Jonas Mekas, RIP: Why This 96-Year-Old Legend Was Our Most Important Cinephile

He's the godfather of American avant-garde cinema, but even that doesn’t do justice to his widespread impact on film culture.
Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas, at home. December 24, 1922- January 23, 2019

Far from the factory of Hollywood, American film culture would never have made it this far without its greatest advocate. Jonas Mekas was the most important cinephile in film history. His legacy contained multitudes: wartime refugee, New York movie buff, daring exhibitor, revolutionary critic, boundary-pushing filmmaker, poet, musician, wine connoisseur, the center of every party. Until his death at the age of 96 this week, the Lithuanian-born immigrant remained a resilient embodiment of the essential link between creating, and advocating for creativity, in all facets of life.

At the closing-night party for the New York Film Festival in September, Mekas stuck around until 1 a.m., hanging with the likes of Julian Schnabel, Louis Garrel, and Ed Lachman. Mekas acolytes were everywhere, across multiple generations of film history, and they delighted at the opportunity to spend time by his side.

I once drank wine with Mekas for two hours in his Greenpoint apartment while he shared insights into the changing nature of film culture and his continuing ability to create new work as the years wore on. At the time, he was in his late eighties, had recently finished a new diary film, and launched a website where he was posting daily videos. He had recently spent time with Martin Scorsese on the set of “The Departed,” and had plans for many new books, exhibitions, and international tours with his work. Much of that came to fruition over the next decade. Before he uprooted himself to live deeper in the borough, he often hung out late into the night at hipster enclave Pete’s Candystore, drinking and sharing stories with innumerable colleagues. “People think I died in the ’70s,” he told me. “They forget that life continues.”

Mekas’ epic biography speaks volumes about how he spread his influence. With his brother Adolphas, Mekas fled Nazi persecution during WWII, and ended up in New York in 1949. It didn’t take the siblings long to find their place in the bustling metropolis, deepening their knowledge of cinema by attending MOMA screenings and future New York Film Festival founder Amos Vogel’s underground Cinema 16 club. Around the time that he began churning out personal-essay films on 16mm film, Mekas co-founded Film Culture, one of the first serious movie magazines in America. Later, he became the first film critic for the Village Voice, where he espoused the ethos of avant-garde filmmaking as an essential challenge to Hollywood formula. That same passion came into play when, in 1970, he founded Anthology Film Archives, still the most important venue for experiencing non-commercial cinema in the city, thanks to the year-round “Essential Cinema” series Mekas launched early in the venue’s life.

Beyond that, his programming represented certain convictions about art in the world. He was arrested on obsenity charges for screening Jack Smith’s 1963 queer film “Flaming Creatures,” a badge of honor for him at the time and a heroic act for film history. Many influencers have fought for the movies over the years, but Mekas — who overcame literal persecution before solidifying his creative life — actually threw himself into the center of the battlefield.

As a filmmaker, Mekas’ work benefits from historical context. With the exception of his incendiary 1964 “The Brig,” a disturbing hour-long look at U.S. Marines assaulting Japanese prisoners, the bulk of Mekas’ oeuvre was personal — and rarely an easy sit. Yet as he continued to churn out new work well into the 21st century, Mekas found his groove as a storyteller who used the pliable nature of moving images to express his personality. He was a proto-YouTube celebrity who beat YouTube at its own game, collecting snippets of observations and encounters into lyrical representations of his evolving universe. His prolific output yielded a staggering window into his philosophy, lifestyle, and urban surroundings.

The three-hour “WALDEN” was a fragmentary assemblage of moments from Mekas’ life in the late ’60s; “Lost, Lost, Lost,” from 1976, crystallized his capacity to use home movies as a poetic device by tracking his progress from Williamsburg’s Lithanian community to his assimilation into New York’s thriving network of bohemian artists. The five-hour “As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty” offers exactly that as it collects decades of footage featuring Mekas’ wife and children. This may sound off-putting to viewers most comfortable with conventional narrative structure, but Mekas lived to push beyond those boundaries in every facet of his career.

Mekas was everywhere: in front of the camera, behind it, cheering it on from the sidelines. He shot much of the footage for Andy Warhol’s eight-hour “Empire,” and wrote at length about the importance of avant-garde works with lively, accessible prose. He befriended every major New York artist, from Allen Ginsberg to John Lennon to Marina Abramovic; he gave seminal critics like Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman their starts, and inspired filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, John Waters, and Harmony Korine.

Yet even as he kept pushing ahead, he was forced to reckon with his tragic past. The 2016 documentary “I Had Nowhere to Go” adapts his postwar memoirs into a bracing look at how the movies provided him with catharsis from the harsh twists that catalyzed his immigration, including time spent in Nazi labor and displaced persons’ camps. Over the next two years, while he participated in several new exhibitions — both in New York and abroad — an incendiary report in the New York Review of Books made dubious claims about Mekas’ tolerance of anti-Semitism in Lithuania. He responded by contributing a six-hour oral history of that time to the United States Holocaust Museum.

Mekas wasn’t big on origin stories. He worked overtime to uncover new and exciting artistic achievements. Later in life, he watched fewer movies but continued to champion the underlying value of curation. With Anthology Film Archives, Mekas launched an institution committed to showcasing non-commercial cinema against impossible odds. For years, he spoke of lofty plans to raise money for a $12 million expansion, including a bigger film library and a cafe. Regardless of whether some aspect of those ambitions ever come to fruition, Anthology’s capacity to endure through many eras remains unparalleled in the exhibition scene. The theater has outlasted virtually everything else on the corner of Second Avenue, where it has towered above Houston Street for nearly half a century.

Many of Mekas’ peers figured he would live forever, but even when faced with his own mortality, he mined for new insights. Last August, faced with a cancer scare, he sent a mass email to his contacts:

I am a film-maker. I have often stated that I have come to film making, I have chosen the camera as my tool, my “weapon,” to protect myself against “the world” — something that helps me to live in it — so why don’t I do the same now, when my body is under attack?

That was it.

Due to the amazing new medical technologies which I am discovering exist – and continue to be developed – the amazing NYU Langone Hospital team inserted two controlled movie cameras into my body in order to hunt and “shoot” the invaders same way as I do with my Bolex or Sony in this “outer” world. And believe me or not, they DID find the enemy and neutralized it, the nasty polyps they found lurking in my colon. Presently they are carefully monitoring me and the inner landscape of my body, to see if none are hiding – but that’s where things are with me, right now, and I thought I should send you this mini report, so that you would know why some of you, my close and old friends, are not hearing from me or seeing me. I am hunting. God bless the motion picture cameras!

A few weeks later, he sent an update (alongside the photo at the top of this story):

Just to let you know that I am back home trying to get back to normal. The NYU Langone hospital straightened me out enough to regain some normality which, at my “ripe” age, is full of unpredictabilities. Which I find normal and even interesting.

As a by-product of these few days, I gained an immense respect for the NYU Langone hospital team, their devotion to their craft, the care they give to their patients. Which translates into strengthening my trust in the essential goodness of humanity. No, humanity is not yet lost. It’s only confused. Yes, the bad news dominates all the media. But there are unseen, invisible millions of men and women who daily perform invisible but essential human acts that, I firmly believe, is moving the human evolution along the lines envisioned by the Poet of the Eternity. 

Mekas never slowed down. Shortly before he turned 95, we met across the street from Anthology, where he talked about his recent creative pursuits and his invitation to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He sang the praises of “Lady Bird” before returning to his long-term goals of renovating Anthology, then paused to record some exchanges at a nearby table. At the root of his Mekas’ talent was a constant desire to work, enjoy it, and invite everyone to join him in whatever form that impulse took. For many cinephiles, his career is a sprawling illustration of what it takes to engage with the cinema in fervent terms that guarantee its relevance; the very act of obsessing with the medium — by celebrating and making it alike — validates its existence.

Those who have never heard of Mekas are in for a treat: Throughout the decades, he secured his legacy time and again, with movies and poems, writings and exhibitions, all of which speak to his unparalleled advocacy for the role of art in giving society its substance. He was a great survivor whose work is destined to outlast us all.

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