© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jonas Mekas, Champion Of Underground Filmmakers, Dies At 96


Some called him the godfather of underground film, but Jonas Mekas was a champion of all kinds of moviemaking. For nearly seven decades, Mekas was an anchor of the film community in New York City. He was an author, a critic, a film distributor and a movie maker whose influence extended far beyond his adopted home. Jonas Mekas has died yesterday at the age of 96. Ben Shapiro has this appreciation.

BEN SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Jonas Mekas came to New York City in 1949 from his native Lithuania after surviving a Nazi work camp. He bought a movie camera and began filming his surroundings right away, launching a lifelong passion for cinema, as he told me in 2006.


JONAS MEKAS: I'm obsessed. I'm possessed. I mean, once you are in cinema, you cannot stop.

SHAPIRO: Mekas filmed life as he encountered it - his friends serving dinner, a pretty woman in the park, his lonely reflection behind the counter of a diner. He called them diary films, and he made hundreds of them, building small moments into movies lasting anywhere from a few minutes to over five hours.


MEKAS: My films consist of, like, 30 seconds, one minute - little films like little poems, like sketches.

SHAPIRO: The camera work is often shaky. Images linger or speed by in a flurry. The soundtracks could be music or his own voice reflecting on his experience, as during his visit to Vienna in 1972.


MEKAS: (As himself) I begin to believe again in the indestructibility of the human spirit.

SHAPIRO: In 2006, film critic Amy Taubin said that Mekas' films evoke a sense of time gone by.


AMY TAUBIN: It's more like a memory of an image than, you know, a big 35-millimeter image that has immense detail. The ghostliness of the image was something that he was intentionally after.

SHAPIRO: In the 1960s, Mekas was at the center of the New York avant garde art scene. His friends included Andy Warhol. And a decade later, Mekas helped to preserve Warhol's early films. He and his friends turned an old courthouse in Manhattan into Anthology Film Archives, today one of the largest collections of avant garde and underground films in the world. And he kept making his own, adopting digital video when he was in his 80s.


MEKAS: From beginning with the Big Bang, life is always moving ahead. We should not be so attached to the past. Everything keeps changing, and it's beautiful that it's like that.

SHAPIRO: Jonas Mekas posted his most recent film to his website last August. It's his portrait of his visit to The Lamb pub, a famous literary haunt in London. For NPR News, this is Ben Shapiro in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Shapiro