Beauty’s Progenitor: The Film Art of Jonas Mekas

At the end of the New York premier of Sleepless Nights Stories at the Anthology Film Archives this past winter, the then 88-year-old Jonas Mekas (he turned 89 on Christmas Eve) walked up to the front of Anthology’s sprawling upstairs theatre accompanied by his 30-year-old son Sebastian, who serves as his assistant. Mekas has a frail, sprite-like appearance, his head bald except for a few wisps of hair and almost always covered with a hat or a toque, the skin on his liver-spotted face and hands papery and translucent, his eyes pale blue and laughing and hyper-alert. When he spoke, in response to an elaborate question that had something to do with the violence of “shooting” films, his Lithuanian accent still heavy after more than 60 years in the United States, he was, by turns, petulant and gay: “I have never used the camera for violence, never, the camera is not for violence, it is for beauty!”

Unlike avant-garde filmmakers and artists of more recent generations, Jonas Mekas is not a theoretician; he is a poet; and when he speaks, even about the most mundane topics, the gentle lilt in his voice, hands flying, makes him sound as though he is reciting poetry. In a way he is.

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