Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Jonas Mekas' "Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971"

Among the literature written on the subject of film, there are a few works that I would consider absolutely "essential". Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971, by Jonas Mekas, is certainly one of them. Representing nearly a third of the columns that Mekas wrote for the Village Voice over a period of about 15 years, it provides a vivid, first-hand account of the films and filmmakers of the New York avant garde cinema, written "as it happened" by the movement's most passionate champion.

It is really quite staggering to think about the scope of what Mekas' writings cover here -- really the entire rise and development of one the most creatively fertile movements in the history of cinema, offering impassioned defenses of some of its most notable participants including Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Gregory Markopolous, Harry Smith, and Marie Menken. Mekas traces not only the films and the people who made them, but also how they were distributed, exhibited, and received. He provides a vibrant portrait of the New York underground art scene in which these films were shown, and the increasingly ambitious ways in which they were presented, such as interactive, live "happenings". His descriptions of the challenges in dealing with New York's film licensing and censorship laws of the time reminds us of how courageous these artists were in fighting for the right to make the films they wanted. Most significant in this respect is Mekas' account of his arrest over the showing of Jack Smith's highly controversial Flaming Creatures, which was released in 1963 and found to be obscene.

Then there are the accounts of the development of the Filmmakers' Co-op, which served as a distribution network for avant garde cinema, and the Anthology Film Archives, created as a place to preserve and screen the films for future generations. The stories behind these two landmark cultural institutions deserve volumes of their own; their inclusion here reminds us how prolific (and tireless) Mekas has been in his quest to champion alternative forms of cinema.

Mekas is also a prescient visionary, particularly when it comes to his ideas about making cinema available in the home (to be collected and consumed like books), and in his idea of using 8mm (home movie) cameras in the service of social justice. The advent of home video, and the prevalence of consumer camcorders (as well as online video on which to share the footage) have proven him right with time.

Mekas has said that everything he did, he did because there was a real necessity for it. That is what comes through most strongly in his writing. One gets the sense that this is not a man with any time for trivia; his vision was (and remains) astoundingly clear and focused on the task at hand. The post-war American avant garde cinema flourished thanks to the critical context provided by Mekas, along with the institutions for distribution and exhibition that he was instrumental in creating. Mekas is an inspiration to anyone who cares about the possibility of cinema as a tool for personal expression rather than as a commercial business. This collection of his writings is a testament to that. As a critic, he has that most important of gifts: the ability to inspire his readers to seek out for themselves the films about which he wrote.

Movie Journal was originally published in 1972, and has been long out of print until this 2016 reissue by Columbia University Press. The new edition contains a foreword by Peter Bogdanovich.

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