The many lives of Adolfas Mekas

Adolfas Mekas with cinematic halo (Photo by Syd M)


In his book of short stories Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, neuroscientist David Eagleman imagines three deaths. The first death is when the body ceases to function: the second death is when the body is put in the grave. The third death occurs at the moment when your name is spoken for the last time by the living. Between the second and third deaths, a lot of time can pass, and you, Dead Person, spend that time waiting in a lobby of sorts: the lobby of the afterlife, eating cookies and drinking coffee and chit-chatting with other people whose names are still spoken. Imagine the people who are there, waiting for that third death: lots of the recently departed who are still remembered and mentioned fondly (or not) by their friends and families; but also Julius Caesar, George Washington, Emma Goldman, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo, Galileo, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, Abbie Hoffman, John Lennon, Giordano Bruno.

Bruno, a Dominican friar and philosopher who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600, can partly blame a relative newcomer to the afterlife for his continuing state of limbo: Adolfas Mekas. At the time of his first death in May 2011, Adolfas was planning a film project about his dear Bruno. With typical irreverence, Adolfas dubbed the monk “the first beatnik,” and called the film Burn Bruno Burn. The film, like Adolfas, is currently in Limbo. He was working on the script the day that he died, and David Avallone, one of his former students, continues to work on the project.

There are many reasons why Adolfas Mekas’ name is still spoken today. Consider his legacy: a seminal figure in American avant-garde film; a founder, along with his brother Jonas Mekas, of the influential journal Film Culture, which championed the avant-garde cinema; part of the gang of rebel filmmakers who formed the New American Cinema Group and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which sought to circumvent the big-budget Hollywood hegemony in the 1960s. (Their 1962 manifesto said, “We don’t want false, polished, slick films – we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films – we want them the color of blood.”)

Adolfas was also a prodigious writer, a raconteur, a scamp. He was the founding father of Bard College’s People’s Film Department, where for decades he encouraged (and pushed) his students (myself included) to take leaps of faith. Film historian P. Adams Sitney said of Adolfas the professor, “What he came to call ‘The People’s Film Department’ was his theater of hijinks; for he surprised even himself with his enormous didactic gifts, his startling administrative skill and his unceasing fount of comic invention. His own fractured education and his nearly total disregard for academic decorum made him the ideal professor. Nowhere in the archives of film is there an invented character who could come near the brilliant, lovable, outrageous mischief that consistently turned his classrooms into arenas of magic. He taught generations how to see and act.”

Adolfas’ best-known film, Hallelujah the Hills (1963), was featured at the very first New York Film Festival, and was a hit at Cannes. It made Jean-Luc Godard wax rhapsodic: “Adolfas is someone to be reckoned with. He is a master in the field of pure invention, that is to say, in working dangerously – ‘without a net.’ His film, made according to the good old principle – one idea for each shot – has the lovely scent of fresh ingenuity and crafty sweetness.”

Working without a net was old hat to Adolfas. A native son of Lithuania, he and his older brother Jonas were captured by the Nazis in the waning days of World War II. They survived a Nazi labor camp, and as refugees after the war, they eventually made their way to New York City. There, the brothers Mekas were seized by the passion that would shape the rest of their lives, as Adolfas described in his diary:


“December 31, 1950 Maspeth.

Last hours of this year. Film is my only reality.
Through film I can reach a man. Today I measure everything according to film: Is he (it) filmic, can it be used in a film?
Nothing else exists. Like in the old day nothing existed besides theatre, makeup, the backstage. Or in other times – only literature had meaning. They were all real those years. Today my world has contracted into a square of light in darkness. It is a play for the eyes, nothing else. No – all is a game of lights. Of shadows.There I stand in front of a mirror in my room. On the mirror is a large movie frame painted in black. I am in the frame. I start the projector and it shines on me from the back and into the mirror. I am in the movie, let the clock strike 12! Now!”


Now. Now Adolfas is not here, but there. Yet now his presence continues to be felt here (and there). This past October, Anthology Film Archives in New York presented a retrospective program of Adolfas’ complete film works. In December of last year he was doubly honored in India, first by the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, which presented a retrospective of his films as part of the Experimenta 2011 film festival (and also awarded its first Adolfas Mekas Experimenta award), and with a retrospective in the Kerala International Film Festival.

Oddly, Adolfas is perhaps least well-known in his native land, where brother Jonas is the more famous Mekas. This month that changed, as monthlong retrospectives of Adolfas’ work, along with the work of some of his many filmmaking students, were shown in Vilnius, Launas and Kalipeda, Lithuania. In attendance were his wife Pola Chapelle, a multifaceted artist in her own right (who now answers to “The Widow Mekas”) and their son Sean, a photographer and visual artist.

Adolfas is still fondly remembered by many here in the world of the living for his hijinks, his continual reinvention, his persistent creation of la dolce vita. So it is that, as happens when one is stuck in the afterlife lobby, his name is invoked again and again as his work and life are appreciated anew. He’s surely enjoying his time chatting up Giordano and Galileo and Gertrude (and his old pals John and Abbie), and it looks like he’s going to be there for a while.

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