BooksMay 31, 2016

“I am a raving maniac of the cinema”: the greatest hits of film critic Jonas Mekas


Philip Matthews reviews Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971 by Jonas Mekas

Here is an eyewitness account of something almost happening. The year is 1965.

“Nothing much really happens in the film, if we want action. Miss Sedgwick goes about her make-up business, she listens to rock ‘n’ roll music; she answers a telephone call which disturbs her; she dresses up; she keeps up a continuous conversation with a man outside of the frame; she strolls around in her room. That’s it, more or less. But you have to see it – and it was a privilege of those thirty or forty people who stayed at the City Hall Cinema last Monday, after most of the audience walked out on Andy Warhol, expecting another Empire – it was the privilege of those few to see, with amazement, how beautiful the film was, and how much could be read into this unbelievably simple film – how rich it really is.”

The eyewitness was Jonas Mekas, writing in his Movie Journal column in the Village Voice, published on April 29, 1965, under the heading “Andy Warhol and Truth”. Miss Sedgwick is the tragic Warhol starlet (heiress, drug addict, subject of Bob Dylan put-downs) Edie Sedgwick, and if you want to know more about her, don’t watch a biopic called Factory Girl in which Hayden Christensen, of Star Wars infamy, plays a version of Dylan. Back in 1965, before it all went wrong, Sedgwick had a “rich, complex and very open personality”, as Mekas writes, and she was playing the title role in an experimental film that Warhol named for her. It was called Poor Little Rich Girl.

Edie Sedgwick

That column on Warhol and his truth appears with hundreds of others in Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971, first published in 1972, out of print and sought after for years and now reprinted by Columbia University Press. Mekas was a rare type of critic, because he was also a participant, an advocate – he was a film-maker who co-founded the journal Film Culture in 1955 – who waged a highly entertaining war against the mainstream critics, especially a man named Bosley Crowther who reviewed for the New York Times for 27 long years. One or two shots are fired at Pauline Kael, who was just about to take up her unassailable position at the New Yorker. These critical wars – the chief one was always over auteur theory – were tribal and personal as much as they were ideological.

But the other way in which Mekas was a rare type of critic is that he got the flavour of the place and times, New York in the 1960s, into the columns. Notice how he shifts attention in the excerpt above from the screen to the 30 or 40 people watching and their lowered expectations, their dread of getting another Empire (Empire was notoriously an eight-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building; Mekas acclaimed it as “the Birth of a Nation of the New Bag Cinema”). The coverage becomes inseparable from the context – you don’t go to the republished Movie Journal for a Leonard Maltin-style video guide when you’re looking for something to watch; you go to it for a record of how the 1960s felt. Mekas paid attention to audience reaction – how many people started and how many stayed, whether Crowther and the others from the big papers even bothered showing up – with that vivid sensation of something newer and better arriving every week, a sensation that began to taper off after the middle of the decade. The feel for the times is not just found at the experimental end of town either: there is a lovely short bit about old, lonely men watching westerns in cinemas on 42nd Street. “They sit there, in the midst of all that poetry sweeping grandly across the screen, dreaming away.”

Legend has it that Mekas walked into the Village Voice office in 1958 and demanded to know why the paper had no movie column. Why don’t you write one, then, said founding editor Jerry Tallmer. It was that simple. Mekas put Andrew Sarris, his Film Culture co-editor, onto the commercial films and set about covering the experimental or underground films himself. He started with a sort of manifesto, adapting Rimbaud, calling for “a complete derangement of the official cinematic senses”. The films needed to be less perfect but more free, he said. His war on the mainstream had started. You can argue that Mekas is one of those who helped to invent the 1960s.

This was not to be a straight-forward transplant of the French New Wave to the US, either, despite the historical parallels between Film Culture in New York and Cahiers Du Cinema in Paris. Mekas was calling for something less intellectual and more emotional – the word “poetic” is used again and again – that would be, in the best senses of the word, American. He had been a published poet back in Lithuania, and as a poet and a champion of the experimental, he argued against reason, rationality and over-thinking, preferring to trust the intuitive and fanatical, “the madman’s mind, the Dionysus mind”. It was about film mysticism, a pure experience.

These are very 60s thoughts. Even Jean-Luc Godard, whom Mekas liked, was guilty of thinking too much and planning too much. Mekas preferred the poetic irrationalities of Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger or Maya Deren or Jack Smith. Smith’s 60s outrage Flaming Creatures becomes the central film of Movie Journal, partly because it caused a Lenny Bruce-style censorship drama as well as being “a luxurious outpouring of imagination, of imagery, of poetry, of movie artistry”. Mekas predicted that it would be called “pornographic, degenerate, homosexual, trite, disgusting, etc”. Of course it is, he wrote: “It is all that, and it is so much more than that.” Flaming Creatures isn’t the only banned film here. Mekas went to jail for screening a Jean Genet film. Anger’s Scorpio Rising, “a brilliant movie by a brilliantly obsessed film-maker”, had its own censorship problems.

Kenneth Agner’s Scorpio Rising

The war with the film mainstream was a war over both style and content, a war over what could be depicted as well as how it could be depicted. In a column about what were quaintly called “beaver movies”, Mekas wrote that Warhol’s Blue Movie had been seized by the police. If the perverts were on one side and the squares were on the other, then he stood with the perverts, “For I begin to hear voices shouting: Enough of the pervert art, all this homosexual, lesbian, transvestite, masochist, sadist art. Oh, where is the decent, healthy, normal American art?” But when some Time magazine reporters working on a story about the new degenerate pornography asked Mekas to screen Flaming Creatures and Scorpio Rising for them, they were disappointed. These were not dirty movies or blue movies. The arguments are hard to fully comprehend 50 years later, after feminism and related thinking about nastier, misogynistic forms of pornography – back then, the debate was simply between the artistic freedom to show whatever you want and someone else’s conservative urge to suppress it. If the films were weapons in a war against conformism, to be sought out in secret, does that still apply when you can see them all on YouTube?

Over the course of the 1960s that Mekas covers, experimental and poetic films moved further and further from the noisy, democratic, street-level world of cinema into a more rarefied art space, where they have been coded and curated ever since by academics and art writers, even as some of their stylistic features were absorbed into narrative films. They increasingly became art gallery experiences. Even Mekas wonders if a work like Tony Conrad’s The Flicker can really be called a movie at all. It became “art” and lost its energy but the underground reverberated for a while longer. I encountered films by Anger, Deren and the Kuchar brothers as old prints screened by the Wellington Film Society in about 1990. There were probably notes by Jonas Mekas in the programme. Warhol, Yoko Ono and maybe Harry Smith are remembered now for things other than their films. People still know about Stan Brakhage but names like Marie Menken, Robert Frank, Gregory Markopoulous, Peter Goldman and Ron Rice? They have mostly disappeared from history. Of course we would know even less about them without Mekas’ tireless advocacy.

Advocacy? That is too mild a word. Maybe evangelism is better. Mekas believed that the critic should be an active promoter of the good stuff and why bother at all with the mediocre? “I am a raving maniac of the cinema,” he told Village Voice readers in 1963, and he did become more maniacal and doctrinaire over the course of the 1960s, as the rhetoric on all sides heated up. By 1968, he was using his column to circulate manifestos on behalf of those who wanted to shut down the New York Film Festival because it maintained the false consciousness of bourgeois culture and promoted “a phony radical’s cinema”. Again those are such 60s thoughts. That was also the culmination of a long-running campaign against Amos Vogel, founding programmer of the festival and author of the equally legendary book Film as a Subversive Art, but it seems fairly petty now. Those huge ideological schisms look like tiny differences 50 years later.

Jonas Mekas in Burger King, where his latest exhibition "The Internet Saga" was held, 2015  (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images for Zuecca Project Space)
Jonas Mekas in Burger King, where his latest exhibition “The Internet Saga” was held, 2015 (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi with the support of Agnès b. endowment fund)

His guerrilla war against the official critics is much more enjoyable. He gets sniffy about people responding to the underground techniques in A Hard Day’s Night when they haven’t bothered with true underground films. The critics are “hopeless”, almost evil. They are deaf, dumb and blind. They are full of vanity and ignorance. They should have bricks thrown at them. This stuff does start to get a bit cranky. One column is an open letter to the New York daily movie critics: “Why don’t you admit that you are washed out, that you can’t cope with modern cinema – why don’t you pack up and go home?” When he is less angry, he simply notices that they are getting old, “and it is very normal for old or aging men to prefer quiet, comfortable, familiar cinema”. Mekas’ writing had an urgency and idiosyncrasy that anticipated online reviewers – it helps that the columns and excerpts of columns as reprinted are short and appear beneath the date of publication, and that he liked to update his readers on his causes and campaigns. Maybe Jonas Mekas was the original film blogger.

But some differences in position have been exaggerated over time. In his introduction to this new edition, editor Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker positions Mekas as the opposite of Pauline Kael, who reportedly hated poetic cinema. But despite his avowed opposition to narrative films, Mekas could see things Kael’s way. Some of the most interesting moments in Movie Journal come when Mekas stepped out of the experimental margins and joined the masses to watch something commercial. He praised Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando and John Ford and Howard Hawks in language that could as easily have come from Kael.

Perhaps he just had wider taste or a more open mind. Mekas was shocked to learn that he was the only critic backing Godard when the others, even Andrew Sarris, thought Alphaville was a wrong turn, and he followed Antonioni all the way to Zabriskie Point, which he reviewed twice. History shows he was right about both films. He dug everything Dreyer and Bresson did. He wrote a fantastic review of Orson Welles’ often-overlooked film of The Trial. Now I’m sounding a bit like Mekas – each amazing thing is better than the last. Unfortunately the book ends before Mekas can report on two of the 1970s’ most exciting developments, midnight movies and films from the so-called New Hollywood. What would he have made of Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead from the first movement or Mean Streets from the second? He would have noticed how influences from Anger, Deren and Jack Smith had spread and figured he might have had something to do with it.

But you don’t need to use the past tense with Mekas. Still alive and now 93, he even wrote a short but heartfelt comment after the recent death of Tony Conrad. As Movie Journal shows, he was a marvellous obituary writer, because he knew everyone and was open to what they did. He was a generous figure. And as well as being a hell of a writer, he had integrity, even when there was a personal cost. But you don’t have to tell Mekas he got it right, because he knows. “Here I am, fifty years later, rereading my columns,” he writes in the afterword. “And, I am very happy to tell you, dear reader, that I find that what I write is still very good. I am almost amazed how good I was and, also, how right I was.” Or as he says elsewhere in the book, there are no regrets and no corrections.


Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971 (Columbia University Press, $61.74) by Jonas Mekas

To purchase a copy with a 20% discount, click here and use Foot1620 at the Footprint Books website checkout.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox