April 14, 2012

INTERVIEW: Jonas Mekas

by Steve Dollar

My Mars Bar Movie

I remember the first time I visited the Mars Bar. It was 1997, and a friend dragged me there very late one night. It was the kind of East Village dive, just a block off the Bowery, that seemed like a hallucination: dank, dark, walls covered in graffiti and gonzo artwork, lots of cheap canned beer, a jukebox stuffed with Stooges, Motorhead and local scum-rock acts, and a clientele from... Mars. There were only three people in the place, besides us and the bartender, a young woman who looked exactly like the kind of neighborhood siren who you saw, naked, in an R. Kern photo collection: a dwarf, a blind man and a Native American. Was this a Tom Waits song? Somehow two of them got into a fight. And then someone was forcibly locked into the bathroom. More drinks were served, and eventually everyone was back at the bar, a thick haze of cigarette smoke (ah, the '90s!) the ideal ambience for the murder beat lurching out of the juke's tinny speakers.

"You've been in that bathroom?" Jonas Mekas asked me after I told him the story, in a tone one might use when debriefing a refugee from the abyss.

Now 89, the New York filmmaker and archivist speaks from experience. Mekas has spent a third of his life drinking at the Mars Bar. The dive at the corner of Second Avenue and First Street opened in the early 1980s, when Mekas was busy renovating the future site of his Anthology Film Archives, a block away.

"We came into existence together, so it was friendship," he said, chatting over Lithuanian beer and vodka shots at the Anyway Cafe, one of several East Village bars he frequents more often since Mars Bar closed last June (and was subsequently demolished). The demise of the bar, a refuge for the neighborhood's old-school bohemians, artists and rogues, prompted the filmmaker to edit more than 15 years of casual video footage into My Mars Bar Movie, which runs this weekend at Anthology.

Mars Bar, in its heyday

You polish off a lot of tequila shots in My Mars Bar Movie. It almost looks like a daily ritual. Was it?

It became traditional that when any of the visitors [to Anthology] left, a traditional drink was tequila. It became the tequila bar, because there was always somebody coming and leaving.

It's not like anyone was probably looking for the comprehensive Mars Bar documentary, but it's worth noting that this is, like so many of your films, a scrapbook of your own peculiar experiences. "My" Mars Bar.

It's not a documentary. It's like a diary. It doesn't try to cover all aspects of it. I have my camera and I always film, or rather tape. So it's very personal.

I noticed that there are lot of daytime scenes.

Ten years ago they decided to quit [replacing burned-out lights]. There was practically no light. You couldn't film anything [at night]. There was no other bar like that. Other bars try to bring themselves up to date, become a bit cleaner. They didn't care. I'm for a little bit of dirt. Every city needs some messy dirty place where you can go and lose yourself and leave some of your dirt there. Paris has. Hamburg has. New York does not have it anymore. This area had Mars Bar. Now it's gone. Now New York is cleaner but not for the better.

I visited the bar on a few unforgettable occasions myself. It was like a time machine, fueled by rotgut whiskey.

When I moved into Manhattan from Williamsburg in 1953 to Orchard Street, and had an apartment for $14.95 a month, I walked along the Bowery toward the Village and there were many, many bars a little bit like the Mars Bar. Lionel Rogosin made a documentary called On the Bowery, but he chose a little bit cleaner bar. I don't know where else you can find anything like that.

Mars Bar, in its heyday

What did you like best about Mars Bar?

You felt very free. The drinks were cheap in price and very often cheap in quality. But you didn't care. It was very open. You always saw the same people, very devoted to the place. From South America, this guy Hamlet, who was always there. It made you feel a little bit like home. There was something like a family feeling.

How many filmmakers did you take there over the years?

Many. Many. Some are not known. Some are like Bela Tarr. Jim Jarmusch. One of the stills we sent to the press was me and Zoƫ Lund, of the Bad Lieutenant, and of course Abel Ferrara.

What did Bela Tarr make of it?

Usually, everybody found it a little bit exotic and not like anything else. Everybody liked it for that reason. It was still before gentrification, before civilization took over. Something left over from some dream of the past. Now something essential is gone. It's the end of an era. The customers are desperate where to go next.

Places like this often become romanticized. Anyone who drank there knew that It also could be scary.

Yes. There were fights, and stealing. You had to be very careful. But I have not seen any really bad fights there. Some arguments. Some voices. As I said, I have not spent so many late nights there.

Did anyone care that you were shooting them?

No. No one. We knew everybody. Even when that guys jumps on the bar and takes his pants down, he didn't care. He knew I was there with a camera.

Did you have any favorites?

In the early days there was this guy who did not talk. He cleaned the place. He was one of the characters. Everybody liked him and he was always there. But he couldn't talk. He was mute. But he could sort of sing. But I could not find the footage when we sang duets. There may be another edition.

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Posted by ahillis at April 14, 2012 4:37 PM