08. Craig Hubert On Jonas Mekas

In the experimental film community, you’d be hard pressed to find another figure — alive or dead — as revered as Jonas Mekas. His brilliant work as a filmmaker and oft-maligned work as a critic have been overshadowed in the cinematic history books by his better-known efforts as a distributor and exhibitor, championing the works of artists such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith and many others. Referred to as the patron saint of the New American Cinema, a blanket term he coined in a 1962 Film Culture article, his reputation is aligned more closely with the work of his contemporaries, the spirit and drive to preserve work that was not yet seen as valuable to a larger art world. The stories about Mekas circulating among cineastes have become legendary: an arrest in 1964 for showing the “lewd and obscene” Flaming Creatures; smuggling a copy of Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’amour on a plane from Paris to New York; introducing Warhol to experimental filmmaking.

As a displaced person, leaving his native Lithuania in 1949 with his brother Adolfas after a period in a forced labor camp during the war, his work in all areas bears the distinct mark of loneliness and longing, for people and place; in short, somewhere to call home. An artist lost, traversing new lands, building a new life. The distinctness of this point of view comes from the endless search his work provides. A gifted poet in his homeland before he picked up a Bolex, his films achieve a poetic sensibility often attempted but rarely achieved by other filmmakers of the period. Extremely personal in nature, his work is often called “diaristic” — comprised of short bursts and sketches, scribbles in a celluloid notebook — though the term seems reductive. His elegiac visual combinations, fragments of memories from a life spent as an outsider looking in through a viewfinder, present a tension of visceral immediacy and careful construction. Mekas’s films are built around his life, and his life is built around his films.

Two new works, currently exhibited at the James Fuentes gallery, are smaller in scope than his usual subjects but no less credible for the distinct relationship between life and work. Orchard St. (2010) is bristling with energy, a personal love letter to street revelry. Crowds of people fill the frame, constantly moving, bumping into each other, vendors selling goods to passersby. Mekas clearly embraces this mass of moving bodies, his camera moving in and out of the crowds winding down the street. Urban alienation doesn’t seem to be the point here. If anything, the film is a unique portrait of how people used to gather in groups in our not so distant past. In the eyes of Mekas, a street fair becomes a family gathering.

In World Trade Center (2010), Mekas pieces together a history of looking at the famous New York City landmark. With an additional emotional weight due to the tragedy in 2001, we move from film to video and back, from the water to land, below and up above. Mekas isn’t just interested in a personal history of looking — his own shifting perspective over time — but that of others as well. He captures the innocent, unknowing gaze of children and cats, and the indifferent views of the rich, who, it is clear, barely notice what is in front of them. Mekas frequently establishes these biased dichotomies, favoring the mesmeric gaze of the child, foreigner and, in some ways, the artist. Through his automatic camera, always strapped to his hip, Mekas holds fast to that special way of looking at the world.

The presentation of these new works at James Fuentes presents an issue, one which needs to be dealt with as experimental film becomes more common in galleries and systems, and older filmmakers are rediscovered by an art world they once rejected. It’s no question that to watch a film by Jonas Mekas is an intimate experience: He is often credited with forming the basis of what is loosely known as the ‘diary film.’ Does this type of work lose some of its power in a gallery setting, where most viewers won’t sit and watch the whole film? (In the hermetically sealed world of the dark theater, the original presentation of this work, you are forced to enter an endurance test with the filmmaker, Mekas’s films clocking in at approximately three hours.) At the same time, we must ask if the work gains something from this new type of presentation. Is its true value gleaned from glimpses, revisited for a few minutes at a time to catch bits and pieces?

As more experimental film, past, present and future, emerges out of the dingy movie houses into alternative spaces, galleries and museums, these are questions that need to be examined. As the art world opens up, and the experimental film world allows itself the freedom to move and expand, these questions will only become more convoluted and specific. And more interesting.

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