Jonas Mekas and the “New American Cinema”

Jonas Mekas in his 1990 film Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol: Friendships and Intersections

For seven decades, from the moment he borrowed the cash needed to buy a Bolex 16 mm camera, Jonas Mekas worked tirelessly along every feasible avenue to champion what he came to call the “New American Cinema.” The year was 1949, and Mekas and his brother Adolfas had arrived in Brooklyn from Lithuania by way of a labor camp near Hamburg and, after the war ended, displaced persons’ camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel. The brothers threw themselves into New York’s art scene—theaters, galleries, cinemas—before founding their influential journal, Film Culture, in 1954. “Downtown was where it was all happening,” Jonas told Andy Battaglia a few years ago. “The uptown, however, produced the audiences for it.” Four years later, Jonas became the first full-time film critic for the Village Voice, and in 1962, he cofounded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative to distribute avant-garde films. The Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which would eventually become Anthology Film Archives, followed two years later. Over the course of all these years, Mekas wrote poetry and made films, many of them in the form of diaries shot on 8 mm, or later, video—free-flowing montages of pastoral reveries and urban bustle. As Thomas Beard, cofounder of New York’s Light Industry, wrote yesterday when he’d heard that Jonas Mekas had passed away at the age of ninety-six, “His contributions are incalculable.”

Film Culture, which published writing by filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, critics Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris, and film historian P. Adams Sitney, was, as Robert Koehler points out, “about forging a culture for an art form ignored by the art world on one hand and Hollywood on the other.” In November 1958, Mekas approached Jerry Tallmer, a theater critic and editor at the Voice, to ask why the weekly didn’t run a regular movie column. Tallmer suggested that Mekas write one himself, and Mekas replied that he’d turn in his first column the very next day.

A selection of the Voice columns were collected in a volume in 1972 that was out of print for years before a new edition (with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich) was published in 2016. Reviewing Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959–1971 for the New Yorker, Richard Brody found it to be “a rich trove of cinematic wisdom, an artistic time capsule of New York at a moment of crucial energy, and a reflection of controversies and struggles regarding independent filmmaking that endure to this day.” Brody emphasizes that, even as he championed underground filmmakers, Mekas also “wrote with discerning taste” about Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, Godard and Antonioni, Sirk and Minnelli, and Cocteau and Renoir. But the greatest writing in the collection for Brody isn’t criticism, but rather, the reporting. “What Mekas catches and brings to the fore is the humanity of the filmmakers he writes about,” writes Brody. “It’s as if the films themselves were secondary to the world of the filmmakers, the downtown scene, the friendships, the collaborations, the transcendental dreams, the utopian urges, the monastic hedonism, the craving for a self-liberation and a collective liberation by means of art and in the name of art. Embracing the pain and the passion of the artist’s life, endorsing ‘the new cinema (and the new man),’ he anticipates the great changes of the later nineteen-sixties and, when they happened, he welcomed them.”

Writing for Artforum in 2017, Amy Taubin recalls following Mekas’s column in the Voice, and revisiting them in the collection, she notes that “one has the sense that Mekas is secure in the place from which he speaks, and that he says plainly what’s on his mind without fussing about the niceties of prose, damping down hyperbole, or tailoring his style to the standards of art criticism or journalism. He wrote about the liberation of movies in a voice that inspired liberation. When, in 1974, an editor took a pencil to his copy for the first time, he left the Voice. Whenever people ask me what it was like to live in New York in the ’60s, I refer them to Mekas’s [1969 film] Walden and, as a corollary, to Movie Journal.

Last year, Spector Books published another collection of Mekas’s writing for the Voice, Conversations with Filmmakers, a selection of interviews conducted between 1961 and 1975. “At times, he sounds like a headmaster calling pupils into his office to reprimand them for selling out or having one eye on the Hollywood leviathan,” writes Simon Hattenstone in a passage on the book in his profile of Mekas for the Guardian. “He more or less tells Susan Sontag she should stick to writing, accuses Agnès Varda of making an ‘escapist’ film that sides with with ‘capitalistic cinema,’ and asks Robert Downey senior: ‘Why do you have to resort to vulgarity?’” Mekas assures Hattenstone that, yes, “he might have been critical, but he never interviewed anybody he did not admire.”

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