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States Pop Quiz #17: Jonas Mekas

The godfather of American avant-garde cinema tells us about going to jail, never voting and why the land of opportunity is still dreaming

As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series. 

He’s Lithuanian-born, but is widely considered the father of the American avant-garde. He’s collaborated with Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Kenneth Anger, but has produced work as a filmmaker and installation artist that has influenced countless other counter-culture legends to this day. He’s 91, but is still directing films – in 2007, he even produced one every day for a year for his “365 Day Project”. It’s a difficult task to neatly summarise the life and works of Jonas Mekas, the legendary filmmaker whose largely autobiographical output has made him one of cinema’s great activists ever since he landed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1949. But, perhaps even more than his cinematic style, it’s his role in instigating an entire support structure for independent, against-the-grain film that we have to thank him for today. Founding the Film-makers’ Cooperative and Cinematheque in the 1960s, these eventually grew into the Anthology Film Archives – one of the most important repositories of avant-garde cinema. To discover Mekas’ own oeuvre, meanwhile, is to discover the entire heritage of the diaristic form in cinema. We let the irrepresible New Yorker take the reigns of our USA themed pop quiz – and, naturally, his bold answers both eluded and intrigued. 

Which living American do you most admire and why?

Jonas Mekas: In every area of life and art I always have many people I respect for what they are doing. No one person.

Which living American do you most despise and why?

Jonas Mekas: I abandoned hate when I was around ten years old.

Whose face should be on the $100 bill?

Jonas Mekas: The moon. The face of the moon would be fine.

What is your favourite quote about America? 

Jonas Mekas: No favourite quotes about America. Land of opportunity?

What three words define the States today?

Jonas Mekas: Dazed And Confused.

Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?

Jonas Mekas: My uncle, when I was a child, who always gave me his old straw hats, after he bought new ones.

When + where you the most happiest?

Jonas Mekas: Almost everywhere.

What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?

Jonas Mekas: No school cliques in my relatively short school life.

What food reminds you of home?

Jonas Mekas: All food that I eat in New York reminds me on how well I ate in my Lithuanian village.

What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?

Jonas Mekas: Roasted chestnut vendors' carts, the smell of roasted, burned chestnuts.

What's the best road trip you've ever been on?

Jonas Mekas: A train ride from New York-Los Angeles that I did in the Sixties. It was amazing.

Where did you first fall in love?

Jonas Mekas: In Primary School, Second Grade…

When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?

Jonas Mekas: In 1964. I ended up in jail (Mekas was arrested on obscenity charges for screening Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour).

What would make you leave America forever?

Jonas Mekas: Nothing could do that.

What noise reminds you of the States?

Jonas Mekas: Advertising voices on television. Television voices.

What is your favorite American building?

Jonas Mekas: Too many to list. Begin with all Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and everything that Buckminster Fuller did. 

Ultimate American film?

Jonas Mekas: No such thing. But The Birth of a Nation comes close.

Most overrated US tourist attraction

Jonas Mekas: Borough of Manhattan.

Most underrated US tourist attraction

Jonas Mekas: I won't tell you that, in order to protect it from all the tourists.

What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure? 

Jonas Mekas: I do not feel any guilt about anything I do.

What law would you change or invent?

Jonas Mekas: Immediate closing of all restaurants that play music.

Where in the States would you ride out the apocalypse? 

Jonas Mekas: In Brooklyn.

If you could change one thing about the US, what would it be?

Jonas Mekas: I'd take it back in time to the year 1400. Maybe even further back.

Which fictional American do you most identify with?

Jonas Mekas: It never came to my mind to do that. I don't know how to do that.

Ultimate American Music album?

Jonas Mekas: The [John] Lomax field recordings collection at the Library of Congress.

If you could vote for Obama again, would you? 

Jonas Mekas: I have never voted yet. In addition, from what I have read about it, it's too complex for me.

If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after? 

Jonas Mekas: I'd probably leave immediately for Paris and have a sandwich jambon at Café Le Conti on Rue de Buci.

What will America look like in 2050? 

Jonas Mekas: A mix of apple pie and cacti.

Does the American Dream still exist?

Jonas Mekas: Yes, because America is still sleeping...