Feb 25, 2013

Anthology Film Archives' “A Tribute to Amos Vogel and ‘Film as a Subversive Art’”

Curating Moving Images, Project 1: Assessment of Anthology Film Archives' Series “A Tribute to Amos Vogel and ‘Film as a Subversive Art’”
By Matt Prigge

Run by marrieds Amos and Marcia Vogel from 1947 to 1963, Cinema 16 was not the first cinema club, but it can be credited with birthing the rich film culture that exists in New York City – and elsewhere – today. The Vogels ran regular alternative programming that blended documentary, avant-garde and narrative, all for the delectation of a diverse audience hungry for art outside the mainstream. Today there is no single series exactly like it. But that’s because their work has splintered off in an untold number of directions. The motives that fueled the Vogels’ programming can be found, in some form, in every repertory house, from the regular programming at the Museum of the Modern Art to the micro-cinema of Williamsburg’s Sparkle, which screens digital copies in a small room. These ideas would include (but are not limited to): exposing audiences to work they wouldn’t normally see; exposing audiences to work they might not want to see; filling in gaps in knowledge; showing parts of the world the audience (and programmers) might never have access to; and, overall, challenging viewers – not just more conservative leanings but even progressive ones.

It’s natural, then, to curate a series of films based directly on the Vogels’ programming, one that cherry picks from the thousands of films screened over Cinema 16’s decade-and-a-half run. Two books (at least) offer easy guidance in this respect: Scott MacDonald’s “Cinema 16: Documents to a History of the Film Society” and Amos Vogel’s own “Film as a Subversive Art.” The MacDonald offers, first, an overview of the lifespan of Cinema 16, then endless details: letters written from Vogel to various print holders, interviews with key players and, perhaps most usefully, a complete, date-by-date run-down of every single screening, accompanied by the notes A. Vogel handed out at each screening. “Film as a Subversive Art,” first published in 1974, is a rundown of both the films the Vogels screened and ones they likely would have screened had it existed into the rich era of between Cinema 16’s demise and the date it was published. Organized by specific section (one on Eastern European cinema, one on homosexuality, etc.), it’s a cinephile’s bible, challenging the readers’ film knowledge while forcing them to read films through a socio-political lens.

Were one ever hard-up for curating, one could easily turn to either book and (were one being ethical) bill it as a tribute to both the Vogels and their pioneering curatorial skills as well as a bygone era of film watching. In fact, a great majority of the films listed in both are obscure and difficult to track down, having been forgotten by history despite being shown by two of cinema’s most hallowed cheerleaders. Of course, actually recreating the Cinema 16 experience is dodgy. Finding a space as large as the Central Needles Trades Auditorium, where the institution lived during its most popular era, would be difficult, given that the Cinema 16 wares today only appeal to an exclusive, if not élitist, crowd. Problematic, too, would be tracking down all the films even in a single program. The Vogels mixed up genres, and some of these films have fallen into obscurity, if not oblivion.

Curating a series dedicated to Cinema 16 would entail considerable, well, curating. It would almost require a purely subjective delve into history, the curator picking the films she or he would best represent not so much the Vogels’ – fairly impossible, given the sheer breadth of their repertoire – but the tastes of the curator doing the picking.

This is a roundabout way of bringing this report to “A Tribute to Amos Vogel and ‘Film as a Subversive Art,’” the series currently being screened, in chunks, at Anthology Film Archives. The curators are Anthology’s storied Jed Rapfogel and Michael Chaiken, a freelance curator who has worked for D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, and who had a long-running, acclaimed stint at International House in Philadelphia. Their program is a mix between a representation of the breadth of the Vogels’ programming and more subjective/personal selections. There is another Vogels program that will soon happen in New York City, at the Museum of the Moving Image. While this would normally mean some close collaboration, or perhaps even a rivalry, the two factions quickly established that they had radically different plans for the types of films they were going to choose. The curators at MoMI said they would lean more towards the mainstream: familiar classics that would (or may) attract crowds.

Chaiken and Rapfogel were thus free to go obscure. And they have. During a chat, Chaiken described to me that, with MoMI going with more mainstream Vogels fare, he and Rapfogel were free to go “off the beaten path.” Organizationally, the program hits on each of the sub-divisionary sections in “Film as a Subversive Art.” There is one on “Left and Revolutionary Cinema: The Third World,” one on “The Assault on Montage,” one on “Death,” one on “Erotic and Pornographic Cinema,” and so forth. However, very few of the films are known outside of tight cinephilic circles, and even then the ones that are “known” aren’t really terribly known. The biggest name film is rather big: “A Hard Day’s Night,” Richard Lester’s first film for a little-loved band called (re-checks notes) “The Beatles.” Vogel included the film in his chapter on “Counterculture and Avant-Garde.” After that the most famous is “W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism,” Dušan Makavejev’s playful, dense smutty, political surprise 1971 hit of radical Yugoslav cinema. It’s a film that’s available on the Criterion Collection, shown to college students (as in William Simon’s “Film Form/Film Sense” Cinema Studies M.A. class at NYU last term) and, at least in the last decade or so, popular among classic world cinema fans.

There is also Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution,” the director’s second film, which was a popular hit in its day but which is now slightly hard to find. (It is not on DVD or Blu-Ray, at least not in the United States.) Some people might also be familiar with “Marjoe,” Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s 1972 documentary about former child preacher Marjoe Gortner, who, upon getting older, set about exposing his former lifestyle. (Gortner then eked out a mildly successful acting career, popping up in the disaster film “Earthquake” and the low-rent 1976 film of H.G. Wells’ “The Food of the Gods.” But that’s another report.)

The rest of the series – 28 films spread over 19 individual programs – is barely known outside of “Film as a Subversive Art” and MacDonald’s “Cinema 16” book. Near his death in 2007, the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene became rather famous in the West. (“Moolade,” his swan song, about genital mutilation, was even recommended by Oprah Winfrey.) But Chaiken and Rapfogel chose from his work “Emitaï,” a rare 1971 effort about the evils of imperialism. (By contrast, Sembene’s “The Money Order” and “Xala” are fairly well-known.) It isn’t a film screened often, and neither is the film paired on a bill with the unfailingly popular “A Hard Day’s Night,” namely “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration,” a short by Jud Yalkut about a painter whose yen for pantheism and transcendence leads to a climactic on-film orgy. (There’s a subsect of humanity that enjoys both Richard Lester and group sex, and luckily they’re the type to patronize Anthology Film Archives.)

Of the two slots dedicated to the chapter “Homosexuality and Other Variants,” one night programs two Japanese films from the same period of varying popularity. Shûji Terayama’s notorious sex short “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” recently played during MoMA’s “Underground Japan” series, and also inspired the title to an album by Stereolab (who have a certain tendency to name songs and albums after avant-garde films; the name of their subsequent album, “Dots and Loops,” was inspired by two films by Norman McLaren, to cite one of many similar instances). On the same bill is “Violated Angels” by Kôji Wakamatsu, who only recently had a resurgence in the West (and this was before his death last fall). The most rare film in the series is, presumably, the one that bears the words “EXCEEDINGLY RARE SCREENING”: Jean-Daniel Pollet’s “Le Sang,” described in “Film as a Subversive Art” as an “apocalyptic vision of man after a cosmic catastrophe” and an “ambitious, almost completely successful example of visual cinema at its best.” Very little information on the film exists, at least in English, and its page on the Internet Movie Database (there is no Wiki page) is fairly useless.

The series is, as of this writing, still ongoing, and as with other epic series that Anthology puts on, it schedule is spread over a month-plus, with a sizable gap: the first half screened early February and it picks back up in early-to-mid March. I personally made it to only three of the bills, seeing four of the films. They were all, to me, arcane (or rather, I had read about them in “Subversive Art” but forgotten about them). Among these was “The Last Matthew Pascal,” Marcel L’Hubier’s 1925 French silent that adapts (allegedly bizarrely) a Pirandello story about a young man who, due to a bureaucratic error, finds his name has been switched with that of a dead man. I also caught a program that screened both “Living in a Reversed World,” an Austrian short science doc from the 1950s about a special pair of glasses that switches the direction of each eye, and Herbert Vesely’s “No More Fleeing” (1955), called by Vogel “one of the more important European avant-garde films of the post-war period.” Of similar magnitude is “Akran” (shown on the “Destruction of Plot and Narrative” slot), Richard Meyers’ avant-garde film that boils one man’s anxieties into a furious feature-length montage.

Getting the crass part out of the way: audiences were not strong for the first two, which could potentially be explained by the serendipity of being screened immediately after what was almost a major snowstorm in the city. (Several screenings around the city were cancelled, including a Kiarostami retro at the Lincoln Center and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge,” in a rare 35mm showing, at FIAF.) Only three or four people were at both “Matthew Pascal” and “No More Fleeing.” However, “Akran,” despite being screened at 9:15pm on a Monday, drew about 30 people, crammed into Anthology’s smaller theater. Anecdotally speaking, “Akran” may be today better known, as friends have mentioned it to me before.

Onto technical issues: there were some. “Matthew Pascal” was, as one of the Anthology employees told us, unable to be screened at its proper silent-film speed, which would likely be around 16- or 18fps. Instead, it had to be shown at 24fps, therefore we would burn through it faster. And so a film that is billed somewhere around 170 minutes was screened, with breaks for reel changes (it was a 16mm print, incidentally), in just over two hours. It’s unclear whether there was footage missing from this print, or if a 16- or 18fps film screened eight frames quicker really does make it that faster to show. (The film was just released in the U.S. on Blu-Ray/DVD, so a comparison could conceivably be made.)

Issues of fidelity to original intentions also cropped up in the program that boasted “Living in a Reversed World” and “No More Fleeing.” “Reversed World” was shown in an English dub, as it likely was when it played Cinema 16 (on 10 February 1959, on a night of award-winning scientific films). A bigger issue emerged with “No More Fleeing,” a German film, performed in a few languages, shown in a print without subtitles. This added to the film’s mystery, as it’s a purely abstract work about war, in which various people, who barely speak (or in fact may not speak at all), congregate together between battles. There is very little dialogue, and it’s all muffled German, so being unable to understand the languages lent to the film’s air of miscommunication.

However, this was not intentional. I spoke to Chaiken about the series, and he said that the “Fleeing” print simply showed up without subtitles. He was not informed of this fact by the archive that lent it out, and they did not know until the print had arrived shortly before exhibition. This pointed to the vagaries of film renting in the 21st century. Film renting is an imperfect art form, relying on communication between archives and places of exhibition. Strong communication leads to awareness of print faults (like a lack of subtitles), while less strong communication means one end does not inform the other of said print faults, should they exist.

According to Chaiken, a quarter of their Vogels came from the Anthology archives, a quarter were in “regular distribution” (i.e., were easily available from catalogs and the like). The remaining half they had to track down, detective-like. Even “Before the Revolution” proved a pickle to nab. The print they rented was from the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. However, Eastman is reluctant to lend out their 35mm prints, and don’t do it generally, according to Chaiken. They’re very strict: they require certification and a renting house must be of good standing. It makes sense: one doesn’t want to loan their priceless print, even if it’s a well-known Bertolucci film, to just anyone, lest they manhandle and possibly destroy it. In fact, Eastman was so slow to send out their print, for its first showing Anthology had to screen off of a Blu-Ray.

Even “A Hard Day’s Night” arrived by unusual means. The film’s current owners are loath to loan it out for repertory programs. It’s a popular film, and there’s money to be had; the last time a film print was widely shown was during a theatrical reissue in 2000. However, Rapfogel has good connections with the owners, and they agreed to make it available for the series.

The remaining prints came from all over the world. The Wakamatsu came from Japan, others from France and Italy. At least one of the films doesn’t have subtitles (that they know of, of course), and the country’s local embassy has agreed to loan out someone to help with “soft-titling” – the practice by which subtitles are projected onto the screen live, line by line, by someone who knows the language. Shipping of film prints is, predictably, expensive, in the area of $700. And that’s on top of rights fees, which can run in the neighborhood of $1,000. (And who runs the rights and who ships it out aren’t always the same person.) It’s no guarantee that Anthology will make back the money on each film. In fact, it’s a distinct impossibility.

I was unfortunately unable to get in contact with Jed Rapfogel before this report’s deadline to inquire how Anthology – like most repertory houses specializing in arcane films – makes its money when attendance isn’t always strong. I also would have liked to have inquired more into the promotion of such events. As stated earlier, the audience for films like “No More Fleeing” and even a silent film like “The Late Matthew Pascal” is low. But an audience exists, and these kinds of films could come back in vogue among younger audiences if they knew about them. Again, “Arkan” drew a decent crowd – albeit not one that would, after print and rights payments, likely turn a profit. The people who came to “Arkan” would have greatly enjoyed “No More Fleeing” as well, as the latter is the kind of proto-avant-garde film that led to the former.

Anthology, to their credit, tried. The Vogels’ name is enough that the series was written up, intelligently and intriguingly, in The New York Times, The Village Voice and other places where there exists smart film writing. (In fact, because I had been ignoring NYC’s repertory scene due to my insane grad school/work schedule – so I don’t know what I’m missing and therefore feel less terrible about missing rare screenings – I first heard about the series while idly reading Dennis Lim’s profile of it in The New York Times.) These pieces contextualized the series and identified certain films as must-sees, while spreading intrigue about the rest. Anthology’s website, too, is (mostly) clean and helpful. Using Vogel’s writing from “Film as a Subversive Art” is perhaps a touch questionable: as argued earlier, his writing is intriguing and poetic and philosophical, but not always descriptive. It would appeal to people on Vogel’s wavelength (e.g., yours truly), but not everyone. True, not everyone would enjoy this series, but there are surely a number of people who would who might not yet be aware of Vogel and might not want to take their chance on a vague description. It might have been advisable to attract newbies by offering a blunt description followed by Vogel’s writing, or some such mishmash. (Then again, not all avant-garde films can be succinctly summarized.)

Some technical defects aside, the series is an exciting one, not only because it’s culled from the Vogels’ rich programming history, but also because it’s been so subjectively culled from same. The decision to show obscurities, even among those who treasure obscurities, is one that may result – and has – in slim audience numbers, but it’s a boon to those who are adventurous enough to plunk down money not knowing, precisely, what one will get. And one doesn’t always know: the program notes are very minimalist, mostly just a copy-and-paste from Vogel’s writing in “Film as a Subversive Art.” These passages are evocative, entrancing, even poetic and philosophical. But they aren’t always descriptive, and one wanders in more with a feel for the tone than the content that will soon be flickering in front of them. I probably don’t need to go too into the pleasures of seeing film projected on film, but it’s a double treat, in this age of DCP (or DVDs projected on a big screen, as happened during a print mess-up during the Lincoln Center’s Kiarostami retro), to see a film that’s both rare and shown in its original form. It’s not cheap, but for the viewer at least, it’s worth it.

Anthology Film Archives. “A Tribute to Amos Vogel and ‘Film as a Subversive Art.’” Web. http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/40458
Chaiken, Michael. Interview.
MacDonald, Scott. “Cinema 16: Documents to a History of the Film Society.” 2002. Temple University Press.
Vogel, Amos. “Film as a Subversive Art.” 1972. Weidenfeld & Nicholson and Random House.

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