Cinema 16: a film society remembered

THE lobby of the Film Forum, an independent-minded theater in lower Manhattan, is usually adorned with posters and announcements of coming attractions. Just now, though, its display cases are filled with a striking collection of letters and photographs written by, autographed by, or picturing a roster of cultural heroes ranging from Salvador Dali and Arthur Miller to Dylan Thomas and Jean Renoir. All these pieces of memorabilia are related to one man, Amos Vogel, and a unique organization he founded: Cinema 16, the largest and most influential of all American film societies during its heyday from 1947 to 1963.

Also at the Film Forum is a program of nine movies (running through June 10) designed to give today's viewers a taste of the variety and originality that Cinema 16 members were privy to. Offerings include a Swedish nature study by Arne Sucksdorff, a film poem by Stan Brakhage, a graphic study of French abattoirs by Georges Franju, and an unwittingly hilarious documentary on visual perception.

Each is an example of the proudly unconventional fare that Amos Vogel and his wife, Marcia Vogel, made the backbone of Cinema 16. Its screenings reflected the full spectrum of their restless curiosity about movies and the world at large and attracted thousands of other viewers with inquiring minds, including well-known members ranging from Marlon Brando and Joshua Logan to Elia Kazan and Steve Allen.

Cinema 16 had its origins when, as a movie-struck Austrian immigrant living in New York, young Amos Vogel realized there were movies he wanted to see that theaters wouldn't show, including not just story films but documentaries, scientific studies, and ``avant-garde'' works.

So he rented a few, hired a small theater for one night, and printed some flyers to announce the bill: a Martha Graham dance film, a surrealist work, a couple of animations, and a documentary. Then he settled back to see if anyone would show up.

And they did in such numbers that Vogel showed the program not once but 16 times. ``I could see that we were filling a real need,'' he recalled in his Greenwich Village home recently, still seeming a little amazed at the results of his experiment.

Cinema 16 flourished for 16 years, giving premi`eres of works by such American film artists as John Cassavetes and Brian De Palma, such Europeans as Fran,cois Truffaut and Michelangelo Antonioni, and such Asians as Yasujiro Ozu and Nagisa Oshima, among many others. Experimenters like Shirley Clarke and Bruce Conner shared the screen with storytellers like Roman Polanski, documentarists like Robert Gardner, and animators like Norman McLaren.

``Our programming was very eclectic,'' says Vogel, ``but it was carefully worked out in terms of what should be shown with what, and what the order should be.'' He liked combinations of films that would ``collide'' with each other, stimulating the audience in unexpected ways.

Instead of giving Cinema 16 a regular movie-theater setting, the Vogels ran it as a nonprofit club that anyone could join for a year at a time. This lessened the financial risk and skirted the conservative New York State censorship laws.

The society enjoyed long-term success with this format, attracting thousands of members per year, and forming a network with similar organizations across the country. Yet its doors finally closed in 1963, due partly to competition from television. Vogel also cites press apathy toward its unusual offerings, and a lack of support from foundation and government sources, even when a spurt of early-'60s inflation boosted all expenses. Vogel rejected the idea of seeking private contributions, because he was afraid wealthy donors might try to compromise his programming freedom ``and my subsequent experience in life has confirmed my views on that score,'' he reports.

Cinema 16's most important legacy has been the concept of movie exhibition, normally regarded as a straight business proposition, as a creative act, instead. This has influenced the programming of later showplaces, including the Film Forum, where the current Cinema 16 tribute is under way. Credit for the idea goes to Vogel, who sees exhibition as a form of self-expression.

``The project was very connected with my life,'' he says today, ``and with who I am. I'm a world-changer, at least in theory. I feel there are too many things wrong with the way we live. And film is a way of changing things.''

He quickly adds, ``That doesn't mean I want propaganda films! But knowledge is the first step toward . . . personal empowerment. So when I show films that convey knowledge, or new ways of seeing the world not the ordinary Hollywood way, I feel I'm contributing to a possible change.''

Thus the criterion for choosing Cinema 16 films was their ability to wake up and shake up the viewer. Vogel enjoyed taking responsibility for his choices, seeing them as extensions of his own personality.

``Whatever a human being does is an expression of his total being,'' he remarks. ``Even when a person says he isn't pushing any value system, that means he's actually pushing the status quo!''

Vogel also made a point of dodging limitations and taboos. ``A philosopher once said that `nothing human is alien to me,' and this was part of the programming,' he notes. ``Furthest from my mind were the box-office considerations that theater-owners must abide by in a society based on commerce. I would show films that I knew in advance the audience would hate: There would be demonstrations for and against films, and members would stalk out, tearing up their membership cards! My reaction was to continue showing those films. I wasn't being presumptuous, but I felt that, even if didn't like a film myself, people should be aware of it if new techniques or forms of expression were contained in it.''

Given the huge popularity that Cinema 16 enjoyed for so many years, why are offbeat films virtually invisible today except in museums, classrooms, and noncommercial showplaces? According to Vogel, it's because film -- unlike theater, music, and dance -- is regarded by most people as a mass art, with the result that audience habits are conditioned by the ``tremendous, octopus-like'' force of Hollywood. He adds that audiences are less flexible today than during the 1950s, a ``less conservative, more open'' time with regard to the arts.

In the years since Cinema 16 ended, Vogel has been very busy: writing books and articles, teaching at Harvard University, and founding the New York Film Festival, to name just a few activities. Looking at today's film scene from his long experience, he admits to a gloomy view of things. ``Film as an art is in very deep trouble,'' he says.

``This is due to the overpowering influence of commercial interests not only in the US,'' he explains, ``but in the rest of the world, where American cinema has become dominant. Fewer and fewer films deal with serious human problems. There's more and more horror, superstition, violence, space opera, and pitching to the audience between about 15 and 22 . . . . How is the new generation [of filmmakers] being nurtured and supported in this kind of market situation?''

He tries to counter these trends in his current position as professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he shows a wide variety of films to his students. ``By exposing them to completely new ways of looking at films when they thought there was only one way I'm doing the same thing with their understanding of American realities,'' he says. ``I'm opening them to the possibility that things don't have to be the way they are.''

For himself, he always looks at cinema from a larger perspective. ``As someone said, I'm a pessimist in terms of reason, but I remain an optimist in terms of feeling. I believe the problem of film is part of a bigger problem of contemporary culture, which is part of a yet bigger problem: contemporary civilization or society.''

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