Rereading Mekas: Avant-garde Film and Audience Subjectivity

Jan-Christopher Horak

I have tried. I have done everything to be just like everybody else. I have tried to be down to earth. Digging my hands deep into the sand pile on Sixth Avenue. Touching the ground in Central Park with my bare feet.

But I remain a stranger here. There is a distance between me and every building, every street, every face. -- Jonas Mekas, December 1951

Jonas Mekas wrote these lines in his diary a little more than two years after coming to the United States. A stranger in a strange land, a displaced person, cast adrift in an alien culture. As in all of his work, whether his film diaries or autobiography, Mekas describes his acclimatization in physical terms, the tactility of nature his measuring stick. Others have written about Mekas’ Romantic leanings. But as I read these lines, I also imagine that at the very moment Mekas is writing down these thoughts in his tiny room in Brooklyn, I’m lying in a large basket on Ellis Island, another displaced person, but too young to know it. Like my twin brother gurgling across from me in the same basket, I’m not concerned with the masses of mostly Eastern Europeans lining up to talk to officers of the INS in that cold hall on Ellis Island on December 14, 1951. I hear foreign tongues, but only the soothing words of my mother are of interest to me. I’m unconcerned, where my next bottle of milk will come from in this new land. I don’t remember the months of waiting in a Munich DP camp. At eight months old I weigh just barely ten pounds, due to malnutrition. (My descriptions of these times are the product of stories passed down from my parents and snapshots I’ve seen of the family: in Gander, on the unpresurrized DC-3 Flying Tiger, at Idlewild, my own DP Card.) Only much later will I learn what it means to be a displaced person. Only much later, when I emigrate back to Europe as a teenager, will I really understand the negative force of dislocation, the alienation of what we term “culture shock.”

I first met Jonas Mekas in October 1972, when he presented a screening of his Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania to an audience at the university I was attending. Mekas had just shown the film at the New York Film Festival, where it was warmly received; the cineastes I hung out with certainly felt privileged to see it literally a few weeks after that initial premiere. Personally, I was mightily impressed with the man, whose work I had been reading religiously in the Village Voice. At that time, I was a senior history major who had taken several film courses and was just applying to graduate schools in film, while trying to decide whether I would rather work as a film critic for Time or The Village Voice. I published a review of Reminiscences in the college newspaper, which I will quote in a minute, not because it is particularly brilliant – after all I was just learning about film – but rather because I hope to accomplish two things in this essay. First, I would like to review the reception of this film in relation to what was eventually seen as Mekas’ creation of a new autobiographical film form; that reception has clearly become richer with each passing year, beginning with the naïve, film industry-centric reviews at the time of its premiere and developing into the layered and complex readings of Mekas’ film work, published by P. Adams Sitney and later David James in his anthology To Free the Cinema. Secondly, and this is why I will begin with my own review of thirty years ago, by discussing Reminiscences in relation to my own history, I would like to theorize my own position as viewer, in order to make some observations about the positionality of the subject in autobiographical films of the avant-garde.

It seems to me that while the artist and the object have been privileged in critical discourses surrounding avant-garde film and its historiography, it is often wrongly assumed that modernism eludes subject positioning altogether because the mechanisms of identification so well defined in relation to classical Hollywood narrative are completely subverted in avant-garde film practice. Certainly, while audience identification is not a primary concern of the film avant-garde, and indeed analytic and formalist distancing devices are a raison d’etre of a self-reflexive cinema, naming itself avant-garde, many avant-garde films do solicit and elicit emotional responses. Like other filmmakers of the American avant-garde, Mekas straddles seemingly contradictory aesthetic notions: romantic in impulse and modernist in execution. Finally, I have come to believe that the aesthetic experience of avant-garde cinema is necessarily imbricated by the subjectivity of the viewer, whether at the level of content or through the formalist play of supposedly semantically empty images, allowing an audience to engage in a kind of reverie that enriches reception. When narrative is involved, even narrative fragments, the subject exists both within and without the text.

When Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania opened in October 1972, the mainstream press, as was to be expected, failed to understand the film because they judged it by the standards of a Hollywood film product, rather than as a work of the avant-garde. Variety’s film review may be considered typical of the film’s early reception, where it notes: “…this dull, repetitious, poorly photographed ‘home movie’ of a visit by the brothers Mekas and their families to their home in Lithuania in 1971 could well make the viewer wonder at their filmmaking reputation, which is quite good.”1 The reviewer goes on to talk about the film’s other deficits, including bad, choppy editing; over-exposed shots; abrupt endings and repeated versions of the same scenes. The reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter, on the other hand, was so perplexed that he decided to just plagiarize Vincent Canby’s New York Times review, which is sympathetic, commenting on the film’s overall “passion, affection and wonder” that also mark Mekas as a film critic and his use of special effects to get at the essence of scenes. Canby ultimately reads the film as a coming-of-age story about the inability to return “home” to one’s childhood.2

My own take as a twenty-one year old was that the film was only a failure if judged by the standards of Hollywood film criticism, given its jerky and nervous camera, its over and under exposed images, and its rapid editing. I deemed it successful as a consciously constructed work of art. I understood that Mekas’ narration and utilization of folk and classical music took the film out of the realm of purely formal experiment, and into a highly personal form of cinema. In particular, I was struck by Mekas’ attachment to the natural environment of his native Lithuania, writing: “The shots are loving, because, coming from peasant stock, Mekas’ roots were totally entrenched in the land. All the more traumatic was his exile because he was exiled not only from his homeland, but from the land, the soil.”3 I specifically comment on the scenes taking place in Vienna, which are marked by a sense of stability and permanence symbolized by Peter Kubelka (a lifelong resident of Vienna), the monastery with its centuries old library, etc. However, even that sense of permanence, in contrast to the transitory nature of the exile experience, is ironically undercut by the final scene of the fire destroying Vienna’s old fruit market.

Clearly, a couple more years would pass before anyone understood the significance of what Mekas was doing in regards to what would be later called “diary cinema.” True, he had already released his earlier diary film Diaries, Notebooks, and Sketches (1969), but I do not think even Mekas understood that he was in the process of creating a new film form, which would ultimately secure him a place in film history as a filmmaker, and not just as a critic, polemicist, exhibitor, and archivist of the avant-garde.

In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney was the first critic to place Mekas’ ground-breaking autobiographical cinema into a high art cultural context, arguing that his films are visual equivalents to the British Romantic poetry and autobiography of Wordsworth’s Prelude or Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.4 Sitney discovers a master narrative in Mekas’ diary films, which reworked the Romantic myth of innocence lost, including the failed quest for its recovery, and the ultimate integration of the subject into a new community of artists. Sitney’s narrative has indeed informed all subsequent readings: “Mekas constantly weaves together celebrations of the present moment, immediately and ironically present on the screen, with elegiac and ironic illusions to a presence that is forever absent to the camera lens: the vision of nature and of his childhood.” 5 That conflict is resolved for Sitney in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania by “celebrating the present with renewed vigor,” namely in community with his fellow artists and fellow travelers in the American film avant-garde. Fred Camper, for example, has said, “Mekas’ primary movement (is) inward, toward a personalized view of all seen, toward the exclusion of the impersonally objective.”6

In Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, David James embellishes Sitney’s thesis of the quest of the Romantic artist, but also identifies the creation of an alternative film practice, to say nothing of the birth of the “New American Cinema” as a constituent element of that Romantic myth.7 Including out of focus footage, under-exposed footage, mistakes, repetitions, etc. allows Mekas to make the process of filmmaking transparent, an impetus that is of course at the heart of the modernist project. James remarks on the similarity of this aesthetic to Jack “Kerouac’s insistence on responsiveness to the present moment of composition,” but is also aware of the fact that in Mekas’ avant-garde practice the Romantic reconciliation with nature is imbedded in the process of editing and post-production, which usually occurred years later.

In his subsequent work To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas & the New York Underground, David James therefore makes a distinction between “film diary” and “diary film.”8 The former is Jonas Mekas’ personal record of his life, begun only months after his arrival in the United States and continuing up to the present, shot on 16mm and left unedited for longer or shorter periods of time. That Mekas views these as notes, rather than completed works, is made clear in his Village Voice “Film Journal” column when he describes how the Immigration and Naturalization Service confiscated his film diaries in 1967: “…As a welcome back into the country the customs seized all my New York film diaries and my European film diaries which I was carrying with me as working materials. What this means is the same as seizing the travel notebooks of a writer – my films are such travel notebooks.”9 Mekas’ diary films, on the other hand, are those edited works he began producing at irregular intervals after 1968.

While Mekas states that his diary films are uncut and therefore reflect life as he lived it, this is in fact only true in an aesthetic sense – in that they reflect their own moment of production. As David James notes: “The claim that the edited diaries preserve only spontaneous composition is misleading.”10 Not only is material excised but also titles, a voice over narration, and music are added, turning what was a spontaneous record into a mediated visual experience, filtered through the consciousness of Mekas the filmmaker. Furthermore, as James notes, the visuals themselves are not an unmediated record of Mekas’ visual perceptions, but rather a “medium specific” perception that is to a degree independent of the filmmaker.11 Mekas is in fact known for sometimes turning the camera on and literally shooting from the hip, without looking through the camera’s lens. Only in the process of editing does he actually see what the camera has documented. While the camera captures some of the chaos of reality, incorporating its own means of production within the text, Mekas voiceover narrative makes sense of the images, if only to communicate the sense of nostalgia and loss he feels making and watching these images from the distant or recent past. Or as David James puts it: “Where the film diary was constrained within the present of immediate perception, the diary film confronts its own present with the assembled fragments of a time now lost, of loss itself, of a past that can neither ontologically nor filmically be ‘presented’.”12

Maureen Turim in her thoughtful piece on Reminiscences in To Free the Cinema argues that the terms “diary films,” “personal cinema,” “autobiographical cinema” are fraught with contradictions, but that the way the New American Cinema practitioners used them referred not to just anyone’s biography, but rather almost exclusively to the life stories of male artists.13 Furthermore, while Romantic, autobiographical poetry or prose reveals the “inner life” of the writer, autobiographical films are constructed around the absence of the subject, because the cameraperson is not filming him or herself, but rather events taking place around them. As Turim notes:

To state this theoretically, autobiography strains at the limits of cinema as an apparatus of representation when it strives for this level of mimetic reproduction. The other can record the self or the self can record the other and the world, but the self cannot simply capture or control its own filmic articulation.14

Thus, according to Turim, the autobiographical text can only be constructed with the help of language (on the soundtrack, through titles), which allows for a reordering of disparate images into an autobiographical narrative that creates a history after the fact. Indeed, not only are the images historicized, they function as memory, creating myths of the artist in the thick of things. Or as Turim puts it: “The voice is speaking from the present, situating the images in the past.”15 Turim goes on to argue that Reminiscences constructs a myth in three parts: displacement, loss, and finally reintegration into an international community of artists and intellectuals. While in the first part Mekas reminiscences about his early life in New York as a Lithuanian DP, the second reframes his recent trip to Lithuania after a twenty-five-year absence from his home and mother, and the third presents a home movie of meeting his friends Peter Kubelka, Hermann Nitsch, Ken Jacobs, and Annette Michelson in Vienna. By placing himself at the center of this group of internationally known artists and critics, Mekas recovers metaphorically from the displacement and loss of his homeland by joining a free-floating “world community.” The fragmented style, as Turim, James, Michael Renov, and Jeffrey Ruoff all argue, is not so much documenting reality, as it is a synecdoche of Mekas’ personal memory, images filtered through consciousness and fragmented, much as those scenes we carry in our mind’s eye.16 Turim concludes that Mekas ultimate goal is the documenting of emotional truths, not necessarily historical reality, which allies him to the romantic project of other 1960s avant-garde filmmakers.

Without contradicting these readings, I would like to de-emphasize the Romantic master narrative, which takes Mekas’ biography and his autobiographical film out of the real world into a timeless, mythical space, and try to return it to history, in particular the experience of exile. Paul Arthur moves in this direction in a recent piece, when he writes: “I hardly need remind you that home, or rather its absence as inscribed in the master trope of “displaced person,” is the motive force in Jonas’s film career, in every aspect, exerting a global tug of instability that extends from the morphology and syntax and chronology of/in the work to J’s characteristic metaphor of vision, the “glimpse” or instantaneous seizing and letting go of objects of desire, an ambivalence around holding, keeping, ordering, maintaining, settling into…”17 I find this an interesting notion, although I suspect that Mekas’ technique was possibly heavily influenced by Hans Richter, with whom Mekas took a film course in the early 1950s, since Richter had been preaching the gospel of an autonomous camera eye since the 1920s.18 But Arthur, too, while making productive use of the metaphor, understands it only as a process of loss, a loss of roots and homeland, which can never be recovered and which demands of the artist that he in some deep metaphysical sense remain lost, lost, lost. I’m interested less in the moment of departure from the homeland than in the years of exile themselves.

While the idea of Heimat, encapsulated in the image of the lost mother, remains the structuring absence at the center of Mekas’ work, I’m also struck by another absence, specifically in his diary film cycle, which now in 2004 encompasses twelve or more films, namely the missing chronicle of his life as an actual, legal DP, before immigrating to America. For four and a half years, Mekas lived in a legal limbo, stateless, homeless, essentially without an identity, the tenant of a series of camps, with no idea when that status would change. Indeed, when the war ended in May 1945, Mekas probably thought that peace would return him to some state of normalcy, yet until his arrival in the United States in the last days of October 1949, Mekas remained in a metaphorical waiting room, unable to make plans, unable to move forward or backwards, living in a purgatory in which he could not carve out an existential identity (at least in reality). His major concern in this period of extreme deprivation was food and shelter, both of which were ostensibly provided by charitable organizations. The mid-twenties are usually a time in which every young person is itching to get on with their life, yet for Mekas they were four and a half lost years, while in his prime. A bitter pill for anyone, much less for someone who had thought they had escaped the ravages of war. While the Communists and the Nazis were responsible for the loss of his homeland, no higher authority could be blamed for his state in the DP camps. Yet despite the deep wounds this period undoubtedly caused, it remains invisible in his films, not only because Mekas was not yet in possession of a film camera, but also because Mekas chooses not to remember on film. In Reminiscences, Mekas visits the Elmshorn labor camp where the Nazis kept him as a slave laborer for less than eight months, but skips stops in Mattenberg, outside Kassel and Schwäbisch-Gemünd, where he spent nearly half a decade in the DP camps. Was it simply inconvenient to go there on his way to Vienna, or did he feel the nothingness of that period could not be visualized, beyond shots of some decrepit buildings?

It is worth noting that no less than 266 of 469 pages, or 57%, of Mekas’ published autobiography deal with his life as a displaced person from the end of World War II to his immigration to New York. I would therefore like to pause for a reading of I Had Nowhere to Go, which covers the years 1944 to 1955, i.e. his life as displaced person before he found a new career as polemicist, archivist, and filmmaker of the American film avant-garde.19

Already the title, I Had No Where to Go, shifts emphasis away from the loss of his native soil to the fact that he was cast adrift. And indeed, there are surprisingly few passages in the book in which Mekas nostalgically reminisces about his childhood in the fields of Semeniskiai.20 Instead, two obsessions dominate. On the one hand, the daily struggle for food and shelter, since the rations supplied by the International Relief Organizations were never enough, and, on the other, Mekas’ bibliophilia. Of his obsessive preoccupation with food, Mekas writes: “I’m ashamed of how much space in my diaries I am giving to what we eat. To the stomach. I know many a reader will put me down, because of that. But that is the reality of our lives, these days. You try to stick to the spirit, but the stomach wins.”21

Apart from Mekas’ awareness of his dietary needs, this quote is interesting for another reason: it exemplifies the fact that Mekas is not just writing a diary for himself, rather even at this early date he is writing as a poet, as a writer, as an artist who will one day publish his diary. From the introductory pages of the autobiography we know that Mekas and his brother Adolphas identified themselves as poets, even before they left Lithuania, and certainly in the period they were in the displaced persons camp. It was that largely imaginary identity that kept them from the noose (seen hanging at the beginning of Reminiscences), kept them from falling too deeply into despair. While others take jobs in the camps, they sit and read, they write poetry and diaries, they discuss literature. Mekas writes in November 1947: “Everybody’s signing up for Canada. Mostly they are looking for tailors, shoemakers, professions like that. It’s enough to know how to sew a button on-you are hired. No requests for poets yet.” A year later he notes: “I am against office work in principle… As far as work goes, - we can do everything, despite our firm belief that in America the only honest way of living for a poet is the life of a bum.”22 Even in the DP camps, they are Bohemians in the making.

Certainly, Jonas was a reader. In July 1945, a mere four months after their escape from the Nazi labor camp, Mekas tells us that he and his brother are schlepping over a hundred books with them.23 When they arrive in Wiesbaden at a new DP camp, the American MPs are perplexed: “They open one bag – books. The open another – books… They open suitcases – more books. ‘Where are your things?‘ one asks. ‘We have no things,’ we say. We point at our books, we say these are our things. They look at us as one looks at the insane…”24 When the brothers embark on the steamship that will take them to America in October 1949, they are carrying merely one small suitcase and over 500 lbs of books in nine crates!25 Jonas Mekas gets his higher education attending classes irregularly at the University of Mainz, but he is actually an autodidact, vociferously reading everything he can lay his hands on.

What keeps Mekas going through all those years in labor and DP camps, and even the first years of struggle in the United States, is in fact his stable identity as an artist. Thus when Sitney, James, Turim, and others see Mekas’ loss of homeland resolved in his integration into a community of avant-garde artists, this functions to bolster the “romantic myth of the artist,” but ignores the real fact that Mekas thought of himself as a poet long before he was forced to leave his tiny village. Indeed, the autobiography begins with his description of the libraries of his childhood. Even without the War and post-War chaos, it seems virtually certain that Mekas would have eventually moved from the familial hearth to “go West,” to lead the life of an artist, whether in Berlin, Vienna or Paris. In New York, he works menial jobs because, as he states repeatedly, he doesn’t want a profession. His profession is that of an artist.26

This is not to say that there weren’t categorical imperatives that affected his professional development, during the years of his displacement. For one, the loss of homeland necessarily denied him the use of his mother tongue, Lithuanian, as a language for poetic expression. In 1952, he writes about his poems: “I have no plans to publish them. I have no illusions about the readership for my work outside Lithuania.”27 For five years Mekas’ primary language is German, as a reader and as a speaker to the world outside the camp. His German becomes good enough to “pass” for a German, at least when speaking to American soldiers and other foreigners. In April 1949, he writes from Kassel: “I am happy where I am. I think I will be redeemed and delivered right here.” In December 1947, he starts translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duiner Elegies. Had the economic situation been more promising in Germany and had the nation not been completed destroyed, one can at least imagine that Mekas may have remained in country. Once permission to go to the United States was granted, Mekas had to start learning yet another foreign language. But by then, he and his brother had long since been interested in film as a medium of expression.

In the DP camps, they spent a lot of time and spare change going to the movies. In his diaries, Mekas occasionally lists his likes and dislikes. The first mention of film is October 1945, when Mekas sees Chaplin’s The Goldrush. In November 1947, he sees Wir machen Musik, a German musical from 1942 that bores him, so he leaves after half an hour. A day later he writes: “Movies here (in Mainz) are old, bad German movies. In Wiesbaden we saw Gaslight, a little bit better.” 28 Less than six months after arriving in New York, they begin filming with a borrowed camera and no money. Their friends think they are crazy. As a romantic, Mekas believes that artists must be mad. When they finally succeed, it is not only their integration as DPs into the American avant-garde that is at stake, but also the realization of long-standing ambitions as artists. It is not inconceivable, that Mekas’ career would have taken a similar trajectory, no matter where he had been.

I therefore have a slightly different take on the first scene in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania than, for example, Maureen Turim, who sees the artist’s communion with nature as the moment of his assimilation into America. In Mekas’ first words to the audience in the film, he dates the footage as “Early Fall 1957 or 1958.” The sequence overtly constructs a narrative of Mekas’ developing roots in American soil. However, this time period is exactly when he experiences his first professional successes as an artist and intellectual in a new land. In 1953, he had initiated his first avant-garde screenings, an activity he has continued virtually to the present day. In 1955, he established Film Culture and by 1958, he had begun writing for The Village Voice. Finally, he and his brother shot their first theatrical feature, Guns of the Trees, in 1958 even though it wasn’t released until two years later. While Turim describes the disconnect between the recorded (the images) and the remembered event (narrative on soundtrack) in this sequence, I perceive a wholly different kind of disconnect, between the images that connote a harmonious existence within nature – after all Mekas had been walking in those American woods since 1950 – and the actual reality of his assimilation, which was much more likely a function of the public confirmation of his identity as an artist in an urban environment, in a supremely urban medium, namely cinema. In what amounts to a Freudian slip, Mekas refers to “the last ten years… of war, hunger and Brooklyn,” which are in fact his years in America, when he actually means his last fifteen years as a displaced person. At this moment, Mekas experiences – for possibly the first time – ‘unalienated labor’; it is the first time his self-proclaimed persona as a poet/artist and his life as a professional are wholly one. I’m reminded of my parents.

It took my parents just about as long to not only make a living in America, but also to find success in their professional careers, thereby regaining the social status they had lost, and, thus, finally feel more like Americans, than Europeans. My father was a Czech national who fled Czechoslovakia in 1948 after the Communist putsch, which toppled the democratically elected government of Eduard Beneš. As a Nazi Concentration Camp survivor, a member of the non-Communist underground and a political activist in the Czech National Socialist Party, my father was a triple threat to the new regime. What the Communists didn’t know was that he had gone back into the resistance, working for the C.I.C., the intelligence department of the U.S. State Department. In cooperation with American intelligence operatives, he lead a group on August 7, 1948 that smuggled the former Deputy Prime Minister of the National Socialist Party, Dr. Peter Zenkl,29 over the border, no mean feat, given the fact that the gentleman was under house arrest. He spent the next three years working for the International Refugee Organization in various DP camps in Ludwigsburg and Heilbronn, Germany. He would have emigrated to the States sooner, but his marriage to a German-born woman in 1949 and the birth of his children repeatedly delayed the procurement of sponsors and visas. For eight years, his parents had no idea whether he was dead or alive. Eleven years after coming to the United States, my dad was again a successful chemist in management, a position he left behind in Prague, while my mother was able to complete the university studies the War had put to an end and begin teaching school. In 1962, they were also able to afford a trip back to Europe for the first time.

I watch Mekas’ footage of Lithuanian émigrés, mostly young men and women in their twenties and thirties, a few children, and I remember the Czech folk festivals in Cicero and Berwyn, outside Chicago. Christmas bazaars, Easter Eggs on trees, summer picnics at a horse farm. I look at photographs from the 1950s and realize my parents and their friends look like the faces in Mekas’ film. My father was a member of the Council of Democratic Czechoslovakia, an exile political organization, at least in the 1950s, so there was always lots of political talk. As in Mekas descriptions in the autobiography, there was also lots of drinking. Parties would invariably get loud and boisterous, with my uncle, another Czech refugee getting out his guitar so everyone could sing folk songs from home. Even as a child, I intuited that there were huge absences I could not name, a sense of desperation, drowned out by alcohol and food from home: Pivo, Kolački. They married among themselves, sometimes with disastrous results, because virtually all of them had left their families behind. As an adult, I realized that most of these Drbals, Kohouteks, and Vaničeks had nothing in common, other than their former homeland and language, bonds that eventually broke as assimilation took hold.

Lithuania after 25 years. Mekas’ footage of brothers, relatives, neighbors, often just standing around for the camera, is home movie footage pur. Seeing the sometimes dubious looks of his family as they peer into the camera, the walks in the fields around his childhood home, I am reminded of my own family’s first trip back to Prague. The often awkward pauses as my parents try to reconnect with old friends and relatives after almost fifteen years; our attempts as children to suffer through the formalities of familial gatherings. As in Mekas’ film, these encounters were largely ritualistic, consisting of eating, drinking and ceremonial walks in the woods or fields. My grandparents were haute bourgeoisie, whose property and wealth had long since been confiscated by the Communists, not peasants, but they were about as old as Mekas’ mother. The first day we arrived, we sat down to dinner at noon and didn’t get up from the table until 9:30 that night, having consumed several meals, coffee, cakes, and masses of drinks. They and my aunt, who I had never seen in person, still lived in the same villa my great-grandfather had built in 1925, but were reduced to three rooms, so the walls were literally covered with the paintings and art that used to hang in the whole house. My grandmother, of course, brought out her most precious crystal and china, attempting to bridge the chasm in time. The next day we drove out to the family’s former hunting lodge for a long walk. The outdoor bowling lane was being used to store hay, and the tennis courts were completely overgrown.

Back at the hotel, my father almost beat me when I asked him if the room was bugged. I thought it was a joke. Two years ago, my dad, who moved back to Prague in 1993, gained access to his secret police file (3000 pages) and realized we had indeed been under surveillance. In 2002, at the age of 81, he ran for the Prague City Council on the list of the ODS, thus taking up a political career he had left behind in 1948, when he was to be a candidate for City Council for the National Socialist Party.

Given this parallel history, it is not surprising that I have always identified Mekas a bit with my own father. Ironically, my dad had been an avid 8mm Pathé filmmaker before the War and in the immediate post-War period, a fact I only learned in the early 1990s – years after I had begun my own career in film – when he sent me a tape of some of his films. He told me that the last film he ever shot was taken at Jan Masaryk’s funeral in March 1948, but that the police confiscated the film and the camera because the mass demonstrations at the funeral were an embarrassment to the newly installed Communist government of Klemens Gottwalt. And, in another irony, like all sons, even metaphoric ones, I have rebelled a bit against the father. My book, Lovers of Cinema, is at least implicitly a critique of Mekas’ history of the American avant-garde.

When I was in my mid 20s, my parents told me that the thing they regretted most about raising their children was that by moving back to Europe in the mid 1960s they had unwittingly passed on to them their own sense of statelessness. In fact, at the age of thirteen, I was thrown into an alien culture (Germany) and thus experience the extreme alienation that comes from culture shock, from having to learn a new language, new cultural codes, a new identity. Like my parents, I learned to cross borders, able to navigate several cultures but not completely at home in any one of them.

For me, then, this film, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, is not just a work of autobiography; it is also a refracted mirror of my own family’s history, my own biography. And I don’t think I’m a unique case. Eventually, nearly 400,000 DPs entered the United States, alone, most of whom founded new families.30 And ultimately, the story of displacement and assimilation is not even unique to the DPs, but rather can be seen as a master narrative for almost all Americans who trace their heritage back to foreign soil. Indeed, what differentiates Mekas’ story of success as an artist in America from the myth of the American dream? So we are returned to the realm of myth, not of the romantic artist, but of a broader cultural phenomenon. As Hamid Naficy has noted in reference to all exile cinema, “the emigrant’s transformative process of cultural assimilation and adaptation entails their ability to transcend and transform themselves to produce hybridized, syncretic, performed or virtual identities.”31

I, therefore, argue that while Mekas’ avant-garde film practice may not position the subject with the same ironclad mechanisms of classical Hollywood cinema, his autobiographical voice on the soundtrack directly speaks to the audience from off screen and allows for various levels of identification. Indeed, identification is common to all autobiography, and all biography. What are the pleasures of biography/autobiography, why are we interested snooping about in other people’s lives? Philippe Lejeune, in his now famous book On Autobiography, writes that autobiography is “the retrospective prose narrative that someone writes concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality,” and that we believe the narrator, because of the “referential pact with the reader” that the narrative is essentially true and true-to-life, even if, as is often the case, the facts are tampered with.32 On the one hand, the level of specificity allows us to voyeuristically gaze at the other, at lives outside ourselves. On the other hand, our identification with the subject is based on generalities inherent in all lives lived. If this is true, then the pleasure in reading or viewing other people’s lives on film must also lie in the discovery of the self in such narratives, even when they are broken, distanced, or objectified in avant-garde film practice.

1 Robe, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, in: Variety, October 11, 1972 (AMPAS clipping).

2 Vicent Canby, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, in: The New York Times, October 5, 1972, p. 56; See also Nicholas Yanni, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, in: The Hollywood Reporter, October 5, 1972 (AMPAS clipping).

3 Christopher Horak, “‘Journey’ Takes Mekas Home,” in: The Delaware Review, October 31, 1972.

4 See David James, Allegtories of Cinema. American Film in the Sixties, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1989), p. 111.

5 P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film. The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, New York: Oxford University Press (1979), p. 360.

6 Fred Camper, “Seconds of Ecstasy,” in: The Chicago Reader, 17 January 1986, reprinted Senses of Cinema (, downloaded 6/21/2004.

7 David James, Allegories (1989), p. 111.

8 David James, Film Diary/Diary Film, in: David James (ed.): To Free the Cinema. Jonas Mekas & the New York Underground, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1992), p. 149.

9 Jonas Mekas, “New York Police Seize My Diaries,” in: The Village Voice, June 29, 1967, reprinted in: Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema 1959-1971, New York: MacMillan Company (1972), p. 283.

10 James, To Free, p. 154.

11 James, To Free, p. 158.

12 James, To Free, p. 164.

13 Maureen Turim, “Reminiscences, Subjectivities, and Truths,” in: James (1992), p. 193-4.

14 Turim, p. 194.

15 Turim, p. 203.

16 See Michael Renov, “Lost, Lost, Lost: Mekas as Essayist,” in James (1992), pp. 215-239; Jeffrey Ruoff, “Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World,” in: James (1992), pp. 294-312.

17 Paul Arthur, “Homeward Bound: Notes and Musings on Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty”, in: Millenium Film Journal, No. 38, Spring 2002 (, downloaded 6/21/2004

18 See for example Filmgegner von heute, Filmfreunde von morgen, Berlin 1929.

19 Jonas Mekas, I Had Nowhere to Go, New York: Black Thistle Press (1991).

20 Not until page 148 does Mekas address his loss: “I wonder how the clouds are now there, in Lithuania, and the wind, how is the wind?” See also pp. 162, 180, 194.

21 Ibid., p. 181-2.

22 Ibid., p. 125, 182-3. See also p. 196: “I have no profession, and I don’t want to have any.”

23 Ibid., p. 79.

24 Ibid., p. 95.

25 Ibid., p. 283.

26 Ibid., p. 314.

27 Ibid., p. 419.

28 See Mekas, p. 127-28. See also entry on Sept. 3, 1947, Mekas, p. 118.

29 In the parliamentary elections of May 1946, the Czechoslovak National Socialists became the second largest party, after the Communists, with 55 seats in the legislature. The Communists held a large majority, with 155 seats, and the People’s Party came in third (46 seats), followed by the Slovak Democratic Party (43 seats), Social Democrats (39 seats). The new cabinet, thus, included 9 Communists and seven non-Communist ministers, incl. Jan Masaryk as Foreign Minister.

30 Near the end of 1947, a US immigration bill required every DP immigrant to have a sponsor in the US. When not enough sponsors had been found, in June 25, 1948, Congress passed Public Law 774, the Displaced Persons Act which provided for more than 200,000 DPs to enter the US over the next two years. At first Czechs were not eligible, since most had been repatriated back to the democratic Czecholslovak Republic after war’s end. 50,000 Czech refugees fled Czechoslovakia as a direct result of persecution since January 1, 1948. Canada admitted over 15,000 in the first year after the February coup of 1948. But the United States did not allow Czechs and Slovaks into the country until Public Law 774 had been amended in late 1949. By June 30, 1952, a total of 393,542 immigrants had been admitted under the Displaced Persons Act. On the DP camps, see

31 Hammid Naficy, An accented cinema : exilic and diasporic filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2001), p. 13.

32 Philippe Lejeune, On autobiography; edited and with a foreword by Paul John Eakin; translated by Katherine Leary. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press(1989).