Inventing the Underground 

On the Legacy of Amos Vogel

Amos Vogel is arguably the person most responsible for contemporary New York City film culture. Before Anthology Film Archives, Film Forum, the IFC Center or Two Boots were around to introduce audiences to the latest in independent, foreign, documentary or experimental cinema — before there was even much of an inkling such films existed — there was Vogel’s Cinema 16, a film society that introduced audiences to a whole new way of looking at not only movies but also the world around them. Vogel challenged the cultural taboos that dominated both artistic and social spheres: non-mainstream cinema was marginalized as much for political as aesthetic reasons, and Vogel confronted audiences with what they weren’t “supposed” to see. Subversive cinema is important not just because it undermines mainstream conventions but because it posits film culture as a vital role in social discourse.

Vogel, born Amos Vogelbaum in Vienna, Austria, in 1921, immigrated to the United States in 1938. Nine years after settling in New York City, Amos and his wife Marcia began Cinema 16 as a way to offer audiences exposure to films without significant exposure in the mainstream commercial landscape. “Amos was doing his thing at the peak of conformist white-picket-fence Eisenhower America, people wanted something different,” says Paul Cronin, director of the 2003 documentary Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16, recently released on DVD as part of D.K. Holm’s book Independent Cinema. “This notion of popular culture was kind of irrelevant; there was just culture.”

What the film so deftly conveys is the ardently liberating nature of Cinema 16 programs (curated by Vogel with assistance from Marcia and friend Jack Goelman) that were aimed as much at educating the audience as upsetting the accepted notion of movies solely providing “entertainment.” A given program might include scientific, political, animated, foreign, documentary and abstract movies. (The sheer diversity calls attention to the inadequate vagaries of terms like “experimental” and “independent.”) As Vogel explains in Cronin’s film, “This is how I use the word ‘subversive’: anything that changes or undermines previous ways of thinking and feeling. Subversive art makes you look at things in a new and very different way. It disrupts, it destroys, and thereby builds up new realities and new truths.”

The title of Cronin’s film comes from Vogel’s book, Film as a Subversive Art, first published in 1974 and still a highly relevant antidote to the growing homogenization of film history. Resisting easy periodization, Vogel divides his book into larger philosophical concerns such as  “The Devaluation of Language” and “The Power of the Visual Taboo.” Following every chapter is a list of films and comments by Vogel that best illustrate the thematic concerns. While some of these films, such as those by Dusan Makavejev, have become classics in their own right and are in circulation, still many, particularly the short films, are nearly impossible to find, Vogel’s precise descriptions their only traces.

Vogel’s is as much a political as an aesthetic — or even artistic — commitment: “This is a book about the subversion of existing values, institutions, mores and taboos… It is a book that traffics in skepticism towards all received wisdom (including its own), towards eternal truths, rules of art, ‘natural’ and man-made laws, indeed whatever may be considered holy.” Vogel urges us to read cinema as either approving or transgressive of pervasive social mores. Think about the current debate surrounding last year’s four big “abortion” films: Juno, Knocked Up, Lake of Fire and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. The former two films, for whatever comic and/or satiric reasons, still refuse to acknowledge abortion as a topic permissible for serious consideration in mainstream cinema; only Lake of Fire and 4 Months break not only the narrative taboo surrounding the subject, but also the visual taboo. 4 Months is liberating not because of shock value but because it denies any sense of spectacle.

What began in 1947 finally came to a close in 1963. Cinema 16 is partly responsible for its own demise: it created a burgeoning film scene in New York with multitudes of venues offering foreign, independent and experimental movies. Cinema 16 closed not because of lack of audience interest but because it could not compete financially with other venues in New York. The same year Cinema 16 closed, Vogel co-founded The New York Film Festival with Richard Roud.

One of the lasting legacies of Vogel’s work was a moviegoing audience more appreciative of non-mainstream cinema. While the integration into Hollywood films is hardly overwhelming, every once in a while a film emerges from the mainstream that challenges its context. Consider the much discussed ending of No Country for Old Men, which, in a Haneke-esque turn, denies audiences the very ending they were led to expect (coincidentally, Michael Haneke’s own Hollywood remake of Funny Games is another example of alternative cinema entering the mainstream). Atypical as they may be, these examples remind us that Vogel’s mission to challenge rather than placate audiences was — and more importantly still is — of vital importance, and that “subversion” need not be marginalized and inaccessible as it once was.

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