Weathered underground

Long the dean of the avant-garde, Jonas Mekas keeps looking forward.

At age 84, Jonas Mekas makes a new film every day. It can be as simple as a shot of a cat being contentedly stroked, as short as a passing breeze. After he’s done editing it, he posts it on his website, jonasmekas.com, for free download and podcast. (Beyond the first day, he charges a nominal fee.) Mekas has been doing this for the past 215 afternoons.

“How beautiful is that?” the director asks, rhetorically. We’re in a muggy, poster-lined office at Anthology Film Archives, the East Village depository he cofounded in 1970 with other experimental giants like Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka. “It’s available to all and nobody is censoring you. This is a very important change in dissemination. We shouldn’t be nostalgic for the past.” Clearly, we’ve come to the right place—and the right man—for a status report on the avant-garde in the age of YouTube. Evidently, it’s only getting busier.

Anthology, a sturdy red-brick building on Second Avenue that suggests a besieged fortress, invites nostalgia, even if the impossibly spry Mekas would have us think otherwise. The corridors are filled with the detritus of analog filmmaking: ancient projectors, split reels and old cutting supplies. It’s hard not to get an immediate whiff of past industry and spirited solidarity.

“I knew everybody by name,” Mekas says, allowing himself a little reminiscence. “Everybody who was making films independently, experimental, avant-garde, whatever. I had this column in The Village Voice; we had Anthology. There was one place you could always check for what was going on. When creative minds get together, excitement is created.” In Mekas’s heyday, those minds included everyone from Andy Warhol and Nico to John Lennon and Yoko.

But it’s the future that he likes to discuss, and you quickly get a sense of the forwardness (a literal definition of avant-garde) that colors most of his thoughts. “In Kabbalah, it’s considered evil when things stop progressing,” Mekas says. “So maybe we won’t have a thousand or 500 or 300 people sitting together in a theater anymore. Fine. They’ll be in home situations. Experimental filmmakers never wanted money, only to be seen. And we are. We are moving ahead.”

Does Mekas fear a splintered community of separatist iPod viewers? “I really must confess,” he says, sipping a beer and leaning in, “that when I was a child—and for years after—I had this dream that I was holding a book in my hand and it was moving like water. I’m not reading it; I’m watching it! My dream is now a reality. You won’t find negativity here.”

Mekas’s work draws heavily on his own life and the diaristic impulse; it’s almost like Apple’s customizable iPod was invented for him. His emigration from Lithuania to the United States in 1949 with his brother Adolfas was only the beginning of a journey that took him around the world, always recording, reflecting. “Jonas is going down to Williamsburg to check out the new kids’ stuff even before we’ve been there,” says Anthology’s archivist Andrew Lampert, himself a filmmaker (like much of the staff).

“It’s not just curiosity,” Mekas clarifies. “It’s a need. There is a need for poetics, for cinema, for the visual. Otherwise, art would not exist.” Branching off from the conventional traditions of narrative Hollywood storytelling in the ’60s and ’70s, Mekas’s advocacy of new art struck many as heroic. “Some part of us was not being expressed. We needed more forms.”

Can that tradition really be seen as continuing? “You can’t say New York is a capital of art today,” Mekas offers provocatively. “Today I think Paris is more active to the avant-garde, or Düsseldorf—they have more labs, more publications. But things go in cycles. It comes and goes and comes back. You cannot create it artificially. It happens when three or four people get together, and it’s contagious. And Darwin’s law applies: The 1 percent that is special—it will survive.”

As for today’s youth, Mekas invites them downtown. “They should come right here,” he says, the perpetual believer. “People come from all over the world just to be interns here. It’s their dream.”

Anthology Film Archives is at 32 Second Ave at 2nd St (212-505-5181).

Author: Joshua Rothkopf





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