R.I.P. Jonas Mekas

We were watching an old episode of 30 Rock earlier this week and were amused when Liz Lemon bragged that she was going to see a movie at Anthology Film Archives. She said it to impress somebody, when she was really going to see some junk at the Multiplex. That’s the mission of Anthology: to nurture cinema that is the opposite of the junk at the Multiplex. Thus the death of its founder Jonas Mekas yesterday at the age of 96 yesterday fills us not only with sadness, but worry. An experimental film-maker himself, Mekas created a home and a headquarters where all such films could live. Over the years he supported and nurtured important artists like Andy Warhol and Jack Smith, who in turn influenced the sort of theatre we love, e.g. the Ridiculous movement founded by John Vaccaro and expanded by Charles Ludlam. Mekas filmed the Living Theatre’s production of The Brig (1964). He screened Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour on a bill with Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, and got arrested for it.

Many friends have premiered their work there over the years, and I’ve been thrilled to be at the screenings, from campy artists like Rev Jen Miller and Lola Rocknrolla, to my friend the horror jock Bryan Enk, to silent film preservationist pals Ben Model and Steve Massa. And the cool Jessi Gotta film I’m in , The Moose Head Over the Mantel, available to live stream January 29!

The last few times I was in there, a warm wash of pleasure and calm came over me. So much in this city has changed in recent years. The old is torn down; the new rises in its place. Even off-off institutions like PS 122 (now called Performance Space New York) and La Mama have gotten or are getting makeovers. Which you can’t begrudge them. But part of love, even love of a theatre, is physical, and God how I’ll miss, I don’t know, chipped paint on a banister. I loved it for what it was. Anthology hasn’t changed — still feels like the late 80s/early 90s, when I first went in there, and it reassures me, it makes me feel anchored and stable. It’s not rational but it’s true. So I worry. I worry what new leaders will bring. There’s a distressing tendency to spin away from pure experiment in our culture. Remember those mavericks of the “New Hollywood” in the early ’70s? Who’d absorbed the Nouveau Vague and American underground film, went to Hollywood, and within a short time were churning out lots of visually stylish dreck? Someone needs to protect and support purity of vision, film that doesn’t give a fuck what the masses want. The masses would murder nonconformists in the village square if we let them. Don’t let them. To say you’ll be missed, Jonas Mekas, is to put it mildly.