As a Lithuanian WWII refugee, he landed in NY with brother Adolfus; neither spoke English. Jonas purchased a second-hand movie camera in a pawn shop and began filming the new world around him, an attempt to interact, to have a discourse, with a strange and exciting culture. In 1954 the brothers founded “Film Culture”, the film journal that would advocate for a new kind of cinema, a cinema that was “the art of light”, a cinema more akin to poetry and music than Hollywood narratives. Mekas would later co-found Filmmakers' Co-op, to distribute these new film poets' works, and also write for the “Village Voice”, in its day perhaps the best film journal in America.
Mekas shocked the critical establishment when in 1959 and 1960 he called John Cassavetes' “Shadows” and Leslie's and Frank's Beat manifesto,” Pull My Daisy”, the Best Films of the Year! Both were black and white, location-based, low-budget productions which contrasted to the big Technicolor productions of Hollywood. But they had sustenance—“we don't want rosy films, we want them the color of blood” he would exclaim. Films of raw poetry and passion, that was Mekas' creed, forget the polish, the so-called “high-production values”. He himself would make the ground-breaking “The Brig” (surreptitiously shot at night), and his long compilation-diary films “Walden” and “Lost, lost, lost”, and continued to be the spoke of America's underground film world for 60 plus years.
In 2002, through the diligence of James Parrish, Mekas visited Richmond, VA as a guest of the James River Film Festival. His films were screened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts over several days and Mekas attended every other event as well. He was in fine form —garrulous, engaged—for an eighty-year-old! In fact, late on a Friday night, he was pouring tequila shots for a small band of admirers and calling out new toasts, new manifestos: “We are all raving maniacs of the cinema!” he exclaimed as we drank our shots with the alpha-maniac-filmer. Next morning Mekas was refreshed and ready for the next day's screenings, while most of us were dragging a bit. And that's what we'll miss— his energy and an unflagging life-long passion for a new American cinema, freed from the “Hollywoods of the world”.