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JONAS MEKAS

Jonas Mekas filming Lost, Lost, Lost, 1976, Brooklyn, 1951.

JONAS MEKAS described himself as a diarist, using this term to encompass his films and his videos, his prose and his poetry. He once told me that he was a long-distance runner; he was a sickly child and had taken up exercise to build stamina. Ninety-six years is a long run, but Jonas was so alive, so present during his last public appearances in the summer and autumn of 2018, that although his body was noticeably frail I refused to believe he would stop anytime soon. He told the writer John Leland, who had followed Jonas since 2015 for a New York Times series on New York City residents who are eighty-five and older, that while he seldom thought about death, at his age he knew any moment could be his last. He died on January 23 in the early morning. His son, Sebastian, was with him and said he passed peacefully. The filmmaker Ken Jacobs asked me if I thought that Jonas “attended” this final event. I believe he did. Later, Ken said to me that no one except Jonas would have been able to see that Ken’s fragile, fragmented Little Stabs of Happiness (1959–63) was really a film. It was this kind of work that Jonas had an eye for and wanted to protect.

If you want to discover more about Jonas than I can tell you here, look up #jonasmekas on social media. When his death was announced, the hashtag trended on Twitter, and the number and range of tributes from all over the world were as astonishing as they were deserved. He changed so many lives. He gave people a way to identify themselves: as filmmakers or film viewers or film scholars or film critics who care most about films that are in a world apart, a world that Jonas Mekas built.

Jonas was born in 1922 on a farm in Lithuania and arrived in New York in 1949 with his younger brother, Adolfus. The two survived the Soviet and German invasions of their country, but in 1944 they were captured and sent to a forced-labor camp in Germany and then, after the war ended, to displaced-persons camps. It was in these facilities that Jonas acquired a still camera and saw Hollywood westerns and war films. He had always written poetry, and would continue to do so all his life, but he found that photographic images excited him because they were a language that didn’t need to be translated. After arriving in New York, the brothers worked factory jobs and borrowed money to rent a 16-mm Bolex, which Jonas used to record life in a city where he would always feel both estranged and passionately involved. “Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing, life is?” Jonas asked Leland soon after they met in 2015 at a reading in a West Village club. I was sitting with the writer Lynne Tillman when Jonas took to the stage for twenty minutes to deliver “Requiem for a Manual Typewriter,” an unpublished encomium to his Olympia Deluxe. Lynne and I kept looking at each other in wonder because both the text and Jonas’s delivery were so hilarious and so unlike Jonas’s films, where even joyous moments have an undertow of sadness and loss.

He gave people a way to identify themselves: as filmmakers or film viewers or film scholars or film critics who care most about films that are in a world apart, a world that Jonas Mekas built.

Jonas described himself during his first years in New York as a dry sponge soaking up culture. Hans Richter’s 1921 short Rhythmus 21 was pivotal: He marveled at the power of Richter’s abstract black-and-white images. By 1953 he had already begun to organize screenings of what he would dub “poetic” or “personal” or “underground” or “avant-garde” movies—or, briefly, New American Cinema. (He scorned the modifier “experimental,” insisting that scientists experiment, but filmmakers make films.) In late 1954, he and Adolfus launched Film Culture, which was for decades the most eclectic and serious film publication in the United States. In 1958, he realized that he needed a more immediate outlet for his first-person polemics, so he began writing Movie Journal, a weekly column in the Village Voice that continued until 1971. I was drawn into Jonas’s orbit through his criticism. It led me to screenings at the peripatetic Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which Jonas programmed during the ’60s, and to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which he started with twenty-one other artists in 1961. Having brought attention to the delicate, ineffable imagemaking practice that exists between the art world and the film industry—and that without him would have flown under the cultural radar—he realized that this work needed a permanent home. In 1970, he opened Anthology Film Archives with P. Adams Sitney as codirector—after years of brainstorming with him, Jerome Hill, and Peter Kubelka—and for the rest of his life Jonas worked to ensure its existence. That’s not to say that many other people did not work with him, or for him, or to create new screening venues or curate similar programs within museums and galleries. But it is to claim that Jonas was a visionary. He saw what was required to build a refuge for avant-garde film, and he worked ceaselessly to make one a reality.

Three film strips from Jonas Mekas’s Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, 1969, 16 mm, color, sound, 180 minutes.

IN THE ’60s, Jonas carried his Bolex everywhere he went. By 1969, he had shaped some of the footage he’d shot during that decade into a 180-minute masterwork. Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches is a mad dash through an era of explosive cultural activity, as seen by an immigrant poet alert to the resonance of his past in an unfolding present. Out of economic necessity, Jonas developed a method of shooting just a few frames at a time, thus stretching a three-minute roll of film over a week or more. Although shot lengths vary from 1/24th of a second to several seconds, the images appear both intensely present and as elusive as memory. Jonas’s visual poetics—the moving-picture impressionism fully realized in Walden—propelled his forty-odd 16-mm films. In almost all of them, the paradox of time is manifested by associative commentaries that Jonas recorded as he edited the images he shot months, years, decades earlier. Along with Walden, Jonas’s Lost Lost Lost (1976), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (Fluxus) (1992), and Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012) are landmarks of cinema history.

Jonas, never precious, was one of the first avant-garde filmmakers to make his movies available on video, and he began shooting his diaries on low-end analog cameras toward the end of 1980, eventually switching to a digital format. The videos were more sociable than the films: People talked to the camera and to one another. The works were available on Jonas’s website and elsewhere on the internet, and were incorporated into installations that were shown in galleries and museums all over the world. They attracted young people who were renewing the form and meaning of the “personal” and “poetic” in their own films and videos, which was why images of and tributes to Jonas surged through social media the day he died.

During his last afternoon on earth, Jonas was reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient story of a king who, near the end of his life, devotes himself to acts of kindness rather than striving for immortality. The poet Charity Coleman had taken it down off of his bookshelf during one of their lasts visits so they could discuss it. She had helped Jonas organize and edit a flurry of recent collections culled from his diaries, including Scrapbook of the Sixties: Writings 1954–2010 (2015) and Conversations with Film-Makers (2018). This fall, Spector Books will publish I Seem to Live, a two-volume collection of Jonas’s journal entries dating between 1950 and 1968. That same afternoon, Jonas was also working with his editor, Elle Burchill, on what will now be his final movie. Commissioned by the Shed, Jonas’s film will accompany Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, to be conducted by Teodor Currentzis and performed by his orchestra and chorus MusicAeterna.

Left unfinished is the project that occupied Jonas for nearly two decades: the expansion of Anthology Film Archives to make room for its enormous collection of ephemera, as well as filmmakers’ and artists’ personal archives, which will now include Jonas’s too. The project will also make space for temperature-controlled film storage and a restaurant; Jonas believed that Anthology would be the best place in the neighborhood for people to get together, and he knew it was key to a repertory theater’s survival. Two-thirds of the funding has already been raised; the final third will be hard without Jonas. The dispossessed poet dreamed of a forever home for the cinema he nurtured. Absent a dedicated place with room for the art of future generations, the work and its history will simply disappear. He gave it his all. Surely, we can too.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.