Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Film As A Subversive Art

WR: Mysteries Of The Organism

Ever fall in love with a book at first sight? It happened to me with Amos Vogel's Film As A Subversive Art (1974) a couple of years ago after I idly pulled it off a library shelf. Discovering it was out of print, I hunted it down used and tattered on the Net for a cool fifty bucks. Without hesitation I wrote out a check, only to find recently that the book is back in print and available new at my local bookstore for half the price.

Amos Vogel did something pretty amazing: from 1947 to 1963, based in New York, he ran Cinema 16, the single most successful and influential American film society ever. (It is interesting that film societies occupy no more than footnote status in US film history while being legendary in France, associated with figures like Henri Langlois and Georges Franju.) Vogel programmed hundreds of films, often creating provocative "dialectical" double bills of movies that deliberately subverted expectation, either of subject, form, or both. All the while, he was taking careful notes after each screening, amassing material for what would become Film As A Subversive Art. The book is lavishly illustrated with over 300 fascinating and eye-popping stills. (If I had brought it home as a kid, I'd have surely done so between the pages of my math textbook.)

I've always believed that epigraphs can uncannily telegraph the sensibility and thrust of a book. So, I thought I'd share with you the ones Vogel chose; they're pure dynamite.

  • "But that the white eyelid of the screen reflect its proper light, the universe would go up in flames." — Luis Buñuel

  • “Your order is meaningless, my chaos is significant.” — Nathanel West

  • “I like my movies made in Hollywood.” — Richard Nixon

  • “Only the perverse fantasy can still save us.” — Goethe, to Eckerman

  • “Behind the initiation to sensual pleasure, there loom narcotics.” — Pope Paul VII

  • “By the displacement of an atom, a world may be shaken.” — Oscar Wilde

  • “Film is the greatest teacher, because it teaches not only through the brain, but through the whole body.” — Vsevolod Pudovkin

  • “The cinema implies a total inversion of values, a complete upheaval of optics, of perspective and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorus, more captivating than love.” — Antonin Artaud

  • "'Don't go on multiplying the mysteries,’ Unwin said, ‘they should be kept simple. Bear in mind Poe's purloined letter, bear in mind Zangwill’s locked room.’ ‘Or made complex,’ replied Dunraven. ‘Bear in mind the universe.’" — Jorge Luis Borges

27 Comments:

Blogger girish said...

This is great fun:
An article on Hitchcock in the new Village Voice by Atom Egoyan.

December 07, 2005 7:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Modern Ailments Department:
"British doctors have issued a stark warning of a new affliction called "iPod finger"."

December 07, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

J.Hoberman on Narnia:
"Having read both Tolkien and Lewis aloud at bedtime, I can attest to the latter's superiority as a storyteller."

December 07, 2005 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

"I urge you to look at bad films, they are so often sublime." - Ado Kyrou

December 07, 2005 8:16 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

“One of the great American films of the last few years.” — Jacques Rivette on Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls

December 07, 2005 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Ooh, and to think that I'm getting this for Christmas!

December 07, 2005 8:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead, not sure how I missed that Senses piece. Awesome.
Wild coincidence: I have a Verhoeven/Showgirls post in the works. People may laugh. But it is one of the most interesting American films I have ever seen.

December 07, 2005 9:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt, you'll be drooling on Christmas Eve.

December 07, 2005 9:10 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

...So I shouldn't be too embarrassed about having seen "Showgirls" six or seven times?

BTW, a close friend's wife's relative is Ralph Lauren, who's either related to Elizabeth Berkley or Berkley's husband. Whatever. But my friend's been having holiday dinners with Berkley for several years...never taking ME along, mind you. I guess he's afraid I'd jump over the table and devour her.

Ever see her in "Roger Dodger"? It's not a perfect film, but I thought it worked fairly well, and Elizabeth (sharing scenes with Jennifer Beals) is quite touching.

December 07, 2005 9:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead--I thought the 45 minutes or so when Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley pop up in Roger Dodger were wonderful--so natural and yes, touching. The rest of the movie had to struggle to compete with that.
I'm wondering if you've ever blogged about Verhoeven or Showgirls or your Berkley worship. :-)

December 07, 2005 9:46 AM  
Blogger phil said...

sorry, just can't keep silent about the narnia remark. that's total crap! lewis reads like he's trying to strangle you with his writing.

anyways. what i really wanted to reply about was the borges quote. i love to see his head peek out of unexpected places. yay, borges, three cheers for borges.

and hell, three cheers for elizabeth berkley too. i think we all know her true talent was on display in her never-to-be-surpassed performance as Jessie Spano on Saved By the Bell. no, seriously.

December 07, 2005 9:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Phil--there are three fabulous volumes of Borges that were released by Penguin a year or two back: Collected Fictions, Nonfictions and Poetry. I have the first two; they're a little treasure. You'd love 'em.

December 07, 2005 10:01 AM  
Anonymous dvd said...

I saw a phenomenal documentary (which, at an hour in length, was far too short) on Vogel at a festival earlier this year, also called Film As A Subversive Art. There's a clip available here, although it doesn't appear to have had a regular release of any sort.

Ah, Hoberman beat me to the punch in making the Matthew Barney - Mr. Tumnus comparison!

December 07, 2005 10:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that link, David.
I've only heard about the documentary, but never had a chance to see it.

December 07, 2005 10:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain's screen capture quiz.
Judging from the aspect ratio of the screen, clearly a movie made after 1953.

December 07, 2005 10:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Headline: "Egghead profs crazy over new phenomenon."
I've been turning faculty colleagues in my department on to the novel idea of the "screen capture quiz": Filmbrain's and Aaron's. It's spreadin' like wildfire.

December 07, 2005 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Thanks for spreading the word Girish, much appreciated.

That said, Mr. Nellhaus is (at the moment) the lone entrant. I thought this one would be easy. . .

And speaking of Mr. Nellhaus, thank you so much for that Kyrou quote. This is (somewhat) the premise of Flicker, and I couldn't agree with him more. I must track down some of his books.

December 07, 2005 2:45 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

I probably run about 50-50 on filmbrain's quizzes (not that I submit any answers). But this one is right up my alley. :-)

December 07, 2005 3:39 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

girish, do you know much about this rereleased edition of Film as a Subversive Art? Does it contain new material or does it basically preserve the original edition? (I haven't seen a copy in bookstores out here yet).

December 07, 2005 6:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, my old copy was so fragile and ready to disintegrate that I decided to shelve it as a sentimental keepsake and buy a new copy of the rereleased book to actually use.
It preserves all the contents of the old book, plus it adds a nice new intro by Scott MacDonald (who authored the series of books called Critical Cinema, which contains extensive interviews with avant-garde directors), plus a brief intro by and photo of Vogel himself, who is now in his 80s.
I think I remember reading on your blog that you saw the documentary...

December 07, 2005 6:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Related to Peter's quote above from Kyrou:
I was stunned to find that Walerian Brorowczyk's The Beast, which I've been hunting for years, has suddenly popped up on the Netflix new releases list.

December 07, 2005 7:12 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I dream of a virtual ciné-club on the net that wouldn't be bound by the inaccessibility of prints. A post-screening conversation anyone in the world could attend. A cinephile "chatroom" around an ideal program, ideal because it's retrieved from the library of our memory and we don't have to rent it or wait for a screening. Although it's difficult to pretend the motivation to discuss following an actual projection.

re: Kyrou quote
You can't tell this to anybody though... I doubt people who never watch good films can see the sublime in bad films.

December 08, 2005 9:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nicely put, Harry.
You French have an interesting perspective. :-)

December 08, 2005 11:20 AM  
Anonymous ratzkywatzky said...

I bought my copy of Film as a Subversive Art from Jack Stevenson
(http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/stevenson.html )when he came through Seattle in the late 80s showing films from his collection. In addition to the books he'd published at that time, he had a nice stack of ...Subversive... as well. I'd remembered sneaking it home from the library as a kid and it's been a valuable friend ever since.

December 08, 2005 12:31 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Actually I saw the documentary at this year's SF Intl' Film Festival, and wrote about it and Vogel in my Senses of Cinema piece on it, which I even boldly titled Video as a Subversive Art even though I didn't quite delve into the subversive qualities of the video revolution in filmmaking as deeply as I hoped I would in the piece.

I tried to track down a copy of the Scott MacDonald-edited book Cinema 16 before writing the piece but failed. Luckily I've since found a copy and my understading of the the importance of Vogel and his film society has increased exponentially.

I love the Critical Cinema books. I don't own any but have checked each out from my public library at least once.

December 08, 2005 5:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that link, Brian.
I'd like to ILL the Cinema 16 book.
Scott Macdonald was the keynote speaker at Canada's leading avant-garde festival, Images (in Toronto), a couple of years back. He was really dynamic and I can imagine him being a great teacher.

December 08, 2005 11:39 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

I felt exactly the same as you did when I found "Film As A Subversive Art" when I found a Dutch language copy of it about two years ago, which I had discovered - like so many things these last years - via the internet.

I found your post when I suddenly remembered that you hadn't included Amos Vogel in your recent post " Archiveology: Five Hungry Men".

I can understand why he is not in there though, because as far as publications go, FaS is the only work by him that is well known.

I love the late hippy-ish, Marcuse-influence anti-bourgeois sensibility and of course, the impeccable taste list of films discussed.

January 03, 2007 6:34 PM  

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