January 23, 2019
The Lithuanian director escaped the Nazis and moved to New York, where he became a totemic figure for artists including Andy Warhol and John Lennon
Jonas Mekas, titan of underground filmmaking, dies aged 96
The film-maker Jonas Mekas, widely regarded as the godfather of underground cinema, has died aged 96. Born in Lithuania, he fled the Nazis and went on to work with the cream of the New York 1960s avant garde, including Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Mekas’s death was announced on his Facebook page, which said: “Jonas passed away quietly and peacefully early this morning. He was at home with family. He will be greatly missed but his light shines on.”
The director made some 60 films, usually with an impressionistic, diaristic style in which flickering images revealed quiet, intimate moments rather than a grand narrative. He told the Observer’s Sean O’Hagan in 2012: “It is important to know that what I do is not artistic. I am just a film-maker. I live how I live and I do what I do, which is recording moments of my life as I move ahead. And I do it because I am compelled to. Necessity, not artistry, is the true line you can follow in my life and work.”
His loft became a nexus for artistic experimentation. The Velvet Underground rehearsed there; Mekas is said to have introduced their frontman Lou Reed to Warhol, who produced their debut album. Salvador Dalí also visited the loft, curious about New York’s underground scene, which resulted in a Mekas film called Salvador Dalí at Work, which featured the artist covering the model Veruschka in shaving cream.
His work influenced generations of film-makers from John Waters and Jim Jarmusch to Harmony Korine and beyond. Korine called Mekas “a true hero of the underground and a radical of the first degree … he sees things that others can’t… his cinema is a cinema of memory and soul and air and fire. There is no one else like him. His films will live for ever.”
A 1965 film about a military prison, The Brig, won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival, while Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, from 1972, was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Mekas co-founded Anthology Film Archives, which continues to screen experimental films in New York’s East Village, and has the largest library of such material in the world.
The director’s final film was released in 2012 and titled Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man. An anthology of Mekas’s columns in the Village Voice, Conversations With Filmmakers, was published in 2018. Mekas engaged in a tour to promote the book including a talk at London’s Serpentine gallery, where in 2012 had enjoyed a retrospective of his work. The show was accompanied by a season of his films at the BFI, and another at the Pompidou in Paris.
Mekas, who was also a poet who published 20 books, was born in Semeniškiai, Lithuania, in 1922. Leaving the country in 1944, Mekas’s train was stopped by the Nazis and he and his brother Adolfas were taken to a labour camp, escaping after eight months to hide on a farm in the Danish border. After the war they lived in displaced persons’ camps, then Mekas studied philosophy at Mainz university. In 1949 the brothers were taken by the UN Refugee Organisation to New York.
Mekas scraped together the money to buy a Bolex camera with which he documented his new life, and rapidly became involved in the city’s avant garde scene. In 1954 the brothers founded Film Culture magazine; four years after that, he became New York paper the Village Voice’s first film critic. By the 60s Mekas was showing experimental films in his loft in Manhattan – one 1964 screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures had him arrested for obscenity – to a crowd including Andy Warhol, Robert Frank and Yoko Ono. Mekas subsequently worked on Empire, Warhol’s eight-hour film of the Empire State Building.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mekas also struck up a friendship with Jackie Kennedy, tutoring her children in filmmaking. He was also the first person John Lennon and Yoko Ono rang when the pair moved to New York in 1976. He told O’Hagan: “It was late at night and I was in bed, when I got a call from Yoko, who had just landed with John at JFK. She said, ‘Jonas, John wants an espresso. Do you know a good place that is still open in New York?’ It was a little crazy, but that was how it was back then.”
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