Jonas Mekas, a towering figure in New York’s avant-garde film scene and a pioneering force for film preservation, died today at age 96. His death was announced by Anthology Film Archives, the still-active archive and theater he cofounded in Manhattan’s East Village 48 years ago.
“Jonas passed away quietly and peacefully early this morning,” Anthology Film Archives wrote in a statement posted on Instagram today. “He was at home with family. He will be greatly missed but his light shines on.”
Director and friend Martin Scorsese said, in a lengthy statement released today (read it below), said, “Jonas Mekas did and meant so much to so many people in the world of cinema that you’d need a day and a night to just begin. He was a prophet. He was an impresario. He was a provocateur in the truest and most fundamental sense – he provoked people into new ways of thinking about what an image was, what a cut was, what a film was, what commitment was. Who was more committed than Jonas to the art of cinema? I wonder.”
For decades, Mekas was a true champion of bold filmmakers, from Jean Genet and Kenneth Anger to Greta Gerwig: Just over a year ago he told Deadline’s sister site IndieWire, “Nothing new that we have shown at Anthology is on the level of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, or Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. These are the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Both are minor films in a way, but they’re perfect for what the filmmakers want to do. They’re very well made, and acted.”
The Lithuanian-born Mekas was an early writer for the Village Voice who would go on to work with such scene-setters (and scene-stealers) as Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg and Salvador Dalí. A staunch and unwavering opponent of censorship, he was arrested twice in 1964 after screening Jack Smith’s sexually explicit (and gay themed) Flaming Creatures and Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour.
By then, Mekas’ contributions to New York’s underground cultural scene were already established. He was the cinematographer on Andy Warhol’s 1964 avant-garde landmark Empire, an eight-hour (and five minutes) black-and-white stationary take of the Empire State Building, and with his brother, Adolfas Mekas, had co-founded Film Culture magazine in 1954. His own film directing credits include 1962’s Guns of the Trees and ’64’s Venice Film Festival’s Grand Prix winner The Brig.
Among Mekas’ collaborations was the Lennon-Ono 1970 film Up Your Legs Forever (a 70-minute look at hundreds of naked legs) and footage of the couple’s infamous bed-ins for peace. Mekas also shot rare footage of the Velvet Underground performing in 1964.
As late as 2013, Mekas continued making films: Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man was his experimental documentary composed entirely of film clips omitted from his earlier films. Critic and film historian (and Mekas’ longtime friend) Amy Taubin called it “Mekas’s most essential film.”
But as much as any film, Mekas’ legacy is the Anthology Film Archives, the self-described “international center for the preservation, study, and exhibition of film and video, with a particular focus on independent, experimental, and avant-garde cinema.” Co-founded by Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka and Stan Brakhage in 1970, the center today screens more than 900 programs annually, and has, by its own count, preserved about 900 film works to date, averaging 25 film preservations per year.
Here is Scorsese’s statement about Mekas and his legacy:
Jonas Mekas did and meant so much to so many people in the world of cinema that you’d need a day and a night to just begin. He was a prophet. He was an impresario. He was a provocateur in the truest and most fundamental sense – he provoked people into new ways of thinking about what an image was, what a cut was, what a film was, what commitment was. Who was more committed than Jonas to the art of cinema? I wonder. He certainly wasn’t in it for the money. Everything he did – Film Culture, Anthology Film Archives, his writing, his programming, his filmmaking – was about moving ahead, rejecting everything that was stolid and entrenched and standing up for everything that was vital and alive, from John Cassavetes to Shirley Clarke to Kenneth Anger to Stan Brakhage to Michael Snow and all the way to Ladybird. For him, there were no barriers between types of cinema. And everything that he championed and practiced in his own remarkable work, which I keep going back to, has actually come to pass – that is, the blending of narrative and non-narrative and fiction and documentary into one. Now, it’s the way that movies are made.
I have so many wonderful memories of Jonas, memories of moments when I could feel the ground shifting under my feet. There was the screening of Scorpio Rising that he organized downtown, where the entire New York underground community was present. There was the time he and his brother Adolfas came to my hotel after Mean Streets had played at the New York Film Festival with peaches and champagne, to welcome me to the family of cinema. And, one of the last times I saw him, when he passionately disagreed with the idea that the new, inexpensive equipment had unleashed chaos and marked the death of cinema. “It’s not the death of cinema, it’s the birth of cinema! With all of these new tools, imagine the freedom for young people to experiment – there could be Mozarts out there!!”
Jonas was always joyful, always hopeful. Here is someone who really and truly and wholeheartedly devoted himself to what he loved. I think we’re only beginning to understand just how much he gave us.