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January 20 – February 18, 2017

Scenes from the Life of a Happy Man... The Films of Jonas Mekas

"I want to celebrate the small forms of cinema, the lyrical forms, the poem, the watercolour, etude, sketch, postcard, arabesque, bagatelle and little 8mm songs. I am standing in the middle of the information highway and laughing, because a butterfly on a little flower somewhere just fluttered its wings, and I know that the whole course of history will drastically change because of that flutter. A super-8 camera just made a little soft buzz somewhere, on New York's Lower East Side, and the world will never be the same." – Jonas Mekas

"Jonas is a true hero of the underground and a radical of the first degree – a shape-shifter and time-fucker… 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 forever." Harmony Korine

Filmmaker, writer, poet, artist and "godfather” of American avant-garde cinema—or “New American Cinema” as he coined it in the late 1950s—Jonas Mekas (b. 1922) is an impressive force within film. After six decades of filmmaking and writing poetry, Mekas remains devoted to creating new moving-image work amid many current book publications. He is the living embodiment of self-determination, perseverance and dedication. While cofounding Film Culture magazine with his brother Adolfas in 1958, he also wrote the influential “Movie Journal” column in The Village Voice (1958-77) and, with Shirley Clarke, started the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which he helped transform into Anthology Film Archives in the early 70s.

He was born on Christmas Eve in the small farming village of Semeniškiai, Lithuania, a place, Mekas says, "where nothing happened, then suddenly everything happened." Namely, the Soviet Army moved into Lithuania in 1941, and Mekas joined the resistance, later fleeing the country with his brother. Arrested en route, they were taken to a Nazi labor camp near Hamburg and then were transferred to various displaced persons' camps for another two years after the war ended. Mekas remained in Germany until 1948, studying philosophy and other subjects in Mainz before leaving for New York with Adolfas in 1949.

Two weeks after his arrival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mekas borrowed the money to buy his first Bolex 16mm camera and began to film moments of his life. Shortly after discovering avant-garde film at venues such as Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, Mekas began curating his own screenings. At the epicenter of a cultural and artistic revolution at that time in New York, Mekas encountered a burgeoning bohemian underground culture of artists, writers, musicians, photographers and filmmakers, and regularly crossed paths with artists like Maya Deren, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Stan Brakhage and fellow Lithuanian George Maciunas, many of whom came to his Manhattan loft for regular film evenings.

In 1958, Jonas introduced film criticism to The Village Voice. His “Movie Journal” column became the de facto place to find out about underground cinema and a space for Mekas to rail against the establishment, censorship and its enforcers. Nevertheless, he stated bluntly in 1968, “I am not a critic. I don’t criticize. I am a cold, objective, ‘piercing’ eye that watches things and sees where they are and where they are going and I’m bringing all these facts to your attention.”  

Mekas created the New American Cinema Group in 1959 as a new model of distribution and exhibition for avant-garde film. Inspired by, but completely different from, Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, Mekas championed the right for all films to be shown. The collective became the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962, and soon after, similar groups came together in San Francisco (Canyon Cinema) and London (London Film-Makers’ Co-operative), based on the Coop model. Combining the Coop with the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, both ventures were the foundation for what would ultimately become the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, dedicated to preserving and screening avant-garde films. "Virtually everything I created or helped create was done out of necessity," says Mekas.

In 1964, Mekas was arrested on obscenity charges for showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) and Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950). In his column “Movie Times” he battled against the draconian laws governing censorship and launched a campaign against the censorship board, eventually going to jail several times for screening “pornography.”

Mekas' own film output began with his early 16mm works on exile, military domination and poetic freedom, such as his landmark The Brig. In the mid to late 1960s, Mekas developed and pioneered the “film-diary” style for which he is now most well known. Recording his day-to-day activities as well as those of his artist and filmmaking friends and family, Mekas preferred to document what he calls "the small, intimate moments that describe daily reality without being poetic." In 1967 Mekas was encouraged by filmmaker and scholar Gerald O’Grady to exhibit at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, where Mekas edited his first diary film Diaries, Notes, Sketches, or Walden. His technique of single-frame shooting, a handheld camera and “amateur” style was far from amateur and has since been recognized for its revolutionary impact on filmmaking and cinema.

Throughout his life Mekas has downplayed notions of being labeled as an artist or filmmaker, instead calling himself a “filmer,” saying "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."

Jonas and Adolfas’ return home to Lithuania after twenty-seven years resulted in two tender films of family gatherings, Jonas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania in 1971–1972 and Adolfas’ rarely screened yet equally powerful Going Home. Filmed before Walden, Lost Lost Lost was edited and released four years later, retracing his arrival in New York and his interactions with celebrated figures like the Velvet Underground, LeRoi Jones and singer Tiny Tim.

In the 1990s Mekas frequently returned to his past—remembering those friends who had passed on—with a number of tender film portraits, most notably what he refers to as his “1960’s Quartet,” which includes the films Zefiro Torna or Scenes From the Life of George Maciunas, Happy Birthday to John, Scenes From the Life of Andy Warhol,and This Side of Paradise (1999) about his long friendship with Jackie Onassis and the Kennedy family. Of particular note is Zefiro Torna, his heartfelt tribute to fellow Lithuanian, friend and Fluxus compatriot George Maciunas, lovingly depicted in full vigor at various events and happenings.

This century Mekas released what may be one of his most imaginative and structured diary films, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. A magnum opus in many ways, including its near five-hour length, the film is a loving portrait of Mekas’ early family life and a contemplative goodbye to the end of an era. Even more recently, Mekascompleted his revelatory reflection Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, ultimately one of his strongest films, in which he digs through fragments and scraps from his many completed works while working late into the night.

Beyond filmmaking, the engaged, energetic Mekas has also published more than twenty books of poetry and prose that have been translated into over a dozen languages—his Lithuanian poetry entering the pantheon of that country’s classic literature. Since 2000, Mekas has also expanded into the area of film installations, exhibiting frozen film frames and stills from his films at art galleries and museums around the world. In 2007 he embarked on one of his most ambitious endeavors to date, the 365 Day Project, in which he makes a film every day of the year and posts it online. This project continues to this day, with Mekas adding videos and material almost daily.

As Mekas says, "It's the essence of those normal moments that I am exploring, the intensity of feeling in them. That is what I have been trying to do for all these years. Really, I am an anthropologist of the small meaningful moment."

Long live the cinema!

Long live Jonas Mekas!

The Harvard Film Archive is honored to present a selection of films by Jonas Mekas—including one work by his brother Adolfas Mekas (1925-2011). Mekas will be in person for two special evenings, returning to the Harvard Film Archive for the first time since 1974. – Jeremy Rossen

Special thanks: Anthology Film Archives, Sebastian Mekas and Charity Coleman.

Film descriptions by Nick Pinkerton and Jeremy Rossen.

Friday January 20 at 7pm - Free Admission
Sunday February 5 at 7pm

Lost Lost Lost

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1976, 16mm, color & b/w, 178 min

Before Mekas had gangwayed right into the heart of the New York arts scene, he and his younger brother, Adolfas, were two of thousands of Lithuanian dypukai (displaced persons) set adrift from their homeland in the aftermath of World War II, living by their wits in an upended world. With Mekas newly arrived to the Lithuanian enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a tight-knit émigré community centered around the Church of the Annunciation, the autobiographical home movie-diary Lost Lost Lost begins in 1949—documented with the 16mm Bolex that was among his first purchases in the New World—and ends in 1963 in the rural Vermont setting where Adolfas filmed his Hallelujah the Hills. Throughout, Mekas describes his slow slipping away from a Lithuanian past towards an American future, as the perspective of his camera eye changes from the observational to the wheeling, dizzy, ecstatic mode of his later work. The story of an immigrant’s reinvention is a familiar one, but what sets Mekas’ telling apart is the powerful melancholy—the sense of things lost in the fire. Preserved by Anthology Film Archives through the Avant-Garde Masters Grant, supported by the Film Foundation, and administered by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

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Sunday January 22 at 5pm

The Brig

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1964, 16mm, b/w, 65 min

Jonas Mekas caught Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s production of Kenneth H. Brown’s play The Brig at the Living Theatre on its closing night and was so overwhelmed that the next night he filmed the whole performance straight through with three 16mm Auricon cameras, having made no extensive blocking or shooting strategy. The approach of total, immediate and punishing physical immersion happens to perfectly suit Brown’s depiction of everyday brutality inside a Marine Corps military prison, while Mekas had certain theoretical interests of his own. “One of the ideas that I was pursuing—or getting out of my system—was the application of the so-called cinéma vérité techniques to a stage event,” Mekas later wrote in The Village Voice. “In a sense, The Brig became an essay in film criticism… My approach wasn’t too kind to Kenneth Brown’s play: I was a parasite sucking on his blood.” Print courtesy Film-Makers' Cooperative.

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Sunday January 29 at 5pm

Going Home

Directed by Adolfas Mekas
US 1972, 16mm, color, 61 min

Created at the same time as Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania—and frequently overshadowed by his brother’s film—Going Home was made by both Adolfas Mekas and his wife Pola Chapelle about the Mekas brothers’ return to Lithuania after a twenty-seven-year absence. A moving portrait emerges with feasts, family, friends and “flowers for the dead and for the living in this film; it is full of flowers and songs." Print courtesy Film-Makers' Cooperative.

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Sunday January 29 at 7pm

A program of short portrait films illustrating the human throughline of Mekas’ career—his interest and investment in people and their return of the favor. Andy Warhol shot Jonas for a screen test, and Jonas cobbled together footage of Andy taken from 1965 to 1982, concluding with Mass being read at his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Happy Birthday to John captures an exhibition of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s work at the Syracuse Museum of Art; a subsequent birthday celebration, including a jam session with John, Yoko and Ringo; and other fascinating ephemera from Mekas’ files. The organizer of the John/Yoko exhibition was Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas, author of the proto-punky, officially art-destabilizing Fluxus Manifesto, a vital influence on Mekas, and the subject of his Zefiro Torna, a capering elegy sewn together from footage taken between 1952 and 1978 and set to the strains of Monteverdi and Mekas’ readings from Maciunas’ diaries, in which he records his aggressive struggle with pancreatic cancer. Also included is footage of his “Fluxwedding” marriage to the poet Billie Hutching three months before his death, an act of defiant affirmation.

Scenes From the Life of Andy Warhol

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1990, 16mm, color, 35 min

Print courtesy Light Cone.

Happy Birthday to John

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1997, 16mm, color, 24 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

Zefiro Torna or Scenes From the Life of George Maciunas

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1992, 16mm, color, 35 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

This Side of Paradise: Fragments of an Unfinished Biography

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1999, 16mm, b/w & color, 35 min

Some time, mostly during the summers, with Jackie Kennedy’s and her sister Lee Radziwill’s families and children. Cinema was an integral, inseparable, as a matter of fact, a key part of our friendship. The time was still very close to the untimely, tragic death of John F. Kennedy. Jackie wanted to give something to her children to do, to help to ease the transition, life without a father. One of her thoughts was that a movie camera would be fun for children. Peter Beard, who was at that time tutoring John Jr. and Caroline in art history, suggested to Jackie that I was the man to introduce the children to cinema. Jackie said yes. And that’s how it all began.

The images in this film, with a few exceptions, all come from the summers Caroline and John Jr. spent in Montauk, with their cousins Anthony and Tina Radziwill, in an old house Lee had rented from Andy Warhol, for a few summers. Andy himself spent many of his weekends there, in one of the cottages, as did Peter Beard, whom the children had adopted almost like their older brother or a father they missed. These were summers of happiness, joy and continuous celebrations of life and friendships. These were days of Little Fragments of Paradise. — Jonas Mekas

Print courtesy Light Cone.

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Monday January 30 at 7pm

Sleepless Nights Stories

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 2001, digital video, color, 114 min

Bedeviled by insomnia, Mekas turns to the company of friends to get him through long, dark nights of the soul—his loose model here is One Thousand and One Nights, with good, convivial conversation seen as more than a pleasure, but a lifeline. The “guests” include a bevy of figures across a wide range of artistic disciplines: Marina Abramović pines semi-seriously for a housewife’s life; the architect Raimund Abraham calls for the abolition of the word “artist;” and, in a radically telescoped sequence, Harmony Korine is seen in a flash before and after marriage and fatherhood. There are old friends (Yoko Ono, Patti Smith), friends who will never be old (Amy Winehouse, seen on a studio visit), and departed friends recalled from out of the past (Antonin Artaud, Jack Kerouac). It is an artfully artless movie, its roughshod style typical of Mekas’ work after transitioning to digital video, and a melancholy one, though punctuated by fits of joy, lifted wine glasses, and homemade intertitles proclaiming “Praise Allah.” Print courtesy filmmaker.

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Sunday February 5 at 5pm

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1971-72, 16mm, color, 82 min

A cofounder of New York’s Anthology Film Archives and a tireless documenter of his own perambulations, the preservative archival impulse is an essential aspect of Mekas’ creative project, a fact never more explicit than in the conclusion of Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, which ends with the counterpoised images of monastery libraries and a fire devouring the old fruit market in Vienna—the glories of preservation, the horrors of destruction. After early scenes of street life in Lithuanian Williamsburg, familiar from Lost Lost Lost, Mekas leaps into a homecoming montage showing his hometown Semenikiai twenty-five years after he left it, a pied flutter of wildflowers, washstands, wells, dray carts, dappled groves, potato pancakes, a largely intact premodern rural life, and Mamma—each shot held only about as long as it takes to adjust the f-stop. A number of relations work for the communal farm—an ex-classmate operates the combine. Some subjects are self-conscious of how they will seem to Americans, but life under the Communist SSR is only incidentally the subject of this sentimental journey: “You would like to know something about the social reality… but what do I know about it?” Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Jonas Mekas in Person

Friday February 10 at 7pm

Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 1969, 16mm, color, 180 min

Four years (1964-68) seen through the lens of Mekas’ Bolex, in which the filmmaker-flaneur records dinners, weddings and four full cycles of the seasons as seen from Stan Brakhage’s compound in the Rocky Mountains, as well as the malevolent industrial badlands of North Jersey and the lunch counters of slush-pit winter New York. The soundtrack alternates Chopin and subway clatter, and the cast is a game of “spot the counterculture personality”: the Velvet Underground at their inaugural show, an “Uptown Party” at Stephen Shore’s place and numberless other walk-ons and cutaways. In the three-hour torrent of footage, one encounters puzzling asides (the intertitle “Black Power” introduces a black demolition crew at work) and beauty-flecked soporific drone. Mekas’ voice presides over the caroming madness and offers something like a personal manifesto in a parody of Cartesian tautology: “I make home movies, therefore I live. I live, therefore I make home movies.” Print courtesy Light Cone.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Jonas Mekas in Person

Saturday February 11 at 7pm

Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 2012, digital video, b/w & color, 68 min

In his autobiographical epics of the 1970s Mekas speaks at length of the pain of rootlessness, creative self-doubt and the impulse to capture and preserve precious fragments of onrushing life, but these films are also marked by a certain reserve, an instinct for privacy that differentiates them from, say, the work of Stan Brakhage. This began to change with As I Was Moving Ahead… and Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, made of cutting-room-floor scraps from his 1960-2000 filmed diaries, shows another, intimate side to Mekas, here seen nearing his 90th birthday, still indefatigably poring over years of footage in his studio, still unable to get a good night’s sleep. Surveying the scope of his life with sad satisfaction, he returns to certain scenes in particular: years spent in his sunny SoHo loft with his then-young children, and with their mother and his now-ex-wife, Hollis Melton. The soundtrack is dominated by choral works recorded at their wedding in 1974, as well as Mekas’ customary voiceover. A blissy, sun-kissed affirmation, streaked with the suspicion that even sweet contentment carries an undertone of failure.

Preceded by

365 Day Project (excerpt)

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 2007, digital video, color, 10 min

In 2007 Jonas Mekas began releasing one film every day of the year on his website, and the practice continues to this day. Throughout the winter and spring calendars, the HFA will screen a selection of this diaristic project before certain programs, so HFA audiences can enjoy more from this inventive series.

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Saturday February 18 at 6pm

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

Directed by Jonas Mekas
US 2000, 16mm, color, 285 min

Something like the apotheosis of Mekas’ work to date, the footloose, nearly five-hour As I Was Moving Ahead… is an epic of the everyday in twelve chapters, a quotidian opus from an early proselytizer for the poetics of the home movie, which progresses with a beguiling stagger-step rhythm as it shifts between New York, Europe and such exotic locales as Madison, Wisconsin. Mekas, whose close-mic’d editing suite-recorded commentary accompanies Lithuanian artist Auguste Varkalis’ piano score, promises “a sort of masterpiece of nothing. Personal little celebrations and joy” and delivers a rapturous, groaning bounty. Foregrounded here are Mekas’ blood relations, particularly his children, Oona and Sebastian, as well as his extended family of like-minded creatives, including teacher and critic P. Adams Sitney, and filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton and Ken Jacobs. Thirty years of accumulated images shot on tactile 16mm color-reversal released at the fin-de-millennium, it feels like a goodbye to the analog 20th century and is all the more moving for that. Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

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