The Wall Street Journal: “Forty Years in the Making”

As part of the forthcoming series of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of Anthology Film Archives, the East Village bastion of avant garde cinema will screen “The Limits of Control,” the 2009 feature by writer-director Jim Jarmusch, on Thursday night. The film, which was programmed by Anthology’s 88-year-old co-founder and ongoing director, Jonas Mekas, and which will be introduced by Mr. Jarmusch, is an elusive hybrid of crime movie picaresque and boundary-testing stylistic exploration. As such, it occupies a unique on-screen creative space paralleling the singular archival and exhibition niche that Mr. Mekas—along with filmmakers Jerome Hill, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage, and film historian P. Adams Sitney—invented when Anthology was chartered four decades ago.

“It’s just a remarkable thing to have people dedicated to so-called non-commercial cinema, or avant garde cinema or whatever you want to call it,” Mr. Jarmusch said recently. The 57-year-old filmmaker is an enthusiastic fixture at repertory film screenings throughout the city, and is quick to delineate what sets Anthology’s calendar apart from the film programs at rep theaters like Film Forum, BAMcinématek and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “Their film programs are incredible. I’m so happy they exist,” he said. “But Anthology is kind of its own feisty little pirate ship of cinema history.”

For Mr. Jarmusch, Anthology’s spirited curatorial mission— “Fueled,” according to the organization’s manifesto, “by the conviction that the index of a culture’s health and vibrancy lies largely in its margins”—is inseparable from Mr. Mekas’s personal enthusiasm for cinema. “I’m a big Jonas Mekas fan, so I’m always very curious about what the hell he’s got up his sleeve,” Mr. Jarmusch said.

Mr. Mekas and his theater each boast an unusual and sometimes trying personal history. A native of Lithuania, Mr. Mekas was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944 before being brought to New York in 1949 by the United Nations Refugee Organization and settling in Brooklyn. At that time, the building at 2nd Street and Second Avenue that is now Anthology Film Archives was a satellite courthouse facility intended to ease congestion in Manhattan’s legal pipeline. Purchased by the nascent Anthology group from the city for $50,000 in 1979 and renovated at a cost of $1.45 million, Anthology’s permanent home was reopened in 1988 with screening rooms, storage and restoration facilities and an administration space where hearing rooms, judges chambers and holding cells had once been.

“It’s an ideal kind of space and it’s a really cool building,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “I love it because its function has been—what’s the word—hijacked by these pirates in a way.” He contrasted Anthology’s frugal co-opting of historically rich existing space with a considerably better-funded archival institution in his native Ohio: Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

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