During a chat with charming octogenarian Amos Vogel in his cozy Greenwich Village apartment, his wife Marcia leaves briefly to bring back glasses of iced tea and a dainty sugar bowl. “This is the unsweetened kind,” she kindly warns us. It’s not the setting in which you might expect to encounter one of cinema’s foremost radicals and his longtime collaborator. A legendary, pioneering film society, Vogel’s New York–based Cinema 16 boasted thousands of members during its existence in the ’40s and ’50s, long before the rise of film festivals and art houses. His provocative, even controversial, programming combined films by respected auteurs with experimental and political fare. In the ’60s, Vogel took this spirit to the new Lincoln Center by helping found the New York Film Festival, and in 1975 published his seminal tome Film as a Subversive Art, a book he calls “the culmination of the efforts of a lifetime.”
Part movie guide, part philosophical treatise, Film as a Subversive Art analyzes and champions works that challenge viewers and thereby precipitate new ways of seeing society and existence. For Vogel, films could provide more than mere entertainment; intelligent programming could be a means of consciousness-raising; he screened “anything that made people question an existing value system, that opened up people’s minds to other possibilities,” Vogel tells the Voice. “The aesthetic and the political have always been joined. To me the avant-garde, whether they knew it or not, was always part of a radical view of society and of the human psyche.”
Film as a Subversive Art went out of print after its initial run, subsequently becoming a secondhand Holy Grail for adventurous filmmakers and cineastes. Though Vogel’s ideas gained new life in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when subversion returned as a hot critical buzz-concept, his book is only now receiving a long-awaited reprinting. Its new publishers, fine-art specialists D.A.P., have wisely retained the original design, adding a new preface by Vogel and a forward by scholar Scott MacDonald. For a book created to encourage film viewing, it is only fitting that this revival came from a film that whetted viewers’ appetites for the book: Paul Cronin’s documentary Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16, which has toured festivals and cinematheques extensively in the past two years. “Wherever [Cronin] went, as soon as the title came up, everybody said, How can I get that book?” Marcia Vogel reports, and so Cronin, the editor of a number of collections of interviews with directors, campaigned for its return, three decades after its original publication. “It is an eternal message,” Amos Vogel laughs. After all, he says, for today’s would-be cinematic subverters, “there are inevitably new challenges.”
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.