“I will tell you my secret: It is my way of psychoanalyzing myself by embracing everything.” Alan Licht pays tribute to the avant garde film maker and chronicler whose indomitable spirit animated the New York underground over the past six decades
Reading an obituary for Jonas Mekas, the preeminent champion of underground cinema who died on January 23rd at the age of 96, I was struck by the fact that he started off writing for a Second World War-era underground newspapers in his native Lithuania, as part of the resistance against the Nazis. Mekas’s commitment to the idea of a revolutionary-minded underground obviously preceded his aesthetic activism in the early 1960s in making what he dubbed the “New American Cinema,” an emerging wave of independently made, poetic, personal films, accessible via screenings in a variety of off-the-beaten-path downtown New York locations. But he was always clearly in it for the long haul, launching Film Culture magazine in the mid-1950s with his brother Adolfas, and helping to organise Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a distribution company, and the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, which later became Anthology Film Archives, an archive and theatre for independent and experimental film that still thrives in the East Village to this day. “Some people tell us: Stay away from the Establishment; the Establishment will swallow you; you’ll become the new Establishment,” he wrote in one of the “Movie Journal” columns he penned for the Village Voice throughout the 60s and into the 70s. “I am for the Establishment of man’s spirit. Man’s spirit is always in avant-garde. That’s the true meaning of avant-garde.” Jonas created an alternative establishment for alternative films; while many saw underground movies as a fad of the 60s, he obviously sensed a permanence to their value and position in the culture that warranted such institutional foundations.
I only met Jonas briefly over the years, but Text of Light, a group founded by Lee Ranaldo and myself that improvised music alongside classic experimental films, played at several benefits for Anthology and Film-Makers' Cooperative. Which was fitting, as not only did we rent films from Film-Makers' Cooperative for other performances but the whole project most likely wouldn’t have existed without Mekas’s original promotion and chronicling of not just the films that we used, but expanded cinema in the 60s. Certainly Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable was one source for our concept in doing Text of Light—Mekas’s review of the EPI at the Dom is one of several excerpted in the gatefold sleeve of the first Velvet Underground album—but that Warholian version of a Happening in turn grew out of intermedia events that Mekas presented such as “Launching of the Dreamweapon” at the Cinematheque, a pre-Velvets performance that found Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, and Angus MacLise improvising to films by MacLise’s friend, poet Piero Heliczer. Morrison later wrote, “For me the path ahead became suddenly clear—I could work on music that was different from ordinary rock’n’roll since Piero had given Lou, John, Angus and me a context to perform it in.” Warhol frequently attended Mekas’ early 60s showings, and befriended Mekas, who went on to be the cameraman on Empire (1964), Warhol’s epic 8-hour film of the Empire State Building. This connects to Cale and MacLise’s association with avant-garde composer La Monte Young in a roundabout way, as Mekas told an interviewer that he and Warhol “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." Tony Conrad also played with Young, MacLise, and Cale in this period, and it was Mekas who literally gave Conrad the film rolls and paid for the processing of his epochal The Flicker, a strobe-like exercise of alternating black and white frames with a grinding electronic soundtrack by Conrad, which was amply covered in one 1966 issue of Film Culture alongside “Inside The Dream Syndicate,” Conrad’s visionary account of the technical and philosophical inner workings of the Dream Syndicate/Theatre of Eternal Music group with Young et al (Conrad saw The Flicker as an experiment in finding a visual analog to the harmonic principles the group was exploring with music.)
Mekas also put on the first screenings of Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions, with a now-lost original soundtrack by the Fugs, whose first album Smith would produce; the Fugs’ Ed Sanders had been inspired to start his own mimeographed poetry magazine several years earlier after seeing Mekas’ DIY film Guns Of The Trees. John Zorn has maintained the soundtrack tradition at Anthology, as its composer-in-residence, doing a number of live performances of new scores he created for films by Smith, as well as Maya Deren, Joseph Cornell, and Kenneth Anger, all of whose work had long influenced the structures of his music. He made a particularly effective soundtrack for Anger’s Invocation Of My Demon Brother, which previously had Mick Jagger’s Moog synthesizer dabblings. Zorn also collaborated with Ken Jacobs on his Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise “nervous magic lantern” projection at Anthology—Jacobs had been one of Mekas’ most significant discoveries at the open screenings he held at the Charles Theater when Jacobs submitted Little Stabs Of Happiness under a pseudonym, and he was also Ranaldo’s teacher at SUNY Binghamton.
Jack Smith was another individual that linked Jacobs, Zorn, Conrad, and Young, all of who worked with him at one time or another, and Mekas was jailed for showing Smith’s notorious, orgiastic Flaming Creatures (although Smith grew to resent Mekas for his perceived exploitation of the film in the name of fighting its censorship). In Movie Journal, a collection of Mekas’ Village Voice columns, there is an entry in which he describes going with Jacobs and his wife to a performance by Smith in his loft, staged in the wee hours, alternately ritualistic and dysfunctional, where Mekas truly conveys the feeling of seeing something magical happen worlds away from the mainstream, conjured from trash: “I suddenly was very conscious that it was 2am in New York, and very late, and most of the city was sleeping, even on Saturday night, and that all the theatres had been closed and over…all the ugly, stupid, banal theatres of the world, and that only here, in this downtown loft, somewhere at the very end of all the empty and dead and gray downtown streets, was this huge junk set and these end-of-civilization activities, these happenings, this theatre.”
Mekas had published Smith’s appreciation of B movie actress Maria Montez in a 1962 issue of Film Culture that also included Andrew Sarris’s first application of the auteur theory, and such editorial choices reflected his receptivity to supposedly highbrow and lowbrow examples of cinema. “Some of you wonder how I can like L’Avventura and [B-gangster film] Mad Dog Coll at the same time,” he wrote in a “Movie Journal” column around the same time. “Yes, it is strange indeed. I will tell you my secret: It is my way of psychoanalyzing myself by embracing everything.” At another benefit for Anthology, I played in a trio with Will Oldham and Tim Barnes, double billed with Yo La Tengo; afterwards I came across Anthology’s Bradley Eros, an experimental filmmaker, and Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley discussing barbecue. Jonas was enormously successful in opening up the kind of social and artistic spaces where that kind of interchange can take place.