An Interview with Amos Vogel
by Scott MacDonald
Tell me about your background, especially as it relates to film. Were you involved with film before you got to New York?
I lived in Vienna from the beginning of my life (in 1921) until age seventeen. At age seven or so, I got a laterna magica, complete with color slides – just like Ingmar Bergman. I was entranced. Later (I must have been ten or eleven) my father bought me a home movie projector, 9.5mm. It came from France. It was handcranked, not motorized. With that projector came not only the ability to make and show home movies – my father filmed family trips and so on – but also the possibility of buying films available in 9.5mm: Krazy Kat and Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chase, Chaplin. I enjoyed running the comedies backward as well – the magic of transforming, subverting reality.
It seems to me that at a very young age I was already an avid movie goer. I must have been, because I remember many films that I must have seen in Vienna, judging from the way the dates work out. I went to see a lot of American films as a kid, the typical Hollywood exports. I was also able to see not only Austrian films, but German films. We’re talking about the period prior to 1938, so that included films made during the Nazi period, not just the German films of the late twenties or early thirties.
Furthermore, there was a film society in Vienna. It’s hard for me to believe, but I must have joined at around the age of twelve or thirteen. The programs were held in a beautiful theater at the Urania, a miniature Lincoln Center in Vienna. There must have been five hundred to a thousand members per performance. And I remember all the films I saw there, and I saw quite a few: early German cinema, Russian cinema (well, in 1934, it became illegal to show Russian films, but I did see Russian films prior to that, so that must have been even prior to age thirteen). One film I remember specifically and very strongly is Night Mail , the collaboration of Harry Watt, Basil Wright and, on the sound, W.H. Auden, Cavalcanti, and Benjamin Britten. The whole notion of documentary became important to me because of that film. And simultaneously I realized that this was really a poetic film, and I was amazed that such a boring subject – the workings of the British mail system – could be made interesting. Wright’s Song of Ceylon  was also tremendously important to me.
Did the film society show a variety of kinds of film?
They showed mostly feature-length films, but they would accompany the feature with one or two offbeat shorts, not available in regular theaters. I don’t remember any “social” aspects to that film society, and I have no recollection of who organized and ran it. I was a kid, and I went on my own. I guess I was only interested in the films. I enjoyed going to the movies almost as much as reading books. I read extensively: American, British, and French literature in translation – Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair, Twain, Whitman, Wells, Walpole, Sinclair Lewis, Gide, Zola – and German literature, in the original.
When did you leave Vienna?
In the fall of 1938, six months after Hitler took over Austria. I’ll never forget what I experienced during those six months. I was very lucky to be able to leave. If I had waited, undoubtedly I would be dead by now. It was very traumatic and has stayed with me all my life.
Did you have any money when you got here?
No. Whatever money we did have in Vienna (my father was a lawyer and my mother a teacher–they couldn’t get those jobs here) was taken by the Nazis. We even had to leave Europe on a German ship so they would get the money for the tickets.
Anyway, an uncle of mine had settled in America during the first World War and had become quite rich. This uncle sent a statement – it was called an affidavit – to the effect that he would support us for a period of time. And with that it was possible to get a visa to the United States.
The whole family came?
My father, my mother, and I came. My father’s sisters and my mother’s mother and brothers could not come. Most of them were subsequently killed.
It was also very educational, that experience. Because America did not say, “We will accept anybody who is in trouble.” They did just the opposite. America probably let in less than three percent of the people who wanted to come. There were quotas based on country of origin. My father was born in Poland, so we were part of the Polish quota. I don’t know what the actual figures were. With the affidavit from my uncle in America, my father went to the American Consulate in Vienna and got a number. And they gave him a visa, and told him we’d have to wait six months. If he had come one day later, he would have been told that he would have to wait approximately ninety years. In that one day, the Polish quota for the next ninety years was exhausted. That’s how small the Polish quota was.
Did you come directly to New York?
I had to go to Cuba to wait the six months before we could get in here. Another strange experience. Beautiful country, beautiful people. I love Cubans. But under Batista, the Cuban government was totally corrupt. I spent my time there learning English. I saw many American films during that six-month period.
You finally got to this country in 1939. And you started Cinema 16 in 1947. What did you do in the intervening years?
I was not working in film at all. During my last three years in Vienna, I had become involved with a Socialist-Zionist youth group, boys and girls who wanted to go to a kibbutz in Israel – though it wasn’t Israel then. We wanted to build a communal settlement where nobody would own land or private property, and all the income would be shared, a real participatory democracy. Part of that group’s ideology called for a binational state, an Arab-Jewish state. It was not to be a Jewish state. I was very happy about that.
At that time, the British decided who could go into Palestine and who could not. In Austria, there had been a program, limited to young people between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. At a certain point, my entire group, including my girlfriend, got permission to go. And many of them did go; those who didn’t were subsequently killed. As it turned out, I couldn’t go because I was three months too old–a severe blow. When I was in Cuba, and also when I got here, I still had the definite intention to go to Palestine and rejoin that group. I tried everything; I even tried to get myself adopted by someone there. Impossible. The British wouldn’t allow it. During this period, in order to prepare myself for that life, I was able to get a scholarship at an agricultural school in Georgia, one of the National Youth Administration colleges that had been started under Roosevelt to bring college level education to the sons and daughters of farmers, primarily in the Southern states, though some of the people who came from Europe were also let in. So I found myself in Haversham College in Georgia, for two years. A very strange introduction to America. I had left a country in which the park benches said, “Jews and dogs should not sit here.” Here I saw drinking fountains that said, “For whites only.” Later, I moved to the University of Georgia, and took agriculture plus general courses in civics, history, whatever. And after that, I worked for two years on farms in New Jersey.
During this period, I became more and more disturbed about the way in which the Arab question was being handled by the Zionists. I did a lot of reading and talking to people. Finally, I came to the conclusion that not only was I not a Zionist and didn’t want to go to Israel, but I realized I was becoming an anti-Zionist because of the Arab question. I’d prepared myself for a life I now knew I wasn’t going to pursue. And I was not interested in being an agricultural laborer in the United States. The point had been a communal kind of living, not simply working on a farm. So I got a degree in economics and political science at the New School for Social Research in New York.
This was 1943-44?
Right. We didn’t have any money, but I got a scholarship and took all kinds of odd jobs.
During the war I worked in defense factories as an assistant tool-and-die maker. The interest in politics I had developed in Vienna continued to be very strong. I wanted to find some left-wing movement with which I could work, but I couldn’t really find one. I was drawn more towards Trotskyites than Stalinists. In Vienna, I had known about the huge concentration camps in the Soviet Union, about the purges, and the trials at which leaders of the Revolution were falsely accused of being Nazi spies. It’s amazing to me now that I knew of all these things by age fifteen, and at the very time these things were occurring, while many American “radicals” only discovered them from Khrushchev’s speech in the sixties!
When did you meet Marcia?
In 1942, through a cousin of hers who had come from Europe on the same boat I was on. Marcia and I didn’t particularly like each other. A year later, however, I met her again, and we immediately got involved–one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. Three years later we got married. The morning after our wedding night, I walked down to the hotel newsstand and saw this great big headline: NEW TYPE OF BOMB DROPPED OVER HIROSHIMA – so it’s easy to remember the date of our wedding! Bad jokes have been made about that, believe me.
At the time we got married, Marcia was doing market research. She’d graduated from Queens College with a degree in sociology.
At what point did you two get involved with film?
After I got my degree. I was interested in learning through film. At a certain point after I came to New York, I had become aware that there were a lot of films around, in 16mm, which were not being shown publicly, and which were not available anywhere for me to see. I’m not talking solely or primarily about avant-garde films. There were always two main components to Cinema 16: avant-garde films and what might be called nonfiction films (documentaries, scientific studies, psychological studies, informational and educational films…). I’d read about these films in a local newspaper, or somebody (not a film person, but a member of a union or a teacher) would mention a film to me. Once in a while I’d go to see such films at local universities. I began to find out who the distribution companies of the films were; I’d go to them and ask, “How can I see your films?” I learned it would be very expensive to rent them and that I’d have to get my own projector. I didn’t have the money to do this.
It occurred to me that if I was interested in such films and couldn’t see them, there must be other people in a city the size of New York who would be equally interested. Maybe I should get some of these films together and attempt to show them publicly. Maybe enough people would come to see them to pay for the film rental, and the whole thing would take care of itself.
How did you first learn about avant-garde film?
I was always very interested in modern art and the avant-garde – particularly in the visual arts. I had been tremendously affected by Meyer Shapiro‘s magical lectures on modern art. I began to hear things about such films and to look out for them. There was a film magazine – it lasted for only three issues – called Cinema, run by Eli Wilenski (I think that’s what his name was in those days; years later, under the name of Eli Wilentz, he became the owner of what was the best and by far the most important bookstore in New York City: the 8th Street Bookstore). That magazine mentioned Sidney Peterson and James Broughton as having made one or two films that sounded very interesting: surrealist films, poetic films. It may also have mentioned Kenneth Anger. And of course, there was Maya Deren. She had begun to show films in New York and to write. I saw her films and was very impressed.
As a spare time activity Marcia and I, and a couple of our friends, decided to see if we could get a little money together and rent the same theater that Maya Deren had rented, the Provincetown Playhouse, and put on a program of films. Next step: I went back to film distributors and convinced them to let me look at films for free on their premises because I was going to try to show them publicly afterwards, which would help them. Many agreed.
I chose a first program and put ads in the papers. The Provincetown Playhouse had two hundred seats. We announced showings for six o’clock and eight o’clock one evening. It was a huge, smashing, immediate success. We had to repeat this first program for sixteen evenings! With two showings per evening! My naive, but logical supposition was immediately proven correct. I have no doubt that if I had chosen other films, I would have done just as well, so long as they made for a well-rounded program. This idea worked, not because of my excellence as a programmer or anything like that, but because historical circumstances allowed Cinema 16 to fulfill a real social need.
Very quickly, we realized that planning to show films on a one-shot basis, on one evening, was not a very good idea. For the second program, we decided to expand and add weekend shows and really build the audience, so Marcia and I spent the thousand dollars we had received as wedding presents a couple years earlier on expanded advertising, including an ad in The New York Times. Well, that second program took place on the evening of the worst blizzard in New York history. Four people showed up at the theater: the projectionist, myself, Marcia, and some crazy person who came through the snow. We were faced with an immediate catastrophe because we had absolutely no other funds. Then my father, who knew about business, told us we could try to keep going on credit, hoping that income from the next shows would pay for what we spent and leave us with a little surplus. We were so naive that we had never even heard of doing business this way!
A second problem we ran into was even more serious, and more interesting. It started on the first evening. A somber representative of the New York State Censorship Office came to the theater and said, “You can’t show this program, because your films have not been submitted to the censors, and have not been approved.” I said, “I don’t know anything about that. I know there’s some kind of censorship for Hollywood films, but what’s this got to do with me?” He said, “Every film that’s shown publicly in New York has to be okayed by us. You have to have a censorship seal.” He could see that I wasn’t a conniving businessman, but some kind of naive young guy who really didn’t know. And he said, “OK, you can show this program, but after this, you have to submit all your films to us.”
I was very unhappy about this. When I began to submit films to the Censorship Office (with our second program), we ran into impossible problems. Example: part of the censorship law was that you had to submit a copy of the script. I wanted to show a French animated film for children which had a nonsense language soundtrack; I had no script. We had to hire a stenotypist at some fantastic sum, who came and took down “baba, booboo…” Can you believe this? We didn’t have the money to do that kind of thing. Secondly, we had to rent the films from the distributors early to submit them to the censors, who sat on them for at least a week. (And the censors were doing me a favor by looking at the films so fast!) Thirdly, some films – Peterson’s and Broughton’s, for example – used nudity; sometimes there was some sexy business. Well, the censors applied the same standards to us that they applied to Hollywood films. There was a film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – The Private Life of a Cat  – a beautiful documentary of their cats at home, including birth sequences, which made the censors reject the entire film as “obscene.” Unbelievable!
We decided that we couldn’t possibly continue this way. I’m a total enemy of censorship in all of its forms. Period. Without any reservations. To me this process was absolutely obnoxious – “obnoxious” isn’t strong enough. By submitting the films to the censors, I was betraying something. We had some discussions with a civil liberties lawyer, and decided that we were going to start a private membership club. When you do that, you’re not subject to censorship.
Did your troubles with New York State censorship end once you’d become a club?
There’s pre-censorship and post-censorship. We eliminated pre-censorship completely by becoming a film society. However, with post-censorship, the police can go into a place and say, “You have shown something obscene.” Had I desired to show hard-core porno films at Cinema 16, I certainly would have had access to them, but we would have been closed by the police, even if we were a club. In any case, I had no desire to do that, not because I’m against porno–it just wasn’t what I was interested in showing.
However, if you’re a club, you’re not subject to blizzards, because you collect the membership fees in advance for an entire year. If the member doesn’t come, for whatever reason, you’ve still been paid. Of course, it also meant that we could not sell individual tickets, and later we had programs where we had to turn hundreds of people away. But you could join the night of the performance, if you paid for the entire year. The fees were very low, ten dollars a year for sixteen performances plus two free guest tickets.
I started showing films in 1947 and six months later we were an official membership film society, nonprofit and tax-exempt. The government checked us out to see that we were not putting a profit into our pockets. What we were allowed to do, of course, is pay salaries. The amount of money that came in simply paid the cost of the operation, plus very reasonable salaries. In the beginning we had nothing: Marcia and I worked for weeks or months for nothing or very little. But ultimately, when it got to be good, Marcia and I together made maybe $15,000 a year.
Projectionists were another interesting problem. The union came after us immediately. They said, “This should be unionized,” and I was in favor, I’ve always been in favor, of unions. I said OK, despite the fact that they insisted on two high-priced union projectionists per show. But it was a unionized operation from the very first performance to the very last. I’m proud of this.
Marcia was in charge of memberships. We hired ushers, who got paid two dollars an hour, or whatever it was in those days. Very little. It was a minimal operation, always determined by the yearly budget.
How long were you in the Provincetown Playhouse?
Very briefly. We grew too fast. Why have sixteen nights for two or four hundred each? It wasn’t economical. Actually, the very first showing of the Cinema 16 Film Society took place at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, also an art theater; the film was the premiere of Hans Richter‘s Dreams That Money Can Buy . After that we went to a place called the Central Needle Trades Auditorium, a huge space. And later, when we had five to seven thousand members, we had additional showings at other art theaters. A member would simply sign up for the Wednesday evening series at the Central Needle Trades Auditorium or for the Sunday morning series at a regular theater.
Did you have a sense of the sorts of people who came to the screenings?
We did questionnaires, things like that. There were a lot of artists and intellectuals, and would-be intellectuals and artists. The gamut ranged from the movers and shakers on the cultural scene to school teachers and secretaries, people who wanted to widen their horizons. I’m continuously surprised by the well-known people who say to me, “Ah, Cinema 16, how wonderful it was!” It would be an interesting research project to go through the lists name by name and try to find out who these people are now. All the Beats came – Ginsberg and the rest. All the film people came: people who were teaching film and making films. And there were many liberal bourgeois people. It was the only place to see such films.
Could you apply for state or federal grants?
There was a totally different situation in those days in respect to funding: there was none. No private foundations were interested in this sort of activity. And what really amazes me, in retrospect, is that this project ran for sixteen years without any outside support, dependent one hundred percent on membership fees.
What was the process of putting the programs together?
I looked at thousands of films to select the programs. I began to go through the catalogues of whatever distribution firms existed, and there were many. It wasn’t as though I had to go into barren territory. I had more films than I could handle. But the avant-garde field had to be developed. Sidney Peterson would tell me he knew so and so and who had made a little film, and I’d get in touch with this person. Or, having heard of Cinema 16, people would write to tell me about their films. Tens, hundreds of films began to drift in. Any film submitted to us was looked at. I had very good help with this – Jack Goelman, who worked with me. We had a rapport in questions of aesthetics, originality.
I made a folder for every film I saw, regardless of its length. While I was watching a film, I took notes, and the notes went into the folder. As of now, at age sixty-two, I have between twenty and thirty thousand folders.
An entire year’s programs – sixteen different events – would be put together in advance. It might consist of two hundred or fifty films, depending on length.
Did you have particular things in mind when you were deciding on programs, or did you just program the films that knocked you out?
The latter would be an honest way of putting it. I wanted films that would disturb you in some way, would add to your knowledge and make you change. The whole notion of change was very basic to Cinema 16. I’ve always been very involved with the idea of creating a world different from the one in which we are living. I’m very dissatisfied with this world. I have always considered myself to be a radical socialist, and I have always had the curious notion that even a film on cosmology or a psychological study or an avant-garde work can serve a positive function in improving the world, because it takes us away from where we are now and opens us up to new possibilities.
There was inevitably a strong subjective factor in all these decisions. Essentially you choose in terms of who you are, and who you are is, in turn, the end product of a very long prior development, including your environment, all the influences that have worked on you: your parents, your children, your school, the books you’ve read, even your genetic constitution. My experience with Hitler was important to me. All these things entered into the picture, obviously.
There were definitely films I did not feel were good enough to be shown. At the same time – this is an important point – there was never any attention paid to what might be called Box Office. I think Box Office is poison. Many times in my life I’ve had the possibility of starting a commercial theater, but I never wanted to do it because I knew that if I did, I would become the prisoner of what the box office requirements were. That was another wonderful thing about having a membership set-up. I was able to present programs which I knew in advance would antagonize most of the audience. But that was OK; there were other programs they would like. People soon learned that when they went to Cinema 16, they had to expect to be displeased sometimes.
If you showed a program that offended people one week, was attendance down the next week?
No. When people were offended by a program, there was usually a very small percentage who would be extremely upset. They would write us letters, or call us up and say, “How dare you show this piece of shit!” If they said, “Give us our money back,” we were delighted to do so. We wanted to get rid of them. We weren’t going to have them tell us what to show. I showed one of the worst (that is, most powerful) Nazi propaganda films ever made, a film that to this day cannot be shown publicly: Franz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew , which I imported from the Dutch Film Museum. The film was stopped at the border here. They wouldn’t have let it in, except that Siegfried Kracauer, himself a Jewish refugee from Germany, wrote a letter to the customs people and told them I was going to have a very educational evening for which he was going to write program notes. It was allowed into the country for one showing only. There were many Jews who felt that I had done the worst possible thing by presenting that film: I’d shown a film which said Jews were as evil as rats. Those who objected could not understand why I, myself a Jewish refugee from Hitler, would want to show it.
In some instances I chose films with sex in them. In those days that alone was more than some people could abide. Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks ? It was a scandal in those days to show a film with a gay theme. The censors didn’t allow it. And even though we had a private club, there were people who felt gay issues should not be talked about. I felt, why not? And I would show the films more than once. I’m a strong believer in showing essentially anything that has human and aesthetic validity and relevance. Maybe it’s obnoxious to some, but there’s a fighting element in me which rebels against authority and constraint. That has been true throughout my life, and it came out in my choice of films. People would come to me and say, “You know those films you showed yesterday with the red, blue, and green dots? They gave me a headache.” I’d ask, “What did you take?” They’d say, “You really gave me a headache!” So I’d say, “If you get too many headaches, maybe you shouldn’t come.”
Did filmmakers appear with the films?
Rarely. We did not have that tradition in those days. At every showing we did have four, single-spaced pages of program notes which we produced ourselves. Even now there are not many places with program notes. I believe in program notes. I think they have to be done very carefully; you have to be very objective: you shouldn’t try to impose something on the audience by having some critic say, “This film is marvelous!” But on the other hand, a lot of interesting information can appear in program notes. But, no, we did not have filmmakers come in person. It wasn’t that they came to me and I refused to let them appear; the filmmakers weren’t interesting in coming. Filmmakers did attend our Creative Film Foundation events. But even then they were only available for questions. In retrospect, I think it would have been better had we had such programs. We did have well-known film critics and scholars from time to time, people like Parker Tyler.
It must have been very exciting to explore all those films and learn what people would like and how they would respond. What moments stand out?
It was exciting. And it was a continuing process of feedback. Sometimes, of course, what stands out are not the high spots, but the difficulties. We had huge difficulties with the Hans Richter film [Dreams That Money Can Buy], because the distributor was a very crass businessman; he gave us such a hard time. I learned so much about the film business from him. One day we had the film, the next day we didn’t. Then we had sent out mailings that we were going to show the film and there was a signed agreement; then they’d tell us we don’t have an agreement, we don’t like this arrangement. It was a very tough experience for us, but we came out OK in the end and showed the film. Richter and I became good friends. He was a great guy.
The avant-garde was very exciting. When I saw Peterson’s films and Broughton’s at the very beginning of Cinema 16, I can’t convey to you how I felt. They were just marvelous for me. Why is an interesting question, because as it turned out, my enthusiasm was shared by only a small portion of the audience. The majority were either against the avant-garde films or totally indifferent to them.
Do you have a sense why that was?
A very simplistic way of putting it would be to say that the most difficult thing for people to take in or absorb or appreciate is a new way of seeing. There’s something very comforting about dealing only with the conventional – and, of course, something extremely conservative, if not reactionary. Hollywood and television are constantly giving us things that we’ve already seen, both in terms of content and in terms of style. The most interesting and important avant-garde films are precisely those films that have never been done before – in content, in style, in form – and therefore are extremely difficult for most people to accept. I prefer to be upset, and one of the main criteria I use when I look at films and write my notes is unpredictability. If I can say that I don’t know where a film is going or how it’s going to get there – that’s one of the greatest assets. I had hoped that by showing these films at Cinema 16, and by making audiences more and more familiar with them, I would develop more tolerance. I’m sure I succeeded, but only within certain limits. Always there was the complaint, especially with abstract films, “I got a headache from looking at it.” They said it then; they say it now. It’s obviously an ideological headache.
The main reason why I personally liked these films has to do with what I’d call “visual sensibility.” I believe each person involved with culture has either a verbal sensibility, or a visual one. I was so entranced with visual modern art – paintings, photography, anything visual – that it carried over, of course, into film. When I see a Peterson film or an Andrew Noren film or an Anger, I am transfixed; I get acute sensual/sensuous pleasure from it, a pleasure I want others to feel as well. That’s why I showed those films.
We had at Cinema 16 two different audiences – at least two. We had an audience that preferred documentary and nonfiction, social and political films, realistic films; and we had an audience that preferred avant-garde and experimental films. There were instances where the documentary group would say to me, “What the hell are you showing these avant-garde films for! Obviously they’re frauds.” “Fraud” was popular, like “It gives me a headache!” On the other hand, the avant-gardists were saying, “What the hell are you showing these documentary films for? They’re hackneyed: ‘realism’ doesn’t exist…” I was in the middle. For me the films all had a common denominator; they created a disturbance in the status quo.
I’m often surprised by the way in which people who are savvy about contemporary art, poetry, and music are still not able to accept parallel developments in film. In this sense there seems to be a gap between film and the other arts.
Well, I’ll give you one reason. When you look at a very advanced kind of modernist painting, you can decide whether you want to look for one minute or for half an hour, or just turn away. A few seconds is as much time as some people look at modern art, even when they’re interested. Maybe I’m exaggerating: maybe it’s half a minute or two minutes. With film you’re a captive. The abstract or surrealist film that someone has made cannot be conveyed to you in an instant. If you’ve got a film that goes on for fifteen, thirty, fifty minutes… or an hour and a half, there’s a kind of domination by the filmmaker over the audience.
Secondly, in other art forms – literature and painting, for example – not only has modernist work been known and accepted for a long time, but in fact modernism has been dominant; we call it serious literature or serious art. This is not true of film; in film you have the total domination of Hollywood, and Hollywood was not, is not, in the twentieth century.
But don’t think for a moment that because the majority of members said in our polls that they didn’t want to see avant-garde films, that I showed fewer of them. I used the polls just to get a feeling of where people were.
The time element is important; the audience is captive. But still it seems strange to me. I’ve routinely used The Sound and the Fury in my American literature classes, and students struggle with it, but there’s never any feeling that I’m doing something terrible by assigning it. Most students admire the book. But if I show Serene Velocity [Ernie Gehr, 1970] – and it’s a class period, so it’s clear that the film can’t possibly be longer than thirty minutes or so – they usually react as though I’ve purposely tortured them. Of course, The Sound and the Fury includes a narrative; reading it is largely involved with finding the conventional narrative beneath the complex form and language.
And that gets you involved. But you can’t do that with so many avant-garde films.
Now, I want to make another point. I have come to the conclusion that we are not uniformly open to new trends in all media. Let me be quite personal about this: I love avant-garde film, but I have definite difficulties with very advanced modern music. Why? There are differences between human beings and inconsistencies within us, and that’s good too. I think most human beings do not represent a particular viewpoint across all media. There may be such people; if so, they are closer to a true avant-garde. But there aren’t many of them. I think some of the resistance to avant-garde films is – I hate to use the word – genetic. I’m absolutely convinced that if you gave me one hundred undergraduates for two years, two courses per year, I could develop in half of them a real appreciation for what’s being done in those films. But only in half.
A related question. I’ve found in programming my own series that when I program a film, I almost always get a fairly sizable audience, but when I program a film and filmmaker, I get a smaller group. In my head, having the filmmaker present is an advantage, but not to most people.
Maybe they’ve already had experiences with some of the filmmakers as speakers! They aren’t always so wonderful. For you and me they add something (not always!), but for a more general audience, I’m not too sure.
There’s only one way in which a more general audience loves the filmmaker, and that is the way we used to do it, and the way it’s still being done, at the New York Film Festival. If at the end of a film which has been well-received, the filmmaker is there to receive the applause, a wonderful rapport takes place between the audience and the filmmaker. But if that continues into a discussion with the filmmaker, only a certain proportion of the audience will stay, and the questions that come from the audience, I’m sorry to say, are not terribly good. As a result, the filmmaker doesn’t open up sufficiently, either. But there have been exceptions, very fruitful interchanges, even with general audiences.
I don’t remember seeing any other American film programmer present scientific films, though it seems like an obvious idea. Even now, I’m not sure I’d know how to locate quality scientific films.
To me, it was the most natural thing in the world to show scientific films, but it took a lot of spadework to find my sources. There was an outfit called Psychological Cinema Register which had a very large collection of films primarily by medical people, psychologists, scientists. It was unusual for them to get a request from somebody on the outside. They didn’t even know how to deal with it; suddenly they had to establish a policy. There was often a problem with sex. Should Cinema 16 be allowed to show a bunch of rhesus monkeys fucking?
I always went by what interested me and what involved me, feeling that there had to be others who’d be interested. I even programmed films that were only interesting for their content–films that weren’t well-edited, well-photographed, but were absolutely marvelous in terms of what they showed. One such film – I’ll never forget it – was called Neurosis and Alcohol . It was about rats that were made drunk, and then presented with extremely frustrating situations. It was hilarious, and extremely revealing and informative about the connection between neurosis and alcohol. On the other hand, we had a film called Monkey into Man  by Stuart Legg, who came out of the British documentary movement, a scientific (and poetic!) film about evolution, beautifully photographed and edited.
Another good example involved the work of Roman Vishniak, a famous scientist and a famous photographer. The International Center for Photography here in New York had an exhibition of his photography, which ranges from the definitive images of Polish Jews to microcinematography – some of the most marvelous imagery I’ve ever seen. I spent wonderful afternoons with Vishniak, preparing for the screening. All he had was footage; he did not have finished films, and we had to add the soundtracks, which he spoke on tape. Presenting his work to the public is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
One quote that has had a tremendous influence on me, maybe the basic one, is, in English (I first heard it in German): “Nothing human is alien to me.” Marx used it – it came from the Roman philosopher Seneca, I think. It has allowed me to be tolerant of everything “because it’s human.” In relation to Cinema 16 this meant there was no such thing as a film that, because of its genre, let’s say, would not be of interest to me. I remember Andy Sarris saying that animation is not really film, and explaining why (and I’ve heard others say it, too). That’s harebrained. I’ve seen some very great works of cinema art in the animated film. The same with scientific film. A few months ago I saw a film on TV, one of the Nova series I think, about spiders. I’ve never seen anything more fascinating, or more visual. How can you possibly ignore such work? I’m delighted that it’s there, and I’ve always wanted to show it. And it’s always worked very well, in terms of audiences.
Those sorts of films are on TV a lot now, but it’s a shame not to see them on a big screen.
That spider film would be wonderful in a first-run theater.
Did Cinema 16 do anything with modified forms of film, 3-D or film installation?
Very little. We showed The Door in the Wall [Glen H. Alvey, Jr., 1956] based on an H. G. Wells story – a film with variable-size screen images. Had there been a system that would have allowed me to show 3-D in 16mm, I would have definitely wanted to do it. I’m extremely interested. I bought a 3-D still camera recently and I go to the Museum of Holography regularly – what a great (and mysterious) place! Cinema 16 ended before performance art and happenings, which came in during the sixties. Oh, I do remember an exception. When we premiered Willard Maas’s and Ben Moore’s Narcissus  (we premiered all of Maas’s films), he arrived on the evening of the premiere and said, “Where’s the door to the projection room?” I said, “Over there, why?” He says, “I gotta do something.” He had brought different colored gels with him which he put in front of the lens at certain points so that the film was tinted. Very amateurish, but beautifully done.
When Cinema 16 was developing, were you travelling in Europe to look for films? I know you’re a regular at the Berlin Film Festival.
Not at the beginning. Later, I travelled to film festivals, and I would go to Paris and London to meet filmmakers, producers, distributors. As time went by, I brought in more and more films from abroad. I remember Agnes Varda asking me if I wanted to distribute L’Opera Mouffe , one of her shorts. In those days she hadn’t made features yet. I dealt with Georges Franju in Paris, and got Blood of the Beasts . I dealt with Argus Films, a fascinating commercial outfit that made hundreds of shorts and also features, many of great interest. Oh, let me tell you a story. There were supposed to be some fabulous student films being made in Poland, at this famous film school. People told me about them, or maybe I read something somewhere. I sat down and wrote a letter to Jerzy Toeplitz, the director of the school, with whom I subsequently became good friends, asking if we could get those films here, and sure enough we got them. (I had to learn about “diplomatic pouch” and about the censorship involved when you import films.) And who made these films? Roman Polanski! Two Men and a Wardrobe  and five or six other titles. Also, I was in correspondence with Makavejev when he was making student films in Yugoslavia, but I could never get them out. And I had all kinds of contacts with Japan. We premiered Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial . So Cinema 16 was an international enterprise.
In retrospect, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had had real press support. In those days The New York Times not only had no policy of reviewing independent films, they had a critic who was an active, hostile opponent of independent cinema: Bosley Crowther, a very powerful and ignorant man. I’d invite him to every show, but he wouldn’t come. Even without much press support, we had seven thousand members. Imagine what could have happened if we’d had it!
Just at the time when Cinema 16 was winding down, between 1959 and 1963, there was a move by a number of people – Jonas Mekas, centrally – to form a filmmakers’ distribution cooperative. Your relations with Mekas at this time weren’t friendly.
When I talked with Jonas, he said that the first day he was in the United States, he came to a Cinema 16 screening. And he was a regular after that.
He came to all the showings. He had no money, and we always let him in. We knew of his love for film.
How did the rift between you occur?
Well, first of all, there was never anything on a personal level between me and Jonas. It wasn’t a situation where two friends had a falling out. I think he will verify that.
When I think back on that period, there is a very definite start to the developments you’re asking about, which were for me, to be quite frank, totally unexpected. I learned that a group of people, filmmakers and other people (Dan Talbot [Talbot founded and runs New Yorker Films, a leading distributor of feature films from a variety of nations] was among them), had met in New York. I can’t tell you whether they met once or several times. I assume, several times.
You were not an invitee?
Absolutely not. This group then published the first manifesto of the New American Cinema. I got the manifesto in the mail, and I was astonished. Why? Two reasons. First, here was a new organization in New York, which had a point of view I was totally in agreement with: they were radical, anti-Hollywood, anti-commercial, committed to independent, avant-garde forms of cinema. What else had I been doing all these years except showing that kind of work? In our original “Statement of Purposes” (which uses fancy language I now find a bit stilted), I make clear that Cinema 16 is against the “empty tinsel of Hollywood,” and for free cinema, and so on. What astonished me was that I was not invited. I couldn’t understand it. The second thing that astonished me was the list of the people involved: they were all people I knew well. I was so naive about what was happening that I went so far as to investigate why I hadn’t been invited. And it became clear very quickly, that the reason I had not been invited was because I would have been precisely the last person to be invited. There was an attempt being made to start a new center for independent film in New York, and they didn’t want the person who was the head of the other center to be in that organization. It was as simple as that. Obviously, I realize that if a new center is started, there must be a dissatisfaction with the existing center. These activities were based on dissatisfaction, even though the manifesto didn’t address that question.
One thing certainly had to do with the fact that at Cinema 16 I did not have programs devoted to the work of one filmmaker. And I didn’t have regular programs devoted entirely to avant-garde film, though there were such programs from time to time. There must have been a feeling on the part of some people that I should not have the power to decide which films should be shown, or not shown; and later, distributed, or not distributed. That’s a very logical feeling. When you run an organization of exhibition/distribution, you are a gatekeeper: you open doors for certain people and close them to others – because you don’t show their films.
Anyway, that was the beginning of the whole thing. We all have our interpretations of events, but I’ll make the following rash statement: in my opinion, Jonas was more interested in building a Jonas Empire than I was in building an Amos Empire at Cinema 16. I was never a very sophisticated person about power relationships. And I was not very involved with wanting to push myself or my name. To me, Cinema 16 was a great idea, and it was wonderful that the idea gave me enough of an income so that I could continue to pursue it. And to see new films, to find new films – I loved that.
You don’t remember any particular incidents previous to that announcement, where people approached you to do something different than you were doing, or…
Honestly, no. I’m sorry that if people had such things in their minds, they didn’t come to me. It’s possible that they were afraid to. Maybe filmmakers felt that if they came to me and discussed things that ought to be changed, they might have less of a chance to have their films selected for Cinema 16. From my point of view, that would have been a ridiculous fear (my allegiance has always been more to ideas or to artistic creations, than to people; I’d reject the films of people I knew and choose films by people I’d never heard of), but in retrospect I can see how someone might not feel confident about talking to me about such things.
Cinema 16 and the New American Cinema group both distributed films, some of them by the same filmmakers. Did you have meetings about distribution arrangements?
That question didn’t come up immediately as far as I remember. At first they were simply proclaiming an intention. So far as I remember, there were no negotiations. There was nothing. They absolutely didn’t want to deal with me. They were out to do something on their own and the hell with me.
There was an incident much later, toward the end of Cinema 16. Ely Landau (he later produced King: A Filmed Record, Montgomery to Memphis  and other films) was trying to build himself up in the film world in those days, and he had heard about my difficulties at Cinema 16. He called me in and in the course of saying that he wanted to help me make my organization work financially, he told me that he was also in touch with Jonas, because Jonas and his group were in financial difficulties as well. This must have been around 1962, 1963. He wanted to bring us together. Jonas and I got together, and there were some talks about Landau’s idea, which failed, fortunately. I don’t mean “fortunately” in relation to Jonas–not at all–but in relation to Landau. Joining with him would have been a disaster. I’m not being very diplomatic. The man had very good intentions and has done some very good things, but that idea would have been an unholy marriage of commercial interests with two nonprofit, noncommercial institutions. It wouldn’t have worked. He would have taken both of us over.
The Film-makers’ Cooperative, which grew out of Jonas’s efforts, is at 175 Lexington Avenue. That was Cinema 16′s address.
After Cinema 16 failed in 1963, Jonas decided to establish the office of the Co-op on the former premises of Cinema 16. I thought it was not entirely in good taste. Jonas did a lot of things I can’t forgive him for, including certain terrible things he wrote about me in The Village Voice at the time when we were both trying to help avant-garde cinema. One that comes to mind right off the bat was a column that began something like, “There are many people who are entirely opposed to avant-garde films because they think that they are the creations of madmen or psychotics. Such a view is represented in this country by Amos Vogel” [Vogel is referring to Mekas's comments in The Village Voice, April 18, 1968, subsequently included in his Movie Journal (New York: Collier, 1972): "'Experimental Film is synonymous with mental delirium and the escape from reality,' writes French movie critic Marcel Martin in one of the three leading French movie journals, Cinema 68 (N. 124), as he reviews the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition at Knokke-LeZoute. This kind of attitude is still very typically European. In the United States this mentality is represented by Amos Vogel (see his Evergreen article)..." That Mekas's attack is unfair seems clear from the Evergreen article cited: "The Angry Young Filmmakers," published in November-December, 1958]. That was terribly hurtful to me. There’s no way one can possibly defend such a statement. I sent Jonas a note and asked him to retract it, or to explain what he had in mind. Or to give me a chance to talk about it in his column. Something! No answer. No retraction. No explanation. Nothing. Jonas was important at that time. Such statements meant that anybody who didn’t know me would assume I was totally opposed to avant-garde cinema, and for ridiculous reasons.
I think that while we are doing things in life, we’re not always aware of what these things really mean. Ten, twenty, thirty years later, the meaning sometimes becomes obvious. When I started, almost nobody cared about avant-garde films. There was no interest in showing them or distributing them. So I got something started. When I was having my programs, people from all over the country – a little film society, a labor union, a library – would write to us asking if they could show Sidney Peterson’s The Lead Shoes  or whatever. We would sit around and say, “What should we do? Why don’t we send them the film and make up some kind of rental figure; we’ll keep some and send the filmmaker some. How about that?” We became distributors because no one else wanted to do it. And we had contacts with these filmmakers that called for a fifty-fifty split of the income. An ACLU lawyer who worked with all kinds of progressive causes gave us the idea of a fifty-fifty split. In those days that was standard in any kind of film distribution arrangement. If somebody had said to me, “Split it ninety/ten, eighty/twenty,” whatever, it would have been the same. I didn’t know anything about it.
Then, along came the Co-op idea and a split more favorable for the filmmaker. An entirely possible idea. Of course! The intermediary, the middle man, should be cut out, right? I was a middle man. I didn’t make the films; I only made them available. Although, remember, Cinema 16 was a nonprofit institution: it wasn’t that I was putting money into my own pocket; it would be plowed back into the institution. So the New York Co-op comes along and says, “Let’s eliminate even this nonprofit middleman. We’ll do everything ourselves. And, every film that a filmmaker makes should be in our catalogue. And every filmmaker who wants to be in this catalogue should be in this catalogue.” It was a very different idea. In some ways, it was a good idea – in retrospect, an obvious idea; but in the long run, it’s raised as many questions as the kind of distribution that I ran, questions that to this day haven’t been resolved. A co-op confronts the consumer with a huge catalogue, with hundreds of names, and hundreds, if not thousands, of films. How should the consumer choose? The fact of the matter is that avant-garde film distribution is in a very bad way. Between 1975 and 1989, the New York Co-op didn’t even have an up-to-date catalogue and may still be in financial difficulties.
Don’t get me wrong, Jonas has done very important things for the American avant-garde. How could anybody deny that? He called a movement into being, pushed it, worked his ass off to make it successful. And it’s had impact all over the world. But I think of him as a mixed blessing for the American avant-garde. Because while he was doing all these things, he was simultaneously doing things that, finally, prevented this movement from becoming as powerful or as influential as it should have been.
I would say that the historical catastrophe of the American avant-garde movement is precisely the fact that Jonas and I were not together, that Jonas excluded me at a time when I was doing a very big and very successful project in New York. Despite the fact that the American avant-garde cinema movement became known worldwide, it could not, after a while, sustain itself. And I think that could have been avoided. And a real movement could have been built.
When you ran Cinema 16, the film society model was the most standard way of presenting alternative film. During the sixties there was an avant-garde or “underground” movement or at least the illusion of one. Then in the seventies came government support for venues for alternative cinema. I’m wondering how you see the alternative film scene at this point.
Of course, to begin with, you always have to look at the overall social scene, because avant-garde film only exists embedded within the larger scene. When we were showing films at Cinema 16, our activities coincided, roughly, with the period of the Beats, which eventually developed into the movement of the sixties. Of course, we started in 1947-1948, before the Beat era, but the very fact that films like Pull My Daisy  were premiered at Cinema 16 shows that there was an atmosphere beyond Cinema 16, if not in the whole country, at least in the urban centers–an attitude, an atmosphere that began to be friendly towards the kinds of experimentation we were concerned with. It’s true that by virtue of showing such films at Cinema 16 we helped to prepare the groundwork for such a situation. It didn’t fall from Heaven. But there was a larger social situation that allowed us to develop and be successful.
I don’t find this to be true today, or even in recent years. We’re in an extremely retrograde and retrogressive atmosphere at the moment – politically, culturally, in every respect – which has very serious consequences for cinema, and certainly for avant-garde cinema, since it’s more oppositional than some of the other independent cinemas that are around.
There’s irony here, though, because Cinema 16 thrived at a moment when American culture was especially conservative: the late forties and the fifties. You used the word “experimental”; do you think avant-garde cinema profited from the culture-wide ideal of experiment in the sciences and in technology?
Well, I don’t think that the general cultural situation in the forties and fifties was worse than it is now. That’s not my memory. There are many factors operating here. At the moment, there’s a very tiny audience for avant-garde film, even in an urban center like New York, and there are very few places to see avant-garde film. But you have to be careful not to generalize too much. When I started, there were no such showings in New York, but when I did start, almost immediately I found a lot of people who were anxious to see such material and who came to screenings.
It’s always a direct interaction between some kind of social agent and the surrounding social situation at the time. Frank Stauffacher [founder of the Art in Cinema series in San Francisco, and a resource for Vogel at Cinema 16] and I were such agents.
The point is that it would be a mistake to assume, “Well, hardly anybody is interested in this kind of film nowadays,” period. That’s not the case. I can see various things that could be done. It’s very possible for me to sound old-fashioned, particularly as I get older, but I’ve done a great deal of thinking as to what could be done with avant-garde cinema at the present time to get it more widely seen, and the solutions I come up with aren’t all that new. There were certain things done at the time of Cinema 16 that are simply not being done now. The first thing would be to try these things again and see what emerges. I’m certain that there could only be an improvement in the situation.
Can you be specific?
In terms of programming, the Cinema 16 formula, in my opinion, could be used successfully now. When I say “successfully,” I mean it would be more successful than the formulae used now, which consist very simply of two options: number one, you put together a number of avant-garde films by various avant-garde filmmakers and make a program out of that; or number two, you show the work of one avant-garde filmmaker as the program. As you know, at Cinema 16 there was a mix, an eclectic mix of documentaries, scientific films, more conventional narrative shorts, animations, and avant-garde films. When I attend the few programs available now, where you see only avant-garde films, in one of those two formulae, I notice two things. First, there’s hardly anybody there; I’m one of maybe ten or twenty people. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’m speaking generally. Second, after seeing five avant-garde films, I myself get fidgety.
Don’t get me wrong, while the backbone of Cinema 16 was the more general screenings of various types of short film by various filmmakers, I believe there also ought to be separate series where you concentrate on the work of particular avant-garde filmmakers. That’s something I didn’t do at Cinema 16, though I remember thinking of it frequently. But always I came to the conclusion that given my own personal resources, I just couldn’t bring it off in addition to what I was already doing. That was done by Jonas; he was right about that. But he did it exclusively. He only went in that direction, which in the end created very serious questions about whether such programming can hold or build an audience. In my experience in those days (because I attended his screenings at the Charles Theater and wherever), this method did not work: instead of an audience being developed, I noticed a decrease in the number who attended–even then.
If we had said to the Cinema 16 audience, we’re now going to present an entire program to you of one avant-garde filmmaker (whoever that might be: Oskar Fischinger, Michael Snow… ), and if I had done this again and again over the course of a year, I would have lost my membership. It was and is difficult for me to sit through an entire program of avant-garde film – and I love avant-garde film. Why would it be different for those who have not developed a strong interest in such work?
There’s another issue, a very mundane-sounding issue. I’m firmly convinced that whatever kind of programming you do must have a very strong publicity component, a publicist and a promotional set-up that reaches out into the general population. Programmers must insist on adequate publicity, even if it means making a pest of yourself at the newspapers. Believe me, I know how difficult this is. I’m not a utopian. But I’m also convinced that this is not being done adequately now.
At Cinema 16, we had very attractive brochures, with a lot of information, and these were very widely available. We printed very large runs of these brochures.
Maybe a hundred thousand.
Really? A hundred thousand!
Of course! It was only out of that that we got the attendance we did.
What did you do with these brochures?
Mailed them – it was very expensive. The one great privilege we had was that we were able to work with first-rate, commercial art directors; I was very interested in the visual design of these brochures, and I wrote the texts. If we’d sent out ten thousand brochures, the membership would have been five hundred. All these promotional efforts – unfortunately – are absolutely necessary.
One of the ironies of the seventies and eighties is that once Federal and State grant kicked in to support not just filmmaking but venues for exhibiting film, it took the pressure off many programmers to build audiences. The money would keep coming in, as long as we presented intelligent programming, even if nobody showed up to see the films. I hate making this argument, but in fact, your success in building audience was at least partly a product of necessity. If you didn’t build an audience, you couldn’t show films.
Well, that’s true, but on the other hand, I am much in favor of government support for the arts, so long as there are no conditions attached to the money. At Cinema 16 our lives would have been much easier and we would have been even more successful – we might have continued to exist! – had we had outside support. In many other countries, as you know, there’s much greater governmental support for the arts than there is here. Anyone who studies this comes to the conclusion that in America we’re like paupers when it comes to the arts. And, of course, even the tiny amount now being given will probably be cut further. But as I said, governmental support must be entirely without strings or any kind of censorship. Otherwise I would reject it. The ideological, political, aesthetic independence of the project is much more important to me than any support I could be getting from any outside source.
There are many exhibitors now, as then, who don’t particularly care about building an audience. They’re in safe little oases and they’re showing the films to their friends and everybody likes each others’ films. But it is also true that we find ourselves in an extremely negative general cultural situation, which is very hostile to the avant-garde and to new ideas both in terms of style and in terms of content. Some of this has to do with the suffocating consumerism under which we are all suffering now. Television has been a horrendous influence – not because of what television is inherently, but because at the present time, it’s owned by business interests. This leads to a kind of national infantilism, cultural idiotization, stupification, which has recently become an international process. American television is dominant across the world, and it has led to the destruction of national cinemas in most of the existing production centers. So we also have to look at the question of the avant-garde in that context.
Another point: a very essential point. What is the avant-garde? Who is the avant-garde? I think there was an interesting conceptual error made by the New American Cinema Group in the early sixties: namely, they excluded – either were not interested in or were opposed to – the commercial avant-garde. They even questioned as to whether these people were avant-garde. From the very beginning I had always included in my own definition of “avant-garde” people like Antonioni, and Bresson, and the early Bertolucci. Oshima. Fassbinder. You could go on and on with these names. It’s a very serious error to exclude these filmmakers. I’m against commercialism as much as the next person, but at the same time, you have to realize that there are people trying to find new styles, approaches, content, even in the commercial arena, and they must not be eliminated. Sometimes their achievements – in terms of experimentation – are as important, if not more important, than those of the strictly noncommercial “experimental filmmakers” you and I love.
If I ran a Cinema 16 now, I would show the works of such people, along with all the other kinds of “experiment.” Certainly this would attract more of an audience.
I think I would go further than you. Most of us get into film, not through avant-garde work but through popular film experiences. I go to the movies all the time. I have never seen my interest in avant-garde film as destructive of my interest in the movies. Even at Cinema 16, you scheduled visits by Hitchcock and King Vidor.
Commercial directors can give us ideas sometimes. After all, they have access to production budgets that allow them to try things no other filmmakers can.
Another controversial point – at least for some people, not for me. Video. There’s much greater technical proficiency with video now than there was at the beginning, and the projection facilities have improved greatly. When the average audience sees good video work well-projected on a large screen, they can’t even tell the difference between video and 16mm film, or even 35mm. Certainly, there’s interesting avant-garde work going on in video. As a programmer, am I supposed to say to people who only want to work in video, I will not show your work because it’s not “pure cinema”? I don’t even know what “pure cinema” means. If you want to build audiences, you have to include the best videos, which can range from advanced avant-garde work to wonderful documentaries, to music videos.
As we know, the MTV-style, one-image-after-another cutting accompanied by a very strongly rhythmic soundtrack of rock ‘n roll or rap (or what have you), has entered the commercial cinema. Oliver Stone is an example, both in JFK  and Natural Born Killers , as are current movie previews–we used to call them “trailers.” Much of it is mind-numbing. On the other hand, there are some people who are doing very interesting things in music videos. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say all music videos are commercial and not to be taken seriously as art. What do you do with Zbignew Rybczynski? And there are many others. All of these things should be part of the mix of the programming of this ideal exhibition showcase we’re talking about here.
I think we need to learn form the other visual arts. For me, it’s a question of where the dialectic takes place. At the major modern art museums, we can see the history of very diverse approaches that were established originally in opposition to each other; and the public, which is considerable for any major show, goes to the museum to experience the interplay of these various approaches. In the history of avant-garde film, the situation is very different. On could argue that the New American Cinema model of exhibition and distribution was a healthy response to what Cinema 16 had done. The problem is that these two approaches were set up as mutually-exclusive. The Collective for Living Cinema was established, for understandable reasons, in opposition to Anthology and its Essential Cinema approach [a five-man selection committee - James Broughton, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, Jonas Mekas, P. Adams Sitney - chose a set of films they defined as the "essential" masterworks of film history; see Sitney, The Essential Cinema (New York: New York University Press and Anthology Film Archives, 1975)] rather than as a collaboration within a growing, larger institutional framework. Each new institution has been built on the ashes of the previous institution – and so at the end all we have is a lot of ashes.
I understand what you mean, but I must tell you that no matter what the present situation is, despite the social factors that are operating against us and the narrowness of the existing showcases, I have a very optimistic attitude. In my opinion, the avant-garde will never die; it cannot die. There will always be people who want to go against whatever the current orthodoxies are, who want to strike out in new directions and find new ways of expression. When people ask me how I can be optimistic now about the possibilities for progressive politics or for subversive art, I have a saying: “I have more confidence in my enemies than I have in my friends.” I’m convinced that my enemies will continue to do the most outrageously repressive things and therefore will again, inevitably, evoke a revolt on the part of those who are being kept out or kept down artificially and by force. The power of the artistic impulse that creates what we call the avant-garde cannot be overcome; it will always rise again.
From Scott MacDonald‘s Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society
(Temple University Press, 2002). Here to purchase the book.
© Scott MacDonald/Temple University Press
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders