Not unlike the disparate members and factions of the Philadelphia film community, the underground filmmakers profiled in Amos Vogel’s book Film As a Subversive Art (Random House, 1974) may have (not so) secretly sneered at each other with passive contempt. In my imagination, however, I saw them as a long-haired cabal of Macbeth-ian witches churning a cauldron of metastasizing celluloid with a singular desire uniting their seemingly-insular selves: the intellectual infection of the masses by exposure to the moving image. Like many readers of this absolutely crucial work, I count myself among the infected. As well versed in the world of underground/avant-garde cinema as I thought I was when I first came upon the book (and paid a hefty price for it, as it had not yet been reprinted), thumbing through its pages showed me stills that were like transmissions from a black-and-white nightmare world. Phantasmagorical faces, contorted bodies; the ecstasy of passion, the ruin of war. I wasn’t on board with all of the politics (the ersatz, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey Marxism of Jean-Luc Godard) or the personalities (the primal shit therapy and animal snuffery of convicted pedophile Otto Muehl), but I found myself mesmerized by the great breadth of vision that constituted engaged (a term still relevant at the time of the book’s initial publication) cinema. These directors created movies that were, in effect, the cystic acne on the Crest-white smiling face of banal mainstream cinema. Theirs was a coruscating corruption that never managed to subsume the masses, but also never went away. From celluloid to hi-def video, the desire to shock, provoke, educate, intoxicate — to create through sheer imagination and passion a cinema of cerebral vigor and emotional depth — lives on and middle-fingers forward into the 21st Century. Amos Vogel presented us a book that, like its cover image from Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), reached forth out of the confining frame and above our heads. Also present on the cover, seated perhaps as in a theatre, was the White Rabbit, a symbol of magic, and the creature who will draw you down through the rabbit hole and into Wonderland. Amos Vogel was the White Rabbit. Don’t be late.
Amos Vogel the Brain Parasite: An Intellectually Transmitted Disease
Amos Vogel’s gonna get you. Believe it or not, you have already been infected. You may not consciously know his work, but you’ve felt him. He’s the boogeyman brain nugget in the force of films that lurk; a conceptual terrorist laying moving image time bombs that explode into discomfort, offense, and perverse titillation. Even a brief encounter with his paper-born virus, Film as a Subversive Art, is transformational. The contaminated reader will soon be hurdled from curiosity to compulsion, obsessively seeking the movies behind Vogel’s delicious descriptions and seductive stills. It is around that point that the disease begins to overflow into more critical areas of life than mere spectatorship. Transgressions begin to be understood as necessary weapons in the war on tyrannical complacency. Subversion is recognized as the foundation of cultural evolution. And once contaminated, the viewer mutates from mere media trash receptacle into a force of personal and social change. At this point, it’s terminal. Whether radical or reactionary, subversive cinema becomes the frontline in the struggle for freedom. Ultimately, the Vogel-malady is one of self-liberation.
— Lisa.jane is an experimental filmmaker and dedicated cinephile, currently losing her mind in Detroit Rock City. She is tied to Philadelphia by strips of celluloid.
Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art is my favorite book on film, not only for the embarrassment of riches it totes – many of them as obscure now as then – but also for the way it instills in its readers the need to be restless. In the book’s final chapter, Vogel seizes upon a slip of the tongue Karl Marx made about the meaning of life being a struggle. Is “the essence of life, under all circumstances and in all societies,” Vogel asked, the idea of “eternal change, the constant transformation of all forms and systems?” He encouraged his followers to always seek the new, to always have their ideas genuinely and rigorously challenged, to never succumb to complacency. It’s a notion as relevant then as now, when we’re faced with access to more cinema – and art – than at any time in history. It’s easy to be discouraged when looking at how much we have to choose from. Vogel was a guide in an era when people rarely had access to alternative cinema. We need more Virgils to take his place and point us to that which is genuinely new and genuinely exciting.