Jonas Mekas Had the Right Attitude for Looking at Movies

For a decade and a half, Mekas covered experimental film for the Village Voice and was read by John Waters, Peter Bogdanovich, Jim Jarmusch, and countless others.

Back in the day when I was an aspiring young artist, one of my bibles was a well-worn paperback copy of Movie Journal, a collection of columns by filmmaker / impresario Jonas Mekas that had originally appeared in the Village Voice from 1959 to 1971, trumpeting the rise of something called a ‘new American cinema’. The working-class suburb north of Detroit where I grew up was hardly a hot bed of avant-garde culture, and Mekas’s compendium of rants and raves introduced me to a creative world I could only imagine via the descriptions he provided. The roll call of names — Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Barbara Rubin, Carolee Schneeman and dozens of others — was a elite group of underground luminaries to search out and from which to learn. Not an easy task in the days before VCRs and DVDs, much less YouTube and Vimeo. First published in 1972 and long out of print, Movie Journal has been reissued in a second edition with a forward by director Peter Bogdanovich, an introductory essay by Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, managing editor of the critical journal Logos, and a new afterword by the author.

Mekas is one of the true seminal figures of modern American cinema. In addition to creating some 75 experimental films over the past six decades, Mekas, along with his brother Adolphas, founded the pioneering magazine Film Culture in 1954, co-founded the nonprofit Film-Makers Cooperative, distribution service in 1962, and perhaps most importantly the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, one of the largest and most important collections of avant-garde film in the world, currently housed at 32 Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. He has also written poetry in his native Lithuanian and published several of his personal journals and diaries.

Mekas began writing for the Voice when, in November of 1958, he went to the alt-weekly’s Associate Editor Jerry Talmer (who also created the OBIE Award) to ask why there wasn’t a regular movie column. According to the story Mekas tells in the original introduction to Movie Journal, Talmer said, ‘Why don’t you do one?’ Mekas handed his first piece in the next day.

The first entry in the book is from two months later, 4 February 1959, titled ‘Call for a Derangement of Cinematic Sense’. In it, Mekas proposes ‘breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema’, and exhorts a new generation of filmmakers to be ‘completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically!’ From the beginning, Mekas made no bones about his agenda to advocate in the most passionate way possible for the cadre of emerging filmmakers of the time who were upsetting conventions in terms of subject matter, narrative form, and cinematic technique.

He was among the first to champion groundbreaking indy-film director John Cassavettes and the extreme cinema verite of Andy Warhol, whose pathbreaking films, such Eat (1963), Empire (1964), and Taylor Mead’s Ass (1965), are said to have been inspired by a 1962 performance of Trio with Strings by composer LaMonte Young, which the legendary pop artist had attended in Mekas’s company. One of Warhol’s earliest films, the 1963 Sleep, featuring poet John Giorno nude and asleep on a couch for five and a half hours, was originally intended to be set to music by Young. Mekas presented in film, which he called ‘monumental’, at Gramercy Arts Theater in January 1964, theoretically a fundraising event that attracted all of nine people, two of whom left after the first hour. Mekas wrote about the screening and chided the audience’s response to it in his column of 30 January 1964.

In the afterword to the new edition of Movie Journal, Mekas congratulates himself, at age 93 and with 50 years of hindsight, on the overall soundness of his critical judgement. By and large he is right. Time and again the filmmakers he praised have come to be regarded as masters of the cinematic avant-garde, which he termed ‘poetic’ cinema to differentiate it from the conventional Hollywood narrative form. This is not to say that Mekas was unilaterally against traditional film — he writes incisively and admiringly about many of Hollywood’s top directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, and Vincent Minelli, among others. His beef was more with the studio system that ‘created an image in the minds of people that cinema is only entertainment and business’ (as opposed to art) than those creative spirits who were caught up in it.

The highly personal, expressive style Mekas adopted in his Movie Journal columns is perfectly suited to the poetic form of cinema he set out to champion. In a column from 19 September 1963 titled ‘The Function of Film Criticism’, he notes: ‘The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies. That’s what my rambling is all about, nothing more.’ One might add, and nothing less.

The directness of Mekas’s prose reads as fresh today as when it was first written. It’s a stark contrast to Smulewicz-Zucker’s introduction to the second edition, which is more academic, assiduously annotated, and seeks to position Mekas in the history of the American avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century. The essay is an important contribution nonetheless that also addresses Mekas’s significance as a filmmaker and poet in addition to establishing his critical bona fides. Dive into the main text first, then read Smulewicz-Zucker’s introduction for the broader context.

In an entry from 23 September 1965, Mekas offers a one-sentence take down of what in his estimation prominent film critic Pauline Kael lost, as her most famous book title has it, at the movies: ‘her taste for cinema’. Mekas, on the other hand, found his in the pages of Movie Journal, and he helped countless others, including me, find it as well, those many years ago. With this new edition, another generation now has that opportunity.

RATING 9 / 10