I Drink to You: Anthology Film Archives's 40th Birthday and Benefitby Jarrett Earnest
Jonas Mekas sits down across from me and pours himself a drink. He turns off the radio, cups the bubbling amber glass and leans in. “Dear Penny Arcade—I drink to you!” he says.
So begins Mekas’s June 23 2001 video diary A Letter to Penny Arcade, in which, among other things, he delights in his love for life and New York City. The image is swathed in the familiar gray-and-peach digital tones which mark the aesthetic of our time, and which adds to the intimacy of the comfortably cropped frame, positioning the viewer as a close friend. In the intoxicating lilt of his Lithuanian accent he explains:
And the summers! The winters! The summers that people run away from in New York. NO! I like when New York is hot. Like today, when it was thundering and raining and I was sweating and it’s humid but I like it. I LIKE IT when it is hot in New York, I like the winters in New York! I like the Autumn...so I drink to New York, my friends...
This footage, in which he goes on to dance to “chance” music on the radio and play the accordion, encapsulates some key elements of Mekas’s life’s work—not only as legendary experimental filmmaker, but as the chief creative force behind the Anthology Film Archives.
It is no accident that in this video Mekas speaks of loving New York, or that he sings of physicality, because his work has been in many ways a celebration of both. It is perhaps too easy, in the disembodied Internet age, to forget the importance of film as a material art object. Celluloid, like a human boy, ages and must be actively preserved. The experience of film is itself the social act of bodies congregated in space. These are realities that Anthology Film Archives was created to address. The institution was founded in 1970 by Mekas, Stan Brakhage, P. Adams Sitney, and Peter Kubelka with the aim of “contruct[ing] a theater in which films can be seen under the best conditions; and to define the art of film in terms of selected works which indicate its essences and parameters.” In its pursuit of “film-as-art,” AFA has rescued many 8 and 16mm works which might otherwise have slipped away totally, valuing these marginalized forms and formats when few did. In pursuing its mission "advance the cause and protect the heritage of a kind of cinema that is in particular danger of being lost, overlooked, or ignored,” AFA has allowed works by artists as diverse as Stan Brakhage to the Kuchar Brothers, Jack Smith to Jean Genet, to play a role in the minds and lives of the broader world.
It may not be overstating the matter to call AFA the most important cultural institution in New York of the latter half of the 20th century. This is not only because of its work in preserving approximately 800 experimental and avant-garde films thus far but because—through approximately 700 public screenings annually, at an affordable $6-$9 a pop—it grants general audiences as well as future artists and scholars unprecedented access to under-known art.
We are, however, reminded of the fragility of that physical archive again today as its approximately 11,000 films and 3,000 videotapes—one of the most complete assemblages of art-film-DNA in the world—is being threatened by a faulty sidewalk, which is allowing moisture to seep into the storage facilities. Luckily for us, Anthology’s Film Preservation Honors and 40th anniversary benefit concert is this Wednesday, April 27. In addition to honoring such luminaries as filmmaker Albert Maysles; Vlada Petric, founding director of the Harvard Film Archive; and film scholar Tony Pipolo. AFA hopes to raise the requisite $125,000 to repair the encroaching leak. The concert—to be hosted by the magical Mekas himself—will feature performances and appearances by David Amram, Harmony Korine, Marina Abramovic, Richard Barone, Olof Arnalds, and Transgendered Jesus, as well as others to-be-announced.
Anthology Film Archives is a love letter to New York and to the future of our shared intellectual world, imbued with the same passion for life and art that sends Mekas dancing around his loft in Letter to Penny Arcade, which he allows us to take part in through his video with a joyously generous spirit. So let’s do our part and raise a glass at City Winery this Wednesday. Anthology: We drink to you!
You can learn more about Anthology’s upcoming benefit here.
About the Author
JARRETT EARNEST is an artist and scholar currently living in Brooklyn.