Amos Vogel's Myriad of Possibilities: "Film as a Subversive Art" in 2021

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A look back at the influential work of Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 and "Film as a Subversive Art" in honor of the NYFF retrospective.

By Jessica Boyall

Film programmer, critic, and educator, Amos Vogel was fueled by the conviction that cinema, more than just a mechanism for entertainment or vehicle of self-expression, presented a myriad of possibilities, amongst them the potential to educate, power to politicize and ability to subvert. It was a conviction that set him apart from many of his contemporaries who, viewing commercial iterations of cinema as products of the calculated and narcotic American culture industry, cast aspersions on its inherent value. Theodor Adorno, for example, notoriously excluded cinema from the field of Art with the logic that its aesthetic techniques were subordinate to its technological ones, proclaiming, “I love to go to the movies; the only thing that bothers me is the image on the screen.”

Determined to counter the medium’s marginalization, Vogel founded in 1947 what quickly became one of the most influential and successful film societies in the United States, Cinema 16. Between 1947 and 1963—the year Cinema 16 dissolved—Vogel, together with his wife Marcia and, later, assistant Jack Coleman, surveyed thousands of films, selecting and showcasing those that best critiqued cinema’s aesthetic and political conventions in film theatres and college auditoriums across Manhattan.

Precursors to Cinema 16 can be traced to both domestic and international sources. In Europe, the Ciné-club movement was by the 1940s flourishing, having first emerged in France in 1921 when C.A.S.A. (Club des Amis du Septième Art) was established with the purpose of hosting private screenings and critical discussions. A year later critic Léon Moussinac founded the not dissimilar Club Français du cinéma with the view “to defend filmmakers as artists... and to attack the restrictions of the commercial industry.” Within a few years these organizations merged, boasting an extensive program of monthly screenings that showcased films—new and old—rejected by the commercial realm for both aesthetic and political reasons. In England, the London Film Society was inaugurated in 1925 with “the principle of selection and serious study from the widest possible range of film material.” Fervently committed to eclectic programming, the society screened avant-garde and scientific films, documentaries, classic features and shorts alongside more commercial, critically acclaimed cinema. Most prescient perhaps for Vogel were the film societies of Vienna, the city where he was born and grew up, but from which, as a Jew, he was forced to flee in 1938. 

Arriving in New York in the late 1930s, Vogel was struck by the realization that, despite the relative influx of 16mm films, unlike in Europe, few were publicly available, shown only and rarely by universities and museums. From 1939 the Museum of Modern Art in New York began offering daily film presentations under the auspices of its department director, Richard Griffith, with whom Vogel struck up a professional relationship. In 1946 the San Francisco Museum of Art initiated the Art in Cinema series which, dedicated to helping audiences better appreciate alternative cinema, presented both European and American avant-garde film. Convinced by the relative success of these museum initiatives, Vogel decided to found his own: Cinema 16.

Cinema 16’s goals were clear, explicitly delineated in a statement of purpose pamphlet distributed to members in 1948. Vogel outlined his intentions as first, “to promote, encourage, distribute and sponsor public exhibition of documentary, sociological, educational, scientific and experimental motion pictures, and to further the appreciation of the motion picture as an art and as a social force.” Second, “to advance the science and technique of the production and distribution of documentary, sociological, educational, scientific and experimental motion pictures; to further the production of such films by amateurs; and to encourage the production of feature-length film classics.” And third, “to foster interest in and to promote the establishment of motion picture theatres in the principal cities of the United States for the public exhibition of documentary, sociological, educational, scientific and experimental motion pictures.” 

Vogel’s pledge to galvanize an interest in and deeper understanding of a broad spectrum of cinema was manifest in his programming which consciously presented members with a range of films, from animated cartoons to feature-length narratives to scientific documentaries, many of which were unavailable in mainstream cinemas, deemed either commercially unviable or censored by stringent New York State regulations. Vogel’s innovation in making Cinema 16 a membership-based organization bypassed both these issues: membership fees afforded him a remarkable degree of creative freedom while New York censorship regulations were only applied to membership societies in the rare event that a member complained. Consequently, Cinema 16 was able to screen films otherwise impossible for the public to access including, for example, Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, a radically avant-garde psychodrama depicting homoerotic fantasies of sadomasochism, screened twice by Cinema 16 (first in 1952 and then a year later in 1953) and Stan Brakhage’s Lovingan experiment in depicting onscreen sex featuring Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney, exhibited by Cinema 16 in 1958.

The ability to program censored films no doubt provided much of Cinema 16’s allure and by the early 1950s its membership had increased to seven thousand (compared to several hundred in 1947). Yet Vogel was never tethered by an imperative to shock for its own sake nor limited to only programming experimental films; indeed Cinema 16 regularly held special events where Vogel would feature eminent directors—including Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, and Stanley Kramer—whose more marketable offerings did not fit comfortably within the ambit of Cinema 16’s regular program. Vogel was motivated by a compulsion to provide an alternative to mainstream film houses, not only in terms of the types of films exhibited but in the ways audiences engaged with them. Specifically, he sought to mobilize the educational capacity of cinema and, correspondingly, deployed Cinema 16 as a site in which to spark discussions on the role of film itself, for it was his view that “a film society functions as a viable entity only if it expresses and satisfactorily fulfills an existing need: to provide a forum and showcase for an increased awareness and appreciation of film as a medium of art, information, and education.” 

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