Arts Entertainments

How Amos Vogel changed American film culture

Few film books get a blurb from both an iconoclastic auteur and Variety magazine. “I have gone through the intense garden of your book with the inducement of a fruit longtime forbidden,” Luis Buñuel, a Spanish surrealist director, wrote of Amos Vogel’s “Film as a Subversive Art”. Hollywood’s industry publication proclaimed the book “the stuff of revolution”. Published in 1974, Vogel’s volume is a rigorous catalogue of rule-breaking, mind-expanding and sometimes outright censored works of cinema. Stanley Kubrick once said: “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” “Film as a Subversive Art” explored the medium’s outer limits.

Born in Vienna in 1921 to a Jewish family, Vogel fled Austria for America in 1938. After studying in Georgia and the New School for Social Research in New York, he turned his attention to showing movies that piqued his interest and, with his wife, in 1947 set up Cinema 16, a “film society for the adult moviegoer”. Vogel soon established himself as one of the most important curators of cinema in the 20th century and one of its essential thinkers. Cinema 16 became the defining American film society of the post-war era. It helped promulgate the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Nagisa Oshima and Agnès Varda. Though the club championed “films you cannot see elsewhere”, popular works were not verboten: Alfred Hitchcock presented a preview of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in 1956.

As 2021 marks the centenary of Vogel’s birth, the Austrian Film Museum has hosted a series dedicated to his life and work called “100 Years of Subversion”. Out of print for years, “Film as a Subversive Art” was recently republished in a new edition that faithfully reproduces Vogel’s encyclopedia and its glorious collection of film stills—a riot of exposed flesh, grim political violence, absurd slapstick and unnamable oddities hatched by avant-gardes, revolutionaries and eccentrics. (The book’s antic cover, a still from Dusan Makavejev’s tale of sexual liberation, “WR: Mysteries of the Organism”, is renowned among a certain breed of cinephile.) Vogel wrote short essays on more than 600 films in the book. Some of them have been screened in New York as part of the commemorations of his life.

Vogel’s interest in film went beyond titillation or whimsy: he was serious about the possibilities of cinema as an expression of human freedom. The book’s chapters include “The Attack on God: Blasphemy and Anti-Clericalism”, “The End of Sexual Taboos”, and “Expressionism: The Cinema of Unrest”. Vogel reflected on works including Peter Watkins’s Nixon-era satire “Punishment Park,” in which counterculture radicals are condemned by a tribunal to run for their lives in the desert; Stan Brakhage’s “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes”, an unblinking study of a morgue; and radical, anarchic dispatches from Yugoslavia, Brazil and beyond. Explicit nudity is rife in the book’s entries, from Constance Beeson’s lyrical celebrations of sexual pleasure, to assorted depictions of childbirth and Yoko Ono’s “Film No. 4” (it featured artists baring their buttocks and was rejected for screening at the Royal Albert Hall until 2017).

His descriptions made the experimental and outré works accessible, demonstrating new ways of seeing and arousing the reader’s curiosity. He called Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies”, a banned Czech film about two young women’s wild adventures, a “mad, stylist Dadaist comedy”, promising an “orgy of spectacular visual delights, sensuous decor, and magnificent colour experiments”. Vogel made it possible to flick from there to “Spain 68”, a documentary about student protests under Francisco Franco, and “Les Diaboliques”, a French horror-thriller. He mused about the effect of seeing another’s terrified eyes: “How simple it is to scare us!”

Vogel was not interested in outrage for outrage’s sake, however: he saw film as a tool of social progress. “The attack on the visual taboo and its elimination by open, unhindered display is profoundly subversive, for it strikes at prevailing morality and religion and thereby at law and order itself.” He loathed censorship and devoted pages of his book to analysing Nazi propaganda such as “The Eternal Jew”, and even exhibited the film at Cinema 16.

“If you’re looking for the origins of film culture in America, look no further than Amos Vogel,” Martin Scorsese has said. Vogel offered cinephiles alternatives to the ubiquitous Hollywood output. “Film as a Subversive Art” challenged the industry’s orthodoxies; his society broadened the horizons of American cinema-goers. When it closed in 1963, in part due to competing cinemas, Vogel co-founded the New York Film Festival, which became another major platform for international art house works. In 2005, seven years before he died, he imagined where film and the arts might be headed: towards “the homogenisation of culture: a universal levelling-down, an anaesthetising, pernicious blandness”.

In the current era of superhero blockbusters, remakes and reboots, some film fans would agree with his assessment. Though the movies are triumphs of production and marketing, they share a glassy sameness. Those in search of something more provocative need only turn the pages of Vogel’s book.

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