In To Free
the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground. Ed.
David James. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, 294-312.
Movies of the Avant-Garde:
Mekas and the New York Art World
artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint
activity of a number, often a large number of people. Through
their cooperation, the art work we eventually see or hear
comes to be and continues to be. The work always shows signs
of that cooperation.
Becker, Art Worlds
Art World of Avant-Garde Film
Mekas has dedicated his life and work to the postwar avant-garde
film community. In so doing, he
collaborated in the construction of an art world, as this has
been defined by sociologist Howard Becker: "Art worlds
consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to
the production of the characteristic works which that world,
and perhaps others as well, define as art. Members of art worlds
coordinate the activities by which work is produced by referring
to a body of conventional understandings embodied in common
practice and in frequently used artifacts. The same people often
cooperate repeatedly, even routinely, in similar ways to produce
similar works, so that we can think of an art world as an established
network of cooperative links among participants" (Becker
1982, 35). The avant-garde film community may be thought of
as an art world, a subset of the larger contemporary art world
in the United States. As a critic, journal editor, polemicist,
distributor, filmmaker, exhibitor, fund-raiser, archivist, and
teacher, Mekas worked to build a community of filmmakers and
an audience receptive to their art. Here I explore Mekas' contribution
to the construction of an art world of avant-garde film in the
institutional frameworks of production, distribution, criticism,
Mekas' own films bear witness to this process;
both in subject matter and style, they call attention to the structure
of the avant-garde film community, providing an excellent case
study of the ways in which individual works show signs of the
cooperation of the larger art world. In Mekas' cycle of films,
originally called Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, the avant-garde
film community and the New York art world emerge as the collective
protagonist, and he maintains that his shooting style developed
as a response to his own engagement in that community: "During
the last fifteen years I got so entangled with the independently-made
film that I didn't have any time left for myself, for my own film-making--between
Film-Makers' Cooperative, Film-Makers' Cinematheque, Film Culture
magazine, and now Anthology Film Archives" (Sitney 1978, 190).
experiences in America from 1949 to 1984, Mekas' epic autobiography
Diaries, Notes, and Sketches reworks the aesthetic of home
movies into his own personal style, creating a new home for an
artist in exile.
avant-garde in both film and photography turned to home movies
and snapshot photography in the 1950s and 1960s for new materials.
Photographers of the social landscape--Robert Frank, Diane Arbus,
Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander--reworked the aesthetics of
the snapshot within the context of the fine art photograph.
Like Jerome Hill, Bruce Connor, and Stan Brakhage, Mekas has
found in home movies an aesthetic material suitable for his
own filmmaking, using a collage technique derivative of experiments
in other art forms, "Ever since Picasso glued a fragment of
commercially simulated chair-caning to the surface of a canvas
in 1911, collage had been for many artists the most seductive
of twentieth-century techniques. Collage enabled the artist
to incorporate reality into art without imitating it" (Tomkins
1980, 87). Through a collage of images and sounds, Mekas strives
to make art out of fragments of everyday life. He calls on our
associations of home movies to infuse his films with nostalgia.
Many of the scenes of Mekas' family and friends clowning for
the camera are virtually identical to actual home movie scenes.
Mekas' casual first-person voice-over narration recalls the
spoken commentary that often accompanies home movie screenings.
As Fred Camper notes, "A home movie screening is, as often as
not, accompanied by the extemporaneous narration provided by
the filmmaker, who usually doubles as the projectionist" (Erens
1986, 12). Mekas' voice-over commentary sounds spontaneous;
he retains off-the-cuff remarks and grammatical mistakes for
their conversational associations. However, his home movies
are produced by, for, and about the avant-garde community; they
document not his domestic or family life, but the New York art
avant-garde film community and the New York art world appear
throughout Diaries, Notes, and Sketches: Ken Jacobs,
Adolfas Mekas, Marie Menken, Gary Snyder, Gregory Markopoulos,
Jerome Hill, Lou Reed, Harry Smith, Willard Van Dyke, Amalie
Rothschild, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baille, Gregory Corso, Leroi
Jones, Peter Bogdanovich, Edouard de Laurot, Louis Brigante,
Herman Weinberg, Tony Conrad, Ed Emshwiller, George Macunias,
Frank, Nam June Paik, Hollis Frampton, Norman Mailer, Hans Richter,
Jim McBride, Richard Serra, Peter Kubelka, Annette Michelson,
Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and P. Adams
Sitney. Members of the international art cinema world frequently
make cameo appearances in his films: Henri Langlois, Nicholas
Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Marcel Hanoun, Carl Dreyer, Lotte Eisner,
and Barbet Shroeder. Mekas' films, in subject matter and style,
lay bare the alliances forged in an art world. At the end of
Lost Lost Lost, Mekas hints that his personal search
for community in the new world has been fulfilled by his involvement
with the filmmakers of the avant-garde. As Richard Chalfen argues
of the function of home movies, "The people who came together
to be 'in' a home movie shall stay together in a symbolic sense,
in a symbolic form, for future viewings. The home movie collection
can be understood as a visual record of a network of social
relationships" (Erens 1986, 107). Of all the experimental filmmakers,
Mekas makes the most extensive use of the home-movie idiom.
A greater understanding of ordinary home movies provides an
important point of comparison for interpreting his films.
in Language and Cinema Christian Metz defines cinema
as a "total social fact," he nevertheless preferred to study
only the specific cinematic codes in film language, the semiotics
of cinema (Metz 1974, 9). Using home movies as my example, I
suggest that cinematic codes should be studied in their broadest
cultural contexts. In his essay The Gift, anthropologist
Marcel Mauss writes of the total social fact, "Each phenomenon
contains all of the threads of which the social fabric is composed.
In these total phenomena, as we propose to call them, all kinds
of institutions find simultaneous expression: religious, legal,
moral, and economic" (Mauss 1954, 1). A holistic approach to
culture is one of the distinctive features of anthropological
studies of visual media. In his pivotal article "Margaret Mead
and the Shift From 'Visual Anthropology' to 'the Anthropology
of Visual Communication,'" Sol Worth outlines new directions
in anthropological research, making a distinction between the
use of images as data about culture and the interpretation of
images as data of culture, between "using a medium and studying
how a medium is used" (Worth 1980, 190).
anthropology of visual communication studies visual arti-
not only as records of the world, but also as someone's statement
about the world. In Allan Sekula's words, "Every photographic
image is a sign, above all, of someone's investment in the sending
of a message" (Sekula 1984, 5-6). In addition to making images,
then, visual anthropologists interpret the image-making of others.
The most interesting research on home movies has developed out
of Worth's paradigm, "[In the anthropology of visual communication]
one looks for patterns dealing with, for example, what can be
photographed and what cannot, what content can be displayed,
was actually displayed, and how that display was organized and
structured" (Worth 1980, 191). Jay Ruby, Richard Chalfen, and
Chris Musello's research strategies in the anthropology of visual
communication have followed Sol Worth's insights. (Ruby 1982;
Chalfen 1987; Musello 1980).
of visual communication have shown how family albums and home
movies, as cultural artifacts, provide highly coded and selective
information about the social lives of the individuals depicted.
Home movies offer conventionalized representations of the world
through the cinema. A clearly defined etiquette exists for the
types of images made, the circumstances under which they are
made, and the persons and events represented. In addition, the
contexts of exhibition are highly restricted. Richard Chalfen
has defined this particular form of expression, centered around
the circle of intimacy, as the home mode of visual communication.
Home moviemakers rarely edit their footage; the rushes are commonly
shown in the chronological order in which they were shot. Other
typical characteristics of the home movie include flash frames,
over and under-exposure, swish pans, variable focus, lack of
establishing shots, jump cuts, hand-held camera, abrupt changes
in time and place, inconsistent characters and no apparent character
development, unusual camera angles and movements, and a minimal
narrative line (Erens 1986, 16-7). Of course, these traits function
perfectly well in their proper context; home movies are typically
produced by, for, and about family members and friends. Home
movies and family albums call upon contextual information to
produce meaning. To the intended audience of family and friends,
the significance of these documents is readily apparent, whereas
they may appear repetitive or banal to outsiders. The anthropology
of visual communication undermines the assumption that visual
documents provide a reliable, not to mention objective, portrayal
of social life. Avant-garde filmmaker Michelle Citron notes
the selective record contained in home movies: "When I
asked my father for the home movies my request was motivated
less by sentimental feelings and more by my unpleasant memories.
I somehow expected the movies to confirm my family's convoluted
dynamics. But when I finally viewed them after a ten year hiatus,
I was surprised and disturbed that the smiling family portrayed
on the screen had no correspondence to the family preserved
in my childhood memories" (Erens 1986, 93-4). Citron incorporates
this insight into her film Daughter Rite (1978) by contrasting
optically printed sequences of her home movies with her
recollections of early childhood. Citron's memories of family
life provide a framework for contextualizing the experiences
of both her childhood and her home movies.
research for his book Snapshot Versions of Life, Chalfen
finds that photographs produced in the home mode of communication
depend heavily on contextual information--captions, dates, names,
places, relationships. Later, I will show specifically how Jonas
Mekas' diary films rely on contextual information familiar to
art world participants, information which he occasionally supplements
for the viewer. The study of culture and communication presupposes
attention to such context. Chalfen's home imagemakers often
use rather nondescript photographs and movies as a springboard
to a funny story or to a description of what was occurring at
the time, "Anyone who has ever watched a group of people watching
their own home movies or slides as the images
appear on the home screen must have seen people 'involved' in
a variety of ways; audience members frequently talk to one another,
make various exclamations at the screen, tell stories, laugh,
and sometimes cry, from sadness or happiness" (Erens 1986, 61).
Similarly, in "On the Invention of Photographic Meaning," Allan
Sekula argues that only a contextual approach to photographic
criticism may explain the meanings engendered by the viewing
of a photograph. In his view, photographs must be viewed in
the context of their original rhetorical function, as part of
the larger discourse in which they originated, in order to understand
their intended meaning (Sekula 1984).
photographs and home movies are not only the product of a mechanical
device, but also the product of social relations. The social
dimensions of production, distribution, and exhibition of family
photographs and home movies define the home mode of visual communication.
As Coe and Gates note in their social and technological history
of snapshot photography:
the technical advances which had been made in apparatus and
materials, snapshooters at the beginning of the Second World
War were covering much the same subjects as their predecessors
at the end of the last century and, indeed, their successors
today. Snapshot photography was primarily a leisure activity
and basic patterns of human activity do not change as much
as one would expect from the great material changes which
have occurred. Thus the snapshot shows a continuing repetition
of a few perennial themes, within which there can still be
considerable variety. (Coe and Gates 1977, 15)
culture, such as family photography and home movies, depends
upon an economy that affords leisure time and encourages consumption.
Accordingly, then, home movies reflect the leisure activities
of those who can afford both leisure and home movies. In the
course of the twentieth century, the size of this group has
a drop in the cost of mass-produced cameras and a rise in the
disposable income of middle-class and working-class families
(Coe and Gates 1977, 40). Jonas Mekas' films often incorporate
a wide variety of typical leisure activities, which are both
celebrated and undermined by the narrative structure. Diaries,
Notes, and Sketches typically uses a solemn voice-over narration
to counterpoint festive imagery, thereby suggesting the fragility
of the visible world. In addition, Mekas' voice-over often overwhelms
the immediate presence of the imagery through reminiscences
of the past, making memory the central problematic of his films.
writers note the contradictions between the celebratory characteristics
of home movies--birthday parties, weddings, holidays, vacations--and
the realities of everyday family life. The home mode of visual
communication rarely deals with personal trauma and family strife.
Divorces are as rare as weddings are commonplace. For ordinary
home movies and family photographs, the social situations of
production condition the range of subject matter. Nevertheless,
viewers who are part of the intended audience of the home mode
may read into the images just those emotions and incidents that
the form systematically denies. The emphasis on celebration
never really limits the free play of memory, for, as Citron's
example indicates, the home mode viewer cannot possibly divorce
domestic imagery from all of the associations of family history.
Galloway's novel, A Family Album, the narrator envisions
the circumstances behind the production of a series of family
photographs. Galloway devotes individual chapters to the cameras,
the photographers, and the individual photographs. His meticulous
description of the imaginary contexts of production and use
of these snapshot photographs sheds light on photography as
an aspect of everyday life. He comments on how little we may
actually know from a photograph, but also how much we may imagine,
"This photograph of a boy with his arm around the shoulder of
his dog is not merely a photograph; it is a document, an event,
an artifact, a unique moment in time, an investment, an occasion,
and the sole but intricate collaboration among cartoonist, photographer,
boy, and dog" (Galloway 1978, 51). He describes the particular
circumstances which lead a young boy into a photographic studio
to pose for a portrait with his dog. Of this 19th century black-and-white
photograph Galloway writes, "When we consider the problem, the
number of things not visible in this photograph bulks overwhelmingly
large. Neither dreams nor fears are indicated here, though some
are perhaps suggested. Nor are date, time, and place of death
visible, though surely these are matters of considerable importance.
We see neither the women this man will love, nor the ones he
will cease to love, nor those to whom he will simply make love"
(Galloway 1978, 50). Galloway foregrounds the essential poverty
of photography; it gives the appearance of context while eliminating
its substance. Novelists share with ethnographers an emphasis
on experience as it is lived, remembered, and imagined by the
theorists of the home mode of communication have come to recognize
that this form contains such a highly selective slice of life
that hopes for the discovery of broad visual cultural histories
have been tempered by more realistic expectations. In Chris
words: "Family photography and family photograph collections
pose a number of problems for those who would understand them
as documents of family life. Through knowledge of the social
behaviors guiding their production and use, it would seem that
they constitute conventionalized records of selected aspects
of family life. But when viewers attempt to account for the
ways in which home moders produce and interpret these images,
it is frequently found that even the iconic references relevant
to uses cannot be deciphered from these photos. Similarly, viewers
often cannot determine from a family photograph the range of
contextual data necessary to interpret the events depicted,
and they clearly cannot anticipate the range of significances
attributed to the images by their users" (Musello 1980,
40). Musello concludes that as documents of everyday life, family
albums share many characteristics with oral histories; they
depend upon the vagaries of memory. To make sense of the home
mode of visual communication, cultural anthropologists need
to research the "native's point of view." They need to consider
their own use of home movies and snapshot photographs to understand
both perspectives, to be participants and observers.
American families, with a division of labor across gender lines,
the mother commonly holds the position of family cultural historian,
preserving examples of children's accomplishments, writing letters,
choosing and editing the family album. As the authors of Middletown
Families note, "Women in Middletown seem to enjoy the maintenance
of kinship ties more than men do; men are more apt to stress
the obligations involved. The greater involvement of women in
kinship activities appears at every turn" (Caplow 1982, 223).
More specifically, as Chuck Kleinhans suggests, "Whether through
scrapbooks, photo albums, or home movies and tapes, it seems
like women are often the historians of domestic space and activity"
(Erens 1986, 34). Although the father may be the absent "voyeur"
of family representation, the mother usually controls the subsequent
editing and presentation of family life. For example, when my
younger brother left home at eighteen, my mother began a major
photographic inventory of the thirty years of our family existence,
completing the family album, and providing individual copies
for her five sons as they moved out of the home. Apparently,
this rewriting and completion of family historiography at a
later date in life is quite common, the unfinished business
of parenthood and family consolidation. Recently, our home movies
were transferred to videotape and, again, copies were made for
the sons and their new families.
Barthes' phenomenological study of photography, Camera Lucida,
culminates with a meditation on a photograph of the author's
mother as a child. For Barthes, this image distills the essence
of photographic reproduction, the certainty that the depicted
scene existed in the past, that it "has been." In this photograph,
he sees an image of his mother just as she was for him. He refuses
to reproduce this snapshot of his mother as a child for our
scrutiny, "I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph.
It exists only for
For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture" (Barthes
1981, 73). He knows that for the outside viewer this photograph
would have no meaning, no familiarity. We have no kinship with
the image of his mother. The photograph would be a mere curiosity,
another casual snapshot of an anonymous little girl. With the
passage of time, home movies become a tenuous link to the past,
often closely tied with childhood. Mekas' repeated references
to childhood in Diaries, Notes, and Sketches make these
associations explicit for the viewer. Many couples find the
birth of a child sufficient reason for the purchase of a still
camera, a movie camera, or, increasingly, a video camcorder.
The use of these recording devices decreases with the passage
of childhood. Fearing for the safety of our home movies, my
mother agreed with reluctance to lend me several 8mm reels for
a research project. Viewed as traces of a receding past and
imbued with nostalgia, home movies are typically regarded as
among the most valuable of family possessions (Chalfen 1987,
all cultural artifacts, the contexts of production, distribution,
and exhibition of home movies are integrally bound up with the
movies' meaning. Through examination of the aesthetics, content,
and circulation of home movies we learn of the assumptions and
goals of their users. With careful attention to these features,
we may consider home movies as documents of some of the leisure
activities of certain American families. By considering the
home mode of visual communication from the inside we may understand
the profound emotional investment these families have for their
own family photographs and home movies, an investment that puts
these artifacts among their most prized possessions. The possession
and dissemination of family photographs demonstrates the establishment
of a new form of kinship relations, where ties to others are
bound in albums of portrait photographs that fade with time,
revitalized only by the redemptive power of memory. Without
familiarity, we have no home, only movies, no family, only photographs.
Throughout Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, Mekas uses the
kinship associations of home movies to mark the consolidation
of the avant-garde film community.
Movies of the Avant-Garde
films share remarkable characteristics with ordinary home movies:
they take as their subject matter the everyday lives of his
family and friends, focusing extensively on those moments typically
celebrated by the home mode: childhood, travel, birthdays, weddings,
and parties. Paradise Not Yet Lost, the most domestic
of them, concentrates on Mekas' private experiences with his
wife Hollis and their child Oona, culminating with the celebration
of Oona's third birthday. Mekas'
shooting style, while a creative stylistic choice, incorporates
many of the signature elements of home movies: flash frames,
in-camera editing, rapid camera movements, abrupt changes in
time and place, variable exposure and focus, and jump cuts.
Memory, and the will to recover the past, permeates his films.
Like home movies, Mekas' films frequently rely on intertextual
and contextual knowledge on the part of the viewer; familiarity
with people and events depicted increases the viewer's
involvement. Walden, in particular, relies extensively
on the viewer's knowledge of the New York avant-garde community
of the 1950s and 1960s, while the Nicholas Ray sequence of Paradise
Not Yet Lost depends on knowledge of American film. Similarly,
in He Stands in a Desert, intertitles precisely designate
the actuality footage, "Marcel Hanoun's Wedding January 7, 1971,"
"Fluxus Hudson Trip July 1, 1971," "Jim McBride Leaves Town
July 10, 1972," and "Hollis Frampton Buried August 2, 1984 Buffalo,
examples indicate, to view a Mekas film is to participate symbolically
in the avant-garde film community, to become a member, to share
the struggles, to pay homage to the pioneers of film art. To
some extent, all art invites this community involvement. As
Patricia Erens notes in her ethnography of one family's home
movies, "For all members in attendance, the movies provided
a sense of solidarity and continuity, a renewed sense of 'family'
and an increased commitment to the continuation of the annual
get-togethers" (Erens 1986, 23). Mekas' films, however, make
this invitation explicit within the context of the art world.
The extensive list of avant-garde
and filmmakers who make appearances in Diaries, Notes, and
Sketches suggests the importance of this experience of community.
home movie aesthetic posits memory as the interpretive faculty
of his films. Since his camera is so restless and the montage
so rapid, the images that he records are not experienced in
the fullness of the present. Memory thus restores the possibility
of community and inscribes the individual in history, reforming
the ties that bind groups together. Reminiscences of a Journey
to Lithuania weds Mekas' documentary and avant-garde tendencies,
bridging the new worlds of the avant-garde film community and
the expatriate community in New York with the old world of Lithuania.
In Lost Lost Lost, Mekas speaks to his Lithuanian friends
depicted in the images, "I see you, I see you, I recognize your
faces, each one is separate in the crowd. [...] The only thing
that mattered to you was the independence of your country. All
all those talks, 'what to do, what will happen, how long, what
can we do?' Yes, I was there and I recorded it for others, for
the history, for those who do not know the pain of the exile."
Thus, while to the viewer these people may be strangers, we participate
in the filmmaker's recognition of them years later, and we recognize
ourselves as the others called upon to bear witness to their struggles.
uses the chance phrase, the image recorded as if by accident.
Fred Camper sees these same characteristics in home movies,
"Thus the home movie possesses a degree of randomness not present
in more polished forms. It is indeed the combination of individual
intentionality and technical lack of control that gives most
home movies their particular flavor" (Erens 1986, 11). Mekas
explores this collage technique most systematically in Walden
through a pastiche of events, public and private, taking place
in New York in the 1950s and 1960s: Hare Krishna celebrations,
snowball fights, readings of Beat poetry, John Lennon and Yoko
Ono's Christmas message, Velvet Underground's premiere at Andy
Warhol's Factory, phrases of Walt Whitman's poetry, meetings
of Film-Makers' Cooperative, anti-war protests, and P. Adams
Sitney's wedding. Like the pho-
Alfred Stieglitz, Mekas establishes a new iconography of the
city, using a small-format hand-held camera. A voice-over in
Lost Lost Lost -- "There is very little known about
this period of our protagonist's life. It's known that he was
very shy and very lonely during this period. He used to take
long, long walks. He felt very close to the park, to the streets,
to the city" -- glosses the images of Mekas combing the
streets of his new home, making it his own, while looking for
traces of the past and signs of a possible future.
direct voice-over address to the viewer contributes to his films'
radically personal tone, undermining in every way the "Voice
of God" ontology. In Walden, for example, he anticipates
the audience response: "And now, dear viewer, as you sit
and as you watch and as the life outside in the streets is still
rushing, maybe a little bit slower, but still rushing from inertia,
just watch these images. Nothing much happens. The images go,
no tragedy, no drama, no suspense, just images for myself, and
for a few others." This direct address displays the individuality
of the narrator and calls forth the individuality of the viewer.
Even more remarkably, in Lost Lost Lost, Mekas' voice-over
directly addresses the aesthetic assumptions of his friends
in the avant-garde film community, "I know I'm sentimental.
You would like these images to be more abstract. It's ok, call
me sentimental. You sit in your own homes but I speak with an
accent and you don't even know where I come from. These are
some images and some sounds recorded by someone in exile." The
previous example neatly illustrates Becker's analysis of the
role of audience expectations in art works, "Artists create
their work, at least in part, by anticipating how other people
will respond, emotionally and cognitively, to what they do.
That gives them the means with which to shape it further, by
catering to already existing dispositions in the audience, or
by trying to train the audience to something new" (Becker
1982, 200). Mekas challenges the
prevailing aesthetic of abstraction and formal experimentation
within the avant-garde community in favor of his own personal
the films chronicle his involvement in the world of avant-garde
film. One of the last sections of Lost Lost Lost records
the attempt to screen Ken Jacob's Blonde Cobra and Jack
Smith's Flaming Creatures at the 1963 Robert Flaherty
Film Seminar in Vermont. As Scott MacDonald notes, "Not allowed
into the seminar, they sleep outside in the cold night (a wry
reference to Flaherty's Nanook of the North) and the
next morning commemorate their rejection with some ritual filmmaking"
(MacDonald, 1988, 12). Characteristically, Mekas also reports
on this guerilla action in a September 12, 1963 column of his
"Movie Journal" in the Village
took Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra to the
seminar, two pieces of the impure, naughty, and 'uncinematic'
cinema that is being made now in New York" (Mekas 1972, 95).
Through these actions, Mekas makes explicit his own allegiance
to the avant-garde community.
World Institutions: Film Criticism
with Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, Mekas' writings have
been instrumental in the construction of an art world of avant-garde
film. In his first editorial for Film Culture, Mekas
outlined his project for the years to come, "Like all art, cinema
must strive towards the development of a culture of its own
that will heighten not only the creative refinement of the artist
but also--and pre-eminently--the receptive faculty of the public"
(Mekas 1955, 1). In "The Experimental Film in America," Mekas
again links the burgeoning avant-garde film community to the
cultivation of an audience: "Undoubtedly one of the most
important factors contributing to this change [in the growth
of the American experimental film] is the increase in film education.
The graduation of hundreds of students from University film
classes, the work of the University of Southern California,
The Museum of Modern Art Film Library, Hans Richter's Film Institute
at CCNY, Cinema 16, The Film Council of America and a steadily
growing film society movement were all responsible for bringing
good films closer and deeper into our communities" (Mekas
1955, 16). A fully developed art world needs an audience capable
of appreciating its products. In Beckers' words, "Knowing the
conventions of the form, serious audience members can collaborate
more fully with artists in the joint effort which produces the
work each time it is experienced" (Becker 1982, 48). Film
Culture demanded a sophisticated readership, with thoughtful
articles by directors Orson Welles, Erich von Stroheim, and
Hans Richter. These articles frequently derided the commercialism
of the Hollywood film industry. Auteurism, championed by Mekas'
friend and colleague Andrew Sarris in the pages of Film Culture,
rescued the films of certain studio directors from commercial
oblivion. A fifty-one page article published in 1963, "The American
Cinema," formed the basis of Sarris' re-evaluation of the classical
Hollywood cinema (Sarris 1963, 1). In a 1957 editorial, Mekas
bemoaned the state of film scholarship in America, "Recent visits
to New York publishing houses revealed that the possibility
of an audience for books on cinema is not even considered. Books
are published--sentimental memoirs, company chronicles or popular
they are not what our colleges, universities and serious film
students need" (Mekas 1957 3(2), 1). Mekas recognizes that an
art world of film, in addition to avenues of production, distribution,
and exhibition, needs a discourse of film criticism to validate
these works, to cultivate a more sophisticated audience, and
to provide methodologies of interpretation.
"Movie Journal" columns in the Village Voice, which began
in 1958, Mekas promoted the avant-garde cinema in a number of
different ways. He consistently validated film through references
to other art forms, as in the May 2, 1963 column, "These movies
are illuminating and opening up sensibilities and experiences
never before recorded in the American arts; a content which
Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Rimbaud gave to world literature
a century ago and which Burroughs gave to American literature
three years ago" (Mekas 1972, 85). He systematically criticized
the resistance of the established newspaper and magazine critics
to avant-garde film, writing in the 9 December 1965 column,
"These smart and literary critics are ignorant of the fact that
cinema, during the last five years (and through a series of
earlier avant-gardes), has matured to the level of the other
arts" (Mekas 1972, 218). He used his position at the Village
Voice to advertise screenings, as in this 13 June 1963 column,
"This Saturday at the Gramercy Arts Theatre (138 East 27th Street)
at 7, 9, and 11 p.m., a new film by Gregory Markopoulos, Twice
a Man, will have its first public screening. The showings
are a benefit for the completion of the sound track of the film"
(Mekas 1972, 86). Lost Lost Lost includes several shots
of this premiere, signaled by an intertitle, "Premiere of Twice
regularly issued manifestos, directly addressing various components
of the expanding art world, as in this January 23, 1969 column:
"From my discussions with other independent film-makers
the following few points have come out and I would suggest that
the university film festival organizers take these points seriously,
if they don't want to be boycotted" (Mekas 1972, 333).
He himself served on the juries of these festivals. He has been
a successful fundraiser, promoting film as an art to the financial
backers of the established art world and securing production
funds for fellow filmmakers. In the June 13, 1971 "Movie Journal"
column, in an interview with Harry Smith, Mekas stated, "I don't
talk about money, you know. Because I don't have any. But I'm
willing to hustle for people I believe in" (Mekas 1972, 420).
In Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, we see Mekas
in formal dress, his hair neatly combed, and the intertitle
reads, "Having Tea With Rich Ladies." As Calvin Tomkins makes
plain in his 1973 profile of Jonas Mekas for the New Yorker,
"All Pockets Open," Mekas was an important resource for avant-garde
filmmakers: "Whatever their feelings about the underground,
and filmmakers agree that its development and spectacular growth
since 1960 are due in large part to the efforts of Jonas Mekas.
Stan Brakhage, whom Mekas considers the most important filmmaker
in America, states flatly that without Mekas' help and encouragement
at least a third of his films would never have been made, and
many other filmmakers could say the same thing. 'Jonas has many
pockets,' Brakhage said recently, 'and all of them are open'"(Tomkins
Making of An Art World
has also been instrumental in the creation of exhibition and
distribution outlets for avant-garde film. The founding of
Anthology Film Archives in 1970 represented the final step
in the construction of the art world of avant-garde film.
"To persist, works of art must be stored so that they are
not physically destroyed. To persist in the life of an art
world, they must not only remain available by continuing to
exist, they must also be easily available to potential audiences"
(Becker 1982, 220). The manifesto of Anthology Film Archives
outlined the founders' desire to preserve and promote a limited
body of films, an act tantamount to the creation of a canon
by the founders: Mekas, Sitney, Ken Kelman, James Broughton,
and Peter Kubelka. While
this act of film criticism with important institutional ramifications
has been justifiably criticized by filmmakers and scholars,
it further consolidates the place of film as a fine art form
in the United States.
Worlds, Howard Becker offers the extreme example of a work
of art entirely produced by one person, "Imagine, as one extreme
case, a situation in which one person did everything: made everything,
invented everything, had all the ideas, performed or executed
the work, experienced and appreciated it, all without the assistance
or help of anyone else. We can hardly imagine such a thing,
because all the arts we know, like all the human activities
we know, involve the cooperation of others" (Becker 1982, 7).
Through a fictive situation, Becker makes his case for the networks
of cooperation characteristic of the art world. And yet, in
his example, we see many aspects of the avant-garde film world
of the 1940s and 1950s. Filmmakers lacked distributors, audiences,
and sources of financial support. Few universities offered courses
in the art of film. The discourse of film criticism did not
frame film primarily as an art form, as the projection of an
individual artistic genius. As late as 1968, Annette Michelson
complained, "Neither the sophistication which has characterized
the best literary criticism of our recent past
the refinement of our current art criticism have begun to inform
film criticism" (Michelson 1968, 67).
avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren were obliged to make
maverick performances to bring their works to completion. As
Sheldan Renan notes, "After making films, and being unable to
get satisfactory distribution or exhibition, [Deren] rented
the Provincetown Playhouse in New York's Greenwich Village,
and exhibited them herself. She also distributed her films from
her own home, publicized them with articles and lectures, and
set up the Creative Film Foundation to provide cash awards and
production money for experimental films" (Renan 1967, 212).
Mekas followed Deren's example. On 2 May 1963, he wrote, "Cinema
needs its own Armory Show" (Mekas 1972, 84). Like the photographer
Alfred Stieglitz, whose Gallery 291 supported the European modernists
exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show, Jonas Mekas presided over
the transition of film to a fine art form in the United States.
According to Becker, "In a brief time, then, Stieglitz
produced (on a small scale, to be sure) much of the institutional
paraphernalia which justified photography's claim to be an art:
a gallery in which work could be exhibited, a journal containing
fine reproductions and critical commentary which provided a
medium of communication and publicity, a group of mutually supportive
colleagues, and a subject matter and style departing definitively
from the imitations of painting then in favor" (Becker
1982, 341). Like Stieglitz, Mekas integrated cinema into the
context of the exhibition and criticism of the fine arts. He
helped to organize his fellow filmmakers into a coherent community.
He facilitated the distribution of their films. Through his
writings and lectures, he has worked to create a receptive audience
for film as an art form. In his own films, Mekas bears witness
to the artistic and political struggles engendered by the construction
of the art world of avant-garde film. In the community of filmmakers
who constitute the new art world, Mekas finds a shared language
and commitment, a new home that he celebrates in his films.
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