Anthology Film Archives

Go Big or Go Bust: How Jonas Mekas May Have Just Pulled Me Out Of My Anxiety Death Spiral

This t-shirt and Louise scrambling through forty-three episodes is, unfortunately, not pure fiction. I, like Louise, am an anxious person.

Without a looming deadline, I’m generally in a state of worry that I’m not where I’m supposed to be, not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Low blood pressure sometimes gives me an aura of serenity, but scratch the veneer and you’ll find a seething mass of desire, self-recrimination, apprehension and angst, a shredded copy of Sartre’s Nausea my constant companion.

But I hit a vein of gold in meeting Jonas Mekas for lunch last Friday.   

Convinced that a lock on time management would alleviate my anxiety, I’m always ready to ask how other people do it. I wanted to know how Jonas Mekas is overseeing the massive Completion Project for Anthology Film Archives while, according to a recent article in the New York Times, devoting most of his time to his writing and films. Mr. Mekas responded that, in a shift, he’s now spending half of his time at Anthology.

His voice was ringing in my ears over the weekend until it suddenly hit me why: this seemed in contradiction to what I’d read in John Leland’s article in The New York Times:

“…he wakes up without intention or worry. “I’m not seeking… and I’m not planning.”  

But ‘half my time’ sounds like planning to me.  

“…he has become more "obsessed” with his writing and filmmaking…because he has cut down on the time and energy he spent at Anthology Film Archives…”

As I folded a third load of laundry, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.   

Jonas Mekas doesn’t plan his days, but there’s obviously some template he’s following. Could it be that his obsessions are his guiding force?

Having my own issues with obsession, it seems appealing, even practical to stop fighting and trying to control obsessions and ... give in! There would be no anxiety. The big decision, about what to spend time on, would have been made by taking a frank look at the overriding obsession. And this would explain why Jonas Mekas could tell me at lunch that he just does what’s in front of him (see 'next' blog entry below). And he can do it without intention or worry or seeking or planning.

Could this be the dawning of a new day?


Go Big or Go Bust: On Meeting Jonas Mekas, Hearing About The Anthology Film Archives Completion Project And Getting Sage Life Advice

I had the honor and pleasure of being invited to lunch today with the lovely Sebastian Mekas and his father, Jonas Mekas, a hero of mine and of art and of independent film. In 1990, Jonas Mekas was responsible for giving my feature film a month-long run at Anthology Film Archives, the cinema and library on 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street in New York’s East Village which he founded and continues to oversee.

In two recent articles in The New York Times, John Leland has written about Jonas Mekas’ extraordinary life and approach to life including how, at 92, he feels 27:

“…he wakes up without intention or worry. “I’m not seeking,” he said. “I’m not a thinking person, and I’m not planning…”

“…In a 1974 essay, “On Happiness,” Mr. Mekas concludes with a meditation on a plate of grapes that might serve as his summary of his life. “This plate is my Paradise,” he wrote. “I don’t want anything else — no country house, no car, no dacha, no life insurance, no riches. It’s this plate of grapes that I want. It’s this plate of grapes that makes me really happy. To eat my grapes and enjoy them and want nothing else — that is happiness, that’s what makes me happy.”

With my apparent addiction to feeling 'anxious and tense', I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to find out how he maintains this attitude. And so I asked him, how do you do it?  How do you live like this without expectation or desire?  

He looked me straight in the eye and then he looked away, pausing for a moment and looked back:  “You just do the next thing in front of you.  Live your life! … There’s no answer to this question!”  

photo by Sebastian Mekas

photo by Sebastian Mekas

Anthology Film Archives is planning a $6 million Completion Project which will make it the largest repository of independent film-related material in the United States. The drawings of it look gorgeous. It'll even have a café and a Sky Room and Roof Terrace with a catering pavilion.

On May 7, 2016, there'll be an auction to benefit this work. Artists, cinephiles and others are invited to give and to make contributions to the auction (signed movie posters, props, an acre of land in Vermont, a piece of music to be written for a special occasion or purpose … “It’s a wide window.”) and to spread the word.  “It’s best done in person.” 


Go Big or Go Bust: the challenge of finding distribution for a NY indie film (Part 11 of 11)

(I’m reprinting the last two paragraphs of the last blog post for context.)

Jackie Raynal, who had been on the crew of early Godard films I had loved and watched at her Bleecker Street Cinema, was the first to call.  She loved the film and wanted to invite Mr. Green and me to her Central Park South apartment for drinks.  It was all very understated, all very restrained but I’m telling you, it was a love fest.  Jackie is French, Jackie is sophisticated, Jackie is a woman.  Jackie felt that people in France would go crazy for this film and she and her husband were interested in talking about launching it at the Bleecker Street and then distributing it.  

My first New York apartment had been just off Bleecker Street.  I’d gone to art school in Paris.  The Bleecker Street Cinema was my favorite downtown movie theatre.  It was all coming together.  

I never heard from Jackie Raynal again.  Nor did I ever hear from Lucky Red.  The Fort Lauderdale Festival sent press clips which included two wonderful reviews of How To Be Louise on two different days in The Miami Herald.  I clung to them.   

It was a hot July that summer in New York, hot and humid as I remember.  Ralph McKay the director of Jonas MekasAnthology Film Archives on Second Avenue in the East Village had called to ask me to come over to talk about the possibility of screening HTBL.  I stuffed myself into a pair of black jeans as I was going to the East Village, after all, where a tough version of cool trumps even the weather.  Or so I figured.  

Ralph McKay was not at all what I expected.  He was young and gentle and seemed more like an artist than a businessman.  He and Jonas Mekas wanted to give HTBL a month long screening.  (!!)  They thought the film would do well and build an audience and they wanted to open it on a Thursday.  Most films in New York City opened on Friday so this would make a bigger audience and longer reviews more likely.  And, Ralph McKay assured me, this was just the kind of film that Vincent Canby of The New York Times, a friend of Jonas Mekas, would love.  They would do everything they could to make sure Canby came to the press screening.   We wouldn’t have to pay for a four-wall.  We wouldn’t have to buy ads.  And if we got a good review in the Times, I could go back to Dan Talbot and his offer from New Yorker Films.  Indeed, all my dreams were coming true.

Anthology Film Archives, New York City

Anthology Film Archives, New York City

I went into high gear designing and having a poster made up to plaster downtown New York.  The poster came back not looking anything like a movie poster but I figured that by getting a strip to paste over the top and another strip with all the credits to paste over the bottom, we could salvage it.  And in spite of the cat and Frank and glue all over everything, a handful of our old crew and I hand-pasted headers and footers and made up a gorgeous black and white poster.

On the day of the press screening, I got a call from the Anthology.  Vincent Canby was in the hospital.  He wouldn’t be at the press screening.

The next morning, on the day of our opening at Anthology, I heard NPR’s Neil Rosen give HTBL a very positive review live on WNYC and rushed out to get the papers.  The New York Post had given us three stars and called it “very sexy”.  After reading the first few lines of the review in The Times, I called Lea Floden who had starred as Louise, and shouted them at her into the phone: “A Judy Holliday character who seems to have fallen into a Jean-Luc Godard film.”  Lea, in Los Angeles, had already read the review and told me to take a deep breath. 

Caryn James, who had reviewed it for The Times, was not a fan.  In fact, her ‘review’ seemed to veer into personal attack territory.  “Anne Flournoy, who wrote, directed and produced this low budget film ... sometimes pulls back to suggest an arch superiority … “How To Be Louise” quickly becomes a low-energy exercise in directorial attitude…”  Ow ow owww.  

The New Yorker Films deal was contingent on a good review in The Times.  Our hopes for distribution, which only five minutes before had seemed well-founded, were suddenly bleak.

The audiences at the nightly screenings at The Anthology grew over the month but they never filled the house.  The review in The Times put a pall over everything.

My artist energy and whatever free time I had went into writing the script for ‘the next film’.  Mostly I was focused on all that goes into keeping a family clean and fed and the job of raising two children.  Telling other mothers at the playground that I was a filmmaker began to feel like a fiction from another lifetime.  Time after time, I wrote and rewrote my script with notes from producers, with notes from friends.  On good days I was certain that all this would come to something.  On the many bad days, I swallowed the bitter pill that my life as a filmmaker was over. 

Seventeen years later, in a summer of desperation, The Louise Log sprouted out of my experiences of marriage and motherhood and my fear that if I didn't set some deadlines for myself, I'd never finish anything again.  I'd make one video a month.  Six months later I 'finished' the first one.  It was supposed to be a one-off thigh slapper and it was anything but.  It was dark.  It was a meditation on mortality and wasted time.  Armed with some self-knowledge at this point, I realized I could spend the next seventeen years bringing it up to my standards.  I uploaded it to YouTube on the last day of the month which happened to be the last day of the year.  People in my address book wrote that they loved the actor (Christine Cook) and asked for another one with her. Thrilled at the response, I did one video a month for four months in a row.  But I was running out of ideas as everything I had was in that script of so many rewrites.  With Bob Berney and Mr. Green's encouragement, I decided to shoot and throw this enormous effort up on YouTube for free.  It became the basis for episodes 5-17 of The Louise Log

In 2013, The Sundance Institute launched How To Be Louise online and to celebrate that, we had a screening at Indiescreen in Williamsburg. 

And that's my whole, never-before-told, story.

What did I learn from all of this? 

I leaned the importance of working on what I love and with people I respect.  That way, regardless of artistic or commercial success or failure, I’ll have used whatever (days, years) it takes, feeding my soul.  

And I learned that 'failure' is not necessarily all bad.  In the clear light of twenty-five years later, I think this ‘failure’ may actually have been my lucky break.  With my tendency toward maniac workaholism, if I’d had the option of a career when my children were small, it’s possible that I might have managed to avoid the life-changing experience of that surrender historically demanded of mothers.  Had I been busy as a bee with my big career, I doubt that being completely broken by the loneliness, the drudgery and the exhaustion of motherhood would have been anywhere on my agenda.  In avoiding that, I might have also missed out on the great love of my life, of and for my family.

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Go Big or Go Bust: How An Indie Filmmaker Hunts Down A Distributor (Part 10)

After sweeping the Italian press with rave reviews, I returned from Pesaro feeling as I had when How To Be Louise had been invited to be in competition at Sundance: my career was assured.  I would soon be joining Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch and the new generation of New York film directors.

With an active eighteen month old, it took a while to notice that the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook for the first step of that plan to go into effect:

Where were the offers of distribution?  Figuring I should strike where the iron was most hot, I asked around about Italian distributors and called Lucky Red, a film distribution company in Italy, who’d been highly recommended as ‘right up my alley’.  As I remember, the phone call wasn’t exactly a love fest but hey, the language barrier was certainly an issue.  I mailed them hard copies of the press, a VHS tape and a very good letter.  

In the meantime, I started cold-calling and mailing off VHS copies of the film and the press to distribution companies in the States.  Janet Grillo at New Line Cinema got right back to me.  “I don’t know.  It’s not for New Line.  it’s … it’s PETITE.”  Petite?  Hey are we talking about dresses or my life’s work?  What the heck, New Line distributes Nightmare on Elm Street.  I vowed to be more careful about which companies I approached.  

Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films liked what he saw and told me over the phone: “If you get a good review in The New York Times, I’ll distribute this film.”  Wow.  YESSS.  New Yorker Films!  Reputable.  Solid.  First class!  

My job instantly narrowed: 1) find a New York City film programmer who would show HTBL so it would get a review in the Times or 2) ‘four-wall’ it (Rent a movie theatre for a long-enough run so that HTBL can qualify for newspaper reviews.)  The bad thing about option number two is that you have to lay out a fair amount of cash to rent the theatre and then (this is the pre-internet era) spend a huge amount of energy trying to tell everyone you know about it as well as make up ads and pay newspapers to run them to get an audience in there to defray the cost of the four-wall.  

Just making this film I had gone to the mat with the begging and borrowing for the past four years.  I’d thought my job was to make the darn film.  I picked up the phone and started calling all the independent theatres: Bleecker Street Cinema, Cinema Village, The Quad and the newcomer, Anthology Film Archives.  I mailed or Frank and I hand-delivered VHS/press packages.  

Jackie Raynal, who had been on the crew of so many of my favorite early Godard films I had watched at her Bleecker Street Cinema, was the first to call.  She loved the film and wanted to invite Mr. Green and me to her Central Park South apartment for drinks.  It was all very understated, all very restrained but I’m telling you, it was a love fest.  Jackie is French, Jackie is sophisticated, Jackie is a woman.  Jackie felt that people in France would go crazy for this film and she and her husband Sid Geffen were interested in talking about launching it at the Bleecker Street and then distributing it.   

My first New York apartment had been just off Bleecker Street.  I’d gone to art school in Paris and my family name is French.  The Bleecker Street Cinema was my favorite downtown movie theatre.  It was all coming together.  

(to be continued)     

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