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Premieres & Events

"That's the Best Combination"

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The Reeler visited Queens Sunday to check out the opening of Jonas Mekas: The Beauty of Being Friends Together Quartet, a new installation of the filmmaker's work at P.S. 1. Comprising four walls of stills and videos in other multiples of four (The Untitled 40, for example, single frames of subjects including Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol and John Lennon among others; or try the 40 films playing on 10 widescreen monitors on the adjacent wall), the exhibition was organized by guest curator (and Brooklyn Rail publisher) Phong Bui from both Mekas' own collection and his work at the Maya Stendhal Gallery and runs until April 16.

Jonas Mekas in front of The Untitled 40 at P.S. 1, where his new exhibition The Beauty of Being Friends Together Quarter opened Sunday (Photo: STV)

"I just like quartets," Mekas told me in a chat near The Untitled 40. "Actually, you see, I film single frame, bop bop bop --" he raised and lowered his right hand in punching, percussive bursts "-- and then I started making pictures from cutting out short, consecutive pieces. And I discovered that three or four frames? That's the best combination. So four frames. I don't know."

Considering the amount of material he's shot over the last six decades, of course, selecting quartets of frames could be the type of endeavor that would take a less decisive filmmaker months if not years. Not Mekas. "First, there's a selection," he said. "I have thousands of slides pulled out from my films. The series on that wall over there, that's called To New York with Love." He pointed to the wall of 60mm frame blow-ups facing the installation entrance at the opposite end of the room. "Those are images only of New York. No emphasis on personalities. Mostly it's the city -- just the city. So I pulled it out from all the slides, and that's that. And then 40 portraits in individual frames -- 40 people. Just people. Then of course on that wall --" Mekas pointed directly behind me to a four-by-four bank of 16 video monitors "-- you have four quartets: The Destruction Quartet; The Egypt Quartet (a k a The Education of Sebastian, or Egypt Regained), An American Film Director at Work, a Martin Scorsese quartet; and the Farewell to SoHo Quartet."

Indeed, I asked about how he arranged to film Scorsese during the making of The Departed, a project that yielded long, raw, riveting streams of behind-the-scenes footage alternating shots of its stars, production downtime and the Oscar nominee simply surveying his monitor and gesturing during takes. "Eventually I will edit it into a 70-minute film," Mekas said. "But for this occasion, I kept it very loose and open, so it's maybe five hours or so of material. But I had maybe 15 hours of material. So I reduced it a little bit."

Why Scorsese? "Because I have never seen anybody presented in an installation form shooting a film, especially somebody who's known like Scorsese." He smiled. "And he's also a friend -- an old friend. So that's it. And it's interesting to see how, let's say, take after take after take end up in the final film as maybe five seconds. Here you see the whole process of making the film."

I finally checked into how his heralded 365-film project was shaping up on his Web site. Mekas has kept his one-short-per-day pace up since Jan. 1; samples of each are available for viewing anytime, while the current day's film is downloadable for free. "Well," he said, preceding a laugh and a shrug, "we have to go back soon and make another one for tomorrow. It's a challenge. Sometimes it comes very close; sometimes I go back to some material that I have already filmed some time ago, but sometimes it's very new. Like what's running (Sunday): the architect Raimund Abraham arguing with a wine merchant -- who's also a karate master -- about the body and creativity, etcetera, etcetera. That I filmed only a week ago."

Surprisingly, there were no cameras at the installation; perhaps an eventual Quartet Quartet would have been way too meta, but I'd be lying if I said "appear in a Jonas Mekas film" isn't among my ambitions of Things to Do Before I Die. I combed my hair and everything. Alas.

BONUS: Pictured below, Mekas' famous Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto, which seems different than I remember reading before but presented in its original glory at the installation entrance. Click here for a larger view.

Posted at February 12, 2007 4:28 PM

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