Biography

 

 

"Time passes for us all. In the end, what we leave behind serves to both define us and inspire those who follow. With this retrospective, the creativity of Adolfas Mekas is brought to the forefront, calling attention to the joy that stirs anyone to pick up a camera, gather together a group of performers, and create a story. If Adolfas’ life is any example, the passion for creativity can be a wondrous and lifelong reward, something worth celebrating with anyone who has ever found delight in a darkened theatre."
Daniel Guzman in CINESPECT and his review of the retrospective of Adolfas' films in NYC
 

 

Adolfas Mekas was born on a farm in Semeniskiai, Lithuania, to Elzbieta and Povilas Mekas on September 30, 1925. He was brother to sister Elzbieta and brothers Povilas, Petras, Kostas and Jonas. Adolfas was the youngest in the family.

At age 14, while still in Lithuania, Adolfas saw his first movie, Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn, the cine-magic of which he would never forget. In July 1944, toward the end of World War II when Lithuania was occupied by both Soviet and German troops, he and his brother Jonas left Lithuania by train for Austria, fearing retaliation for their participation in the underground. Shortly after the train left Panevezys railroad yards, it was boarded by German soldiers and redirected to Hamburg. When World War II ended, the brothers were sent from one Displaced Persons camp to another across Germany. While in the DP camp near Mainz, Adolfas attended classes in literature, theatre arts and philosophy at the University. He also wrote and published short stories, plays and tall-tale books for children. He lived in DP camps under the Allied authority in Germany until 1949. Having been refused entry into New Zealand, Israel and Canada, Mekas was sent as a refugee to the United States, where he landed with his brother at the end of 1949.

In the spring of 1950 he purchased his first 16mm Bolex camera, with which he shot thousands of feet around the Brooklyn dockyards, and with his brother Jonas attended all film society screenings in the New York area, in addition to screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, Cinema 16, Thalia, Stanley and other venues for movies of any kind, supporting himself with a variety of jobs from dishwasher to foreman in a Castro Convertible factory. During the Korean War, he was drafted into the Army and assigned to the Signal Corps. He sailed for France in September 1951, and after two years abroad, he returned to the United States in 1953 where he continued writing and filming and also began organizing, with his brother, the American Film House. Though the brothers approached many independent filmmakers, none were interested in collaborating on the project. Adolfas and Jonas persisted for over a year to find a location in Manhattan, but without success. In 1954 they abandoned the idea of the American Film House and with the money they had borrowed for the Film House project started a film society which they called the Film Forum.

"We showed films at public schools and at Carl Fischer Hall on 57th Street, wherever we could, until we went bankrupt in the middle of the second film series later in the year just in time to start Film Culture magazine, the first issue of which came out in December, 1954." Adolfas Mekas

Together with his brother in the early 50's Adolfas wrote, directed and shot a number of films that were never finished, including his first script in 1950 - "Lost, Lost, Lost, Lost" - later to become "Lost, Lost, Lost" and in 1951, "Grand Street" -- both films documented the fate of displaced persons, old and new immigrants to Brooklyn.

In 1953, together with Jonas, he wrote, directed and edited a somber romance called "Silent Journey" in which he played a principal role. In 1955, with Jonas and Edouard de Laurot, he began "Film Essay," a spoof of American avant-garde film of that time.

During those years, he made short trips to Canada to visit friends and find material for the novel he was writing, "A C Living on $1 a day, he was free to write and he wrote short stories, later published, and began longer works, notably his diaristic "George The Man," and was able to finish the screenplay for "Hallelujah The Hills."
In 1959 he returned to the States and the daily struggle to live and create and express the needs of the growing movement of independent and avant-garde filmmakers in New York.

On 28 September 1960, hosted by Adolfas, brother Jonas and producer Lew Allen, a group of 20 independent filmmakers met at the Producers Theatre on West 16th Street and by unanimous vote bound themselves into the free and open organization of the New American Cinema. The second meeting took place on September 30 at the Bleecker Street Cinema and the first draft of the Statement of Aims was read, discussed and approved, and later published in Film Culture magazine. Subsequently, a third and fourth meeting took place, leading to the establishment in 1961 of the Film-makers' Co-op - a distribution organization for the dissemination of independent, experimental and avant-garde films. The New York group included among others, Lionel Rogosin, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, Peter Bogdanavich, Maya Deren and Daniel Talbot.

In 1961 brother Jonas began shooting "Guns of the Trees." Adolfas assisted him in all stages of production, writing and editing, and played one of the leads in the film Other players were Ben Carruthers, Frances Stillman and Argus Speare Juilliard.

In 1963 Adolfas' film "Hallelujah The Hills" was the surprise smash hit of the Cannes Festival. Subsequently that year it was invited to over 27 film festivals, including the First New York Film Festival, London Festival, Montreal Film Festival, Mannheim Film Festival and the Bombay Film Festival; it won the Silver Sail at the Locarno Festival, was invited to a Command Screening for the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and had a 15-week run at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in New York City. Time magazine called it "…the weirdest, wackiest screen comedy of 1963….A gloriously fresh experience in Cinema." Jean Luc Godard wrote in Cahiers du Cinema, 1963 "Hallelujah proved clearly that Adolfas is someone to be reckoned with. He is a master in the field of pure invention, that is to say, in working dangerously - 'without a net.' His film, made according to the good old principle - one idea for each shot - has the lovely scent of fresh ingenuity and crafty sweetness."

Adolfas was hired in 1964 as post production coordinator and editor of the independent comedy drama "Goldstein", which had been co-directed by Ben Manaster and Philip Kaufman. Editing the film as a fugue, Adolfas created a tour-de-force Jewish fable, and it was invited to the Cannes Festival in 1964.

The same year Adolfas edited sound and film footage taken by brother Jonas of a performance of "The Brig," a production of The Living Theatre directed by Judith Malina. The film was selected by the New York Film Festival, the London Festival, the Moscow Film Festival and others, and took First Prize at the Venice Festival in the documentary category. "…..one of the more remarkable films in the entire fest (NY Film Festival of '64) is the Jonas and Adolfas Mekas film version of The Living Theatre's 'The Brig.' This filmed-on-the-stage version of a play….has a vitality as film which is unique and does in cinema terms what the seekers for new form in plays and novels are attempting." Variety, September 30, 1964.

In March of 1964 he met his wife to be, Pola Chapelle. They were separated before their marriage by the production of his second feature film, "The Double Barreled Detective Story," but never again during their long lifetime together.

A rough and tumble nineteenth century town was built just outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for the location of the filming of DBD. The screenplay was based on a Mark Twain short story and the film starred Hurd Hatfield and Greta Thyssen. In spite of the extraordinary performance of Hurd Hatfield, who played two different parts in the movie, there were problems with the production from the start and Adolfas never got to do a final cut. The producers took the film out of his hands and refused to release it. Nonetheless, with a little help from his friends, he was able to whisk a print to the Venice Film Festival of 1965. Gene Moskowitz in Variety wrote:
"The Double Barreled Detective Story is authentic Mark Twain-esque with all the rustic humor of the 1880's….Mekas shows he has a way with parody and he gets disarmingly innocent performances from his cast." September 8, 1965.

After their marriage in October of 1965, Adolfas directed Pola Chapelle in a short parody of Italian art films of the time, written by Peter Stone for the Broadway show "Skyscraper" which starred Julie Harris and Charles Nelson Reilly. Paul Sorvino played opposite Pola in the 3-minute film which won kudos from the critics.
"….a priceless film sequence satirizing Italian movies, for some of the heartiest laughs of the evening." Nadel, NY World Telegram, 15 November 1965.
"….there is a film sequence made by Adolfas Mekas: a very funny parody of an Italian movie, in Italian, complete with English subtitles and a projector that goes 'zzzzzzz" Jules Novick, Village Voice, 25 November 1965.

After his marriage in 1965 and for the rest of the 60's, Adolfas wrote and hustled his scripts to agents and producers while working as an editor and/or postproduction coordinator on various independent films, including the soft-core flics of Joe Sarno, ABC-TV's Wild World of Sports and a few TV musical extravaganzas. He was encouraged by Howard Hausman of the William Morris Agency, who had seen the future of cinema in Adolfas' first film "Hallelujah The Hills." Although Hausman was successful in getting him offers of directing jobs, he would not be deterred from his goal to direct his own screenplays.

In 1967, with a very tight budget, Adolfas made a 16mm B&W film from his own script - "Windflowers, Elegy for a Draft Dodger." Dominique Noguez in Cahiers du Cinema (#212 May 1969) said of the film "….no frills, no Gipsy violin effect, no second movement of Aranjuez's concerto - it is thereby, poignant. It is the other side of Vietnam. The stubbornness of a silent young man who is running away….who simply wanted to live."

Shortly after the completion of Windflowers, Adolfas was contacted by Governor Harold E. Hughes of Iowa. After an interview with the Governor, he was given the job of creating promotional commercials for the Hughes' campaign for the United States Senate. Adolfas had no experience in the genre, but the challenge was enticing and he spent the summer of '67 filming Governor Hughes as he stumped the Iowa cornfields. He produced 35 TV commercials for Hughes' election to the US Senate. Harold Hughes won.

In 1968 Adolfas wrote, directed and starred in a 3-minute short entitled "Interview with the Ambassador from Lapland." It was shot by brother Jonas, with assistance from Shirley Clarke on sound. Pola Chapelle produced. "In these 3 minutes Mekas is Swift, the horrible and admirable Swift of the 'Modest Proposal.' One really must admit that Mekas has made the USA a bit less loathsome." Cahiers du Cinema, DN
#212 May 1969.
(NOTA BENE: Jonas often claims authorship of this short film, calling it "The Time Life Vietnam Newsreel".)

In 1969 Adolfas shot and edited "Fishes in Screaming Water" a catfilm produced by Pola Chapelle for the First International CatFilm Festival - INTERCAT '69 - which she founded. For the 2nd International Catfilm Festival in 1973, he created the award winning "How To Draw A Cat".

"Companeras and Companeros" - a feature length documentary, shot in 1970 by David and Barbara Stone in Cuba was edited and subtitled by Adolfas. Three versions were edited: for US release, for European release and for Cuban release.
In the same year, he cut and edited a film by Yoko Ono, 360 legs, in "Up Your Leg."

In 1972, assisted by Pola Chapelle, Adolfas completed a film which documented the autobiographical journey of his return to Lithuania after a 27-year absence.
"Going Home" was invited to the New York Film Festival and many other festivals that year. It was part of the Conference on Visual Anthropology at Temple University in 1974, and chosen by the Museum of Modern Art to tour internationally from 1975 to 1977 with its program of films in the Anthropological Cinema exhibit.

On July 3, 1971, Adolfas received a teaching contract from Bard College. Soon after, he began organizing the young Film Department. At first denied tenure, he began a campaign in pursuit of it, believing that if he were given tenure, the Film Department would be tenured. Armed with letters from colleagues in the film world and ex-students, he was successful, and in 1979, tenure was granted to him.

He and Pola, young son Sean and Mamacat moved to the Hudson Valley, where he would dedicate himself to sharing his passion for the magic of film with the eager and talented young people of the then pastoral Bard College. Down The Road, a nearby pub became their after hours seminar room, film discussions going on over Jenny beer into the early morning.

Though only a very small budget was available to the Film Department, with Adolfas leading the way, the department continued to grow as the "orphan in the storm." Not deterred, never frustrated, once a year Adolfas rented a truck and together with Pola he scoured the labs of his film friends in New York City whose donations of reels, split reels, cores, viewers, projectors and occasionally a moviola, were carried back to Bard's Carriage House - the Bard Film Center of the early years. The lack of proper funding for the department worked to energize Adolfas and his students in innovative ways, e.g., to raise funds for senior projects in film, he held lunchtime auctions outside the dining commons on campus. The film department was small - more than three graduates was rare in the early years, but unceasingly active and always visible, for years the dynamic center of the Bard Campus. Adolfas brought to the Bard Film Department some of the most noted independent and experimental filmmakers, including Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr, Andrew Noren, Barry Gerson, Peter Hutton and Peggy Ahwesh and film historians and theorists Paul Arthur, P. Adams Sitney and John Pruitt. Guest faculty - friends including Ken Jacobs, Shirley Clarke, Sidney Peterson, Bob Breer and George Kuchar. The Bard Film Department grew in stature to become one of the most respected film departments in the nation.

P. Adams Sitney writes "what came to be known as the People's Film Department was his (Adolfas) theater of hijinks; he surprised even himself with his enormous didactic gifts, his startling administrative skill and his unceasing fount of comic invention. His own fractured education and his nearly total disregard for academic decorum made him the ideal professor. Nowhere in the archive of film is there an invented character who could come near the brilliant, lovable, outrageous mischief that consistently turned his classrooms into arenas of magic. He taught generations how to see and act."

 

In the summer of 1971, visiting Italy after his first trip back to the home he had left behind in Lithuania, St. Tula made her appearance in Adolfas' life. When, in Porto Santo Stefano, he first saw her representation, it was clear to him that she was the Patron Saint of Cinema. He had no name for her at the time, but snapped a photo and displayed it in the Film Department of Bard College. Shortly after, written under her photo in the Carriage House, was seen: "St. Tula loves your film. Even if no one else does." The name stuck. And the altar was built.



In addition to Chairing the Film Department and teaching film courses until 2004, in 1981 he co-founded the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College and directed the MFA program from 1983 to 1989. He also taught film courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and was a visiting lecturer at many Universities around the country.

Adolfas Mekas died in the early morning of May 31, 2011. By his bedside was the treatment for the fantasy documentary film he would make on the life and death by fire of the Neapolitan poet, philosopher and socalled heretic Giordano Bruno. He called Bruno, the first Beatnik.

FILMOGRAPHY

  • "Lost, Lost, Lost" (1950) with brother Jonas, unfinished 
  • "Grand Street" (1951) with brother Jonas, unfinished 
  • "Silent Journey" (1953) with brother Jonas, unfinished 
  • "Antifilm #2" (1953)
  • "Inca" (1954) lost 
  • "Film Essay" (1955) with brother Jonas, unfinished 
  • "Sunday Junction" (1958) with brother Jonas, unfinished 
  • "Guns of the Trees" (1961) 
  • "Susquehanna" (1961) unfinished 
  • "Hallelujah The Hills" (1963) 
  • "Goldstein" (1964) editor 
  • "The Brig" (1964) 
  • "The Double Barreled Detective Story" (1965) 
  • "Skyscraper" (1965) 
  • "The Swap and How They Make It" (1966) editor & post production coordinator 
  • "Trailer for The Swap and How They Make It" (1966) hot and cool versions 
  • "The Love Merchant" (1966) editor 
  • "Mimi Benzell" (1966) 
  • "Building for the Future" (1966) 
  • "A Matter of Baobab" (1966) 
  • "Step Out of Your Mind" (1966) editor 
  • "Windflowers – Elegy for a Draft Dodger" (1967) 
  • "Hawaii Ho!" (1968) editor and post production coordinator
  • "Interview with the Ambassador from Lapland, Time-Life Newsreel" (1967) 
  • "Sweet Victory" (1968) 
  • "Fishes in Screaming Water" (969) editor 
  • "Companeros and Companeras" (1970) 
  • "A Matter of Baobab, First Growth" (1970) 
  • "Those Memory Years" (1970) editor 
  • "A Weekend With Strangers" (1970) editor 
  • "Up Your Leg" (Yoko Ono in 1970) editor
  • "A Science Fiction Film in the Latter Twentieth Century" (1971) Production Manager 
  • "Going Home" (1972) 
  • "How to Draw a Cat" (1973)

PUBLISHED WORKS

  • Mekas, Adolfas, and Jonas Mekas. Is Pasaku Krasto: Rinktines Ivairiu Tautu Pasakos. Vilnius: Dominicus Lituanus, 2013. Print.
  • “In August 2009…" 222 autobiographies de Robert Kaplan by his friends – page 469. Association Locus Solus, 2011 
  • Idylls of Semeniskiai – Adolfas translated from Lithuanian to English this epic poem by Jonas. Hallelujah Editions 2007 
  • When the Turtles Collapse by Adolfas Mekas and Pola Chapelle, 1999 Hallelujah Editions 2005 
  • Nailing the Coffin, by Adolfas Mekas and Jonathan Shipman, 1981 Hallelujah Editions 2005 
  • The Father, the Son and a Holy Cow by Adolfas Mekas, 1999 Hallelujah Editions 2005
  • Hallelujah les Collines (screenplay of "Hallelujah the Hills") L'Avant Scene, No. 64, 1966. 
  • Soldiers Fought Bravely to Enter the City. (Short story) Bread&, No 2, 1962; Motive, Vol XXII, No.3, 1962 
  • "A Letter From Mexico or a Film Between Two Mafias." Film Culture 20 (1959): 72–79. Print. 
  • Chapter XV. (Excerpt from a novel.) Bread&, No 1, 1958. 
  • Proza II. Collected short stories. Gabija, 1951, in Lithuanian. (from 1945–52 published numerous literary and journalistic articles in various Lithuanian periodicals) 
  • Proza I. Collected short stories. Zvilgsniai, 1949, in Lithuanian. 
  • Une Reverence. Poems in prose. Zvilgsniai, 1948, in Lithuanian. 
  • Knyga Apie Karalius ir Zmones (A Book About Kings and People). Collected short stories. Patria, 1947, in Lithuanian; published again by Humanitas in 1994. 
  • Is Svetimo Krasto (From a Foreign Country). Stories for children. Giedra, 1947, in Lithuanian. 
  • Trys Broliai (Three Brothers). Stories for children. Giedra, 1946, in Lithuanian.

FURTHER READINGS

Bibliography of articles and books on the films of Adolfas Mekas




 

 
     

 

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