Jonas Mekas 1922-2019

The Lithuanian-born filmmaker, poet and artist, Jonas Mekas, has died aged 97. During World War II, he was imprisoned for eight months in a German labour camp while trying to flee his home country. In late 1949 he emigrated to the US with his brother, settling in Williamsburg, New York.

Mekas interviewed fellow Brooklynite Arthur Miller in 1954, and in 1958, he began writing a ‘Movie Journal’ column for the Village Voice. He would review The Misfits in 1961, praising Marilyn’s performance highly. He later wrote a rapturous tribute to Marilyn after her death.

In 1964, Mekas launched a campaign against movie censorship. His innovative art films inspired Andy Warhol to make movies. Throughout 2007, Jonas released a film each day on his website. He would continue his ‘online diary’ until his death.

Jonas Mekas Remembers Arthur and Marilyn

Jonas Mekas is a pioneering indie filmmaker and critic, who first championed Marilyn in a 1961 review of The Misfits for the Village Voice. He also wrote an impassioned tribute after her death in 1962, which is reprinted in his book, Movie Journal: The Rise of New American Cinema, 1959-1971.

“Saturday night I sat in the lobby of the New Yorker Theater, while Marilyn was dying. I was defending her for the last time. Because what people do when they watch The Misfits is listen to those big lines and not see the beauty of MM herself. How can they do that, I thought, listen to those lines and not see the beauty of MM herself, the little bits of screen reality she creates — fragile, yes, but true and beautiful, more beautiful than any other reality around them? Even when she is pronouncing her lines, I watch her and I see on her face something else, not what the lines say, something of much more importance than the lines. The lines are empty, big, ugly; much of the movie itself is ugly. But the reality created by MM is beautiful, with a touch of sadness. She never learned enough actor’s ‘craft’ to cover her true feelings, true embarrassments, true beautiful self; she kept her ‘amateurishness’.”

Now Mekas has published another book, a ‘part diary, part scrapbook’, as CNN reports. It’s unclear if Marilyn is featured in A Dance With Fred Astaire, but an extract published on the Lithub website includes a 1954 interview with Miller.

Fifty Years Ago…

The Misfits, Marilyn’s last completed movie, was released fifty years ago today. At the time of its release, The Misfits was overshadowed by the death of its star, Clark Gable, and Marilyn’s divorce from Arthur Miller, who had written the part of Roslyn for her. Critical reception was mixed, though The Misfits, an elegaic western, is now considered to be something of a flawed masterpiece. Marilyn herself was deeply disappointed by it, though most agree that ‘Roslyn Tabor’ was one of her finest dramatic performances:

“Marilyn Monroe, the Saint of the Nevada desert. . . She haunts you, you’ll not forget her . . . It is MM that tells the truth in the movie, who accuses, judges, reveals. And it is MM who runs into the middle of the desert and in her helplessness shouts: “You are all dead, you are all dead!”—in the most powerful image of the film—and one doesn’t know if she is saying those words to Gable and [Eli] Wallach or to the whole loveless world. . . There is so much truth in her little details, in her reactions to cruelty, to false manliness, nature, life, death, that she is overpowering, one of the most tragic and contemporary characters of modern cinema.”

Jonas Mekas, ‘The Village Voice’

A tribute to The Misfits, from the Library of America, is posted today at the Reader’s Almanac blog