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Premieres & Events

"I Owe It All To Jonas Mekas"

In honor of the release of the Village Voice Film Guide, BAM invited the formidable critical quartet of Guide editor (and former Voice film section boss) Dennis Lim, Jim Hoberman, Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas to select and screen a film for discussion earlier this week. Their choice, Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, got everyone reliably choked up for the post-screening chat, though Sarris did manage to veer spectacularly from his awe of the film to his general distaste for Bresson ("He leaves out things that are very important: Acting, things like that.") and spotting the filmmaker in Venice while hanging out with Battle of Algiers director Gillo Pontecorvo, whom Sarris described as quite the tennis player.

(L-R) Jonas Mekas's chair, Andrew Sarris and Jim Hoberman following a Dec. 4 screening of Au Hasard Balthazar at BAM (Photo: STV)

But the biggest, longest story of the night was mostly Mekas's absence; no call, no note -- just AWOL. As a packed house wished for the best, Sarris spoke about the legendary Voice critic/filmmaker/raconteur. "I'm sorry Jonas isn't here," he said, gesturing toward the empty seat to his right. "Apparently he isn't going to be here tonight for some reason -- some very good reason, I'm sure. But I'd like to say right off the bat -- and in a way I'm glad he's not here for me to say this because he's always embarrassed when I say it -- but he is the reason I'm here tonight. He's the reason I'm anywhere tonight. If it weren't for Jonas, I would never be in film at all. I'd just gotten out of the Army in 1954, and I was taking a course at Columbia University -- one of the few film courses that were being given at that time. In fact, originally, when I was at Columbia from '46 to '51 or something, I had originally taken a course in creative writing, and I had to go through an interview with F.W. Dupee -- I don't know if any of you have any of you have ever heard of him. He was a very renowned academic. And you had to tell him what you wanted to write, and I told him I wanted to write film criticism. I'd been picking up on old film critics from the '30s and '40s, and I was a film buff and enthusiast, and I wanted to be a film critic. And he said, 'Oh, no, you don't want to be a film critic -- we've already lost Jim Agee to film criticism; he was a beautiful writer and we lost him to the movies. You don't want to do that.' That was the general academic attitude then and much later."

Of course, if you know how it turned out for Sarris, you're likely just as certain the story is worth a read following the jump. -- S.T. VanAirsdale

"So when I got out of the Army in '54, I hadn't gotten anywhere with employment, so I decided that I was going to go to Teachers College and take a few courses and go and teach English in high school or something, just to make a living. And while I was at Teachers College, I took this one course in the Center of Mass Communication -- a very good course, it would stand in comparison to any course given at this time. But one day in the course -- and I was always raising my hand; I always had opinions and things like that -- the person who was giving the course introduced somebody who had just started a new film magazine. And he said, 'This is Jonas Mekas.' I'd never heard of Jonas Mekas -- no one had ever heard of Jonas Mekas. Someone said he was the Lithuanian poet laureate or something or other, but he had come to the United States, and his new magazine was called Film Culture. It was a very glossy magazine with all kinds of distinguished backers, including James Agee and people like that. Somehow, Jonas had managed to bring all these people together and let their names be used in support of the publication.

"He had a lot of interesting articles from writers abroad -- very distinguished filmmakers and writers abroad -- but their English was ipso facto, comme ci comme ├ža -- and he needed someone to help edit that magazine. And so the professors at Columbia recommended me, and I said, 'I'd be glad to help you eidt the magazine, but in return I'd like to review a movie.' The first movie I reviewed for him at that time was Country Girl, with Bing Crosby. And I wrote a vicious pan of it ... I just tore it apart like I did in conversations with other film enthusiasts. And I was shocked -- shocked -- to see how it looked on the printed page. And that taught me a big lesson that you can't just use conversation and just put in there. I was really stunned by that.

"Anyway, that was the beginning of my association with Jonas, and that was the first time my work had appeared in print. Except for the Fort Evans dispatch, which is another story. But anyway, and that went on for a few years, and didn't really make any money. For a while I worked with David O. Selznick and Darryl F. Zanuck when he had a New York office; I'd look at screenplays. But still nothing much was happening. Then one day, I had a job to cover the 1960 census in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was walking down the street and who should I bump into again? I hadn't seen Jonas for a few years. I'd contributed articles on-and-off, but it was very intermittent. But I bumped into him again, and he said, 'I'm glad I bumped into you -- I'm shooting my film -- Guns of the Trees -- and I just started writing a column in this paper called the Village Voice. I was wondeirng if you'd pinch-hit for me for a few weeks.' And I'd never heard of the Village Voice. And one day in 1960, I walked into the office of the Village Voice. And you know, these days, if I bumped into A.O. Scott or somebody from The Times, and they said, 'I want you to go to my editor and tell him you're filling in for me for a few weeks,' they'd throw me out the window.

"The Voice at that time was very loose and easy, and Jerry Tallmer was the editor then, and his first love was theater. He invented off-Broadway theater, more or less. And he had Jonas on; a lot of people would write angry letters and say, 'Why don't you get a real film critic?' because Jonas's writing was very personal. And he didn't know me from Adam. And he hated Psycho. And at that time, I'd begun hearing about Cahiers du Cinema -- a friend of mine had gone to Europe and had sent me letters, and we were writing back forth and I became aware of Cahiers du Cinema and I became aware of their line on American cinema. And I wrote kind of the first Cahiers du Cinema-style review of Hitchcock in America. Anyway, I remember Jerry Tallmer hated Janet Leigh's brassiere; he thought it was typical of Hitchcock's plastic attitude toward life. And... whatever.

"The piece appeared, and it got more angry mail than any piece that had ever appeared in the Village Voice. And that made my reputation. I stayed there for 29 years. My column in the Village Voice made me, and I owe it all to Jonas Mekas. So I want to thank him publicly and personally; I'm sorry he's not here to hear that. He had been a great force in the community; he still is at Antholgy Film Archives. I don't know how he does it. I've never known how he did it, but he kept doing it. And he's been one of the largest people in my life. And I'd like to pay tribute to him right now."

Hoberman nodded and smiled. "I can blame him for my career at the Voice also," he said, "because in 1971 or '72 I was just out of school, I was driving a cab and I was living on the Lower East Side. And anyway, Jack Smith's movie Flaming Creatures suddenly came back into view; it was impossible to show it for many years. I saw it and was very impressed with it. I was only dimly aware that there had already been this huge controversy about it in the Voice eight years before. I wrote something about it, I sent it into the Voice cold, and one day, I picked up the Voice and there it was. Jonas had just run this article. And I had a physical response: I was very scared when I saw my name in the paper. The whole thing was very traumatic and my friends said, 'You wrote something for the Village Voice?' At that point, the Voice was the most right-wing of the alternative press that was out there. I mean, there was the East Village Other, The Rat -- the Voice was sort of this establishment paper. And then I got a check for $25 or something a couple of weeks later.

"But I was very traumatized by this. But then a year later I saw some Brakhage films and I did the same thing again -- but I was much more cautious this time. I had briefly rented a loft on the corner of Clinton and Delancey streets, and I made up a name for myself: Clinton Delancey. And I sent it in, and he ran it again! But it still took me a while before I was able to become a kind of freelancer, and the editor responsible for that was Richard Goldstein. But it's completely because of Jonas and his amazing openness that he would do that -- just take it and publish it and there it was."

Posted at December 7, 2006 4:20 PM

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