‘Yoko made two films for me’: at the cinema with John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Avant garde film-maker Jonas Mekas in New York, December 1970

I began taking pictures in a serious way just after the second world war. I had been in a labour camp and, when the war ended, a displaced person’s camp in Germany; so my earliest images depicted the life of refugees.

I came to the US on 30 October 1949, aged 27. I knew someone in Chicago and he guaranteed me a job so I could get my green card. But when I landed in New York I decided it would be foolish to go anywhere else: it was electrifying, exciting. Everything was changing in the arts world – it was about to explode, with Marlon Brando, Ginsberg, the beat generation.

I didn’t care for the city itself; I barely noticed it. It was the intensity of life that caught me: I immersed myself in poetry, theatre, ballet and cinema. A few weeks after I arrived, I bought a 16mm film camera and started to make movies. The war had taken my growing-up period away from me, so I decided to catch up.

By 1960, I was editing Film Culture magazine, and that’s when I first met Yoko Ono. She was studying in New York and making her earliest work. In order to settle here, she needed a green card, so she came to me for a job. I was her sponsor.

A few years later, she went to London and met John Lennon. They returned together, and on his first night in New York, we all met for coffee. In December 1970 they came to the Invisible Cinema, a specially designed theatre I had just opened on Lafayette Street. I organised a little film festival and Yoko made two films for me in 10 days: one called Legs, and one called Fly. Legs consisted of a camera panning around different legs, mostly belonging to John and Yoko’s friends; Fly followed a fly in close up as it walked over the body of a nude female.

The cinema was designed for 70 people; when you were in your winged seat, you saw only the screen – not your neighbour or the person in front of you. The walls and seats were black velvet so that during the projection everything was dark but the film. In this photograph, we’re waiting for a movie to start.

At the time I saw a lot of John and Yoko, and I always enjoyed our time together. He was open, relaxed, very spontaneous. It felt like anything could happen, at any moment. Yoko was more controlled, but she was very warm and we remain good friends. She loved New York as much as I did. She once wrote to me from Japan, where she was working: “I’m coming to the end of my wits,” she wrote. “New York is my only town. Kiss the pavements... for me.”

It was through her that I came to dance with Fred Astaire, for her 1972 film, Imagine: he danced across a room, and I followed him, with no rehearsal. It was brief, but memorable.

I think Yoko is misunderstood. Those who blame her for the breakup of the Beatles – that’s not the woman I know. She and John were very sweet, very much in love. I’m lucky to have met them; I was lucky, too, that I had to leave my country, and arrive in New York when I did.

• A Dance With Fred Astaire, by Jonas Mekas, is published by Anthology Editions (anthologyeditions.com).

Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


Deborah Linton

The GuardianTramp

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