The Canon of Subversion: Amos Vogel and the Films That Assailed the Art


What was Amos Vogel rebelling against? Like Brando in The Wild One, the answer might have been “Whaddya got?”

“Maybe it’s obnoxious to some,” Vogel, the programmer, critic, proselytizer, gauntlet-thrower, and all-purpose avant-garde mover-and-shaker told interviewer Scott MacDonald in 1983, “but there’s a fighting element in me which rebels against authority and constraint.”

Vogel put down his pugnacious creed for posterity in his 1973 book Film as a Subversive Art. It’s a manifesto that wages war on cinema’s orthodoxies—even on the rules Vogel sets down himself. His jeremiad celebrated films whose only commonality was their shared aesthetic disobedience. For many filmmakers who are today being exhumed and rediscovered—Philippe Garrel, Carmelo Bene, Dušan Makavajev—Vogel’s book remains the go-to in-print text for contemporary reportage; the daily critics couldn’t be bothered.

Makavajev’s 1971 geyser of montage, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, appropriately kicks off Anthology Film Archives’ “Tribute to Amos Vogel”—appropriately, because a still from the film graces the cover of Film as a Subversive Art, which is illustrated by mysterious and often confrontational black-and-white images from the films Vogel considers. Anthology’s program will carry on for little over a month while, last Thursday, Williamsburg’s Spectacle microcinema inaugurated its own monthly program, “Film as a Subversive Art,” in conjunction with online publication The New Inquiry. The shape of both programs follows the filing system established in Vogel’s book, whose chapters arranged films according to the “Weapons of Subversion” they employed: “Subversion of Form,” “Subversion of Content,” “Forbidden Subjects.”

Vogel, born Amos Vogelbaum, had reason to be at odds with power. Born in 1921 in Vienna, he and his family fled to New York City months ahead of the Nazi Anschluss. A Socialist-Zionist, Vogel had planned this to be only a stopover on the way to a kibbutz, but, objecting to the development of Israel as a unilateral Jewish state, he instead stayed put. Vogel channeled his disobedient political tendencies into Cinema 16, a society where lovers of film esoterica could find strength in numbers, acquiring and screening otherwise unavailable, marginalized movies.

Conceived with wife Marcia as an American answer to Europe’s membership-financed film societies and cine-clubs, Cinema 16 had its first screenings in the West Village’s Provincetown Playhouse in late 1947. Its last came in 1963, as Vogel, with Richard Roud, became cofounder of the New York Film Festival. (Anthology will screen an episode of the CBS’s arts program Camera Three, where Vogel can be seen discussing the first fest.) In between, Cinema 16, which had seven thousand members at its height, had grown to fill the 1,600-seat Central Needle Trades Auditorium, drawn the Beats, Sontag, and Brando to screenings, and held American premieres of too many major filmmakers to mention. “It became my Sunday church, my university,” Anthology founder Jonas Mekas has said—although it was his own exclusively-experimental New American Cinema Group that effectively put Cinema 16, with a program that mixed art, documentary, and avant-garde film, out of business.

As well as contributing to this paper’s pages and Film Comment magazine, Vogel kept copious notes on his purposefully antagonistic, dialectic programming, all of which eventually fed into his opus. “Ambiguous,” “senseless,” “uncertain,” and especially “anxious” are words which recur as Vogel describes the films he rallied for, those which he believed described this ” most insane of all worlds” and “our real universe of unrest, uncertainty, anguish.”

Vogel never forgot the essential truth of “insane” modern life that he learned in Austria, 1938, and its aftermath. This should not be taken to mean that Vogel was necessarily a forbidding character; he wrote a children’s book with Maurice Sendak, and always tried to play the friendly outreach ambassador for the art he admired. Between 1973 and 1991, Vogel taught at the University of Philadelphia, and in 1980, even hosted a program of independent films from the Delaware Valley for the local PBS affiliate. Anthology’s program includes one episode of Reel Philadelphia in which Vogel, casual in a denim jacket, patiently guides the lay viewer through the lineup, humorously introducing the CBGB’s-shot mini-doc Punking Out, featuring Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, and The Dead Boys. (“In the opinion of this station, this film may be unsuitable for children . . . . I make this announcement under protest and with some merriment. First, I do not believe that many children would be watching films about Rumanian Jews at 10:30 at night . . . .”)

No idiom, punk included, was too extreme to ward off Vogel. Under the heading of “Homosexuality and Other Variants,” Anthology has a double-bill of Japanese psych-outs, Shûji Terayama’s 1971 children’s rebellion fantasy Emperor Tomato Ketchup and 1967’s Violated Angels by Kôji Wakamatsu, who died last fall. While admiring Wakamatsu’s ceremoniously-shot reenaction of the Richard Speck killings, Vogel called it “more symptomatic than significant” (symptomatic of uncertainty and anguish, one imagines), and “anti-humanist”—for some antis even Vogel drew the line at.

Yesterday’s subversions, however, make up tomorrow’s canon. Mysteries of the Organism is on Criterion DVD, and succès de scandale is a very viable career path on the festival circuit. But in the mollycoddling, fenced-off, self-congratulatory scenes that make up contemporary film culture, Vogel’s official stance of ceaseless agitation shouldn’t be forgotten: “They’re in safe little oases, and they’re showing the films to their friends, and everybody likes each other’s films.” Better than anyone, the rebellious Vogel understood that “irritant” was another word for vitality.