Feb 5, 2017

Tickled Pink by Cinema 16 Screening

On February 1, 2017, I attended the “Amos Vogel and Cinema 16” screening at NYU. The films in the program were selected by Scott MacDonald, the author of our Cinema 16 textbook, and he spoke before and after the films were screened.

The program consisted of six short films, all of which were shown on 16mm. The first film, Arne Sucksdoff’s A Divided World (1948) is a nature film showing the predator/prey relationships between a variety of animals in a snowy forest. This was followed by Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animation Allegretto (1936), and then Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947), avant-garde film that MacDonald described as being controversial for its time due to its homoerotic imagery, but is not as shocking by today’s standards. In the middle of the program was Weegee’s New York (1948), a fascinating amateur version of a city symphony film shot by Weegee, a patron of Cinema 16, and edited by Amos Vogel. Rounding out the program were Stan Brakhage’s experimental short Loving (1957) and another abstract animated work, Robert Breer’s A Man and His Dog Out For Air (1957).

In his introduction to the program, MacDonald spoke of Amos Vogel and the history of Cinema 16, as well as Vogel’s curating style. Vogel tended to program a variety of different genres of films in his programs, often juxtaposing shorts that were very different in style, tone, theme, and content. MacDonald discussed the influence of Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of film editing on Vogel’s programming: there should be a “collision” between the different films in the program. If an audience sees too many similar films in a row, the individual works do not stand out as much and may blend together. By screening wildly different animations, documentaries, scientific films, and avant-garde works in the same program, Vogel thought each piece would be distinct and more memorable. In this sense, I felt like Vogel’s programming sensibilities worked. When I left the screening, I could recall significant details about each of the films shown. Each was unique and different, and stuck out in its own way.

I had seen none of the shorts in the program prior to this screening, so each was a new experience for me. Overall, it was a very enjoyable program and each film intrigued me in its own distinct way. The film that I was most fascinated by was Weegee’s New York.  With its kaleidoscopic imagery of Night York City at night time, including bright colors, and subjects that were out of focus more often than not, this film has a visual style all its own. The story of Weegee and Amos Vogel working together on it is also fascinating, since Weegee liked to shoot, but had no interest in assembling his footage until Vogel approached him. It is difficult in this film to tell where Vogel’s aesthetic takes over and where Weegee’s vision emerges. It was an interesting centerpiece in a program about Vogel’s curating practices to include a film he made with one of his patrons.

One critique I have about the show, and a question I would like to open up to the class, is that two of the prints shown (Allegretto and Loving) exhibited severe color fading. I understand that these may have been the only prints available, or the only ones within the budget for the screening, but it felt like an irresponsible decision to show them. In the case of “Loving”, the color on the film was so badly faded to magenta that the entire film looked as if it were tinted pink. Even MacDonald noted in the Q&A that, “Brakhage would be appalled” by the appearance of the print. While I appreciate that I was able to see all of these works on 16mm, as they would have been shown at Cinema 16, I questioned the decision to show deteriorating prints. If the only prints of these films available were that severely color faded, I may have preferred seeing a video or digital copy of the work. 16mm film has its own aesthetic, that I generally greatly enjoy, but a color faded print presents a version of the film that is fundamentally dissimilar to the artist’s original work. Showing a DVD version of Loving, while disrupting the 16mm-centric theme of the show, would have at least allowed for the opportunity to see a more chromatically accurate version of the work. The question I pose to the class is this: Is it a better curatorial decision to show a deteriorating print of a work on its native format, or use a video or digital surrogate?

--Savannah Campbell

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