Jonas Mekas on Poetic Diary Filmmaking and the Importance of Obsolete Media Miami

Avant-garde filmmaker, writer, and poet Jonas Mekas has seen many things. He was at the wake of fellow poet Allen Ginsberg, he attended John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "bed-in," and he was even at the Velvet Underground’s first public performance. But he has never been properly been introduced to Miami. Despite some visits to local universities long ago and more recently a spot on a panel at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011, he has never presented one of his films locally. 

This week, Miami has two unique opportunities to get to know Mekas. First, an exhibition of his select visual works, titled "Let Me Introduce Myself," opens at Gallery Diet today, when the artist will be in attendance from 6 to 8 p.m. The show features a four-channel film installation and three series of photographs from Mekas’ body of work. The Little River space will show "prints made from my images that I extract from my films, and then I make prints on paper,” the 93-year-old says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "You can see my cycle on television and the Kennedy children and New York City. They are related branches from what I’m doing.”

For his second appearance, the archival art project Obsolete Media Miami (OMM) will host a rare screening of Mekas' personal copy of Walden on 16mm film. The three-hour film has become known as his first epic home movie. Mekas says it is important to see his film in its original format. He compares OMM to a museum that exhibits original works by painters.

"To see a film on a video is not the same," he explains. "It's like seeing a painting in a book. You still have to go to the museum and see it, be it Florence or New York or Miami. You have to go to the museum and see the real thing. The book is a reproduction. It's the same with film... so the perfect place [to view] is like Obsolete Media Miami, a place that is very necessary and very important.”

Jonas Mekas, Walden, 1969 (excerpt) from RE:VOIR on Vimeo.

Walden combines Mekas' knack for poetry with visuals he shot using his handheld Bolex camera. There are images of a snowy winter in New York, a springtime visit with fellow filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his family in Colorado, and Andy Warhol’s 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground. Sometimes the visuals are either sped up, in color, or in black-and-white. 

The film's trippy nature is apparent throughout. The soundtrack never matches the visuals. There are natural sounds of a train that don’t coincide with a subway ride. Other times, there is what sounds like tape hiss. Mekas inserts title cards of poetic writing that often give some perspective of what's onscreen. Over images of Marseilles and cups of coffee, he sings with an accordion accompaniment: "I am searching for nothing, and I am happy."

Reality and humanity are key sources of inspiration for Mekas' abstract yet firmly existential cinema. He says of his filmmaking and editing: "I restructure reality. I don't leave it alone. You could just run and leave the camera running, nonstop as long as it runs, but that would be boring. I restructure it completely. I record the reality, but at the same time as I'm filming, as I'm recording that reality, I restructure it. I merge the reality with myself, the way I feel the moment when I’m filming.”

He describes his filmmaking like keeping a diary. Asked what it's like to look back on his life through Walden, he says, “It’s condensed moments of life that are gone, but some are still the same. Some aspects like winter are still the same. You still have snow and rain, but of course cities change. The people in my film, you see them young and working, and you see them later as they age and also as they die. After all, I began filming like in 1950, so we have 65 years of life recorded, and people come and go, and new people emerge around my life.

"You can string all my diary films together, and it would all be one long epic with many different characters,” he adds with a laugh.

"Let Me Introduce Myself"
Opens Thursday, March 24, with a reception featuring Mekas from 6 to 8 p.m. at Gallery Diet. The exhibition will remain on view through April 30. Visit Saturday, March 26, Mekas will be present for a 16mm screening of Walden and a Q&A immediately following at Palm Court Event Space, in the Miami Design District; reception at 7 p.m., followed by a the screening at 8 p.m. Visit For tickets, visit: eventbrite.

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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.