In the New Yorker, Richard Brody appraises the critical writing of Jonas Mekas, on the occasion of the reissue by Columbia University Press of the filmmaker's book Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971. What gives the book its infectious energy, writes Brody, is Mekas's passionate ardor and advocacy for experimental film, at a time when it had virtually no commercial support, and when it faced censorship by New York City authorities. Here's an excerpt from Brody's piece:
Much of “Movie Journal” is indeed devoted to what Mekas considers the “New Cinema,” which is for the most part, but not entirely, what’s often called “experimental” films. He also calls it “underground,” “noncommercial,” and “poetic” cinema (as opposed to narrative films, which he calls “novelistic”), and “personal” cinema as opposed to “public.” His advocacy of these films—as he notes in a new afterword—has indeed withstood the test of time, thanks in large measure to his own exertions as a critic, programmer, distributor, and impresario ...
Mekas writes on the basis of a non-dialectical romanticism of pure opposition and repudiation—of downtown versus uptown, noncommercial versus commercial, above-ground versus underground—that’s rooted in the essential and pure ideals of the filmmakers themselves. The so-called poetic or underground movies that he parses and praises make for a fascinating and alluring parallel world of cinema that, for the most part, sounds great until it’s actually seen. Mekas’s passionate, even ecstatic blend of enthusiasm and critical interpretation often makes for more exalted artistic experiences than many of the works themselves.
Though Mekas discusses these works in detail, what energizes his discussions and exhortations is the impulse behind the films, rather than the films themselves—the lives and dreams of the artists, the harsh demands placed on filmmakers by the effort to create homemade, self-financed, independent films, made by oneself and one’s friends. These are films that repudiate openly the conventions of the commercial cinema, the norms and limits on subject matter and representation, while the filmmakers submit to a horrific range of deprivations and afflictions for the sake of their art. In effect, Mekas offers, both in and as film criticism, extraordinary and enduring sketches of downtown lives.
Image: Jonas Mekas in 1965. Via the New Yorker.