PRINT March 2019



Jonas Mekas, Venice, 2015. Photo: Awakening/Getty Images.

WHEN I ARRIVED in New York City in the early 1990s, it seemed as though the most adventurous elements of film culture had either disappeared or were on their way out. The grindhouses of Times Square were undergoing Disneyfication. The Millennium Film Workshop had grown moribund, and the Collective for Living Cinema had vanished into memory. Even the punk-ass Cinema of Transgression crowd was settling down to have kids.

Bucking all those trends was Jonas Mekas, then in his seventies, ensconced in the brick fortress of Anthology Film Archives on the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street, running the day-to-day operations of what then seemed like a fallout shelter for the avant-garde. Whereas many of the giants I read about in my creased, secondhand copy of Movie Journal (1972) had either passed away—Maya Deren, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol—or, like Stan Brakhage, sequestered themselves in distant college towns, Mekas was a living remnant of a lost golden age, still working in the thick of the East Village. I’ll never forget when we first met face-to-face, around 1997, sitting across from each other at the round table in Anthology’s meeting room. I had come to negotiate a contract to four-wall the theater for a weeklong film festival, and Mekas’s attitude was, disconcertingly, all business. I still marvel at this memory: twerpy, mid-twenties me, haggling over the minutiae of box-office percentages with one of the most brilliant and consequential figures in the history of cinema. 

A more appropriately mythopoeic image that sticks with me is from one of my later meetings with Jonas, again at Anthology. There, on the second floor, I found him in the Courthouse Theater, watching a print of David Lebrun’s Tanka (1976), an energetically animated montage of Tibetan scroll paintings set to psychedelic jazz. Alone in the dark, Jonas looked like a holy man in his mountain cavern, communing with cinema, gods and demons whizzing before his eyes.

Fundamental among the lessons we learned from Mekas was that cinema is essentially social in nature, not only in the sense of the audience as a congregation, but also in the pulsating matrix of personal relationships that cooperatively, powerfully, sustains a true film culture.

The ’90s weren’t great for Anthology. It struggled amid the rise of commercial independent film and the academy’s pathetic neglect of avant-garde cinema’s history. But as that decade approached its end, those once-quiet halls became the spiritual center for a growing cadre of younger filmmakers and cinephiles, many of whom worked in its offices, archives, and projection booths, or (like me) enjoyed hanging around after screenings. Under Jonas’s guidance, this new blood helped strengthen Anthology’s repertory programming and modernize its archiving and preservation initiatives. 

This is not to say that the scene became unduly professionalized. During after-hours parties in Anthology’s lobby, Jonas would join us, drinking and carousing, darting through the crowd, filming, grabbing a battered trumpet to strike up an impromptu noise band. His presence among those whom he would call “the third generation of the ’60s” only underscored the lessons we gleaned from his writing and filmmaking. Fundamental among them was that cinema is essentially social in nature, not only in the sense of the audience as a congregation, but also in the pulsating matrix of personal relationships that cooperatively, powerfully, sustains a true film culture. In my dual existence as critic and curator, I’ve looked to Jonas’s singular example to help me face a dilemma that necessarily arises from that ethos: how to maintain aesthetic discernment while still supporting the nonhierarchical imperatives of an artistic community. In 1962, he addressed this conundrum:

Whoever put it into our heads that a critic should “criticize”? I have come to a conclusion: The evil and the ugliness will take care of themselves; it is the beautiful and good that need our care. If the critic has any function at all, it is to look for something good and beautiful around him, something that can help man to grow from inside; to try to bring it to the attention of others, explain it, interpret it—and not to clutch at some little pieces of dirt, or mistakes, or imperfections. As if those little mistakes and imperfections really matter in the end.

Jonas didn’t always follow his own advice. Study Movie Journal and you’ll find numerous of his barbs and dismissals. But his quote above speaks of a drive toward a deeper understanding of film that has become rare in the age of the scrolling glance and the hot take, one that goes beyond the individual experience and into a stronger interpersonal engagement. It’s only through that on-going conversation, Jonas taught us, through a collective caring for the “good and beautiful,” that anything of greater significance can be built and sustained.

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry in Brooklyn, NY and Critic-In-Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.