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Jonas Mekas, the indefatigable filmmaker, critic, poet, and all-around guiding spirit of independent cinema, passed away at his home in Brooklyn on Wednesday. He was 96 years old.
Simple descriptors can’t do justice to his monumental life. Born in 1922 in the Lithuanian village of Semeniskiai, he fled with his brother Adolfas in 1944 during the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Already a writer for a weekly paper, he was known, by his own account, as a supporter of the resistance.
“I was very involved in the underground activities and publications, various anti-Soviet and anti-Nazi publications,” he said in a 2001 interview. “And I was also already known for writing poems. Actually I wrote an anti-Stalin anthem, which we used to sing. I had no future in Lithuania; there was no future and no life for me there.”
On their way to Vienna, the two were stopped and brought to a forced labor camp. Later, after the war, they would spend a period of time in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where Mekas first became interested in film. “There was nothing to do and a lot of time,” he said in an interview with October. “What we could do was read, write, and go to the movies.” One night, after watching Fred Zimmerman’s The Search, the two brothers became so frustrated with the film’s portrayal of refugees that they decided to write their own script. “That’s when we decided to make our own films,” he said. “That’s where it begins.”
Mekas arrived in the United States with his brother in 1949, first settling down in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With borrowed money, he purchased a 16mm Bolex camera and quickly began shooting, “without a clear plan or purpose,” he would later tell the writer Scott McDonald. Some of those first images would appear at the beginning of Lost Lost Lost (1976), one of the many diary films he would make over the next 50 years.
A camera would hardly ever leave his side. The impressionistic, gestural style of filming, stitched together in what are today called his “diary films,” would take form most beautifully starting with the trilogy of Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), and Lost Lost Lost. Compiled from footage taken over a number of years, they are personal documents of his first two decades in New York, filtered through a displaced person’s double prism of loneliness and excitement.
When he wasn’t shooting himself, much of that excitement was channeled through watching movies from the burgeoning local film scene. “We absorbed it like dry sponges,” he told Hans-Ulrich Obrist in an interview. “We came to New York disappointed with humanity but discovered and got infected by a fresh energy for life. New York saved my sanity.”
He started moving quickly. Mekas began to attend screenings at places like Amos Vogel’s pioneering Cinema 16 and, by 1953, he was programing his own screenings at Gallery East. A year later, he would create Film Culture, a magazine that published, first regularly and later sporadically, for 41 years; four years later, he would launch the “Movie Journal” column for the Village Voice. The latter, both conversational and critical and often very funny — a column from November 7, 1968 is headlined “Why We Should Throw Bricks at Film Critics” — helped bring the films of artists such as Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger to a wider audience. They were, in many ways, like a running diary: after he got arrested on obscenity charges on two separate occasions in 1964, for screening both Smith’s Flaming Creaturesand Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, he detailed the cases over multiple columns in the Voice.
During the same period, he helped create the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962, and later was one of the people involved in the opening the Anthology Film Archives in 1970. Both organizations still exist and remain beacons of New York’s cinema life.
In the intervening years, Mekas continued to make films, continued to write, and continued to promote independent cinema. He was somebody who you would often see around New York, somebody whose presence you could often take for granted. It seemed like he had always been here and would always be around. Since his death, anecdotes have been shared elsewhere about his generosity, his toughness, his contradictions, and his friendliness.
On the latter, I can briefly attest: Mekas responded to an out-of-the-blue message I sent him as an undergraduate (I was writing my thesis on his work) with both answers to some questions and encouragement. He could have ignored me; instead he helped.
His continuous passion, the drive to keep going, is what I’ve been thinking about in the time since he passed away. It made me think about a letter he wrote to friends, published in a limited edition book in 2012:
It’s late at night.
I can not sleep. It’s
three in the morning. I keep writing.
What else can I do. What else
can I do. What else can I