Jonas Mekas, This Side of Paradise (1999)

Watch a key work by one of the great underground filmmakers

To mark the passing of Jonas Mekas, one of the most influential filmmakers of the postwar period, ArtReview presents a screening of a key late work, courtesy of Modern Forms.  

This Side of Paradise was shot whilst Mekas spent time with Jackie Kennedy and her sister’s family and children in the years following John F. Kennedy’s death. He and members of the Kennedy family shot the footage together, over the course of several summers in Montauk, where they stayed in a house rented from Andy Warhol. Mekas finished editing the footage into a film in the late 1990’s and released the film in 1999. The film is a beautiful, gentle, experimentally Modernist take on the home movie that, in retrospect, seems to anticipate the celebrity obsessed culture and revelatory culture of social media and reality TV.

The text below is Mekas’ introduction to the film and the photographs he took during this time:

'Unpredictably, as most of my life’s key events have been, for a period of several years of late sixties and early seventies, I had the fortune to spend some time, mostly during the summers, with Jackie Kennedy’s and her sister Lee Radziwill’s families and children. Cinema was an integral, inseparable, as a matter of fact, a key part of our friendship. The time was still very close to the untimely, tragic death of John F. Kennedy. Jackie wanted to give something to her children to do, to help to ease the transition, life without a father. One of her thoughts was that a movie camera would be fun for children. Peter Beard, who was at that time tutoring John Jr. and Caroline in art history, suggested to Jackie that I was the man to introduce the children to cinema. Jackie said yes. And that’s how it all began. I bought them a very easily operable 16mm movie camera, and even wrote a mini- “textbook” suggesting some simple movie exercises. Here is an excerpt from a letter Jackie sent me a few weeks later:

“You can know the happiness you have brought to my children – and to me – a whole new world opening – It would have been more than enough just to see your films, but you giving us (I include myself because I am equally or more thrilled by it than they – if that is possible) that magical camera – I never knew cameras could do things like that – zoom in and out – fast and slow – all so easy to hold in one hand – we used 2 reels following your directions.”

As time went, Jackie found time to see my own, and some other avant-garde films. She especially loved Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches and she chose Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania to show to all her relatives on one of the Mother days.

The images in this exposition, with a few exceptions, they all come from the summers Caroline and John Jr. spent in Montauk, with their cousins Anthony and Tina Radziwills, in an old house Lee had rented from Andy Warhol, for a few summers. Andy himself spent many of his weekends there, in one the cottages, as did Peter Beard, whom children had adopted almost like their older brother or a father they missed. These were summers of happiness, joy and continuous celebrations of life and friendships. These were days of Little Fragments of Paradise.'

Jonas Mekas