First issue of Film Culture, founded by Jonas Mekas, New York
“No artist within the American avant-garde film has equalled the influence of Jonas Mekas as a polemicist”
P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, 1974
The Lithuanian poet Jonas Mekas arrived in New York as a displaced person in 1949 and took a passionate interest in the New York film culture of the early fifties. When he founded the magazine Film Culture in 1955, the majority of Mekas’s collaborators were fellow European exiles, and many articles in the early issues of the journal focussed on European art cinema. But the range of topics covered was fairly broad, and Andrew Sarris’s editorship meant that Hollywood cinema was given serious consideration. Both Sarris and Mekas would later take inspiration – albeit in very different ways – from the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma, and just as Cahiers became the organ of the nouvelle vague, Film Culture became linked with the New York-based avant-garde filmmaking that Mekas would call the New American Cinema.
Initially Mekas was highly critical of experimental film culture in the U.S., and in the third issue (May-June 1955) of Film Culture Mekas deplored the ‘adolescent’ character of the American avant-garde, arguing that there was an empty gap between Hollywood’s populism and the self-absorption of experimental filmmaking. Mekas would later describe this article, which also had homophobic undertones, as a ‘Saint-Augustine-before-the-conversion piece’, and very soon he turned into a fervent champion of the filmmakers he had originally criticised. In 1959 the magazine launched the Independent Film Award, and from this point onwards, Film Culture become the focus of debates surrounding first the low-budget filmmaking of John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, Mekas and his brother Adolfas, and later the projects of The Film-Makers Cooperative.
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