Film as a Subversive Art
Review by Ernest Callenbach
There’s no doubt about it: Amos Vogel sees more films than anybody. In his capacity as founder of Cinema 16, an enormously successful and long-lived film society in New York, then as director of the New York Film Festival, as a distributor with Grove Press Films, and lately as a professor at Harvard and the Annenberg School in Philadelphia, he has had the energy and devotion to seek out films many of us only hear about secondhand. His book treats film as “subversive” in a catholic sense: political, moral, sexual, aesthetic, etc. Like the programs Vogel has presented for so many years, the book has something for the delectation of every taste, and either browsing through it or reading it straight away will remind you of many extraordinary films – ones you have seen and half forgotten, ones you should have seen and missed, and most of all films you have never heard of and wish you could see. Vogel is indefatigable. He tells you about a Chinese documentary on surgical acupuncture, about an American sex comedy called Electrosex (“a sombre subversion of the genre”), about the Italian outrages of Carmelo Bene, about Donald Richie‘s incredible Cybele, and about the utterly beyond-all-taboos works of Otto Muehl (whose group we see, behaving rather decorously by their standards, in Makavejev‘s Sweet Movie). Vogel’s descriptions are generally brief – I would guess that the book had its origins in the enticing program notes he has compiled over the years – but he is drawn into lengthier discussions about such matters as the undeserved reputation of Last Tango as a “sexual breakthrough,” or the question of Triumph of the Will - which he admits must be included as “subversive” as well as “profoundly dangerous” for its fascist content; he is particularly interested in the achievements of Makavejev and the Czechs. Vogel has organized the vast mass of films he describes (which includes “standard” items as well as the more esoteric) by adopting a chapter scheme that makes good sense in the historical sections but inevitably bursts at the seams when it comes to more contemporary work: how can we really distinguish “the subversion of content” from “forbidden subjects of the cinema”? But the divisions mostly work well enough in practice, and the general discussions that introduce the various sections integrate the films discussed through larger stylistic, political, and philosophic analyses. (Each of these introductory sections offers a reading list for further exploration of the issues raised; this, and the excellent indexing to the book, give it lasting value for any serious film student. It is perhaps worth mentioning also, at this point when many potential buyers are finding book prices uncomfortably high, that the price of this volume is very reasonable, considering the steep rises in paper and printing costs over the past year or so, for a book of 336 double-column pages and 300 illustrations.)
A careless browser might put the book down as merely sensational because of its illustrations, which are often quite weird. That would be a mistake. Vogel has a sophisticated and humane approach to his subject, and a political background that has a way of putting films into useful new perspectives. He begins his note on I Am Curious (Yellow) thus: “The historical task of the leadership, said Rosa Luxemburg, is to make itself unnecessary. This is precisely what happened to this legendary, much-maligned work.” He is deeply and personally concerned about the limitations on personal filmic expression in so-called socialist countries. He knows, above all, that film works as no other art can quite do upon the nonverbal recesses of our systems, which is why it has such power to outrage and shock when it presents taboo subject matter; and this makes the process somehow very touching and precious. (Though often humorous as well-I think for example of the illustration showing James Broughton directing The Golden Positions: he is demonstrating a golf stroke to a plumpish woman, who is nude except for cap and shoes.) It is also, as Vogel points out, unending; for the subverters may obtain power, political or artistic, and they will then be subverted in turn. This book, then, is as much an incitement to the spirit of rebellion as it is a monument to the films that spirit has produced.
© Ernest Callenbach/Film Quarterly
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders