Hallelujah the Hills (1963)
Directed by Adolfas Mekas
Thursday, January 24, at Film Forum, part of its New Yawk New Wave series
The New American Cinema began with two Lithuanians. In the 1940s, the brothers Jonas and Adolfas Mekas went from their parents’ farm in Vilnius to a Displaced Persons camp to a small apartment in Brooklyn. They gorged themselves on as many movies as they could afford, and gathered friends to start Film Culture, the United States’ first serious film journal. In time, they led their group to start making independent films.
The brothers were famed for being cranky polemicists—Jonas regularly issued broadsides against the commercial world from his post as The Village Voice’s first film critic, and Adolfas publicly mocked the New York Film Festival when it began. But their own films, for the most part, were anything but angry. Jonas reached his own ideal of, as he put it, “little movies” that did “no shaking” with a still-ongoing series of gently melancholic diary films, shown last month at Anthology Film Archives (the movie theater he founded in the early 1970s) on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
The films by Adolfas, who died last year, and who essentially left filmmaking in the early 70s in order to direct the new film department at Bard College, can feel sad, but are much more frequently joyful. It’s hard not to smile as he, his wife Pola Chapelle, and all four of his brothers play together for the camera in 1972’s great Going Home, a record of a trip back to Lithuania. (This same trip gave birth to Jonas’s wonderful film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania.) And it’s hard not to laugh at the exuberance of 1963’s Hallelujah the Hills, his first feature, on which Jonas served as assistant director.
The film—subtitled A Romance—shows two eternal male companions caught up in cinema. Jack (Peter Beard) and Leo (Martin Greenbaum) wander through a forest together, enacting different scenarios. At one point they square off accompanied by samurai film music; at another, they dash forward jerkily like silent film clowns. Each has his own beautiful Vera (Sheila Finn and Peggy Steffans) with whom to play out love scenes. Even death becomes just another adventure. Hallelujah the Hills suggests that all you need to make films is the ability to dream. “My movie is better than your movie,” one man tells the other, as they sit against a tree, munch popcorn, and watch what’s passing in front of them.
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