Review: Jonas Mekas
DOX pays homage to a pioneer of experimental film
Posted: March 20, 2013
The exhibition of Jonas Mekas includes his 2007 collection of short films titled 365 Day Project.
For his 90th birthday, the pioneering experimental filmmaker, critic, editor and poet Jonas Mekas is being fêted around the world, from his adopted home of New York City to London, Paris and Prague, where the DOX Center for Contemporary Art is holding the first survey of his life and work in this country.
Jaroslav Anděl - DOX's artistic director and the curator of this exhibition - first met Mekas in 1981, when he was living in New York, and went to visit him at the Anthology Film Archives, which Mekas co-founded and still heads as its artistic director. The legendary film museum, archive and cinema complex in New York City's East Village has been the nucleus of experimental, independent and avant-garde film for almost half a century.
Mekas pioneered the diary form. His films are alternatively personal and anthropological. Their subject matter is simply the reality he finds around him. From his many decades, the DOX exhibition has selected newer works, which are particularly notable for experimenting with contemporary methods of delivering films to the public. Not content to stagnate in one media or in one century, Mekas made a remarkable leap from Super 8 to digital video, from the 20th to the 21st century.
At DOX, viewers can watch excerpts from the 365 Day Project, for which Mekas shot one short film every day of the calendar year 2007 and posted it on the Internet. The interactive version here lets viewers access additional video on their mobile phones if are equipped with a QR reader. He first reached out across the Internet a year earlier with The First 40 (2006), a compilation of segments from his earlier films envisioned specifically for online viewing.
In updating his filmmaking and distribution methods, Mekas was looking for ways to give new audiences access to his earlier films, demonstrating the director's lifelong propensity to explore new frontiers.
Mekas was born in 1922 in the Lithuanian farming village of Semeniškiai. During World War II, Mekas and his younger brother, Adolfas, fled their country but were caught by the Nazis and put in a forced-labor camp in Germany. After the war, he studied philosophy at the University of Mainz, and he and Adolfas were brought to New York by the UN Refugee Organization, where he bought his first camera two weeks after their arrival in 1949.
A writer before he took up film, Mekas has continued to publish books of poetry and prose throughout his life. In New York, he soon connected with American avant-garde circles and established himself as an organizer, critic and publisher. In 1954, he and his brother began publishing Film Culture, which became a highly influential periodical, and later that decade he started writing the column "Movie Journal" for The Village Voice.
Chosen by Mekas, the subtitle for the exhibition - "… As I Am Moving Ahead … Glimpses of the Past Linger …" - emphasizes his poetic approach, his involvement with time and personal experience. The conceptual arrangement of the exhibition plays with this by allowing a viewer to either move from the present toward the past or the past toward the present, and the subtitle is applicable in whichever direction the spectator chooses.
It is significant that Mekas did not use video until 1989, and his first foray into this new medium was to capture footage from a television screen charting the separation of his native land from the Soviet Union, which he compiled in his film Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR, shot between 1989 and 1992 but not edited and released until 2008.
Although this survey at DOX displays only a small sample of his six decades of work - and even the many hours' worth of film available here are beyond the time constraints of most visitors, so viewers will likely only see a small sample of that sample - the exhibition, together with a series of screenings of features, is a befitting introduction to the life and work of Mekas, with glimpses of the past and still looking forward, to paraphrase the exhibition's subtitle, as he enters his 10th decade of life.
As Mekas wrote in 1996 in his "Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto": "In the times of bigness, spectaculars, one hundred million movie productions, I want to speak for the small, invisible acts of the human spirit … . " His life's work is a celebration of the small forms of cinema - the 8 mm songs, as he called them in the manifesto.
By showing his newer digital work envisioned for Internet audiences, the exhibition at DOX is rightly emphasizing the facility of a true pioneer like Mekas to keep moving forward with the times.
One sentence in his manifesto stands out as capturing his spirit: "I am standing in the middle of the information highway and laughing."
During the remainder of the exhibition, the following films will be screened: March 25 at 6 p.m.: As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000; 285 min.); April 4 at 8:30 p.m: Lost, Lost, Lost (1976; 178 min.); April 17 at 6 p.m.: Sleepless Night Stories (2011; 114 min.).
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at