Jonas Mekas (1922 – 2019) – Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema


Not many would be familiar with this name, Jonas Mekas. But if you happen to be a filmmaker who has dedicated his life to and towards meaningful Cinema, then you must know this Avant-Garde Independent Filmmaker.

Know Thy Maker

Jonas Mekas was a Lithuanian Poet and Filmmaker whose films are more distant from traditional filmmaking starting from the fact that he shoots directs, narrates, and edits his own films.

Jonas has been often called the “Godfather of American Avant-Grade Cinema” because of his name frequently attached to the American underground film movement of the 1950s and ’60s — and was popularized as the kind of filmmaker who films doesn’t show at the multiplex.

He arrived in New York from Lithuania with his younger brother, Adolfas in 1949 with very little English words in his vocabulary. Yes, He was an Immigrant who within a short period of time became an influential spokesman for the avant-garde film. Jonas Mekas not only made his own movies and wrote about the movies made by other makers, but also was the founder/co-founder of many institutions that still support and promote Independent Filmmakers. That is his legacy that he left behind for makers to come and aspire to become like him.

Jonas Mekas (1922 - 2019) - Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema
Mr. Mekas in one of his best-known autobiographical films, “Lost, Lost, Lost,” from 1976. Chronicling his own life in words and moving pictures became a vast, almost lifelong project.

Cinema of Jonas Mekas

A filmography that is both intellectual and enthusiastic, Jonas Meka’s contribution to Cinema includes a huge body of experimental films that are visually rich with startling imagery, sometimes having a poor narrative or patience-testing pace but often touching taboo subject matters.

Mekas’ own work in films ranged from his early narratives (Guns of the Trees, 1961) to “diary films” such as Walden (1969); Lost, Lost, Lost (1975); Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Zefiro Torna (1992), and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, which have been screened extensively at festivals and museums around the world.

Early Views on Mainstream Cinema

In his early days, Jonas worked as a column writer, Movie Journal, for The Village Voice in 1958. In one of his Film Essay, Jonas once expressed his views,

“The Hollywood film deals with gross, simplified realities, banalized 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. I do not understand by what logic the public, film critics and educators choose to spend thousands of hours of their lives with second-rate art, while at the same time making fun of the Avant-garde Film.”

A Holocaust Survivor

Mekas was a survivor of the Holocaust and studied theater in a concentration camp. He was able to flee to the United States in 1949 and finally settled in Brooklyn, New York. Jonas often felt distinct and alien in this new country which pained him deeply.

“We had continued to write in Lithuanian — I poetry, Adolfas prose — but we felt lost outside Lithuania. We needed an audience. Language begins to die unless one cultivates it. When I read the book, I realized that no matter where we went, cinema was the tongue in which we could reach anybody.”

For that matter when he arrived in the new city, the brothers worked odd jobs — loading-trucks, washing dishes — and immersed themselves in the city’s rebellious arts scene, soaking up painting, literature, and music but especially film. “We were dry sponges!” Jonas Mekas once said. They bought a Bolex movie camera, and Jonas began shooting scenes of his daily life — making a film diaries — a practice that led to a monumental autobiographical project that also included numerous short videos and written works: a dream journal, collections of anecdotes, volumes of diaries, a dozen books of poetry and more.

Father of American Independent Cinema

Jonas Mekas (1922 - 2019) - Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema
Every avant-garde, independent experimental-film artist in America has in some way been influenced by Jonas Mekas.

Film Culture, the first American journal to consider film as both a legitimate art form and an influence on the larger culture, had its original focus as much on mainstream as experimental movies.

Some underground films — including John Cassavetes’s “Shadows,” Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy” and Shirley Clarke’s “The Connection” — had gained enough popularity and acceptance by the audience that Mr. Mekas felt it was a suitable time to declare the arrival of the New American Cinema Movement.

In 1962, he and some 20 other filmmakers began the Film-Makers’ Cooperative that called mainstream cinema “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring”; rejected censorship of any kind, and denounced what it called “the Budget Myth.”

The first statement of the New American Cinema Group read in part,

The low budget is not a purely commercial consideration. It goes with our ethical and aesthetic beliefs, directly connected with the things we want to say, and the way we want to say them.

Guns of the Trees (1961)

Mr. Mekas’s own first feature film, “Guns of the Trees” (1961), depicted the lives of two New York City couples, and the impact on their lives, both before and after one of the women commits suicide. His ideologies were not only reflected through the powerful words he used but also in the films he made throughout his life, which spoke about powerful and taboo subjects.

Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema

“There is no formula,” Mr. Mekas said in 2010 when asked to define the avant-garde.

The avant-garde is always the front line in any field. In science, in music, where somebody just comes in, moving ahead into some totally unknown area, the future, and doing something not so much that people aren’t used to, but going maybe to different content, using different techniques, different technology. That’s the avant-garde to me.

True to his words, Mekas released one film every day on his website in the year 2007. The project he entitled “The 365 Day Project.” and is still ongoing on Jonas Mekas’ official website. In 2015, it was celebrated with a show titled “The Internet Saga”. Jonas Mekas proved to everybody through his endeavor and actions, that he is a maker who won’t wait for anyone and will make films for any medium he can publish his work on. That’s what he believed in, and that’s what he did in life.

Jonas Mekas (1922 - 2019) - Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema
Mr. Mekas at his Brooklyn home in 2015.

Jonas Mekas died at the age of 96 and left behind his films and his life in films to inspire both budding and established makers around the world. In his lifetime, Mekas directed more than 50 films, shot 30 films, edited 23 films, and even produced 17 of them. Looking at Mekas’ life, it won’t be wrong to say that ONE SINGLE MAN can change the WORLD.

His full filmography is available here.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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