Jonas Mekas, Raving Maniac, Champion of Visionaries


Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde isn’t a film about its subject so much as his spirit. Chuck Workman’s latest clip job, which had its local premiere at the last Tribeca Film Festival, doesn’t look like a Mekas film, but this celebration of (mostly) American avant-garde filmmakers evokes Mekas’s informality and inclusive enthusiasm—as Andy Warhol tells an interviewer of the self-described “raving maniac of cinema,” Jonas “just got excited about anything.”

There’s a sense in which Mekas might be regarded as the movie’s author. Arriving here from Lithuania by way of a German DP camp around 1950, Mekas not only made his own movies but, as a tireless writer (in the Voice for 16 years), editor, fund-raiser, and organizer, created an art movement that he continues to champion—even now, at the age of 88. In its rambling, offhanded way, Visionaries notes New American Cinema landmarks (Meshes of the Afternoon, Flaming Creatures, Wavelength) and maps its territory with statements—visual and verbal—by the movement’s prominent members, fellow travelers, and advocates, including Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Norman Mailer, David Lynch, P. Adams Sitney, and Amy Taubin.

There’s not much that’s historical or even systematic to Workman’s impressionistic approach, but there’s something to be said for his film’s immediacy and insistence on the image—a lot, actually. Jumping from a Shirley Clark city symphony to a Brakhage mega-home-movie to a Harry Smith abstraction, Visionaries‘ heedless montage brought back the sense of crazy possibility that excited me when, as a teenage kid from Queens, I first encountered Mekas’s world.