Close To Jonas Mekas: An Interview with Chuck Smith

The closest I ever got to meeting Jonas Mekas was vicariously high-fiving him through another filmmaker, someone with whom I shared a cosy condo in Park City for just one week. Jump-cut to a year later – one month ago now – and news of Mekas’ death hits. That random mattress American, the bridge to Mekas – an idol to generations – seemed to come down hard and fast. But somehow, in a perfect act of coincidence, only days after Mekas left us, I met an American filmmaker who would become my new bridge. It was Chuck Smith, who was gearing up his new film Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground at IFFR 2019, and I landed an interview with him. Made in collaboration with Mekas, his documentary was about art-porn légende Barbara Rubin, whose radical practice still reverberates today, some 60 years since she flashed NY.

I was meant to interview Smith and talk about Rubin, her influence, the documentary. But, as was fitting to the moment, we spoke about Mekas, and his never-ending film life. Isn’t it strange how you simply can’t separate artist from the artist’s BFF? The documentary – while a showcase for Rubin’s lasting influence – was sidelined so we could talk about Rubin and Mekas, together, as if forever in dialogue with each other, and a generation influenced by their shenanigans.

An in-person conversation with Chuck Smith at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019.

André Shannon: Were you close to Jonas Mekas?

Chuck Smith: I would say for the last five years I was. You know, he was 96, and his health had been declining the last few months, but his health had always bounced back before. It’s hard to imagine a world without Jonas Mekas, I think. So, after the initial sadness, I just channelled it into a tribute film I did for him, which we screened at Rotterdam International Film Festival after the first screening of the Barbara Rubin documentary. He would have been happy about that. He always said, “keep working”. Just to keep working.

AS: How do you think film has changed thanks to figures like Barbara Rubin and Jonas Mekas?

CS: I mean Jonas’ whole point was, ‘anybody’s a filmmaker who picks up a camera’ very open ended. And these days, everyone has an iPhone. We walk around with cameras in our pockets, which was something they would have all dreamed about. Jonas always had a camera with him and was always filming with it. In a sense, that whole period with Barbara and Jonas, it was the beginning of that. I have a letter from Barbara that says, “one day we’ll be running around with such small cameras; our hands will become cameras”. So that was their hope and their dream. Jonas’ cameras always got smaller and smaller over the years…

AS: Did Jonas ever use iPhones?

CS: No, he never used a mobile phone. He always liked a real ‘regular’ camera. Well, you know, whatever, a small digital camera. And, as little as I think maybe seven years ago, he did a film a day! In his 80s he did a film a day for one year, so 365 films. I mean, of course not everything is a brilliant film, but the fact that it liberates people to do that and feel like they can do whatever they want is the world we’re living in right now, I hope.

AS: What do you think is the state of film culture?

CS: I mean I think – like music – film has gotten niche, and there’s the big blockbusters which Jonas would have called ‘Hollywood movies’ back in the 50s. And so I think those avenues for everybody else beyond the Hollywood movies have opened up. I think there are little niches opening up all over the world for different types. I saw a film yesterday that was a decayed film from 1911. I know my friend Bill Morrison had done Decasia (2002). I thought he was the only one doing that kind of stuff.

AS: How do you think Barbara’s success has translated over time? I can’t think of anyone like Barbara at the moment.

CS: I think she was one of kind for that period. I hope there’s people up there like that now. She was a filmmaker who produced one important film. A lot of it was her age; she was young. I don’t think the barriers are still there to be broken. I mean, you had to have permission to show a foreign film in New York city.

AS: Do you think people felt threatened by her?

CS: Yes! I think men particularly. It’s no surprise that she was best friends with gay men. Because, I think they were less threatened by her in a really interesting way because of sexuality. It was the macho men like Paul Morrisey, or Gerard Malanga; those are the people who felt like she was stepping on their toes because it was rare for a woman to be so forthright. You know, not demanding, but to know what she wants. I think men find that threatening. Maybe not anymore but –

AS: Oh, I think it’s still so…

CS: Right, exactly. We call a woman who has an opinion and [is] strong about it ‘pushy’.

AS: Or outspoken.

CS: Outspoken is a nice way to put it for a man, but for a woman there’s always another way to put it. And the other interesting thing with the women in [my] film was a lot of them were a little bit boisterous and slept around and they were ‘dangerous young women’, institutionalised at much higher rates than men were at that age.

AS: Wasn’t she being shot up with amphetamines?

CS: Well, no, people called it a ‘diet pill’. But the women of that period were absolutely put in institutions while the men were just told to go play football, or ‘you can go do something else’.

AS: Were Jonas and Barbara interested in youth idealism?

CS: I mean, yeah! The 60s were a very rare time where idealism was breaking out and everyone believed they could change the world, and they were! There were so many barriers to be broken that people believed it because it was happening, and Barbara was a true believer in that. She really thought that film could change the world. Jonas was such an open and gregarious person and friendly with everyone and Barbara was too. I just think that kind of spirit is important.

AS: For both Jonas and Barbara can you tell me what lasting impression you have? What did they leave you with?

CS: Well, for Jonas it was [to] keep busy. And ‘trust your angels’. What happens if you meet somebody, and they inspire you? Go with it. And Barbara was one of his angels, he trusted Barbara’s spirit, that it would lead him places, and it did. And love too. They both talked about love all the time, embrace what you’re doing, love the people you’re doing it with, and to see how long Jonas lived with that attitude is inspirational. We showed one of his movies he made during his ‘one film per day’ year, and in it he does a headstand at 88.

AS: What!

CS: Yeah, he plays really loud music, Michael Stipe music, R.E.M, and then does a headstand and walks out of frame and laughs! And it’s great. So, that’ll keep you alive.

AS: Do you think Jonas Mekas is dead, or still alive?

CS: I think, like anything else, he’s alive in his work, and he’s alive in everyone’s heart. Like, physically we won’t see him anymore, but the ghost of him is all over here. And so is Barbara, in a sense. They live on through what they leave behind. The fact people can still watch Christmas on Earth (1963) in a classroom is great. Jonas left behind tons of footage to go through, and one of my joys was going through that footage and finding things.

AS: What kind of legacy has Barbara left, or how would you describe it?

CS: I would say her legacy was push it the limit. She went beyond what anyone expected her to do in a lot of ways and she liked to push buttons and provoke people. And provoking can be annoying but it can also lead to great change. I think the people who really loved her loved her provoking attitude. Andy Warhol loved the fact she would create scenes, and Lou Reed loved that. She would come into a room and just make stuff up. So yeah, make a scene, push buttons, and see what happens.

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André Shannon is a Sydney-based queer filmmaker and film critic. Previous work includes being Cate Shortland’s nanny, an e-mail to Mark Cousins, and published criticism across publications and film festival platforms. André co-hosts podcasts at FBi 94.5 and his Twitter is @andreshannonfr.

André Shannon

I'm André Shannon; film critic, filmmaker, and huge fan of everyone's work on Rough Cut. I make podcasts about film, host a weekly film segment on radio, interview filmmakers, and my mum's cousin is Tilda Swinton which is bonkers to me!