, new colors, new sound instruments, new film/video/computer technologies. But just because a new instrument was invented to make sounds, we cannot expect Yehudi Menuhin to drop his violin and jump into, say, electronic sound; or me leave my Bolex which does for me what I want and which I have been using for forty years, and jump into computers, which I know nothing about. I would have to spend ten years before a computer would follow my fingers. Of course, that is impossible. Eight millimeters, 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, etc. – and each of these film formats uses different film stocks, different lenses, and produces images of very different texture and density, color quality, etc, etc. Same as a painter, he can choose colors he needs for a specific work, watercolors or oils or inks or pastels or anything else, and the choices are not taken at random but by exact intuitive knowledge. Same in cinema. Each tool or format does a different thing. And it’s not a question of it being easier or more difficult. That never comes into play.
The camera gives you the possibility to show everything.
It depends what one means by “everything”. Each of us grows with certain preferences, we love this or we love that, and in our films we usually exclude “everything” and we work only with a reality which is our own preferred private reality. “Everything” doesn’t exist in art. Or life.
In your writing and in your films the form of a journal or diary is the central form. Why?
My theory regarding the emergence of the diaristic forms in the arts, in all of the arts, after the Second World War, is that we all got tired of invented stories. The gruesome realities of 1933–1944 have destroyed all our stories, or, as Adorno said, poetry. All that we could still try to do was to turn to real life, and look around us, and try to understand what was going on, what was real in our own story. Everything else seemed senseless, escapist, unreal. That’s at least my personal interpretation of why I choose the diary form. My own story was even more complicated by the fact that very soon after my arrival in New York, I got totally involved in so many activities related to the avant-garde/independent film that I had left only little fragments of time for myself. The diary form suits perfectly when you have no time. You just make little notes, that’s all. And that’s what I’ve been doing.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I consider myself a film-maker and a poet. I make films, or, more correctly, film, and I occasionally write poems, in Lithuanian. What do I think about people who call themselves artists instead of film-makers or musicians or painters? As I already said earlier, some twenty-five years ago, there was a survey done by some newspapers, I read in the papers, they asked people all over the States if they felt they were artists. You know what? There were eight million people in the States who said yes, they were artists. So that’s great …
What does it mean to you to add more pictures to an already image-saturated world?
In this world, everything is transitory. All those pictures will be gone in twenty, thirty years. With the exception of those few that will contain something essential. People will want to preserve them because they’ll want to resee them, exchange them with others. It always comes down to intensity, how intense is this precious stone, this pearl, this piece of music, or this painting, or this film. And even if the images are transitory, the making of images is a very innocent activity – so let the people make them and be happy; just watch people when they are taking polaroids – they laugh, they are happy.
When and why did you start making photograms, stills extracted from your films?
It all began very innocently from a very simple down-to-earth necessity. In 1983, I needed money for the renovation of the Anthology Film Archives building. Tetsuo Kinoshita, my Tokyo friend, suggested I choose a dozen images from my films and he and his friends would produce silk-screen prints from them, sell them, and Anthology would be saved. So I did that. The first series was exhibited at the Hara Museum in Tokyo in 1983. They didn’t sell, but my Japanese friends helped Anthology in other ways. Some of these prints were exhibited in Paris at the Jeu de Paume in 1994 during the retrospective of my films. In 1995, Anthology was going through another money crisis. Again, my faithful Japanese friends suggested that I choose some new images and they would try again. So I began selecting images. Suddenly, I got obsessed with it. Meanwhile, my Japanese friends informed me that the guy who was planning to finance the project had gone bankrupt. But I couldn’t stop. I produced little polaroids from the slides and kept looking at them and carrying hundreds of them in my pockets. While in Paris in 1995, I showed them to Agnes B and Yann Beauvais, who was at that time running the American Center. They liked the idea of images immobiles, and they gave me my first big show in Paris, at the Galerie du Jour. The American Center closed just before my show opened there. The Galerie du Jour show was crucial to me. Tetsuo Kinoshita came to see the show and his review helped to set up the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Here the help of Ikkan Sanada was also crucial. In any case, my Frozen Film Frames were on their way into the world.
Now why am I making them? Not for money of course, because very few of them have sold … I am making them because I am obsessed with the possibilities of having two, three frames/images together, detaching them from the context, and letting them be by themselves. I am not collaging them now, of course, they were collaged by my single frame filming technique during the moment of filming. Thus they are not calculated collagins but spontaneous collagins done during intense moments of filming. They do one thing when they are in the film and they become completely something else when they are detached and enlarged and framed and presented in a gallery situation. The fact that these are film frames remains always present in the viewer’s mind and eye, since I keep the film and the sound tracks and anything else that could be in the strip of the film from which the print was made. How do these images relate to photography? I am not sure how. They are like cousins. One difference is that none of my individual images, or frames, have been consciously composed. However, we can also find the same “anti-composition” preoccupations today in photography. In any case, it’s not my business to figure out the relationships or differences, I am not a photography historian. All I know is that I am obsessed with making these images, and it’s up to the others to see where it all fits. These images are a fact and critics will have to deal with them whether they like it or not. Especially since I have more images than most photographers have …
How do you choose each of them?
There are several things that determine the choice of the images. One is the visual dynamic between the frames determined by light, color or shapes. Another is the clashings by content – be it a face, or abstraction. The faces, the possibilities of portraiture in motion. And also what the image means to me, personally. The rarity of the images also comes into play, for instance, the images of Carl Theodor Dreyer – I like them as images, but at the same time these are very rare images.
How many images have you done? In editions of how many?
The Tokyo edition of 1983 consisted of some twelve images. Silk-screen prints were made in editions of 200 each. The series of 1995 and 1998 were in editions of twenty-five, cibachrome, some 100 images. So far I have produced slides of 700 different frozen film frames.
Is there a logic or a system in it all?
Maybe there is but I don’t see one, not yet. It’s all a search, accident, chance, luck, good friends, and Saint Teresa of Avila, my friendly saint.
You have said that you are a regionalist. What do you mean by that?
I mean that I am limited, that I don’t represent “everything” or “all”; that I have a small world of my own and I work within it. Anyone who claims to be international or global, is a fool. The whole idea of globality is silly. Or maybe even evil. The only way to reach everybody, this I learned from Dostoyevsky, is to be yourself as much as you can, as personal as you can. In other words: totally regional.
What are your future projects?
It’s difficult to tell because it’s mind-boggling. I still have to put together all my film diaries of the last twenty-five years, because if I don’t do that within the next two, three years, they will be gone, color faded. But I have neither the time nor the money to do that. Then there are piles and piles, thousands of pages of my written diaries, the dust is falling on them. But I have no time to edit them together because Anthology Films Archives needs me. Ideally, I would need a three-year leave to complete all this work. But I need a sponsor for that and I do not have one, not yet. But Saint Teresa is working on that. She will see that it’s all done, in due time, if it’s good for the soul. Because there is nothing more important, in life, or art, as the soul.
Soho, New York, February 2000.
© Jérome Sans
© Jonas Mekas