This was seen on a new 35mm restored by the Anthology Film Archives and the Film Foundation through funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation, commemorating the one-year anniversary of Jonas Mekas’ death (on January 23rd, 2019).
“You may ask yourself, what is GUNS OF THE TREES all about, what’s the story. There is no story. Telling stories is for peaceful and content people. And at this juncture of my life I am neither content nor peaceful. I am deeply and totally discontent… My film is only a letter of solidarity to the friends of an existential discontent, no matter what continent, what country—a letter from the mad heart of the insane world…”
The above quote, taken from a pamphlet Jonas Mekas wrote in 1961 for the premiere of his debut feature Guns of the Trees, may seem a bit at odds with the rest of Mekas’ filmography. Guns is perhaps the closest that Mekas, the godfather of the New American Cinema movement and modern avant-garde, has ever approached traditional narrative filmmaking (if only that it has an overarching plot and clearly identifiable characters).
Yet the crux of the quote remains valid. Produced in the early 60s, Guns of the Trees is a blistering, sharp critique of contemporary American society, of Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign, of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and of segregation and subjugation of the black community. Guns of the Trees is a film about anger, about the never-ending fight for free will and independence. In that same broadside, Mekas declared, “Why not use cinema to shout out what angers me… There are too many things that aren’t said, which demands be said, no, shouted!” The visceral appeal of rebellion, of raging against an oppressive government, is what allows the film to transcend its time and setting.
But to deem Guns of the Trees as simply an “angry” movie is to understate its beauty. Though Guns’ plot centers on a girl’s suicide, exploring the circumstances of how it came to be, its story is not solely full of bleakness and despairs. Guns has four central characters, a white couple (Barbara and Gregory, played respectively by Frances Stillman and Jonas’ brother Adolfas) and a black couple (Argus and Ben, played by Argus Spear Julliard and Ben Carruthers). Barbara and Gregory are portrayed as frustrated, lonely, and dissatisfied with their lives, while Argus and Ben are affable and warm. Like Shirley Clarke, another co-founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Mekas desires to give African-Americans fair and just representation in cinema without resorting to crass stereotypes or vulgar characterization. That Argus and Ben are seen as characters, people truly in love with each other, is refreshing and illuminating in a time where most black characters were relegated to small supporting roles or background characters.
Mekas cited two key influences for Guns of the Trees, Robert Frank’s and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy and John Cassavetes’ Shadows (both released in 1959, the latter of which also stars Carruthers). Like those movies, Guns is a forebear of American counterculture, featuring folk songs by Sara and Carter Wiley and Tom Sankey and poetry interludes written and narrated by Allen Ginsberg. Though Guns of the Trees may be a protest film, it is one with meaning and depth; while it condemns civil persecution, it is also a picture that celebrates life itself.