A Brief History
Text by Jonas Mekas, filmmaker & founder
The year was 1960. New York was buzzing with dreams of a new cinema—a cinema that would reflect the sensibilities of 1960. Inspired by the New York School of Cinema—a term used at the Venice Film Festival to introduce the works of Morris Engel, Sidney Meyers, and Lionel Rogosin—the French Nouvelle Vague burst upon the screens of the world. In the United States, the avant-garde cinema of Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Ron Rice was making its own waves. So was John Casavettes’ Shadows; Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy; Shirley Clarke’s The Connection; Guns of the Trees, the film I made with Adolfas Mekas; and Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer Day and Cry of Jazz.
Something had to be done . . .
On September 28th, 1960, some 23 independent filmmakers, including myself, met in New York and decided to create a self-help organization which became known as the New American Cinema Group. The Group held monthly informal meetings and discussed dreams and problems of independently working filmmakers. Several small committees were created in order to explore the financing, promotion, and distribution of our films. My own assignment, besides that of serving as the President of the Board—was to investigate new methods of distribution.
After looking into the existing film distribution organizations, and seeing how few of them were interested in our work, I came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to create our own cooperative film distribution center, run by ourselves. When Cinema 16, at that time the most advanced avant-garde/independent film distribution organization, rejected Stan Brakhage’s film Anticipation of the Night—an eye-opener and the beginning of a totally new, subjective cinema—this was the signal that something had to be done.
I slept under my editing table.
On January 7th, 1962, I invited some 20 avant-garde/independent filmmakers to my Manhattan loft to discuss the creation of our own distribution center. Stan Vanderbeek, Ron Rice, Rudy Burckhardt, Jack Smith, Lloyd Williams, Robert Breer, David Brooks, Ken Jacobs, Gregory Markopoulos, Ray Wisniweski, Doc Humes, and Robert Downey, to mention a few, were among those present.
The Film-Makers’ Cooperative came into being.
Announcements were sent to across the United States and abroad. My loft became the Co-op’s temporary home (if one can call five years time temporary!) I slept under my editing table. The rest of the place was taken over by filmmakers, who were almost always there, screening their films to each other and friends. It was a very exciting period, everybody was there, from Salvador Dali to Allen Ginsberg, to Andy Warhol to Jack Smith to Barbara Rubin—everybody!
The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group
September 30, 1962
In the course of the past three years we have been witnessing the spontaneous growth of a new generation of film makers—the Free Cinema in England, the Nouvelle Vague in France, the young movements in Poland, Italy, and Russia, and, in this country, the work of Lionel Rogosin, John Cassavetes, Alfred Leslie, Robert Frank, Edward Bland, Bert Stern and the Sanders brothers.
The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring. Even the seemingly worthwhile films, those that lay claim to high moral and esthetic standards and have been accepted as such by critics and the public alike, reveal the decay of the Product Film. The very slickness of their execution has become a perversion covering the falsity of their themes, their lack of sensibility, their lack of style.
If the New American Cinema has until now been an unconscious and sporadic manifestation, we feel the time has come to join together. There are many of us—the movement is reaching significant proportions—and we know what needs to be destroyed and what we stand for.
As in the other arts in America today—painting, poetry, sculpture, theatre, where fresh winds have been blowing for the last few years—our rebellion against the old, official, corrupt and pretentious is primarily an ethical one. We are concerned with Man [sic]. We are concerned with what is happening to Man [sic]. We are not an esthetic school that constricts the filmmaker within a set of dead principles. We feel we cannot trust any classical principles either in art or life.
1. We believe that cinema is indivisibly a personal expression. We therefore reject the interference of producers, distributors and investors until our work is ready to be projected on the screen.
2. We reject censorship. We never signed any censorship laws. Neither do we accept such relics as film licensing. No book, play or poem—no piece of music needs a license from anybody. We will take legal action against licensing and censorship of films, including that of the U.S. Customs Bureau. Films have the right to travel from country to country free of censors and the bureaucrats’ scissors. United States should take the lead in initiating the program of free passage of films from country to country.
Who are the censors? Who chooses them and what are their qualifications? What’s the legal basis for censorship? These are the questions which need answers.
3. We are seeking new forms of financing, working towards a reorganization of film investing methods, setting up the basis for a free film industry. A number of discriminating investors have already placed money in Shadows, Pull My Daisy, The Sin of Jesus, Don Peyote, The Connection, Guns of the Trees. These investments have been made on a limited partnership basis as has been customary in the financing of Broadway plays. A number of theatrical investors have entered the field of low budget film production on the East Coast.
4. The New American Cinema is abolishing the Budget Myth, proving that good, internationally marketable films can be made on a budget of $25,000 to $200,000. Shadows, Pull My Daisy, The Little Fugitive prove it. Our realistic budgets give us freedom from stars, studios, and producers. The film maker is his own producer, and paradoxically, low budget films give a higher return margin than big budget films.
The low budget is not a purely commercial consideration. It goes with our ethical and esthetic beliefs, directly connected with the things we want to say, and the way we want to say them.
5. We’ll take a stand against the present distribution—exhibition policies. There is something decidedly wrong with the whole system of film exhibition; it is time to blow the whole thing up. It’s not the audience that prevents films like Shadows or Come Back, Africa from being seen but the distributors and theatre owners. It is a sad fact that our films first have to open in London, Paris or Tokyo before they can reach our own theatres.
6. We plan to establish our own cooperative distribution center. This task has been entrusted to Emile de Antonio, our charter member. The New York Theatre, The Bleecker St. Cinema, Art Overbrook Theatre (Philadelphia) are the first movie houses to join us by pledging to exhibit our films. Together with the cooperative distribution center, we will start a publicity campaign preparing the climate for the New Cinema in other cities. The American Federation of Film Societies will be of great assistance in this work.
7. It’s about time the East Coast had its own film festival, one that would serve as a meeting place for the New Cinema from all over the world. The purely commercial distributors will never do justice to cinema. The best of the Italian, Polish, Japanese, and a great part of the modern French cinema is completely unknown in this country. Such a festival will bring these films to the attention of exhibitors and the public.
8. While we fully understand the purposes and interests of Unions, we find it unjust that demands made on the independent work, budgeted at $25,000 (most of which is deferred), are the same as those made on a $1,000,000 movie. We shall meet with the unions to work out more reasonable methods, similar to those existing off-Broadway—a system based on the size and nature of the production.
9. We pledge to put aside a certain percentage of our film profits so as to build up a fund that would be used to help our members finish films or stand as a guarantor for the laboratories.
In joining together, we want to make it clear that there is one basic difference between our group and organizations such as United Artists. We are not joining together to make money. We are joining together to make films. We are joining together to build the New American Cinema. And we are going to do it together with the rest of America, together with the rest of our generation. Common beliefs, common knowledge, common anger and impatience binds us together—and it also binds us together with the New Cinema movements of the rest of the world. Our colleagues in France, Italy, Russia, Poland or England can depend on our determination. As they, we have had enough of the Big Lie in life and the arts. As they, we are not only for the new cinema: we are also for the New Man [sic]. As they, we are for art, but not at the expense of life. We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films—we want them the color of blood.