On Tuesday, January 15, 2013, Jonas Mekas received the insignia of the Commander of the Order of Arts et Lettres. Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, presided over the ceremony and delivered the following speech.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Chers amis,
I’m particularly happy to welcome you as we are about to honour one of the most innovative… Well, in fact, I cannot define you in one sentence, dear Jonas.
Being a filmmaker and critic is just one piece of your creative spectrum. You are also a major American film programmer and preservationist, and one of the greatest literary and visual poet in two languages, on two continents, and through two centuries.
It is my privilege and pleasure to honor you tonight as the Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy. I extend a warm welcome to your family, your son Sebastian, and friends who have come to show their admiration and support.
I heard, cher Jonas, that you celebrated your 90th birthday a few weeks ago. I’m not sure if it is appropriate in an official ceremony, and it’s not the reason we’re here, but I can’t resist wishing you a very joyeux anniversaire!
To mark this momentous occasion, the Anthology Film Archives – the alma mater that you created yourself and is now a model for the free world of cinema – assembled a retrospective of your works during which many distinguished guests have appeared and spoken in your honor.
Well, we are here tonight to do exactly the same.
We celebrate you and pay tribute to your tireless work on behalf of independent cinema.
I am very pleased to recognize a major figure of the Anthology Film Archive – Sitney P. Adams, its co-founder who’s also a brilliant historian of avant-garde cinema and Professor at Princeton. And of course, I would like to thank the Consul General of Lithuania, Mr. Sarapinos, for being here. I know how important your mother country is for you.
The reason why we are all gathered here tonight, dear Jonas, is because you pioneered the underground film movement. For example, among incredibly varied things, you are the inventor of “cine-journal”.
Ciné-journal is an exceptional new form of cinema, which allowed you to chronicle the most important events, scenes, and figures of our time – from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Jackie Onassis, from Allen Ginsberg to Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali and many others. But you have also treated many rabbits, sparrows and flowers with the same love and respect and so, thanks to you, they will be remembered as long as films will be seen.
You have a unique sensibility and are able to capture personal moments of beauty and joy. Your film The Brig was awarded the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and more recently, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, was selected by the United States National Film Preservation Board to be preserved at the Library of Congress.
And I would like to say that many of your other films, such as Guns of the Trees, Walden, Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol, have inspired major filmmakers of our time. Jim Jarmush, Mike Figgis, Harmony Korine and Martin Scorsese for example have acknowledged you as a key influence in their works.
But you are not only an adventurer and a rebel who brought a poetic cause to filmmaking. You are also a fighter and an activist, leading battles on several fields at the same time.
On your first battlefield, you have fought with humor, kindness and exceptional generosity, your superninja to preserve classic films in the United States.
You are so embedded in this struggle that a documentary, Free Radicals, by Pip Chodorov, was dedicated to your achievements.
To do this noble work, you used two powerful tools, or super-ninja weapons, your pen and your wits:
– You used your pen to create Film Culture magazine in 1954. This soon became the most important film publication in the US. In the sixties and seventies, you wrote the legendary Movie Journal column in the Village Voice.
– You used your wits to co-create two of the finest cinema institutions in New York City : the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives.
Please allow me to delve into this point… since the Anthology Film Archives has one of the world’s largest and most important repertories of avant-garde cinema.
In fact, the archives include so many French films that it is easier to view them in New York than in Paris. Thanks to you, New York is the place where you can see films by incredible and legendary filmmakers like Lumière, Méliès, Franju, Bonello and L’Herbier. Recently I was able to see Jean Rouch and Jean Epstein, my absolute favorite.
Dear Jonas, tonight, France declares you a champion for film preservation. Thanks to you, and the Essential Cinema project, new audiences can discover the rich heritage of International avant-garde cinema. Thanks to you, the films of artists such as Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs are preserved for the future.
Your second battlefield is about creation. You have produced a thriving experimental scene and an autonomous artistic sphere with unbelievable foresight.
Indeed, you saw into the future and embraced the possibility of digital cinema long ago. And you go on. Recently, you completed a series of 365 short films released on the internet – one film every day – and since then have continued to share new works on your website.
Your work is characterized by the way it develops the forms of dialogue, exchange and circulation:
-Your writings and films are often addresses and declarations; your books stem from messages and postcards (Artists’ Book, 2003, is a collection of letters received over the years from diverse personalities such as Fernand Léger, Carl Andre, Joan Crawford and Michelangelo Antonioni),
– Your artistic collective achievements build a community for the arts, notably the Filmmakers Cooperative that became a model for all the film cooperatives in the world.
– Your work takes place in a history of forms that lead us from Monet to Free Jazz and from Dada to Fluxus. In this special history, art is the creative expansion of the many possible relationships with the present.
The Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerin – with whom you shared a video correspondence that was just exhibited at the Pompidou Center in Paris – once said about you: (quote) «Jonas is a luminary, not just as a filmmaker, but also as an underground agitator and as the keeper of cinema’s memory. There’s something of Henri Langlois about him. Sometimes I think that it is as if André Bazin, Langlois and Jean-Luc Godard had come together in this new American cinema that is his. »
And it’s not over! There is a third battlefield. The battlefield of transmission. You offer experience and wisdom to the next generation of creators.
Dear Jonas, throughout your career, you have been an activist and a creator, but also a passionate teacher who has supported students at many excellent institutions: the New School, the International Center for Photography, Cooper Union, NYU, and MIT.
Moreover, your films and works can be found in leading museums everywhere in the world: in London, in Stockholm, in New York, in Venice, and in Coulogne. For France, you directed My Paris Movie in 2011 for the twentieth anniversary of the Jeu de Paume, the first French museum to show your work.
I won’t list every other installation that was organized in France otherwise we would still be here a few weeks later… but I also would like to mention that the Cinémathèque Française, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Festival d’Automne in Paris are fervent admirers of your work, as well as our dear Agnès B., who organized an exhibition earlier this year at her Soho boutique and released videos of your major works.
Your desire to provide access to experimental art forms led you to open the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center in Vilnius, Lithuania.
You never forgot your roots and you always found a way to keep records of precious moments of your life.
You left Lithuania 64 years ago but you represented it at the 2006 Venice Biennial, you kept writing your poems in Lithuanian and your poetry is now part of Lithuanian classic literature.
And I heard that one of the first things you did upon your arrival in New York at the age of 27 was to purchase your first Bolex camera. Perhaps it was a sign that you would hold the vision and become the spokesperson for New York’s independent cinema scene and that your story would embrace and progressively become intertwined with that of underground cinema.
I would like to say a few words about your dear brother Adolfas who accompanied you in this journey, from the darkest moments of life – when you were both taken by the Nazis to a forced labor camp in Elmshorn, Germany in 1944 – to the most creative moments, when you created Film Culture together and to many joyous moments, I am sure.
Adolfas was a brilliant filmmaker. Together, you shared a common passion but in fact, you shared your lives and were true partners and soulmates.
And so tonight, we pay tribute to him with this ceremony.
Jonas, we all admire you. And especially in France.
And I must confess that you were my first contact with avant-garde cinema. After studying only maths for 5 years, I did a master in cinema with Nicole Brenez, and the first artist she made me discover was you. I never forget that you are my entry point into cinema and into the United States.
In 1992, you were made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in 2000, you became Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Tonight we promote you to the highest rank, Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Simply put – as you are a man of many talents and many battles, and many countries – Lithuania is your country of birth, America your adopted country and I hope you will consider France as one of your spiritual countries.
Thank you for always acting on the poetic and free side of culture.
Jonas Mekas, au nom du Ministre de la Culture, nous vous faisons Commandeur dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres.