Widely regarded as the “godfather of avant-garde cinema,” Jonas Mekas has died at the age of 96. As an artist, filmmaker, film critic, poet, curator, archivist and guru, he quickly became a revolutionary figure in American underground cinema.
Born in Semeniškiai, a small village in Lithuania, in 1922, Mekas emigrated to the United States in 1949 with his younger brother, Adolfas, with whom he often collaborated and who also became an influential filmmaker in his own right. Mekas often recalled in interview that their shared interest in film had been sparked in 1945, in a displaced persons’ camp in Wiesbaden, where one night the American army showed John Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre…. Within weeks of their arrival in New York, the two had begun attending screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, and had also bought a Bolex film camera, with which he started shooting scenes from his daily life, initiating a kind of cinematic diary that would become his life’s work.
In addition, Mekas soon became a tireless advocate for avant-garde film, first organizing screenings of experimental films and then, in 1954, founding the magazine Film Culture. In 1962, he helped found the Film-makers’ Cooperative, the world’s largest distributor of avant-garde films, followed two years later by the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which would later become Anthology Film Archives, a New York-based non-profit center for the preservation, study, and exhibition of film and video that over time has grown into one of the world’s largest repositories of avant-garde film. Around the same time, he also began writing film criticism in his legendary “Movie Journal” column for the Village Voice, in which he tirelessly championed independent and experimental cinema.
But during those years, Mekas never stopped making films—highly poetic works that were blurry and disjointed, intimate and dreamlike—that he would refer to as “personal little celebrations and joy … miracles of every day, little moments of paradise … awkward footage that will suddenly sing with an unexpected rapture.” His first feature film, Guns of the Trees, in 1961, co-directed by his brother Adolfas, was an arty experimental study of the beatnik movement in America with a voiceover by Allen Ginsberg of which he said “there is no apparent direct story connection between one scene and the next. The scenes act like pieces of a larger, timed, emotional mosaic…” “I live—therefore I make films. I make film—therefore I live. Light. Movement. I make home movies—therefore I live. I live—therefore I make home movies…”
Other notable films among the hundreds he made include The Brig, a cinéma vérité adaptation of a play about life in a military jail, winner of the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1963; Walden (1969), a three-hour-long documentary about the 1960s New York art scene, including footage of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol; Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), which explores the notion of “home” and depicts the emotional reunion of the Mekas brothers’ moving reunion with their mother on their first trip home since World War II; and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), considered his first “diary” film, in which he reflects on his early his early life in New York and his feeling of being an exile. Meanwhile, he also screened low-budget independent films at a number of theaters, mostly the Bleecker Street cinema in Greenwich Village, once spending a night in prison in 1964 on obscenity charges after showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures; soon afterward, he ran continuous showings of Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour.
Over the years, Mekas continued making films and videos and continued to innovate, in 2007, for instance, introducing a new kind of visual diary by posting one short video per day on the Internet for a year and making one of his last films in 2012, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012), marking his 90th birthday. “Memories, they say my images are my memories. No no no! These are not memories: this is all real, what you see – every image, every detail, everything is real, everything is real and it’s not a memory…”