There was a moment in the Q&A with Jonas Mekas which heralded the start of a season of the great filmmaker’s work at the BFI, when he claimed that all artwork should be understood in the context of the disaster which produced it; the litany of wars, oppressions and perpetual exploitations which comprise history as we know it. He didn’t say it in so many words, but the sentiment expressed certainly seemed selfsame with Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted homily that ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not the same time a document of barbarism’.
I’m not sure if Mekas has read much Benjamin, but his wonderful films have always seemed to me to play out what Adorno criticised in Benjamin’s work as Benjamin’s ‘wide-eyed presentation of actualities.’ In one of his many letters, Benjamin claimed that his project amounted to the ‘attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were’, and this is also Mekas’s project. In films such as Walden, we might experience events which are commonly considered epochal – Mekas was at the epicentre of pretty much every notable development in the arts which occurred in New York from the mid fifties onwards – through minutiae which happened to affect Mekas in the moment. This was evident even in the Q&A: as Sandra Hebron stood onstage introducing Mekas to a packed theatre, he was – much to my barely-controllable excitement – sitting right next to me, and instead of filming Hebron onstage, his DV camera surveyed the room for smaller details.
To appropriate quotes from Benjamin’s These on the Philosophy of History, Mekas is certainly ‘a chronicler who relates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones.’ By seizing ‘the past…as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised’, Mekas prevents images of the past that are ‘not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns’ from disappearing irretrievably. His work does not contend itself with ‘establishing a causal connection between various moments in history’ but instead ‘establishes a conception of the present as the “time of the now”’ in its immediacy.
When, at the end of the Q&A, questions were taken from the audience, more than one person made the point that, with the advent of the myriad of portable recording devices, essentially everyone is filming like Mekas now. I, however, am completely unconvinced with this superficial comparison. It might now be possible to walk around filming everything on one’s iPhone; and it might also be possible to add a filter to the stuff you shoot which makes it look like it was captured on Mekas’s Bolex circa 1965, but all this certainly does not guarantee that one will capture the truth, beauty and contradictions of Mekas’s work. Another audience member asked Mekas who his favourite filmmaker is, and received a suitably dismissive response. However, in the presence of a filmmaker who has always obstinately pursued his aesthetic intuition and created work which is entirely sui generis yet wholly accessible to everyone who opens themselves to it, I felt it’d be easier for me to answer that question.