“The most important question – Where is the experimental film movement? – is the one which I wish someone could answer for me”, wrote Maya Deren in August 1946 to the filmmaker Frank Stauffacher who was preparing a program for the San Francisco Museum of Art called “Art in Cinema”. Deren, who was 29 at the time, was a reference because in 1943 she had already started showing the experimental films she made with Alexander Hammid to a select audience. A group of artists, gallerists and cineastes had already formed around the New York couple when Deren rented the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1946 in order to show her entire oeuvre so far. Several hundred audience members witnessed an event now considered to have been the dawn of the American experimental film movement. Among the audience were the newly-wed Jewish liberals Amos and Marcia Vogel. He had come to the US in 1939 from Austria after escaping the Nazis whereas she was born in New York. Recalling the evening later, Amos Vogel said that it had bowled him over. “The films were fantastic, the projection was excellent and the program notes were elaborate,” he said, clearly impressed by the seriousness of Deren's endeavor. Deren’s pioneering work in New York and Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema programs inspired the Vogels to create a permanent structure that would give experimental and non-commercial films more visibility. Cinema 16 was born and by renting the same Provincetown Playhouse, the Vogels were inscribing themselves consciously in the movement that had just begun. In November 1947, they started showing “outstanding documentary and sociological films of all nations, superior educational as well as experimental and avant-garde films” on 16mm projectors. Cinema 16 became the biggest and most significant film society in history and existed as a regular event for members and as a non-commercial distributor from 1947 to 1963. Amos Vogel (1921–2012) would have turned 100 this year and many are taking this as an occasion to honor this pioneer of independent film culture and the film club movement. So too does our program “The gatekeepers exist to be overthrown.” Amos Vogel – Repeats and Responses, which was additionally inspired by Arsenal’s friendship with the cineaste and his wife Marcia that dated back to the institution’s founding years in the mid-1960s.
The title refers to a comment Vogel made about himself in conversation with Bill Nichols in 1983. The two were discussing the break with the group of independent filmmakers who had formed the New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962, demarcating themselves from the establishment, to which for them Vogel’s Cinema 16, “a film society for the adult moviegoer”, belonged. In subsequent years, this conflict over different models of curating and educating about film and the passionate crusade of the cooperative’s spokespeople P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas for their own canon of New American Cinema intensified. But even after the dissolution of Cinema 16, Amos Vogel remained an authority to take on as the first director of the New York Film Festival founded in 1963 and an internationally acclaimed curator. Though at the time, Vogel was bitterly disappointed by the cooperative’s polemical need to distance itself – after all, Cinema 16 had been the “university” (Jonas Mekas) of many of the figures of the New American Cinema – he made it clear retrospectively, in his discussion with Nichols, that the younger generation’s rebellion against him had been justified: “The ‘gatekeeper’ – i.e. myself – is himself a historical product. He expresses not only himself, but also his time. […] I have a small stack of quotations that I live by. One of them is from Rosa Luxemburg, in which she says that the historical task of leadership is to make itself unnecessary. I like that a lot. It is probably applicable here in the sense that I feel that the gatekeepers exist to be overthrown.” (Amos Vogel)
Our program pays tribute to one of the most important figures of post-war cinema, taking Amos Vogel at his word precisely where his integrity is strongest, which is the ability to see himself in context. The first part is dedicated to Cinema 16, which Vogel understood as a collective emancipatory adventure. The second part will take place between 8th and 15th November. The program, curated by Tobias Hering, will continue into 2022.
Cinema 16 – At the beginning (23.9.) The program kicks off with works that give an impression of the cinematic environment in which Cinema 16 emerged. It presents works that already existed but were considered as unique and wondrous works, such as Willard Maas’ erotic study GEOGRAPHY OF THE BODY (USA 1943), Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s debut film, which conjures up the unconscious, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (USA 1943) and Douglass Crockwell‘s hand-painted cascades in GLENS FALLS SEQUENCE (USA 1946), alongside films that were in the process of being made such as IN THE STREET (Helen Levitt, James Agee, USA 1948), a tribute to the unquenchable thirst for life of children on the streets of New York, and others that were still only in the air but soon confirmed the hopes for a new and passionate cinema, Stan Brakhage’s group portrait of friends, filmed with a restless camera, DESISTFILM (USA 1954), and Jean Genet’s erotic prison fantasy UN CHANT D’AMOUR (F 1950), which became a cult film for this generation - and not only because it enraged the censors.
Films by Gregory Markopoulos (24.9.) In 1947, Amos Vogel began a long, regular correspondence with the experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, who at the time was only 20 and beginning to make his own films. His dense and intertwined early oeuvre combines erotic awakening, references to literature and his family environment in Toledo/Ohio, to create a very personal world that had a decisive influence on American experimental film. The correspondence was based on mutual respect but also reflected the differences between a curator who understood cinema as a social experiment and a filmmaker who wanted to preserve artistic independence but was also dependent on his films making money in order to earn a living. Cinema 16 became one of the first platforms for Markopoulos’ “visual poems” that inspired the following comment by Parker Tyler: “We should not forget: ‘amateur’ means ‘lover’”. Two programs comprise all of the films that Markopoulos made between the age of 18 and 24, including DU SANG, DE LA VOLUPTÉ ET DE LA MORT (USA 1947–48), consisting of the three films PSYCHE, LYSIS and CHARMIDES, which Vogel, despite Markopoulos’ insistence, never showed as a trilogy, and the incomplete and rarely screened THE DEAD ONES (1949), dedicated to Jean Cocteau. The program was put together by filmmaker Robert Beavers who is now the keeper of Gregory Markopoulos’ estate.
Films by Herbert Vesely (25.9.) One event of the Cinema 16 season of 1957 that particularly stood out was the US premiere of Herbert Vesely’s nicht mehr fliehen (FRG 1955), that heralded the New German Cinema which only few had yet dared dream of. The film was greeted with unanimous enthusiasm and Amos Vogel took the credit for introducing US audiences to what he thought was one of “the most outstanding experimental films of the post-war era”. Vesely’s tale of a couple fleeing across a post-apocalyptic landscape a la “Ground Zero” remains fascinating today and in Vogel’s eyes it combined what he possibly thought had been lost – the pre-war avant-garde drive for a new aesthetic - with an existential disquiet that he thought was appropriate for the post-war era. In the program notes that Vogel distributed to his audiences, Enno Patalas described it thus: “When life itself has become absurd, crime seems without consequence”. Herbert Vesely’s earlier short film based on a poem by Georg Trakl AN DIESEN ABENDEN (Austria, 1951) was screened one year later.
Repeat: “An Evening of Damned Films” (25.9.) Kenneth Anger, who at the time lived between Paris and California, was also one of many with whom Vogel corresponded from the outset about their early films in which he saw examples of new cinema and because Cinema 16 was supposed to be a platform for early encounters and wholesome shocks. With its celebration of the male body, Anger’s explosive FIREWORKS (USA 1948) is considered to be the first fictional US film with explicit homoerotic content. It was distributed by Amos Vogel and Cinema 16. "This flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July", Anger once said about the film, which was shown on April 8th 1953 to kick off “An Evening of Damned Films” that still represents an exquisite cinematic tour de force today. It was followed by Georges Franju’s ode to the slaughterhouse BLOOD OF THE BEASTS (F 1949) and Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s already classic horror film VAMPYR (G 1930/32), which was described in the program booklet as follows: "Both in the story and the style, Dreyer gives the feeling that there is a corpse in the next room." This could well have been one of the programs that Stan Brakhage once described as providing evidence for "the freakshow sensibility [Vogel] had about film."
Repeat: The Children’s Cinema #1 (26.9.) Vogel described Cinema 16 as a “film society for the adult moviegoer” but adulthood was not a question of age for him. Cinema 16 was a collective eruption that demanded all its participants to free themselves from the indebted immaturity of commercial cinema with the means of film. And the earlier, the better. So, it made sense that at the beginning of the 1950s, Vogel started searching for films that would be appropriate for his planned Cinema 16 Children’s Cinema program, reading specialist literature and corresponding with museums and education centers in the US and Canada. In 1958, he launched The Children’s Cinema – A Special Project of Cinema 16 with his co-curator Peretz Johnnes from the Museum of the City of New York. They helped themselves selectively to an established catalogue of films. "Most of the stuff that was considered good children's films we knocked out. We would take films that weren't considered children's films; we made them into children's films," remembered Vogel later. Big Cinema, Small Cinema, a program that Arsenal has been presenting since 2016, follows similar principles, and on September 26th #43 of the series will repeat the first edition of Cinema 16 Children’s Cinema, showing works by Lotte Reiniger, Charles and Ray Eames, Shirley Clarke, Len Lye and Buster Keaton.
DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN BUY (Hans Richter, USA 1947, 26.9.) Even if Amos Vogel did not use his emigration to define himself, other emigres such as Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim and Julius Bab played an important role in his life. Vogel also maintained a long correspondence and cooperation with the pioneer of experimental film Hans Richter, who directed the Institute of Film Technique at New York City College and was a mentor for budding experimental filmmakers. He was included on the impressive list of “sponsors” on Cinema 16’s letterhead from about 1950 onwards and he frequently introduced his films at Cinema 16 himself. On April 22nd, 1948, his arguably most famous film - DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN BUY – was the first feature-length film to be shown at Cinema 16. An omnibus project of prominent surrealists and artists such as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Darius Milhaud and Fernand Léger, the film reflects playfully and with self-irony the psychoanalytical tropes of commercial cinema: dreams, eros, the death drive.
“The censor always loses.” (Amos Vogel, New York Times, 1968) (27.9.) For their third film, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF A CAT (USA 1945), Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren documented the emergence of a new generation of cats in their New York flat. Filmed in naturalistic fashion, the birth of the kittens incited the censors to set an age restriction, which in turn vindicated Amos Vogel's crusade against bigotry in the cultural industry. He thought that a society in which sexuality, eroticism and procreation were considered obscene and censored while images of war and violence were considered to be entertaining was profoundly confused. The cat film became a favorite of Cinema 16 audiences and Vogel showed it repeatedly in different programs, including one about sexual education and also as part of Children’s Cinema. Our combination with Luis Buñuel‘s pseudo-documentary study of poverty LAS HURDES (Spain 1933) and James Broughton’s and Frank Stauffacher’s grotesque MOTHER’S DAY (USA 1948) is not original Cinema 16, but is inspired by the typical associations that Vogel made in his programming. In the former, the orphaned children and their poverty point an accusing finger at society and its cynicism. In the latter, adults act like children and play out the rebellious potential of a life not yet deformed.
Peter Weiss: The Beats and the Outs (28. & 29.9.) A letter from Arne Lindgren from the “Arbetsgruppen för Film Stockholm” first drew Amos Vogel’s attention to Peter Weiss in 1956. Vogel was immediately enthusiastic and showed Weiss’ erotic and hallucinatory sequence STUDIE II (HALLUCINATIONS) (Sweden 1952 | 28.9.) in the autumn program of the same year. “No doubt its honesty will offend some, and by the same token attract others," he wrote on the program. A long and intensive correspondence developed: Weiss would keep Vogel up to date about his projects, but also spoke about the precarious nature of his work and his sense of being isolated artistically. Vogel showed many of his films and also made prints for distribution. Though they talked about a visit by Weiss to New York, this never materialized.
Martin Grennberger has put together a program of five shorts and “sketches” by Weiss that includes his only color film Ateljéinteriör (The studio of Dr Faust) (S 1956 | 28.9.) and NARKOMANER (S 1961, 28.9.), a short portrait of a drug addict that Weiss described to Vogel as "the best stuff I made", which reflects the tensions, transitions and ambivalences in the director’s oeuvre. Two films that were important to Weiss will also be screened - Sidney Peterson’s THE LEAD SHOES (USA 1949 | 28.9.), a magnificent mélange of oedipal motifs, concave and convex distorted images and the contrapuntal use of “noise jazz”, and Jean-Claude Sée’s AUBE (F 1950/51, 28.9.), whose soundtrack of MUSIQUE CONCRÈTE composed by Pierre Henry inspired Weiss for STUDIE II. In his book AVANTGARDE FILM (1955), Weiss also writes that he loved the harsh contrasts between the playing children “enveloped, as it were, by electricity” and the war imagery “that cause one to cower in the rows of chairs and pull in one’s head”.
This book, which was first published in German only in 1995, shows Weiss to be a more informed connoisseur of the contemporary film world than his perceived isolation would suggest. Thus, he was also familiar with the fertile proximity of beat culture and experimental film on America’s West Coast and will have appreciated Vogel's decision to show his only feature-length film HÄGRINGEN (THE MIRAGE) (S 1959 | 9.29) as part of a double bill entitled "The Beats and the Outs" alongside THE FLOWER THIEF (Ron Rice, USA 1960, 29.9.), a tribute to Hollywood's unsung heroes, substitutes and "wild men." A remarkable exchange had previously developed around HÄGRINGEN, which also involved the film critic Parker Tyler, one of Vogel's closest collaborators. The story of a man who arrives in town from an unspecified foreign place and leaves after a series of brief encounters interspersed with absurdist elements intrigued Vogel and Tyler. Nevertheless, they urged Weiss to make drastic cuts, even providing him with a detailed cut list. It would seem that Weiss partially complied with these requests, although he had already showed the film in its present form in many places. At any rate, the version of HÄGRINGEN that was shown at Cinema 16 on April 25th, 1962 was 10 minutes shorter.
Repeat: “A Memorial Evening for Maya Deren” (30.9.) The first part of this tribute to Amos Vogel ends with films by Maya Deren. Even though the chronology of the events described above is thus upturned, this program somehow closes a circle. Maya Deren’s unexpected death in October 1961 shocked many and for some film historians it marks a turning point, with which the founding of the Film-Makers Cooperative (1962) and the dissolution of Cinema 16 (1963) are associated. For Amos and Marcia Vogel, Maya Deren’s death was a profoundly felt personal loss. In February 1962, Cinema 16 showed her oeuvre, from MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943) to THE VERY EYE OF NIGHT (1958), at a “A Memorial Evening for Maya Deren”. This program, which has long become canonical and remains captivating in its experimental gesture, will be repeated here in the non-chronological order assembled by Vogel, but it will be joined by Meditation on Violence (1948), a choreographic work developed to music by the composer Teiji Ito, Deren’s partner of many years. What is missing, as in 1962, is Deren's 1954 film DIVINE HORSEMEN – THE LIVING GODS OF HAITI.
We invite all those interested to take part in a discussion about the films of the previous days before this program. These one-hour “responses” will continue and will always begin with a brief introduction by an invited guest. On September 30th at 7 p.m., Masha Matzke will set the tone for this format by giving a comparative insight into the curatorial practices of Amos Vogel and Maya Deren. (th)
Thanks to Steven and Loring Vogel, Scott MacDonald, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Columbia University), Mary Huelsbeck (Wisconsin Historical Society), Azat Bilalutdinov, Erika and Ulrich Gregor, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen.
This program was made possible thanks to funding from Capital Cultural Fund (HKF).