Volume 16 • Issue 38 | February 20 - 26, 2004

Pioneer of American avant-garde film soldiers on

By Aileen Torres

Lithuanian born Jonas Mekas is widely considered to be the godfather of American avant-garde cinema. Born in 1922, Mekas immigrated to New York in his 20’s, settling first in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and later on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

One of the founders of Anthology Film Archives, at 32 Second Ave., Mekas is still an active director there. Because he enjoys young people he has cultivated a small staff of young cineastes knowledgeable about all periods and styles of cinema, a point of pride for Mekas.

“He’s the oldest of us in age, but the youngest in spirit,” said John Mhiripiri, the director of administration and exhibitions.

Mekas, whose signature piece of clothing is a corduroy blazer which he has worn for decades, has been advocating for U.S. avant-garde filmmaking since the 1950’s. In 1954, he founded the magazine “Film Culture,” a counterpart to the seminal French journal, “Cahiers du Cinema.”

“‘Film Culture’ was a voice in the black hole” said Robert Haller, Anthology’s director of collections and special projects.

In 1958, Mekas became the first film critic of “The Village Voice,” for which he wrote a column for 18 years. He quit when the Voice was bought by the publisher of “Life” magazine in the mid-1970s because he felt that he wasn’t wanted there anymore. He subsequently wrote for “Soho Weekly News.”

Mekas founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1964, then known as Filmmakers’ Cinémathèque. Today the museum and theater house one of the world’s largest collections of avant-garde films.

Mekas’ founding partners were Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, and Peter Kubelka,. In the 1960s, Hill, an artist from a wealthy railroad family, developed an interest in filmmaking. He befriended Mekas, who introduced him to the others.

Hill financed the renovation of an empty wing at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater to create the first home of Anthology, at 425 Lafayette St.

The unorthodox theater was called “The Invisible Cinema” by Kubelka, who designed the space in a manner that he thought would maximize individual viewing concentration. Everything was black: the walls, the seats, the ceiling, and the floor. The headrests were high, and there were flaps on the sides of each seat to prevent distractions from other viewers.

In 1974, after the death of Hill, Anthology’s financial supporter, the museum was forced to move to 80 Wooster St, and the Invisible Cinema set-up had to be abandoned. With its finances still shaky, Anthology moved yet again to 491 Broadway. In 1979, it finally settled into Manhattan’s Second Avenue Courthouse building, bought from the city for $50,000. They spent $1.7 million to renovate the gutted structure, which now houses two theaters (one with 66 seats and another with 200), a library, a film preservation department, and a gallery.

Anthology shows and promotes new avant-garde movies, such as “Millennium Mambo,” by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which runs in February. This month it will also be showing ‘Big Animal,” by Jerzy Stuhr.

It also has a permanent collection called, “The Essential Cinema Repertory” put together by Mekas, Kubelka, Sitney, the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and the critic Ken Kelman. Their original policy called for a unanimous vote for a film to make it into the repertory, but establishing a consensus became too difficult, so the policy became one of majority rule.

Brakhage then quit the committee because he thought that not having every single member’s approval per film would compromise the integrity of the permanent collection. James Broughton, a poet and filmmaker, stepped in to take Brakhage’s place on the committee.

According to Mekas, there is no set criteria for The Essential Cinema: “It was always a question of taste.”

By 1972, the committee had created a list of 330 titles, including films by Andy Warhol, Roberto Rossellini, Man Ray, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, and Charlie Chaplin.

Unfortunately, when Hill died, the Essential Cinema project had to be put on hold because of lack of funding.

“Nothing happened after Jerome died because we had no money to purchase the [film] prints,” said Mekas. “The project was broke.” He continues to hope that another “visionary” philanthropist will come to rescue.

There is an abundance of extremely valuable historical materials housed at Anthology, much of which sits unclassified and unorganized in the rooms of its labyrinthine basement. Currently, there are approximately 30,000 reels of films from the 1890s to the present in the building alone, said Mekas, with more in storage in New Jersey.

The reference library contains the world’s largest collection of literature and other written records of avant garde and independent cinema. An astounding array of books, periodicals, photographs, posters, audio material, catalogs, and profiles of filmmakers and film-related organizations also sits, disheveled, in the basement.

There are plans to create an expanded library in the adjacent building that Anthology already owns.

“It’s my spring project to try to raise three million dollars,” said Mekas. “That’s what it will cost to build.”

He maintains faith in Anthology’s ability to survive, despite its persistent financial limitations. Mekas may not yet have a plan for raising money to build the library, but he is not worried. As he said, “So far, I have not failed on any of my projects.”


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