Jonas Mekas: I look you now from a distance

Performance and auditory worlds in the work of Jonas Mekas

[An academic text originally written in 2006. Posted on the occasion of Mekas’s passing in January 2019.]

Diaries, Notes & Sketches a.k.a. Walden 1964-1969 by Jonas Mekas born 1922

Jonas Mekas, frames from Diaries, Notes and Sketches aka Walden, 1969.

Jonas Mekas began his relationships with the body of film works in New York City in the late 1940’s: Mekas had arrived in the United States in 1949 as a Lithuanian exile, displaced first by the Nazis, followed directly by Soviet occupation of his home country. Upon arrival, he and his brother started following their Hollywood aspirations by obtaining a Bolex camera and immediately began filming, an initiation much mythologized by Mekas in his own films, as well as (alas) providing an introduction for many of the essays about his work. Through the 50’s, Mekas’s interest and involvement with cinema grew, founding the magazine Film Culture in 1955, though, despite cumulative footage taken since 1949, it wouldn’t be until 1962 he finally edited together his first feature. (The Guns of the Trees, filmed that same year; it would be 1969 before he finally used two decades worth of filming to create his first ‘Diaries, Notes and Sketches,’ Walden.)

By the 1960’s, he had developed his own style of filming and film-making and launched into a currently on-going career spanning over fifty years, creating and collaborating in at least that number of films. Mekas has become an influential, albeit persistently liminal, figure through his problematic admixture of allegedly ‘documentary’, indexical footage and the narrative and auditory accompaniment and manipulation of that footage. The breadth of his investigations makes any overview of his oeuvre a daunting task, but it is interesting to note how he has participated in his own casual way in the postmodernist discursive archaeology of the perception of objectivity, following continuing strands of inquiry involving the interplay of past and present, fact and fiction, history and memory. This arises from a system of references to elements of documentary film, home movies, and literary forms such as the travelogue and the essay, where the films can then comment on the provision of an objective, comprehensive ‘document’. This, in critical perception, has amounted to casting Mekas’s films as solely as variations of the documentary form. Critics acknowledge his films as testing the limits of what qualifies as a documentary, as a “first person activity”[1] that generally “equates a subjective camera with the consciousness of the filmmaker.”[2] But this is noted while still retaining the same analytical tools used for documentaries, such as questions of authenticity and causality. In addition, as noted in the quote above, and signalled by the episodic recounting of Mekas’s dramatic immigration to New York, examinations of his work have amounted to a conflation of artist and narrator, tracing the subjectivity of the films to find the filmmaker in the interests, editing, and opinions of the film, so that regardless of what the film purports to document, whether it be New York, Andy Warhol or John Lennon, the film is essentially about or a manifestation of Jonas Mekas. This has been a valuable form of examination, one even surreptitiously promoted by the filmmaker, but also in part historically supported by his colleagues, contemporaries, and collaborators such as P. A. Sitney providing critically influential writings.[3] There remains, however, a current vacuum of new critical approaches to such an intriguing body of work.

While I agree with the analysis of Mekas work that recognizes his fascination with the phenomenology of cinema, and his use of that in the performative creation of a subjective cinema, I wish to draw this away from an autobiographical ontology. I hope to do this by taking on a narratological analysis of the auditory narrative, predominantly his use of voice-over narration in his films. I can glibly concede each film does in its way create a version or manifestation of the filmmaker as the creator of that piece, but my analysis is driven by the formal consistencies across his work rather than historical or chronological mapping. By necessity, I will exclude the films that represent purely fictional aberrations, such as The Guns in the Trees (1962) and The Brig (1964); although they contain similar narrative modes and themes, they suggest different possibilities not within the scope of this essay.

Across Mekas’s work, an external male narrator (Mekas himself) provides a loose account of the events presented in the visual imagery, involving diary readings and retrospective musings. This narrator speaks in the first person, predominantly in the past tense, while sometimes invoking 2nd and 3rd person projections of thoughts and emotions onto characters in the footage, and occasionally breaking into the present tense, such as in Lost Lost Lost (1976) when he says, “I am going. Any direction. I don’t know where I am going and I don’t trust any mind, not any longer.”[4] Mekas’s narrator vocalises occasionally, sometimes allowing long periods of silence or varying abrupt periods of found recorded sound relating to the footage. It is important to note, however, the sound and the image never match up directly. The sound provides a circling, almost coincidental relationship to the visual present (i.e. the images being played concurrently), sometimes with sounds recorded at the same event but not at the same time or in direct correlation with the filmed images, or either manipulated, or simply juxtaposing two entirely separate events. This is illustrated in part by the opening of Scenes From the Life of Andy Warhol: Friends and Intersections (1991), in Mekas’s use of the recording of the Velvet Underground’s performance of “I’ll be your mirror” at the Dom in April 1966, being played over a recording of their first public performance at the Psychiatrists’ Convention in January earlier that year (a temporal misplacement he notes on an intertitle before we even see the film’s first image). This exposure draws attention to the separate diegeses of the visual and auditory elements of the films, a tension that corroborates with the temporal element of his narrator.

Throughout his films, the voice-over narrator appears to have some experience of the images being shown, whether having filmed them, witnessed or been in the recording, or in the case of borrowed footage, seen the images before. In terms of the visual fabula, then, the narrator is purportedly endodiegetic—coming from within the world shown to us in film. It is clear by the positioning of the narrators, however, that the voice-over occurs at a time disjointed from the visual present. While the formation of a believable world requires a particular time and place, the films’ narrators are therefore exodiegetic, moreover the auditory fabula unfolds a whole narrative world, a diegesis in itself. It is not simply a wholly unrelated auditory diegesis, in that elements of the recorded sound and verbal narrative relate directly to the visual fabula and can be traced to the same diegesis. But it does allow us to recognise Mekas’s work to be complexly multidiegetic, even cross-diegetic, and the tensions of the re-enactment of the creation of meaning to be performed through the interplay of these narrative layers. This provides, I believe, some contrast and complication to previous conceptualisations of his work, beyond Mekas’s own terminology of ‘diary’ and the reading of his work as solely ‘documentary’. Sitney notes that “the diary film has been misnamed,” but chooses to label Mekas’s work instead “quotidian lyrics, spontaneous, perhaps tentative, records of a sensibility in the midst of, or fresh from, experience.”[5] Mekas has been labelled an essayist[6], but perhaps most accurately is Hamid Naficy’s categorisation of Mekas as a creator of ‘letter-films,’ astutely recognising the performative epistolary nature of their narrative structures, that creates “an illusion of presence…that hovers in the text’s interstices.”[7]

It is with the performative orientation of Sitney and Naficy in mind that I would like to suggest another model for analysing Mekas’s work, a model suggested by fellow ‘letter-film’ creator Chris Marker. In Marker’s accompanying text for his 1995 exhibition Silent Movie called “The Rest is Silent,” he writes: “To be true, playing music wasn’t the only way to prevent the silent films from being silent: when the public simply didn’t understand the captions—be they illiterate, or foreigners—then appeared the character we Japanese call benshi, ‘the narrator,’ who stood beside the screen to translate, or arrange, or interpret the printed text. Kurosawa’s brother was one of these narrators, and the prestige of his function did a play part in the Master’s early fascination with movies, For, as he puts it in his autobiography, these benshi ‘not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen.’”[8]

Historically, it wasn’t unusual from the start of cinema to have ‘lecturers’ in the theatre, explaining the mechanism and unfolding of this new narrative form. But in Japan, from 1925 to 1941 the role became a prominent and highly respected position, and a regular, if not defining feature, of cinema experience. The benshi was already an existing role as the speaker or orator in traditional ‘presentational’ stage and performance genres, developing from other comingled performative art forms, such as bunraku puppetry theatre, and Japanese poetry traditions based on multiple, successive authorship. In the cinema, this role was called the setsumeisha (explainer),

hon’yakusha (translator), or most commonly the katsuben, a combination of katsudo shashin (literally ‘moving photographs’) and benshi. The katsuben were there for explanation, conveying the narrative, and operating consciously and explicitly outside of the world of the film, where they took the side of the audience, acting, as JL Anderson notes in an essay covering the history of the katsuben, as “exemplars of spectatorship individual viewers were asked to follow.” “The katsuben gave a vocal performance which involved dialogue, narration, an interpretation of content, and incidental comments while the movie was being shown. What the katsuben did was called eiga setsumei. The literal translation of this is ‘film explanation.’ It is well documented that – with almost no exceptions – silent films had katsuben when they were shown in Japan, in the colonies of Korea and Taiwan, and in Japanese neighbourhoods in Hawaii, in Brazil, and on the West Coast of the US.”[9]

The golden age of the katsuben was between 1927 and 1931, where star performers could earn as much as top directors and movie stars. Each theatre might have up to eight in-house katsuben, with nationwide competitions and polls. Audience members could often witness performances where katsuben would swap mid-film, to allow them a chance to show off their orating skills. It reached a point where katsuben performances were broadcast on radio and sold on record; the well-known katsuben Tokugawa Musei performed his Cabinet of Dr Caligari for over half a century – usually without the film. There was no set style, though the performers worked from a set of stock knowledge and queues. Characters in foreign films were nearly always given the same names: Mary for the heroine, Jim for the hero, and Robert for the villain. Performers would return to reoccurring themes and formulaic phrases, one of the most popular being ‘haru ya haru’: ‘spring, ah spring’, which would become a paean to youth and innocence.

Katsuben were nominally expected to translate, but often made up the lines entirely, and could change the narrative altogether – turning bad melodrama into comedy, or as Anderson points out, “One popular, libidinous Tokyo katsuben who found and exploited sexual innuendo in even the most innocent scenes on screen.” Some katsuben would work with a buzzer, to indicate to their projectionist to speed up or slow down the film – to allow them to wax more eloquent on particular scenes, or speed through those they felt were uninteresting. Katsuben Eda Fushiki published a book in 1910 instructing would-be performers, including the advice: ‘It is impermissible to mention things irrelevant to the picture’; ‘Refrain from words of self praise’; ‘The aim is to clearly and succinctly work towards arousing emotion’; and ‘Do not tell lies that cause people to err.’


Jonas Mekas, dumpling party footage still, 1971.

With this figure in mind then, let us return to Mekas. Taken as an allegory for the separate worlds of sound and image, this model provides a more appropriate representation of the on-going, interactive relationship of the two, as well as a more open acknowledgement of the role of the viewer in the creation of meanings. A good example at this point might be footage that has appeared in several films, the images appearing each time with different auditory accompaniment. In He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life (1985), Scenes From the Life of Andy Warhol: Friends and Intersections and Zefiro Torno or Scenes From the Life of George Maciunas (1992), Mekas uses the footage from a dumpling party held by Maciunas in June 1971 in all three films, but in hugely different contexts. The scene runs for seventy five seconds, and is characteristic of Mekas’s animated and blurred hand-held style, with twenty-nine jump cuts in such a short time, and several of those shots lasting only two or three frames. Present at the party were Mekas, Maciunas, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, John Lennon and several others, and the footage simply shows scenes such as Maciunas serving dumplings, Lennon photographing Ono, and Mekas eating and playing accordion. In Andy Warhol, the benshi (Mekas) presents this scene without verbal commentary. Earlier in the film we hear Mekas’s only comment, “So long Andy, see you again…for sure,” before the soundtrack is taken over by a sprawling recorded session of the Velvet Underground that continues over the dumpling scene, which creates the impressions of presenting the scene as part of a raucous, celebratory elegy for Warhol.

In Zefiro Torno, this scene is presented with the narrator reading a series of diary entries seven years into the future, when Maciunas is dying of cancer. The reading of the entry from February 20, 1978 begins shortly before the dumpling scene, recalling Maciunas’s humorous recounting of his 1962 stay in an Arizona rooming house with cowboys, “talking only about cows and no interest at all in anything else;” the narrator laughs while saying ‘anything.’ This episode ends during the scene, and we hear the narrator adjust the microphone, then begin reading the entry for March 1st, 1978, in which Mekas helps Maciunas catch a train. The scene ends as the narrator quotes Maciunas saying, “I wonder what I will be in my next life, I’m real curious. I believe in reincarnation.” This anachronistic pairing with the dumpling footage recasts the meaning of the scene, and while it too is elegiac, it is more sombre and mournful, with the humour of the story, the mention of reincarnation, and the images of the party overshadowed by a knowledge of what is to come manifesting the same scene as considerably more complex and poignant than the first.

What the katsuben model provides for cinema is a performative, non-illusory, non-autobiographical analysis of narration. Where much of Western film theory has developed from cinema as immersive illusion, Japanese cinema developed from traditional performance modes which were always presentational, not representational, and where the 4th wall (the transgression of which has defined Western postmodernism) was long acknowledged and consciously crossed.[10] Traditional analyses of the world of sound, or auditory fabula, in cinema has been set amongst the levels of narration, from the diegetic narrator, the nondiegetic narrator, and the historical author.[11] The katsuben is a blending of all three, a role that weaves an auditory narrative that corroborates, conflicts, or even ignores that of the visual imagery, creating a performative whole. Attempting to draw the film body of Jonas Mekas away from the ‘diary’, let us then imagine a katsuben for Mekas who is not Mekas himself. Recording in 1992, reading a note from 1978 that recalls 1962, along to footage from 1971, Mekas’s katsuben is a wildly subjective revisionist, engaged in an on-going reassessment of footage that he himself/she herself has filmed and is actively remembering, explaining, or even simply providing music for, assessing the past according to the provisional phenomenological perceptions of an experiential present. His katsuben is a restless fiddler, sometimes as if just simply putting on a record in the background while the projection whirrs away. His cinema is not one of illusion, of a straightforward journey immersed into the past, or of revisiting a lost world, but a complicated layering of separate times and worlds. This is why his films may feel elegiac, but never nostalgic: the messy, aleatory encounters enacted by the chance meetings of these worlds take on new lives each time they are performed.


[1] MacDonald, Scott, The Garden in the Machine, London, University California Press, 2001, page 231.

[2] Turim, Maureen, “Reminiscences, Subjectivities, and Truths,” in James, David E. (ed.), To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, page 194 (hereafter, “James, Free”).

[3] Mekas did, after all, call his films ‘diaries’; Sitney was a co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives in 1969, and appeared in Mekas’s films with his family.

[4] Said at the end of Reel 5, following the intertitle “Visit to the Asylum”.

[5] Both quotes Sitney, P. Adams, Visionary Film: The American Avant Garde 1943-2000, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition, 2002, page 424.

[6] See Renov, Michael, “Lost Lost Lost: Mekas as Essayist” in James, Free, in which Renov compares Lost Lost Lost and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.

[7] Naficy, Hamid, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2001, page 5.

[8] Quoted in Marker, Chris, “The Rest is Silent”, La Petite Illustration Cinématographique. Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, 1995. pp. 15-8, posted July 1995, accessed 11/9/06,

[9] JL Anderson, “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures,” in Reframing Japanese Cinema, eds Noletti and Desser, Indiana University Press, 1992.

[10] See Roland Barthes on Japanese bunraku and how the form achieves Brecht’s distancing effect: “It functions by the discontinuity of the codes, by this caesura imposed upon the different traits of representation, so that the copy made on stage should be, not destroyed but broken, so to speak, spared the metonymical contagion of voice and gesture, of voice and soul in which our actors are mired.’ From Empire of Signs, quoted in Noel Burch, In and Out of Synch, Scolar, 1991.

[11] See Richard Branigan, Narrative Comprehension in Film, London: Routledge, 1992.

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