When people ask me how I can be optimistic now about the possibilities for progressive politics or for subversive art, I have a saying: ‘I have more confidence in my enemies than I have in my friends.’ I’m convinced that my enemies will continue to do the most outrageously repressive things and therefore will again, inevitably, evoke a revolt on the part of those who are being kept out or kept down artificially and by force. The power of the artistic impulse that creates what we call the avant-garde cannot be overcome; it will always rise again.
Photo: Amos Vogel & Alexander Horwath, 1993. Viennale/Austrian Film Museum
Amos in Wonderland
In April 2012, when Amos Vogel died at the age of 91, his New York Times obituary stated a plain fact: “He exerted an influence on the history of film that few other non-filmmakers can claim.” A quote from Martin Scorsese followed: “The man was a giant.” The attempt to do full justice to such a man on the centenary of his birth is bound to fail in an equally gigantic manner. The only thing we can hope to achieve with this film selection is to evoke some shades of Amos — of his legacy as a curator, writer, founder and teacher of cinema culture — and to follow his example: select only from the best, but avoid bureaucratism.
Named after a social critic and prophet of the 8th century, Amos Vogel(baum) was born into a progressive Jewish family in Vienna. He grew up in the legendary decade of “Red Vienna” and went to high school during Austro-Fascism and the National Socialist “Anschluss” of Austria in 1938. He loved movies and books, but his plan to be a literary writer would remain unfulfilled when, for reasons of survival, he became a teenage exile in New York.
In the fall of 1947, still a student at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research, Vogel and his wife Marcia founded Cinema 16 – “a film society for the adult moviegoer“, showing “films you cannot see elsewhere” and programming them in category-defying combinations. Cinema 16 circumvented the rules of censorship and of commercial film exhibition, and – with a membership base that would soon grow to 7 000 – renewed the promise of the film club movement in interwar Europe. It became a central intelligence agency for the blossoming of North American film culture during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1963, Vogel closed Cinema 16, wrote a children’s book, and became the co-founder and co-director of the New York Film Festival. But by the end of the 60s, his ideas about what a film festival could (and shouldn’t) be were no longer compatible with the big-money, middle-brow, small-minded culture that reigned at Lincoln Center. Vogel turned to teaching and began to conceive a book for adult readers. He would hold his position as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania longer than any in his career (1973–91) – and the book, Film as a Subversive Art (1974), proved to be one of the most iconic (and iconographically inviting) film publications of all time. Both activities extended his lifelong gesture of fearlessly sharing and showing what he had seen and understood, which was, most of all: the power of art & cinema, and their limits in the face of history.
We first met Amos in 1993. He had returned to Vienna to give a speech whose title could be translated as “A call for wariness” or “A plea for suspicion”. He was a skeptic and an anti-dogmatic socialist; a deeply rational man who celebrated the semi-hypnotic, irrational forces of cinema; a modernist who rejoiced in the pre-modern concept of the Wunderkammer where “art” and “curiosities” are not yet separated. Our tribute to him hopes to summon this spirit – and some of the spirits that haunted and soothed him. We are not duplicating his programs, but Amos showed or wrote about more than half of the films we selected. There’s an introductory element to each show (courtesy of Paul Cronin) and only one feature film – a stand-in for many that could have taken its place (by Buñuel, Herzog, Chytilová or Garrel). As in Amos’ own programs, there is a lot of confrontation and animation, and science, and sex. And since he always tried to stay abreast of current production, there are also recent films by artists too young to have entered his field of vision.
There was always a tinge of Aby Warburg in Vogel's approach: the art historian's serious games of visual memory and cultural association live on in the younger man's relation to movies. This program, too, may be viewed as a "Mnemosyne atlas" in memory of Amos Vogel.
Alexander Horwath & Regina Schlagnitweit
Alexander Horwath, *1964 in Vienna (Austria), is a writer and curator and the former director of the Vienna International Film Festival (1992-97) and the Austrian Film Museum (2002-2017). He has published books on subjects such as film curatorship, 1960s and 70s American cinema, avant-garde film, Josef von Sternberg, Ruth Beckermann, and edited the German re-issue of Amos Vogel's Film as a Subversive Art. He is a board member of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and teaches film history at the Vienna Film Academy.
Regina Schlagnitweit, *1964 in Linz (Austria), is a freelance curator, writer and editor of books and catalogues. MA in Musicology, with a thesis on Max Steiner and Hollywood film music of the 1930s and 40s. She has worked on the casting and as an assistant director for Richard Linklater, Egon Humer, Karin Berger and Peter Ily Huemer. From 2002 to 2018 she was Head of the Program Department at the Austrian Film Museum.
The retrospective will travel to Filmoteca Española, Cineteca Madrid and Filmoteca de Catalunya.
A somewhat situationist take on New York City where Amos Vogel, exiled from his fatherland and his mother tongue, found a new home and more than one new language. In the Street introduces the idea: “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer”. At the end of the show, a post-apocalyptic shooter game looks at Manhattan in the rearview mirror, from Jane Jacobs’ urban activism to Donald Trump’s island of the rich.
Vogel’s interest in modernity extended far beyond the realm of art and culture. He was an avid reader of political and social theory and followed debates in the natural sciences. His own “theory of relativity” and “uncertainty principle”, however, were based as much on personal/historical experience as on the books he devoured. He felt that the “smallest”, most private, and the “largest”, most public phenomena were intertwined in complex ways and cautioned against the hierarchies that we usually erect between them. The cinema is no different: epics and ephemera, acts of poetry and of bearing witness, the trivial and the sublime – they all inhabit the same space and can quickly trade places.
It’s safe to assume that the global success of Film as a Subversive Art was partly due to the (counter-) cultural shifts of the 1960s. Vogel’s book resonated with recent notions of social and sexual liberation, but it also gave them a historical and aesthetic perspective: the cinema should not just “propagate” rebellious forces and figures like – in our case – Otto Mühl (the Viennese Actionist), Abbie Hoffman (co-founder of the Yippies) or Wilhelm Reich (the original Freudo-Marxist and theorist of the sexual revolution). It must become a force in its own right and liberate itself from the shackles of audiovisual, narrative and spatio-temporal propriety.
The title of the program is a quote from Franz Cižek, a pioneer in art education for children. The boy Amos, whose mother was a progressive educator herself and worked with Alfred Adler at the height of “Red Vienna’s” school reform, thoroughly enjoyed Cižek’s courses. And he would dedicate major parts of his own adult life to the art-pedagogical impulse. It was pedagogy with a twist, of course, as this selection of films hopes to indicate: “The only good education, the only true education is subversive. It’s the only way you’re gonna learn anything.” (Abbie Hoffman)
“Secrets and Revelations” is a chapter heading in Vogel’s book; it shows an atheist fascinated by the irrational, animistic powers of the movie theater where “the only absolutely modern mystery is being celebrated” (André Breton). The “Musical” aspect, however, is ours: an attempt to display seven magnificent works of cinema like a songbook. Operatic and gay, this roundelay is also possessed by spirits and blessed by improbable harmony; it marries scientific and surrealist imagery and finds a home where all homelands are lost.
At Cinema 16, Vogel loved to bring agitation, animation and avant-garde aspiration into close contact, with some academic respectability always thrown into the mix. The films would question each other and the expectations of their audience. A seemingly stable universe of values, power relations and systems of knowledge could quickly tumble and turn. Secret formulas for re-viewing the world from the inside and outside would be proposed. Yes, this civilization may capsize and sink. If we nevertheless do not despair of it, it is because its own desperate situation fills us with hope.