Earlier this week, filmmaker, writer, editor, publisher, and professor Adolfas Mekasdied at the age of 85. He was an important voice in the burgeoning underground scene in New York in the 1950s and '60s, first as co-publisher along with his brother Jonas of Film Culture magazine then as a filmmaker — his film Hallelujah the Hills is an important work of the early '60s avant-garde. While Jonas immersed himself in the NYC art and film scene, making films and co-founding Anthology Film Archives, among other accomplishments, Adolfas headed upstate to co-found the film department at Bard College in 1971, and he taught there until the early years of the 21st century.
In 2007, I interviewed Adolfas about his brother for my arts journalism thesis project, which focused on Jonas' 365 Films project and his importance to film culture (digital and otherwise). Adolfas was extremely gracious with his time and spoke freely and candidly about a host of topics: Jonas, his departure from Bard, the difference between film and cinema, what constitutes cinema in the digital age, and on and on. Despite only knowing each other through a brief email exchange, he spoke with me as if we went way back, something I always appreciated.
The plan for the interview — and the 4,000-word magazine-ready piece I wrote as my thesis — was to get it published after I graduated. That never happened. So rather than have this interview languish on a hard drive, I share it here as my own way of remembering this titan of American cinema.
When I met with Jonas, he gave me a copy of I Had Nowhere to Go…
You wrote about it [in your e-mail], yes.
It’s an impressive thing to read, especially the connection between you two.
(Laughs) Well we are brothers. What do you expect?
Well, no, that’s true. But sometimes you hear about brother or relatives who, besides having the familial connection, don’t really have a lot, you know, that connects them.
And obviously the shared experiences between you two are very great…
No, we are brothers. We lived together until two days before I got married.
When was that?
That was in ’65.
We always lived together, we did everything together, we went to the same places together. (Laughs) And there were a few times when we were in love with the same girl. (Laughs) And also we had a telepathic way of communicating, so we didn’t have to talk much. We understood what we were doing and we knew what we would be saying, so we didn’t have to say it many times. We were that close. And we worked on our projects all the time, on Film Culture and films until we sort of separated from living together when I got married.
What was it about cinema that connected with you and Jonas so greatly that it made you want to do it for the rest of your lives?
Well, we came from the background of literature. And I, besides literature, had a background in the theater as an actor and director. So when we came to the States, we realized literature would have to go to sleep, that theater had to be put to sleep, so the natural progression was cinema, which did not require English. So that, I would say, is my understanding how we came into the cinema. And of course we were fascinated… After the labor camps, in 1944-45, suddenly, after three or four years of being deprived of what’s happening in the world, we got exposed to fantastic cinema, mostly French because we were in Germany in the French occupied section. And there it was, everything just opened up. When you saw [Cocteau’s] Beauty and the Beast, this is language of the future. And I think the early post-war cinema really captivated us and seduced us into cinema.
And when you came to the States and created Film Culture and started to create films of your own, what attracted you to the idea of the avant-garde or personal cinema?
The main… Of course we started to read the history of cinema. And reading about the French avant-garde, the German avant-garde, Hans Richter… it was fantastic to read. We had never seen anything like that, and luckily MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, had a series when we came to the States, they had a series going on the French avant-garde. And it was fantastic. And also at the same time, Cinema 16 by Amos Vogel was running strange avant-garde series, where a lot of the European and American avant-garde screened. And it was fascinating. Besides, also, the classical cinema, proper cinema, was fascinating, and we spent three years going to cinema three or four times a day and we had this fantastic cinema, Arcadia Cinema. I don’t know if you know about that, on 98th Street, Broadway and 98th Street…
It used to have a three-month festival each year where it showed two movies a day of what was considered world classic cinema. So in three months you saw almost 200 films! (Laughs) That you’ve never seen before! This was our University of Cinema. But the avant-garde, it was very, very close. Documentary and avant-garde… To me, documentary than to Jonas. But we were part of the avant-garde scene in New York because we knew everybody, who’s who, and when we started Film Culture magazine it wasn’t really directed towards the avant-garde. You have seen, perhaps, the first issues that were world-wide, the magazine, and then slowly, very, very slowly, through controversies, started to favor the avant-garde. I’m sure you’re aware of these controversies that occurred in issues three or four…
I think so.
Where we published a huge attack on American avant-garde…
OK, yeah. That’s right.
…where Brakhage and Maya Deren got together and tried to sue us. I think they discussed their plan and someone said, “Don’t!” (Laughs) But that’s history. And there were times, years, where we weren’t talking to Maya or Stan Brakhage for stupid reasons. That was all rectified later.
Right. Was it you or Jonas or the both of you that decided to make that slow push towards focusing more on the avant-garde?
No, it was natural.
I think because we weren’t really directed towards Hollywood, neither myself nor Jonas. So we were still living in that Cocteau, Hans Richter spirit of rebellion. And it became, we’re talking about the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and this was also the beginning of the rebellious movement in American literature and the arts. So even though we were a little bit older than those people we felt part of this rebellion because rebellion was apparently in our blood.
So we embraced the avant-garde fully. And when Amos Vogel of Cinema 16 refused to distribute a Stan Brakhage film, it became an open warfare (laughs). So we go forward. You know the case of that, the case of Amos Vogel refusing to distribute Stan Brakhage.
I know a little bit about it, yeah.
Yeah, so that’s where we became politicized. That’s where, also, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative started at that time.
When did you make the decision to move from filmmaker, publisher of Film Culture primarily, to teaching?
I spent about… I made several films. And then the monies dried up for independent productions. At the end of the ‘60s, beginning of the ‘70s the monies dried up. I pushed for about seven or eight years, pushed my scripts, my feature-length scripts, pushed various sources, agents, lawyers, and some of my scripts, especially two of them, were sitting with Warner Bros. for five years, and they died. And the cost of making feature films was getting out of hand by that time. And my interest was in feature film. So I started editing other films to make money. And then the teaching opportunity offered by P. Adams Sitney, so I took it. I said I’ll be there for a semester, and then I stayed there for 32 years. And I quit. I did not retire, I quit.
Because I could not teach the freshman anymore. It became too much.
Each freshman would come in with six or seven feature films under their arms, made on video of course. But they had never heard of Orson Welles, they had never seen anything five years from yesterday. So I could not teach them. So I quit.
They have no idea what cinema is. And Bard College is a college for rich kids, and each one of them had relatives, cousins, friends, uncles who are in business, agents. Mostly agents. “Oh yeah, my uncle’s an agent. I can sell any script I want to.” They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
No, I suffered for a couple years and then said I can’t do this. It was insane.
Yeah. It’s interesting that that’s how your teaching career ending considering you essentially built this Film and Electronic Arts Program there. Do they still attach your name with it?
They did not accept the word cinema, the administration, because they did not know what cinema is. I used to tell them that what you put into the camera is film, what comes out is cinema. They could not understand that. But we had one of the last surviving departments that dealt with cinema, not with Hollywood. We dealt with Hollywood, too, but cinema only. Since I quit, I think it will be changing. I don’t know what other college or university will still be doing this anymore.
That’s also interesting to hear because in talking with Jonas and doing some reading to hear and see the number of film schools that exploded in the ‘60s and how places like Film-Makers’ Co-Op and Anthology Film Archives helped to get films to them. And now to hear that these programs are going away… It’s kind of sad.
Yeah, it is. I think we still have three people in the department that I selected, that I hired, and that were still faithful to what I would say is the New York Independent School. But I don’t know how long they will stay there. Because now the department has gotten larger, and those people that come in with the video experience only they cannot understand the mechanics of cinema. How a cut makes a difference. A cut is understood very differently by the MTV-educated or nurtured people because a cut is a very, very specific moment in transition from one scene to another that goes back to Pudovkin and the masters of cutting. They just have no understanding of this.
Cutting is the essence of cinema.
Yeah, and that’s something that gets lost when you don’t physically cut film or you just do it on your computer.
Yeah, because they’re so used to sound so their cutting is directed or motivated by sound, nothing else. That’s the opposite of cinema. And that’s one of the reasons why we would show silent cinema and the students would fall asleep.
They could not understand. How can you show films without sound? OK. So what else do you want to know?
Has Jonas always been a leader or had a leadership kind of personality?
(Laughs) No. No, he was very reclusive. He was a monk until quite recently when he became outspoken… Not outspoken, but outgoing. The way you see him in those 365 moments, he did not exist like that 30 years ago. He was a monk who never spoke in public, who never betrayed his emotions, never danced or sang (laughs) like he’s doing in those moments.
What do you think changed?
You know, when he separated slowly… He and his wife separated very slowly. Actually she became a sort of a Buddhist-oriented woman, metaphysical and all that stuff. And I think a new world opened up for Jonas. He met many, many young people around the world, and eventually he just opened up. And that was unexpected because I used to be the clown and the actor at all the gatherings and I would make fool out of myself all the time. But now Jonas is making a fool out of himself. Something that he never did. He never said a word at gatherings or social events; he was just observing and snickering. Now, he’s made a complete 180-degree turn from what he was 30 years ago. Now he’s an exhibitionist. He loves it.
He loves it?
Yeah. When I get together with him in New York, it’s not my brother that I used to know. (Laughs) He’s acting. I know that half of it is acting; it’s not the true Jonas. The same thing when he spoke a couple years back, when soon after he… Years back, when he finished writing all those articles in the Village Voice and other magazines supporting everything the quote-unquote avant-garde filmmakers made as great and fantastic and all that. And some of it is bullshit! It’s bad! He said, “I have to do that. I have to support it.” That was his mission, support all these things. “Someday,” he said, “I might say exactly what I think of it.” That day hasn’t come yet. He knew that some of the things he said was fantastic, I know that, he knows that it was bullshit. But he did it.
Well what do you think of the short films he’s putting on his website?
You know, what it is… I do that all the time, myself. I have hours and hours of my travels, my home movies. But I don’t see any sense in putting them on. See, what it is, it’s not him it’s his controllers who are promoting him, you know that.
Yeah. And they are trying to cash in before he dies. So they are trying and Jonas is enjoying that. It’s fun time. He can show all his travels, and most of it’s original stuff with some moments from the past. But that’s not cinema. This is clips of his personal diaries. Which could be a new genre, I imagine, but I don’t know where it leads. Do you know?
I don’t. I’ve thought about that, and there are people who do sort of similar things that they call, I guess, video podcasting online. But it’s more, like, a talk show I guess, where people are on there discussing news or issues or their opinions, I guess. It’s not just a diary of their everyday life.
It’s a cross between YouTube and something else.
Yeah. And it’ll be interesting to see if it leads to anything. Because I’ve never seen anything else like it on the Internet. But I don’t know if I ever will again, either. Because it’s not exactly like YouTube, but it’s not different enough from YouTube to be something cinema, like you said.
Yeah. No, the real idea before this started, we spoke about it, and I thought this would be three eight-minute films. It started like that in the very beginning, but it became “This is what I did there, this is what I did with that.” Have you been watching these things?
For example, when he went to Finland for the film festival there, so what you see is his buddies jumping out of the sauna into the water outside. You don’t see their faces, even; I recognize them. Is that cinema?
(Laughs) Uhm…. I don’t know.
No, but since you’re writing this, think about it. Watch more of his stuff and think… You can figure these things out because I’m not educated to see as a PhD. I see it as is. So, what the hell is it? It’s up to you to decide.
Well, if I come up with a good answer I’ll let you know.
I would like to.
Because this is something that I’ve been thinking about because there are people who go on YouTube and post a video of them on their bike jumping over something or they fell off their bike or something.
Yeah. I watch quite a few YouTubes of people that I know, and it’s boring. But if it was for sale, I wouldn’t pay for it.
Yeah. Well, when I talked to him he wished that they were all free.
His handlers are doing all this for him, and that wasn’t his idea.
Yeah. That’s sort of the impression I’m getting, as well.
You know who they are, right? I don’t have to mention names.
No, I know who they are. The gallery owners.
Yep. So, if there’s anything else you need, you can call here. I’ll be here for two more weeks, then I leave for Italy for two months. My wife is there already, so I have to join her soon. I spend two months in Italy in the summer. My wife has a villa in Tuscany on the coast. So, if you want anything else I’ll be here for another two weeks and then I’ll be gone for two months.
OK. Thanks so much, and I appreciate your time.