Marcia [Diener] Vogel was an equal partner in the founding of Cinema 16, and she remained an active partner throughout the film society’s existence. She advised and assisted Amos in all areas of Cinema 16′s operation, but her “specialities” included managing the film society’s finances and audience relations. When members were angry about films, she was often the first person they approached. Scott MacDonald spoke with Marcia Vogel in January 1985. This interview was published in Wide Angle (1997). Here and here for details of Scott MacDonald’s book about Cinema 16.
Some years ago when I interviewed Karen Cooper, she said that two of the main inspirations for her Film Forum were “Amos and Marcia Vogel.” Usually Cinema 16 is credited to Amos.
Amos mentioned that you were interested in the feminist angle. Several years ago, some young women (Karen Cooper was one of them) got interested in Cinema 16, and came to me and said, “How come it’s Amos’s Cinema 16, and not Amos and Marcia’s?” They were ready to pounce. Of course, it made me think about how come it wasn’t in both our names. And my first thought is that Amos definitely always considered us a partnership. He always wanted me to be involved. It was me who didn’t want it, who felt too shy, too insecure, and never thought that I could make a good impression like he could wherever he went. And that makes me think, how come I felt like that? Part of it is definitely that I was comfortable in the role that women usually played: I was the person who helped the main breadwinner in the family pursue his career. It never occurred to me that it should be any other way. For the reason for that, I’d have to go back into my early life.
I guess the real question is how important your role was at Cinema 16.
I had an important role. But I never needed or wanted public recognition. First of all, Cinema 16 was Amos’s idea. I didn’t have as much confidence in the idea as he did. When we had that first big problem with the snowstorm and didn’t have any more money, and everybody said, “You should chuck the whole thing,” it was Amos who was determined. I remember we were up all night that night, not sleeping, going to the penny arcades on 42nd Street (Amos loved to play those penny arcades; they were very relaxing for him). He didn’t want to accept the idea that we might have to stop showing films, because he cared so much about it. In the morning, he said, “Let’s see if we can’t find some other way to make it work.”
What was your role once things got going?
When the operation was very small, and Cinema 16 first became a membership organization, both of us together did all the clerical work. But all the creative stuff, the ideas about what to do, were his. The practical stuff was mine. And I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way. I think Amos tends to be more interested in creative things, in ideology, than in the practicalities of life. He was not born in this country, so I had a little more New York know-how. That was where I could contribute. So at first we did just about everything together. However, as Cinema 16 grew, more of the administrative stuff became my responsibility. Also, I did a lot of behind-the-scenes public relations work.
What sorts of things do you mean?
Getting the press interested, arranging press screenings. I can’t remember all the specifics, but knowing myself and the work I do now, I understand what I must have done then, too.
What work do you do now [Marcia Vogel retired in 1987]?
I’m the director of the New York City Foster Grandparent Program, which hires low income elderly to be surrogate grandparents to needy children who are abandoned, retarded, abused, or neglected. It’s a very worthwhile program that serves to help both these groups – children in need of love and individual attention and older people who need to be needed and have much love to give. I also previewed many of the movies. At first, I really did not appreciate or understand the avant-garde films. But I learned to appreciate many of them and to see their value. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know about good movies, but at first this far-out stuff that Amos appreciated was too much for me. Amos and Jack Goelman sometimes joked that if I had been a member of the general public, I would never have joined Cinema 16!
When you were previewing films, did you and Amos then talk together and decide on programs?
Amos and I always discussed programming together, but decisions about which films to show were made basically by Amos and Jack. Since my time did not permit me to preview everything, I was not part of the final decisions. When Amos and Jack were unsure, my advice was always sought and welcomed. My opinions and my ideas on how to handle problems were also welcomed, but not always accepted, which was sometimes a source of complaint on my part. You know, our married life was completely intertwined with our work. We ate, slept, and drank Cinema 16, often more than I cared to, but it was our commitment, and it helped to make Cinema 16 the success it was. Oh, another thing I did: I was the person who punched the tickets. I hired my friends to be the ushers at the Needle Trades Auditorium. And whenever movies were shown that were not liked by the audience, I was the person who had to face the disapproval. I didn’t like that job.
Do particular incidents stand out?
One I remember was either Night Mail  or Song of Ceylon  — maybe it was both. I loved those films when I saw them in preview, and then half the audience walked out! It was unbearable to me. I stood there crying, because I couldn’t understand why these people didn’t love these movies as I did. Then there were movies like Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks . That film moved people so much that they had to get up and leave. So I was the front line, which was an important job and not a pleasant one.
We always prided ourselves on having an equal relationship, but our different personalities made us shape our work differently. I was always worried about finances. I took care of the checkbook, at least at the beginning, and to balance it made me very anxious. After a few years, we decided to switch that job. But I was always concerned about whether we could rely on Cinema 16 to be a source of income for us. Another thing was that I wanted to have a baby. I used to say to Amos, “You have your baby, but I don’t have my baby.” I wanted us to have enough money so that we could hire somebody to take my place. Finally we did, and I got pregnant, and for some reason I can’t remember now, the woman we’d hired had to leave, so we were right back where we were before – only with me pregnant. But it made me realize that you can’t plan to get everything in order and then have a baby. Life isn’t like that. Things are never in order. Anyway, we managed, and it was a good idea for me to work until the last minute.
Were you a film buff before you met Amos?
I began to fall in love with foreign movies when I went to college. And in those days there was only one foreign film outlet, the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street. I went there a lot to see French films. Actually, Amos and I were first introduced to each other at that theater. And I remember Russian movies being shown at the Irving Place Theater. I saw and loved them.
Amos and I used to be big Museum of Modern Art buffs. In a way that’s how Cinema 16 was born. I worked on 48th Street and he worked on 47th Street. I got out at 5:00, and he got out at 5:30. It was my job to run to MoMA and get tickets for the 5:00 show. Because of his job Amos would always be late. This was part of our dating arrangement for a long time. We enjoyed it. Then one day we said, “Why can’t we see these movies at normal times?” Amos began to do some research on whether it was possible to get these films in some other way, and he began to realize that there were many movies not being shown anywhere where the public could see them. I guess he found them in catalogues. Amos has always been a collector of distribution catalogues.
We used to hand out little leaflets to get people to come. One thing we thought would be a wonderful idea would be to stand in front of the Museum of Modern Art and hand out our leaflets. We figured the people who went to the Museum were the kind of people who would like to see our movies. We’d stand there in the freezing cold, handing leaflets out. Years later we found out that everybody at the Museum was in an uproar about us. Probably our event wasn’t posh enough looking, and we represented competition. Of course, we felt so insignificant that it never occurred to us that anybody would consider us competition. We were just two young kids with a good idea.
Richard Griffith, then director of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, helped us. He was a wonderful, sad man who loved only Hollywood films. But he and Amos met, and he was the one who got Amos together with Robert Flaherty, who allowed us to use his name to get support. That was such a wonderful lucky break. We learned about getting influential names from our dearest friend, a second cousin of mine, the person who introduced Amos and me: Rene Peller (now Rene Petersen). She had a wonderful job with a fundraising organization in New York. that did jobs for big liberal and artistic causes. She told us that the most important thing to do is to get an important person to sign a letter and then send it out to everybody. We never would have thought of doing that. We used the idea to establish a list of sponsors. This helped establish our credibility, which influenced people to become members at the beginning.
When you look back on Cinema 16, who, other than you and Amos, were important contributors?
My brother, David Diener, was one. He was in the movie advertising business; he wrote movie copy for ads. We would sit around and talk about the idea of having screenings. As a matter of fact, the name Cinema 16 just popped out one time when we were together. He thought our idea was crazy, and I remember him sitting on a chair, saying, “Who would want to go to see these 16mm movies?” – something like that, and bingo, we pounced on that number. Later, when we became a membership organization, David’s unusual advertising ideas worked very well.
Are there specific people you remember as being particularly strong presences at Cinema 16?
Parker Tyler, Hans Richter, Siegfried Kracauer, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Hitchcock. And, of course, Dylan Thomas. Regulars were Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, Anaïs Nin, Carmen D’Avino – all the avant-garde artists, painters, filmmakers, people experimenting with synthetic sound, dancers. I remember Willard Maas and Marie Menken. Once Willard was annoyed with us for some small infraction and he sent us a funeral wreath. His anger was very shocking to me. He was a strange and angry man who, as I look back, I realize was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He often got very drunk at parties. Once at a party we gave, he got so drunk that he conked out on our doorstep so that people who were leaving had to step over him. It was very scary to me; I’d had no experience seeing a person so out of control.
James Broughton was an interesting person. And, of course, there was always Stan Brakhage. Stan was a beautiful young man who was very close to Maya when we knew him. Then there was some kind of split between them, and he hung around with Willard Maas. I always remember that Stan and his wife were going out to Colorado and leaving everything. They were like a pioneer couple. The last I saw them, Jane was dressed like a pioneer lady of the 1800s, in a long calico dress, a beautiful girl and pregnant. They were such an unusual couple. I think they may have left from here; I remember us waving goodbye to them. And I remember Stan coming back to visit. My two little boys found him so fascinating. He would tell them that he spoke to animals and explain exactly how, and they believed every word of it. He and Amos were close in those early years. Later there were differences between them, but now they’re good friends again.
I have a feeling that Stan liked to stir up trouble. I never really liked many of his movies, but there are one or two that I think are very special, wonderful – Mothlight . for example – and I feel grateful for having learned to appreciate them.
What’s your feeling about the rift that developed between Amos and Jonas Mekas and the New American Cinema group?
I’m the sort of person who thinks things can always be worked out, talked out. Jonas and Amos aren’t like that. I think that maybe if those guys had been able to talk to each other, things could have been better. It seemed to me that the rift did not have to be so great, but then you know what happens: things build. First, there’s one thing, and if that doesn’t get cleared up, something else happens that makes both people more angry. In those days Jonas never could have generated audiences the way Amos did, because his philosophy was so different. Amos believed you had to show only the best or the most interesting: you had to work on making your audience interested. Jonas felt you should just show the films. I felt very strongly negative about Jonas having showings where everybody could bring any film they wanted to show. I thought that did a terrible disservice to the entire field. Amos had built up an audience who would be receptive to some of this stuff, and they would go to the screenings Jonas had and get completely turned off. Of course, Jonas was reacting to the fact that it all came down to Amos’s taste. What about Jonas’s taste?
Jonas was one of our early-on contingent of people who hung around the ticket-taker’s table at the Needle Trades Auditorium. He never had the money for a ticket, and I always sneaked him in. In those days, he hated the avant-garde movies, but loved the documentaries.
In your opinion, why did Cinema 16 come to an end?
I think there were several reasons – the first being economic. Inflation was high, and Amos was strongly opposed to raising membership rates because he believed that this film society was intended for a broad audience that included people unable to afford other kinds of cultural activities. In those days, there was no NEA or New York State Council on the Arts. And Amos always (rightly) kept away from corporate support because there were always “strings attached” which could interfere with his artistic freedom.
I’ve always assumed that part of the decision to end had to do with fatigue.
Definitely not. We were running at a deficit, and that could not continue, but how to get out of the deficit was the issue. As I look back, I feel we should have found a way. As I remember, the pain of losing Cinema 16 was eased when Amos was asked by Lincoln Center, during those early years of his directorship, to conduct a feasibility study for the creation of a film center at Lincoln Center. For awhile we thought he could bring the substance of Cinema 16 back to life with the support of an institution, but the 1968 financial crisis at Lincoln Center aborted the idea.
© Scott MacDonald/Wide Angle
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