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Jonas Mekas’s Movie Journal

Advertisement from the Village Voice, January 4, 1973.

Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959–1971, by Jonas Mekas. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 496 pages.

I BEGAN READING Jonas Mekas’s Movie Journal column in the Village Voice in 1961, three years after it first appeared and roughly around the time I saw his first feature film, Guns of the Trees (1961), at the eclectic New York film showcase Cinema 16. Chalk it up to callow youth and an inchoate sense that women were most valued as muses or if they filmed flowers, but I was not receptive to the emerging movement that Mekas would dub the New American Cinema and certainly not to Guns, which was extremely depressing—the sinkhole of cinema, I said. I laughed aloud at Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958) and the modern-dance posing of the star of Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Maya Deren, who was also the film’s coauthor. In his March 15, 1962, column, Mekas referenced both films to chastise critics for blowing out of proportion the “newness” of Alain Resnais’s use of time and memory in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). “It is in Anticipation that we find the most perfect fusion of past and present,” Mekas wrote, “the constantly flowing, moving camera, brushing past objects and faces.” He went on to praise Marienbad as “a horror film on persuasion,” while dismissing Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and the “chic and frozen” Vogue-magazine look of the film.

At the time, I had no more sympathy for Marienbad than Mekas did, but something in the way he wrote about the film (that “horror film on persuasion” insight) and about hundreds of others—commercial movies, art films, and especially the emerging underground-film movement—made me a regular reader of Movie Journal and an increasingly avid consumer of the work Mekas championed. Often prompted by his column, I would find films that excited me—Andy Warhol’s silent and sound film portraits; minimalist films by Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, and Ernie Gehr; Barbara Rubin’s revelatory, gyno-encompassing, and arguably transgender Christmas on Earth (1963); and Mekas’s own Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1969), which led me, of course, to the related diaristic films that he completed over the following five decades.

Mekas’s métier in both moving image and literary works is the diary. Although his books of poetry and prose number more than twenty, Movie Journal, as a collection of weekly journalism, is unique among them. Originally published in 1972 by Macmillan and long out of print, it returns to us in a new edition with an excellent introduction by Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker and a brief afterword by Mekas. A seemingly minute difference between the two editions is the subtitle, which, in the original, reads The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959–1971; in the second edition, “a” is changed to “the.” Mekas, who coined the term New American Cinema as a handle for a loose coalition of independent filmmakers who were attempting to set up a funding and distribution support structure, later wrote in his Village Voice column, “I may have to drop that name! When I used it first, I didn’t suspect that fools would make a flag out of it.”

Mekas’s strategy was to bring underground film out of the shadows—not by putting it in a box but, rather, by giving it pride of place in a cinematic tapestry that wove together many genres. In the process, he lambasted establishment film critics, including his own Voice colleague Andrew Sarris, for their failure to understand that the independent cinema is the “10th Street (or what 10th Street used to be) of cinema—the living, exploring, changing frontier, the Vietnam of cinema” (September 27, 1962). Only Mekas, at that moment, would have referenced, in a piece about independent cinema, both Tenth Street painting and Vietnam, which in 1962 had barely registered in the American political consciousness. While still in his teens, the Lithuanian-born Mekas had become a published poet and a member of his country’s underground resistance, making him a man wanted by both the Nazis and the Soviets, who alternately invaded his country during World War II. It was this experience that would enable him to foresee the power that radical modernist art (painting, literature, film, music) and the war in Vietnam would both have in shaping the consciousness of the 1960s.

In 1958, Mekas, who had arrived in New York in 1949 from a displaced-persons camp in Germany and immediately immersed himself in the city’s film culture, asked Jerry Tallmer, the cultural editor of the three-year-old Village Voice, why the weekly didn’t have a film column. Tallmer hired him on the spot, around the same time that Jill Johnston was hired to write about dance. Both were adherents of personal (first-person) journalism—outliers of the New Journalism with which the Voice was identified—and, like many of the critics associated with Cahiers du Cinéma, they were practitioners of the art they wrote about. Mekas was already the publisher and editor of Film Culture, which he had launched with his brother Adolfas in 1954. He wrote prolifically, composing poetry in two languages and keeping a daily diary that he had begun when he fled Lithuania. (Excerpts from his “True Diaries” are included in the Movie Journal collection, as a tease and also as a clarification that the Movie Journal columns are not quite diaristic; they are better described as personal reportage.) He had also been shooting 16-mm documentary-style footage of the immigrant Lithuanian community, and that soon led to the film diaries he continues to shoot today (now in video). By the early ’60s, he had founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, to distribute avant-garde films, and the peripatetic Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, to screen them. Later in the decade, he began to edit into films the images he had collected with the 16-mm camera he always had at his side. All this, plus his being a voracious viewer, makes it hard to imagine Mekas spending more than an hour—two at the most—writing any of the Movie Journal columns, and it is their slash-and-burn immediacy that makes them exciting. Reading them in the Voice and again today, 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 Walden and, as a corollary, to Movie Journal. At the time, it made visible a community of filmmakers and artists who were in love with moving images, attracting to that cohort young people who never would have picked up a camera had they not read about Jack Smith, Shirley Clarke, Harry Smith, Warhol, and dozens of others in Movie Journal. Arguably, Warhol wouldn’t even have continued making films after the 1963 silent portraits had not Mekas programmed them and continued to write about Warhol’s cinema throughout the decade. Since Movie Journal chronicled its author’s weekly experience, conflict of interest was not an issue. Mekas discovered filmmakers, sometimes lent them cameras, programmed their work, and wrote about the entire process in Movie Journal. Perhaps because of that highly personal connection to a group of filmmakers whose work was defined by pushing boundaries, some of his best columns are anticensorship polemics. Mekas begins the column of April 18, 1963, for instance, with a list of the commercial and art films he has walked out on, continues with a trip to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, where he saw “really great” films by Chaplin, Murnau, Buñuel, and Sternberg, but then he gets to the heart of the matter: “Jack Smith just finished a great movie . . . which is so beautiful I feel ashamed even to sit through the current Hollywood and European movies. . . . [But] Flaming Creatures will not be shown theatrically because our social-moral-etc. guides are sick. . . . This movie will be called pornographic, degenerate, homosexual, trite, disgusting, etc. It is all that, and it is so much more than that. I tell you, the American movie audiences today are being deprived of the best of the new cinema, and it’s not doing any good to the souls of the people.”

If Movie Journal was both prophetic and of the moment in the ’60s, it is no less so today. And it can still be just as infuriating. I remember shouting at Mekas, at the time, that he understood nothing about America when he wrote preposterously of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls that “I know no other film, with the exception of The Birth of a Nation, in which such a wide gallery of people has been presented.” As a writer and filmmaker, Mekas embraces his outsider position, but, occasionally, that very perspective allows for lesser rather than greater insight.

Over the years, many writers have analyzed the roots of Mekas’s aesthetics and philosophy. In the introduction to the new edition of Movie Journal, Smulewicz-Zucker writes that Mekas’s “profoundly humanistic aesthetic sensibility . . . can all too easily be missed amid his polemical writing style.” In To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas & the New York Underground (1992), a collection of essays edited by David E. James, a variety of writers have a go, among them Vyt Bakaitis, a fellow Lithuanian poet, who cites a tradition of European Romanticism that begins with Blake and carries on through Whitman in America. Having described Mekas’s “jarring, aggravated sense of homelessness,” he continues, “Yet he has never given up the Romantic expectation of finding illumination in the mystery of ordinary everyday awareness.”

The poetry and diary films of Jonas Mekas trace the search for illumination in his own life, of which movies are a crucial part. Movie Journal records his search for the radiance that beauty brings in the work of others, and shows how, in the process, he built a home for cinema itself.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.