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Goodbye Mr. Underground

Jonas Mekas died in New York at the age of 96

Jonas Mekas, 2016

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Serene and calm, he decided this was enough. Jonas Mekas passed away yesterday morning in New York. Aged 96, the filmmaker and poet closed out a life as an icon of the 20th century and an essential page of cinema history. A life and page that the Locarno Film Festival was very fortunate to get to know, host and share two years ago, at Locarno69. On that occasion, as part of the Cineasti del presente line-up, Douglas Gordon showed I Had Nowhere to Go as a world premiere. Standing beside him was Mekas himself, the star and story of the film. 

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas became acquainted with life very quickly, escaping World War II and serving time in a German labor camp. In 1949, he escaped to New York with his brother Adolfas and made a fundamental, revolutionary purchase (to him): a 16mm Bolex camera.With it - "I spent ten years learning to master it", he said - Mekas did something simple: he discovered, investigated, experimented and created cinema. His own cinema. He went with the Avant-Garde movement, founded Film Culture in 1954 and ten years later established The Film-Makers' Cooperative, now the Anthology Films Archives in New York, a custodian of arthouse cinema. He was one of the fathers of New American Cinema. He worked with Salvador Dalì and John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol, with whom he made Empire (1965). If you look for him, you'll find him there, in the reflection on the window during the reel changes of that interminable, 485-minute long static shot of the Empire State Building, which he filmed under Warhol's direction. 

In other words, Mekas was cinema, the kind of cinema that has been a bright beacon in Locarno for 72 years. A storyteller in poet, who in 2007 uploaded 365 short films online, one per day. At 80, he kept toying with images and means of filmmaking. "We're living in a very exciting time", he told Lorenzo Buccella, head of Locarno Daily, during his visit in August 2016. And he fully lived in that time. Until yesterday. 

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