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Cinema Legend Jonas Mekas Makes His Miami Debut

The 93-year-old avant-garde film pioneer touches down in the Design District for a screening of ‘Walden’ Parts I and II and a huge exhibition.
Photo by Stephen Malagodi

Known as the godfather of avant-garde cinema, Lithuanian filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas found his calling in New York City at the age of 27 in the form of a Bolex 16mm camera. From then on, he became a true trailblazer in experimental and art house film, founding Film Culture Magazine and keeping a movie column for the Village Voice. Mekas is also a proud founder of the Anthology Film Archives, still one of the world's largest repositories of avant-garde film. His work has been said to have influenced generations of radical filmmakers, from John Waters to Harmony Korine. Known for capturing the Lower East Side during one of its Golden Ages in the sixties, Jonas has worked alongside friends including Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and Salvador Dalí.


This past weekend, at the age of 93, Jonas had his first-ever public screening of his film, Walden, in conjunction with his first exhibition in Miami: Let Me Introduce Myself. The Gallery Diet exhibition included Elvis, comprised of 40 pictures that depict the king at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1972 in his first and last performance in New York City, This Side of Paradise, an intimate look at the Kennedy children on vacation in Montauk, where Mekas tutored them in film; and To New York With Love, a series of 21 photographs taken in his cherished adopted city. The centerpiece of the show, the daunting Destruction Quartet, features four video loops depicting historical circumstances of violence derived from both global news and contemporary art, a commentary on the mutable relationship between creation and destruction. On one screen, the Berlin Wall is dismantled while pedestrians grab commemorative concrete. On another: Mekas' haunting personal view of September 11th, as filmed from the roof of the his SoHo apartment. Also playing are acts of destructive art-making—Nam June Paik destroying a piano, and a fire sculpture by Australian artist Danius Kesminas.

In partnership with the Miami Design District and Ground Control Miami, Miami underground champions Obsolete Media Miami (O.M.M.) held the first public screening of Walden Parts I and II to benefit their efforts as a local photo and moving picture archive and creative a/v makerspace that echoes the influence of Mekas’ own legacy, not least with its affinity for “35mm slides, archival motion picture materials, and other legacy media.” On a studio visit in Miami’s Design District, O.M.M. founders Barron Sherer and Kevin Arrow shared their excitement for Mekas’ visit: “There is a profound contemporary relevance and legacy in Jonas Mekas’s artistic practice; witness the direct lineage from his 1960s 16mm diary films to our social media streams. This was a major revelation for those attending our event who were unfamiliar with his work.”


“Showing Jonas' work at this particular moment in our country is important to me,” said Gallery Diet Director Nina Johnson. "I feel the group of works forces the viewer to be introspective about what it means to be an American and certainly what it means to love our country, a question that is particularly relevant at this moment in American culture."

Courtesy of Obsolete Media Miami (O.M.M.)

Walden screened in the Miami Design District's Palm Court. Six 30-minute reels that Jonas personally brought with him on the plane from New York were projected on two vintage 16mm projectors. Each part portrays various day-to-day activities in New York, from dinner parties with friends, to walks in the park and the welcoming of seasons. Sprinkled in are iconic, intimate moments: a talk of world issues with Allen Ginsberg comrades; a hotel party before the Velvet Underground's first filmed performance, with cameos from Lou Reed, Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick; a visit to Timothy Leary's mansion in Millbrook. It is swift and enigmatic, a ride on a time machine through Mekas’ memory. His is a mind which readily produces poetry with ease and eloquence.

With his son Sebastian by his side, Jonas was charming and informative aasnd he engaged with patrons for the duration of the six-hour event, which included a three-hour screening. He answered questions and explained the history behind each of his works, most enthusiastically when showing off photographs of Elvis and signing copies of his book.


At the special event, The Creators Project spoke with Jonas Mekas at length, on everything from Snapchat to Rimbaud:

The Creators Project: I couldn't help but think about Snapchat in relation to your work, specifically the similarity between the way in which moments from everyday life are captured in your "Either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all," mentality. How would you compare your video diaries to the stuff being made on social media?

Jonas Mekas: Snapchatters need friends, they have a need to chat. I do not seek  friends… I hate small talk… I need only two, three good friends… I am a diarist: the diary is my friend… I would still videotape and film even if nobody would ever see it. My hero is Emily Dickinson.

Frame enlargement from Walden. Courtesy of Jonas Mekas

How do you see the evolving relationship between technology and art?

Two, three people can talk about technology and understand each other, all three know what they are talking about, be it computers or cars; but there are no two people who would agree about what is art. But it's clear that both, good art and bad art, and things that are not art at all, everything; when you walk into a gallery you can see that everything that is exhibited is connected to one or another technology, be it old or new.  Not only the video installations: to make dyes used in painting on canvas, you need technology…

At times, you've called yourself an anthropologist. What intrigues you the most about everyday moments?


I cannot tell you where it comes from, my obsession with recording essential moments of everyday activities of my contemporaries, but I am totally possessed by it. But I am not really recording all aspects of life: I am attracted to recording only the celebrative aspects of life. In a way, I could say, that I look at the movie camera as an instrument to celebrate what God had created during the six days of creation… I leave the dark parts of it, the Devil's works, to others…

If Walden had to have a star, would you say it is New York?

It was not chance that landed me in New York: the ticket that the U.N.Refugee Organization had arranged for me was to Chicago! But once in New York, I threw the ticket away, and chose to stay in New York. It was my choice. And it was New York that saved my sanity. I was split into one thousand pieces when I landed in New York. But I was lucky to land in New York at one of its most exciting periods. And we grew together, New York and myself. And it was New York that gave me a movie camera, my Bolex.  And my Bolex told me that I should use it only to celebrate the joyful, beautiful aspects of life, as a counteraction against the darkness that surrounded me, all the horrible memories of the years I had  gone through. So in a sense I was using my camera in self-defense…

You’re known as a major influence on filmmakers like Harmony Korine, John Waters, and Jim Jarmusch. Who or what has been your biggest influence?


I do not know if I have influenced anyone. But I know that myself I have received something from so many, practically from every film that I've seen, from every poet I have read, every dancer that I've seen dance, every musician. I am product of all those who preceded me! That includes all the Saints, all the minnesingers, troubadours who did everything that humanity would become more subtle, more beautiful!

Do you recall the first reel you ever filmed? What emotions ran through you at that time?

The very first footage that myself and my brother Adolfas took with our first Bolex, you can see it at the very beginning of my film LOST LOST LOST. You can see our exhilaration! Our Joy! It was one of the most exciting days of our early New York life! That's where our real lives began, at that moment.

Rimbaud wrote, "Life is a farce which everyone has to perform."

Yes, Rimbaud knew that angels can fly only because they have light wings… In a sense the Fluxus movement, Fluxus art came closest to it. According to Maciunas, the father of Fluxus, both life and art should always have a light smile in it. Lightness. After all, we are only like lilies in the field. Today we are here, tomorrow we are gone,  The lightness is the true seriousness. All the troubles in the world today come from too much religious and political seriousness.

Most diaries are meant to be private, but all wish to be read. You have purposefully shared your diaries with the world. Ultimately, what do you wish us to take away from them, and what would like to leave behind?


Actually, my movie diaries on my website are followed only by my website  friends, and it's not like in thousands… As for the future of what I am doing: there is very little left what was done by humans in past centuries, even decades… To me, and to eternity, I think it's more important what we give to each other right now. And that's the meaning of the website: friendship.

This is your first ever public screening and exhibition in Miami. What do you think of the work being done by O.M.M. and their mission to archive and preserve motion picture materials and legacy media?

As the technologies of media change, it's wonderful that there are  places like O.M.M. in Miami, places that collect and protect obsolete technologies that enable us to see in original formats, works produced with those technologies. Some of the original qualities, colors, textures are not possible to preserve on new materials, new technologies. It's like seeing a great painting reproduced in a book. You have to go to Florence to really see it. So now you may soon have to go to Miami, to O.M.M to see how some of the films or even videos  made in earlier formats, really look.

Mekas will dedicate the next two years of his life to his newest project, an addition atop the Anthology Film Archives. Scholars will be able to enjoy and utilize a cafe and a library that will house a special collection of paper materials, books and documents including many private collections donated to the Anthology Film Archives.


You can keep up with his video diary here.

Click through to learn more about Obsolete Media Miami and Gallery Diet.

Follow Veronica Gessa on Twitter: @mokibaby


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