Over the last 50 years, Jonas Mekas has been without doubt one of the most important figures in experimental film. Along with his own filmmaking, he started the magazine Film Culture in 1955, organized the Film-Makers’ Cooperative (1962) and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque (1964), and, finally, founded Anthology Film Archives in 1970, where he later became (and remains) director. (All are, or were, in New York.) By gathering these different roles—director, critic and curator—in one person, he not only actively combined the fields of theory and practice, but over a long period significantly shaped our perception of experimental film, and expanded what independent cinema could be.
Acknowledging his unique position, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne recently presented the first overview of Mekas’s accomplishments. The main focus of this retrospective was his films—including Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (also known as Walden), 1969, and The Brig (1964)—which were nicely presented in a cinema setting—and such recent video installations as the 2006-07 “365 Day Project” (for which Mekas shot one short video a day). But Mekas’s poetry, film critiques, posters and programs were also well represented. By putting early issues of Film Culture next to posters for the Film-
Makers’ Cooperative, along with film works and installations, the exhibition achieved a striking dynamic: in the space between different mediums, it became clear that the film experience cannot be limited to watching movies in a dark room. With this overview of Mekas’s work, the full cosmos of independent cinema opened up.
Whoever expected that this diverse roundup would necessarily engage the typically noisy Pop politics of the art-film world would have been surprised, because the show was very calm. It was a serenity that emerged from Mekas’s artistic disposition, expressed as early as 1961 in a “Movie Journal” article for the Village Voice titled “The Creative Joy of the Independent Film-Maker.” With a clear understanding of the impact of criticism, and of the hype that is often created there, he wrote, “Newspapers and critics are looking for waves. Let them look for them, goodbye, goodbye!” How beautiful, precious and important is the confidence that comes with such an independent mission and practice. That the museum managed to translate them into a show is remarkable. But shhh—we should remain calm . . . .
Above: Day 130: May 10, 2007, from the “365 Day Project,” video, each approx. 41⁄2 minutes; at Museum Ludwig.