The Time Avant-Garde Filmmaker Jonas Mekas Visited Pittsburgh


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Jonas Mekas talking to the audience at his screening event on April 1, 1970. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive (photograph by Robert Haller).

On this day in April of 1970, Jonas Mekas became the first filmmaker to visit Pittsburgh as part of Carnegie Museum of Art’s brand new film program (also known as the Film Section, the Section of Film and Video, and the Department of Film and Video). Film curator Sally Dixon invited him to screen selections from his films and talk about his ventures in experimental cinema in New York. Mekas was the first of many non-narrative filmmakers to visit the museum (names like Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubekla, and James Broughton are common in our Program Notes), but more than any other film or video artist, he set the tone for moving image programming at CMOA.

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Tickets for screening presentation by Jonas Mekas from April 1, 1970. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive.

While visiting CMOA, Mekas screened a two-hour excerpt from volume one of his film series Diaries, Notes and Sketches (later also called Walden). The film is more than three hours long and chronicles seemingly random moments of Mekas’s life between 1964 and 1969, including dinner with friends, walks in the park, and a visit with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on their famous honeymoon in New York. It’s a glimpse into the avant-garde scene in New York City in the 1960s (which Mekas was an integral part of), but it’s also an interesting non-narrative experiment in filmmaking; as Mekas told his audience that evening, it was “an attempt to work out a diary form in film.” He explained:

Most of it is shot in New York…when you will see the whole of it, though there are excursions out. My New York is not like anybody’s New York, not like anybody else’s New York. My New York is color. My New York is happy and there’s people who say, “Oh, but…This is not my New York. My New York is black and morbid and deadly.” Then my New York is full of trees and patches of grass etc. etc. and I always keep coming back to certain images…they’re not planned, nothing is really planned, but since they are part of me and my memory and past they keep coming back…I want or I don’t want.

After the screening, Mekas gave an informal talk about the film and about the future of what he called the “New American Cinema.” We have a recording of this discussion and his other remarks in the Department of Film and Video archive, and after we’ve finished preserving these and other archival materials, we hope to share it and other recordings on our collections website.

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Jonas Mekas in film curator Sally Dixon’s office and in front of poster advertising his screening event at CMOA in 1970. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive.

Jonas Mekas is a prolific filmmaker and continues to chronicle his life with moving images to this day (see his website for weekly updates). He was also an early advocate and driving force behind legitimization and preservation of American experimental film. In 1970, the same year he visited Pittsburgh for the first time, he established Anthology Film Archives in New York as a place to store, view, and make safe masterworks of experimental film art; and he was one of the founders of New York’s Film-makers’ Cooperative, which he started with a group of artists in the 1960s as the distribution “arm” of non-narrative cinema.

Much like Mekas and his media centers in New York, one of the main ideas behind CMOA’s film program was to make it easier for artists to create and share films. In the late 1960s, film curator Sally Dixon traveled to New York City to meet and greet with cineastes and learn how to build an audience for the avant-garde in Pittsburgh. There she met Jonas Mekas for the first time. In a letter from June 12, 1969 she tells him, “You were the single most helpful person to me in my investigation into the possibility of a film program here in Pittsburgh.” Inspired by Mekas and his company of artists in New York, Dixon wanted to help create a cultural infrastructure for experimental cinema.

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Letter from Sally Dixon to Jonas Mekas from June 12, 1969. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive.

Sally Dixon and her crew offered filmmakers a venue, an audience, and resources—and best of all, the gigs were paid. CMOA gave visiting filmmakers an honorarium of $500 to present their works and answer questions from the audience. They also hosted workshops and held small press conferences, giving the artists fantastic exposure to the press and the public. Dixon also made the artists’ travel arrangements and found them places to stay while they were in town, often opening the doors of her own three-story house in Shadyside. For filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, she got them access to the Pittsburgh Police and local hospitals, morgues and industrial sites, where they shot some of their better known works.

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Contact sheet with images of Jonas Mekas and Film Curator Sally Dixon at Mekas’s screening event in the Carnegie Lecture Hall on April 1, 1970. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive (photograph by Robert Haller).

Sally Dixon called Mekas the “Patron Saint of New American Cinema” and it’s easy to see why. He promoted filmmakers on both the west and east coasts, and he inspired film programs and media centers—like the one in Pittsburgh—all across the country. During his visit to our city on April 1, 1970, he shared some of his vision and goals for American experimental cinema with the audience at CMOA:

During next five or ten years [American experimental cinema] will be established on an academic level and on a number of other levels so that it will be taught in schools, universities, etc. etc. Plus, with the changing means of dissemination, with the cassettes coming in, the non-narrative films, small structural movie by George Landow made with $50, or a film made in Pittsburgh by anybody for $2.25 on 8mm, it will be sitting there in that shelf next to the film made by MGM and Co. for $20 Million and somebody will walk into the shop and look and may decide to buy the one that was made for $2.25.

In the words of Sally Dixon, “Thank you, Jonas, for sharing your vision with us and your celebration of life. Thank you true believers for coming. Good night!”