The promotional materials for Cinema 16, the groundbreaking film society founded in 1947 by Amos Vogel, advertised Films You Cannot See Elsewhere. But for Vogel, who died peacefully Tuesday at the age of 91 in the apartment off Washington Square Park where he had lived since the fifties, assembling a film program was an art in itself.
Inspired by the dialectical clash of Einsenstein’s montage, Vogel set avant-garde shorts next to a documentary about South American ants; a program from January 1959, reproduced in Scott MacDonald’s “Cinema 16: Documents Towards a History of the Film Society,” featured Buster Keaton’s “The General” and Stan Brakhage’s “The Wonder Ring.” Asked on the occasion of a 2004 tribute what he intended to produce through such sometimes jarring juxtapositions, Vogel answered simply: “Film culture.”
Vogel’s influence continued after Cinema 16 shut its doors in 1963. That same year, he founded the New York Film Festival with Richard Roud (although the independent-minded Vogel lasted only five years in an organization less welcoming to his idiosyncratic tastes) and in 1973 founded the Annenberg Cinematheque at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until the 1990s. His lavishly illustrated 1974 book “Film as a Subversive Art” — a tantalizing to-do list for any serious cinephile — commits his approach to paper, matching stills from “Pickpocket,” “Belle de Jour” and “She Done Him Wrong” under the heading “Pornographic and Erotic Cinema.” (The book was reprinted in 2005, and is now out of print again.) He also collaborated with Maurice Sendak on a children’s book, “How Little Lori Visited Times Square.”
Born Amos Vogelbaum in Vienna, 1921, Vogel fled Austria with his parents in 1938, studying animal husbandry at the University of Georgia and then moving to New York, whence he intended to emigrate to Israel. But the socialist Vogel became disillusioned with Zionism, and at the same time saw the emergence of a new wave of filmmakers attempting to grapple with the uncertainties of the postwar world, abandoning the straight lines of Hollywood plots and often eschewing narrative altogether. Seeing that Manhattan lacked an equivalent to the film societies of his youth, Vogel and his wife, Marcia, founded Cinema 16, convincing Robert Flaherty to serve as chairman and adorning their program notes with a list of supporters that ran from Kenneth Anger to Basil Wright.
Beginning in the 200-seat Provincetown Playhouse, Cinema 16 boasted a membership of 6,000 at its height, regularly selling out 1,200-seat screenings. According to MacDonald’s book, Vogel was “one of the first, if not the first” to expose American audiences to the work of Shirley Clarke, Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, Brian DePalma, Georges Franju, Richard Lester, Nagisa Oshima, Yasujiro Ozu, Roman Polanski, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Carlos Saura, François Truffaut and Agnès Varda, among untold others. In 1959, he premiered the second version of John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” to audiences that included Pauline Kael, Paddy Chayefsky and Arthur Knight, paying Cassavetes, according to biographer Ray Carney, “four or five times his usual amount.”
In Cinema 16’s time, the idea that film was a serious art, let alone a means of personal expression, was still very much under debate. Writing up New York Film Festival’s second year for the New York Review of Books, theatre critic Robert Brustein remarked that films were “very rarely a high art,” prompting Vogel to respond with characteristic alacrity:
It has been the bane of cinema art with certain critics as well as the industry that film is predominantly considered an excrescence of literature and the theatre. On the contrary, film as an art exists truly only to the extent that it is able to do what other arts cannot do; to paint in time, to force us into largely subconscious associations predetermined along the line of montage by the director by means of carefully structured juxtapositions of images, sequences, objects and movements in space and time within a rectangular frame area.
Vogel’s style was combative — “You don’t like it? We’ll show it again,” he recalled in Paul Cronin’s 2004 documentary, “Film as a Subversive Art” — but his staunch refusal to narrowcast reflected a deeply held belief what he called the “vast potential audience” of film. As Cinema 16’s reign ended, the pendulum was swinging away from Vogel’s eclectic taxonomy.
In 1962, the same year Andrew Sarris published “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” Jonas Mekas, along with Clarke, Brakhage, and other experimental filmmakers, founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, encouraging screenings focused on a single artist rather than the “potpourri programs” of Cinema 16. (It didn’t help that Mekas had been promised screenings of “Shadows’” first version, an arrangement Cassavetes vacated when he reshot the film. Mekas panned the remade version in his Village Voice column.) But as word of Vogel’s death spread, social media flooded with tributes from eminent programmers. Brooklyn’s Light Industry devoted their website’s front page to a photo of Vogel, and wrote on their Twitter account: “Rest in peace, Amos. We owe you everything.”
Wrote critic Michael Sicinski of The Academic Hack:
“The eventual split between Vogel and Jonas Mekas was regrettable, and the experimental film world pretty much uniformly rallying behind Mekas, while understandable, meant that the value of Vogel's programming and distribution model was lost and misunderstood for a generation. The divergence of these philosophies has been as significant as the Kael / Sarris divide, although it's seldom seen as such. Mekas believed, and still believes, in filmmakers and auteurship, whereas Vogel would both champion anonymous films and bypass works by major figures if he felt they weren't up to snuff. In the long run, history has been kinder to Vogel's approach than it ever was to Cinema 16. Just as there needs to be Mekas' inclusiveness, there's also a need for the ‘strong programmer’ vision, of blending experimental film with narrative, documentary and other forms, and also serving as an arbiter of taste. Programmers are authorized to do this when they establish trust with their audiences, and that very idea owes a great deal to Amos Vogel.”