Obituary: Jonas Mekas

Obituary: Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas in Paris, 2018. Photography courtesy of Wei Gao.

Jonas Mekas in Paris, 2018. Photography courtesy of Wei Gao.

By Amy Schatz

Jonas Mekas (b. 1922), a prolific filmmaker, film critic, and docent of American avant-garde cinema — and consequently nicknamed “the godfather” of American avant-garde cinema — passed away Wednesday, January 23, at the age of 96.

Mekas left his country of birth, Lithuania, during escalating conflict in World War II; he and his brother were captured and imprisoned in a German labor camp, but later escaped across the Danish border.

After studying at University in Denmark, Mekas and his brother emigrated to the U.S., where, having hit the ground running with a residence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Mekas’ purchase of a small motion picture camera, the brothers thrust themselves wholeheartedly into the underground American cinema scene.

Among several other personal and public projects that took off during the 50s and 60s, Mekas and his brother founded cooperative groups and organizations which finally culminated in the Anthology Film Archives, a massive library and cultural center dedicated to the research and preservation of avant-garde cinema, and which still stands today in the East Village.

Throughout the time he spent shaping New York’s film community, Mekas also produced a steady stream of intelligent and provocative films and collaborated with iconic artists like Andy Warhol and John Lennon. Many of his films have presented at major museums and Mekas’ career is decorated with prestigious awards like his Guggenheim Fellowship, recognition by the National Film Preservation Board to archive one of his films in the National Film Registry, and the 1995 Lithuanian National Prize — Mekas was also a cherished Lithuanian poet.

Mekas was an immovable revolutionary who fought passionately for his life and the future of avant-garde cinema; when film boards threatened to censor films deemed too scandalous for gallery spaces, Mekas rallied back, and when readers responded positively to his written work in Film Culture, a magazine which he founded, Mekas pushed for better content that would inspire a generation.

Jonas Mekas is remembered for his enthralling diaristic film narratives, dedication to film culture, and his efforts to build a resource library that outlives its founder and sustains his vision. He is survived by his children.


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