Jonas Mekas

Following the traumatic experiences of internment in concentration camps during World War II, Jonas Mekas, together with his brother Adolfas, decided to leave for the United States. They arrived in New York as political refugees. As a poet, writing in his native Lithuanian language during the fifties, he became well-known and was awarded various prizes for his works.
Parallel to his writing he became interested in experimental cinema, leading the organization of film screenings and festivals. He also developed an interest in writing and shooting his own films. He quickly distinguished himself as the most important reference point for the American underground film scene by founding the Filmmakers’ Cooperative. In some essays, published between 1955 and 1962 in Film Culture, a review created by Mekas, he faced the question of the relationship between criticism and new American cinema. He announced the birth of a new cinematic form, free from economic or stylistic limitations, ready to challenge the notion of the new “modern man.” This new form had to establish itself beyond the numerous existing genres, from realistic and political films to poetic cinema. Within New American Cinema, Mekas’ work can be recognized above all by the passion and dedication that led him to become a public figure.
His film production is distinguished by a gradual interest in first-hand experience, and in this sense, he uses cinema to document everyday situations. After a number of years working with narrative structures and mise en scène, in the late sixties he began to elaborate the considerable quantity of film material accumulated since 1949. This resulted in film-diaries, works that grouped the various material in compositions of a broader temporal perspective.
Most of his works juxtapose independent edits, filmed with different speeds using the single frame technique, which is based on the recording of an image at one photogram per second rather than the usual twenty-four. Besides distancing the spectator from the image, this technique creates color and focus distortions, double exposure, and continuous movement of the image. The editing was mostly carried out while shooting, with the accumulation of sequence upon sequence.
Mekas’ film-diaries can be read as scattered pages of a single story: through the memories of forty years in the life of an artist who, through the art of filming, created a better life for himself. Scenes of daily life, portraits of acquaintances, family members, friends, colleagues, private moments, and public scenes compose an extraordinary body of work that assembles decades of American avant-garde. [F.B.]

List of Works

Walden – Diaries, Notes and Sketches, filmed between 1962 and 1968, edited in 1972
transferred from Super 8 and 16 mm film, black and white, color, 180 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Lost, Lost, Lost – Diaries, Notes and Sketches, filmed between 1949 and 1963, edited in 1976
transferred from Super 8 and 16 mm film, black and white, color, 180 min.
with Jonas Mekas, Adolfas Mekas, Ken and Flo Jacobs, P. Adams Sitney, Gregory Markopoulos, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’ Hara, LeRoi Jones, Robert Frank, Julian Beck, Judith Malina, Salvador Dalí, Tiny Tim, Ed Emshwiller, Storm de Hirsch, Barbara Rubin, Andy Warhol, Peter Bogdanovich, Shirley Clarke, and Taylor Mead.
After Walden, which represents an authentic letter written from exile, full of old and new memories and the first film to be edited, Lost, Lost, Lost is instead a diary of transition in which the idea of loss prevails. It begins with the memories of the most desperate period immediately following Mekas’ move to America. The work describes the artist’s solitude and concludes when Mekas is finally reconciled with his past, ready for a new beginning.

Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol, filmed between 1965 and 1982, edited in 1991
transferred from 16 mm film, black and white, color, sound, 38 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Distributed in the nineties, the work contains footage previously released in other film-diaries. The work gives a portrait of the entire cultural élite that formed Andy Warhol’s circle.
Using the single frame technique, the editing consists of explicative titles, whereas the soundtrack uses music of the period, including live recordings of the Velvet Underground, together with live-recorded voices.

Three Friends / Trois Amis
a box containing two videos transferred from 16 mm film and a book
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The volume entitled Fluxfriends, which is included with the videos, offers a comprehensive idea of the Fluxus years, focusing on the friendship of four of its protagonists: George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Jonas Mekas. It is presented as an “editing book,” with reference to the film technique, and is made up of archive material, interviews, texts, and excerpts from personal diaries.
Zefiro torna (Or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas), 1992
transferred from 16 mm film, black and white, color, sound, 34 min.
Zefiro torna contains film footage shot between 1952 and 1978. It begins with brief and rapid images in black and white of Maciunas and his family together with Mekas, accompanied by music from Zefiro torna by Monteverdi in the background (the composer Maciunas liked most). When the music ends, the melancholic voice of Mekas reading passages describing the personality of George Maciunas is heard. At the same time, announced by a title, footage of the artist is shown in various public situations, including Fluxus exhibitions, parties, gatherings, and meetings up until the day of his marriage. The second part of the film assembles more personal and private sequences of Maciunas’ life: a party, his marriage with Oona, their wedding reception, hospital scenes, his death, his funeral, and his cremation.

Happy Birthday to John, 1995
transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, 18 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
On October 9, 1972 friends of Yoko Ono and John Lennon—including Ringo Starr and Allen Ginsberg—came together to celebrate Lennon’s birthday. This video documents that event, including the improvised songs performed for the occasion. The subsequent images document the party for John and Yoko organized by their agent Klein on June 12, 1971 and the concert held at Madison Square Garden in August 1972. The film ends with images recorded on December 8, 1980, the day Lennon was killed.