Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16

April 21–May 5, 2005

Film societies must remain at least one step ahead of their audiences and must not permit themselves to be pulled down to the level of the lowest common denominator in the audience, a very easy, common and dangerous occurrence in the mass media.

It is a catastrophic fallacy to assume that running a film society involves nothing more than an idealistic concern with good films, coupled with their lackadaisical presentation to willing audiences. On the contrary, the individual brave enough to venture into this troublesome field must be, no matter what the size of audience, an organizer, promoter, publicist and copywriter, businessman, public speaker and artist. A conscientious if not pedantic person versed in mass psychology. He must have roots in his community, and he must know a good film when he sees it.

– Amos Vogel

I originally intended to approach the 48th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), and this report, with a focus on “just the films, ma’am”. Armchair analysis of the programming team’s selection process or the festival’s approach to exhibition is rarely much more than speculation conducted in a vacuum of ignorance about the real economic, aesthetic, and logistical issues involved in staging a film festival today. But when I heard the voice of Amos Vogel speak the above words over a montage of New Yorkers passing through public spaces in the documentary Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (Paul Cronin, 2003) I was struck that, by deciding to show a documentary about the life and work of one of America’s most legendary film programmers, the SFIFF was inviting festival attendees to measure its success against Vogel’s criteria. And now is a particularly opportune time for evaluation of the festival and its role in film culture, as it is now a festival without an Executive Director. Roxanne Messina Captor, who essentially also filled the role of Artistic Director when Peter Scarlet departed in 2001, was revealed to have stepped down in a news item published a week after the festival ended (1). Captor became a magnet for any disparaging comments local cinephiles might make about the directions the festival seemed to be taking (especially if one looked primarily at the first few pages of the festival program; her influence was assumed to be particularly evident in selections of Gala screenings like Laws of Attraction [Peter Howitt, 2004], which closed the 2004 festival.) It is now in the hands of the Film Society’s board to find someone who can nimbly maintain the aspects of the festival that work while pushing it in new directions that serve the community. They would be wise to use Vogel’s words as a basis for the job description.

As Cronin’s film succinctly, almost poetically, informs, Amos Vogel escaped his native Vienna in 1938 to land in New York City, where by 1947 he had founded Cinema 16, a film club that soon boasted 6,000 members. Vogel was filling several niches left open by the quirks of distribution in the United States at that time: most notably, documentaries were rarely screened outside of classroom settings, and avant-garde films were nearly impossible to see anywhere. His programs of short films were guided by what Scott MacDonald calls a “dialectic sensibility” (2) that expanded the meanings of each film by positioning it next to a wildly different one. His first program, at the Provincetown Playhouse where Vogel had seen Maya Deren screen her films, consisted of a dance film, a documentary on primate behaviour, an avant-garde film, and two animations, one polemical and one abstract (3).

Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 details the rise of this first great American film society through interviews (with Vogel and his wife Marcia, as well as his collaborator Jack Goelman), through videoclips of notable films shown there, such as censorship targets The Private Life of a Cat (Alexander Hammid, 1944) and The Eternal Jew (Fritz Hippler, 1940), and through a Vogel-led tour of his archives, programs and workspace. At one point Vogel lingers on a super-enlarged photograph of a fly on his desk. The image encapsulates twin feats that have drawn him to film: the incredible creations of nature, and the incredible technologies humans have invented to record it. These two wonders can also be seen to represent the two main subgroups among Cinema 16’s membership: the documentary enthusiasts who saw in the society a means of educating themselves to the world around them, and the avant-garde crowd that sought to discover the limits of what the cinematic medium is able to achieve. Cronin’s film does not concentrate on this schism which eventually helped to bring an end to Vogel’s club in 1963 (4), but rather sustains an air of nostalgia and optimism for the possibility of others carrying on with Vogel’s important work in the current century.

Vogel went on to found the New York Film Festival in 1967 and publish the seminal text Film as a Subversive Art in 1974. He used both of these platforms to champion, among others, an emerging filmmaker named Werner Herzog. The NYFF showed his Signs of Life (1968) in its second year, and Film as a Subversive Art (the book) contained write-ups of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) in its “Subversion of Form” section, Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) in “Subversion of Content” and Fata Morgana (1971) in its final section, “Towards a New Consciousness”. In 2005, Herzog has already brought two new films to North America, and the SFIFF managed to secure a screening of The White Diamond (2004) on “a really big screen”: the Castro Theatre’s. Now, this act in itself is not without some controversy, not over the film (which I’ll get to) but over the venue. Last fall, the Castro’s ownership stirred up the local film-loving community when it abruptly fired its programmer Anita Monga, the woman who had guided the largest fully calendared movie house in the United States through the last 17 years of exhibition. Almost immediately there were protests, a boycott, and calls for local film festivals to pull out of the theatre (which at least one, the hugely successful Noir City, did). The SFIFF did not, though it attempted to mitigate this by awarding Monga the Mel Novikoff Award for “enhancing the film-going public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema”. The award, named after Monga’s mentor, has previously been given to luminaries such as Manny Farber, Enno Patalas, Pauline Kael and Cahiers du Cinéma. Monga accepted it at the Palace of Fine Arts alongside a screening of her choice: Touchez pas au grisbi (Jacques Becker, 1954).

The White Diamond

Back to The White Diamond. It’s another one of Herzog’s wonderfully “impure” documentaries, a full-frontal assault on cinéma vérité, and rich with its own cinematic truths. Documentaries must have a subject, and this one’s is an aeronautics engineer named Dr Graham Dorrington, a Bellerophon with an untested Pegasus in the form of a two-man blimp designed to float gently over the rainforest canopy. Fulfilling his directorial duty as a driver of the narrative rather than a detached observer, Herzog brings Dorrington and the airship to the jungles of Guyana, where at first the film feels like another of his quests to capture new and unseen visions for our age of “worn-out images” (5). But after sending his camera into a cave hidden beneath the colossal Kaieteur waterfall, Herzog is convinced by a local that the footage he has captured must never be shown or described to anyone. He evidently responds to the idea that knowledge of a place one has not seen for one’s self can strip that place of its inherent power. It will be fascinating to see if Herzog’s assimilation of this concept is momentary, or if it will influence the direction subsequent films take, as it seemingly represents a complete turnaround for a man who has expressed a need to “dig like an archaeologist and search our violated landscape to find anything new.” (6)

And so Herzog shifts his camera’s gaze onto Mark Anthony and Red Man, a Rastafarian porter and his pet rooster. Mark Anthony sees the possibility of taking a ride in the blowfish-shaped dirigible as a potential means of connecting to his long-lost family. It’s joyful to watch his reaction as he takes his place in the seat of the vehicle with anticipation. Herzog’s camera is constantly capturing such reactions to its presence. Whether it’s Dorrington observing a flock of swifts that can fly effortlessly where he cannot, or a frog repositioning its body just out of sight as it crawls around a tree branch, every character in Herzog’s film is constantly communicating his level of interest in being part of the project.

It’s a project that, like so many others I saw, was possible only through developments in digital video. Herzog has resisted the idea of making his films on video, (7) but how else but through HD video can one capture crisp, bright images of a rainforest from aboard an aircraft so small and weight-sensitive that one gets liftoff from emptying a single water bottle onto the ground? At one point Herzog exclaims “in celluloid we trust”, a cry which conveys the lack of faith he has in the new technology he holds in his hands. The White Diamond’s European release was facilitated by a simultaneous satellite projection in 182 theatres across eight countries. Much has already been written about the new avenues opening to makers of motion pictures by the increasing availability of cheaper, smaller, and higher-quality digital video cameras and projectors, but let my experience at the SFIFF this year serve as yet more data in support of this trend.

The contingent of six Malaysian films invited by programming consultant Roger Garcia is as good a place as any to find the data. What Amos Vogel might think of the fierce competition for premieres between festivals these days I do not know, but it is a reality. It’s certainly one approach to the challenge of staying one step ahead of an audience. In programming this “special focus on Malaysia” the festival is exploiting at least two current quirks of distribution. One, very few Malaysian films have ever been shown on San Francisco screens. Two, because of a governmental rule enforcing windows between the releases of locally produced films, there is now a backlog of completed films awaiting unveilings in the multiplexes of Kuala Lumpur and Penang (8). This is why Monday Morning Glory (Woo Ming Jin, 2005) was screened as a World Premiere at the festival, while four other films were North American premieres. The odd one out was Princess of Mount Ledang (Saw Teong Hin, 2004), Malaysia’s submission to the Oscars as a potential Best Foreign-Language Film nominee, and by far the least interesting of the six films. A conventional retelling of popular Malay legend, Princess of Mount Ledang approaches its leads with so much reverence through its TV-commercial camera angles and aimlessly swelling musical score that it molds them into wax figures suitable for a hall of national heroes rather than characters a viewer can become emotionally interested in.

The Gravel Road

The five premiering films were made using digital video cameras, and are far more adventurous in spirit. Sepet (Yasmin Ahmad, 2004) is the first Malaysian film to focus on a romance between an ethnic Malay and a member of the country’s Chinese minority. Monday Morning Glory follows the routine of a group of terrorists planning a Bali-style bombing, crosscut with an interrogation and re-enactment staged for journalists by police captors the day after the attack. The Gravel Road (Deepak Kumaran Menon, 2005), a period piece about a family living on a rubber estate, is the first Tamil-language feature made in Malaysia. Inspired by the Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray, 1955–59) in its naturalism and use of nonprofessional actors, the film centres around the conflicting ambitions of the family’s daughters; one on a path toward attending university, the other ready for marriage. Deepak Menon is also an animator, and his master shots reveal a very good eye for image composition. Any faults his guerrilla filmmaking approach is unable to conceal (for example, a young cast member who disappeared from the shoot, and therefore from the family, unexplained) are overcome by the uncomplicated sincerity of the script.

The remaining two Malaysian films screened were the most unconventional of the set. Both were directed by the leading Malay name on the international festival circuit, Amir Muhammad, and played together on one program. The Year of Living Vicariously (2005) is at once a document of the activity behind the scenes of the production of the most expensive Indonesian film to date, Gie (Riri Riza, 2005), and an attempt by a Malaysian filmmaker (Amir) to advance his understanding of the enormous country cradling Malaysia on the East, West and South. Using a split screen to simultaneously show images shot at two different times and/or places, Amir not only gives us twice as deep of a peek inside the making of Riza’s politically-oriented epic, but also sets up many humorous juxtapositions and visual assonances. Timecodes attached to each image indicates that he spent about three months with the cast and crew, and in the footage from the last few weeks he asks his interviewees to recite their favourite Indonesian legends, each one told more entertainingly in a few seconds than Princess of Mount Ledang did in any of its 142 minutes. Tokyo Magic Hour (Amir Muhammad, 2005) is even more experimental, as it laces a voiceover of rhymed couplets and a gurgling electronic score (composed by the versatile Hardesh Singh, who provided the Indian classical music on the soundtrack to The Gravel Road) into images shot in Tokyo, Japan and manipulated by Amir using Final Cut Pro effects to varying degrees of abstraction in tribute to avant-garde heroes like James Benning and Stan Brakhage.

Amos Vogel is strongly associated with the 16mm films he named his club after, but he is in disagreement with those who argue against showing video works on the grounds that they are not “pure cinema”. He has said, “If you want to build audiences, you have to include the best videos.” (9) The issue is not addressed in Cronin’s documentary, other than the tacit approval of DV intrinsic to a film made using such technology. I must admit that in past editions of the SFIFF I have sometimes avoided screenings if I knew beforehand that they would be utilising digital projection. This year, however, I made my second home in the Kabuki’s smallish Theatre 3, which showed more video work than any other festival screen. It’s where I saw the world premiere of Life in a Box (Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, 2005), an unconventional tour diary of a very unconventional country duo called Y’all. Singer-songwriters Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Jay Byrd had already embarked on a two-year road trip when a fan gave them a videocamera to record their travels through rural America in a trailer nicknamed “the Box”, and the performances they staged in small-town coffee shops and Unitarian churches.

Life in a Box

Life in a Box shows the musical partnership of Y’all, performing and recording songs from the revival-esque “Are You on the Top 40 of Your Lord” to the sweet “My Man, Our Horses, And Me”. In detailing the duo’s everyday life on the road, however, it becomes a documentary about Jay and Steven’s partnership as a loving couple. Things get really interesting when we are shown how the couple transform into a triple as the two fall in love with another traveler named Roger in the deserts of Joshua Tree. Roger sells his van and joins Y’all’s life in “the Box”. Immediately we see how the arrangement has brought a new richness to all three men’s lives, but struggle is just around the corner. We are shown many very intimate moments, and perhaps the most uncomfortably heart-wrenching is footage of Jay and Steven inviting Roger into their musical life as well, only to find that his sense of rhythm is nowhere near the standard Y’all had spent almost a decade perfecting. The scene lasts for several minutes, the camera in the corner of the room capturing Jay’s very vocal frustration, Steven’s frustration with Jay’s handling of the situation, and Roger’s palpable disappointment.

I can’t help but wonder why such a well-made film with such great music and intense human drama was rejected by other festivals. Perhaps red-state festivals like Sundance and South By Southwest fear that a film that has polyamory (though the word is never used) as a major theme might be too much of a hot potato this year, while so many are fighting so hard for gay marriage. If the SFIFF programmers considered the potential controversy, I applaud them for presenting the film (10) and letting the audience make up its own mind. Life in a Box certainly doesn’t make a three-person relationship seem glamorous; rather it looks incredibly hard and perhaps inevitably unworkable. But with conservative pundits so often raising it as the next step in some kind of slippery slope this country is heading down if it allows gay marriage, it seems to me that it’s precisely the right time to show a film that lets us grapple with our feelings about polyamorous relationships. Especially at a festival that is also premiering Pursuit of Equality (Geoff Callan and Mike Shaw, 2005), a digital documentary cheerleading for S.F. mayor Gavin Newsom and the 3,900 same-sex couples who got married in this city during one month of 2004.

It’s no surprise that many of the most unusual or daring films were precisely the ones utilising digital video one way or another, if for no other reason than economics. Jenni Olson’s beautiful meditation on life and suicide in San Francisco, The Joy of Life (2005), is a collection of static images shot on 16mm conjoined to a riveting voiceover read by Harriet “Harry” Dodge. Olson, emotionally overwhelmed after her film’s hometown premiere, explained to the audience that she’d edited the film by hand and apologised for showing it as a video transfer. She then told us the cost of striking an exhibition print and hoped the funds might “fall from the sky.” The S.F. Cinémathèque’s 11th annual “ritual if not a habit” of co-presenting a program of recent avant-garde work at the festival broke a tradition by being mostly projected digitally. Entitled “Count Down: Nine Experimental Shorts”, the program included videos Shape Shift (Scott Stark, 2004), Play (Matthias Muller and Christoph Girardet, 2003) and Trace Elements (Gunvor Grundel Nelson, 2003) but only one 16mm projection, Jim Trainor’s hilarious animated dissection of anthropomorphism Harmony (2004). Even Sally Potter’s latest, Yes (2004), though projected in a 35mm print on its way to an arthouse release, was shot in Super-16mm and digitally colour-graded. A star like Joan Allen, who was bestowed with the festival’s annual acting award before the screening, is apparently not enough for a politically-charged romance spoken entirely in rhymed verse to attract sufficient investment to be shot in 35mm. The thing is, you’d be hard pressed to notice the difference. Would Amos Vogel consider Yes to be a subversive film?

When considering the new opportunities for subversion digital video advances have offered to filmmakers, film industries and film festivals around the globe, it is important to remember one of video’s most serious drawbacks. Image preservationists do not consider video to be a viable archival format. Until a standard method of preserving motion pictures digitally is widely accepted (11), film stock will remain the best preservation medium. Perhaps the best thing about film is access. Tens of thousands of movie theatres around the world can all project the same reels. Which brings me to one final film, a counter-example to all the digitally reliant films I saw at the festival this year. Into the Picture Scroll: the Tale of Yaminaka Tokiwa (Sumiko Haneda, 2004) is a 35 millimetre-wide bridge across time and space to 17th century Japan and an artist named Matabei Iwasa. Iwasa is acknowledged as the painter behind the 12-part picture scroll known as Yaminaka Tokiwa, which tells the story of Lady Towika and her son Ushiwaka-maru. Picture scrolls, early examples of sequential art that predate manga and anime in Japan by over 1000 years, are extraordinarily valuable national treasures, though this particular one was nearly sold away from Japan in 1928 before it came to the MOA Museum of Art in Atami. Veteran director Sumiko Haneda’s determination to make a film out of the scroll is an ingenious way to bring the unique beauty of the artform to global audiences.

Into the Picture Scroll: the Tale of Yaminaka Tokiwa

The only film I’ve seen with which I can make a useful comparison to Into the Picture Scroll is the Charles and Ray Eames short The Black Ships (1970), which used contemporaneous Japanese painting to illustrate the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry to the archipelago in 1853. But the paintings used by the Eameses represent an accumulation of support for the story they want to tell, and no painting is shown for more than a few seconds. Haneda is no such tease, as she proves that a film utterly devoted to another artistic medium can sometimes be extremely cinematic. To a soundtrack of a joruri narration and vigorous shamisen accompaniment (which for my unaccustomed ears evoked the sound of a benshi narration of a silent film), each scroll is carefully unrolled and photographed in extremely close detail. The camera moves viewers through the world of the scroll in an almost entrancing rhythm, though we are occasionally drawn back out again by landscape shots reminding us of the context of Iwasa’s creation. We follow Lady Towika on a journey to visit her son, abruptly cut short by an attack by bandits. The gory climax of the son’s vengeance in the tenth scroll is breathtaking, and predicts the most blood-drenched images found in manga, chambara, and even the films of Takashi Miike (12). For the denouement of the final two scrolls Iwasa’s paintings become extremely elaborate, creating a truly eye-popping effect on the screen. A screening of Haneda’s film could not replace the experience of actually watching the unrolling of a centuries-old picture scroll, but it’s by far the closest most of us can imagine being able to come to doing so. I’m glad for the San Francisco International Film Festival’s role in providing the opportunity, and hope for many similarly precious program selections in its future.

Endnotes

  1. Ruthe Stein, “S.F. film fest director steps down; even some board members startled; Search launched for replacement of controversial figure”, San Francisco Chronicle, May 13, 2004.
  2. Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, p. 13.
  3. The films, respectively, were Lamentation (Harmon Foundation, 1943), Monkey into Man (Stuart Legg, 1938), the Potted Psalm (James Broughton & Sidney Peterson, 1946), Boundarylines (Philip Strapp, 1945) and Glens Falls Sequence (Douglas Crockwell, 1946). MacDonald, p. 14.
  4. Many factors contributed to Cinema 16’s end, but it seems it was mainly that other presentation outlets recognised the markets that its popularity had uncovered. Therefore, television stations in New York began showing more documentaries, theatres sprang up that were unafraid to show difficult or “risqué” imports, and Jonas Mekas’ New American Cinema group rose up as a second centre of independent and avant-garde film in New York, as detailed in MacDonald, pp. 31–33.
  5. I first heard Herzog speak of “adequate imagery” and “worn-out images” in his audio commentary for the Anchor Bay DVD edition of Fata Morgana. But he also goes into detail in a book edited by the director of Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16, Paul Cronin: Herzog on Herzog, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, pp. 65–67.
  6. Cronin, p. 67.
  7. Cronin, p. 277.
  8. The festival hosted a seminar entitled “Malaysian Cinema: a New Independence?” in which Garcia and four Malaysian filmmakers discussed trends in the Malaysian film industry.
  9. MacDonald, p. 39.
  10. And piping the soundtrack CD into the Kabuki Theatre bathrooms during the festival.
  11. There may be some coalescence around the JPEG2000 format advocated by the Dance Heritage Coalition’s report Digital Video Preservation Reformatting Project, Dance Heritage Coalition, 2004, pp. 99–103.
  12. Miike, incidentally, was the only other Japanese director featured in this year’s festival, with two midnight movies, The Box (2004) and Izo (2004).

About The Author

Brian Darr has previously written on Japanese cinema for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and for his own blog Hell On Frisco Bay.