Amos Vogel, Saboteur

Turning 90, the Viennese New Yorker who spearheaded a global film movement, was honored at the Austrian Film Museum

TVR Books | Camilo C. Antonio | May 2011

Viennese-born New Yorker Amos Vogel is America’s grand patron of avant-garde and foreign movies, pioneering avenues that have since become mainstream platforms for independent filmmakers around the globe. On Apr. 18, he was feted in absentia at the Austrian Film Museum on his 90th birthday.

The event was combined with the presentation of Amos Vogel – Ein New Yorker Cineast aus Wien a 40-page German-language booklet published by the film association Synema commemorating his life and work. Its editors, Michael Omasta and Brigitte Mayr, took turns reading introductory passages to the screening of aptly-selected films, making for a memorable evening.

An endearing 56-minute Film Portrait of Vogel and his wife, Marcia, opened the screening sessions. The Austrian media entrepreneur Egon Humer made the film, entitled Mosaik im Vertrauen, as a tribute to the couple when they both turned 80 in 2001. With a voiceover narrative scripted and read by Vogel himself, the film is a collage of video, Super 8 and archival footage that provides harsh revelations of his journey into exile, fleeing Nazi Austria as a 17-year old in 1938. Even now, Vogel says he is unable to forget or forgive those who robbed him of the city he was born in: "Es war meine Stadt, ich hab sie geliebt."

In book and film, Vogel narrates the travails of his early years in New York, trying to cope with adapting to a new environment and learning English, which didn’t come easily to him. He had been an average student at the Piaristengymnasium, in Vienna’s 8th District; however in German, he had been the best. But leaving his mother tongue behind left him so traumatised that it took him 40 years to recover the language, as though emerging from a stroke.  "You go through the whole of life and still you don’t understand it."

The booklet and Humer’s film also weave an intimate portrait of the filmmaker’s 55-year marriage, a bond cemented by the couple’s shared love of cinema, and dampened only by what Mrs. Vogel called "the gloomy period" of their 70s. Then, they had to learn to cope with the inevitable onslaught of old-age and withdrawal from the celebrity circles that had become inseparable from the couple’s many "projects" that attacked the complacency of commercial cinema.

Cinema 16 was their springboard project, a film society founded by Vogel in 1947 and named after the then predominant format of independent films, 16 mm. Starting in a small, 200-seat theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village that he rented twice a week, Vogel devoted years to seeking out and screening films that could provide an alternative to Hollywood, and Cinema 16 became legend. Vogel faced both growing demand and stringent censorship, so opted for a creative solution: In lieu of public viewing, he established a private society "for the adult moviegoer," open to anyone who could afford the membership fee of $16  for 16 performances. At its height, the society had 7,000 members that included New York’s cultural movers and shakers; its venue was the Central Needle Trades Auditorium with a seating capacity of 1600.

Altogether, the Vogels ran Cinema 16 for exactly 16 years, during which they showed "films that could not be seen elsewhere," like those of the French avant-gardists Alain Resnais and Luis Bunuel, who made films in Mexico considered pornographic or too political by mainstream houses. The Vogels’ society, meanwhile, became U.S. distributor for as yet inaccessible – "contraband" – films.

By the early 1960s, the scene had begun to change; films that previously could only be shown at Cinema 16 were finding other outlets. In 1963, just when Vogel had decided to close Cinema 16, he was asked to be founding director of the New York Film Festival at the Lincoln Centre, a role he shared with Richard Roud, until Vogel left in 1968 for a full-time teaching post at the University of Pennsylvania.

There, the Vogels’ home turned into a beehive not only of "indie" cineastes, but also of filmmakers who went on to become household names while subverting the Hollywood industry:  the Russians Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Britton Alfred Hitchcock, Germans Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, Japanese Ozu Yasujiro and Akira Kurozawa, even John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Due to their Polish heritage and Marxist leanings, the Vogels also maintained special contacts with underground filmmakers from Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe.

The commemorative booklet re-prints some articles Vogel wrote for Film Comment, in which he outlines his basic cinematic orientation.  Perhaps the most stirring of them, "The Atom and Eve of Destruction," is a scathing critique of the U.S. nuclear attacks via the graphic rendering of film images taken in Hiroshima and Nagasaki just after the cities were hit. The piece is all the more striking in the wake of the recent Fukushima disaster.

In another reprint from 1996, "Of Nonexisting Continents…", Vogel engages Haneke’s cinematic excursions into nameless Austrian places where total anomie, existential coldness, and bare consumerism reign. While appreciating Haneke’s contrarian approach to Hollywood’s hermetic worlds, pressing the viewer instead to seek her own answers, Vogel asserts that every film necessarily exercises power over the viewer.

Moreover, in a 1996 Falter article, for which Omasta asked a group of filmmakers about their views of Godard and the Nouvelle Vague, Vogel praises Godard’s unstained record of anti-commercialism; he is "as fresh as ever".

But nowhere is Vogel closer to exposing his aesthetic sensibilities than in his appreciation for the Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan Makaveyev, revealing a deep personal bias for shifting identities:

"Dusan Makaveyev, a product of contamination of East by West, and West by East, an offspring of most extreme cultural cross fertilization, an argument for the totally unhindered flow of ideas across all national barriers, a cinematic pipe bomb planted by nameless libertarian incendiaries into the rigidified heartlands of Russia and America...Such a magnet attracts everything and refuses nothing."

Vogel’s connections to Vienna are many:  In an interview with film scholar Scott MacDonald Vogel recalls the Votiv Kino and the Urania as having first exposed him to experimental films, impressing upon his young mind the art of subversion. It was in Vienna that he had seen the filmpoem "Night Mail" – produced in 1936 – which was screened as part of the celebratory programme. Vogel admits that the film was an eye-opener, making an indelible mark on him as a 15-year old, with its filmic combination of poetic and documentary images to an equally powerful commentary by W.H. Auden.

One of the most telling scenes in the Humer film shows Vogel beside his desk with what appears today like an antediluvian writing tool: an Olympia typewriter that has clearly done marvels for the flurry of writings out of which emerged Film as a Subversive Art. Published in 1974 and reprinted in paperback in 2005, it was this book that assured Vogel’s lasting place in cinematic scholarship.

Vogel’s book, designed to draw readers back to the cinema, demonstrates the author’s breadth of experience and intellectual sophistication. He introduces three major subversive weapons: form, content and forbidden subjects.

"This is a book about the subversion of existing values, institutions, mores, and taboos – East and West, Left and Right – by the potentially most powerful art of the century," he writes, "a book that traffics in scepticism towards all received wisdom, towards eternal truths, rules of art, natural and man-made laws, indeed, whatever may be considered holy."

It’s a scene of subversion: "When the theatre darkens and the screen lights up",  the cinema becomes "a place of magic where psychological and environmental factors combine to create an openness to wonder and suggestion, an unlocking of the unconscious… – a shrine at which modern rituals rooted in atavistic memories and subconscious desires are acted out in darkness and seclusion from the outer world."

At a time when it is possible to watch movies from hand-held gadgets anytime anywhere, in glaring daylight amid chatter and noise, it is appropriate to consider whether, in giving up the cinema as a cultural medium, we have also lost the liberating potential of that magical place.

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