The Sticking Place

Cinema 16 and the Questioning of Programming
by Amos Vogel

Should film societies concentrate on features or on shorts? Should they show The Birth of a Baby or Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest? Are they “growing up” by turning away from educational films and toward the classics? Are they to function simply as substitutes for art cinemas in smaller communities? Is there a place on their pro- grams for films banned by censors?

A film society functions as a viable entity only if it both expresses and satisfactorily fulfills an existing need: to provide a forum and showcase for an increased awareness and appreciation of film as a medium of art, information, and education. The [British] Federation of Film Societies states this very succinctly: “The objects of the society shall be to encourage interest in the film as an art and as a medium of information and education by means of the exhibition of films of a scientific, educational, cultural and artistic character.”

This seemingly innocuous formulation leads to a number of interesting considerations:

1. It establishes as the sole criterion of programming the artistic merit, the informational-educational value, the significance of new techniques, of any given film.

2. By the same token, it excludes any moral, political, religious, ideological criteria, or objections to content and subject matter of any given film. Were content to become a criterion of programming, film societies would quickly become subject to pressure groups representing political, ideological, moral viewpoints that have no relevance to the esthetics of film. In determining to resist these pressures to the extent that they are irrelevant to a greater appreciation of the film medium and to stick closely to the criteria advanced above, the programming director or commit- tee must take the broadest and most objective viewpoint possible. Objectivity is in itself an “education in democracy” for the group as a whole, quite applicable to other fields of human endeavor. It represents the antithesis of censorship in any form and makes the society a workshop in democracy.

Program directors must withstand attempts to prevent the showings of such films as Triumph of the Will (an important example of the propaganda film at its best, however vicious), Birth of a Nation, Potemkin (or any other Soviet films), the Morrow- Oppenheimer Interview, Ecstasy, Oliver Twist; likewise, some members may object to modern art and hence deplore avant-garde, expressionist, abstract, surrealist, symbolist, poetic films (including, very definitely, Un Chien Andalou). Others cannot bear the sight of blood (as in one of the outstanding post-war European documentaries, Blood of the Beasts); still others object to the portrayal of sexual problems on the screen (homosexuality in Fireworks).

Provided the criteria of artistic and educational value are met, all of the above films have a definite place on a film society’s program. Anyone objecting to their showing has the right to absent himself from the performance; he has no right to impose his particular moral or political values on the rest of the group by asking it to with- draw the film.

3. Keeping these criteria in mind, the distinction between shorts and features becomes meaningless, a mere matter of running time. There is much film art in some shorts and little film art in many features and vice versa. Film societies that have been showing features almost exclusively, have deprived themselves of a rich and essential source of important film material. It is easy to “program” a series by mixing together one Garbo, one Eisenstein, one Marx Brothers, one Griffith and throwing in Ecstasy for good measure. But serious programming includes the patient search for the large mass of material available in shorts. In fact, a good case can be made for the argument that there is often more freshness, more experimentation, and a greater striving for new cinematic achievements in shorts than in features. The reason for this is quite obviously economic. The investment in commercial features is too great to permit of much experimentation. It is frequently in the short film, the “sub-standard” film, the independent film (more often a labor of love than of commerce) that we find new approaches, however halting, to the film medium. Just think of this by no means complete list of names: McLaren, Lee, Deren, Rotha, Wright, Hugo, Grierson, Peterson, Franju, Epstein, Vedrès, Bellon, Cavalcanti, Lorentz, Broughton, Van Dyke, Harrington, Ruttmann, Richter, Maas, Storck, Anger, Mitry, van der Horst, Elton, Anstey, Kirsanov, Dulac, Hammid, Emmer, Buñuel – and you will see how meaningless the separation between the short and the feature really is.

4. It is also clear that programming will vary with local conditions, the composition of the group, and other factors. In states where local censorship laws obtain, it becomes part of the function of the society to provide a showcase for otherwise unavailable films (as long as the criterion remains the inherent artistic or educational value of the film). Thus, a case can be made for both Ecstasy, an important early poetic film of aesthetic interest, as well as for a film on childbirth, a subject of great educational interest.

In other areas, the absence of a local art theatre will determine a concentration on foreign and art theatre-type feature films. This remains true of a large number of film society operations in the U.S.

5. To encourage interest in the cinema not only as an art form but also as a “medium of information and education” is, to the British and European ciné-clubs, a self-evident function of a film society, implicit in its very concept. This may come as a shock to some American societies. The truth of the matter seems to be that the European societies, possibly due to a broader and older cultural tradition, have never made an airtight separation between the various functions of the film medium. The important consideration is to get more and wider circles of audiences “excited” about the possibilities and achievements of the cinema. This, in addition to film classics, very definitely includes scientific films (time-lapse, high-speed, micro-cinematography); psychological studies (mental health films, psychological testing and research, candid camera approaches, such as in Slavson’s Activity Group Therapy, or in the CBS- TV The Search programs); social and other documentaries; art films, be they informational (Matisse), poetic (The World of Paul Delvaux), illustrative (Images Médiévales), subjective-biographical (The Tragic Pursuit of Perfection); sound track experiments (electronic, hand-drawn, musique concrete); film-width and 3-D experiments; and finally, films made without a camera or music made without musical instruments.

In fact, while it is not within the province of this article to discuss this subject in detail, where does “education” stop and “art” begin? A truly “educational” film – in attempting to involve our emotions – often begins to assume the qualities of art. Is Song of Ceylon merely a work of art – or does it also convey educational, informational values without being either statistical or didactic about it? What about Night Mail, The River, The Plow That Broke the Plains?

6. It is well to keep in mind the difference between a commercial movie theatre and a film society. The commercial movie theatre aims to entertain; the film society aims to further the appreciation of film and of new experiments in the medium. The commercial theatre steers clear of controversy, the film society welcomes it. If the films shown by the film society are entertaining, so much the better; but entertainment value cannot be the sole criterion for film society programming, nor can audience approval or disapproval. 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. (We could take to heart the remark made by Frederick Stock, director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who after introducing Brahms to Chicago audiences for the first time said: “They do not like Brahms… I shall play him again.”)

An historical example may be found in the works of the French avant-garde of the twenties. In spite of critical approval by a minority at the time, their efforts were frowned upon in more “respectable” circles, the showing of L’Age d’Or, for example, leading to a well-organized and well-publicized political riot. Yet today many of the devices and achievements of this school have not only percolated into commercial Hollywood production, but have inevitably been vulgarized as well. It is part of the function of film societies to continue as the spearhead of new experiments and talents, even at the risk of committing errors of judgment and taste. It is difficult to pick out the “greats” of tomorrow; but the film society, to remain true to itself, must never cease trying.

This, then, is a plea for more adventurous programming, for more daring, greater open-mindedness, and audacity. Perhaps the motto of the societies should be Tennessee Williams’ provocative exhortation for our age when in Camino Real he has a somewhat tarnished Lord Byron once again setting out for unknown shores with the words: “Make voyages! Attempt them! There is nothing else!

(PDF of this article here)

Film Culture, May/June 1955

© The Estate of Amos Vogel/Film Culture
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