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Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers' Cinematheque cont.

Gary Comenas (2014)

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Bleecker Street

Jonas Mekas announced the screenings at the Bleecker Street Cinema in his 24 January 1963 column in the Village Voice:

Jonas Mekas ("Movie Journal," The Village Voice, 24 January 1963, p. 23, 25):

"For those who are interested in what's really going on in unfashionable - both humanistic and abstract - cinema, there will be screenings every Monday midnight at the Bleecker Street Cinema, arranged by Film Culture magazine. Some of you may be surprised that such a beachhead of unfashionable cinema is possible in the very H.Q. of Great Art - but it is true. The Bleecker Street Cinema doesn't like the underground stirring, and it doesn't want to be identified with them. Still, I am happy with this new development, and I am taking the Bleecker Street Cinema off my blacklist."

Although Mekas didn't mention that he was behind the Bleecker Street screenings at the time, he later listed them in his chronology of "Showcases I Ran in the Sixties:"

"2. Screenings at Bleecker Street Cinema, 4 February to 8 April 1963, Saturday midnights. The managers of the theater, Marshall Lewis and Rudy Franchi, ordered the screenings discontinued because the low quality of the underground was ruining the reputation of the theater, they said." (DJ323)

There's a slight discrepancy between the dates that Mekas gives and the ads in the Village Voice which continued into May. Mekas presented the screenings under the heading of "Film-Makers' Showcase" rather than the Film-Makers' Co-op. The first Village Voice ad for the Film-Makers' Showcase appeared in the 31 January 1963 issue advertising the first screening on 4 February 1963:

film-makers' showcase ad

First Village Voice ad for Jonas Mekas' Film-Makers' Showcase at the Bleecker St. Cinema (Village Voice, 31 January 1963, p. 19)

Although the Film-Makers' Co-op was not generally mentioned in the Film-Makers' Showcase ads, it was mentioned in the ad in the 14 February issue of the Voice:

Film-Makers Showcase ad that mentions Film-Makers' Co-op

Village Voice ad, 14 February 1963, p. 25

The request for filmmakers to submit films for the 18 February evening echoes the bring-your-own-film festivals at the Charles Theater - except that in regard to the Charles, the owners of the cinema claimed responsibility for the festivals (see page one).

In March 1963, Mekas also mentioned screenings at the Brata Gallery in his "Movie Journal" column that were "programmed by the Film-makers' Co-op:"

Jonas Mekas ("Movie Journal," The Village Voice, 21 March 1963, p. 15):

"The Center, 106 Forsythe Street (two blocks south of Delancey) is a new and enterprising East Side art center. jazz, lectures, poetry readings, movies etc. Their film showcase at the Brata Gallery (56 Third Avenue, at 10th Street, every Friday at 8 and 10 p.m.), programmed by the Film-makers' Co-op, is the newest addition to the city's fast-growing swing toward the underground cinema. Last week's showing was a sell-out. A crowd of people were turned away. Program for this weekend: films of Robert Breer (including 'Pat's Birthday,' which he made with Claes Oldenburg.)"

Although Mekas gives the period of Bleecker Street screenings from 4 February to 8 April in "Showcases I Ran in the Sixties," he was still advertising the showcases in the April 25th issue of the Village Voice. (DJ323) On the 29th of April, Mekas presented Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures - a screening that the Smith chronology in the Jack Smith: Flaming Creature exhibition catalogue referred to as the "theatrical premiere" of Smith's work. (JS258)

ad for premiere of Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith

Village Voice ad, 25 April 1963

The ad referred readers to Mekas' comments in the April 18th Village Voice:

Jonas Mekas ("Movie Journal," The Village Voice, 18 April 1963, p. 13):

Jack Smith just finished a great movie, Flaming Creatures, which is so beautiful that I feel ashamed even to sit through the current Hollywood and European movies. I saw it privately, and there is little hope that Smith's movie will ever reach the movie theatre screens. But I tell you, it is a most luxurious outpouring of imagination, of imagery, of poetry, of movie artistry, comparable only to the work of the greatest , like Von Sternberg.

Flaming Creatures will not be shown theatrically because our social-moral-etc. guides are sick. That's why Lenny Bruce cried at Idlewild Airport. This movie will be called pornographic, degenerate, homosexual, trite, disgusting, etc., home movie. It is all that, and it is so much more than that."

Advertisements for Mekas' screenings continued to appear in the Village Voice in May 1963:

Film-Makers' Showcase at Bleecker Street May 1963

Village Voice ad, 2 May 1963

In his 13 June 1963 column in the Voice, Jonas Mekas wrote,"You may have noticed that the Monday midnight screenings at the Bleecker Street Cinema, held by Film-Makers' Co-op and Film Culture for the past few months have been cancelled. You may be wondering what happened and why. The truth is, we have been thrown out. The Bleecker Cinema people did not like our movies. They thought the independent cinema was ruining the 'reputation of the theatre.' Dig that!" (JM87)

Despite writing that the screenings had been cancelled "for the past few months," they had continued to be advertised through the end of May in the Village Voice. There was the 2 May ad reproduced above and an ad for a screening of Marie Menken films in the 23 May issue of the Voice. The Menken screening however, was advertised as a "film co-operative presentation" rather than a Film-Makers' Cooperative presentation.

>ad for Marie Menken films at Bleecker Street Cinema

Village Voice ad, 23 May 1963, p. 14

In the previous week's Voice there was an ad for a 28 May screening of Jerry Joffen films and Flush of Morning, described as a "film of masturbation."

Flush of Morning ad

Village Voice ad, 16 May 1963, p. 13

Flush of Morning wasn't as salacious as it's description - "a film of masturbation" - implied. Presumably it was actually Flesh of Morning by Stan Brakhage. David E. James describes the film in the following way:

David E. James (The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles p. 152-3):

"Photographed by Brakhage himself as well as the first film in which he played his own protagonist, it [Flesh of Morning] also resembled Kenneth Anger's Fireworks and Curtis Harrington's Fragment of Seeking in featuring a sexually traumatized youth who encounters the images of his desires in an environment onto which he projects his torment. Objective shots of Brakhage taken with a fixed camera so that he moves through its field alternate with subjective, mostly hand-held shots of this protagonist's perceptions that register his physical and mental disturbance. A crumpled note with an illegible message that magically flowers open begins the film, introducing him in the kitchen of a working-class apartment. Agitated by the letter, he restlessly scrutinizes the kitchen, encountering images of his distraught self in reflections in a toaster or furtively glimpsed in mirrors and similar surfaces... To escape them he goes onto the apartment's veranda, but the blinding sun makes the shabby clapboard buildings and local stores almost invisible; all that can be clearly see in the harsh light is his own shadow on the ground, which, because of the angle of his arm, seems to be sporting a giant erection.

After he returns inside... he finds a woman's stocking and underclothes, and then her picture, and then she herself appears, alternately mocking and enticing in the shadows... Made abstract by the lighting and camera angles, then switching into negative, and intercut with images of the woman, the film becomes a surreal geography of his body, which he punishes as he masturbates... After his orgasm, the film cuts to shots of children playing on the street outside, then returns to end on his exhausted face as he mouths incomprehensible words to the camera."

Gramercy Arts

After leaving the Bleecker Street Cinema, Mekas began showing films at the Gramercy Arts Theatre. The first screening was on 1 July 1963, as announced in June 27th issue of the Village Voice:

Filmmakers Cooperative ad for Filmmakers Showcase at the Gramercy Arts

Village Voice ad, 27 June 1963, p.13

Mekas' column in the next issue of the Voice was about how labs were refusing to develop underground film footage if they found it "objectionable" i.e. potentially pornographic. Filmmakers that were having problems with their lab included Naomi Levine and Jack Smith.

Jonas Mekas (The Village Voice, 4 July 1963, p. 8):

"Two weeks ago I received a worried telephone call from Ray Wisniewski (Doom Show). He took a roll of his new film to Lab-TV for developing. The lab developed it, gave it a look, and decided it was objectionable: there were nude scenes in it. Ray was informed that the film could not be given to him... At best, they were willing to return it with deletions...

Two weeks ago Naomi Levine took her film to Lab-TV. Her footage was seized on the same grounds of nudity. Moreover the cops were sent after her. It took much talking by the Film-Makers' Coop to get her footage out. Now, Naomi has in her lap a pile of exposed film, with no place to go.

Two weeks ago Jack Smith took his Flaming Creatures to Video Lab to have a print made. The lab rejected it: objectionable. The Film-Makers' Coop took the film to Movielab (because they say that "In the East it's the Movielab"). Back it came like lightning. Next, the film was sent to Filmtronics lab. Back again it came. It is now sitting on the Coop's table; nobody wants to touch it...

Who do the labs think they are?... Independent film-making, both in 16mm and 8mm, is swinging in New York, and we are no longer willing to restrict ourselves, censorship and sensoryship wise...

Since we may have to fight this matter on legal grounds also, I ask all readers with labs to send written reports on such happenings to the Film-Makers' Coop, 414 Park Avenue South, New York. We also want to know, from those who are close to the matter, what really happens with the confiscated footage, where it goes, etc. Please do some spy work - Join Our Spy Corps, Inc. and report to the Film-Makers' Coop..."

This would not have endeared Mekas to the labs or to the police for that matter. Mekas had already shown Flaming Creatures at Bleecker Street (see above) and would continue to show the film at the Gramercy Arts. Screenings of the film at that venue were advertised in the 18 July, 1 August and 8 August issues of the Village Voice:

Ads for Flaming Creatures at the Filmmakers Showcase

Village Voice Ads, Top row L-R: 18 July, 1963 and 1 August 1963, Bottom row: 8 August 1963

Mekas continued his protest against censorship in his 22 August column:

Jonas Mekas (The Village Voice, 22 August 1963):

"Friends and Citizens:
We want you to know how we feel.
When the Film-Makers' Showcase moved into the Gramercy Arts Theatre, we thought now we'll be able to continue our work in peace. Cinema needs its own workshop, a place where we can screen our unfinished and finished work, test our ideas, and study the work of our colleagues.

We were wrong.

The censors and licensors are on our backs. They have interfered with your work. They have disregarded the fact that most of the films screened are unfinished works-in-progress and cannot be submitted for censorship or licensing. They are following blindly the dumb letter of bureaucracy.

They say we are corrupting your morals. We would be glad if we could. It would do good to some. Those most be very sick souls which can be angered by beauty; shaky and suspicious are the morals which can be upset and 'corrupted' by beauty.

Lets not be ridiculous.
Censors of City and State:


In December, Mekas' battle against censorship was extended to Belgium. On Christmas Day, 1963, the EXPRMNTL 3 film festival opened in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium - or, as Mekas referred to the festival - the "Third International Experimental Film Exposition." According to Gerda Johanna Cammaer in her article, "EXPRMNTL 3 / Knokke-le-Zoute 1963: Flaming Creatures, Raving Features," "film lovers, filmmakers, artists, intellectuals, journalists and visitors got together in the Casino of Knokke-le-Zoute for the first true version of EXPRMNTL" and "There were about 500 people in total." (EX1) According to Bryan L. Frye in "The Dialectic of Obscenity," the festival "took place onboard a cruise ship named the Casino." (BLF241)

Flaming Creatures was initially chosen to be screened at the festival but because of the possibility of obscenity complaints the selection jury decided not to show it. The co-organizer of the festival, Pierre Vermeylen, director of the National Belgian Film Archive, was also the national Minister of Justice at the time. (EX) A note was included in the festival program:

"During its final deliberation, the selection jury decided to state explicitly that the majority of its members recognized the aesthetical and experimental qualities of the film FLAMING CREATURES by Jack Smith (USA, 1963) but had to ascertain unanimously that the showing of it was impossible in regards to Belgian laws" (Festival Program EXPRMNTL 3 as quoted in EX)

Mekas was a member of the jury that judged the films during the festival but was not a member of the pre-festival selection jury. He was outraged by the decision not to show the film after it had been selected for the festival. Leslie Trumbull, the secretary of the Film-Makers' Cooperative, wrote the "Movie Journal" column for the January 9th issue of the Village Voice and detailed the controversy surrounding Flaming Creatures and the measures Mekas took to show the film.

Leslie Trumbull ("Movie Journal: Report from Belgium," The Village Voice, 9 January 1964):

"The censorship issue arose over the American entry Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. The all-Belgian selection jury accepted the controversial film but was advised by the Minister of Justice that Belgian law forbade public screening of the Smith film.

At this point Jonas Mekas, an American member of the jury, arrived, found festival officials' hands tied by the censorship ruling - and promptly resigned in protest. But this was only his first move. Waving letters and cables from serveral American film-makers, he threatened to withdraw the entries of Vanderbeek, Markopoulos, Robert Breer, and Stan Brakhage...

The festival officials countered Mekas' attack by refusing to accept the withdrawals, leaving the situation in a deadlock until an appeal to the Minister of Justice brought a revise ruling.

A compromise was reached: the jury might consider Flaming Creatures in competition and screen it privately for that purpose, but no public showings would be allowed. As a result, the Smith entry was awarded the 'special prize of the censored film (film maudit)' by the selection jury. The Mekas forces were unsatisfied, however, and their protest bandwagon rolled on.

Special screenings of Flaming Creatures took place in Mekas' hotel room, attended by European film-makers Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Roman Polanski, and Gene Moskowitz of Variety - all subject to arrest by the local gendarmerie for attending an illegal screening. Occasional taps at the door, however, announced the arrival only of more cineastes, about 40 in all.

At one point the Mekas contingent attempted to take over the projection facilities at the public screenings, armed with a print of Flaming Creatures. Though this attack was beaten off by Casino employees and house detectives, who turned off the main electrical supply to the projection booth, the resultant uproar won a further gain for the anti-censorship forces..."

Mekas followed this up in the following week's Voice by giving further details of the controversy:

Jonas Mekas ("Movie Journal," The Village Voice, 16 January 1964, p. 13):

"I myself am not so sure about what really happened at Knokke during that stormy, confused, disappointed, sad, desperate week. It did different things to each of us. And there will be conflicting reports about it for years to come, about the flames over Knokke-Le Zoute: about how we smuggled Flaming Creatures into the projection room in the can of Dog Star Man; about our screenings in the hotel cellar amidst dusty old furniture, cobwebs, old newspapers; about how, on New Year's night, we stormed the Crystal Room and took over the projector, how the lights were cut off, and how I ran to the switchboard room, trying to push off the house detective, holding the door, trying to force the fingers of the bully who was holding the switch.

'People, do you want to see the film?' Barbara [Rubin] shouted from the projector platform, fighting like a brave general.

'Yes!' answered the people. It is too confusing what went on after that. Much pushing and shouting as the switch changed hands between me and the cop. It was about this time that the Minister of Justice arrived. The riot was getting more and more out of hand. The Minister made an attempt to explain the Belgian law. But when we asked if there was such a law forbidding the showing of films, he said there was no such law. 'Then fuck you!' shouted Barbara to the Minister of Justice of Belgium. We made another attempt to project Flaming Creatures right on his face, but the light was cut off again. Later I was told that the Minister of Justice in a speech gave his word that the Belgian laws on this matter will be changed. The morning papers picked up the promise.

Since the affair of Flaming Creatures has been blown across the world by now, and since there will be much more on the subject, I should tell you one thing. Our actions (by 'our' I mean Barbara Rubin, Paul Adams Sitney, and myself) at Knokke-Le Zoute were motivated by our feelings against the suppression of any film or an human expression. During our press conference, as well as on other occasions, we made it clear that we were not fighting for this particular film, but for the principle of free expression."

Not all underground or independent filmmakers appreciated Flaming Creatures. Agnes Varda apparently thought that watching the film was an "ordeal."

Jonas Mekas ("Movie Journal," The Village Voice, 16 January 1964):

"Agnes Varda came to the Flaming Creatures screening in our crowded hotel bedroom. The film was a shocking experience to her. She made an immediate attempt to leave the room. But the room was too crowded, and she couldn't leave without stepping on somebody's head. She stayed to the end, defending herself behind a screen of occasional remarks, laughter, dismissals. No doubt it was an ordeal. I was watching her more than the screen (Flaming Creatures makes me sick by now), and I began to understand something about the abstract humanism of her film Cleo from 5 to 7, and the masochism of L'Opera Mouife. We'll indulge in cruelty, in masochism, to hide our puritan dreams, but the beautiful innocent, almost childish fantasies of Jack Smith make us wriggle. It is innocence that bothers us..."

Despite the "innocence" of Smith's film (which contained graphic depictions of sexual organs and a cast of homosexuals, transvestites and their friends), Mekas thought that as a result of screening the film, Varda now saw him as a "sex maniac" and also noted that his colleague P. Adams Sitney got "about 20 proposals from fags" as a result of the screening.

Jonas Mekas ("Movie Journal," The Village Voice, 16 January 1964, p. 16):

"Having plenty of time to play around at the festival I made one good friend: Varda's five-year-old daughter. We had a good time together. So the last day of the festival I mentioned it to Varda. I thought she'd be happy. Instead, I noticed that her face became pale. For a moment I couldn't understand the fear I saw in her face. Only slowly did it dawn on me that she took me for a sex maniac. After all, I am showing that dirty, transvestite movie in my room. And there is the Flaming Barbara with me. Sitney, I was told, got about 20 proposals from fags who were swamping the fest and who couldn't exactly figure out what's behind that beard. And there were rumors going on about the nightly orgies taking place in my hotel room..."

When Mekas showed the film the following year at the New Bowery in New York, he was arrested.

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