The Films of Adolfas Mekas
October 20-27 at Anthology Film Archives
Adolfas Mekas, who died of heart failure at the age of 85 this past May, made mad-cap movies, co-founded Film Culture, became chair of Bard College's film department (referred to during his tenure as "The People's Film Department of Bard College"), and discovered, or, rather, invented, St. Tula, Our Lady of Cinema.
St. Tula is now known for a host of comically apocryphal sayings that summarize the wild energy behind Mekas's work and life:
"Love the under-exposed and the over-exposed. They let you see beyond the expected."
"Dream twenty-four dreams per second."
"St. Tula loves your Film. Even if no one else does."
From October 20th to 27th, Anthology Film Archives is hosting a retrospective of films Mekas either made or collaborated in making, including Hallelujah the Hills (1963), which he wrote and directed, The Brig (1964), which he made with his brother Jonas, and Guns of the Trees (1961), directed by Jonas and starring Adolfas.
Hallelujah, Adolfas's most famous directorial effort, is pure scattershot jubilance; sight gags and on-the-nose references to film history meet laissez-faire Beat cool and a gloriously unpretentious lyricism. Purportedly the story of two men, Leo and Jack, wooing the same woman, Vera, Hallelujah really serves to document a group of erudite, lunatic youths goofing off in the woods. The film has resonance with the early films of the French New Wave—particularly Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960)—and with Warhol's genre distortions, but it's more innocent, less aggressive, less oblique, more mysteriously American than either. What there is of a plot is made even more confusing by the decision to have two actresses play Vera, so as to embody the different ways the two suitors idealize her; the bold directorial decision predates by 14 years Luis Buñuel's famous use of a very similar strategy in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).The Brig, serious where Hallelujah is anything but, takes place in one room, spanning one day in which a group of Marine prisoners are forced through sometimes violent, sometimes bizarre routines by steely guards. The Brig, a film of the epochal Living Theatre piece, focuses on a group of people visually and thematically at the expense of any one individual, not to romanticize their collectivity, as in Soviet cinema, but rather to document their dehumanization. It's a terrifying portrait of military life: The Brig's roving handheld camera hints at the kind of freedom denied its subjects, but even the cameraman is always running into barriers, confronting confinement.
Guns of the Trees, made by Jonas and starring Adolfas, is less bleak than Brig but offers a more melancholy vision of the 60s than does Hills. Trees refracts a single suicide through multiple viewpoints, with flights of cinematic fancy and dialogues about the anomie of modern life and the vagaries of love. "Its defenders call it a new kind of film poetry," wrote Eugene Archer in the original New York Times review, "and excuse its apparent technical shortcomings as irrelevant to its creator's very personal statement. Others find it amateurish, pointless or obscure. From any standpoint, it is one of the farthest of far-out films."
Still "far-out" aesthetically, Trees looks right at this moment spot-on thematically. When the Anthology series was announced just a month ago, so much about Trees—its earnest portrayal of struggling idealists, scenes of confrontations between youth agitators and police, symbolic shots of its main character collapsing in the financial district—must have seemed oddly dated. But as St. Tula says, "The Motion Picture loves Motion, but it loves Time still more."