Michael Chaiken Remembers Amos Vogel

From 2000 until 2005, I worked at International House Philadelphia, the balance of those years serving as Program Director for Film.  I was in my mid-twenties, virtually no professional experience to speak of, the majority of my film education taking place not in classrooms or darkened theaters, but in my mother’s basement.  After a messy freshman year at the University of Delaware, I moved back home in the mid-90s, determined to catch up on a century of world cinema.  At the time, my film tastes ran in the direction of kitsch and exploitation.  The first indication that there was better, more nourishing, life was thanks to the advanced taste of my friend Ian Nagoski, a fellow fugitive from the University of Delaware, who introduced me to Jean Cocteau, Buster Keaton, Jean-Luc Godard and Felix the Cat (in that order).  The other cataclysmic event, in terms of my film education, was encountering Film As A Subversive Art by Amos Vogel.  I’ve no recollection how or when this book entered my life, whether I found it on my own or it was suggested to me; no memory of where I found it (the book had been out of print for over twenty years by the time I caught up with it) and yet, there it was:  this Chinese box of film history.  With no discernable beginning or end, it could be read front to back, back to front, middle to end, etc; far and away, the most energizing, entertaining and important film book I’ve ever read, probably ever will read, in its radical, impassioned, polemics and dialectically placed film frames; a labyrinthine trek through world cinema via one man’s visionary cosmology.  The book begged a lot of questions, not least of which:  who the hell is Amos Vogel?  At the time, I knew nothing of Cinema 16, the film society Amos and his wife Marcia founded in New York in 1947, or his pioneering work with the New York Film Festival and certainly nothing of his time in Philadelphia at the Annenberg School of Communications where, from 1973 until his retirement in 1991, he worked as a professor and lecturer.  Some of this back story came together when, for a brief period in the late 90s, I worked as an intern and teaching assistant at the Harvard Film Archive under John Gianvito, one of Amos’ most brilliant disciples.  At Harvard, I was given a set of Cinema 16’s program notes, some 1000 pages generated between 1947 – 63, by film scholar Gerald O’Grady who’d known Vogel personally for years (O’Grady famously helped hire Paul Sharits, Peter Kubelka, Woody and Steina Vesulka, Tony Conrad and Hollis Frampton to SUNY Buffalo’s Media Studies Department in the early 1970s).  With an archivist’s dedication to the small detail, O’Grady collected numerous documents and letters relating to Amos’ pioneering work in film exhibition, a generous sampling of which were later reprinted in Scott MacDonald’s superlative Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society (2002, Temple University Press).  These documents were a revelation on par with Film As A Subversive Art.  Their concise, erudite descriptions of hundreds of films ranging from the known (Rene Clair’s Paris qui dort) to the generally unknown (Melvin Van Peebles’s Three Pick Up Men For Herrick) to those soundly off the radar (Color Categorizing in Rhesus Monkeys) are the foundation of Amos’ later work as an author and critic.  The notes were prefaced with an introduction, “A Brief Summary—History of Cinema 16”, large sections of which I committed to memory and often referred to, quoted from and blatantly ripped off when courting audiences and funders to International House:

The philosophical base of the entire project constituted a break with the usual type of film society programming, a consuming passion to encompass the breadth and scope of one of the most exciting arts of the 20th Century.  Eclectic, pragmatic, wide-open, not prejudiced in favor of any particular tendency or school, the programming represented a conscious attempt to live up to a personal credo not limited to film:  “nothing human is alien to me.”  This is why a typical Cinema 16 program was so atypical, consisting at times of a number of unrelated shorts, at other times of shorts grouped around one subject area; or of features, with or without shorts; or of lectures, symposia, with or without films.  The films ranged from documentary, sociological to the wildly abstract or surrealist, encompassing along the way the scientific, the psychological, art, music, dance, politics and propaganda, satire and humor, Weltzschmerz, first films by young people, mature achievements by the masters, hand-painted films, micro-biology, synthetic sound experiments, variable screen, nonfiction and fiction.  The well-established was mixed with the untried, the meritorious at times rubbed shoulders with the misses.  There were the errors of daring for the new, a personal commitment to the films shown, so that, ultimately it could truthfully be said that we stood behind all the films we showed, the failures and errors included.  Without this commitment, without the know-how of what films of interest were being made where, without a modicum of personal taste, the venture could not of lasted one year.  These are lessons others may wish to ponder.

Looking back on my years at International House, I was filled with the delusional hope of  galvanizing audiences the same way Amos had.  If Vogel provided the template, the vicissitudes of work filled in the rest.  In so far as we are what we do and not what we think (no matter how rich and textured our ideas) aspiring to Amos’ high ideals allowed me, in some small sense of the word, to become, ipso facto, a “programmer”.

I first met Amos and Marcia Vogel in 2001, around the time my filmmaker friend Paul Cronin was making a short documentary on Cinema 16.  Outwardly, Amos and Marcia looked like a quaint, Old World, Jewish couple, something out of a Jules Feiffer    cartoon. . .  until Marcia told you her favorite movie was Glauber Rocha’s Antonio Das Mortes.  When Amos learned I was a programmer in Philadelphia, he was interested in hearing about his old colleagues and curious to know what became of the hundreds of 16mm prints he helped the school acquire over his many years teaching there.  With the assistance of Annenberg professors Paul Messaris and Larry Gross, the films were recovered from storage and cataloged (titles include Elliot Erwitt’s Beauty Knows No Pain, Scott Bartlett’s OFF/ON and multiple prints of Amos’s favorite film, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution).  In 2005, these films were donated to the Harvard Film Archive where they now reside as the Amos Vogel Annenberg School of Communications Collection.

In the process of moving the films, I discovered Amos once hosted a television show on WHYY titled Reel Philadelphia.  Running for five episodes between 1980 – 81, the program was a showcase for independently produced films from the Delaware Valley.  The first four installments appear to be lost, though I came across a tape of the final episode at Annenberg.  Airing the evening of February 12, 1981, it features early work by Scott Bracken, Peter Rose and Laurence Salzmann, each film preceded by a perceptive, wryly funny, introduction by Amos; none better than the one leading into the final film of the series, Punking Out, Maggi Carson and Juliusz Kossakowski’s 1978 documentary on CBGB’s.  The language and aggressively antagonistic tone of the film raised the hackles of WHYY who, apparently, demanded Amos read a disclaimer if he insisted on showing it after Song of Radauti, Salzmann’s documentary on the life of ancient Jews in a small Rumanian town:

If the film you’ve just seen is the record of a lifestyle and social reality that has largely disappeared; one wonders if the next film represents a lifestyle to come.  The contrasts could not be more severe. . . The punk rock movement, in my opinion, constitutes a rebellion on the part of some of our young, just like The Beats and The Hippies did, against the Establishment, parents, State.  As is true of any rebellion, it may be misguided, or more than justified.  Punk rock is an attempt to reintroduce color, excitement, theatricality into a mechanized world viewed as drab, alienated and corrupt. . . Before we see it, I’ve been asked to announce that in the opinion of this station this film may be unsuitable for children and offensive to some adults.  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.  Secondly, and more seriously, I’m convinced that the daily television bombardment of violence and murder, brutality and betrayals, game shows and commercials, is far more dangerous to kids than the film you are about to see.  In any case, I hope you can see that to prevent all of you from seeing this film, because it may be offensive to some of you, would be the worst possible solution. . .    

I’d see Amos and Marcia periodically over the next couple of years, helping to organize tributes to Cinema 16 around festival screenings of Paul Cronin’s Film As A Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and the Cinema 16  (http://vimeo.com/20313500).  When, in 2005, I moved to New York, visits to their Washington Square apartment became more frequent.  Marcia, convinced I was anemic, stuffed me with food.  Amos made kamikazes.  Conversations about film lead to longer discussions about world events and politics.  They’d regale me with stories of the Cinema 16—the baroque arrangements necessary for shuffling Marlon Brando into screenings or Marcia’s policy for letting the Mekas Brothers in for free since, in the early days of C16, they couldn’t afford the yearly subscription.  Equally fascinating were Amos and Marcia’s accounts of the political work they were involved with in the years just prior to Cinema 16.  They took great pains to explain to me the sharp divisions between Stalinist and Trotskyite intellectual circles in New York after the War (Amos was devotedly the latter; writing articles for The Militant and Fourth International under the alias Dan Shelton).  On some level, spending time with the Vogels was an attempt to reconcile my own confused Jewish upbringing.  For me, Amos embodied a long, incidental, line of Jewish skeptical thought, running from Maimonides to Spinoza to Marx to Freud, a tradition running counter to my own assimilated, middle class, background.  Their apartment, adorned with posters by the great German designer Hans Hillmann, was a warm, hospitable, place; a perfect reflection of the Vogel’s generosity of spirit.  What I found most endearing about Amos was his knowing, mirthful, humor; his complete lack of piety and pretension.  By the time I met up with him, he had the concomitance of a retired general; his greatest battles behind him, he savored the present moment above all else.  He’d proven, beyond any doubt, that cinema was the most vital and subversive art of his times; it was now up to future generations to fight for its continued relevance.

Author: Michael Chaiken

Michael Chaiken is a film programmer and archivist. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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