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Avant-garde and mainstream films
Jonas Mekas Film-maker
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I'm talking here about my conversation with Stan Brakhage that was published in Vogue magazine in about, when, the year 2000 or 2001. With funny photographs of both of us by Serrano, where mostly you can you see most prominent part in that photograph in my picture is my shoes. I had great shoes, and Serrano said later, I would like you to take, maybe, are you free two days later? He said I rented cardinal's robes; I would like to take a picture of you in the cardinal's robes. And I said, sorry on that day I really cannot do it. Okay. So maybe I was talking about cinema and poetry in same terms as Cocteau, I think was always comparing you know the avant-garde and Gregory Markopoulos does that too, the closest equivalent if you don't want to talk for let's say 20 minutes but if you want just to say it in one sentence and briefly so that people would understand what you, that you were talking about, what the basic difference is or relationship of the avant-garde film and the Hollywood or any other film they say, oh, it's like poetry like, you know, prose and poetry. So this is sort of the most simple, most down-to-earth and primitive, you know, at some point it becomes much more complex. But in, in a very reduced, bare sort of shape, that is the comparison which is still not that far-fetched, not that crazy and not that, there is great many, many things that connect written poetry to the avant-garde film. Because both deal with sort of in, in, work with very condensed language. In one case, you know, written language and the other, other you know images, film language and both are in very frag- or not very linear, and then here we come to, of course Maya Derren's terminology, there not so much horizontal but more vertical with, you know, detail after detail and they grow and then you feel you don't need any more. That's it, like if you put salt into water, the point comes when you cannot put any more in it. So, and what the subject matter which is then is, is again, it's not that type in film, in avant-garde film, not same as, as in a novel or where, you know, there are characters, protagonist, their story, their adventures. It's a horizontal thing, goes and goes and when here, very often, there are no, maybe there are some you know people but they are not exactly going to adventures, we know more, we see what maybe their minds are in or what their obsessions or, or dreams they're, but no not really, or surrealistic adventures but surrealism is already by itself is, and dream is very close to poetry so, and one can go and go and go, but there is a definite, for somebody who has not seen much, when you say that, that will immediately put in some kind of perspective that will be, will help to understand. I would say, something like that. So, I have views that no comparison myself on a number of occasions, it helps people, but otherwise I usually talk completely different about it. I would say, okay, here is a young person who comes to me and says, I want to make films. I say, tell me three of your favourite filmmakers and this young budding filmmaker will say, Godard, Hitchcock, Scorsese. I will immediately know that this person is going to narrative and to public cinema narrative, they're the great works, it's like you know, there's Melville, there is, so then another one comes with great enthusiasm, says, I want to make films. And I ask, okay tell me your favourite three filmmakers. And this person enthusiastically says Maya Derren, Brakhage, Frampton. So, of course I know to what direction this person is going. And that' s about the closest that I could, you know, go, describe the difference by naming the films and filmmakers. Not so much in discussing how they really, but definitely nobody will confuse those two groups of, of filmmakers.

Jonas Mekas (1922-2019), Lithuanian-born poet, philosopher and film-maker, set up film collectives, the Anthology Film Archive, published filmzines and made hundreds of films, all contributing to his title as 'the godfather of American avant-garde cinema'. He emigrated to America after escaping from a forced labour camp in Germany in 1945.

Listeners: Amy Taubin

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for "Film Comment" magazine and "Sight and Sound" magazine. Her book, "Taxi Driver", was published in 2000 in the British Film Institute's Film Classics series. Her chapter on "America: The Modern Era" is part of "The Critics Choice" published by Billboard Press, 2001, and her critical essays are included in many anthologies, mostly recently in "Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank" published by Scalo.

She wrote for "The Village Voice" weekly from 1987 into 2001 both as a film and a television critic. She also wrote a column for the "Village Voice" titled "Art and Industry" which covered American independent filmmaking. Her first weekly film criticism job was at the "SoHo Weekly News". Her writing has also appeared in "Art Forum", the "New York Times", the "New York Daily News", the "LA Weekly", "Millennium Film Journal", "US Harpers Bazaar" and many other magazines. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Online.

She started her professional life as an actress, appearing most notably on Broadway in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and in avant-garde films, among them Michael Snow's "Wavelength", Andy Warhol's "Couch", and Jonas Mekas' "Diaries, Notebooks and Sketches".

Her own avant-garde film, "In the Bag" (1981) is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Friends of Young Cinema Archives in Berlin.

She was the video and film curator of "The Kitchen" from 1983-1987.

She has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from N.Y.U. in cinema studies. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts in both the undergraduate and the MFA graduate programs, and lectures frequently at museums, media centers, and academic institutions. In 2003, she received the School of Visual Arts' art historian teaching award.

Duration: 6 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 29 September 2010