Jonas Mekas was born in a small village of Semeniskiai, Lithuania, in 1922. In 1944 he and his brother Adolfas Mekas were captured by the Nazis and taken to the labor camp on Elmshorn, Germany. Once the war was over, he pursued a degree in philosophy at the University of Mainz.
In the late 1940s, the UN refugee organization relocated both the brothers to Brooklyn, New York City. Roughly two months after arriving in New York, Jonas Mekas borrowed money to buy himself a Bolex camera and recorded his life’s moments.
Jonas Mekas Biography
Mekas developed a keen interest in the American Avant-Garde film movement. In 1954 he started Film Culture Magazine with his brother. It became the most notable and important film publication in the U.S.
In the late 1950s, he started his Movie Journal column in the Village Voice, and in 1962 he founded the Film-Maker’s cooperative. In 1964 he created Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which then turned into Anthology Film Archives. It is one of the biggest and major repositories of avant-garde cinema, and it is a massive screening venue.
His work and contribution to the cinematic world dubbed him the name ‘The Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema.’ Besides, film making he was also an avid poet and would sometimes paint and draw.
Types of Work
Below are the most legendary avant-garde films made by Jonas Mekas (2000)
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally, I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty
This movie is an experimental documentary type of film which is over 4 hours long. It is considered the best avant-garde film in the world of cinema. This movie shows us a glimpse of Jonas Mekas’ life and features his private home film footage of over 30 years.
Lost, Lost, Lost (1976)
This film is a documentary that depicts the poetic side of him. It shows the life experiences of immigrants in New York and the immigrant community. It was a never-before-done type of film because much of what went in the life of immigrants of foreigners was not documented in those times.
Another epic film directed by Jonas Mekas is Walden. This film is a concoction of diaries, sketches, and notes by Jonas. It shows the poetic side of him, which is depicted in mostly all his films. It is a great way to start the journey of avant-garde cinematic experience.
Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man(2012)
This is one of the most recent works of Jonas Mekas. The piano improvisations in the film take it to another level, and it is evident that even after all these years, he can make a brilliant cinema.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972)
This is a beautiful film that documents his memories of his journey to his home country, Lithuania. It is divided into three segments and shows his great camera skills and poetic editing.
This list perhaps doesn’t do justice to his cinematic accomplishments. He has worked with some of the great filmmakers and artists.
Jonas Mekas’ films both in style and subject matter call attention to the composition of the avant-garde community. His work shows that there is a cooperation of the entire art world when it comes to individual projects.
His movie Walden brought the New York art and avant-garde film community together and shone a light on his work. Mekas states that his shooting style is based on his daily interaction in the community.
He said, “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. I mean, I didn’t have any long stretches of time to prepare a script, then take months to shoot, then to edit, etc.’
He also talks about the spontaneity of his film making “All my personal work became like notes. If I can film one minute- I film one minute. If I can film ten seconds- I film ten seconds’.
His epic autobiography Walden covered his experience in American from 1949 to 1984. It is a classic autobiography that perfectly depicts an artist in exile, creating a new home.
Legacy of Jonas Mekas
He has published over 20 books of poetry and prose. They have been translated into multiple languages. His poetry in the Lithuanian language is part of the country’s classic literature, and his films are shown in major museums worldwide.
He is credited for making films with a diary-style or diaristic cinema. He was an academic and taught at the International Center for Photography, New York University, MIT, and the New School for Social Research.
Jonas Mekas received a Grand Prize Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 for his film The Brig. He got many awards for his films including Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (1992) of Fluxus fame, Sleepless Nights Stories (2011), Letter from Greenpoint (2005), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Walden (1969), Lost LostLost (1975), Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man(2012) among others.
Mekas had his work exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery, the ModernaMuseet (Stockholm), the Centre Pompidou, Muséed’Artmoderne de la Ville de Paris, ), PS1 Contemporary Art Center MoMA, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and the Venice Biennale, and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Jonas Mekas married Hollis Melton in 1974, and they had two children Sebastion and Oona. He worked and lived in New York City until his demise on 23rd January 2019 at the age of 96