Jonas Mekas: Towards a spontaneous cinema

Jonas Mekas is editor of the American magazine Film Culture. This article is a report from the inside, as it were, on new trends in the non-Hollywood American cinema.

Republished online in tribute to Jonas Mekas, 24 December 1922–23 January 2019.

Film as life: tributes to Jonas Mekas at 90

Lost Lost Lost review: ‘an unfolding account of the early American underground’

Jonas Mekas

from the Summer and Autumn 1959 double issue of Sight & Sound

Pull My Daisy: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, Feter Orlowsky and Gregory Corso at work on ‘the first truly beat film…’

Pull My Daisy: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, Feter Orlowsky and Gregory Corso at work on ‘the first truly beat film…’

“NO ILLUSIONS!” I wrote in capital letters to friends in New York, “there are no young American filmmakers. We must do it ourselves; nobody will do it for us…”

It was thus that, two years ago, we started our first feature production, Sunday Junction, with Edouard de Laurot directing and Adolfas Mekas assisting. Unfortunately, because of insufficient funds and constant bickering with the police, the film was interrupted before the first half was completed.

The full story of Sunday Junction will be told at a proper occasion. What I want to say now is that today, two years later, my opinion concerning a young generation in American cinema has changed considerably: today I wouldn’t deny its existence, and certainly not in capital letters.

The ‘new American wave’ is not yet as accomplished a body of filmmakers as its equivalent in France; but it is undeniably on its way. The perfectionists and those who look at cinema from an historical point of view, always turning their heads backwards, unable to see or sense the new rhythms, will challenge me.

Nevertheless, the young American cinema is not only here but, considering what we have seen of it already, it differs radically and angrily from the official, now middle-aged generation of American directors who became known during the 1950s – Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Martin Ritt, etc. Whereas the Aldrich generation represented an extension of what already existed, these new filmmakers are entering upon the cinematic scene with an open contempt for Hollywood, searching for new and personal approaches, trying to grasp more firmly the rhythms of their generation. At this stage, their formulation of a correct attitude towards cinema is more important than the actual results achieved. If a genuine attitude does develop, it may eventually lead us out of the impasse into which the professionalists have taken us.

Irvin Kershner’s Stakeout on Dope Street

Irvin Kershner’s Stakeout on Dope Street

The new American cinema is coming from several directions. First, in a most primitive way, via the so-called Grade-B films – juvenile melodramas, thrillers, science fiction films – some produced independently and others backed by the major companies. These are the innocent, unconscious rebels; new actors, new writers, new directors are exploring their craft in these films. Gavin Lambert in the Spring 1959 issue of S&S described a few of them (The Cry Baby Killer, Hot Car Girl, The Party Crashers). There are dozens of others, films such as Cry Tough (by Paul Stanley), The Delinquents (Robert Altman), High School Big Shot (Joel M. Rapp), T-Bird Gang (Richard Harbinger), Stakeout on Dope Street (Irvin Kershner), The Case Against Brooklyn (Paul Wendkos), Crime and Punishment U.S.A. (Denis and Terry Sanders).

In each of them there are sequences and bits and scenes that are more original, more up-to-date in their feeling, and more dynamic than anything in the ‘official’ cinema of Anatomy of a Murder or Middle of the Night. New faces, new locations are being explored, new themes and new relationships; often, the films have a compelling, contemporary, young quality. Although full of plot and character cliches, and primitive in their techniques, they nevertheless represent the most lively films coming (directly or indirectly) from Hollywood.

Bill Ward and Cathy Dunn in Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel’s Lovers and Lollipops

Bill Ward and Cathy Dunn in Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel’s Lovers and Lollipops

The second group, the true independents, the conscious rebels, reject any compromise. If their films are limited in originality or depth, it is only because they are themselves primitive artists. But they make their films with their own money or with the help of friends and make them the way they really want to make them, paying little attention to the distributors or theatres. I have in mind people like Lionel Rogosin (On the Bowery, Come Back, Africa); Morris Engel (Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, Weddings and Babies); John Cassavetes (Shadows); Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie (Pull My Daisy); Edward Bland (The Cry of Jazz); and the film poems of Stanley Brakhage.

Financially, these films seldom cost more than $50,000 for a feature and $3,000 for a short. Shadows, although a feature, did not even go beyond $20,000, and a great part of the money for completing it came from free donations after an appeal by Jean Shepherd on his radio programme called Night People.

Though made by directors of different ages and temperaments, all these films reveal an open ear and an open eye for timely, contemporary reality. They are similar in other respects: in their use of actual locations and direct lighting; their disrespect for plots and written scripts; their use of improvisation. And since their most passionate obsession is to capture life in its most free and spontaneous flight, “to grasp life from within and not from without” (Suzuki) by loosening the sensibilities, these films could be described as a spontaneous cinema. This direction is intimately linked with the general feeling in other areas of life and art: with the ardour for rock and roll; the interest in Zen Buddhism; the development of abstract expressionism (action painting); the emergence of spontaneous prose and New Poetry – all a long-delayed reaction against puritanism and the mechanisation of life.

Shadows: John Cassavetes on location with his unit

Shadows: John Cassavetes on location with his unit

Shadows, finished a year ago and screened here for a few midnight shows at the Paris Theatre, became a sensation overnight. But the film is still without a distributor (as is Morris Engel’s Weddings and Babies). Distributors insisted on reshooting it in a more conventional and commercial manner.

We know Cassavetes as an actor. In this film he proves to be a most sensitive director. The film itself is almost plotless, and was shot without a script. Primarily, it is a series of improvisations describing a few incidents in the life of a Negro family and a young Negro, in the New York nights. Since most of the film takes place at night, it has the texture of dark lonely streets, bars and neon lights. Through improvisations and outbursts of feeling, the film slowly builds up and grows, without any sense of imposed force, and simultaneously an image of the city emerges, with its downtown nights and its night people. The inner feeling of the city, the tender love quarrels, the loneliness of a young Negro with an almost white skin, are all forcefully revealed to us.

The success of Shadows is partly due to the talent of Ben Carruthers, who plays the lonely, sensitive youth – a character that grew from a short paragraph, all that there was of the script concerning his part:

“BENNY. He is driven by the uncertainty of his colour, to beg acceptance in this white man’s world. Unlike his brother Hugh, or Janet, he has no outlet for his emotions. He has been spending his life trying to decide what colour he is. Now that he has chosen the white race as his people, his problem remains acceptance. This is difficult, knowing that he is in a sense betraying his own. His life is an aimless struggle to prove something abstract, his everyday living has no outlet, and so he moves with…” (Here the script ends.) …So he moves across the darkly lit downtown streets of New York, with his expressive lean body and childlike innocence, searching for warmth, mimicking, singing to himself “Mary had a little lamb”, and leaning in the corner of a rock and roll dance-hall.

The film begins in the middle and ends in the middle: nothing much is changed or resolved. But this casual, fragmentary quality is precisely why it seems so convincing, so spontaneous, and so contemporary.

Robert Frank shooting Pull My Daisy

Robert Frank shooting Pull My Daisy

Pull My Daisy is a free improvisation of a scene from an unproduced play by Jack Kerouac; like Shadows, it was shot without a script. Nothing much happens in this film. It is a ‘beat’ documentary-comedy about an evening at the place of a young Greenwich Villager who is being visited by some poet friends, and by a young ‘Bishop’ of some unidentifiable church. There are the poets themselves, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlowski, talking and going through a series of wild improvisations; the Bishop’s mother playing the organ, and his sister blowing the bellows. They talk, drink beer, play trumpet, talk again…

Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie have said in a statement:

“The intention… was to create a situation whereby one might comply with James Agee’s tender request: ‘The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.’ Pull My Daisy is an accumulation rather than a selection of images. It was made by non-professionals in search of that freer vision…”

Here is the first truly ‘beat’ film, in the sense that beat is an expression of the young generation’s unconscious rejection of the middle-class way, the business man’s way; an outburst of spontaneity and improvisation as an unconscious opposition to the mechanisation of life. It also expresses the very concrete influence of Zen Buddhism on the young American intellectuals. The film itself resembles a Zen koan: approached logically, it is meaningless and absurd. It is not a film of action or logical statements: it is a portrait of inner feelings. This is Zen on film, and it is a thoroughly serious film despite its apparent robe of nonsense.

The makers of this film are themselves the new, beat American intellectuals. Robert Frank was until now known only as a still photographer. His series of disturbingly revealing photographs of Hollywood, recently published in Esquire magazine, created a sensation here; his book Les Americains came out last Autumn in Paris and Rome, after being rejected by publishers here as anti-American. Now, with the publicity that the film is getting, the book is finally being brought out by Grove Press in New York. Alfred Leslie is one of the leading American abstract expressionists, whose paintings are travelling throughout Europe in recent American shows.

One of the most exciting features of the film is its soundtrack. The picture was shot silent and Jack Kerouac speaks for all the characters, also commenting freely on their actions. During the recording of the commentary, Kerouac spoke the lines of each actor without any preparation or a previous viewing of the film – he just went on, as the images went by, in a sort of drunken trance; and his commentary has the immediacy and magic of such an improvisation.

Desistfilm

Desistfilm

Stanley Brakhage’s short film poem, Desistfilm, employs all the techniques of a spontaneous cinema. It describes a wild party held by a group of youths, with all their youthful exhibitionism, adolescent games and adolescent love images, and was shot in one evening at a real improvised party with a 16mm camera, most of the time hand-held, following every movement wildly and nervously and without any prescribed or planned techniques.

Desistfilm perfectly re-creates the mood and tempo of the party, with all its little details of foolish, silly, marginal actions, its outbursts of adolescent emotional violence. The camera gets everywhere, never intruding, never interfering; it moves into psychological close-ups and follows the restless youths in fast, jerky tilts and pans. There seems a perfect unity here of subject matter, camera movement, and the temperament of the filmmaker himself. The free flight of life has been caught, and the film has vitality, rhythm, and also the temperament of a poem by Rimbaud, of a naked confession – all improvisation, with no artist’s hand visible, though at the same time the distance between reality and art is established.

Come Back, Africa: Lionel Rogosin

Come Back, Africa: Lionel Rogosin

Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa follows in the direction of On the Bowery, with its sketchy background plot, its documentary style, on the spot improvisations and tradition of ‘simplistic’ or ‘emotional’ humanism. Secretly made in Johannesburg, under the pretext of shooting a musical, this is a most impressive exposition on film of conditions in South Africa. At the same time it is a satire on African whites, on their attitudes towards natives.

Since Rogosin is not an intellectual, the strongest moments are again the improvised scenes, like the one showing a discussion among a group of Negroes in a small, closed room, executed with straight television technique, or the scenes of Negro musicians in the streets. Carl Lerner’s editing helps greatly in establishing the film’s clear and simple rhythms. This is a more mature work than On the Bowery though a certain self-consciousness is still present. Like On the Bowery it balances between improvisation and a consciously imposed plot, perhaps unavoidable in a message-protest film.

 

2

The American documentary has been dead for two decades now. For years we have been exposed to bloodless industrial or sales documentaries. Rogosin’s coming into American cinema with his ‘emotional humanism’ can open a new period. Some recent short films also continue to explode the old, pallid documentary myth; and often in a more radical, more conscious manner than that of Rogosin.

One such documentary is Have I Told You Lately, produced by the cinema department of the University of Southern California and directed by Stuart Hanish. In tight, highly condensed images it describes a day in the life of an American middle-class family, surrounded by the machines, gadgets and impersonal offices that consume their time and leave them empty-handed.

Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? (1958; new soundtrack by Simon Paradis, 2010)

The film scathingly suggests the loneliness, the banality, the mechanisation. There is no obvious propagandising here: a poetical accumulation of actual details creates a feeling of that horror which Henry Miller described in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, or Allen Ginsberg in his recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 29th, 1959): “…a vast national subconscious netherworld filled with nerve gases, universal death bombs, malevolent bureaucracies, secret police systems, drugs that open the door to God, ships leaving Earth, unknown chemical terrors, evil dreams at hand.”

But the documentary that breaks most sharply away from the general, official line is Edward Bland’s The Cry of Jazz. This makes a complete about-face in American documentary, from a passive, objective, democratic or ‘simplistic humanist’ approach to a personal, passionate, active one. It is an essay film, with all visual material and commentary subjugated to proving and illustrating an idea. The closest we ever came to this kind of film was in our wartime documentaries.

The Cry of Jazz

The Cry of Jazz

Produced by a group of young Negro intellectuals and artists in Chicago, The Cry of Jazz describes the condition of the Negro today through the history and character of jazz. Bland takes a very categorical stand: that jazz is an expression of the American Negro; that the Negro, because of his long suffering, was able to retain more of the tragic-emotional richness than the American white; and that jazz is now dead, because the Negro is entering the stage of a more conscious, confident acceptance of himself.

All this is stated not in logical expressions but in passionate outbursts, without leaving much freedom for debate. It is said with a sort of philosophical anger, as though by one who has finally lost all patience with explanation. Parts of it look like clever propaganda, almost reminiscent of the Nazi anti-Jewish films, presenting shots of Negro slums, replete with cockroaches, rats and broken windows, contrasted with the luxury of the whites. It takes one who knows the new Negro intellectual to understand that this is not propaganda: it is only a cry held too long in the throat, a delayed reaction some hundred years old.

Because of its open anger, The Cry of Jazz is in a certain sense out of tune with the general mood of the beat generation white artists. But we can find the same note of uncontrolled philosophical anger in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. And it was Ginsberg who wrote a devastating indictment of society in the article already quoted, in which he accuses our public arts: “These media are exactly the places where the deepest and most personal sensitivities and confessions of reality are most prohibited, mocked, suppressed.”

The Cry of Jazz

The Cry of Jazz

Let us be frank: if Hollywood films seem boring and outdated, it is not because our ‘geniuses’ are being kept away from the cinema; nor because the scripts are being ruined by producers, etc. The truth is more simple: what we see is their finest work at the top of their intelligence.

The new generation is coming with a different kind of intelligence: an inner intelligence. At least, they are searching for it. And this eventually may be their contribution. It seems almost impossible even to begin explaining the difference between free, spontaneous film and the contrived, ‘serious’, official cinema to our professional, official filmmakers, critics and audiences. Because the reason for the lifelessness of ‘official’ cinema is society itself, which is going through a transitional, decadent period…

The question is one of loosening the frozen sensibilities, of weeding out anachronistic moral, social and political clichés, the false authorities, the false purposes of life. This process is taking place. And the new generation of filmmakers is governed by the feelings and winds of this transitional period. To the beat and Zen intellectuals in America, it seems very clear that the way of life, the aims and purposes, of the previous generation have betrayed them. And when you don’t any longer know where and what the essence is, the surest way – if there is any way at all – is to throw away all inhibitions and lose oneself completely in the spontaneous improvisations that lead into the inner regions of our being: where, after all, everything rests.

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.