As I was randomly perusing through books that I have previously read earlier today, I landed on an introductory message by Amos Vogel that was originally written for the German re-release of his Film As a Subversive Art and was included at the end of Scott MacDonald’s Cinema 16: Documents Towards the History of the Film Society.  Considering the announcement of certain dubious awards made this morning (yeah, you know the ones), and the recent end of a certain dubious festival a few days ago (yeah, you know the one), I felt it was very much in line with some of the things running through my head lately and are worth sharing here. Of course as I hope is obvious, I don’t mean to trivialize certain aspects of the piece (particularly those directed specifically at the German readership and Vogel’s heritage) by suggesting all of the expressed sentiments have been familiar to me, but rather out of respect for the author I’m including the article it in its entirety:


Though my book was written in English, my native language is German.  It therefore gives me much pleasure to note that the first republication of the book occurs in the German language.

It is an additional source of pleasure for me—this time, a perverse one—that it occurs in Austria, the country which, under Hitler, almost succeeded in killing me.  Obviously a new wind is blowing in my native country, though its purity is somewhat impaired by odors wafting from the direction of Jorg Haider, the hope of the New Austrian Right.

But I, in my new country, should not complain too much about others; we have our own noxious right-wing and its power, too, is growing.

In fact, contemporary America—a late capitalist colossus, owned by large corporations while parading as a democracy and dominated by rabid commercialism and consumerism—is now attempting to dominate the world via trans-nationals, Hollywood cinema and television, the export of American cultural ‘values,’ the Disneyfication of the globe.  It’s not the dinosaurs and extra-terrestrials that the rest of the world ought to be afraid of; it is the commodification of all spheres of human existence, the seemingly unstoppable commercialization of human life and society, the growing international blight of the theme parks, the all-pervasive malling of the world.  Our fate seems to be the homogenization of culture—an universal leveling down, an anesthetizing, pernicious blandness.

The space in which this infantilization of the human race is most clearly revealed in the monstrous structures of American television; for the first time in history, the most powerful mass medium of a society is totally controlled and dominated by advertisers and the marked, totally driven by commercial imperatives, saturated by ubiquitous commercials that deliver audiences to advertisers (not programs to audiences); and an ever larger spectrum t of channels delivering primarily garbage 365 days a year.  Thus has the marvelous potential of this medium been betrayed.

And the American cinema—today the most powerful in the world—is not far behind in its successful stultification of audiences.  We are inundated by meretricious stories, a failure to explore the marvelous aesthetic potential of this medium, a pandering to the lowest common denominator, a truly horrifying concentration on the most cruel violence, a smirking perversion of sex hobbled by hoary prohibitions.  This is topped by an obscene (profit-driven) blockbuster obsession leading to more and more films in the 100 million dollar range.

For those who still have resources of personal identity—an increasingly difficult and perilous endeavor—there exists no more important obligation than to attempt to counteract these tendencies.  Otherwise, future generations may accuse us of having been “good Germans” all over again; cooperating with evil not by our deeds but by our silence.  Silence, under such circumstances, is complicity.

There were moments in our blood-drenched century, when there seemed to be hope; the equalitarian impulses behind the 1917 Russian revolution (perverted within ten years); the Kibbutz movement’s attempts in Israel to establish socialist communes (today they exploit Arab/Third World labor); the promise of the 1960s (eventuating in the current world situation).  As we approach the Millennium, these humanist impulses are now behind us.

And yet, everything in past human history teaches that these attempts to transform us into humans will inevitably continue.  In terms of cinema, this explains the very large importance of independent showcases and independent festivals; it explains the ‘exceptions’ (from the Hollywood drivel); both those that constitute the content of my book as well as, even more importantly, those that continue to be made today.  Not those fake ‘independent films’ whose makers only aspire to become the next Hollywood stars—but those true iconoclasts and independents—feature, avant-garde or documentary filmmakers—who even under today’s bleak circumstances audaciously continue to ‘transgress’ (i.e. subvert) narrative modes, themes, structures, and the visual/aural conventions of mainstream cinema.

What a pleasure, then, for a man of cinema, to help discover and support these ‘exceptions’.  Though I am 76, my search continues unabated; I attend film festivals, museum series, the special showcases, serve on juries and selection committees, write articles and reviews, inform potential distributors and exhibitors and compose supporting letters to foundations and governmental institutions for grants and subsidies.

Momentous changes have occurred since the original edition of this book, among them the disappearance of the USSR and the GDR, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the triumph, globally, of American commercial cinema and television.  Yet I find no reason to modify or change any of the basic theses or structures put forth in the original.

For me, the most important conclusion I came to then remains as true today.  Realizing its significance, I had stealthily placed it at the very end of my book, neither highlighting nor situating it in a separate paragraph, thus making sure that the real message of the work would be appreciated fully only by those who had kept reading to the very end.  There is therefore no better way for me to conclude this forward than by once again not drawing my new readers; attention to it [See ‘The Eternal Subversion’ pp. 437-39].


I think Vogel’s seminal book need no real introduction from me, other than to reiterate that despite sporadically drifting a little too heavily into the sort of “side-show” aesthetic occasionally leveled at his programming style, it is an extremely enjoyable, insightful and often amusing read, and a great chance to get a peek into the mind of an individual whose determined efforts had influence far and wide.  

MacDonald’s book, along with his two other works of a like-minded nature, Art in Cinema and Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of An Independent Film Distributor, offer readers a chance to examine first-hand the rise of seminal alternative film society movements on both coasts through letters and interviews with various key members, as well as assorted programs notes and listings.  They are invaluable resources for those looking to get a grasp (however unavoidably limited) of some of the historical developments in and around the field in the U.S., as well as serving as a considerable source of inspiration for those of us with similar, though perhaps a little less lofty, hopes and dreams.   


((My apologies for the general feeling of hostility permeating some of my recent posts, but unfortunately such has been my prevailing mindset of late.  Nevertheless, there is much at the present time to be pleased about, and no doubt many great opportunities lie on the immediate horizon))