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

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.
Jessica Boyall

The Man from Onan (1971). Image from the 2021 edition of Film as a Subversive Art, courtesy of The Film Desk

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. 

Image from the 2021 edition of Film as a Subversive Art, courtesy of The Film Desk

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.” 

Le révélateur (1968). Image from the 2021 edition of Film as a Subversive Art, courtesy of The Film Desk

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 Loving, an 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.” 

With this in mind, Vogel set about programming thought-provoking events which would challenge and inform audiences rather than merely entertain them. He arranged regular screenings, somewhat unorthodox in style, in which he adopted a dialectical approach to curation through presenting individual films that conceptually collided with one another in such a way as to elicit responses regarding their political, social and artistic contexts.  At the same time, Vogel supplied audiences with interpretative text, often provided by prominent critics, such as Arthur Knight, Siegfried Kracauer, and Parker Tyler, to guide members through the films’ background and screen effects. 

To be clear, Vogel eschewed didacticism for, although he was himself a committed socialist and anti-Zionist, he was largely uninterested in inciting a specific response—political or otherwise—in Cinema 16’s audiences. Instead, he simply hoped to demonstrate that film has the faculty to provoke complex stances beyond what he perceived as complacent feelings of sheer enjoyment. Indeed, if member gratification had been the primary criterion by which Cinema 16’s success was judged then its accomplishments might be thought dubious, given members frequently complained of being offended, bored and confused, even occasionally booing and fighting during screenings. And although Vogel was interested in members’ preferences, initiating questionnaires to understand the film genres they most appreciated, he never moderated Cinema 16’s output according to their feedback, maintaining a confidence in and fidelity to confrontational programming.

Coming Apart (1969). Image from the 2021 edition of Film as a Subversive Art, courtesy of The Film Desk

In time however, the uniqueness of this confrontationality waned, not because Vogel tempered Cinema 16’s output, but rather because mainstream film houses began varying theirs and what might have been deemed subversive in the 1940s became rather less so by the 1960s. At the same time censorship restrictions eased and audiences were able to view previously inaccessible films in cinemas, galleries and independent screening spaces as well as, increasingly, on their own televisions. Simultaneously, film collectives such as the Film-makers’ Cooperative in New York and New American Cinema Group began demanding alternatives to traditional modes of film distribution with a view to enabling directors to be more involved in the circulation of their work. And so whilst Vogel did moderate Cinema 16’s activities accordingly—with the society, for example, taking on a distributive as opposed to purely exhibitive function—by 1963 he arrived at the conclusion that the organization was no longer operationally viable. Consequently, in May of that year, Cinema 16 presented its final program and Vogel took up the role of co-director of the New York Film Festival at the newly inaugurated Lincoln Center, a post he held until 1968, when he became professor of film history and theory at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

While Cinema 16 formally dissolved in 1963, Vogel ensured its enduring legacy through assembling the text Film as a Subversive Art which, first published in 1974, has been reissued by The Film Desk this year with the new edition benefiting from many factual edits that correct things such as release years, director information, and even film titles, while maintaining deference to Vogel’s original analysis.  Drawing on the meticulous notes Vogel amassed whilst programming for Cinema 16, Film as a Subversive Art, much like the society itself, is organized according to somewhat heterodox principles, in part because Vogel’s principal aim was not to compile information on particular films nor to develop scholarly analysis on the subject of cinema as a whole, but rather to incite his readers to seek out and create their own coherent cinematic experiences. 

Image from the 2021 edition of Film as a Subversive Art, courtesy of The Film Desk

To achieve this, Vogel departed from the conventional taxonomic structure of academic books by, remarkably, beginning each chapter with a concise theoretical introduction to a specific aspect of cinema’s capacity to subvert personal and societal apathies. These chapter introductions are followed by lists of films from different genres and epochs which, ordered loosely alphabetically, are accompanied by comments that draw out how each deals with the subversion under discussion. Each chapter is replete with detailed, frequently graphic, illustrations that illuminate the visual aspects of the works so as to at least partially compensate for Vogel’s reticence in employing written analysis to grapple with a visual medium. So, for example, Vogel dedicates a chapter to “Erotic and Pornographic Cinema,”details pertinent titles—including Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Buñuel's Belle de Jour and Lowell Sherman’s, She Done Him Wrong—then articulates these in striking visual form. The result is a wonderfully idiosyncratic text that resists straightforward classification, perhaps best understood as a hybrid of manifesto, encyclopedia and memoir, its power deriving from Vogel’s uncompromising formal style and impassioned commitment to cinema’s epistemological capacity.

It is this commitment to and unwavering belief in cinema that drove Vogel’s life-long espousal of its possibilities and, after his death in 2012, secured his impact on international film culture. He influenced an array of North American directors including Jonas Mekas who reported having “attended absolutely every screening” Cinema 16 presented, intoning that the society “became my Sunday church, my university,” and Martin Scorsese, who advises“if you're looking for the origins of film culture in America, look no further than Amos Vogel.” Likewise, European directors laud Vogel, Werner Herzog, for example, hailing him as “a mentor, a guiding light.”  When it comes to academia, critic Siegfried Kracauer described Cinema 16 as “one of the living forces in a field which has been badly neglected,” remarking that “through [Cinema 16’s] activities many young people who confused films with Hollywood films and perhaps were fed up with them, for the first time realized the inherent potentialities of the medium.”  Ultimately, the status that film enjoys today, at the heart of contemporary art and as the respected subject of serious scholarship, owes much to Vogel, whose formidable contribution to film culture is to be the subject of the 59th  New York Film Festival this Fall, with repertory cinemas across the city—Anthology Film Archives, Film Forum, Film at Lincoln Center, Light Industry, The Roxy, Metrograph, MoMA, and Museum of the Moving Image—joining together in righteous celebration of his centenary.

L'âge d'or (1930). Image from the 2021 edition of Film as a Subversive Art, courtesy of The Film Desk

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