Short Films Coming Soon to an iPod Near You

Producer Ben Shapiro reports on a plan by filmmaker Jonas Mekas to make short films available as a podcast.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

For more than 50 years, filmmaker Jonas Mekas has kept a cinematic diary of his life. He's crafted this footage into impressionistic and widely acclaimed feature-length films. Mekas has also been a champion of avant-garde cinema, and he founded a theater and film archive in Manhattan.

Now at age 84, Jonas Mekas is a pioneer again. This week he launches a video podcast featuring his work. JonasMekas.com will offer 365 short films as a free download, a film a day for an entire year. From New York, producer Ben Shapiro has more.

BEN SHAPIRO: Despite worldwide recognition for a lifetime of work, Jonas Mekas still has a problem: getting his films in front of audiences, especially in this country.

Mr. JONAS MEKAS (Filmmaker): And I have all that material, so many pieces unique or beautiful or poetic, and I did not know what I'm going to do with it. I have been thinking for years. And now suddenly the idea of a short film, from two minutes to five or whatever, the idea of the iPod, suddenly it gave me the answer.

SHAPIRO: For his podcast, Mekas is both adapting excerpts of his earlier films and creating new ones. Mekas's films include scenes of everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the New York art world in the '60s and '70s.

Ms. AMY TAUBIN (Film Critic): When people say to me, well, what were the '60s like, I always say go to Jonas's films, because that's where you see it.

SHAPIRO: Critic Amy Taubin has known Jonas Mekas since the 1960s. She points to one of his films from that era. A small circle of friends gather in a New York loft. John Lennon sits on a folding chair smoking a cigarette. Andy Warhol sips soup from a bowl. Amy Taubin says films like this are important artifacts, a personal visual diary from a lost time.

Ms. TAUBIN: So there's something ghostly about it. It's more like a memory of an image than, you know, a big 35-millimeter image that has immense detail and careful color. The ghostliness of the image was something that he was intentionally after.

SHAPIRO: Mekas says it was surprisingly easy to make the transition from creating feature-length films shown on the big screen to shorts just a few minutes long, appearing on a screen only a couple of inches across.

Mr. MEKAS: My longer films consist of like 30 second, 40 second, one minute little films, like little poems, sketches, so it's what I'm doing now on an iPod. Two, three, four-minute films is what I have been doing all my life.

Ms. TAUBIN: I was shocked at how well it worked.

SHAPIRO: Amy Taubin says a portable devise like a video iPod is a great way to see Jonas Mekas's films.

Ms. TAUBIN: It's almost like, oh yes, it's meant to be seen that way. And if you're carrying the iPod with you in the street, it's like you're reproducing what Jonas was doing when he was carrying that camera and looking through the viewfinder. So the idea of Jonas walking around New York with his camera and you now walking around the street with those images on the iPod, there's something complimentary about that.

Mr. MEKAS: It's very personal. You hold it in your hand, in your palm, there it is. Life, cinema, art - pass in your palm. Of course that will change cinema itself. I think that cinema is becoming more and more like poetry, like books, where it's just you and the image, just you and the poem.

(Soundbite of video)

SHAPIRO: In his editing room in Brooklyn, Mekas is taking a final look at one of the videos for his podcast. This one is simple. The scene is a violin recital. A very young girl is performing, deep in concentration, sawing the bow and working her fingers. It's a single continuous handheld shot, and it's completely entertaining.

Mr. MEKAS: The concentration, it's paradise. That's a fragment of paradise.

SHAPIRO: For Jonas Mekas, cinema is an art built of fragments, of friends, family, lost history, and small celebrations, and that's what he hopes to share when he puts his films online.

Mr. MEKAS: I mean we are all connected. My life is essentially not so unique. On some deeper levels we feel the same, we know the same things. Therefore if I show my life 365 days, moments from those days, it will reflect and it will have connection with lives of all of us.

SHAPIRO: But Jonas Mekas isn't making all of the videos by himself. Along with his own films, his podcasts will also feature shorts by colleagues, including Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and John Waters. For NPR News, this is Ben Shapiro in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MEKAS: There - there on the strings, the little fingers, so beautiful. It's amazing, amazing, amazing.

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