When Jonas Mekas Went to Jail

According to an expert in witchcraft, magic, and sorcery, “Flaming Creatures” was an ‘excellent film.’ The cops didn’t think so.


In the March 12, 1964, edition of the Village Voice, contributor Stephanie Gervis Harrington reported that Jonas Mekas demanded to be arrested. The cops obliged.

The New American Cinema has run afoul of the old American determination to keep our culture clean. The first casualties were Village Voice film critic and new wave movie-maker Jonas Mekas and three associates, who spent a night in jail last week on a charge of showing an obscene film. The film, “Flaming Creatures,” made by Jack Smith, is one of the better-known productions of America’s new film avant garde.

“Flaming Creatures” was described by Leslie Trumbull of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which distributes it, as a “fantastic lampoon of commercialized sex and sexual mores.” Accepted as an entry in the recent festival of experimental films at Knokke Le-Zoute, Belgium, but banned from public showing by the Belgian Ministry of Justice, “Flaming Creatures” was given a special “film maudit” (or “damned film”) award by the festival’s selection jury.…

And according to Dr. Joseph Kaster, an instructor in myth and ritual, Greek mythology, Egyptology, and witchcraft, magic, and sorcery at the New School for Social Research, “Flaming Creatures” is an “excellent” film. Dr. Kaster told The Voice that he found the film “full of symbolic motifs” and would like to show it to his myth and ritual class. There is nudity in it, he noted, but “it is there for a point, not for its own sake.” The film, he said, is “not in the lease objectionable.”

The District Attorney’s office, however, did not see it that way. Without making themselves known, plainclothesmen watched “Flaming Creatures” when it opened last Monday night at the Bowery Theatre, 4 St. Mark’s Place. Presumably they did find the film objectionable — or those parts of it that included shots of male sex organs and female breasts — because the next night the film and four of those involved in its showing were seized by the police. Mekas, a founder and guiding light of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, was not at the theatre at the time, but when he was notified of what was happening, he rushed down and demanded that he be arrested too. The police obliged.…

They were arraigned shortly before noon the following day on a charge of showing an “indecent, lewd, and obscene” film and released without bail on the recognizance of their lawyer. Trial was set for March 16. In the meantime, the regular Tuesday and Wednesday night showings of New American Cinema films at the New Bowery are continuing. And last Saturday Mekas ran continuous half-hour showings of the Jean Genet film “Un Chant d’Amour,” a homosexual love story set in a prison, at the Writers’ Stage Theatre, 83 East 4th Street. The police did not interrupt the showing, although Mekas reports that they were in view outside the theatre.

In that same issue, Mekas foreshadows his fate in his regular column:

“Hollywood has created an image in the minds of the people that cinema is only entertainment and business. What we are saying is that cinema is also art. And the meanings and values of art are not decided in courts or prisons.”