No other New Yorker embodies the concept of a “living legend” more than Jonas Mekas. The avant garde filmmaker, poet, and former Village Voice film critic founded Anthology Film Archives nearly 40 years ago, and as he turns 95 on December 24, shows no signs of slowing down. A haven for experimental cinema and first-rate retrospectives, Anthology remains a fixture of the city’s underground arts scene even as much of the culture surrounding it has undergone constant evolution — or, in many cases, gone extinct. In an era of constant paranoia about the future of creativity, Mekas’ survival is a beacon of hope.
The Lithuanian immigrant continues to oversee Anthology as its artistic director and touts big ideas for its future — specifically, a long-dormant expansion plan to build a cafe, a rooftop terrance and a library to house decades of film materials gathered around the world. (To date, he has raise around $4.5 million from donations and silent auctions; his target goal is just over $12 million.)
In the meantime, Mekas continues to gather his writings into published books and travel the globe engaging with creative communities around the world. An unexpected new member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, he continues to keep an eye on contemporary cinema even as he fights to preserve the exhibition of its past. A few days before his birthday, Mekas sat down across the street from Anthology and discussed all of these issues over a glass of red wine (his drink of choice).
What sort of significance does turning 95 have for you?
None, it’s normal. Maybe 100 will. You know, having two zeroes there is something different. I come from an area of the country where we didn’t celebrate birthdays. We celebrated name days. Mine came during the summer solstice in June.
But I don’t feel there’s anything to celebrate about being 95. You have to do something really wrong with your life not to reach 95. People are asking me if I have any advice. “What did you do?” My answer is, we shouldn’t ask why I’ve lived to 95, or how I’m still in good shape, more or less. We should ask, “Why don’t people live to 95? What are they doing wrong?” That’s where the problem is. If you do everything right and don’t overdo anything — avoid excess — it’s normal. People overeat, over-worry about tomorrow, have too much sex. Of course the cult of a pleasure society ruins the body.
Artists often burn out early.
Some of them live very intensely and burn out, yes, but those are exceptions. Now, almost anybody who has an exhibition somewhere is an artist. There are millions of them. Those are not the ones who burn out fast. Many of them live long, but some of them are bad artists, and I’d prefer if they’d die young. Some very important artists in the past have burned out, but that is not the rule in history. Many Japanese haiku writers lived long lives.
How have the challenges of theatrical exhibition changed since you started Anthology?
When we started, there were at least five other venues where semi-independent productions could screen, like the 55th Street Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema. They all closed. Film Forum came up, but the old ones closed. Our function became just avant garde and classic examples of cinema — Godard, Eisenstein, Vertov — and new classics of the international avant garde. A few years later, all these theaters started closing and we realized we had to go beyond just the classics. So we opened our screens to new films from small countries.
How will your expansion plans for the theater help it stay in business?
Angelika and Film Forum lose money on their programming and they survive thanks to their little cafes. Ours will be larger and open to the outside. We think we’ll do better. We’ll have some wine.
Do you worry about dwindling support for the arts now that the U.S. government is so conservative?
We were not supported by Washington in 1970 and we get only peanuts today. We depend only on individuals. I do not believe in government support of art. Maybe opera. The cities should support some public art organizations. There are enough Bloombergs in every city to support the art there and they should. That’s how it used to be in other centuries, in Europe. But once you begin to depend on the government, then the government begins to dictate the art. Even organizations like the New York State Council on the Arts — who’s deciding who should get those grants? They may have no idea, really. I don’t even believe in that.
Once I ran into the avant garde filmmaker Paul Sharits. He said he wasn’t doing anything because he didn’t get a grant that year. The whole body of the American avant garde cinema was created without grants. It was hard, they took teaching jobs or whatever, but they didn’t use not getting grants as an excuse for not making films. But government can and must support the arts by bringing back into all public schools art education. The situation of art education in all educational systems presently is shameful.
Anthology’s year-round Essential Cinema program has been continuing in the same form for so long. Will you ever update it?
It’s supposed to show typical examples of what has been achieved in cinema. It’s where it was in 1972. Jerome Hill was the main sponsor and he died then. Our support ended and we couldn’t acquire any prints. So the idea was to continue it indefinitely. Now we need somebody crazy enough to raise money for a project to bring it up to date.
What sort of films are you watching these days?
Nothing new that we have shown at Anthology is on the level of Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” or Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” These are the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Both are minor films in a way, but they’re perfect for what the filmmakers want to do. They’re very well made, and acted.
What did you like about them?
With “Paterson,” it’s not easy to make a film about an artist, especially a poet. There are so many films about artists — like five about Van Gough — and they usually fail. This is one where Jarmusch keeps it low key, unpretentious, and it’s perfect. And Gerwig’s film is just amazing, how she treated this growing teenage girl in a very real way with a unique kind of character, very independent and self-asserting. No man could have made this film. It’s one-hundred percent a woman’s film. There are so many little details. No big gestures; it’s made up of little scenes. And it works.
The other one I loved was “Faces Places.” It’s fun. You come out happy because [co-directors Agnes Varda and JR] are such a perfect team.
What did you make of the way Godard treats Varda in the film?
There’s something personal that she has not yet digested about that experience. Godard can be very arrogant, and she felt a little insulted by him, and it’s OK to feel that way. But as far as the best documentary of the year, I would go for “Jane.”
Are you planning to vote for the Oscars now that you’re an Academy member?
I will vote. I’m still trying to catch up with some of the films that have been suggested to me. I had no idea they would invite me, and I didn’t care about it, but once they invited me I figured, why not? It’s another experience.
Would you ever go to the Oscars?
No, I don’t go to those kind of parties.