A Raving Maniac of the Cinema


On Film

The anticriticism of Jonas Mekas.

Jonas Mekas

Discussion of American film criticism in the sixties and seventies tends to hew to the Andrew Sarris–Pauline Kael binary. Their legendary, exasperating debate over auteurism and the One True Criticism shaped a generation of writers and the trajectory of film culture, so much so that both writers and their acolytes still haunt the field. But while Sarris/the cultists and Kael/the Paulettes slap-fought at center stage, a third party lobbed firecrackers from the back of the theater—at them, at anyone, at everyone—to disrupt of the status quo and redefine “cinema art.”

Jonas Mekas, now ninety-three, occupies an outsize yet virtually ignored place in the pantheon of film criticism. In 1955, he cofounded the influential magazine Film Culture, which in a 1962–1963 issue included both Sarris’s landmark “Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962” and Manny Farber’s seminal “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” Three years later, on November 12, 1958, he introduced film criticism to the Village Voice. But rather than adjudicate the week’s releases, his “Movie Journal” column was a pulpit for spreading the gospel of underground cinema and the launchpad for broadsides against the establishment and its critics, censorship and its enforcers. Mekas claims a lot of titles—pioneering filmmaker, poet, activist, organizer, rabble-rouser, patron saint of the underground—but, he stated bluntly in 1968, “I am not a critic. I don’t criticize. I am a cold, objective, ‘piercing’ eye that watches things and sees where they are and where they are going and I’m bringing all these facts to your attention.” 

A collection of his columns, Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959–1971, was published in 1972 and went out of print in 1975. (Mekas left the Voice in 1974.) It developed a cult following among cineastes and academics, but remaining out of circulation for more than forty years further marginalized Mekas. In April, though, Movie Journal was finally reissued by Columbia University Press, resuscitating a vital document of the nation’s cultural crack-up, a pulsing record of a decade-plus of art experience, and the unvarnished testimony of a fanatic single-handedly trying to reshape society’s idea of cinema.

Movie Journal is a dense book, but as you might expect, it’s decidedly not a book of criticism. Indeed, Mekas practiced a kind of anticriticism, a bombastic evangelization more concerned with gleefully picking fights and snuffing out apathy than passing judgment on a film or serving as a consumer-guide reviewer. Several columns in the book track his arrests for screening Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, a film deemed obscene by New York City, and his resulting battle with the NYPD, the criminal-justice system, and institutionalized censorship.

“I had intended, with my first columns, to become a ‘serious’ film critic and deal ‘seriously’ with the Hollywood film, very soon I discovered that my critic’s hat was of no great use,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Instead, I had to take a sword and become a self-appointed minister of defense and propaganda of the New Cinema.”

It can be strange to see Mekas trying on that “critic’s hat” in the beginning, reviewing the Hollywood “product” he would soon denounce. “It would be unjust even to attempt to review the film in this narrow space,” he wrote of Maya Deren’s The Very Eye of Night in 1959. “One can describe the plot and a few situations of the usual dramatic motion picture. But it is impossible to capture in words a film which is, basically, a poem, and which affects us not by its story but through its visual associations and symbols.” That sounds like an evasion from someone in over his head, but Mekas is channeling no less than James Agee, who in a 1947 piece for The Nation, was so moved by a film he was similarly dumbstruck: “With deep regret I must postpone my attempt to review Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. I cannot hope to do it justice … In case this leaves any doubt of my opinion of the film, let me say that I think it is one of the best movies ever made.”

After a few months of this kind of feeling out, Mekas settled into his role as propagandist for the New American Cinema, a term he coined for the films created by a loose group of twenty-three filmmakers, including Shirley Clarke, Lionel Rogosin, and Alfred Leslie. Mekas pushed hard for Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa and Clarke’s The Connection, often slamming mainstream critical derision of the films as ignorant dilettantism endangering a new cinema. “You have made no effort to understand a work of art [The Connection], the beauty of which could make you cry,” he harangued in 1962. “You stared at the screen, but you didn’t hear its voice, you didn’t see its images. As far as cinema goes, you are deaf, blind, and dumb.” That scorched-earth tone is easily recognizable in the world of online criticism (and the fading one of blogging), but it was fringe at best a half century ago.

Critics incurred his wrath often as unwitting players in one of the column’s central conflicts: Mekas versus the critical tradition. His aversion to reviewing movies was absolute and predicated, in part, on refusing the “impossible task” of explaining a movie. “What is The End all about? It is not my business to tell you what it’s all about,” he wrote in 1963. “My business is to get you excited about it, to bring it to your attention. I am a raving maniac of the cinema.” It was his task to open minds and senses, destroying biases against underground film while also creating a more active cinematic body politic. And that meant a whole-hog rejection of established critical tenets—especially a measured, clinical disposition that treats film as an inert object rather than a living organism. “I am for exaggerations!” Mekas proclaimed in 1963. “I am surrounded by such a deep layer of mediocrity that I have to shout really loud to succeed in stirring at least somebody to move, one way or another.”

Besides the rabid support he gave to filmmakers and their work (even in cases where they should’ve been denounced), Mekas’s frenetic enthusiasm manifested itself in interviews with New American Cinema figures, dispatches from festivals, and behind-the-scenes reports. (His July 30, 1964, column on Andy Warhol filming Empire is the source of the iconic Warholism, “The Empire State Building is a star!”) To disseminate an array of otherwise disjointed information, he experimented with style, like in his June 21, 1962, column, “Did You Know…,” written almost completely in rhetorical questions that anticipate something like Pete Wells’s takedown of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. He also meticulously documented experiences that overlapped with the new cinema: happenings, Warhol’s Plastic Inevitables, and avant-garde theater performances like one staged by Jack Smith at his Tribeca loft in 1970.

Ever the omnivore, Mekas joyfully brought those disparate interests to bear in his column, even when they were disconnected from movies. But that panoptic viewpoint, coupled with a combustible dogmatism, often singed friends and allies along with enemies. One of the most sensational examples occurred in 1960, when Mekas openly challenged a recut version of John Cassavetes’s Shadows—a film he’d earlier believed could change the course of American cinema—as “just another Hollywood film,” then adding, in an epic dodge, “I have no space for a detailed analysis and comparison of the two versions. It is enough to say that the difference is radical.” Later, Andrew Sarris would earn his druthers when Mekas broke with the auteurists: “I have to confess that very often I pity Andrew Sarris, my good friend—and I pity all the other theorists of the auteur cinema who remain blind to some of the greatest film authors alive,” Mekas wrote in 1965. With friends like these…

It can be difficult to square those circles, given Mekas’s total commitment to a battle and its warriors. But while he’s decidedly a partisan, his battleground is constantly shifting. The minute something got the slightest whiff of respectability, he was onto the next fight, while challenging the previous avant-garde to retain its independent spirit. In the sixties, he went from the New American Cinema to structuralism; from 16mm to 8mm; from writing a column as a spiritual home for the underground to building an actual one in Anthology Film Archives. He made these moves unapologetically, even if they took a while. (In the introduction to Movie Journal, he states he was ready to give up the column as early as 1964 but kept finding excuses to stay.)

That spirit is anathema to the one we typically celebrate with Sarris and Kael, critics who branded themselves early and rarely deviated from their shtick. Mekas never enjoyed the popularity, respectability, or broader success of his contemporaries. But he did “dig the ditches,” as he puts it, to protect new ways of making, watching, and writing about movies that can absolutely be felt today, from amateur successes on YouTube to passionate, hyper-niche online writers. There’s a whole constellation that owes its existence to the advocacy and far-out ideas Mekas set out in his column, and with the republication of Movie Journal perhaps he can return to his rightful place at the center of our cinematic conversation.

Dante A. Ciampaglia is a writer, editor, and photographer in New York. His work has been published by Time, Architectural Record, and Forbes, among others.