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Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol
Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol, NYC, 1965Photography Stephen Shore

The man who got Andy Warhol into filmmaking

Why one of the 20th century’s most influential underground artists, 94-year-old Jonas Mekas, is the future

If avant-garde American cinema were to christen a hero among its kind, it would be nearly unfathomable to think of anyone more deserving than Lithuanian-American filmmaker, film critic, poet and all-around catalyst Jonas Mekas. Still remarkably prolific at 94-years-old, this New York icon grew up in a remote village in Lithuania and survived the Nazis before moving to America, co-founding Film Culture magazine in 1954 (the U.S’s answer to Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight & Sound), The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962 (with his loft serving as the non-profit’s de facto office) and Anthology Film Archives in 1969 (which houses the biggest collection of avant-garde films anywhere). But those are just biographic bullet points.

Surveying Mekas’s rollercoaster life offers a rich snapshot of 20th century’s most influential underground artists. He gave Yoko Ono her first job in America, was film tutor to Jackie Kennedy’s children, got Andy Warhol into movie making, had Patti Smith and Janis Joplin as neighbours during his years at the Chelsea Hotel, became close with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and tied up a model with rope on a New York street for Salvador Dalí. His impressionistic and highly personal films have influenced everyone from Harmony Korine to Jim Jarmusch. In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, he summed up his enduring approach by describing himself as an “anthropologist of the small meaningful moment.”

Two years after publishing his Scrapbook of the Sixties: Writings 1958 – 2010, a fascinating assemblage of Mekas’s written diaries, Anthology Editions is now releasing A Dance with Fred Astaire, the iconic artist’s meaty, 238-page-strong visual autobiography, featuring observations and recollections in a variety of formats, from photographs, film negatives, telegrams and doodles to postcards. The title alludes to Yoko’s 1972 film Imagine, for which she asked Mekas to spontaneously dance on camera with the famed American choreographer. The insane anecdotes and artifacts practically pour out of the pages, from correspondence with Joan Crawford to attending an LA Christmas party with Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed as Santa Claus to a frightening mishap with Fritz Lang and telling a confounded John McEnroe: “I always considered you to be the Rimbaud of tennis.” In the lead-up to the book’s October release, we revisit some of Mekas’s most important milestones.

HE SURVIVED A GERMAN LABOUR CAMP BEFORE IMMIGRATING TO NEW YORK

Before being brought to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1949 with his brother Adolfas by the United Nations International Refugee Organisation, the farm-raised Mekas cycled through European forced labour and displaced person’s camps. When Soviet tanks rolled into Lithuania during the summer of 1940, Mekas recalls snapping his very first pictures of trucks crammed with soldiers. “I saw a Russian soldier running towards me,” he says in A Dance. “He violently tore the camera out of my hands, he violently pulled the film out of it, he threw the film roll on the ground, in the sand of the roadside, then he rubbed it into the ground with the heel of his boot. Then he pointed his hand towards my house and shouted what I understood, not knowing Russian, as ‘Run, run, you stupid, run, or else.’ (…) This was how my life in photographic arts began. This was also the beginning of my political education.”

HE WAS A LATE BLOOMER TO ART AND HAS BEEN MAKING UP FOR IT EVER SINCE

In a 2015 New York Times interview, Mekas accounted for his relentless creative drive with his landing on New York soil at 27. “Since I had missed so much, I decided to remain 27, you see, because there was so much to catch up, and I am still trying to catch up.”After learning to speak Lithuanian, French, Russian, German and English in various European camps, he and his brother took a sharp cultural turn when they immersed themselves in New York’s burgeoning avant-garde scene: “Now we are going to learn the language of cinema, a language that everybody understands,” he recounts in A Dance. Hence, he made his first autobiographical film at 46 and has never considered advanced age to be an impediment.

HIS MANHATTAN LOFT BECAME THE MEETING PLACE FOR GINSBURG, SALVADOR DALÍ, AND ALL THE COOL CATS

When he co-founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962, his Park Avenue loft quickly became its headquarters and also “a nightly hangout of the New York film undergrounders,” as he explains. “But not only the film-makers: painters, musicians, poets, and film-makers, they were all intermingled in the sixties. Every night there were meetings, arguments, exchanges of works.” If you were hoping for some unbridled name-dropping, let me indulge on his behalf: Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Anger, Salvador Dalí, Barbara Rubin Andy Warhol (more on him later), John Cage, Maya Deren, Harry Smith, and the list goes on.

HIS DIARISTIC FILMS FEATURE SOME OF 20TH CENTURY’S MOST ICONIC ARTISTS

Never interested in abiding by the mainstream film world’s storytelling conventions, he began to document small moments and personal memories in a form akin to impressionistic, moving-image diaries. Whether it was Brooklyn’s Lithuanian community (Lost Lost Lost), his summers in Montauk with Jackie Kennedy and her children (This Side of Paradise) or his friendship with the Lithuanian-born founder of the Fluxus art movement (Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas), they’re all intimate, flickering entry points into people and places that have now been relegated to the history books. He also collaborated on a wealth of projects with like-minded trailblazers, one of whom was Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. In A Dance, Mekas remembers filming several of his ‘events’. “He was always fun to be with. Always an actor, a performer. An actor not in the Actors Studio style, but maybe more from the school of circus clowns… He always knew he was acting, acting to entertain. But even when he was clowning, you never knew what was really going on in his head.”

HE GOT ANDY WARHOL INTO MAKING FILMS

There are numerous Warhol stories in A Dance, a friendship that first took root at Mekas’s loft happenings, and where Warhol became acquainted with a number of his future Factory “superstars” (Taylor Mead, Mario Montez and Naomi Levine). In 1964, Mekas helped Warhol shoot slo-mo footage of the Empire State Building, which eventually became the meditative, 8-hour-strong Empire. Mekas was also acquainted with Valerie Solanas – who wrote the SCUM Manifesto, attempted to murder Warhol in the late 1960s and whom he refers to as a “Dostoyevskian feminist” – during his Chelsea Hotel years. While locked up in a women’s prison, Solanas made Mekas her confidant and sent him unhinged letters to be passed along to The Village Voice, where he was employed as a film columnist. These letters (one of which is included in the book) began as follows: “Dear sniveling cowards, liars, & libelers.”

Looking back on that whirlwind, Mekas considers the pop art instigator a true friend. “He was like a garbage can into which anything could be thrown: He accepted absolutely everything,” Mekas says in A Dance. “At the same time he was like a sieve with very precise holes which permitted everything to pass through except some images, some items that he cared about, and they did not pass through, they remained stuck in that sieve of his mind, his eyes, and became his art.”

HE WAS AN IMPORTANT ADVOCATE FOR THE POETRY OF NON-NARRATIVE CINEMA

The founder of Film Culture and the first-ever film critic at The Village Voice in 1958, Mekas would champion the likes of Godard, Antonioni, Kurosawa and Demy in his writings, and also in his film teachings with Caroline and John Kennedy Jr. at their seaside summer home. “Jonas went a long way toward redefining cinema," Martin Scorsese told Interview Magazine in 2015. A Dance chronicles his regular attempts to fundraise among his extensive circle of friendly faces to keep Film Culture or the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque (which eventually became Anthology Film Archives) afloat. He’d go from visiting playwright Arthur Miller at his Brooklyn Heights home to asking Michelangelo Antonioni for a letter of support. A Dance even includes a 1968 letter from novelist Norman Mailer where he confesses to Mekas: “one of the ten reasons why I got into making films has been reading your columns over the years.” 

HE SAW FIGHTING CENSORSHIP AS HIS “CITIZENS’ DUTY”

On more than a few occasions, Mekas’s cinematic tastes proved too radical for his time, but he wanted absolutely nothing to do with submitting films to licensing boards and letting them determine which bits should be axed. He was arrested on obscenity charges in 1964 for screening a double bill of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (sexually explicit!) and Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (homosexual!). His subversive antics even included tying up a projectionist with rope at a Belgium experimental festival in 1963 and hijacking the day’s schedule to screen Flaming Creatures against the festival’s wishes. But ultimately, as a result of the widespread media attention and public discussion sparked by his repeated arrests, the practice of film licensing was abandoned shortly thereafter. Knowing full well what he was getting into at the time, projecting unsanctioned, ‘taboo’ pictures, Mekas recounts how he prepped for his night in jail the second time around. “That evening, before screening Genet’s film, knowing that I’d be arrested again, I had prepared myself by stuffing into my raincoat pocket half of a chicken,” he says in A Dance. “Jail food, you know, is horrible.”

HE HELD A VENICE EXHIBITION INSIDE A BURGER KING

In 2015, an exhibition of his work entitled The Internet Saga opened during the Venice Biennale. Those looking for tangible proof Mekas has lost none of his rebellious bite were pleased with his singular setup. “There will be 768 slides made into transparencies covering the windows of the Palazzo Foscari Contarini, which is actually now a Burger King,” Mekas explained in a 2015 Artspace interview.

“It’s a beautiful old building with large windows, but at the same time, there will also be some people having lunch (laughs). It’s challenging to do something with it, but it’s spacious enough for both. There will be screens running images continuously, in addition to these stained-glass windows of my slides. There will also be a sound installation outside in the garden.”

HE’S METICULOUSLY ARCHIVED HIS LIFE AND, BY EXTENSION, THE HISTORY OF AVANT-GARDE AMERICAN ART

Anthology Film Archives, an internationally renowned shrine to independent cinema and a New York landmark in its own right, was founded by Mekas in 1970. The centre is now undergoing a vast, seven-million-dollar expansion and digitisation project – an impressive feat as non-commercial art continues to come under a great deal of public scrutiny. Mekas described Archives to our AnOther colleagues earlier this year as “the bastion of poetry and cinema, and we are here to stay. This is the building where the poets of cinema live. It is a metaphor, this building.” He told AnOther artists such as Ai Weiwei, Julian Schnabel, Matthew Barney, Michael Stipe, Jim Jarmusch and Patti Smith have all pledged their support for upcoming fundraising events.

UNLIKE MANY PEOPLE HALF HIS AGE, HE EMBRACES DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES AS THE FUTURE

Still driven by an unbridled sense of enthusiasm, Mekas has embraced digital video technologies as a way to bring his long standing film diaries into the 21st century. Pretty impressive for a guy who bought his first Bolex camera in the late 1940s. In 2007, he undertook his 365 Day Project – Harmony Korine appears in the below clip, day 93 – a daunting venture few artists would sign up for: to shoot, edit and post a new short video to his website every day. Having long operated in a home-movie making mindset that has since become ubiquitous with online video diary repositories like YouTube, it’s no surprise the New York Times found teenagers particularly enamoured by his body of work in 2015. “Many young people find him inspiring, a 17-year-old opera singer told the reporter. “What Jonas Mekas was doing years ago with his film diaries, Instagram and Facebook are doing now. Jonas Mekas is the future.” 

A Dance with Fred Astaire by Jonas Mekas will be released 3 October 2017

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