In October 1949, Jonas Mekas, a twenty-six-year-old Lithuanian writer, arrived in New York City on a United Nations ship carrying European refugees from World War II. He and his younger brother, Adolfas, who traveled with him, had been planning to go on to Chicago, but settled instead in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among other Lithuanian immigrants. A few months after they arrived, the pair managed to buy a Bolex movie camera. Jonas, from a young age, had been a methodical keeper of journals and a poet with a gift for romantic observations of natural beauty. Now he wandered the streets of New York absorbing and filming his surroundings. In a 1950 entry from I Had Nowhere to Go, his postwar diary collection, which was recently reissued after decades out of print, Jonas wrote, “Wouldn’t it be foolish to come all this way and then rush through Broadway?”
His impulses to linger and look, and to treat his films as a diary, have made Jonas Mekas one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and revolutionary filmmakers. In the 1950s and 1960s, working at the heart of New York City’s downtown art scene, where he would collaborate with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and introduce Andy Warhol to filmmaking, Mekas rejected polished techniques and narrative storytelling. Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), the three-hour 1969 film that helped establish his reputation as a filmmaker, was a frenetic collage of street scenes and nature footage accompanied by his ruminating voice-overs on memory, loss, and the medium of film itself. Mekas also had a central part in the establishment of independent cinema, cofounding Film Culture magazine, the New American Cinema group, and Anthology Film Archives.
Mekas has made a long career of chronicling his life in extreme detail. His vast autobiographical project includes some seventy-five films, many more short videos, and numerous written works: a dream journal, a “scrapbook,” two collections of anecdotes, four volumes of diaries, and a dozen books of poetry. Today, at ninety-five, Mekas is not only active and mentally sharp but also enjoying a late-career renaissance. The Scottish filmmaker Douglas Gordon recently produced a film and book that add interpretive images to the text of Mekas’s diaries, further canonizing his life story.
Mekas has always made a point of his devotion to the present. “My video camera,” he said once, “can only record what is happening now.” But he has also been, in his words, “a historian of the exile,” chronicling, in films such as Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), how he and other Lithuanian émigrés were painfully uprooted from their homes. In his writings, Mekas emphasizes that he resisted and fled the Nazis, and that he spent time doing forced labor in Germany during the war. In 2015, the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich asked him, “And…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.