Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto
By Jonas Mekas
As you well know it was God who created this Earth and everything on it. And he thought it was all great. All painters and poets and musicians sang and celebrated the creation and that was all OK. But not for real. Something was missing. So about 100 years ago God decided to create the motion picture camera. And he did so. And then he created a filmmaker and said, “Now here is an instrument called the motion picture camera. Go and film and celebrate the beauty of the creation and the dreams of human spirit, and have fun with it.”
But the devil did not like that. So he placed a money bag in front of the camera and said to the filmmakers, ‘Why do you want to celebrate the beauty of the world and the spirit of it if you can make money with this instrument?” And, believe it or not, all the filmmakers ran after the money bag. The Lord realized he had made a mistake. So, some 25 years later, to correct his mistake, God created independent avant-garde filmmakers and said, “Here is the camera. Take it and go into the world and sing the beauty of all creation, and have fun with it. But you will have a difficult time doing it, and you will never make any money with this instrument.”
Thus spoke the Lord to Viking Eggeling, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Fernand Leger, Dmitri Kirsanoff, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Richter, Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, Cavalcanti, Jean Cocteau, and Maya Deren, and Sidney Peterson, and Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken, Bruce Baillie, Francis Lee, Harry Smith and Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, Ron Rice, Michael Snow, Joseph Cornell, Peter Kubelka, Hollis Frampton and Barbara Rubin, Paul Sharits, Robert Beavers, Christopher McLaine, and Kurt Kren, Robert Breer, Dore O, Isidore Isou, Antonio De Bernardi, Maurice Lemaitre, and Bruce Conner, and Klaus Wyborny, Boris Lehman, Bruce Elder, Taka Iimura, Abigail Child, Andrew Noren and too many others. Many others all over the world. And they took their Bolexs and their little 8mm and Super 8 cameras and began filming the beauty of this world, and the complex adventures of the human spirit, and they’re having great fun doing it. And the films bring no money and do not do what’s called useful.
And the museums all over the world are celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of cinema, costing them millions of dollars the cinema makes, all going gaga about their Hollywoods. But there is no mention of the avant-garde or the independents of our cinema.
I have seen the brochures, the programs of the museums and archives and cinematheques around the world. But these say, “we don’t care about your cinema.” In the times of bigness, spectaculars, one hundred million dollar movie productions, I want to speak for the small, invisible acts of human spirit: so subtle, so small, that they die when brought out under the Klieg lights. I want to celebrate the small forms of cinema: the lyrical form, the poem, the watercolor, etude, sketch, portrait, arabesque, and bagatelle, and little 8mm songs. In the times when everybody wants to succeed and sell, I want to celebrate those who embrace social and daily failure to pursue the invisible, the personal things that bring no money and no bread and make no contemporary history, art history or any other history. I am for art which we do for each other, as friends.
I am standing in the middle of the information highway and laughing, because a butterfly on a little flower somewhere in China just fluttered its wings, and I know that the entire history, culture will drastically change because of that fluttering. A Super 8mm camera just made a little soft buzz somewhere, somewhere on the lower east side of New York, and the world will never be the same.
The real history of cinema is invisible history: history of friends getting together, doing the thing they love. For us, the cinema is beginning with every new buzz of the projector, with every new buzz of our cameras. With every new buzz of our cameras, our hearts jump forward my friends.
This text was presented at the American Center in Paris, February 11, 1996 and first published by agnès b. as a large format, 8-page artist’s magazine in point d’ironie, no. 1 (Paris, 1996). Thanks to Pip Chodorov for providing his full-length transcription.
Tilda Swinton’s character in The Limits of Control has a line, “Movies are like dreams you’re never really sure you’ve had; sometimes my favorite films are the ones where people sit there and don’t say anything.”
Some movies tell stories. At one point in my life I fell in love with the idea of how movies tell stories or at least different types of stories. When I discovered European cinema and movies from Japan, they opened up whole new worlds for me. Because I loved them so, I thought it might be a way for me to express myself creatively. I discovered that I am not a good story teller. There is some disconnect between the story in my head and how the idea gets translated onto film or onto paper. I can’t tell jokes for the same reason. I see the joke in my head but the punch line either comes out of sequence or I forget it all together. It has made for awkward moments at parties, until I realized it was better for me to laugh at someone else’s joke than try to tell one. I appreciate good stories and I love movies that tell a good yarn. I also love movies that have great ideas that inform them and will overlook some narrative shortcomings because the concept behind them appeals to me.
Having said that, when I was exposed to the world of what is referred to as experimental cinema (non-narrative, underground, avant-garde are other labels) the experience of watching them was more akin to reading poetry or being in a dream. Many of them opened up an inner world, sometimes wondrous, other times frightening, using different means to also tell a story, sometimes an ‘alternate’ narrative or sometimes to tell no story at all. There is a diverse universe with many voices in the film world, narrative and non-narrative alike – as there are in all the arts. I must admit that I find myself at home with many of these non-traditional artists – Jonas Mekas with his film diaries, Stan Brakhage with his multiple experiments with form and intent, Ken Jacobs’ work to change how we experience cinema, and countless others. I enjoy the work of Jim Jarmusch and Terrence Malick as well, two American film-makers who work in the traditional narrative mode but who stretch the boundaries of what it means to be a story teller in this contemporary age. There are countless others to mention but this is not a film blog and there are plenty of writers out there who devote a lot of time and thought into the film-making world. The point of this entry is to try to explain some of my influences and inspirations, biases and inclinations – all of this really for my own benefit to try to see why I create what I do. It is the daimonic impulse I am trying to explore.
“I think it’s a very unfortunate mistake to think that what the avant garde filmmakers are doing is something very far out and not for the everyday. People seem to think that our lives, or the strangeness of our lives may be of some interest, but not our work. But I think the work is universal, because poetry is universal. There is no difference between reading a volume of Sylvia Plath and seeing a film by Stan Brakhage. I wonder where ideas that Poetic Cinema is more difficult to appreciate come from. In schools Faulkner and Olson are taught in the same classes. In literature the kind of separation that is made in cinema does not exist.” – Jonas Mekas in conversation with Stan Brakhage
A clip from Mekas’ ‘Walden’
Brakhage’s ‘Dante’s Quartet’ – click on ‘watch on youtube’ link and watch full screen