"Be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil in the machinery of the world"
- Guenther Eich
A gentle revolutionary who advocated artistic insubordination as a guarantor for freedom of imagination and the right to knowledge, Amos Vogelbaum died peacefully on Tuesday in his New York apartment. Born in Vienna in 1921, he fled to America in 1938 escaping the expanding cancer of German National Socialism and once in "the golden land of opportunities" found an Afro-American population subjected to what he thought was a similar treatment reserved to the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Vogel had initially intended to move to Israel but was appalled by the brutal occupation of Palestine which he thought was not going to solve the 'Jewish Question' and prolonged indefinitely his stay in New York City. There, unhappy with the local film culture, he decided to found a film society that would show the kind of films "You Cannot See Elsewhere", as its promotional materials read at the time. So Cinema 16 was born in 1947 running on a private membership scheme in order to avoid the bigotry of film censors and brought to US audience for the first time the likes of Alain Resnais, Roman Polanski, Georges Franju, Nagisa Oshima and other international 'outlaws'. Equally active on the indigenous scene, Vogel's cineclub advocated American independent cinema pushing filmmakers such as Shirley Clarke, Brian De Palma, Kenneth Anger and countless, obscurely vital, others.
In 1959 Cinema 16 premiered the second version of John Cassavetes Shadows paying the director, according to his biographer Ray Carney, "four or five times his usual amount."
Long before fashionable colleges started running unaffordable MAs in Curating, Vogel understood the dialectic potential of film programming and delivered some amongst the most audacious series ever conceived. Well aware of the dangers of repression and the hypocrisy of taboos, his programming spanned from Nazi Propaganda to pornography, from Surrealist films to Brasilian Cinema Novo, Czechs New Wave to Scientific films offering his "questioning audience" a wide spectrum of aesthetic possibilities.
"You don't like it? We'll show it again", that was the spirit animating the Austrian expat cinematic endeavor, defiantly opposing the degrading vice of 'making audiences happy'.
In 1974, after having founded and chaired the New York Film Festival until 1968, a decade after the demise of Cinema 16, Vogel published Film as a Subversive Art, his socio-aesthetic manifesto as well as a passionate compendium to the forbidden delights he had fought for.
In spite of hosting luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock, Cinema 16 was categorically ignored by the New York Times whose Film Department hacks were kindly invited to attend screenings but never showed up. But then again, Vogel was the ontological opposite of those who condescendingly comment upon what is safely accepted and normalized in (il)liberal fashion.
In 2005, in the preface of a re-edition of his book, Vogel wrote:
Contemporary America - a late capitalist colossus, owned by large corporations while parading as a democracy and dominated by rabid commercialism and consumerism - is attempting to dominate the world via transnationals, Hollywood cinema and television, the export of American cultural 'values,' the Disneyfication of the globe. It is not the dinosaurs and extra-terrestrials that the rest of the world ought to be afraid of, it is the commodification of all spheres of human existence, the seemingly unstoppable commercialization of human life and society, the growing international blight of the theme parks, the all-pervasive malling of the world. Our fate seems to be the homogenization of culture: an universal leveling down, an anesthetizing, pernicious blandness.
Till the very end Vogel believed in the crucial importance of "the revolutionary deeds of few individuals" as opposed to the democratic platitude of mediocrity for the advancement and progress of the arts, and consequently of society. As the news of his death started circulating the film community paid homage to the man and his lasting influence; it remains to be seen whether his fearless innovative spirit will be upheld by the fearful and calculative functionaries of the creative industry...
Once, reflecting on the end of his Cinema 16 which terminated its activities in 1963 due to financial difficulties, he simply observed: "all good things come to an end".
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