On the very day in 1949 that Jonas Mekas and his brother Adolfas arrived in New York, they plunged into its burgeoning film scene. The Mekas brothers were already film enthusiasts, but in New York, they discovered avant-garde film. They soon acquired a 16mm camera and Jonas began filming daily life in the city, focusing in particular on his own Lithuanian community. He attended film screenings all over Manhattan at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art and the City College of New York, where the artist and filmmaker Hans Richter was the Director of the Film Institute. Jonas often speaks about the profound effect that Richter’s Rhythmus 21 had on him. He was flabbergasted that a seven-minute film consisting of nothing more than the movement of black and white abstract geo- metrical shapes could be so visually and kinetically intense. By 1953, Mekas was himself organizing film screenings and in 1955, he brought out the first issue of what would be for many years the most serious, wide-ranging, and provocative filmjournal in the United States, Film Culture magazine. Included in this initial issue was an essay by Richter titled “The Film as an Original Art Form.”
Richter wrote about the relationship of European avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s to 20th century modernism: “The story of these individual artists, under the name avant-garde, can properly be read as a history of the conscious attempt to overcome reproduction and to arrive at the free use of the means of cinematographic expression. This movement spread over Europe and was sustained for the greatest part by mod-ern painters who, in their own field, had broken away from the conventional.” Richter goes on to define, as central to this first wave of avant-garde filmmaking, several films included in the program Jonas has curated for this new Visual Art Center: Anemic Cinema, Ballet Mechanique, Un Chien Andalou, and Richter’s own Rhythmus 21, and Ghosts Before Breakfast. In the 1930’s, the avant-garde film movement became largely invisible as artists fled the rise of fascism in Europe and totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. Many came to the United States bringing with them their knowledge of this brief brilliant moment in film history, and perhaps more importantly, the surety that films could be made outside the stranglehold of the Hollywood film industry. Richter settled in New York where Duchamp had already been living for a decade. Bunuel also immigrated to the U.S., working in New York at the Museum of Modern Art before moving to Mexico where he directed some half-dozen surrealist-infused narrative movies before returning to Europe. Others settled in Los Angeles, among them Alexander Hammid, a Czech cinematographer and the maker of several lyrical films. In the early 1940s, Hammid partnered with Maya Deren (who herself was brought to the United States as a baby by parents fleeing the rise of Leninism) to make Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), one of the most influential films ofwhat would become the Second Wave of Avant-Garde Film, otherwise known as “Underground Film,” or “The New American Cinema.”
The major strands of early 20th century modernism–abstrac- tion, dada, surrealism, cubism, and constructivism–all fed the first wave of avant-garde film. Ballet Mechanique (1924), the only film by the painter Fernand Leger, employs Cubist painterly strategies of fragmentation and collage, finding their filmic visual corollaries in close-up camera angles and in editing. Leger gleefully employs the cinematic apparatus as a machine that imparts mechanical qualities to everything it records, from an array of spoons and crockery to a beautiful woman’s mouth to a washerwoman who carries her laundry basket up a flight of stairs–the same stairs she probably climbed everyday of her actual working life–over and over again. The magical ingredient, which transforms animate and inanimate objects alike into wind-up toys, is time, structured by repetition. An image of a smiling mouth is just a mouth or perhaps a lipstick advertisement. But when that same mouth widens into a smile and then relaxes three times in a row, we become aware of machine-like musculature that makes it possible to repeat the facial gesture, independent of any psychological cause. The most familiar film on this program is Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1924). Bunuel collaborated with the painter Salvador Dali on this cinematic Surrealist manifesto, which influenced not only the avant-garde, but narrative filmmakers from Hitchcock to David Lynch. With its opening sequence in which a scalpel slices through a forcibly-held, wide-open eye, Bunuel signals that the power of film is not limited to representing the surfaces of the physical world, but also can evoke the interior world of fantasy and dreams. Un Chien Andalou is a prototype for the surrealist theory of film as dream. What we find in the film is not the particular dream of a particular character (although in its depiction of the cultural, religious, and Oedipal baggage a man brings to a marriage, there is that too) but the underlying structure of dreams as they are shaped by the unconscious. Embraced by the surrealists as a source of artistic subversion and creativity, Freud’s theory of the unconscious be- came a film editing manual. His description of the associative processes of the unconscious and of the condensation and displacement performed by the “dreamwork” on residues of daily life were made manifest on the editing table (or in what today’s digital videomakers call post-production) thus liberating film from the straight jacket of 19th century narrative.
Like Leger, Marcel Duchamp made only one film, the decep- tively simple Anemic Cinema (1926). It consists of alternating shots of two kinds of Roto Relief constructions. Duchamp’s Roto Reliefs were flat disks attached to a motor, which made them spin, rather like a pinwheels. On one set of disks, Duchamp inscribed a text–one or two sentences per disk–in the form of a spiral. The text is filled with sexual innuendo, most of it in the form of puns that are impossible to translate. When the disks spin, it becomes difficult to read the words as they fly by. On the other set, he drew a variety of spirals. When these disks turn, the flat graphic appears three-dimensional, undulating toward and away from the viewer. Recorded on film (by Duchamp’s collaborator Man Ray) the undulating effect intensified, as did the problem of reading the text. The association with the “bathroom graffiti” gives the undulating spirals an unmistakable erotic charge. Anemic Cinema is a piece of meta-pornography. Hilariously confrontational, it frustrates the viewer’s twin desires to read and to get off.
Something of a gadfly, Richter follows the pure abstraction of Rhythmus 21 (1921) with a mix of Dada and Surrealism in his charming Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927-28) and again some twenty-years later in Dreams that Money Can Buy (1949). The premise of the latter film is an invocation of “film as dreams” and a pretext for collaboration. A young man discovers that he has the power to create dreams that seem like works of art, and he puts them up for sale. The dreams are indeed the work of major artists. Richter enlisted Duchamp, Man Ray, Leger, Max Ernest, and Alexander Calder as collaborators. It is this spirit of collaboration as much as Richter’s roots in the first film avant-garde that must have appealed to both Jonas Mekas and George Maciunas. Long-time friends and major artists, they are each of them renaissance men, both for the range of their art making, which encompasses a variety of mediums and for their importance as organizers, curators, theoreticians, and proselytizers for art movements that without them would never have had the recognition they now enjoy. Maciunas was the impresario of Fluxus, a loose-knit association of artists who brought a neo-dadaist, proto-conceptualist aesthetic to bear on every recognized art medium and on ones they invented on their own. The contributors to the FLUX- FILM ANTHOLGY (1964-68) include major artists associated with Fluxus, some of whom would never have made a film had Maciunas not asked it of them. Indeed, most of these piecesare so minimal that they seem to be anti-films, albeit made with great wit and a sense of secret love for the medium. This description certainly fits Maciunas’s own films.
An anarchist with an epic sense of the absurd, a brilliant draftsman, a performer, an archaeologist who made archives of everything from military medals to cat shit, a visionary architect, builder, and city planner, Maciunas’s great work was the creation from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s of co- operatively-owned buildings in which artists lived and worked in the neighborhood that became known as Soho. Had Maciunas not been an anarchist and an artist–had he followed city and state rules and regulations–Soho would never have come into being and certainly would not have been affordable for the avant-garde artists with whom Maciunas identified. But this art work called Soho (which has similarities to the 1970s site-specific work of Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson) was achieved with great cost to Macuinas, who, became, in a very real as well as a philosophical sense, an outlaw.
Mekas reads his poignant diary of the last year of Macuinas’s life on the soundtrack of his Zefiro Torna or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas (Fluxus) (1952-78). It is one of the most delicate, precise, and moving of his portrait films. In the mid-1960s, Mekas began editing the footage that he had been shooting with his hand-held Bolex camera since his arriv- al in New York in 1949 as a displaced person from Lithuania– an anarchist poet who fled the Soviets only to be captured by the Nazis and sent to a German work camp during the war. Among twenty-odd films he fashioned from this “raw” material are at least two of the greatest works, not only of avant-garde film but of cinema in its entirety, Diaries, Notebooks, and Sketches: Walden (1969) and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976).
What we could call Mekas film poetics sprang in part out of economic necessity. Since film was expensive, he developed a method of shooting in short bursts of one, two, or three frames, before turning the camera elsewhere. Thus a single second of film could, theoretically, be edited in the camera into 24 discreet images. Although in practice, Mekas varied the length of his shots, theimpression one has as a viewer of his films is of images that are simultaneously intensely present and as elusive as memory. The images are gone before we can fully grasp them. Like still photographers, Mekas has always attempted to capture the essence of the moment, but for him as a filmmaker, that essence is found in movement–the instantaneous transformation of present into past.
That transformation is re-enforced by the soundtracks that he constructs at his editing table–first-person commentaries mixing remembrances with immediate responses as he views and pastes together images that are, by definition, ghosts from the past. Completed in 1992, fourteen years after Maciunas died, Zefiro Torna is both mournful and celebratory. The title, of which the English translation is A Soft Wind Blows, is also the title of a Petrarch elegy and of the Monteverdi duet which was one of Maciunas’s favorite pieces of music and which he used during one of his most inspired performance pieces. Captured by Mekass’ camera, a fragment of this performance appears in Zefiro Torno, a film which is a tribute to a great artist, to a great friendship, and to a community that, I fear, has all but vanished–as Maciunas, with his absurdist wisdom, always
knew it would.