Book Review
By Ray Young




Film as a Subversive Art

A new edition of the classic book by Amos Vogel

with a foreword by Scott MacDonald

334 pages, illustrated; Distributed Art Publishers, softcover, $25.00


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    When it was published in 1974, Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art carried its own dissident view that tested the mores of the day. Nudity and genital close-ups (taboo in an era still smarting from Playboy magazine) peppered the movie stills scattered throughout, and it’s more than likely that these visuals—and not Vogel’s words on eroticism and pornography—diverted the volume away from rural and suburban bookstores and libraries to cities and progressive college towns. Ironically, the power of the image over the written word plays an important part in Vogel’s thesis. If my memory is correct, these ‘offensive’ pages had been torn from the copy at our suburban public library back in the 70’s. Whether it was a case of their censorship or a patron’s zealous Puritanism (or horniness) is anyone’s guess.
    It was regarded as essential reading in its time, during America’s age of cinematic enlightenment. Although there were some writers in the 40’s and 50’s—Otis Ferguson and James Agee in particular—who were aware of the cinema’s potential, the mid-60’s witnessed a significant turning point as both mainstream and noncommercial film fell under the scrutiny of a new flock of educated and investigative minds. Most importantly, the films that they discussed were also being shown: museums, film societies, universities, public television, cinematheques, a plethora of ‘art’ and revival houses, and even a few neighborhood theatres joined in. The collective spirit was palpable and intoxicating…and irretrievably diminished in the 80’s by the introverted nature of home video.

John Lennon and Amos Vogel, c.1967 (click to enlarge). Lennon’s film, Apotheosis (1970) includes “a beautifully romantic, purely visual metaphor of spiritual ascension.”
    As founder of the country’s first experimental film society, Cinema 16 (the ‘16’ referring to 16mm) in the late 1940’s, Amos Vogel forged the promotion and exhibition of the avant-garde and underground. After it folded in 1968, he founded the Lincoln Center Film Department (now the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and was co-founder of the New York Film Festival. As chief programmer there, he again used it as a forum for artists and films that would’ve otherwise remained unknown and unseen.
    Intending Film as a Subversive Art to profile the “accelerating world-wide trend toward a more liberated cinema, in which subjects and forms hitherto considered unthinkable or forbidden are boldly explored,” Vogel seized the opportunity to introduce these unfamiliar films and filmmakers to a broader audience than the societies and festivals could ever reach. Though a few who worked outside of conventional guidelines had established their own followings (notably Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage), Vogel offered equal time to just about anyone whose films provided instances of truth and wisdom while subverting linear narrative structure and the limitations imposed by time and space—“a cinema of experience rather than entertainment” derived from “the subversion of consciousness.”
    Without updating or modifying the original text, its attitudes and intentions are fixed in the period. In recognizing “a stylistic, thematic, technological, and ideological liberation of film from nineteenth-century art,” Vogel believed ideally that “Everywhere the trend is away from illustrated literature and simplistic realism towards a freer, more poetic, visually oriented cinema. Realistic narrative structures, clearly defined plots and characters are increasingly displaced by visual ambiguity, poetic complexity, and restless improvisation.” This written when Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were within ten years of their most lauded work; and Luis Buñuel, John Cassavetes, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dusan Makavejev continued to challenge forms with each new picture.
    Emerging from the stifling conformity of the 1950’s, Vogel savored the liberation of art and intellect from the Hollywood and European mainstream, and writes with both passion and wisdom. He crafts an effective and revelatory case for time, structure, mores and morals as manmade conceits that block or deter the creative process. In chapters broken down by themes pertaining to the subversion of form and content, onto forbidden subject matter and anticipated trends for the future, it’s an indispensable and provocative guide through a branch of the cinema rarely discussed any longer.