Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journal

Browsing through a used bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard yesterday, I came across critic/filmmaker/curator Jonas Mekas‘ out-of-print Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971, a partial compilation of his writing for the Village Voice during that period. Mekas was born in Lithuania in 1922, but after graduating from college, he was arrested by the Nazis during WWII and forced to work in a labor camp. After the war, he lived as a Displaced Person for four years before the United Nations dumped him in the US–he never officially immigrated.

In New York, Mekas began a love affair with the movies and eventually convinced the Voice to begin offering a regular movie column. He was asked to write it, and it was called “Movie Journal,” an apt title for its personal, off-the-cuff, diary-like musings on the New York film scene. Movie Journal is wonderfully entertaining and informative, Mekas’ writing on experimental films, polemics against mainstream criticism (“Now I know what Pauline Kael lost at the movies: the taste for cinema”), the programmers of the New York Film Festival (“an organized and well-sponsored undertaking to prevent New Yorkers from seeing what’s really going on in cinema”), and narrative films (“Dreyer’s Gertrud alone and by itself redeemed the festival”) are as relevant as ever and provide a charming glimpse of the culturally-engaged life of a ’60s cinephile. The book is one of my best finds in some time, a pre-Internet blog.

While the bulk of the book focuses on film reviews, one of his entries, A Rendezvous With the FBI (December 21, 1961), is particulartly engaging; a personal anecdote that is by turns startling, funny, and moving:

“I dreamed J. Edgar Hoover groped me in a silent hallway of the Capitol . . .”–Allen Ginsberg in Guns of the Trees.

Two days after the Cinema 16 screening of Guns of the Trees I received an early morning telephone call.

“My name is Schwartz, from the FBI,” said a voice at the other end of the phone. “I want to ask you a few questions.”

Schwartz. A good name, I thought. FBI. I was sort of thrilled. I remembered the novels of Mickey Spillane. Adventure. We agreed to meet on Avenue B. I had always wanted to meet an FBI agent. Or a detective. I wondered if I’d be able to spot him on the street.

Spot him I did; there was no mistake about that. Nobody could have missed him on the Lower East Side. A face right out of a Carol Reed movie, with black hat and raincoat.

“You don’t have to talk to me you know, ” said Mr. Schwartz, as he flashed his card.

“I don’t mind at all,” I said. “I’m thrilled. I’m glad.”

Still, I looked around. I felt I was entering a dark conspiracy. And although I knew I wasn’t guilty of any crime, I felt the huge power of the State Department behind this Carol Reed man.

Mr. Schwartz didn’t waste any time: “Have you seen any Soviet citizens lately?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. There was no point in denying my contacts with filmmakers or film critics of any country.

“Did you see them professionally? You know, as a photographer?”

I looked at him. There was a queer smile on his face. It was very clear what he was driving at: photographs, secret documents, cameras–all the spy stuff. I remembered Five Fingers.

“No,” I said. “I saw them on personal matters.”

I thought that was vague enough. Mr. Schwartz walked along silently for a moment. It was cold. He looked into a coffee shop, but I preferred the cold morning air.

“Did they ever offer you any kind of money?” he asked suddenly.

Money! I had better deny it, and fast, I thought. This was a dangerous question.

“No,” I said. “I haven’t received any money from any Soviet citizen, and you needn’t worry about it, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

That should do it, I thought. It didn’t.

“I have information that you have received money from Soviet citizens in this country,” said Mr. Schwartz.

We walked on silently. If he doesn’t believe what I say, why does he bother asking me, I thought. It was insulting. What had first seemed like an innocent adventure, a game, suddenly became disgusting.

“I’d be glad to get some money from somebody,” I said. “I could use some.”

The joke didn’t come off. Mr. Schwartz was waiting for a direct answer or a sudden confession. I had made a mistake, I thought. You should never say that you need money–that may be proof that you accepted money. You are forgetting your movies, I thought.

“You are avoiding the answer,” said Mr. Schwartz. I found myself wondering: is he recording, taping down what I say? “But the question is ridiculous,” I said.

“It’s my duty to find out the facts,” said Mr. Schwartz.

“But how are you going to do that if you don’t believe what I say? It’s useless,” I said. “You are wasting taxpayers’ money on useless investigations.”

“Do you pay taxes?” the agent asked.

I shut up. Hell, I said to myself, he may dig into my taxes. He probably has a book on me, ten inches thick.

“Did you receive the money, yes or no?” insisted the man from the FBI.

I was in it, but good. I wanted to say “No,” but the sound disappeared in my mouth. My “No” was completely meaningless by now. I knew that if I said “No,” it would sound exactly like “Yes.”

I saw the East River in front of me. But I smelled the Un-American Activities Committee, the Gestapo, the NKVD, and all the secret agents, cops, and armies that I’ve already been through–the Flies of the 20th century.

“No,” I said. “I refuse to answer this question. I think I’ve had enough of this. And then to tell you the truth, I hate agents. All agents.”

I stopped. I looked at Mr. Schwartz and could clearly see that he no longer had any doubt: I was guilty. I had refused to answer; that meant I was evading the truth; that I was guilty. I had received money from Grigori Chukhrai, perhaps, or Sergei Bondarchuk, or Tatjana Samailova.

“Yes, I hate agents,” I said. I thought I would repeat it for the sake of the East River. “And then, do you think that by answering yes or no, it would change anything? Do you mean to tell me you will burn my file after this? My answer will change nothing. Once you satisfy your suspicions you’ll stick to them. So I may as well tell you right here and now that I refuse to cooperate with the FBI.”

Suddenly I felt like a crusader. “Who is going to tell me what to do and say? I’m free to exchange any artistic knowledge I have with whomever I please–whether he’s Russian, Greek, or Chinese. My knowledge is universal.”

“No,” interrupted Mr. Schwartz. “I’m the one who knows what you can and what you can’t tell to others. I’m paid for it, this is my profession, this is my field. I’m the authority on it.”

That shut me up. I was astounded.

“But I’m an artist,” I said, “and you’re only an FBI agent. I have knowledge that is not available to you. I have knowledge of the arts and human experience. I myself will decide how and where to use my experience and my knowledge, okay? You should think about it, I’m telling you this as one human being to another.”

“You are wrong,” said Mr. Schwartz.

The street was cold as Hell. The chimneys of the Con Edison plant were cold. The agent’s face was cold.

Suddenly everything seemed so stupid. Here I am, walking with an FBI agent on this cold December morning, on the Lower East Side, with Christmas wreaths hanging in the store windows, talking to him, trying to prove something–to prove what?

“Okay,” I said finally. “I admit it. I’m working in a huge munitions factory and I have files and files of secret materials and I am selling them for money to the Russian filmmakers–you know, one has to eat. . . . ”

We walked on silently now. Communication was breaking down rapidly.

“This is stupid,” I said. “I’m going home.”

Mr. Schwartz didn’t look at me.

“Do you refuse to cooperate?” he asked. The voice was cold as metal. “You don’t want to help the government? You know, you are making a mistake by not cooperating.”

“Yes, I refuse to cooperate because the whole thing makes no sense. That’s what you should say in your report.”

The agent turned away and walked toward Avenue A. I bought a loaf of bread and walked home. What the hell did he want, I thought. What is behind all this? What kind of scheme? How the hell do they get such ideas? And how many people, how many are being harassed like this, every day, with stupid suspicions and senseless questions?

Or perhaps I’m guilty? Maybe I’ve sinned in my sleep? And who left the tip after that vodka with the Russian director (I don’t dare mention his name now)? Or perhaps I revealed the secret of the size of our Cinemascope screen? You never know. I was searching through my memory.

The telephone rang. Is it tapped? Has it been tapped for weeks now? I thought I heard a strange click in it. I sat by the table. The telephone rang again. I stared at it.

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