Underground filmmaker and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas was a Lithuanian immigrant who came to America after World War II and eventually formed the New American Cinema Group in 1960 with his friend Shirley Clarke and other likeminded filmmakers.
By 1962, Jonas Mekas began hosting Film-Makers’ Cooperative screenings at his loft at 414 Park Avenue South, between Twenty-Eighth and Twenty-Ninth Streets. “A normal evening at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative,” Mekas recalled, “you could see Allen Ginsberg, you could see Robert Frank, you could see Larry Rivers, you could see Bob Kaufman or Jack Smith—all the filmmakers, painters, or musicians. It was a mix, and not as separated as today. They were very close, they were using each other.” Mekas’s loft was the office of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a space lined with shelves of films and an old Moviola film-editing machine that Jonas slept under to save space. “It was also the office of Film Culture magazine,” he recalled, “and then we built a space with a screen that was good enough for twenty people or so. Every evening, filmmakers used to bring their own films and friends to check what they did just a few days ago. It was very, very active. The low-budget or no-budget filmmakers stuck together because they had nothing to lose and nowhere to go. Nobody wanted to distribute our films, but here we had our own distribution center. The rule was, no film was rejected. The film, good or bad, is your ticket.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke’s early films were multimedia experiments that explored how dance movements worked in dialogue with camera movements and edits. Her first short film—Dance in the Sun, a collaboration with choreographer and dancer Daniel Nagrin—effortlessly melded the expressive worlds of cinema and dance. “She would have a gesture that Daniel was making with his arms onstage in the rehearsal hall in New York,” her daughter Wendy Clarke said, “and there would be a cut to the completion of that gesture that was shot on the beach. When she got into film, she was a really good networker, and people came over all the time. Jonas Mekas and other people came over for dinner and they would all show each other the films that they were working on.” Mekas and Clarke were classmates in 1950 at City College of New York, where she studied film with Dadaist Hans Richter. Mekas and Clarke stayed in touch and eventually formed the New American Cinema Group in 1960, along with other likeminded filmmakers, as well as the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. This group advocated for a low-budget, more personal and auteurist approach to cinema; their manifesto stated: “We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished but alive.”
In addition to DIY mimeo printing, the downtown’s social networks thrived with the help of community and underground papers like the Village Voice and the East Village Other. Michael Smith joined the Voice in the early 1960s as a theater critic, when the paper was still struggling on a week-to-week basis to keep the lights on. It was more volunteer work than anything else, but Smith’s passion for promoting underground theater kept him going. In New York, negative reviews had serious consequences for a show’s bottom line, so producers and theaters tended to gravitate toward critic-and crowd-pleasers. For example, Sam Shepard’s budding career as a playwright was nearly over before it began after mainstream papers panned his debut production. “I was ready to pack it in and go back to California,” he said. “Then Michael Smith from the Village Voice came up with this rave review, and people started coming to see it.” Jonas Mekas also exerted a major influence on underground film through both his Village Voice film column and Film Culture, the magazine he published with his brother Adolfas Mekas. Future filmmaker John Waters devoured Jonas Mekas’s writings from afar. “When I was in high school,” Waters said, “I would read Jonas Mekas’s ‘Movie Journal’ column every week in the Village Voice. That was a huge, huge influence to me. Mekas’s Film Culture magazine was my bible. He was my life saver. That’s how I knew about everything when I was living in Baltimore.”
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In the wake of her Chambers Street Loft Series, Yoko Ono became associated with Fluxus, an irreverent 1960s art movement whose informal leader was a Lithuanian immigrant named George Maciunas (others, such as Bibbe Hansen’s father, Al Hansen, were also deeply involved in the movement). “Fluxus was the furthermost experimental group of its time,” Ono recalled. “Anyone doing experimental work was aware of us and took ideas from us and made them commercial. Their stuff was selling but ours was too far-out to sell.” Preferring to work in a conceptual mode, Fluxus artists produced few physical works that could be sold within the established art market. Nevertheless, the people involved in Fluxus made a significant material impact in the way in which they reshaped SoHo. “The Fluxus artists changed the New York downtown,” Jonas Mekas observed. “George Maciunas claimed that his one work of art is SoHo, transforming the downtown of New York.” Maciunas, an old family friend of Mekas, was a force of nature who helped turn that neighborhood into an artists’ colony (one of his Fluxhouse Cooperative buildings, at 80 Wooster Street, was home to Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque). “If the Fluxus group took part in the trend toward environmental art,” Sharon Zukin wrote, “then the changing factory district of SoHo was the environment that it both mined and mimed.”
From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Al Hansen’s long, strange trip began when he served as a GI in post–World War II Germany, where he impulsively pushed a piano off the edge of a bombed-out building. He always considered that his first performance piece, and even reprised it as the Yoko Ono Piano Drop during his involvement in the Fluxus art movement, when he appeared at the Judson Gallery and many other downtown spaces. (Fluxus artists often named pieces after their friends, in a sort of intertextual social networking game.) “Al Hansen was one of these crazy figures that marries all of these scenes together,” said his daughter, Bibbe Hansen. “He’s the connect-the-dots guy between the post–World War II beatnik to neo-Dada to Pop Art and Fluxus and Happenings and performance art and Intermedia.” He was a roommate of Beat poet Gregory Corso, and when Bibbe was a young teen she lived in a Lower East Side apartment with Janet Kerouac, daughter of Jack Kerouac. Bibbe also tagged along with her father to see underground film screenings at Jonas Mekas’s loft that were attended by Andy Warhol, with whom she would later collaborate on a couple of films (she also appeared in some of Jonas Mekas’s films).
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
While happily buzzing along on Obetrol, a diet pill often abused as a stimulant, Andy Warhol began filming his boyfriend, poet John Giorno, as he slumbered at night. This resulted in the long silent film Sleep, which was composed of twenty-two different shots, some of which were looped and repeated several times. Warhol also began working on a series of Kiss films, which included little more than scenesters such as Ed Sanders locking lips in semi-slow motion. “When he made his first films, Kiss, already I had almost fifteen years of cinema in me,” Jonas Mekas recalled. “I was publishing Film Culture magazine already for ten years, and writing. So I was very familiar, and I immediately saw that this is different—this is new, this is important. I was running at that time a filmmakers’ showcase on Twenty-Seventh Street between Park Avenue and Lexington, and that’s where I presented that series of Kiss films and premiered Sleep and his early silent films.”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Flaming Creatures debuted in 1963 and was shown three times in early 1964 at the Gramercy Art Theatre without incident until the police issued a summons against the movie and the theater was forced to halt its screenings. The resourceful Jonas Mekas continued the screenings at the Bowery Theatre in the East Village, which was then hosting Diane di Prima’s New York Poets Theatre company. On March 3, 1964, an undercover police officer in the audience arrested as many people as he could, including Mekas. “He watched the film,” Mekas recalled, “and I knew, ‘That’s a cop, and he may arrest me.’ I even had sandwiches in my pocket prepared already. Chicken sandwiches. I knew I might be arrested. They had seen an advertisement and the police just came in. They were waiting until the end of the film. No big fuss. I just spent a couple nights in jail.” Future gay rights activist Harvey Milk was another audience member who was thrown in the police wagon and taken to the Ninth Precinct house on East Fifth Street. Mekas was sentenced to sixty days in a prison workhouse in 1964, an unsettling irony for the survivor of a Nazi labor camp who came to America for the freedoms it offered. His sentence was eventually suspended, and fifty-one years later prosecuting attorney Gerald Harris reached out to Mekas. “I feel I owe you an apology,” he wrote in a 2015 email. “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.” The New York Times reported that Mekas replied immediately: “Your surprise generous apology accepted!”
“I would go on the Greyhound bus and sneak away to New York,” recalled film director John Waters, a devotee of Jonas Mekas’s screenings. “I’d go to the Bridge Theatre. I went to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. I went to see the early Warhol movies, Jack Smith movies, all that stuff.” He also attended Play-House of the Ridiculous shows, and developed a shared sensibility with downtown artists like John Vaccaro, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. “I went to a lot of the John Vaccaro stuff,” Waters said. “Also, Charles Ludlam was my friend. That’s what influenced my movie Multiple Maniacs, like the lobster rape scene. It was the Theater of the Ridiculous.” Waters even attended New York University briefly, until he was expelled after being busted for marijuana possession. “But it wasn’t really NYU’s fault,” he said. “I didn’t go to class. I went to Times Square every day and saw movies. I stole books from their bookshop and sold them back the next day to make money. I took drugs. I probably should’ve been thrown out.”
Andy Warhol’s dive into underground film commenced in early 1962 when he began attending screenings at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, then operating out of Jonas Mekas’s loft and the Charles Theater. Warhol was one of fifteen or so people sitting on the floor, though he and Mekas didn’t become acquainted until 1963. “That’s where Andy Warhol began watching films and got the urge to make movies himself,” Mekas recalled. “He was at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative watching films and meeting his early stars: Mario Montez, Beverly Grant, Naomi Levine, Taylor Mead. He met them at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and that’s when he decided to make a film.” Warhol was inspired to make movies after seeing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which precipitated his shift away from visual art. In 1963, he bought a Bolex 16-mm camera with a newly introduced motor that made shooting simpler—one of the ways that new technologies shaped the development of the downtown’s DIY scenes. (The massive amount of cheap 16-mm film stock left over from World War II also gave underground filmmakers access to this medium.)
The Velvet Underground continued playing for these Factory-produced events, renamed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a continuation of multimedia experiments that were taking place downtown. Elaine Summers had already staged her Fantastic Gardens mixed-media event in February 1964 at Judson Church, where film projections were splashed on the ceiling, walls, and floor, and the audience participated with small handheld mirrors. The results were stunning, and unprecedented. As the space was enveloped by a cacophony of lighting effects, music, movement, spoken word, and cinema, dance pioneer Sally Stackhouse performed on the balcony in front of a film of herself dancing. In his Village Voice column, Jonas Mekas argued that Fantastic Gardens was “by far the most successful and most ambitious attempt to use the many possible combinations of film and live action to create an aesthetic experience.” Two years later, Warhol did much the same when he projected performance footage of the Velvet Underground while they played in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom.
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Velvet Underground’s first show as a Factory band was at an annual meeting of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry on January 10, 1966, in the posh Delmonico Hotel. Andy Warhol was originally invited to give a lecture, but instead suggested a multimedia performance that would be staged during a dinner for the psychiatrists and their spouses. As films projected behind the group, the Velvets shared space on the stage with a go-go-dancing Edie Sedgwick. “The second the main course was served, the Velvets started to blast, and Nico started to wail,” Warhol recalled. “Gerard and Edie jumped up on the stage and started dancing, and the doors flew open and Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin with her crew of people with cameras and bright lights came storming into the room and rushing over to all the psychiatrists asking them things like: ‘What does her vagina feel like?’ ‘Is his penis big enough?’ ‘Do you eat her out? Why are you getting embarrassed? You’re a psychiatrist; you’re not supposed to get embarrassed!’ ” When asked if Warhol’s account might have been exaggerated, Mekas said, “It’s embellished, yes, but not too much. The main purpose was to try to embarrass them. I think we succeeded in doing that, but we were not pushy. We did it quite politely. And because of the politeness in which our questions were presented, they sounded even more outrageous than they actually were.” As Billy Name noted, “We didn’t shock anybody. Psychiatrists may be stiff but they all have a sense of humor, and they’re all intelligent.”
When Ed Sanders signed the lease for his Peace Eye Bookstore in late 1964, at 383 East Tenth Street, Beat hero Tuli Kupferberg was already living next door, above the Lifschutz Wholesale Egg Store. They first met in 1962 outside the Charles Theatre on Avenue B, where Jonas Mekas screened underground films and Kupferberg was selling copies of his magazine Birth to the audience. Sanders let Kupferberg publish a poem in Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts and the two attended poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga mixed with literary heavyweights like Allen Ginsberg. After these readings, everyone congregated at a dance bar on St. Mark’s Place called the Dom—formerly a Polish wedding and social hall—where Sanders suggested to Kupferberg that they should form a band. Sanders suggested various band names such as the Yodeling Socialists and the Freaks, but it was Kupferberg who came up with the Fugs—fug was a term that writer Norman Mailer had used as a euphemism for fuck in his novel The Naked and Dead. With a name secured, their next order of business was to write songs. Sanders had been setting William Blake poems to music since his days of sitting in Washington Square Park as an NYU student, and he was more a poet than a rocker. “I don’t think I took the Fugs seriously as music. I just liked the scene, but I didn’t really listen to it as music,” said Village Voice rock critic Richard Goldstein. “But the idea of Blake’s ‘Ah! Sun-flower! / weary of time’ as a rock song was amazingly unusual.”
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Remarkably, both the Holy Modal Rounders and the Velvet Underground appeared on national television, reaching millions of households. In 1965, legendary CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite introduced “The Making of an Underground Film,” a five-and-a-half-minute segment that featured Jonas Mekas, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (whose members—except for drummer Maureen Tucker—were shirtless and wearing body paint). “Some underground films have been criticized for dealing too frankly with such themes as sex and nudity,” CBS correspondent Dave Dugan reported, “but many movies such as this one may simply seem confusing.” Even the Fugs came close to making it on network television after Sanders’s face landed on the cover of the February 17, 1967, issue of Life—one of the nation’s highest-circulation magazines. This led to a call from The Tonight Show to appear as Johnny Carson’s guest. Ed Sanders stubbornly insisted that the Fugs should be allowed to perform “Kill for Peace” on the program as a protest against the Vietnam War but, not surprisingly, the network refused to let the Fugs sing, “If you don’t like the people or the way that they talk / If you don’t like their manners or they way that they walk / Kill, kill, kill for peace!”
Wendy Clarke felt that the Chelsea was a great place for her mother, Shirley Clarke, because it connected her to other like-minded souls. “It was the perfect lifestyle for her,” she said. “The lobby was like your living room, so you can sit in the lobby for hours and just have conversations with the most amazing people—Jonas Mekas, Divine, the guys who did Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni.” Just off the lobby was El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant and bar that served inexpensive lobster and was a popular hangout. Smith wandered in one night and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore