Inside every movie buff lives a film critic. Inside every critic lives a film programmer. And inside every programmer’s heart is a spot for Amos Vogel.
Vogel was America’s seminal film programmer, and so it’s becoming that for his centenary he’s the topic of a citywide tribute now on the New York Film Festival and shifting to different theaters later within the season. His New York Times obituary from 2012 begins with the blunt statement that he “exerted an influence on the history of film that few other non-filmmakers can claim.” In 1947, he and his wife, Marcia Vogel, based Cinema 16, the most necessary membership film society in American history; after its demise, he directed the New York Film Festival for the primary 5 years of its existence.
After being pressured out or resigning (accounts differ), Vogel then wrote a book, “Film as a Subversive Art,” an encyclopedic cinematic cupboard of wonders that — with chapters like “The Power of the Visual Taboo” and a still from Dusan Makavejev’s outrageous “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” on the duvet — is something like the programmer’s bible. (A revised version will likely be accessible subsequent month from Film Desk Books.) The book is “inexhaustible,” the New York Film Festival’s present director of programming, Dennis Lim, told me by way of electronic mail. “It’s an endless source of ideas but also a reminder of the possibilities of film exhibition and curation.”
A child of Vienna’s ninth district — the neighborhood of Freud and Schoenberg — Amos Vogelbaum was one of many many cultural presents thrust upon America when the Nazis took power in Central Europe. Vogel and his mother and father lived for six months below Nazi rule before escaping Vienna for New York, by way of Cuba.
His preliminary impulse was to study agriculture and transfer to a kibbutz. Disillusionment with Israel’s improvement prompted him to remain within the United States and found one other kind of utopian society, Cinema 16. Inspired by the instance of the avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, the Vogels started exhibiting a spread of movies — experimental psychodramas, poetic documentaries, summary animations, banned French bed room farces and forgotten classics, full with notes. Cinema 16 initially charged admission but switched to yearly subscriptions in order to keep away from New York State’s draconian censorship legal guidelines.
At its top, within the late Nineteen Fifties, Cinema 16 had some 7,000 members and commonly crammed a 1,600-seat auditorium. It also doubled as a distributor for filmmakers as troublesome as Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. In addition to selling the “beat” cinema of “Pull My Daisy” and “The Flower Thief,” Cinema 16 supplied American premieres for Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (launched by Renoir), a number of of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican movies, and movies by the good Japanese administrators Yasujiro Ozu and Nagisa Oshima. Cinema 16 also confirmed the primary brief movies by Agnès Varda and Melvin Van Peebles, amongst many others.
As a programmer, Vogel was a grasp of the combo and match. One significantly nice show included Carl Theodor Dreyer’s expressionist horror film “Vampyr” (1932), Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic home movie “Fireworks” (1947) and George Franju’s surreal abattoir documentary “Blood of the Beasts” (1949). Vogel’s applications sometimes juxtaposed avant-garde work and brief documentaries with scientific fare. (As befits his Viennese roots, he had a keenness for psychiatric shorts like “Experimental Masochism” or “Unconscious Motivation.”)
The young Vogel appreciated to present himself as a firebrand. In a 1961 Village Voice cowl story headlined “‘I Step on Toes From Time to Time,’” it was a part of his daring declaration that “I’ll show anything — political, homosexual, religious, erotic, psychological — which needs to be seen.” Indeed, Cinema 16 was the primary New York venue to present the full-length model of Nazi propaganda movies like “Triumph of the Will” as objects of study.
When I met Amos, some 20 years after the Voice article, he was much less combative than amiably avuncular. Gently, he reprimanded me for having written a purposelessly contentious piece about a long-ago contretemps occasioned by his refusal to show Brakhage’s “Anticipation of the Night” at Cinema 16. “One decision should not define a career,” he told me, phrases which may function a film critic’s motto.
He had a profound sense of mission. During his time on the festival, he fought funds cuts and strove to create something like the American Film Institute at Lincoln Center. He was against any kind of commercialization, genuinely shocked that what was then known because the Film Society of Lincoln Center would possibly settle for cash from Philip Morris, aghast that the yr he give up, the opening film was a stylish Hollywood comedy, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
Upon becoming a member of the festival choice committee, I naïvely instructed distributing free tickets to avant-garde filmmakers and different needy varieties. “Amos used to do that” got here the disapproving reply. The Vogel festival was beneficiant. It was ridiculously simple to crash the press screenings and there were dozens of sidebar screenings and discussions on the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts that, if reminiscence serves, were nearly free.
“We show what can be done if certain cultural elements and the serious art or documentary are brought together,” Vogel had told the Voice in 1961. “There lies the basis for a film culture. But who knows in America if such a condition will ever spread and really take hold?”
If it has, the esteem in which Vogel is held by his successors might be gauged by the unprecedented consideration paid his centennial. The festival has been presenting a seven-part “Spotlight” series devoted to Vogel’s programming, recreating particular shows and presenting favourite movies. Later this month, Anthology Film Archives will show eight reconstructed Cinema 16 payments, and the Museum of Modern Art will display 5 applications with a science and nature theme. In November, Film Forum is reprising a tribute to Cinema 16 proven in 1986. The Museum of the Moving Image, Metrograph and Light Industry are also participating, drawing on “Film as a Subversive Art.” Outside New York, the Arsenal in Berlin and the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna have organized related multipart occasions.
“Vogel” is German for “bird.” With due respect to Charlie Parker, the message this season is Vogel Lebt, “Bird Lives!”