TOWARDS A DIARY CINEMA, 1944-1964
• Jonas and Adolfas escape Lithuania on false papers but are captured by Nazis and taken to a forced labour camp in Hamburg, Germany. ~They escape and eventually find themselves in displaced persons camp in Wiesbaden, Germany. It is here that Jonas and Adolfas study theatrical performance under Ippolitas Tvirbotas, a teacher of the Stanislavsky Method and see American films for the first time.
• November, arrives New York with Adolfas on ship c/o UN from displaced person camps in Germany (Wiesbaden and Hamburg), having escaped Lithuania on false papers (in the DP camps they had studied theatre drama under Ippolitas Tvirbotas, a teacher of Stanislavski’s Method, this may be where Jonas established his interest in acting performance)
• Two weeks later Jonas and Adolfas borrow money to buy their first Bolex camera and immediately begin filming themselves and their immediate surroundings: the fellow immigrant communities of Williamsburg, Brooklyn
• Throughout this time the 2 brothers work in factories and spend all their spare time going to the cinema, attempting to learn to make films or writing (Jonas continued writing poetry in his native Lithuanian). They also study under Hans Richter at the Film Institute of City College, NY
• The brothers experiments with amateur filming commences the period of footage later used to make Lost Lost Lost in 1975-6.
• 1954 founds Film Culture magazine with Adolfas, first publication January 1955, it features an article by Richter, their teacher, called ‘Film as an Original Art Form’ – significant development
• However initially the magazine contained many articles that were highly ciritcal of US avant garde film, mostly by JM himself – much of this would be the 1940s and early 50s trance cinema of Deren, Maas &co.
• 1955 – Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 refuses to show any further work by Stan Brakhage in response to Reflections on Black (curious, since apart from the scratching – which is redolent of Anger’s Fireworks – the film seems very evocative of the Trance film)
• November– issue of Film Culture in which half the magazine is turned over to ‘The Experimental Scene’ – attacks on avant garde ceased
• Significantly, in the opening passage of Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, Mekas describes a moment “’ one Sunday morning in the fall of ’57 or ‘58’” walking through the Catskills when he realised he had forgotten about the “last ten years” of war, hunger, etc. perhaps the first time didn’t feel alone in America “slowly becoming a part of it, a moment when I forgot my home, this was the beginning of my new home.”
• appointed film critic of the Village Voice, then a small local publication; a section of Film Culture given over to Parker Tyler writing features on major avant garde filmmakers
• 19th issue of Film Culture, Mekas establishes the first Independent Film Award – goes to Cassavetes’ Shadows, which Mekas then saw as the first flowering of independent free cinema in America – he then began to credit US avant garde as forerunners of the realist cinema he championed
• Influence of nouvelle vague movement in France evident in Mekas’s editorials in Film Culture (Sitney)
• Around this time Emile de Antonio and others are attempting to revolutionise traditional theatrical distribution for independent cinema, but met with indifference by mainstream, Antonio founds G String Productions to distribute Pull My Daisy
• 2nd annual Independent Film Award goes to beat cinema short Pull My Daisy (Al Leslie and Robert Frank, 1959)
• Summer– takes time off from Village Voice to shoot Guns of the Trees with Adolfas, his first feature. Maya Deren is appointed as his stand-in – marks shift towards greater sympathy with avant garde
• End September– first meeting of the New American Cinema Group, called by JM. 23 filmmakers convene, Gregory Markopoulos is the only representative of the avant garde (aside from Mekas), designed to bring greater prominence to independent cinema, a manifesto is produced, includes call for cooperative distribution
• Meanwhile Mekas had initiated series of screenings at the Charles Theatre on Lower East Side, including screenings of avant gardists whose work not or had rarely been screened; establishes open house screenings where filmmakers can bring their work to show – here Mekas discovered Ken Jacobs, who screened segments of Little Stabs at Happiness
• Maya Deren dies
• Term “underground film” coined by Stan Vanderbeek in Film Culture 14, according to Sitney
• Guns of the Trees is released, it deploys improvisation, handheld camerawork and non-synchronous sound to combine social protest with existential absurdism and suicidal urges in response to the atomic age (evoking Chris MacLaine’s The End (1953) with beat generation bohemian lifestyles and poetry
• Brakhage holds series of screenings of his own work from 1958-61 at the Provincetown Playhouse, NY,
• Mekas assumes control of film distribution (New American Cinema Group, abv) – De Antonio et al’s distro project abandoned – results in Filmmakers’ Coop. David Brooks appointed manager. Initial catalogue contains only Guns of the Trees, Pull My Daisy and Markopoulos’s films.
• Bruce Baillie founds Canyon Cinema distribution on West Coast in SF
• Brakhage is awarded 4th annual Independent Film Award in Film Culture 24 for The Dead and Prelude: Dog Star Man – since then award went to avant garde filmmakers, Jack Smtih, Andy Warhol, Harry Smith, Markopoulos, Snow, Anger, Breer
• Film Culture 24 features article by JM, ‘Notes on the New American’ – attempts synthesis of realist (Rogosin, Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Leacock et al) and visionary (Brakhage, Markopoulos, Breer, Menken, Rice, Vanderbeek): “The new artist by directing his ear [??] inward, is beginning to catch bits of man’s true vision.”
• Sitney notes something interesting on the above article – in sections on ‘Improvisation”, “shaky camera”, “acting”, JM makes clear less interested in realism itself than in “the way they substitute a kind of spontaneous performance for classical acting”
• Publishes article in the Village Voice column (2nd May 1963) on the “Baudelairean cinema” (Blonde Cobra, Little Stabs at Happiness, Scotch Tape, Flaming Creatures, Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man) – “It as a world of flowers of evil, of illuminations, of torn and tortured flesh; a poetry which is at once beautiful and terrible, good and evil, delicate and dirty.”
• Adolfas Mekas releases Hallelujah the Hills, which gains commercial theatrical distribution (Jonas is credited as “technical crew” along with Ed Emshwiller); during time out from filming JM starts filming Rabbit Shit Haikus, a clear move towards poetic cinema – project eventually abandoned but instead later (by more than 10 years) becomes a chapter in Lost Lost Lost
• Jonas writes an impassioned defence of home movies in his Village Voice column:
All pleasures have become perverted, on the border of self-destruction. The words “amateur” (from “love”) and “home” are used to describe something bad.
But I could tell you that some of the most beautiful movie poetry will be revealed, someday, in the 8mm home movie footage – simple poetry, with children in the grass and babies on mothers’ hands, and with all that embarrassment and goofing around in front of the camera.
The camera now picks up glimpses, fragments of objects and people, and creates fleeting impressions, of both objects and actions, in the manner of the action painters. A new spiritualized reality of motion and light is created on the screen.
Jonas Mekas: Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-71 (Macmillan), reproduced from quotation by David E. James in ‘Film Diary / Diary Film’ in David E. James (Ed.): To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground (Princeton, 1992)
• Jonas films the Living Theatre production of Kenneth Brown’s The Brig, shooting in continuous takes, responding immediately to each moment of a play, he deliberately avoided seeing before filming it, so that he could respond to the action instantly as though a newsreel cameraman.
• The period of filming sketches of home movies from his own life that would become Walden commences. The wedding of Adolfas and Pola is one of the first sequences filmed. Later, when narrating the footage in 1969, Jonas would sing-speak while playing his accordion, saying “I make home mvies, therefore I live, I live therefore I make home movies,” and “They tell me I should be always searching, but I am just celebrating what I see,” over footage of photographs of his mother and father.