Remembering Amos Vogel
Amos Vogel (Source: thestickingplace.com)
As I sat in Los Angeles’ Cinefamily theatre the other week watching The Turin Horse (2011), the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s self-proclaimed ‘last film,’ I found myself marveling at how it was possible that I was able to see this beautifully difficult, two-and-a-half-hour black and white apocalyptic meditation on the end of images, here in the heart of the commercial dream factory. It seemed like some kind of historical paradox. As the summer blockbuster popcorn films continue to roll off the assembly line all around me I had to ask the question ‘how did we get here?’ The answer came to me when I remembered the death of the avant-garde and independent cinema proselytizer Amos Vogel at the end of April. I have a hard time believing that ‘world historical figures’ drive history, but in the case of independent and experimental cinema in America one could argue that Vogel was the sine qua non of this movement.
Born Amos Vogelbaum in Vienna in 1921, he escaped from Europe before the Nazi’s took power in Austria only to land in New York where he would found Cinema 16 with his wife Marcia, the first avant-garde and experimental cine-club in the U.S. From 1947 to 1963 Cinema 16 would present foreign language films, experimental films, documentaries, propaganda films, science films, and occasionally Hollywood films (Alfred Hitchcock once asked him if he could show a reel or two of a new film he was working on and ended up screening the entirety of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) to an unsuspecting audience). He was the first programmer in the U.S. to show filmmakers such as Roman Polanski, John Cassavetes, Alain Resnais, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Bruce Conner, to name just a few. As Cinema 16’s membership grew to its apex at nearly 7,000 members, Vogel’s commitment to diverse programming expanded into a distribution network for avant-garde films as well. Vogel’s philosophy was that in a democracy it was crucial to offer the public a range of films that would question, enlighten, and enervate with the goal of undermining previous ways of thinking and feeling. Disruption was the path to building new realities and new truths in his mind and his programming rigorously followed this critical methodology throughout his career. As Vogel was fiercely independent he was suspicious of taking government grants for fear of censorship. Unable to sustain the cost of its programs through the support of its members alone, the doors of Cinema 16 were closed in 1963 and Vogel went on to found the New York Film Festival.
Film as a Subversive Art (1974)
Perhaps Vogel’s greatest enduring legacy, however, was the publication of his extremely influential volume Film as a Subversive Art (1974). In the decades before the emergence of the internet, IMDB and a plethora of other sites devoted to promulgating information about cinema, this beautifully designed book became the bible for those interested in learning about film outside of the mainstream. This book is where I first heard about a young German filmmaker named Werner Herzog, where films of Stanley Kubrick collided with the revolutionary cinema of the third world, and where the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Louis Buñuel and Leni Riefensthal could be seen alongside the experimental cinematic images of the Viennese actionist Otto Muehl. Leafing through Film as a Subversive Art was like attending an ecstatic, oversubscribed family reunion where fights abound and no one can get a word in edgeways. In other words it was exhilarating. It is truly difficult to overestimate the importance of this book to the generations of cine-philes that grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was our Rosetta Stone to the cinematic Babel of avant-garde and experimental film.
We don’t know if Béla Tarr will make another film. Watching the end of The Turin Horse makes me think that the filmmaker has said what he’s needed to say and that he no longer has any use for images. The sun fails to rise, flames cannot stay lit, and the final images fade into complete shadow. The same could not be said of Amos Vogel. He was a champion of the diversity and multiplicity of all images whether profane or sacred, commercial or experimental. His mantra was that everything needed to be seen. Vogel was fond of quoting a German author named Guenther Eich who once said, ‘be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil in the machinery of the world.’ The paradox of Amos Vogel is that he was both the oil and the sand. He made it possible for us to see and appreciate a plethora of cinematic world that asked us to question the world that we inhabit.