The film adaptation of a production by the Living Theatre depicts a disciplinary barracks, where detained military personnel are tortured by senseless rules in a very small space. The disruptive aesthetic defined the style for Mekas' later diary films.
In late February 1964, the night before THE BRIG—a play written by Kenneth H. Brown and produced by the legendary experimental theater group Living Theatre—was to be closed by the New York tax authorities, Jonas Mekas, together with Judith Malina and Julian Beck as well as the actors and stage crew, illegally sneaked into the theater in the Lower East Side to re-enact the play for Mekas’ camera.
As Mekas later remembered, he was so taken aback by the visceral portrayal of the cruelty of military life in the play, and by the Living Theatre's austere set and ruthless acting, that he decided to make a documentary of the performance rather than adapt the stage event to the film. He later commented, “as I watched [the play] I thought: suppose this was a real brig; suppose I was a newsreel reporter; suppose I got permission from the U.S. Marine Corps to go into one of their brigs and film the goings-on: What a document one could bring to the eyes of humanity!”
Mekas' cinematic document of the Living Theatre's anti-war performance became his most overtly political film. The Brig won the Grand Prize for best documentary at the Venice Film Festival later that year, and positioned itself as a distinct film in Mekas' filmography, expressing the Beat Generation's spirit and serving as a catalyst for the establishment of the New American Cinema Group. (e-flux)
"Part drama, part polemic, with shock-wave sound and a nightmare air that suggests Kafka with a Kodak, the movie does exactly what it sets out to do – seizes the audience by the shirtfront and slams it around from wall to wall for one grueling day in a Marine Corps lockup." – Time magazine
"When leaving this film, one promises never to see it again. For it seems impossible to watch such a spectacle twice. The film is hard like a nut, and the only thing to do is crush it, without ever asking if this nut is a symbol of the universe. The Mekas brothers are no longer the gentle poets that we thought they were: they are two wild Indians drying scalps." – Cahiers du Cinema
"STREET SONGS is a 1966 performance, in France, of a section of the Living Theater's 'Mysteries and Smaller Pieces.' Based on a chance-determined scenario written by Jackson Maclow in 1961, STREET SONGS weaves militant political chants into a mandala of mantras. Julian Becvk sits cross legged on an empty stage; the slogan he repeats - 'Free All Men! Ban the Bomb! Stop the War! Free the Blacks! Change the World!' - are both meditation and calls to action, as a crowd of voices answers each slogan and actors join him on stage to pace in a circle, clasp one another's shoulders and collectively breath 'Ohmm...' ..." – Sally Banes, Village Voice, October 18, 1983.
"I filmed The Living Theatre's 'Mysteries' in 1966, at the Festival de Cassis, organized by Jerome Hill. I didn't like the results and I never released the film, but I always liked the segment based on McLow's script. Maclow's version differs slightly from The Living Theatre's version. You can find MacLow's script in Kastelanetz's anthology called 'Scenarios.' MacLow says he wouldn't have said some of the things the Living Theatre said. Noel Burch helped me to record the sound." – J.M.
Reading: Heike Geißler and Goda Palekaitė, from the diaries of Jonas Mekas
Street Songs Jonas Mekas, USA 1966/1983, 16 mm OF 11 min.
Lecture "Art and Activism": Andrew Uroskie (art and media scholar)
The Brig Jonas Mekas, USA 1964, 16 mm OF 68 min.