Filed under: notes | Tags: committed cinema, jonas mekas, jonathan rosenbaum, political cinema, stan brakhage, straub
Tenants of the House: A Conversation with Jonas Mekas
(excerpt, pages 21- 25, Film: The Front Line – 1983, by Jonathan Rosenbaum)
Jonathan Rosenbaum: […] there’s a way in which institutional acceptance and promotion can take the teeth out of certain kinds of art that have something to do with protest.
Jonas Mekas: What art do you have in mind? The avant-garde of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties had nothing to do with protest.
JR: You don’t think Flaming Creatures had anything to do with protest–
JM: No, absolutely no. He [Jack Smith] was floating in that kind of reality. He was obsessed with that reality; he had to do it, and he did it with his friends. It had nothing to do with politics; it was his world, the life that he lived.
JR: Don’t you think that world and life was formed in relation to something else?
JM: Later, once it was shown, it became political. But the creation of it did not come from any political necessity. On the other hand, if you listen to Jack’s soundtrack in Blonde Cobra, you can see that he himself, as a human being, did not like the type of civilization he saw around him when he walked down the street, obviously. So he created his own world that had nothing to do with what was going on around him in the offices or stores or Park Avenues.
JR: Your own films are full of things about politics.
JM: Indirectly, everything is political; everything under the sun can be interpreted politically. But the motivations for making it are not political in that sense; they’re personal.
JR: But don’t you think that whatever uses art is put to have political consequences?
JM: Consequences, sure. With a knife you can cut bread or stab somebody in the heart.
JR: I’m disturbed about the way that an extreme right-winger like Paul Schrader can accommodate Michael Snow’s film to his own social philosophy.
JM: Do you think you can make a film that can appeal only to Democrats or Republicans?
JR: Well, no. But I am saying that art conceived as social and political protest is received less warmly here than it might have been at another time.
JM: That’s because in this country, it is very difficult for us to understand what’s going on in another country, oppressed by dictatorship or devastated by political confusions. It’s very difficult to identify with and really have some feeling for it. It has nothing to do with this time; it’s any time.
JR: And yet if you think of the Sixties and the impact a film like La Chinoise had…. I remember Columbia students who saw it over and over again in New York at the Kips Bay only a few weeks before they helped to take over the Columbia campus– which happened, in turn, right before the May Events in Paris, which were inspired in part by what happened in Columbia. There was a way in which both news and certain feelings about things were able to travel very quickly.
JM: There was something very similar in the air in Paris and New York. But if you bring in a film from some South American country today, you won’t get the same response.
JR: I’m both intrigued and a little appalled by the local responses to Tarkovsky’s The Stalker, wich opened recently at Film Forum. Everyone who deals with the film, including everyone who likes it, says it’s a film about the Soviet Union, and I certainly wouldn’t quarrel with that. But nobody is saying or apparently even conceiving of the possibility that the film could be addressing what’s happening now in America as well, the way that people are living and thinking at this moment. Nobody seems to want to make that connection, which is precisely what makes the film vital and meaningful. People assume it’s “political” because it describes repression and cowardice elsewhere, not because it relates to their own lives. This is what I see as the problem: European work which could actually address the conditions of people’s lives–and here again I include Straub-Huillet–is never being read as such; it’s invariably translated into something else.
JM: Maybe it’s the style and sensibility of the Tarkovsky film. Godard had a style and sensibility that appealed to a certain anarchist and youthful minds here. He didn’t appeal to the masses–let’s face it. Masses do not know Godard’s name. His form did it. It was his form, his style, his temperament–not the content of his films–that inspired students of Columbia. But I don’t think Tarkovsky has that kind of electricity that Godard has. No one has; Godard is unique. Tarkovsky’s content is very noble–but it remains only content.
JR: Not for me. The really interesting aspect of The Stalker is how much it resembles a structural film–almost any random five minutes has the shape and structure of the whole–while describing the way that we all live and think and lie to ourselves. These two qualities actually support one another–one could even say that they make the film equally unbearable to confront, in a way.
What I’m basically objecting to is critics who wrote about both film and politics, but who avoid connecting them in ways that might be challenging–such as linking them up with their own lives, for example.
JM: When Amy Taubin writes about a film and interprets it politically, there is nothing sillier.
JR: Even when Peter Biskind or J. Hoberman or Annette Michelseon write about film or politics, they often tend to keep each category squeaky-clean, without any serious threat of mutual embrace. My criticism of Millennium Film Journal is that it’s not a magazine that wants to change the world; it wants to keep the world exactly the way it is.
JM: My objection is that it’s not readable! Actually, I have two objections. The main one is, if you haven’t seen the film about which someone in Millennium is writing, there is no way of knowing what it is– there is no perspective, no judgment, no comparison; it’s all descriptive. Equal space and treatment is given to everything. It’s academic, but not on a high level–it’s like a student’s class assignment.
JR: How would you compare its film coverage to that of October?
JM: October is in a different class. It’s one of the most important film magazines that we have, because it brings the best in its own area of interest. You may reject the whole direction, but at least it is a direction. And the pieces are always of a high quality. When it does a special issue to Fassbinder after 20 issues, then it’s strayed from that direction–but that’s a real anomaly. And I hope that it won’t happen again, because it destroys what that magazine has achieved.
JR: I couldn’t agree more.
Robert Haller: May I ask a question? I wonder what the two of you think about why institutions and artists do things. Very specifically, Emile d’Antoino is someone you probably think is a political filmmaker, and someone who’s even interested in social change. But I don’t think Emile is interested in social change. I think he’s interested in articulating his feelings and ideas about what is happening in society. But I don’t think he’s under any illusion that he’s going to chance society.
JR: Well, one criticism that’s been made of a lot of New York work generally–including, say, Yvonne Rainer’s as well as Emile d’Antonio’s–is that it’s about politics without being political. And this differentiates it from some European work. One argument I make about Straub and Huillet is that they really want to change the world. Now you can say that’s utopian, and maybe the only way they might change the world at all is if one person’s consciousness gets changed in a certain direction, then it could lead to other changes. So it’s not a plan for a whole social revolution. But it’s a beginning.
JM: Do you really think that they want to change the world more than Brakhage or [Peter] Kubelka? Do you really believe so?
JR: I don’t know. Maybe they want to change the world in reverse directions.
JM: Certainly Brakhage has affected things politically more through changing the vision of what and how one sees things.
JR: That’s what Straub and Huillet do as well. But what kind of implications do you see in Brakhage’s work and the effect it has on people.
JM: It’s obvious that some believe at this point it’s more important to restructure the government, the social system, and for them that’s the political action. And there are others who feel that’s very superficial, that won’t work unless you change human beings some other ways–and that’s their action, that we have to work on sensibilities and certain feelings and emotions, and that’s a deeper change than just the system. Of course, if you change the system, you try to impose something–I think the Soviets are doing that from the other end. The Poland of politics. Disaster. And the other way, which Brakhage wants and many others, what some religious leaders try–that doesn’t work so easily either.
But these are only two attitudes, and they’re both political actions coming from a very deep engagement in how one sees the world, how one judges where things are weakest and how they should be strengthened. At this point, I support more Brakhage’s direction than those who think of changing the system. From my observation of my short life, I think that Brakhage’s direction at this point is more correct. Therefore, his politics are more vital to humanity than those of…I don’t want to mention who.
JR: Where my formulation of the problem differs from yours is that I don’t see it as an either/or proposition at all. To me, there’s no way one can change a political structure without changing your own consciousness. Although I do understand that there’s a way in which developing the self in certain can be a movement away from trying to change social and political structures.
JM: I have no doubt that Straub and Brakhage would agree that the most important change is the inner change. From what I heard Straub say at the Collective last spring, I didn’t hear anything which would imply that he’s a political filmmaker in any other, different way. I think he just wants the same things Brakhage wants.
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