Feb 25, 2013

'Film as a Subversive Art' Tribute at Anthology Film Archives and Spectacle Theater

It has been almost a year since the death of Amos Vogel on April 24, 2012.  In this time there has been a critical reevaluation of his work and legacy, particularly of the seminal film society Cinema 16 and Vogel's book Film as a Subversive Art.  Whereas before his death those in the New York film scene were more or less content with allowing Vogel's enterprise to remain a footnote in the history of the avant-garde in America, now these same circles are championing the man as a central figure who single-handedly introduced a vocabulary of the experimental, the avant-garde, and the alternative to a shocked and awed mid-century audience.  In Vogel's New York Times obituary, Martin Scorsese is quoted saying, "If you're looking for the origins of film culture in America, look no further than Amos Vogel," and "Amos opened the doors to every possibility in film viewing, film exhibition, film curating, film appreciation.[1]"  These statements are undoubtedly true—Cinema 16 did indeed foster a community of film appreciation that contributed significantly to the subsequent growth of alternative cinema in America after 1947—but they also mark the thread of discourse that runs through all of the critical reassessments that have appeared in the last year; from newspaper articles such as the NYT obituary, to Scott Macdonald's Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society, to various film retrospectives at Spectacle, Anthology Film Archives, and the Museum of the Moving Image—all based around Amos Vogel's landmark Film as a Subversive Art.  Vogel deserves all of the posthumous credit he is now getting, of course, but the look backwards to the Cinema 16 legacy comes at a very interesting and arguably crucial time for alternative cinema practice in New York that probably has more to do ultimately with the current situation than it does with a genuine renewed interest in the past. 

            The avant-garde cinema that was the hallmark of the 1950's and 60's has collapsed in on itself, becoming institutionalized in the process.  The independent cinema of the 1990's has been co-opted by the machinations of Hollywood and has essentially become just another arm of the major studio industry.  Meanwhile, the rise of the Internet has allowed filmmakers to distribute directly to a greater and greater extent, almost eliminating the need to theatrically screen new unknown works entirely.  Hollywood, despite some decline in viewership, retains its hegemonic position and will do so into the foreseeable future.  Against this backdrop, New York alternative theaters are scrambling to remain relevant to even those audiences who have traditionally been the backbone of art film appreciation: well-educated, film literate, culturally conscious, young, artistic. To try to hold their ground, these theaters have divided up into one of two general positions.  Interestingly, although implicitly they are opposed to one another, both positions seek to use the Cinema 16 legacy and discourse to legitimate their own agendas.

            The first position is exemplified by many of the film institutions that have throughout their history existed as the centers of film life in New York—Film Forum, Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, Anthology Film Archives, among others.  This position—the establishment position—places film within a historical/material context that celebrates the work of national cinemas, artistic movements, and auteurist filmmaking.  By programming retrospectives and thematic series, often with input from film academics and famous filmmakers, these establishments create a sense of coherence within film history and legitimate themselves as its guardians.  Meanwhile, the second position is for the most part held by so called "microcinemas"—Union Docs, Light Industry, Nitehawk, Spectacle—out in Brooklyn, existing on the periphery of the territory staked out by the established film centers residing in Manhattan.  These theaters are small-scale, usually community oriented enterprises that typically screen contemporary film work or older works that have been thus far neglected by the large establishments and appeal to the tastes of minority interests.  The microcinema position understands film within a broader cultural context, and thus the screenings often focus on the political/social aspects of a work rather than its cinematic value in and of itself.  Of course, these positions are not fixed or absolute and there can be and is considerable slippage between them—but in general it is useful to conceptualize contemporary exhibition practices in this way.  Tellingly, two separate programs dedicated to Amos Vogel taking place simultaneously at Anthology Film Archives and Spectacle highlight how the two positions legitimate themselves as the true inheritors of the Cinema 16 legacy. 

            "A Tribute to Amos Vogel and 'Film as a Subversive Art'" is the retrospective currently playing at Anthology Film Archives from February 6 to March 14.  Anthology conceptualizes its program as follows: "To honor Amos and this singular work, Anthology is pleased to present an extensive film series featuring more than two dozen works discussed in FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART.  Organized to reflect the structure of the book, with films chosen to represent particular chapters, this program brings together a hugely varied and eclectic collection of works, the majority of them unscreened in NYC for many years.  Taken together, they demonstrate not only the riches that lie within Vogel's book, but the extraordinary potential of the cinema, especially in the hands of truly visionary, vanguard artists.[2]"  The series began with W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism by Dušan Makavejev (1971) followed immediately by Rene Clair's Entre'acte (1924).  To invert the regular practice of screening the shorter film first seemed initially to be an odd curatorial choice, but as Bradley Eros, filmmaker and theater manager of Anthology explained during his introduction, the choice is meant to reflect the structure of Vogel's book, whose front cover features an image from Mysteries of the Organism and whose back portrays a scene from Entre'acte.  The screening took place in the 72 seat Maya Deren theater—about a quarter of which was filled.  The audience was more or less evenly divided between hip-looking young people in small groups and an older crowd of either couples or solitary males.  Both films were prints—at one point the sound slipped out of sync with the image during Mysteries of the Organism, and the projectionist had to cut the film for about a minute while he fixed the problem.  Otherwise, the screening ran smoothly and the films looked and sounded great.  Although Anthology's Invisible Cinema no longer exists, the theater is set up in a way that allows near-total isolation—the chairs are deep, tall and inclined at a slight angle towards the screen, the décor is primarily black in order to minimize peripheral distractions—and lets you fully submerge in the viewing experience.  For Anthology—and this holds true for the others of the establishment position as well—it is apparent that presentation and the physical experience of viewing a film is a key aspect of their identity.     

Maya Deren Theater

Maya Deren Theater, Anthology Film Archives

                  At first glance, it may seem ironic that Anthology is holding a retrospective in honor of Amos Vogel because of the long and well-documented history between the two that contained not a small bit of animosity.  Jonas Mekas was an avid Cinema 16 disciple for a considerable period of time before starting his own film collective that explicitly repudiated the Cinema 16 model and Amos Vogel as its leader.  Mekas saw Vogel as something of a despot who controlled and selected films based on his own standards of taste; Mekas wanted a way for the avant-garde to screen whatever it made without prior approval.  Of course, this practice has over time created its own canon that as much reflects Anthology's taste as did Cinema 16's reflected Vogels—perhaps even more so, because Vogel dedicated his work to an eclecticism that Mekas and others around him disdained.  Now, Mekas' institution is celebrating the very same work that Vogel championed, but in important ways has changed the terms to fit their own structure: instead of programming the series in the Cinema 16 model of multiple and diverse shorts along with features, the series devotes itself primarily to feature-length films that value individual artists and themes more than coherence over a select group of works.  By doing this Anthology create categories and frames that repudiate the Cinema 16 structure while simultaneously absorbing the content of the films into their own history and legitimacy.   

            The series taking place at Spectacle is a monthly screening hosted by New Inquiry, a website dedicated to "discussion that aspires to enrich cultural and public life by putting all available resources—both digital and material—toward the promotion and exploration of ideas."  Curated by New Inquiry editor Willie Osterweil, each program revolves around one chapter of Vogel's Film as a Subversive Art; the January program of which was based around the section Straining Towards the Limits.  This program consisted of four short films—H20 by Ralph Steiner (1929), The Secret Cinema by Paul Bartel (1968), N.Y., N.Y. by Francis Thompson (1957), and Razor Blades by Paul Sharits (1969).  The program began with an introduction by Osterweil on the significance of the Vogel legacy followed by a short cycle of in-house produced trailers for other upcoming films at Spectacle, some of which were new works and others that were rare old films.  Unlike Anthology, which showed its films on print, the films shown at Spectacle were all off of DVDs. It is important to note also that the specific film titles were not revealed until the screening started; the program information on the Spectacle website only hinted at what would be shown via an embedded video trailer.[3]  This oversight was intentional; Osterweil mentioned that they were not allowed to advertise the program because of copyright issues.  The legality of their screening is then questionable, but the reality of running an exhibition space with a low overhead is that rentals and prints are prohibitively expensive, especially for hard to find or rarely screened work.  This sort of thing resides in a grey area, then, that established venues like Anthology do not have to deal with because they have the funds and the reputation to access a much greater range of film.  Physically, Spectacle is a very small space, consisting of a bare brick-walled room with about 20 seats total.  Whereas in Anthology the Maya Deren theater was enveloped in darkness as soon as the program began, the light of the screen in the Spectacle theater illuminated the audience throughout the show, creating a situation where the viewer's awareness is split between the film itself and the presence of the other audience members.  Unlike Anthology, where the audience was relatively diverse, the Spectacle audience was almost exclusively young people.  Couples rested their heads on each other shoulders, a considerable number of people brought in beers or sipped surreptitiously from flasks, and no one was over thirty-five.  The presentation ran smoothly, and if there was a desire for real film prints, it was tempered by the realization of the inhibiting cost that screening film prints would entail for such a small-scale theater.  Despite being a no-frills exhibition with nothing of the quality associated with the established Manhattan cinemas, the Spectacle screening had an energy and an excitement for cinema that the more well-known and well-presented theaters sometimes lack.

Spectacle Theater

            Two quotes neatly emphasize the difference in conceptualization of Amos Vogel and his legacy at Spectacle and Anthology; as Evan Calder Williams writes about Film as a Subversive Art in his New Inquiry obituary for Vogel, "It was, is, and will be, one of the most crucial books written about, as he puts it, "the evolution from taboo into freedom."  Provided we understand evolution as a less a one-way street than a many-headed rotunda, then the book is precisely about this.  It is so because it doesn't flee into general ontologies of cinema.  It doesn't merely rewatch Bresson or Murnau or any other of the forever-fêted and make claims about what it is that "The Cinema" "does."  Instead, it sifts through all that has been put on film around the world that does not line up with what cinema was supposed to have been about and rewrites the story from there.[4]"  Meanwhile, in his article on the Anthology retrospective, Dennis Lim of the New York Times writes that ""Film as a Subversive Art" shares this energy and eclecticism.  It encompasses revolutionary form and content: hundreds of titles from various genres and periods, grouped under loose themes (surrealism, minimalism, nudity, blasphemy) and accompanied by a generous selection of often graphic film stills.[5]"  The first quote focuses on the revolutionary ideas behind Cinema 16 and Film as a Subversive Art; the second understands Vogel's significance through the book's material form and content as it relates to film appreciation and culture. 

            Spectacle—and by extension the rest of those occupying the microcinema position—sees itself as the inheritor of the Vogel legacy because it identifies with the Cinema 16 model of presenting film outside of mainstream viewing practices that are eclectic, challenging, and politically oriented.  Anthology and those who take the establishment position claim the legacy of Cinema 16 because they want to preserve a sense of film history that can neatly categorize and make legible to the viewing audience.  In some ways it all boils down to economics of scale: in order to continue their existence and influence, the big institutions like Anthology have to create and maintain film canons that will consistently draw an audience.  Thus they must find ways to incorporate things like Cinema 16 and Amos Vogel into the overarching narrative that they have already constructed.  Microcinemas such as Spectacle don't need to cover as many operational costs, so they can afford to screen less generally appealing, more challenging works.  This gives microcinemas a measure of freedom in programming akin to that of Cinema 16, but also limits their audience and overall scope.  In short, the microcinema position seeks to embody the spirit of Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, while the establishment position wants to inherit its history. 

              All of this is not to say that one position is the inherent better of the other.  While the establishment position has become somewhat entrenched in its role as gatekeeper to film appreciation, it does provide the invaluable service of keeping alive the history of cinema and does so with a high standard of presentation and curation.  The microcinema position sacrifices much in order to retain a sort of outsider's cachet and limits itself to an audience who is already 'in the know.'  Both positions seek to inherit the Cinema 16 legacy, and both have legitimate claims.  However, they are only partial inheritors, and neither has fully taken on the role of the proverbial gadfly to the mainstream cinema horse.  A true heir to Cinema 16 would be an enterprise that combines a sense of cinematic history with an appreciation of contemporary moving image culture in a way that would inspire a new understanding of what cinema can do and can mean in the 21st century.      


[1] Weber, Bruce. "Amos Vogel, Champion of Films, Dies at 91." New York Times. New York Times, 28 Apr. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/movies/amos-vogel-new-york-film-festival-director-dies-at-91.html>.

[2] "A TRIBUTE TO AMOS VOGEL AND 'FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART'." Anthology Film Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/40458>.

[3] "FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART: JANUARY 2013 EDITION." Spectacle Theater. N.p., 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <http://spectacletheater.com/film-as-a-subversive-art-january-2013-edition>.

[4] Williams, Evan Calder. "And It Is Once Again the Cinema That Is Most Capable of Wreaking This Metaphysical, Seditious Havoc." The New Inquiry. N.p., 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/s-a-o-b/and-it-is-once-again-the-cinema-that-is-most-capable-of-wreaking-this-metaphysical-seditious-havoc/>.

[5] Lim, Dennis. "An Eye for the Radical Perspective." New York Times 1 Feb. 2013: n. pag. New York Times. Web. 22 Feb. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/movies/tribute-to-amos-vogel-at-anthology-film-archives.html>.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.