so interesting I wish I had known of his work
before he kicked off.
Of course, lives that straddle WW2
are often so exciting because, despite the
danger, they actually got to try stuff and
do stuff. Life now is so sanitised.
He was a Lithuanian abstract
film maker. I don't agree with his style
which equates to totally unhinged
sociological research. No voiceover,
no attempt to rationalise, at all. Now,
it seems that this is popular on
Eurosport , for example. It gets on
my nerves when they refuse to even
have a ticker tape telling me what's
It's good to see the original video, as a historical
document, or art, but the rest of us also need an
explanation, once in a while.
Anyway, his life, and the company this fella
kept was quite amazing. what happy trails he had.
Checkit: The Observer
Jonas Mekas: the man who inspired Andy Warhol to make films
Jonas Mekas, 'the godfather of avant-garde cinema', talks to Sean O'Hagan about working with Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Jackie Kennedy
Saturday 1 December 2012 19.45 GMT
Jonas Mekas, who will be 90 on Christmas Eve, has an intense memory of sitting on his father's bed, aged six, singing a strange little song about daily life in the village in which he grew up in Lithuania.
"It was late in the evening and suddenly I was recounting everything I had seen on the farm that day. It was a very simple, very realistic recitation of small, everyday events. Nothing was invented. I remember the reception from my mother and father, which was very good. But I also remember the feeling of intensity I experienced just from describing the actual details of what my father did every day. I have been trying to find that intensity in my work ever since."
We are sitting at a table in the small kitchen area of Mekas's expansive studio in Brooklyn beneath a fading photograph of Arthur Rimbaud, one of his abiding inspirations. Around us, boxes full of archive material are stacked high in every available space: prints, diaries, rolls of film, letters, essays – all the obsessively recorded evidence of a life lived in thrall to the intensity of the everyday
Mekas is an integral figure in the history of what used to be called underground cinema, not just as a film-maker, but as a writer, a curator and a catalyst. In 1969, he helped set up the Anthology Film Archives in New York, which houses the most extensive library of experimental films in existence, and he has since overseen the restoration of many classics of the form. His conversation is peppered with the names of the more famous people he worked with in the golden age of avant-garde film-making in the 1960s, from Yoko Ono to Jackie Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats to the Warhol set. Many of these figures ended up in his films, which have in turn influenced the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, John Waters and Mike Figgis.
In person, Mekas is a mischievous character, dressed in a blue work jacket and cap, his eyes half-closed and sleepy-looking until he fixes you with a penetrating stare. He was born in the small village of Semeniskiai in northern Lithuania on 24 December 1922. It was a place, he says, "where nothing happened, then suddenly everything happened". As a child, he contacted a mystery illness that left him so thin and sickly looking that the local boys nicknamed him "Death", so he retreated into books and wrote obsessively in his diaries. He was 17, when, in 1940, Soviet tanks rumbled into Lithuania. He hid behind a wall in his village and began photographing them on his first camera, but never saw the results. A Russian soldier angrily snatched his camera and confiscated the film. "Everything changed when the Russians came," he says now. "How we farmed, how we lived, all was swept away."
In 1941, when the German army moved into Lithuania, Mekas joined the resistance, helping to publish a regular, clandestinely distributed bulletin of news culled from BBC radio broadcasts. When his typewriter mysteriously went missing, he buried his diaries in a field and fled the country for Vienna with his brother, Adolfas, fearing the authorities could trace him though the typeface and send him to a labour camp or worse.
Arrested en route, they were taken to a labour camp near Hamburg, where they spent eight months before escaping and hiding in a barn near the Danish border. When the war ended, they were moved from one displaced persons' camp to another for two years. "We watched bad American films to pass the time," he says. "We grew listless and wondered what would happen to us."
In New York, Mekas encountered a burgeoning underground culture of artists, writers, musicians, photographers and film-makers, regularly crossing paths with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, film-maker Maya Deren, Robert Frank, John Cage and musician La Monte Young, many of whom came to his Manhattan loft for his regular film evenings. In 1954, he and Adolfas created Film Culture magazine, which analysed cinema in all its forms but concentrated mainly on avant-garde cinema. Among its contributors were director Peter Bogdanovich (who went on to direct The Last Picture Show), experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage and critic Andrew Sarris.
Simultaneously, Mekas started writing a film column, Movie Journal, for the Village Voice. Then, in 1962, he co-founded the Film-Makers' Cooperative and, in 1964, began showing independent films on a regular basis at the Film-makers Cinematheque, both ventures becoming the foundation for what would become the Anthology Film Archives, dedicated to preserving and showing experimental films.
Warhol had been a regular at the impromptu screening nights held at Mekas's Manhattan loft. "We became friends after Naomi Levine [one of Warhol's "superstars"] invited me to his party and I realised it was the same white-haired guy who had come to sit on the floor and watch my films. I always remember that we went to see a La Monte Young performance where one note was stretched out to four or five hours. It was soon after that I helped Andy make Empire. Young was making time stretch in sound; Andy picked up the idea and repeated it visually."
Mekas also befriended the Velvet Underground, allowing them to rehearse in his loft and filming their famous gig at the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry at Delmonico's Hotel in New York in January 1966. Legend has it that it was Mekas and his friend, experimental film-maker Barbara Rubin, who introduced Warhol to Lou Reed.
Jonas Mekas films of Lennon, Kennedy, Dali Filmed by Jonas Mekas: (from left) John Lennon and Yoko from Happy Birthday to John, 1996; Jackie Onassis with her children from This Side of Paradise, 1999; Mekas and Salvador Dalí, from In Between, 1978. Copyright: Jonas Mekas
Another visitor to the loft around that time was Salvador Dalí, who, Mekas says, "felt he needed to be in touch with the younger generation and knew something was happening in New York". Mekas remembers Dalí "clunk, clunk, clunking up the stairs to my floor", where they agreed that Mekas should film one of the artist's impromptu street happenings. On 18 April 1964, Mekas filmed Salvador Dalí at Work, which featured the model Veruschka being tied up on the street by a grinning Mekas and later being covered in shaving cream by Dalí.
Perhaps more surprising still was Mekas's friendship with former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he first met though the artist, photographer and socialite Peter Beard. For a while, he tutored her children, John and Caroline, in film-making. "I spent a few summers in their house in Montauk," he says, smiling. "I wrote the children a little manual and gave them various exercises to do." John Kennedy Jr, it seems, grasped the Mekas method instinctively. "I remember he won an award at school for a multiple-screen, diary-style film he made about his summer holidays."
The short films that Mekas made with these now iconic figures are glimpses of an era when avant-garde cinema was at its peak. From the emergence of the Beat movement in the mid-1950s to the burgeoning of the American hippie counter-culture a decade later, and on into the 70s, Mekas was in the vanguard of that revolution, with highly personal films such as Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-72) and Lost Lost Lost (1976), which is made up of six reels that cover his arrival in New York and his interactions with the likes of Robert Frank, LeRoi Jones and, surreally, singer Tiny Tim.