Yesterday, a dear friend and former professor, Adolfas Mekas, died of heart complications at the age of 85. If you consider yourself an independent filmmaker and are not familiar with Adolfas and his avant-garde contemporaries, I recommend a Google search. Plenty is written about his film work, and I won’t attempt to add to that anthology. Suffice to say, that if you’re looking for lessons in “film courage,” check out the works of the Mekas brothers, Maya Daren, Stan Brakhage, et al. They were indie when indie wasn’t cool.
To know, love, and learn from Adolfas, was a lesson in what it means to be an artist of any kind. He was ruthlessly unpretentious, brutally cynical, even mean sometimes, and funny as all hell. He not only worked in absurdist constructs; he was an absurdist construct who would pull the rug out from under any idea, any assumption, and above all, any excuse. He would see a student, say me, and in his Lithuanian accent with partial syntax, ask, “Where is movie?”
I would answer, “I’ll get back to it. I have a paper due for a class.”
“Copy out of book,” he would respond, only half-joking. “Make movie.”
Although a professor for over thirty years, he was more than a little iconoclastic when it came to traditional academia. Even teaching film studies at Bard was something he and his early students had to fight to keep among the course offerings; and there were never enough resources. If you were lucky to know Adolfas at certain times, you had the opportunity (read challenge) to watch, in a single showing, Kobayashi’s The Human Condition — a ten-hour, black-and-white, Japanese war film with subtitles. During one bathroom break, I remember him enjoying a kind of mad-scientist moment, when he said, “The freshmen in my class, they are hating this. They think it’s required.” I asked if he would assign them a paper about the film and he said, “Yes, but has to fit on three by five card.” Genius.
His spirit and humor were infectious. I’m sure many of his students repeat Adolfasisms, consciously or not, in their daily lives. In our house, when something breaks one says, “The whole unyit it broken, dammit,” which was the standard assessment of any piece of Bard’s antique, dog-eared film equipment that had stopped working.
I am sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friend and sadder still that, although I live less than an hour from his house, we did not spend more time together over the last several years. There was no lack of affection, but as I had strayed so far from filmmaking, I found it tough, even painful, to speak with Adolfas after we got past the easy stuff like kids, and life’s practicalities. He would say, “So, what are you doing,” i.e. “Where is movie?” And the answer was so much more dull than having a paper due.
Now that I am throwing myself back into film with everything I’ve got, I’m sorry I won’t get to share any of it with Adolfas. Of course, he’d probably say something about the work that would piss me off, but that was his job. Whether he’d like it or not, I’m dedicating gone Elvis to him.