Nationality: Lithuanian. Born: Semeniskiai, 24 December 1922. Education: Gymnasium, Birzai, Lithuania, graduated 1942; studied philosophy and literature, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, and University of Tübingen. Family: Married Hollis Melton, 1974; children: Oona and Sebastian. Career: During German occupation, taken, with brother Adolfas, to forced labor camp near Hamburg, 1944; they escaped, 1945; lived in displaced persons camps, 1945–49; while studying in Germany, edited Lithuanian emigré literary magazine Zvilgsniai (Glimpses), and wrote collections of short stories and poetry; moved to New York, 1949; worked in factories and shops in various capacities, through 1950s; founded Film Culture magazine, 1955, remains editor-in-chief; began "Movie Journal" column forVillage Voice, 1958; shot first film, Guns of the Trees, and helped organize New American Cinema Group, 1960; organized The Film-Makers Cooperative, 1961; organized the Film-Makers Cinematheque, arrested and charged with showing obscene film (Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures), given six-month suspended sentence, 1964; co-founder with P. Adams Sitney, then acting director, Anthology Film Archives, 1970. Awards: Documentary Award, Venice Festival, for The Brig, 1965. Address: c/o Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
Guns of the Trees
Film Magazine of the Arts
The Brig; Award Presentation to Andy Warhol
Report from Millbrook; Hare Krishna; Notes on the Circus; Cassis
Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches)
Time & Fortune Vietnam Newsreel
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
Lost, Lost, Lost
Paradise Not Yet Lost, or Oona's Fifth Year
Notes for Jerome
He Stands in the Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life
Self-Portrait; Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol
Jonas in the Desert
Happy Birthday to John (+ pr)
By MEKAS: books—
I Had Nowhere to Go, New York, 1991.
There is No Ithaca: Idylls of Seminis Kiai & Reminiscences, translated by Vyt Bakaitis, New York, 1996.
By MEKAS: articles—
Founder of Film Culture magazine, 1955, contributes regularly and remains its editor-in-chief.
Contributor of weekly column, "Movie Journal," to Village Voice (New York), since 1958.
Statement, in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1964.
Interview with B. L. Kevles, in Film Culture (New York), Fall 1965.
Interview with Gerald Barrett, in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Spring 1973.
Interview with Antonin Liehm, in Thousand Eyes (New York), October 1976.
"Master Home Movies," an interview with Mieke Bernink and Richard Leacock, in Skrien (Amsterdam), February-March 1994.
Interview with A. Artjuh, in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), November 1996.
"Jonas Mekas, 'Movie Journal,"' in Village Voice, 16 September 1959," reprinted in Wide Angle (Baltimore), no. 2, 1997.
On MEKAS: books—
James, David E., To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New YorkUnderground, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992.
Ball, Gordon, 66 Frames, with introduction by Jonas Mekas, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, 1999.
On MEKAS: articles—
Harrington, Stephanie, "Pornography Is Undefined at Film-Critic Mekas's Trial," in The Village Voice (New York), 18 June 1964.
Levy, Alan, "Voice of the Underground Cinema," in New YorkTimes Magazine, 19 September 1965.
Simon, Bill, "New Forms in Film," in Artforum (New York), October 1972.
Tompkins, Calvin, "Profile: All Pockets Open," in New Yorker, 6 January 1973.
Goldstein, R., "Give It Away on 2nd Avenue," in Village Voice (New York), 29 January 1979.
MacDonald, S., "Lost Lost Lost over Lost, Lost, Lost," in CinemaJournal (Champaign, Illinois), Winter 1986.
Ruoff, J. K., "Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art Scene," Cinema Journal, vol. 30, no. 3, 1991.
Siegel, F., "In Praise of Extraordinary Cinema: Anthology Film Archives," in Boxoffice, October 1992.
Rollet, P., "Les exils de Jonas Mekas," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1993.
Bassan, Raphaël, "Jonas Mekas le fédérateur du cinéma underground américain," in Mensuel du Cinéma, February 1993.
Sitney, P. Adams, "Three Filmmakers as Culture Heroes," in YaleReview (New Haven, Connecticut), October 1994.
Lerman, L. and Leventhal, L., "Blessed Yankees: Six Reasons Why New York's Still Habitable—and Stakes a Claim in World Creativity," in Variety's On Production (Los Angeles), no. 10, 1996.
"Preservation and Scholarship Award: Jonas Mekas," in International Documentary (Los Angeles), November 1997.
Vogel, A., "Letter to John Cassavetes from Amos Vogel. 11/20/59," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), no. 2, 1997.
* * *
Born in Lithuania in 1922, Jonas Mekas was a poet and resistance worker against both the German and Soviet occupations during the Second World War. After some years in a German camp for displaced persons, he and his brother, Adolfas, also a filmmaker, immigrated to New York, where they later founded the journal Film Culture. Initially hostile to the American avant-garde, Mekas became its champion and spokesman in the 1960s. Throughout that decade he exerted great influence through Film Culture, his "Movie Journal" column in the Village Voice, and his founding of the Film-makers Cooperative (in 1962) to distribute independent films, and the Filmmakers Cinematheque (in 1963) as a New York showcase.
His first film, Guns of the Trees, a 35-millimeter feature, describes aspects of Beat culture in New York through the lives of four fictional characters. It reflects his hopes, at that time, for the establishment of a feature-length narrative cinema on the model of the French and Polish "New Waves." By the time he made The Brig with his brother, directly filming Ken Brown's stage play in the Living Theatre Production as if it were a documentary, he had already shifted his energies to his ongoing cinematic diary. The diary had actually begun in the mid-1950s when he reached the United States, but it took the liberating inspiration of Stan Brakhage and Marie Menken for Mekas to acknowledge that his artistic talent was focused outside of the feature film tradition he had been espousing.
The first installment of his Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, the nearly three-hour-long Walden, records his life, with numerous portraits of his friends and colleagues, in the mid-1960s. Its techniques are characteristic of the filmmaker's mature work: staccato, single-frame flashes, composed directly in the camera, are counterpointed to longer sketches of weddings, trips to the circus, meetings. Printed intertitles often occur. Long passages have musical accompaniment. The filmmaker repeatedly breaks in on the soundtrack to offer private reflections and aphorisms.
In 1976 Mekas released Lost, Lost, Lost, another three-hour section of the megadiary. This time, he went back to his initial experiments with the camera, in a more conventional and leisurely style, to document the aspirations and frustrations of his life as an exile dreaming of the re-establishment of an independent Lithuanian republic. Bits of this material had already appeared in his masterly and moving Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a three-part film made with the help of German television. The middle section of that film describes the emotional reunion of both brothers with their mother, then almost ninety years old, when they returned home for their first visit since the war. The film opens with a summary of Mekas's initial experiences in America and ends with a recognition of the impossibility of recovering the past, as he joins a group of his friends, mostly artists, in Vienna.
That elegiac tone is sustained and refined in Notes for Jerome, the record of his visits to the estate of Jerome Hill, in Cassis, France, in the late 1960s, and edited after Hill's death in 1972. Mekas married Hollis Melton in 1974; their first child, Oona, was born the next year. Paradise Not Yet Lost, or Oona's Fifth Year deals with his family life, but continues the theme of lost childhood that permeates Mekas's vision. It is filmed in the style of Walden, as is In Between, which records the years between Lost, Lost, Lost and Walden.
—P. Adams Sitney