Jonas Mekas took his first photograph at age 17, when Soviet tanks rolled into his village in Lithuania. He immigrated to New York when he was almost 27, made his first autobiographical film at 46, started his website at 83 and, at 92, presided over a gigantic installation of his work at a Burger King in Venice, during this summer’s Biennale. A few weeks ago, at a party in the East Village, Mr. Mekas assessed his life as a subject.
“I’m so boring,” he said. “Nothing dramatic happens — no hospitals or surgeries. I have nothing interesting to report.”
Mr. Mekas, who will turn 93 on Christmas Eve, is one of six New Yorkers over the age of 85 that I have been following since the beginning of the year.
Their stories have been unpredictable and event-filled over that time. But none has moved as puckishly as his.
On a Saturday afternoon in March, for instance, it involved a descent into a Greenwich Village jazz club, the Zinc Bar, where Mr. Mekas held court at a table of student opera singers visiting from Lithuania. He had come to read from an unpublished novella called “Requiem for a Manual Typewriter,” about the bewildering prospect of trying to decide what to write about. Like most of his work, it took the shape of a diary and spoke in a voice of wonder. “Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing, life is?” Mr. Mekas read on stage, to laughter from a full house.
Later, at the table, Mr. Mekas and the teenage opera students were joined by two New York writers in their 70s, Lynne Tillman and Amy Taubin, whose careers he had supported — a typical scattering of ages and backgrounds, with Mr. Mekas at the center, a generation older than the next in line.
“All my friends, when I say I’m going to New York, they say, are you going to meet Jonas Mekas?” said Bernardas Garbaciauskas, 17, a baritone. “Many young people find him inspiring. What Jonas Mekas was doing years ago with his film diaries, Instagram and Facebook are doing now. Jonas Mekas is the future.”
What makes some people seem to stop living in old age, and others to hum along with no visible loss of energy? Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University who specializes in life span development, calls this “the most extraordinary question. Why do people turn out this way? I don’t think we have an answer. Of what we do know, some is exactly what you’d think, and some is surprising.”
Each of the other five people interviewed for the series struggles with physical challenges: failing knees or eyes, poor circulation, sore joints, spells of loneliness. Two are all but housebound, one lives in a nursing home, the other two in buildings for older adults, with various levels of care.
Mr. Mekas, by comparison, lives like someone much younger.
This year alone, besides the Biennale installation, he is completing work on two books, sorting through several unfinished films, compiling his materials on Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground for an exhibition in Paris, continuing to post video diaries on his website and trying to raise $6 million to build a cafe and library at Anthology Film Archives, the financially struggling nonprofit institution he helped start in 1970. In between, there have been readings to give, openings and screenings to attend, new friends to meet, old ones to revisit, preferably over wine.
“He’s the reason I’m energetic,” said Phong Bui, 50, who publishes a free arts magazine called the Brooklyn Rail, and has become a part of Mr. Mekas’s universe. “We have found a way to feed off other people’s energies as well, by being somewhat selfless. We both love being in the center of the tornado. When you’re in the center you’re not touched.”
Mr. Mekas, when asked what kept him going, pointed to disruptions in his youth — first when the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, then when he was interned in a Nazi forced labor camp, then his five years in displaced persons camps in Germany after the war. A sickly child, he surprised neighbors by surviving even that long.
“When I landed in New York I was 27,” he said, bending the chronology slightly, “but since I had missed so much I decided to remain 27, you see, because there was so much to catch up, and I am still trying to catch up.”
His life, he said, was a series of good breaks:
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s so sad through what you had to go.’ No, I’m happy that I was uprooted, because I was dropped in New York in the most exciting period, when all the classical arts had reached culmination, like Balanchine and Martha Graham, and something else was coming in. I caught Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams and Miller; I saw the end of the old when I came in ’49, and I saw the beginning of the new, John Cage and Buckminster Fuller and the Living Theater and the Beat Generation. And I was a sponge for all of it.”
Another day, he said, “I trace everything to my childhood on a farm.”
Anyone who has spent much time around older people has noticed that those who are more engaged with the world tend to be more resilient to the changes that come with age. Little is known about the biological mechanisms at work inside the brain. Do good health and sharp wits lead people to be more purposeful and engaged? Or does purpose work at a cellular level to make the brain and body resistant to the woes of old age?
“This hasn’t gotten a lot of focus in the scientific literature,” said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, a part of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “We focus on disease, on what predicts bad outcomes. We need to understand what predicts human flourishing. They’re not flip sides of the same coin.”
In a long-term survey of more than 1,400 older people, Dr. Boyle and a research team observed what others in the field had noted: that people who felt their life had a goal or purpose showed lower rates of memory loss and other diseases associated with old age.
The researchers wanted to know why.
They examined the brain tissues of 246 people who died during the study. The autopsy results, reported in Archives of General Psychiatry, were striking. The brains of people who had very different levels of cognitive decline often showed similar levels of damage from Alzheimer’s — what neurologists call “plaques” and “tangles” in the brain circuitry. The brains that functioned better, it turned out, belonged to people who in surveys had indicated more purpose in life.
In other words, what was going on at the cellular level seemed to affect people differently according to whether they had a life’s goal.
Dr. Boyle proposed a concept of “reserve,” borrowed from physiology. Most systems in our bodies are able to sustain some level of damage before they start to malfunction. Having a purpose in life may not slow the formation of plaques and tangles, but it appears to increase the reserve that the brains can call on before they start to break down, perhaps by spurring other healthy brain connections that compensate for the decline.
The stronger the purpose, the more it added to the reserve.
The results held up even after the researchers controlled for differences in exercise levels, education and other factors.
Dr. Boyle said the results were just a first step toward understanding why some people aged differently, but that their implications were vast. People’s sense of purpose, she said, “is something we can change.”
“Part of it is getting people to sit down and say, ‘What do I want my life to look like at the end of the day?’” she said. “‘What do I want my mark to be?’ ”
For Mr. Mekas, this has never been an issue.
On a recent afternoon in his Brooklyn loft, where he lives with his son, Sebastian, 33, he talked about what motivated him to keep making art. On the wall was a handwritten mission statement he created for the designer Agnès B., a friend: “Keep dancing. Keep singing. Have a good drink and do not get too serious.”
“Something is in you that propels you,” he said. “It’s part of your very essence, what you are. Like, go back to Greeks and muses. How they explained that, the muse enters you at birth or later, and you have no choice. It becomes part of you. You just have to do it.”
His hands shake slightly, and he started wearing glasses after laser surgery a few years ago, but otherwise he has made few concessions to age. If anything, he said, he has become more “obsessed” with his writing and filmmaking since he moved to Brooklyn from SoHo in 2005 (after he separated from his wife, Hollis Melton), because he has cut down on the time and energy he spent at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.
“I don’t feel like I’m working,” he said one day in his apartment, sorting through a binder of film frames for a project that was still taking shape. “It’s fun. And when I grew up on a farm we did not consider that we were working. We were just doing what had to be done that day. We had to plant certain things, to milk certain cows. The concept of workers came when the Soviets came in and organized the workers. Suddenly everybody was a worker. But we were not workers until then. So I’m continuing what I was doing when I was growing up: I’m just doing what has to be done.”
Mr. Mekas does not take vacations or weekends off — though he travels for his exhibitions — and does not begin his days with plans. Instead, he said, he wakes up without intention or worry. “I’m not seeking,” he said. “I’m not a thinking person, and I’m not planning. The best I could describe it is I make angels work.”
He has avoided what Dr. Pillemer of Cornell identifies as the debilitating factors of old age: physical or mental disability, extreme poverty and low levels of happiness or well-being earlier in life. In New York City, 58 percent of people age 85 and older say they have problems walking, and 31 percent say they have cognitive difficulty, according to an analysis of census data for The New York Times by Susan Weber-Stoger of Queens College. One in five say they have hearing problems and half say they have trouble living independently; 19 percent live in poverty.
Though Mr. Mekas cut back on drinking a few years ago, he still enjoys wine with friends. When he leaves the house he carries a pepperoni and some bread in case he gets hungry — and to share with friends, he said.
“I think he’s amused by his aging,” said the filmmaker Ken Jacobs, 82, a friend since the early 1960s. “He doesn’t hide his age. He wears a hat too much, but you can see he’s an old guy.”
In one way, Mr. Mekas has not been able to avoid the losses of old age. His youngest brother, Adolfas, died in 2011 at 85. In February, Mr. Mekas was given a Courage Award by his longtime friend Yoko Ono, 82, at a dinner at which he reminisced with another honoree, Ornette Coleman, who used to rehearse in Mr. Mekas’s loft. In July, Mr. Coleman died at age 85. If Mr. Mekas grieved, he did not do so in public. He had little to say after the death. What was there to say? Life went on.
“I’m not a very introspective person,” he said one day at the Anyway Cafe in the East Village, over pickled herring and beer. “When you come from a farmer’s background — village life — people live, they don’t analyze themselves. It’s more communal, more like being, living, communicating with friends, neighbors. I’m not analyzing myself, even if I’m being diaristic in video and writing. It’s self-centered, but if you read Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, they’re very introspective and convoluted, but I’m not that type of person, so my diaries are not that personal.”
In an unpublished 2005 poem, Mr. Mekas encapsulates much of his attitude toward old age: “I worked all my life to become young / no, you can’t persuade me to get old / I will die twenty seven.”
A benefit of living so long, and of keeping good company, is that many of his belongings have become quite valuable. Mr. Mekas arrived in the United States in 1949 with only three bags of books and one set of clothes, but he has spent the time since acquiring. He paid most of his son’s college tuition bills by selling five posters from Andy Warhol’s film “My Hustler” for $10,000 each. For the last eight years he has lived on proceeds from his sale of materials from the 1960s “anti-art” Fluxus movement to a museum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“But now it’s the end,” he said. “So now it’s complex. I know that the Smithsonian is buying a copy of ‘Walden’ ” — Mr. Mekas’s first autobiographical film — “so that will pay maybe a year’s rent.” In the last few months, he got notice that his rent would rise 12 percent and received an offer from a family-run foundation to cover the increase for the next three years. Still, he said, he will most likely have to move eventually.
“Since I landed in New York I always managed to survive,” he said. “Always something came. Angels are watching. If I can’t figure it out, angels will figure it out. I just do every day what I do.”
His angels are both metaphorical and literal. Mr. Mekas believes specifically in “other realities” containing “angels and fairies,” but also more broadly in forces aligned toward beauty and art, and he is determined to move among them.
“Consciously or unconsciously, I made a choice,” he said. “My time is limited, I choose art and beauty, vague as those terms are, against ugliness and horrors in which we live today. I feel my duty not to betray those poets, scientists, saints, singers, troubadours of the past centuries who did everything so that humanity would become more beautiful. I have to continue in my small way their work.” Detachment from these forces, he said, is what causes so many people to get old.
“What keeps him alive is that he is an enthusiast,” said Johan Kugelberg, 50, a curator and an owner of Boo-Hooray gallery, who is publishing a collection of Mr. Mekas’s writings and photographs called “Anecdotes, or a Dance With Fred Astaire.” He described Mr. Mekas as “the anti-Warhol, Obi-Wan Kenobi to Warhol’s Darth Vader. He is my hero because he never succumbs to the dark side. And neither will I, because of Jonas.”
In the meantime, Mr. Mekas surrounds himself with younger people and new art. On an October day, he enthused about having just seen a digital exhibition that was so new, he could not say whether it was good or bad, art or not art, but he knew he could never master the technology. It did not upset him; it excited him. “We’re at the beginning of many things,” he said.
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.”
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