Jonas Mekas, often described as the godfather of American avant-garde cinema, died aged 96 in his New York City home on Wednesday. “Dear friends, Jonas passed away quietly and peacefully early this morning,” said a post on Mekas’s Facebook page. “He was at home with family. He will be greatly missed but his light shines on.”
Born in Lithuania on December 24, 1922, Mekas was taken along with his brother to a forced labour camp in Germany in 1944 during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania. In 1949, he came to the United States of America. He started doing odd jobs to survive in Brooklyn, New York City, and a few months later, he borrowed money to buy a Bolex 16mm camera and began recording his life. He started curating experimental film screenings, going on to collaborate with artists such as Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Nico, John Lennon, Salvador Dali and George Maciunas.
His loft became a “nexus for artistic experimentation”, The Guardian recalled in its obituary. Visitors included the band The Velvet Underground, who would practise there, and Salvador Dali, who was “curious about New York’s underground scene”, said the publication. On Dali’s request, Mekas started filming Dali’s performance art or “happenings”, most of which “involved spraying young beautiful women with shaving foam – a key ingredient for Dali, Mekas wrote in 2007.
Mekas had about 60 productions to his credit and pioneered the diary film, which involved accounts of his life narrated in dramatised form. His credits include Lost, Lost, Lost (1975); Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Zefiro Torna (1992), As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) and Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012).
Mekas was also a poet, writer, film critic and patron of independent cinema. He started the acclaimed journal Film Culture and co-founded the Film-Makers Cooperative, which helped distribute avant garde films, and Anthology Film Archives, a repository of experimental cinema. The New York Times described him as “part intellectual, part enthusiast, part provocateur” and someone who could be “counted on to sound off on behalf of experimental films”.
In 1964, Mekas was arrested on obscenity charges for organising a screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), a surrealist film featuring sexually ambiguous characters, and Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950) about two inmates in adjacent prison cells who share a passionate homoerotic relationship.
In an essay for the the New York Times in 1969, Mekas wrote that he could not understand why people prefer the “grossness and banality” of a Hollywood or a European art movie as opposed to the “illuminations and ecstasies” of an avant garde film. “The Hollywood film deals with gross, simplified realities, banalised feelings, ideas, thoughts. The Avant-garde Film deals with the subtler nuances of experience, emotions, ideas, perceptions – it illuminates them – it deals with things that make you finer.”
In a lengthy statement carried in full in Deadline, filmmaker Martin Scorsese described Mekas as a “prophet” and an “impresario”. Scorsese added, “Jonas Mekas did and meant so much to so many people in the world of cinema that you’d need a day and a night to just begin...Who was more committed than Jonas to the art of cinema? I wonder.”
Tributes also poured in on social media for Mekas.