“There is no other way to break the frozen cinematic conventions than through a complete derangement of the official cinematic senses.” — Jonas Mekas

When the avant-garde filmmaker (he referred to himself often as a “film diarist” died at the age of 96, the outpouring of tributes was overwhelming (and, in many cases, instructive. There was a lot I didn’t know.) My fellow NYFFC member Bilge Ebiri interviewed Mekas in 2017 for the Village Voice – a fantastic interview (and incidentally, Mekas was the paper’s first film critic). There is so much to be said about Mekas, his life, his work, his vision. He moved along with the technology, keeping up to date, and spoke eloquently on how different kinds of cameras affected his approach and the result. He worked until the end. He ran his own website, and uploaded his fragmentary clips on a daily basis. He was the essence of independent.

For my purposes, here on this personal blog, I gotta write about Jonas Mekas and Elvis.

In 1972, Mekas attended the final show of Elvis Presley’s 4-day gig at Madison Square Garden (the 4 shows sold out in minutes, unheard-of at the time). Mekas brought with him a 16mm camera, smuggled under his jacket. He shot what he could. He did not have official clearance to be filming this epic event. The footage he got was wild and chaotic. There is no sound. He did not make any attempts to sync up anything. He said, “Some of it was filmed normal 24fps speed, some not.”

Decades later, in 2001, the Viennale International Film Festival asked Jonas Mekas to prepare a trailer for the festival. He could do whatever he wanted with the trailer, obviously, because he’s Jonas Mekas. “Go for it” was the basic assignment.

Mekas used his Elvis footage.

He spoke later about why he created the trailer in the way that he did:

I was lucky enough to see Elvis Presley’s final concert at Madison Square Garden in June 1972. Usually, you are not allowed to bring a camera to a concert. But the audience and the entire event were so wild that no one paid any attention to me. Over the years I watched the footage again and again. Then the Viennale called and I immediately thought of my Elvis material. The only problem was that I didn’t know what kind of musical soundtrack to use. I tried everything and was close to giving up when I happened to hear a Viennese waltz on the radio. That was it! What could be better – or funnier – than Elvis and Strauss?

“What could be better – or funnier – than Elvis and Strauss?” — Jonas Mekas

The trailer is so beautiful, and weirdly emotional.

This post stands as just a small portion of gratitude to Jonas Mekas from a hardcore Elvis fan.

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4 Responses to “There is no other way to break the frozen cinematic conventions than through a complete derangement of the official cinematic senses.” — Jonas Mekas

  1. Shawn says:

    I was just listening to That’s The Way It Is (Deluxe Edition) yesterday. He poured himself into those songs. Especially love I Lost You and Mary In the Morning. There was an outtake, can’t remember which one, where his vocal was particularly vulnerable and sweet. Wow. He had such range. Not many male musicians from that time would go there.

    • sheila says:

      // There was an outtake, can’t remember which one, where his vocal was particularly vulnerable and sweet. // I’ll have to find the outtake you mean.

      “I Lost You” is just extraordinary. He just WAILS through that thing – it’s just stunning.

      He always meant it, whatever he was doing – he never “marked” it. He always meant it. The footage of those rehearsals are also amazing. They’re just rehearsals, and he’s drenched in sweat, in that tiny studio, finding his way towards the eventual performance – he doesn’t adjust the size of his performance to the size of the room.

      That’s him.

  2. Ron Russitano says:

    how col. parker didn’t arrange for some key show in elvis’ career to NOT be filmed, in their entirety, is beyond me. pearl harbor benefit, any of the dome shows, anything from the 50’s. i guess it makes those moments more mythical now.

    • sheila says:

      For sure. The really scratchy bad audio of the Pearl Harbor benefit is extraordinary – it’s a whole new THING, compared to the 50s recordings where Elvis is pretty raw. Hearing who he was in live performance in 1961 makes it even more clear what a huge sacrifice it was for him to not tour or give live performances for the next eight years. Ugh.

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