Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World

by Jeffrey Ruoff

All 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.
—Howard Becker, Art Worlds

The Art World of Avant-Garde Film

Jonas 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, and exhibition.

Significantly, 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). Covering his 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.

The 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 world.

The 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, Richard Foreman, Robert 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.

Home Movies

Although 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).

The anthropology of visual communication studies visual artifacts 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).

Anthropologists 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 spoken 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.

In the 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).

Family 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:

Despite 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)

Material 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 grown, with 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.

Recent 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.

In David 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 subjects themselves.

Recently, 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 Musello's 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.

In traditional 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.

Roland 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 me. 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, 75).

As with 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.

Home Movies of the Avant-Garde

Mekas' 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 emotional 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, NY."

As these 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 artists and filmmakers who make appearances in Diaries, Notes, and Sketches suggests the importance of this experience of community.

Mekas's 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 those meetings, 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.

Mekas 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 photographer 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.

Mekas's 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 documentary style.

Overall, 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 Voice: "We 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.

Art World Institutions: Film Criticism

Together 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 pictorializations—but 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.

In his "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 a Man."

Mekas 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, though, critics 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 1973, 32).

The Making of An Art World

Mekas 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.

In Art 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 nor the refinement of our current art criticism have begun to inform film criticism" (Michelson 1968, 67).

Earlier 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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This essay appears in the book "To Free the Cinema- Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground" Edited by David E. James, published by Princeton University Press.

Reproduction permitted by Jeffrey Ruoff