In a studio above a pizza place in Miami’s Design District, a film projects onto a screen. Scenes of life flicker past. The graininess and clothing style give away the time - late 1960s. But, the activities are familiar today: eating burgers, playing music with friends, taking a walk in the woods. For a brief moment a page with typewriter script flashes the name “Walden” on the screen.
This is Jonas Mekas’ seminal avant-garde film from 1969.
Ninety-three-year old Mekas is showing his work for the first time in Miami. And for film enthusiasts like Obsolete Media Miami’s Kevin Arrow and Barron Sherer it’s a chance to meet one of the fathers of American avant-garde cinema.
A screening this weekend will feature Mekas’ personal copy of “Walden,” but even watching the DVD version is captivating. Arrow and Sherer watch the short scenes play out and they can’t help but add a running commentary.
“He’s in that one spot, for a long time. I mean, look how the light just changed. This wasn’t over the course of five minutes,” says Arrow as a time lapse of a harbor plays. But soon the screen is filled with a title page with the name of a filmmaker.
A time lapse of boats in a harbor plays just briefly. In seconds it’s on to the next scene: a title page with the name of a filmmaker.
“[Mekas is] like a rapper,” says Sherer. “He’s name-checking all his heroes. There’s [Carl Theodor] Dreyer and he dedicated the movie to [the motion picture pioneers] Lumière”
For both Sherer and Arrow, Mekas is somewhat of an idol in part because of the organization they run together: Obsolete Media Miami, or OMM. Like Mekas and the institution he started, Anthology Film Archives in New York, OMM is an eclectic world of film, photography, archive curation and a community center for those with a passion for the documentation of life. In many ways they try and emulate Mekas’ work.
“I can’t help but feel the exuberance,” says Arrow, watching the film. “I can really just feel the enthusiasm and it’s really sublime and beautiful what he’s doing.”
When asked to introduce himself, Jonas Mekas lists some of the obvious—poet, filmmaker, maverick—then breaks down to say he’s “basically a farmer.”
“I am very down to earth and practical and I do only what’s really needed. That's what farmers do,” says Mekas.
Mekas doesn’t explain his work using any deep philosophical narrative because, in many ways, his work is simply a reflection of the way he sees the world. It’s not work, per-se.
But Mekas does know a thing or two about farming. He was on a path to farm life in his home country of Lithuania until World War II broke out. He was imprisoned in a labor camp in Germany for a while. He later escaped and hid until the end of the war when he ended up in a displaced persons camps in Germany.
At 27, though, he arrived in New York City.
“Everything was changing,” say Mekas “[There] was John Cage. Then there was Buckminster Fuller coming in. Warhol… I mean I was so lucky to be in New York in the beat generation, of course, and hippies,and yuppies”
It was during this period of change for him and New York that Mekas started picking up a camera. He turned it on now-legendary counter-culture figures that were simply his friends: John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few.
But it was not the celebrity he captures in this early filming for works like "Walden." He capturing bits of life: a few seconds here, a minute there.
“It's like 1,000 Instagrams strung together,” says Mekas of his work like “Walden.”
And watching the film, the comparison is uncanny. He captures glimpses of those small things—eating burgers or playing with friends. And it’s clear watching the film that he delights in these “everyday climaxes,” as he calls them.
“It’s recorded according to my temperament, how I feel that moment when I am filming,” says Mekas. “Same as how the musician feels when he is improvising with [an] instrument.”
Mekas says his work isn’t all that different from what people do all the time now on social media. But his method of artistic improvisation reads differently than the average social media contributor.
That difference is captured in one of the series of photographs that will be on display in Miami at Diet Gallery. In a grid hang stills from Elvis’ last concert in New York City. All the photos are of “the King,” bell bottomed and hairy chested. “And there’s this sort of adoring audience, but also this sort of halo behind him in the way the images are lit and double exposed,” says Nina Johnson-Milewski, owner of Diet Gallery.
“I think it’s something Jonas does so well, this sort of between journalism and image making, in a more high art sense,” she says.
But in many ways that “high art sense” isn’t in the framing or lighting. It’s in the way his work manages to explore and express a deep appreciation for life.
“When you look at some of these photographs, you can feel so much empathy for the subject and that’s something that a lot of us have lost,” says Johnson-Milewski. “Maybe in looking at so many people constantly on social media or whatever it might be, we don’t always relate to them in an empathetic way. And I think that’s what we could all benefit from.”
When Mekas arrived in New York at 27, he vowed he’d stay 27: always young, always pushing, always appreciating the fun of life.
And so at 93, he’s showing his work for the first time in Miami with a screening of his film "Walden" and a gallery show he’s titled “Let Me Introduce Myself."
"Walden" will be screened in Miami's Design District March, 26 at 7:00 p.m. Jonas Mekas' show at Diet Gallery will run March, 24-April, 30.
Below is Barron Sherer's tribute to Jonas Mekas. Sherer took photographs from his Instagram feed and printed it on film, four frames per image, to create a "Mekasesque" movie.