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SLEEPLESS NIGHTS STORIES.
Hans Ulrich Obrist – telephone interview with Jonas Mekas, 12th Sept 2011
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I am very happy that we can do this new interview. It’s always such a pleasure to do an interview with you.
Jonas Mekas: I am always looking forward to talking to you too.
HUO: And the film I will be writing about is Sleepless Nights Stories.
JM: Yes, that’s what you wanted to talk about. Did you manage to see it?
HUO: Yes, it’s very exciting. Very polyphonic!
JM: There are sort of 25 different stories happening in it.
HUO: And can you tell me what prompted the title? Because the ‘sleepless’ notion is something also Louise Bourgeois used a lot with her “Insomnia drawings.”
JM: It happened that I returned from London to New York and had jet lag. I could not sleep, so I began filming. I decided to film Marina the same evening that I had the idea, and the project sort of began. And then I was thinking about the Arabian tales of the “One Thousand and One Nights.” I wondered whether the king in the tale wanted to hear the stories to keep him awake or to put him to sleep? Was he an insomniac? That’s the question of the “One Thousand and One Nights” for me. When I work at a new project, I usually work very late. I am a night-worker. I do my best work when everybody is sleeping. So, those are my sleepless nights. Most of my work has been produced during my sleepless nights, so to speak.
HUO: Louise Bourgeois would have been drawing and you are making films in the sleepless nights...
JM: (Laughs) Yes. But it’s the same in the “One Thousand and One Nights”: not all stories take place at night. They only are told at night. And it’s the same in my Sleepless Nights Stories: some of them take place at night, but some of them take place during the day.
HUO: All these stories in your film are short stories. Today I went to see Brian Aldiss. He is a science fiction writer in England and a friend of J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock. He is now 86 and lives in Oxford. And as a science fiction writer he always tried to find new approaches to storytelling. He somehow subsumed a narrative into very disparate episodes, some serious, some witty, and some satirical. But he felt that by using these small stories, he was still able to convey a big overall picture – a picture about what’s happening in the world, about what concerns him, and about change. This form of writing for him was almost, as he said, like holding a mirror. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little about this idea of subsuming the narrative into different episodes.
JM: In my case these little stories emerge from the situations. And then all together they form one thing, which is made of different chapters. But each chapter is a story of its own. And they are all very different – they are about different people, different situations, and different forms. In some cases the story is even only told – like Lee Stringer, who just tells a story, his story, himself. These stories are all very short. A story doesn’t have to be long. In a sense they are like anecdotes.
HUO: Yes, they are also like mini-sagas.
JM: Yes, there is a variety. Some are with humor, and some are almost anthropological studies, like the unwrapping of a wine bottle present. There is a lot of anthropology in it, a very concentrated moment of life. These stories are very concentrated. I think that basically I am an anthropological filmmaker, and maybe these stories could be seen as anthropological sketches.
HUO: I remember that when you first told me about this project, you said that it also had a connection to your website. Many of these stories popped up at your website at some point. Can you talk about the connection to the website
JM: You can’t put a long story on a website. For most people the films have to be short to watch them on a website or on YouTube. One can keep ones attention on a website or YouTube for two minutes, three minutes, or maybe for five minutes at the maximum. So it has to be short. It is a challenge to work with short forms in storytelling. And of course the question is also, “what is a story?” What a story is has changed through the centuries. It’s flexible. One could say that Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” is a story. Some poems are stories, etc. What is a story? Like, what is a novel?
HUO: This is actually the next question that I wanted to ask you. Did you have connections to the writers of the nouveau roman – Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, or Nathalie Sarraute?
JM: I was very interested in Robbe-Grillet at the very beginning, when I was still writing myself, yes. We were also friends, you know. The nouveau roman was breaking down the barriers, expanding and creating new forms in storytelling – in literature as well as in cinema. Sleepless Nights Stories is a narrative film, but at the same time it is also poetic. It is a new way of trying to tell a story, to create a new form of narrative.
HUO: I was also thinking of two of my favorite writers – of Nathalie Sarraute and Jorge Luis Borges.
JM: Borges was also very much concerned with new forms of storytelling, yes.
HUO: And Nathalie Sarraute was talking about this idea of tropism, where she said that these tropisms are in some way like fleeting impressions, like invisible moments, which might inspire one to write a poem. I thought this was very interesting, because she had all those micro-entities in her novels. I was thinking of her when I saw your film.
JM: Yes. There is usually one crucial moment, and the rest kind of turns around that moment. The moment when we come to a big tree, and we touch it, and the branch that is part of the tree is like a horse’s neck – and that moment of touching that part of the tree that feels like a horse’s neck then makes the rest turn all around it.
HUO: And that reflection of the moment also brings us to time. I also wanted to ask you about time, because the scientist Ilya Prigogine talks about time as a basic fundamental dimension. And these films are very much a sort of a shifting present. I was wondering about that. And at the same time I was thinking also that the present in this sense moves pretty slowly.
JM: I always have problems talking or thinking about time, because everything is in time. I am quite lost when somebody asks me about time. I don’t know. I mean, some works work only in time. If you take La Monte Young’s compositions where he stretched those little notes to five or six hours – they work like that, but they would not work in five minutes or even in half an hour. So, of course some works work only in time. And some narratives have to go slow. You can’t rush. But in my case, in the Sleepless Nights Stories, it has to be short. Time, in this case, has to be within five minutes. There are forms of art such as songs, lyrical poems, or haikus, that require being short by their very nature.
HUO: So one can say that this is somehow the rule of the game. The rule of the game is that it has to happen in five minutes.
JM: Some games, like baseball, can go on and on and on (laughs). That’s why we have the novel, that’s why we have a short story. And then we have also, I would say, ‘short short stories.’ I am into ‘short short stories’ (laughs). You must know Alfred Polgar, as he wrote in German. He was known for his very short stories, not more than one page. And James Thurber was also known for that. That’s what interests me: the ‘short short’ form. It is caused by the short span of patience on YouTube and the Internet. In theaters and movie theaters one can still sit down ready to spend the whole evening, but not on the Internet, not on websites, not on YouTube. So, I am a sort of YouTube guy, Internet, and website story maker, not for the movie theaters.
HUO: And what about your own website? Because, as we discussed, many of these tales and short stories also go onto your website before they are edited into a film...
JM: Yes, but sometimes the films on my website are not stories. Just yesterday I put on the website my 9/11 footage, which I had made from my rooftop, but also from the television, and from the streets. So this is more like a document of a period or of an event. This is not exactly a story. It is something else. It’s anthropology and a capturing of time.
HUO: And can you tell me something about polyphony? One of the things that I thought about in relation to Sleepless Nights Stories is the idea of polyphony. Obviously there are not one or two protagonists, but there is a polyphony of protagonists.
JM: Yes, and they also keep coming back. It is not one protagonist. If one looks at the last ten years of my footage and what I have done, then it’s like a family – the same people are appearing in different countries and in different situations. Is that what you mean?
HUO: Yes, it’s a polyphony of characters, they are recurrent, they come back. And that also leads to the question how you constitute the cast of your films. Because it consists mostly of your friends and people you spend time with, or…?
JM: Yes. My Paris Movie  for example has scenes with myself, but always together with friends. And I am now finishing a film about the Mars Bar in New York, which just got closed. It’s about my Mars Bar, not somebody else’s. It’s seen always with friends and through friends. I don’t go to bars for myself (laughs). If I go for a drink, then I go with friends. And it’s the same with Paris. I am always there with friends. My Paris – in my memory and in my life – is always the city as well as my friends there. I can’t detach the two, the city and my Paris friends: it’s one.
HUO: The Mars Bar will soon be gone.
JM: Yes, the Mars Bar is already closed, and they are ripping out its interiors. So it’s already finished, yes. When I was in Paris during the last five years, some bistros have also disappeared. In Paris there are also changes, which one doesn’t notice if one is just passing through or stays for only one week. You have to live there to see that Paris is really changing. But when I go there just briefly, Paris is still the same to me. Luckily the places that I like in Paris and London are still there (laughs).
HUO: They never really change, yes. But at the same time it is like in the photographs from Bernd and Hilla Becher, where we can see these industrial architectures only because the Bechers protested against forgetting. And we will only be able to see the Mars Bar through your film. Eric Hobsbawm said, when I saw him the other day, that we need to protest against forgetting.
JM: (Laughs) Really? I think it’s great that we are forgetting. I think that memory sometimes really gets in the way of moving ahead – at least in the politics and all the nationalisms. Sometimes I think it would be good if we could lose all this memory, because then we could start from the beginning. And now they keep always thinking back: “Oh, remember what their generation did to our parents,” etc. But that is something else.
HUO: So you would say, rather than protest against forgetting, one should, as Rirkrit Tiravanija always says, remember to forget?
JM: Forgetfulness (laughs). I would protest against memory.
HUO: (Laughs) A protest against memory!
JM: We keep so many memories, and they prevent us from being right in this moment – now, openly, and freely. So I will protest against memories. I am for forgetfulness!
JM: Sometimes I am trying to make intellectual entertainment. I want to entertain my friends, and at the same time I want to catch some essential moments of my life and share them with my friends. There is something in essential moments, something that reveals certain thoughts, emotions, problems or whatever. There is something in it. This is like items that we collect – like certain stones or jewelry – but on the level of memories and images. That is the same. Such moments are also like some precious stones, but they are pieces of life, of civilization, of culture, and the like. They are not less valuable. So one gets obsessed with retaining and recording them. It is not easy to explain why we do that. But we do that. It is the same with music or literature and all other arts.
HUO: I still have one or two questions about Sleepless Nights Stories. I wanted to ask you how long you have been working on the project as a whole?
JM: I would say three years. The materials in it are approximately from the span of the last three years. Everything comes from that period. It is not old but sort of new.
HUO: And what will be the next film after the “Sleepless Nights Stories”?
JM: This year I finished already four films. Do you know Correspondences – Jose Luis Guerin & Jonas Mekas? We exchanged video letters. It will be shown at the London Film Festival.
HUO: Benn Northover told me also that you have already made four feature films this year, which is sensational. It is such a productive year.
JM: Yes, Sleepless Nights Stories, My Paris Movie, Correspondences and My Mars Bar Movie.
HUO: I asked you this question before, but I want to ask you again today: in 2011 within all of this incredible number of films – are there any unrealized projects? Projects, which have been too big to be realized? Dreams, unrealized films, utopias?
JM: I have many, many open-ended films, but I don’t want to talk too much about that. Also I am now editing a film (film footage and not video) that is not finished yet – and that will be for the Serpentine Gallery exhibition. But I think that maybe we should conclude for today, because actually I have to go screen my Notes on Utopia at the Microscope Gallery. It will be premiered in one hour from now – oh no, it will be shown in 35 minutes! I have to go. (laughs)
HUO: Yes, that was a fantastic interview, thank you so much! And it is incredibly timely that we did this interview just before you go for the screening of Notes on Utopia, which has to do with our “Utopia Station.” It is a wonderful coincidence. It is telepathy. Have a wonderful screening tonight! Ernst Bloch said about utopia: “Something is missing,” and Édouard Glissant said: “Utopia is a tremblement.”
JM: Utopia is a problem.
HUO: (laughs) Thank you so much, Jonas!
Shortly after our interview Jonas sent me an email with a postscript to the question of the “short short story.” He writes: “It’s not about the short span of attention with which YouTube and websites have to do. The Haiku poetry form didn’t develop because of the short span of attention... It’s simply a question of form. Of short, condensed forms of narrative, and they existed, I would bet, even in the caves of Altamira. You can spin a long yarn, but sometimes it’s great to have just a tasty morsel. But to make a long story short takes a lot of intense mind burning. Goethe (from memory): ‘I am sending you a long piece because I didn’t have time to send you a short piece.’”