He was 26 when he and Adolfas landed in New York in 1949 along with 1,352 other displaced persons. The brothers moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Jonas worked in manufacturing in Long Island City. He visited museums, got fired, struggled, watched “The Blood of a Poet,” bought a Bolex 16-millimeter camera. “In Hollywood, it’s much simpler: it’s done with money,” he wrote in 1950. “But we are trying to do it with our own last miserable pennies.” People said that the cinema made him mad. “But today, if you don’t want to sell yourself for money and work work work,” he wrote, and if you dreamed of being an artist, you had to become mad.
He wrote about his early days in his hauntingly elegiac memoir “I Had Nowhere to Go,” a collection of diary entries that cover 1944 to 1955 and that he began while in a Nazi labor camp. Published in 1991, the memoir opens with some background about his early life in Lithuania, the Nazi occupation, and the brothers’ departure and detention. Mekas wrote that before he was interned, he had engaged in “various anti-German activities.” He also wrote that he didn’t know anymore “is this truth or fiction,” a thread that Michael Casper amplified in a 2018 article in The New York Review of Books that accused Mekas of distorting his history.
The grim charges are that Mekas supported the Nazi occupation and worked for Nazi publications, although Casper writes that none of Mekas’s writing was anti-Semitic. Mekas and his circle saw the Germans as liberating them from the Soviets; and he characterized the newspapers as provincial, not Nazi. Casper wrote that “Mekas’s life during the war years was more complicated than he makes it out to be.” In a response, the art critic Barry Schwabsky lamented that Mekas had written for these papers and noted his memory lapses, but also wrote that “Mekas’s own explanation for his inaccuracies — the trauma of living amidst so many murders, and the need to respond to them as a poet if at all — seems worthy of more respect.”
This seems right and fair, and I don’t believe the revelations lessen Mekas’s work. Casper agrees. “As for Mekas’s films,” he wrote, “the truth of his life does not diminish the beauty of his work; it complicates and even enhances it.” I wonder what Mekas would make of that enhancing comment. It is painful to think that the last year of his life was clouded by this. It is also hard not to wish that he had made other choices when he was young and joined the partisans in the woods. But he didn’t. “If you want to criticize me for my lack of ‘patriotism’ or ‘courage,’” he wrote in his memoir, “you can go to hell!” Instead, he was in a Nazi labor camp and he survived.
In time, he found his way to New York, the home where he made films and history. This brings me back to Mekas’s line about making films to live, which he delivers in “Walden” over images of a wedding, an event that can seem less interesting to him than the laughing, smoking and chatting people around the couple. The darkly colored sequence is jagged-looking and often out of focus, and the quick cutting and rapid, agitated camera movements at times turn it into an impressionistic blur. Mekas utters his film-live comment, pauses and then repeats it with a crucial difference. “I make home movies, therefore I live,” Mekas says, “I live, therefore I make home movies.” Only recently, while rewatching “Walden,” did I finally grasp the full implications of his use of “home movies,” and how for him these two words had become inseparable.