Film as Subversive Art

By Scott MacDonald

amos-vogel-werner-herzog.jpgWerner Herzog and Amos Vogel

Amos Vogel’s essential book on cinema and its importance to the human condition is finally back in print

In a sense, Amos Vogel’s Film As a Subversive Art (1974) was a final report on his efforts on behalf of independent cinema at Cinema 16, the film society he and his wife Marcia founded in 1947. Vogel presented New York City film enthusiasts with regular programmes of independent films, chosen and arranged dialectically so as to foreground the distinctiveness of the individual films, while creating a ‘meta-film’ that would spark sustained thinking about cinema and its function in society. His commitment to a particularly wide range of independent cinema and determination to find and screen what conventional audiences would find challenging quickly required Cinema 16 to become a private membership organisation so as to avoid the then-stringent New York State censorship laws.

During the seventeen years that he ran Cinema 16, Vogel developed a habit of making notes on each film he saw and filing these notes so they could be accessed later on – a necessary procedure so that he could intelligently select the few dozen films there was time to present during a particular exhibition season. This made Film as a Subversive Art possible. Vogel wrote the book during the early 1970s, using a general procedure reminiscent of his programming. This required him to select those films that seemed most significant as subversions of conventional expectation and then organise them into a coherent ongoing experience.

Whereas most scholarly books adhere to a form that has become nearly as conventional as the various genres of conventional cinema, Film as a Subversive Art employs a highly unusual organisation. Each chapter begins with a brief theoretical consideration of a particular dimension of film’s capacity for subverting personal and societal complacency, and is followed by a series of brief comments on a set of films, chosen and arranged in more or less alphabetical order so as to reveal the considerable variety of ways in which a filmmaker can deal with this particular kind of cinematic subversion. Each chapter is profusely illustrated with imagery from the films, and each image includes a brief but informative and analytical caption.

amos-vogel-john-lennon.jpgAmos Vogel and John Lennon 

Ultimately, the purpose of the unusual form of Film as a Subversive Art is to demonstrate how cinema, and especially cinema scholarship, should function in the world. Vogel’s organisation makes clear that the function of written film theory/criticism is to deliver the reader back to cinema, to the complexities of accomplished individual films, and to the social experience of film-going. He is not primarily interested in compiling information about particular films or in assembling theoretical conjectures about cinema; he is interested in engaging readers/viewers so thoroughly that they will seek out or, even better, will create opportunities for enjoying those moving-image experiences that can help us to live more completely, to know the world more thoroughly, and to function as more responsible citizens of humanity.

A new edition of Film as a Subversive Art could not have come at a more appropriate moment. For one thing, while many of the films described and illustrated are reasonably familiar, at least to aficionados of independent cinema, a good many others will be as new to contemporary filmgoers as they were to Cinema 16 audiences. And since new moving-image technologies have been making the older 16mm technology (thus Cinema 16) an increasingly endangered species, Vogel’s descriptions and imagery may provide a valuable wakeup call for those determined to see the most interesting independent work on this stock safely to the next generation. It was Vogel’s original mission to provide accomplished films with audiences and vice versa; my hope is that the re-publication of Film as a Subversive Art will help to revive this mission.

Equally important, the exhibition scene for independent film, especially for forms of cinema that subvert convention, has nearly disappeared. A few museums in major cities make a range of inventive programming available to an ill-informed public, and a network of ‘micro-cinemas’ has evolved to provide opportunities for some independent filmmakers to tour with their work. But for the most part, there is little energy around alternative cinema; it is as if we are waiting for a new Vogel to appear on the scene and instigate a revival of serious moving-image spectatorship. There is no new Vogel as yet, but the reappearance of his book gives this eternal optimist hope that the original Vogel, as he is expressed in his remarkable volume, may – once again – be able to instigate a new recognition of how entertaining and informative, and transformative, the public experience of the full range of cinema can be.

Film as a Subversive Art is published by C.T Editions. Vertigo will be involved in the London launch of this essential work at Curzon Soho, co-hosting a screening and discussion on 9th October 2005.

Scott MacDonald is the author of Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002) among other important publications.