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Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas, co-founder of Anthology Film Archives with Andy WarholCourtesy Stephen Shore / Anthology Film Archives

RIP Jonas Mekas, the godfather of underground cinema

The legendary avant-garde director made work that captured and defined the wild New York creative scene of the 60s and 70s

Jonas Mekas, a behemothic figure in cinema that gave an intimately diarist, avant-garde perspective to 60s and 70s New York, has passed away at the age of 96. Reports – confirmed by his son – say he died peacefully, surrounded by family. Mekas – a filmmaker, writer, poet, archivist, curator and champion of indie filmmaking – was born in Lithuania in 1922, making his way to the states as a refugee after escaping the Nazis and living in displaced person camps for years.

In NYC, Mekas turned his Bolex 16mm camera and impressionistic lens to the metropolis and all of its fascinating characters. In years to come he lived up to the label of godfather of underground cinema, a legendary visionary that labelled his movement New American Cinema and brought the avant-garde up to new heights.

Across his career he made 60 films and published over 20 books, and became the Village Voice’s first film critic, using his column to champion underground mainstays Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie and others. Along with his brother, he founded Film Culture magazine in 1954, a vital contemporary platform for experimental creative culture that was probably one of the first to consider film a legitimate art form, and later worked on Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film Empire. His loft became a mingling spot for the likes of Warhol, Salvador Dali, Yoko Ono and Allen Ginsberg.

Mekas pushed the boundaries of filmmaking and the culture around it ruthlessly – in 1963, he was arrested on obscenity charges for screening Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures in his NY loft, a surrealist film with gender-bending characters. His own work pioneered the diary form, with evocative snapshots of his life and others in experimental styles. His Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania is a dreamy but rapidly cut documentation of his trip back to his home country, while 1969’s Walden is a dynamic mix of home-shot video, sketches and notes. Lost, Lost, Lost is a stunning, poetic film chronicling the little explored lives of immigrants in New York. His first feature in 1961, Guns of the Trees (1961), was a startling, simple, but beautiful portrayal of one style of life, capturing two couples in New York before and after one woman’s suicide.

Mekas also collaborated with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on their notorious bed-ins for peace and 1970 film Up Your Legs Forever, and also shot footage of the Velvet Underground performing. Patti Smith and Sonic Youth were just some of the prominent musicians he captured in video portraits. His last film was the 2013 documentary Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, piecing together never-before-seen clips of his early works – an essential watch for any fan.

‘The avant-garde is always the front line in any field,” Mekas said back in 2010. “In science, in music, where somebody just comes in, moving ahead into some totally unknown area, the future, and doing something not so much that people aren’t used to, but going maybe to different content, using different techniques, different technology.”

Mekas was a vital critic of cinema, foreseeing trends and new tastemakers that would change filmmaking forever. Casting his eye over experimental, provocative 60s filmmakers like Alfred Leslie, Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes, he coined a movement: the New American Cinema. Alongside other directors, he kickstarted the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a collective whose manifesto railed against artistic censorship and slammed the “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring” mainstream cinema of their time. They championed their lack of money and tools as a force that influenced their aesthetics and mission.

"It is largely through his efforts to create an infrastructure for avant-garde film that a small, economically disadvantaged filmmaking practice has a place in cultural history and continues to be accessible to its small, dedicated audience," film critic Amy Taubin said in an ArtForum piece in 2005.

Mekas founded Anthology Film Archives with other artists in 1970, an archive and theatre for experimental, hard-to-find and emerging films. Based in Manhattan’s East Village, it remains the world’s biggest collection of books, periodicals, images and documents related directly to avant-garde film.

Mekas was a prominent figure in cinema up until his death, making his work and voice heard as both an artist and champion of others. “Nothing new that we have shown at Anthology is on the level of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, or Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird,” he told Indiewire last year. “These are the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Both are minor films in a way, but they’re perfect for what the filmmakers want to do. They’re very well made, and acted.”

His oeuvre has influenced everyone from Martin Scorsese to Harmony KorineJim Jarmusch and John Waters. Scorsese was just one of many voices commemorating the filmmaker. “Jonas Mekas did and meant so much to so many people in the world of cinema that you’d need a day and a night to just begin,” he said in a statement. “He was a prophet. He was an impresario. He was a provocateur in the truest and most fundamental sense – he provoked people into new ways of thinking about what an image was, what a cut was, what a film was, what commitment was. Who was more committed than Jonas to the art of cinema? I wonder.”

Korine described Mekas as “a true hero of the underground and a radical of the first degree… he sees things that others can’t… his cinema is a cinema of memory and soul and air and fire. There is no one else like him. His films will live forever.”

Dazed’s founder Jefferson Hack paid tribute to Mekas: “The godfather of independent cinema, a lighthouse for all artists, a seer for our times, we salute your contribution to the expanded idea of cinema, art, poetry, performance and publishing.”

Mekas’ own fantastic way of living can be summed up by his own advice to young filmmakers, told to Another Man in an interview from last year: “No criticism is valuable for a filmmaker or a poet or a musician. Practically, OK, if you are doing something wrong then you will never learn. You have to know the possibilities of what the camera can do. But criticism is never of any value, because whoever criticises has his or her ideas, and who needs the ideas of others? I’m making my thing. I create my own kind of autobiography. You see the detail, you see the period, you see the people, but it’s through my eyes.” 

Ultimately, he used the camera as a tool for observing the superficially ordinary in the most breathtaking way. “You have no choice. We all live in the present and the camera cannot record the past,” he said. “Why some of us focus on one aspect of reality, there is no real answer.”  

“If you love something, you want to share it with others,” He told Dazed in 2017. “You want to preserve it so that it will be there later, so it won’t disappear. It’s a responsibility to the community, for others, for the art. If nobody is doing that, I have no choice. I have to do it!“