Jonas Mekas: Guns of the Trees

Reflections On Sixty Years Of Filmmaking Accompany Unseen Archival Footage of the Filmmaker at Work.

A youthful Jonas Mekas appears behind the camera in rare footage shot in 1960 by Charles I. Levine, documenting the filmmaker's intensity and enthusiasm on the set of his first feature, Guns of the Trees. The resultant work, a Beat Generation chronicle showcasing the voice of Allen Ginsberg and a soundtrack of Appalachian bluegrass, marked a turning point in the director’s career, after which he began to gravitate towards the film diary approach he is known for today. The critic Roger Ebert wrote that Guns of the Trees recorded its era in “earnestness and joy,” and joy continues to be a focus in Mekas' work. For instance, the theme features prominently in his latest film Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, which premiered this month as part of a major retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Mere weeks away from his 90th birthday, Mekas sat down with Serpentine Director Julia Peyton-Jones and Co-Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, to discuss memory, nature, and the importance of happiness. 

JPJ: Outtakes is a happy film. It says so much about you that on the occasion of your 90th birthday, which is on the 24th of December, you are proclaiming something that is extraordinary for all of us: a sense of joy really is something to aspire to.

JM: Sometimes I feel like I’m a propagandist for happiness and beauty.  If you’re walking through the city and there’s noise and honking and you get nervous, walk into a field or look through the window at the grass or the flowers—it makes you happy. I always tell this anecdote of the monk in Times Square. People see him standing there and they ask, “So what do you think about this noise, this commotion?” And the monk says, “What noise, what commotion?”

HUO: How would you define happiness?

JM: The state of happiness is when you’re with friends and you have food and good conversation and lifted voices and you drink and eventually, where I come from, we sing and dance. It’s an intense moment of existence. There are many people who have everything but they are so unhappy they have to go somewhere else to experience happiness. They go to Greece to some poor village and watch people sing and dance and remember what they have lost. We are losing so much of the joy and happiness that we crave in our civilization.

HUO: You often talk about a moment of happiness living in a farming village in Lithuania before the Russians arrived.

JM: We did what we had to do in the fields and then in the evening we got together and we felt like part of the landscape, part of nature, and we were very happy. I miss nature and the color changes in the late spring when flowers are just beginning to appear, and all the colors of autumn.  When I go to galleries or museums I look for colors; I don’t care what the painting’s all about.

HUO: The whole background of nature that you mention leads us to something you once described as the “intensity of the moment.”

JM: That is the challenge in my film. I’m like an anthropologist, looking, craving those intense moments when something very insignificant but also eternal happens. Like when you open a present from a good friend—that’s the moment I’m trying to get to. It’s very fleeting and you have to be totally, non-intrusive to preserve its innocence.

JPJ: So when you’re making the selection of images for your film, what makes you choose one moment over another?

JM: That, I do not know. I’m filming through my own temperament, through what I am. 

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