Adolfas Mekas died yesterday, at 85. It’s easily to speak about what the film world –and the avant-garde in particular – has lost: co-founder of the seminal magazine Film Culture and NYC’s Anthology Film Archive (both with his older brother Jonas), the first film critic for The Village Voice, one of the great voices of the New American Cinema, a godfather of American experimental film. It’s just as easy to speak reverently about his work: his 1963 opus Hallelujah the Hills is one of the most joyous, poetic, absurd experiences you will ever have watching a movie, and I suggest you put it on your to do list. See Going Home (1971) too. But to me and many of the boys who contribute to Saint Eliot, Adolfas will always be, first and foremost, the de facto founder of Bard College’s scrappy, boisterous, anarchic Film Department, which came to be known during his tenure as “The People’s Film Department of Bard College.” It is still a department crafted in his image. His face (last I checked) still adorns the clock in the Film Office, his patron saint (St. Tula, Our Lady Of Cinema) still offers snarky aphorisms (“blame not broken equipment. Your vision may be too small to see what the broken camera sees” is a personal favorite) from forgotten corners of the film building. Ask you then where ‘Saint Eliot’ comes from?
I never met Adolfas personally, but, from the very first moment I stepped on campus, his spirit filtered down from those film students (Old Bard, they called themselves, a term we would adopt as seniors) who’d had him as a teacher. My first visit to Bard introduced me to Alex Kalman (now of Red Bucket Films) then a sophomore newly accepted to the film department (one doesn’t officially join any department at Bard until the end of your sophomore year; there is a process called Moderation in which you formally declare your candidacy and have your work reviewed before being accepted or – gasp! – deferred for a semester or – double gasp! – rejected). I walked into Alex’s room and heard the familiar patterns of Marcello Mastroianni’s voice; Alex was watching 8 ½, which I, a pretentious seventeen year-old snot, had recently decided was my favorite film. I felt instantly at home – a misguided comfort that quickly gave way to awe when Alex decided to take me on a tour. Instead of going to the ‘new’ film building, we walked to a decrepit structure known as the Old Gym, a place that had been a student-run event space until the floor caved in during a party and the school had boarded it up. Approaching a small side door, Alex fished out his keys and, after making sure we were alone, let us in to a dark, cavernous space filled with old film equipment, a giant green-screen, and all manner of costumes and props – including a life-size banana costume he’d made and worn as the protagonist in his latest opus, A Banana Escapes. This, he explained, was the original ‘Studio X’, (the ‘new’ studio X, not so new anymore, was built in the heart of the ‘new’ film building). Even the name was badass. Make sure nobody sees you, he whispered as we prepared to leave. The building is condemned, and we don’t want to get the department in trouble with security. Security, it turned out, was right upstairs; their offices were – still are – on the top two floors of the Old Gym. I asked him where he’d gotten the key. Peter, he said, meaning Peter Hutton, the current head of the film department. But don’t tell anyone.
The Bard film department that I moderated into was not quite so grungy, so notoriously renegade. Which was okay, because neither was I. I, along with most of my classmates, never took the time to learn the optical printer (although I wanted to), and only developed my 16mm by hand a few times (with mixed results). Though I shot everything I could on my Bolex – I still do – I shot my senior thesis digitally, which seemed the only realistic choice when confronted with the constraints of time, money, and my own confidence telling a good story and directing actors. I suppose it was the right decision, but it wouldn’t have been Kalman’s.
By the time I was part of the film department, Adolfas was a crazy old kook who lived across the river – potentially unfriendly, Kalman explained to me, unless you bring him a bottle of scotch. What kind of scotch, I wanted to know; a question that, as soon as I uttered it, I sensed demonstrated a profound lack of understanding. Cheapest stuff you can find – he won’t care, Kalman said, as if in the answer was a key to a whole world. Which it was. Adolfas (as I later discovered through his work) was silly, unabashedly weird and, most of all, unpretentious. Kalman was too, which explained their mutual attraction; Mekas and Kalman were makers, constantly working (and working with their hands), always experimenting, more interested in doing than in talking about doing. I’m admittedly more precious with my work. I remember screening my moderation film, Daffodil, for Peter after getting some stern feedback at my moderation board and re-cutting and agonizing over a million little changes. After we finished it (it couldn’t have been longer than three minutes), I started telling him about the changes I still had to make, and Peter stopped me. It’s good, he said. What’s next?
In 1963, The New York Times wrote that Hallelujah the Hills “boisterously affirmed that life can be a ball and movie-making can be fun.” Perhaps that’s what I valued about the People’s film department most. Writing as I am from Los Angeles right now – which brings Annandale-On-Hudson, New York into particularly sharp focus – I’m surprised at what I miss most: the credits I conned out of Peter to let me go shoot on my own over the summer (and not be bothered to do anything but edit when I got back), the sets I built, demolished, and returned to Walmart (for my money back! Always!), the keys I stole to the ‘new’ studio X so I could always have access, day or night. The adventure of expectedly finding yourself a member of a club that serves a slightly different master than everyone else; a club in which everyone – not just people your own age but also teachers and mentors (with no more respect for authority and bureaucracy than you, and sometimes less) – wants only, as you do, to make things.
“Film without fear,” sayeth St. Tula, according to The Sayings of Saint Tula (which you should buy immediately.) “St. Tula loves your film. Even if no one else does.”