Amos Vogel at 100

The Daily — Mar 31, 2021
Amos Vogel

On April 18, 1921, Amos Vogel, one of the most influential programmers in the history of cinema, was born in Vienna. The Austrian Film Museum is celebrating the centenary with a series of projects it’s calling 100 Years of Subversion, an echo of the title of Vogel’s landmark 1974 book Film as a Subversive Art. Alexander Horwath, a former director of the museum, has in the meantime teamed up with Regina Schlagnitweit to put together Amos in Wonderland, a program presented earlier this month at Punto de Vista, the documentary festival in Pamplona, Spain. Now that program is slated to run online from April 5 through 18.

For anyone in need of an introduction or reminder, the best primer on Vogel and the impact his notions of curation have had on what we think of when we think about cinema is Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (2003), Paul Cronin’s leisurely paced, hour-long portrait of an amiable rebel. Born Amos Vogelbaum, Vogel grew up in “Red Vienna,” as the Austrian capital was known when Social Democrats ran the city after the end of the First World War. When the Nazis annexed Austria into Germany in 1938, Vogel and his family fled to New York.

In 1947, Vogel and his wife, Marcia, founded Cinema 16, a “film society for the adult moviegoer,” as they called it, presenting “films you cannot see elsewhere.” Cinema 16 was modeled on the cine-clubs of Europe, its members subsidizing eclectic programs that set scientific shorts or foreign animations next to surrealist experiments or even Hollywood blockbusters. Vogel was open to just about anything except censorship. When he got wind of a Nazi propaganda film, an obscenely cartoonish anti-Semitic diatribe, he naturally insisted on showing it. But he also invited Alfred Hitchcock, who happily surprised Vogel and his audience with a sneak preview of the just-completed The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Membership swelled to nearly seven thousand, and Cinema 16 regularly sold out a theater seating 1200. As Scott MacDonald writes in the introduction to his 2002 book Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society, Amos and Marcia Vogel were among the first, “if not the first,” to present in the States work by Shirley Clarke, Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, Brian De Palma, Georges Franju, Richard Lester, Jonas Mekas, Nagisa Oshima, Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda, and many, many others, as well as John Cassavetes’s second cut of his first feature, Shadows (1959).

By 1963, other theaters presenting adventurous programming had sprung up in the city, and Cinema 16, unable to compete, folded. Later that same year, Vogel cofounded the New York Film Festival with Richard Roud. Vogel lasted five years before he and the rapidly expanding Lincoln Center parted ways. Vogel went on to teach and write Film as a Subversive Art, which Nick Pinkerton, writing in the Village Voice in 2013, called “a manifesto that wages war on cinema’s orthodoxies—even on the rules Vogel sets down himself. His jeremiad celebrated films whose only commonality was their shared aesthetic disobedience.”

In their program notes, Horwath and Schlagnitweit write that they are not aiming to replicate Vogel’s curation. Vogel was, they write, “a skeptic and an anti-dogmatic socialist; a deeply rational man who celebrated the semi-hypnotic, irrational forces of cinema; a modernist who rejoiced in the pre-modern concept of the Wunderkammer where ‘art’ and ‘curiosities’ are not yet separated. Our tribute to him hopes to the summon this spirit—and some of the spirits that haunted and soothed him.”

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