Jonas Mekas is the godfather of the American avant-garde cinema. As a filmmaker, film critic, poet, curator and impresario, he introduced America to avant-garde film, and American avant-garde cinema to the world. In the process, he challenged censorship and helped transform the movies into a fine art. More than fifty years later, Mekas is still making films, and still experimenting with new ideas and technologies.
Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas immigrated to the United States in 1949. He discovered avant-garde cinema shortly after he arrived, and began showing films himself in 1953. In 1954, Mekas started publishing Film Culture, which eventually became the mouthpiece of American avant-garde cinema. In 1958, he began writing a film column for the Village Voice, featuring the newest and most radical filmmakers in New York City. Four years later, he helped found the Film-makers’ Cooperative, the world’s largest distributor of avant-garde films. And, in 1964, he founded the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which eventually became Anthology Film Archives, one of the world’s largest collections of avant-garde film.
Mekas is a notable filmmaker, best known for his diary films, including Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches) (1969), Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-2) and Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (1992). He is also one of the most important Lithuanian poets.
I interviewed Mekas at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
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You have remained remarkably prolific, making several films and videos a year. What are you currently working on?
For the past year and a half, I have been working mostly as a cameraman for a young French filmmaker and Butoh dancer, Virginie Marchand, who lives between Paris and Brooklyn. She’s twenty-eight and has danced for quite a number of years in France.
When I first saw her, she danced by herself, only by herself, usually in a closed house. She’s epileptic and there is a special intensity to her dance; she goes into trance as she moves through her dance variations. I began to film her and, when she looked at the footage, she became interested in what could be done with it. We kept watching the footage together and she began seeing what could be done on film with her dance.
Virginie shot a film in Brooklyn three years ago, which she’s edited now, a feature-length narrative film. She began thinking about this footage as the centre of a new feature-length narrative film. She is interested mostly in narrative. The title of this new film is Epileptic Opera Butoh.
She did not realize that her dance was very related to Butoh. I said, “But this is Butoh. I have seen the Japanese Kazuo Ohno dance.” She had spent the first six years of her life in Japan and so she decided to reconnect with her childhood. At the same time, she said, “Let’s visit Kazuo Ohno. I’m going to dance with Kazuo Ohno.” So, we went to Japan for two months. We had done a lot of filming in Greenpoint – maybe like 100 hours of dance. And then we filmed in Japan, and we of course visited Kazuo Ohno.
Kazuo Ohno is 99 years old now and doesn’t move much. At first, he was very sceptical. People visit him, but he does not dance with them. But she wanted to dance with him. So, he was watching and thinking, “What does this woman want from me?” And then they connected. It went for like three hours. And then she wanted another evening with him. There were like three evenings of dance.
Later on, the Buenos Aires Film Festival invited me to show A Letter from Greenpoint. I thought, “Why don’t we do an installation with some of that Japan footage?” When he was 19, Kazuo Ohno went to see a dancer, an Argentinean dancer, whose stage name was La Argentina. He was so taken by her that he decided to be a dancer. She was his main inspiration. In 1959, when he came out with his Butoh style, he called the first evening “Admiring La Argentina”.
So, for three evenings we projected the footage as an installation on three screens, while Virginie danced live in the area surrounding those images. And I was there with my camera filming her at the same time. It was quite spectacular and a very intense live installation, live performance.
There will be a feature film, but it is Virginie Marchand’s film. I’m only helping her, because I really believe in her. There will also be a feature documentary, like three dances with Kazuo, which is my film. And then there is this installation from Buenos Aires. Next it will be Tokyo and then New York. It will change each time.
What’s the title of the installation?
“Love on the Beat”, which is the title of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s songs.
So, that’s one thing. We are still working together on that. At the same time, I have become involved in something completely different. I will be making 365 two- or three-minute films. Maybe some will go up to five minutes, but that’s the limit. They will be for an iPod project, but later can be transferred to film and projected.
Do you have a title for this project yet?
Maybe “iPod Poems” or something like that. I will also be including some two- or three-minute films by other friends, like Robert Breer or Marie Menken.
What’s the subject matter that you’re focusing on?
It’s completely open. There will be a great, great, great variety of material. I’m working with some new material and I’m using some old material that I have not released, material still on the shelf.
During this summer, I want to make at least 100 of them. If I want 365, it will take longer, but I’ve practically only just begun to work on it because, until now, we’ve been finishing the filming on Epileptic Opera Butoh. The editing will be done only by Virginie. She’s coming here for a month. My part, practically, is done, and now I can concentrate on the new project. But I devoted a year and a half to Epileptic Opera Butoh because the dance is a very incredible reality. Butoh is not based on choreography; it’s a very direct contact with reality.
In recent years, you’ve finished quite a few films based on material you’ve taken over the years.
Many of them were conceived as installations. In 1987, I practically abandoned the Bolex [camera] and went into video technology. I abandoned the Bolex primarily because I was repeating myself. And everybody, wherever I went, was like, “Okay, we have a Bolex. We want you to show us how you do it”. And I got fed up with it. I felt I’d reached the end of that period, with the way I approach reality with a Bolex, with what I could do technically and style-wise. So, I got my video and that’s where I am now. It’s different. I have thousands of hours of video and I will be using some of it for my iPod poems.
By the way, have you seen A Letter from Greenpoint (2004)? I consider that’s my first real video work, where I finally mastered video. I used to say that it took me 10 years to master the Bolex. But I thought with video, you know, it’s right there. But that’s not true. It took me 10 years to master, to discover how I can use video to do what I really want, not just take a video camera and turn it on and record.
Recently, I have done a series of individual works, like the three parts of Notes on Utopia (2003). That was commissioned for the Biennale Utopia Project, though not exactly commissioned. And there are other individual pieces like Ein Maerchen (2001). I used some of the new footage and some old, which is used now also for installations. One was “Farewell to SOHO”, where there are 5 different parts, using footage of me abandoning my loft after 30 years in Soho and moving to Greenpoint. One part shows the empty loft, the moving out. Another part is images of Soho around 1990, the new Soho, the commercial Soho. The third monitor screens Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas, because there are a lot of images of Soho with Maciunas in that film, and he is the father of Soho anyway. Then there is another part, a farewell party to Soho. It’s an installation that was also shown at Podea mUseat in Stockholm
At Lyon, I had my own installation dedicated to Fernand Leger. It is a 12-monitor piece. Leger wanted to film a family for 24 hours non-stop. In 1930, he wrote that was his dream. So, I made this film dedicated to Fernand Leger. But I did not film or tape for 24 hours. I just took footage covering my family life for 6 or 7 years. That went on 12 monitors.
The Venice installation consisted of 8 monitors, also using old footage. At the same time, the same space, other images were around. I am interested now in using some of the films that are there. I am very interested in reusing and doing something else with the same images.
It is the same with the series I began making, “Prints”, which are frozen film frames. That’s extracting 2 or 3 or 4 frames and blowing them up, making silkscreen prints or just photographic prints. My filming technique of using lots of single frames – that’s when I was using the Bolex – produces a series of images. Some combinations of frames create interesting clashes. It’s not like when you take a narrative Hollywood movie and you can find no difference between three frames.
Your single-framing technique that you used on the Bolex produced a very distinctive staccato style. I’m wondering how you adapted to shooting primarily video.
At the beginning, I noticed that I was trying to adopt the same technique to video, with short shots or takes. But then I abandoned it and went into non-stop long takes. Video editing technology, like Final Cut, permits you to cut all that material to single frames. I work with Final Cut but I don’t like it. Final Cut video editing is non-linear and I still somehow prefer linear editing. But when I make the 365 iPod poems, I may go a little bit more into non-linear editing.
You’ve often referred to yourself as a ‘filmer’, rather than a filmmaker. Can you explain that?
What is the difference between a ‘filmer’ and a filmmaker? Me, I just film my life. I have no plan, no script. I have no idea what I will do with the footage. But filmmakers usually have a script, have an idea, want to make a film. They know, more or less, what that film will be and what they want it to be. They collect material to make that film. I consider they are filmmakers; they make films. They have a program, they have a plan, an idea. I don’t have. I just film.
Let’s take A Letter from Greenpoint. I was just collecting footage, just filming because I’m always with a camera in my pocket. And then my friends began asking, “So, how is your life in Greenpoint? How do you feel there?” After hearing those questions and trying to explain, I said, “Okay, I will select some material and put it together and then you can see for yourselves.” That’s how it originated. That’s how many of my other films originated.
In 1967, Gerald O’Grady or someone like that said, “Hey, we’ve got some money here in Buffalo and we know you have been filming. Do you want to show something?” They said they would give me – oh, I don’t know; it was very big in those days – like 5000 dollars. I said, “Okay, I need that money.” That’s how Walden [filmed in 1964-65, edited 1968-69] originated.
In the case of Beaubourg [the Centre Georges Pompidou] in Paris, they had a big show on Andy Warhol. They said, “Do you have any footage of Warhol?” So I picked, extracted, collected all my footage. That’s how Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1990) came about.
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty  covered about 25 years of my life. It came to about 5 hours. There was still so much footage I could have used, but I limited myself to 4 hours and 50 minutes. I have all that other footage and I was thinking, “What am I going to do with it?” Then this project came up regarding 365 iPod poems. It was my idea to do 365 films, but the request came from somebody involved in bringing out this new iPod technology. They tried some of my films on iPod and said, “Yeah, this is the size. On the small screen, the activity you have, single frame, works perfectly, better than the works of some other filmmakers. We would like you to participate, to make more short films like that for this new technology. They fit perfectly this new technology.” Then I looked at the footage that I still had sitting on my shelves. I felt this was one way I could use that footage – but not to put together some long film. There is no one theme; these are like leftovers, outtakes, that did not get into As I was Moving Ahead or Scenes from the life of Andy Warhol.
So, I decided that this is for me a perfect form to use that material, like haikus, like a short form. In a way, I have been doing that all the time, because they are always little titles, and it goes for one minute or whatever, another title, another haiku, another poem. This offer came at the right time and I decided to accept the provocation. It is very exciting and challenging.
When do you expect to start releasing them?
In the Fall.
Several years back, you showed a film about the Living Theater with accompaniment by Phillip Glass.
It was part of the Living Theater’s theatre evening called “Mysteries”. It had different parts, so I filmed one part. I wasn’t sure whether to release it or not, so I put it on the shelf. That was in 1966 in Cassis, France. I only looked at it again in maybe 2001, some 45 years later. It’s not only history, but looks interesting because of what they were doing. It was a silent piece, just with noise of the floor, of feet. So I asked Phil Glass to do some music and now it exists as a film. It has not been shown again here [the US], but it was shown in France and was very well received. People were quite amazed at what the Living Theater did in ’66 compared to what is being done in theatre today. So, it works as a film and a document, But what is a document, what is a film? All my films are documents of some kind, of what’s happening around me.
I was wondering if you could describe the story behind Time and Fortune Vietnam Newsreel (1968).
It’s a little film made in the Vietnam period. I guess I wanted to make a little contribution for those who wanted to stop the war. I got Shirley Clarke and my brother involved. It’s a little three-minute film. I’m not really happy with it. It’s a collage of some kind of nonsense fantasy narrative. My brother plays an ambassador who represents some place like Alaska and needs slaves from Vietnam or something. I think it’s a little bit stupid. At the time, I was filming slaughterhouses in Cincinnati, so I included that footage, and also some images from cartoons, I think. It’s a little bit bloody. But some people liked it. Jean-Luc Godard liked it very much. He wrote about it. And Ken Jacobs hated it so much that he said, “How can you make this? This is stupid.”
It’s not very well known, not very much shown. I have not seen it myself for many, many years. It may be quite topical now. I’m not a political sort of person – certainly not in the way politics are understood today. My idea of politics is very different. The ‘politicians’ I like are John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and maybe George Maciunas and those of the Beat Generation, those who changed humanity in a more subtle way. They change the style of life and everything is positive; nothing is negative. All those who support the political systems and movements and politicians end up very negative and the results are negative. Gandhi was maybe one who was a chance for the positive. But the main political movements end up in horror, as we well know. That’s why I am critical of Godard. He sided himself with the wrong political movements, the wrong politicians. And that’s why I keep inserting in my films, especially in As I Was Moving Ahead, that it is a political film. I consider that what I am proposing, what I am showing, is a different way, a different option, and that is beauty and being positive.
You’ve said that for a long time, as early as Walden.
When I put that in, I always keep in mind that this is my answer to Godard.
Do you think people respond to that differently today to how they did when you said the same thing in Walden, or is it pretty much the same?
Respond to what?
Respond to your characterization of your films as political films in the sense that you’ve just described.
I don’t know. As I Was Moving Ahead was shown two years ago at the Anthology Film Archives, in the last program of the year, because that’s my birthday. A couple of months later, I meet a couple in the street, a woman and a man. They said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! We saw the film and we decided to get married and have children.” There’s a lot about children in the film.
Then, some time later, I meet two men and they said, “Thank you, thank you. We saw the film and we decided to get married.” Two gay men. There is no gay sensibility in the film, but still they identified. To me, that was very interesting.
There is also this Italian photographer who was at the same screening. When I went to a restaurant with the photographer Daudain, she came with the photographer from Italy. She said, “We have to tell you this strange story about him going to see your film at Anthology. The film ends, he cannot get up. The manager had to call ambulance. He was taken to hospital. And the doctor says, ‘We have never had a case like this.’” What happened was that this guy got so involved in the images that all this energy, everything, the rest of the body became like dead. He could not move. He was so concentrated, so involved in the images. It took them a couple hours to bring him back to normal.
Speaking of Anthology, how did Anthology Film Archive get its name?
I was debating with P. Adams Sitney what to call it – the Film Museum of New York, things like that. And then P. Adams Sitney and Peter Kubelka were about to visit Stan Brakhage and, before they left, I said, “Why don’t you ask Brakhage what should we call ourselves?” They come back and said, “We’ve got the name”. And we called it the Anthology. Since it’s film, it’s Anthology Film and, since we are a museum, Anthology Archives.
It was a reference, I guess, to poetry, to anthologies. It’s a collection, something carefully selected. At first, some people felt it was a strange name. But it described what we did at the time correctly. It’s not an Anthology now, but that is how it began.
Over the years, you were involved in the creation of many avant-garde cinema institutions, in New York City especially. You also saw and participated, in one way or another, in many others. From your position today, which ones do you think were most successful in doing what they were meant to do?
I will approach that from two different angles. I just came from the International Independent Film Festival in Buenos Aires. They decided to have a public interview with me, with Jim Hoberman from the Village Voice as the interviewer. It was a friendly conversation with the public. Hoberman, to introduce me, began enumerating what I had done: started Film Culture in ’54, then in ’58 Village Voice column, then the Filmmakers Cinematheque, then the Anthology Film Archives … I said, “Stop it! This is history, did I really do it, because I’m completely somewhere else?”
I think each project – and some of them I started with my brother – were successful. But when something begins to work by itself, I pull myself out. I only do something that nobody else does. And the Village Voice column, of course, was a success, because I put Andrew Sarris in it and Amy Taubin, etc. Film Culture magazine also did what it had to do and, when Hoberman said it was the most important film magazine ever in the United States, I said, “Maybe it was, but now it’s different, and the demand’s different, and reality …”
Anthology I consider successful, so now I can phase myself out. It’s running by itself and I’m not needed there anymore. I can go into more of my own work.
In, say, 1953, when I started my own film screenings of the avant-garde film in New York, if you wanted to see the avant-garde you went to Cinema 16. If you wanted to see unseen, unavailable films, Hollywood or whatever films, you went to the Theodor Huff Film Society. If you wanted to see a leftist kind of film, you went to what was more or less a club on 6th Ave and 9th St. And if you wanted to meet some of the independent avant-garde filmmakers, then you could sneak in, like I did, into New York University. George Amberg was very unique person. He began as a ballet critic and writer, and had a course at the University on avant-garde film, which is where I met for the first time Gregory Markopoulos and a good number of people.
And that’s different today?
People think that today there is so much and that back then there was nothing. It’s not true. There were a lot of different showcases for different kinds of films in 1953, ’54, ’56, whatever. Of course there are many more today. But in 1960 or ’65, in New York, there were only 20 avant-garde filmmakers and they knew each other. The energy was more concentrated. That never happens anymore. The energy has dissipated. There was something I read a long time ago which said that on Earth there is always the same amount of spirit, and if humanity expands into billions and billions, each person gets much less.
Of course, it’s the same with the film-screening scene. At Anthology, we have 52 features at the independent film series, every Wednesday. Most of them are made on video. I used to go and see them all, but I gave up, because nothing happens, just a waste of time. So, you trust friends that somebody saw something that had something. You have to trust someone else. You cannot see everything.
In 1960 or ’57, I knew every filmmaker. I had seen every film. That became an impossibility in the 1970s with the explosion of every different group, ethnic group, sexual group. You know, the gay cinema, the Asian-American cinema, the American black cinema, the American Indian cinema and so on down the line. But in each of those areas there is always somebody who knows. You have to trust.
I believe you coined the term New American Cinema.
I based it on Donald Allan’s poetry anthology, The New American Poetry. I felt there was a new American poetry, but there was also a new American cinema. I was inspired by that.
Do you think that what you were describing as the New American Cinema still exists today?
When I said the New American Cinema, I included the narrative and non-narrative, the whole wide spectrum of what was then a new sensibility. There really was a visible break between what was done in Hollywood and the new-generation work. People were interested in narrative or the avant-garde. Nothing like that is happening now. It has been like an open field with no great explosions. You cannot see any break. It has been just flowing for the past 20 years. There is nobody breaking away from anything. I don’t see it. They could say, “Oh, you are too old. You don’t see there is something happening.” But where is it? Usually it’s noticeable; you cannot hide it. I don’t see that in painting, I don’t see it in cinema. Maybe in music there is something more interesting. I don’t know.
I don’t mean that there is nothing good being done, of course. But it’s just like a boring classical period. Something has to happen. They say, “Yes, maybe it’s on digital, on computers. Have you been watching what’s been happening there?” There, I have to admit, I don’t know. I use video technology too, but maybe in a conventional, old-fashioned way.
There are millions and millions around the world who are watching what other developments are out there and it is very different from what is on the movie screens or on the television screens. Maybe that’s where the revolution is, if there is one. But I’m totally unfamiliar with it.
You mentioned sneaking into film classes on avant-garde film at NYU and at the New School.
I began sneaking in when I was a child into the movies. The main movie house where I went to school in my little town in Lithuania was next to a firehouse. I befriended the firehouse people because you could get through a door right behind the projection room. I used to get in for free! So, I used similar methods when I came to New York to get into the NYU film class and the New School film classes.
My understanding is that university classes on avant-garde film were pretty unusual back then. Is that correct?
Yes. George Amberg was amazing. He could analyse or talk about film, with Markopoulos or whoever. The filmmakers were present. It was something special.
It seems a lot of colleges today have developed an academic interest in avant-garde film that didn’t exist then. Do you think that’s changed the nature of people’s approach to filmmaking, or how people discover the avant-garde?
It must have changed. We get students coming from Italy, from the University of Bologna, to Anthology sometimes. Bologna University is maybe the largest in the world – I don’t know about Beijing. A student told me, “We have 6,000 students in media.” “So, you must be seeing a lot of films?” “No,” she says, “they only talk. It’s only theory and history. We want to see. We’ve heard so much about Harry Smith. We want to see a Harry Smith film.” Here it’s very often the same, mostly Hollywood. But since we have about maybe 2,000 universities and colleges with film departments, and each department has 3, 4 or 5 different classes and courses, they can touch on the subject of the avant-garde and students do see some. They still rent some films from the Film-maker’s Cooperative.
I don’t know how people get interested in the avant-garde. All I know is that when we moved Anthology – we opened on 2nd Ave and 2nd St – we said, “The NYU is here and not very far away is the New School. There will be students coming.” But we discovered that they didn’t come. We are getting more students from NYU now, but it did not make a difference 10 years ago. Maybe those students who enlist in NYU film classes only want to be another [Martin] Scorsese. You see, Scorsese went there! They are only interested in narrative cinema.
Are there younger avant-garde filmmakers you’ve seen recently whom you’ve found promising, other than Virginie Marchand?
I have not seen enough to make an informed answer to that question. I see only fragments.
The interesting thing is that there have been changes and reassessments, evaluations of some of the previous generation, like Markopoulos and Robert Beavers. They were forgotten or they disappeared and did not want to be known and suddenly they came back, re-emerged from the past and become classics, even though they are dead. That I find interesting.
I found the revival of the 8mm that took place what 7 to 10 years ago very exciting. It produced a very lyrical group of films and filmmakers, using a little bit of a diaristic kind of style, but not like ’40s and ’50s avant-garde, where they were thematic things going on throughout films. Here there was, and there still is in France and here, a very open, very free flow of images that has some kind of lyrical sensibility.
Recently, I have noticed a lot of academics, and critics especially, discussing experimental film in regional terms: the Canadian film genre, or David James’ recent book on film in Los Angeles. In your experience, is this paradigm useful?
I think that discussion of regional cinemas arose parallel to the same kind of development in other arts, like painting. In the ’60s, nobody noticed that there was some other art happening on the West Coast and in other areas. It was totally eliminated by blockbusters and promotion of pop art. Now, the new generation of curators want to do justice to that and bring it back. That’s why Bruce Conner is already being noticed more; he was just a filmmaker before.
I think parallel to that is that more research is being done on American avant-garde. Before, knowledge of Canadian cinema did not exist. Now research is being done, and scholars and curators are doing the same in England and in France. There is much attention.
The Americans took over various art movements in the ’60s and ’70s. New York was art central. Even movements as big as Lettrisme and the Situationists were eclipsed, were not noticed. Only now do scholars go back. It begins to have influence years, decades, later.
There are now books on Los Angeles, on Pittsburgh, on Canadians, on different areas that were neglected. None of those filmmakers is of the stature of Brakhage or Michael Snow, but some very good filmmakers were neglected. Marie Menken was totally reduced to a second-rate lyrical poetess. Now, with the perspective of 3 or 4 decades, she is as important as any of the major figures. She influenced them all, too.
You’ve talked a little bit about technological change. And you’re also involved in this new iPod project. Do you expect these new digital technologies and so on to impact on avant-garde film strongly and how?
I don’t know if we should always now refer to it as avant-garde film, because what we are dealing with is more like the moving image arts, some of which originates and ends on video, some on computers.
A lot is being produced on video and it cannot be ignored. Film is still there, but not so much here. In Europe, filmmakers have created their own labs to develop their 8 and 16mm films. They are trying to hold on to it, but it’s just a question of time before that will go, too. The moving image arts will remain, but with new technologies.
You have been showing films and doing installations pretty frequently in Europe and France, especially in recent years. How is the avant-garde cinema scene in Europe and France different to the United States? Are people interested in different filmmakers or different aspects of avant-garde cinema?
It’s shifting from film-society screenings, university screenings and other avant-garde film-screening situations to the gallery and museum scene. Many more museums and galleries are open to film and video. It began just with video, but now they include also film. And it changes the audience. It is more the art scene than the film scene.
When one goes to the P.S.1 museum or the Whitney Museum, the Biennale as well, you see video pieces presented. If you showed them in a theatrical situation, in a little place with a screen or a monitor, they wouldn’t work the same way. They are having a conversation more with what is happening in art and painting than what is happening in cinema.
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Can you describe the controversy surrounding the seizure of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963)?
The first controversial screening of Flaming Creatures took place in Belgium at the Experimental Film Festival in Knokke-le-Zoute in December ’63. I was there on the jury. I went there with Barbara Rubin and we took some other films. Before the public screening, the Festival saw the film and decided that they should not screen it to the public. So, Barbara Rubin, P. Adams Sitney and I had a press conference where we denounced the Festival. Then we decided on some guerrilla activity. I went into the projection room and took out the first reel of Brakhage’s Dog Star Man  – Brakhage did not like this when I told him – and put in Flaming Creatures instead.
Later, another film was being screened in a different theatre. We managed to get into the projection room and told the projectionist that he should just stay away and that we were going to handle the situation. He said, “I cannot do this because they will fire me. Can’t you do something, like tie me up?” So we tied him with some rope around the chair. (I met the projectionist years later and he thought it was really funny.)
On stage, there was an official presentation of the awards. The Minister of Justice was talking and there we projected Flaming Creatures on his face. We could not lock the doors against all the officials who tried to stop us. We tried to hold the door but were not powerful enough. They managed to push in and stop the screening.
Then we decided to screen the film for those who were interested in our hotel room. The screening was very well attended. Agnès Varda was there, Godard was there, Roman Polanski was there. We had a very special audience. Then we came back to New York and decided to screen at the Filmmakers Showcase run by the Film-makers’ Cooperative on 28th Street. We had one show and then we announced another screening. Somebody called the owner of the theatre and before the second screening the owner cancelled the contract for the theatre. That was the end of the Filmmakers Showcase. So I made arrangements to screen it on 8th at the St Mark’s Theater. To get in, I also put on the program a little film by Andy Warhol – just one roll of film – about Jack Smith making Normal Love  and also something by the Kuchars.
Ken Jacobs was the manager, Florence the ticket-taker and Jerry Sims was helping out. We were all arrested and the film seized. We spent one or two days in gaol. We were bailed thanks to Jerome Hill, who put up the money and paid all the expenses for the lawyers. The Lenny Bruce case was a month or two before us and it had destroyed him completely. We were told we needed a very good lawyer otherwise we might end up in gaol for a year or two. So Jerome got us a lawyer, Emile Zola Berman. He was known as a criminal lawyer who had not lost a case. Then without telling anybody Jerome decided to complicate the case and let us get arrested one more time. That’s when I said I would screen Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour  and Flaming Creatures again. This was at the Writers’ Stage on 4th St. In the audience was a policeman and I knew we would be arrested. But I was prepared: I had a chicken sandwich in my pocket.
We were arrested and the films seized. Again we were bailed by Jerome Hill. The court procedures took place and we had witnesses in our support – Susan Sontag, Allan Ginsberg – and we lost. We were sentenced to six months of suspended sentence. Emile Zola did his job in that at least we got only a suspended sentence.
But we did not accept that and went to the Court of Appeals. We lost. Then we went to the Supreme Court in Washington, and that’s where a judge named Abe Fortas came out in support of Flaming Creatures. He made copies and distributed them to the other judges and some senators, and that caused his downfall. He was being promoted [by President Johnson] as the new Chief Justice. But they said he was a peddler of pornography and he was not appointed.
The case created a big stir and was reported in all the newspapers. As a result, a year later, censorship in New York was practically abandoned. So, it was not for nothing.
So, the original case was going through New York State courts?
It was first New York City, then Albany, then Washington. We went through all the stages. And we lost it at the Supreme Court. It was not reversed.
What was the original charge?
Do you know who was pressing the prosecution?
He was the Attorney General in New York. He had become known for destroying Lenny Bruce. I forget his name now.
Was there any sense it was unusual they were bringing charges?
No, it was very normal in those days. Every film had to be approved by the license board and every screening had to be licensed if it was a public screening. And we refused to submit our films to be licensed. If you submitted them, they would say, “Cut out this, cut out that.” In the case of Flaming Creatures, half of the film would have been cut out. They were very strict. There was even a little brochure listing what should not be shown, what parts of the human body.
Of course, some people were showing pornography.
Yes, but nobody advertised it, nobody knew about it. We advertised.
Was the prosecution as much about the fact that you were advertising it as showing it?
Yes. We said, “But this is for a very limited audience, a very specific limited audience, not very general.” We did not say there would be orgies and things like that. But it was against the moral – they used the term – and prurient public interest.
Were you or your lawyers ever contacted by people showing what we would normally think of as pornography?
No. Emile Zola Berman’s office did everything not to mention anything to do with pornography. This was an art film.
Obviously you continued showing films in New York, just not those particular films.
But that was not the first problem. When the theatre was closed, when the contract was cancelled, the 8th Street Filmmakers Showcase started screening at midnight at the Bleeker Street Cinema. After the first two screenings, we were thrown out by the manager. It was not just the police. They thought we would give their theatre a bad name.
Did the police continue to monitor what you were screening?
They keep watching for a year or two until censorship started disappearing and there was some official decision that licensing of films should be abandoned in New York City. Within the next two years there was drastic change. There was a lot of discussion in the press and the public about police policies.
Was a lot of that coming from the art world or was it a more general political shift?
It was a general political shift, but also influenced by the artistic community.
The reason I ask is I find it very interesting that you lost in the Supreme Court and with a film that is clearly not pornographic in the traditional sense.
Yeah, but the official attitudes to what is pornographic have changed drastically in the past 40 years. That little brochure said very specifically that you could not show a woman’s breasts, could not show genitals. That’s where the official public moral, ethical, sexual, whatever, attitudes were in 1964. Flaming Creatures included those elements. The court decision followed the rules described officially in the laws of New York City about what could not be shown publicly.
During the second screening, not only was Flaming Creatures seized, but Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour. Genet was very well known at that time, and I thought we would have a lot of support because two of his plays were playing then in New York City, The Balcony and The Maids. He was a very respectable playwright, etc. That’s why I included Genet’s film. I was smart. But the district attorney was smart, too. He said, “Okay, we have a case of two films. They are both pornographic. But let’s say we dismiss one and don’t deal with it.” So, they dismissed Genet’s film and concentrated on Flaming Creatures, because Jack Smith was unknown. If they had kept in the Genet, we may have had a chance of winning.
I got the print of Genet’s film from Niko Patatakis, who was a filmmaker in Paris and a dear friend of Nico, the singer. Genet directed the film, but Niko sponsored it. The film was in 35mm and it was bulky. I was afraid that if I went from Paris to New York the film would be confiscated. Customs was very strict. Twice when I went came to New York from Paris I had some Olympia publications in my pocket and they were seized. So I said, “If I go to New York with this, I have no chance. I have to go first to London.” And that’s what I did. I cut the film into three pieces and put them in my raincoat pockets, and went to London. When you come from Paris, [US] Customs says, “Oh, Paris, hum, Paris.” If you come from London, well that’s more conservative and you have a chance to pass through.
I was on the plane to New York from London and I was talking with my neighbour, who happened to be the playwright [Harold] Pinter. When I told him what I had in my pockets, he said, “Maybe you should let me go first. You come after me.” So I followed him and we got to Customs and they opened Pinter’s suitcase. It was full of plays, copies of the same play. They said, “What’s this?” “Oh, it’s my play”, he said. “It’s opening on Broadway.” “Play! On Broadway!” The Customs man got so gaga, so excited, that he motioned his neighbours [fellow officers]. They all converged and were so yapping with excitement that I just passed through. And that’s how the film got in the country. If I had been by myself, I don’t know what would have happened. So, thanks Pinter!