Jonas Mekas and the “New American Cinema”

The Daily — Jan 24, 2019
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.”

Anthology Film Archives, cofounded with Brakhage, Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Jerome Hill, opened its doors in Lower Manhattan in 1970 and, as Bruce Weber points out in the New York Times, it “now screens hundreds of films every year, preserves more than two dozen films and houses the world’s largest collection of books, periodicals, still photos, and other documents pertaining to avant-garde film.” Robert Koehler adds that “as anyone who follows the experimental avant-garde knows, there is no scene in the U.S., and certainly not in New York, without Anthology.” Ed Halter, Light Industry’s other cofounder, recalls that his “first meeting was not with Jonas the critic, or Jonas the filmmaker, or Jonas the public relations genius, but Jonas the hard-nosed negotiator.” As the new head of the New York Underground Film Festival, Halter was pitching to bring the NYUFF back to Anthology after the festival and AFA had had a falling out. Halter won Mekas over, both as a business partner and a friend, and eventually Mekas handed him “a videotape with his signature scrawled on the label.” It turned out to be a video letter addressed to the Guggenheim in which Mekas, ever the fierce defender of Anthology’s independence, turned down the museum’s offer to take over the organization.

The Belgian site Sabzian points us to a conversation that Mekas had with Brakhage in 2000 on the occasion of Anthology’s thirtieth anniversary. Looking back on those decades of programming, Mekas says that he “discovered that what I showed, what I promoted, all ended up in the Essential Cinema Repertory, the films that are now considered the classics of the ’60s.” When the discussion turns to his own work, Mekas says that his “diaristic style came very much from that fact that I had no time and money to make a scripted, ‘conventional’ film. So instead of making films I just filmed. I sometimes joke, I say I am not really a filmmaker; I am only a filmer. I film real life. I never know what will come next. The shape of my films emerges from the accumulation of the material itself. I go through my life with my Bolex camera.”

Mekas’s first feature, though, was not a diary. Guns of the Trees (1961) is a loosely staged, Beat poetry–influenced drama in which a man and a couple fail to convince a woman not to commit suicide. In 1964, Mekas drew more attention with The Brig, a record of the Living Theatre’s production of Kenneth H. Brown’s play about life in a Marine Corps prison. Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted that it’s so “gritty and disquieting” that the film has been “widely mistaken abroad for a documentary.”

Around two years later, Mekas began making his diary films, and the first of them to emerge as a landmark of the form would be Walden (1969), which features appearances by Adolfas, Brakhage, Sitney, Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, Nico and the Velvet Underground, Allen Ginsberg, Tony Conrad, Barbet Schroeder, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Hans Richter, Shirley Clarke, Michael Snow, Richard Foreman, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and of course, Mekas himself. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, J. Hoberman notes that Walden “has passages of pure cinema that feel like spontaneous jazz riffs. Shooting a day breaking over the Bronx through the window of a moving train, Mr. Mekas orchestrates a percussive jumble, with a great orange sun bouncing over a jittery skyline. At times, he seems like the last Impressionist, in his mix of bucolic and urban subject matter as well as his crazy energy. Walden is essentially a welter of fragmentary sensations.”

Lost Lost Lost (1976) centers on the years when Jonas and Adolfas Mekas had just arrived in New York, and it’s Hoberman’s “favorite of Mr. Mekas’s films, in part because of the powerfully ambivalent way it tells an archetypal American story, namely that of an immigrant’s rebirth in the New World.” A third major diary work is As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), a five-hour “epic of city streets and summer lawns, Cape Cod getaways and Central Park picnics, cats lounging on windowsills and children growing up,” as Andrew Chan describes it at Reverse Shot. “Few films have so poignantly embodied André Bazin’s notion of cinema as ‘time mummified,’ as a thing that lives and breathes and dies . . . There is innocence in this film, and it is heartrendingly beautiful.”

Last April, Ben R. Nicholson spoke with Mekas for the Notebook and found him as energetically optimistic as ever. “One dream has been realized,” Mekas told him, “and the dream is the dream of Cocteau, who at one stage said ‘cinema will be as easy as the pencil—that’s when cinema will have arrived at the level of other arts’: and that’s where we are.”

Conversations with Mekas are endlessly engaging. Peter Bogdanovich spoke with him for Interview in 2015, and in 2017, both Bilge Ebiri, then still at the Voice, and Jim Jarmusch, for AnOther, covered a wide range of topics with him. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has reposted a fifty-minute conversation from 2016 to listen to, and Web of Stories has strung together 135 clips shot in 2017 that, strung together in a single playlist, amount to nothing less than an hours-long autobiographical testimony that begins with Mekas recalling his childhood in Lithuania and stretches all the way to his thoughts on the future of cinema. “I used to say culture was my home,” Mekas told Brakhage in 2000. “But it got a little bit confused. Nobody knows what culture is anymore. So I stick to cinema.”

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