Directed by Robert Machover and Norman Fruchter
February 10, 19 at Anthology Film Archives, part of "Left and Revolutionary Cinema: The West, Program 2," which is part of A Tribute to Amos Vogel and "Film as a Subversive Art"
“Subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up,” Amos Vogel wrote in the introduction to his 1974 book Film as a Subversive Art. Vogel, the great film programmer who died last April at 91, was a sweet, calm, gentle, pleasant man who spent his life searching for films that could disturb people. The Austrian Jew exchanged Nazi Europe for New York, then transformed his dream of living on a Palestinian farm into the reality of Cinema 16, the largest film society in the world, cofounded with his wife and eternal companion Marcia in 1947; the same year that Cinema 16 shuttered (1963) was the year he and critic Richard Roud cofounded the New York Film Festival.
By the time he wrote his book, Vogel had seen and listed so many films on index cards (still available for browsing through Columbia University’s archives) that he could comfortably order them in categories as varied as the birth film, the trance film, the erotic film, and films of secrets and revelations. The films he valued most, spanning myriad categories, were those that led the charge towards what he called “a more liberated cinema, one in which all previously forbidden subjects are boldly explored.” For him, a film worth keeping around brought new information that undermined how its audiences had previously thought and felt, disrupting them into forming new personal truths. The most basic authority a film could subvert was that of its viewer’s preconceptions.
Vogel liked reminding himself that the world always had problems to solve, and hoped that cinema could help others feel the same way. Paul Cronin’s 2004 film portrait of Vogel, also called Film as a Subversive Art and screening March 7 as part of Anthology Film Archives’s Vogel tribute series (the Museum of the Moving Image will have its own in March), takes us on a guided tour of the self-proclaimed radical’s study. Its walls are filled with photographs—a shot of Mussolini, a recent picture of a Palestinian father holding his son who was killed by Israeli bombs—showing things that Vogel doesn’t like to see. Nearby hangs a quote by Günter Eich reading, “Be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world.”
A film like Robert Machover and Norm Fruchter’s under-seen Troublemakers, which Vogel wrote was “One of the best works of the American Left,” suggests that a true leftist’s work is never finished. Its actors are the residents of a black ghetto in Newark and the young activists trying to organize them. The first part of the film shows the activists discussing what problems can unite people; subsequent sections contain protests against a landlord’s ability to evict tenants freely and the government’s failure to install a traffic light in town. Over and over, the protests are met with silence or with bureaucratic shrugs. The film’s narrator says, “Without effective means of enforcing repair, all actions remain symbolic.”
These individual problems are hard to solve, the film suggests, because the system itself is broken. “The rich man controls Newark,” a townsperson says; the fact that most of the area votes Democrat doesn’t matter, because the common man’s party is still run by the rich. The film tracks an attempt to support a black politician from a working-class background’s campaign, but no matter how many votes he gets, he might not solve things. Nearly 50 years after Troublemakers was made, a full third of Newark’s people still live in poverty. Belief in leaders—regardless of what they look like—hasn’t done enough.