Book Review: BE SAND, NOT OIL - THE LIFE AND WORK OF AMOS VOGEL Or The Almost Lost Subversion In Cinema
When people attain a fascination with the medium of film they rarely choose a career in education. More often they become filmmakers, film critics (which is or at least should be some kind of education) and most often (like all of us) film buffs.
The Austrian born Amos Vogel is one of the most important exceptions to this rule. Being Jewish the young Amos had to leave Germany before the beginning of World War II. He became an American citizen and lived in the States from 1939 until he died in April 2012. Vogel is best known for his book Film As A Subversive Art (1974) and his role as one of the pioneers in showing avant-garde and art films in the States.
In 1947 he created Cinema 16 a New York based showcase for many until then unknown and marginal filmmakers in the USA like Kenneth Anger, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni or Roman Polanski. The book clearly shows that Cinema 16 is where the proud heart of Vogel has always beaten. In an enthusiastic text he describes the importance of Cinema 16 in relation to the subversive potential of art, the counteraction against the dominant Hollywood model and the role of film for society.
As Be Sand, Not Oil (edited by Paul Cronin and released by the beautiful illustrated Synema-Publications of the Austrian Filmmuseum) gives much room to previously unpublished or rare essays by Vogel this is not a biography but an educational manifesto. It is not merely a book about Amos Vogel but by Amos Vogel or at least a publication about his worldview and his view on cinema, both of them uniting in almost every line and giving an almost frightening account of a true and liberal thinker.
The texts and opinions of Vogel show that he never was a man heading for easy decisions and friendships. In his texts and his interviews he denounces critics, colleagues and filmmakers alike and even names them. Subversion and polemic reactions are part of Vogel's fight for cinema. He fought for what he thought was right, no matter how unpopular his programming decisions or opinions had been.
The title of the book, Be Sand, Not Oil describes exactly this attitude and is therefore also a description of the book itself. Vogel is of course, also a child of his times. Cronin describes him as influenced by modernism, existentialism, relativity, modern theatre and nouveau roman among other things.
With Vogel's and Cronin's constant switches of political, social and film issues the borders between those fields begin to vanish. Especially Cronin's detailed account Politics Make The Man shows how politics always influenced the way Vogel approached films. In his highly entertaining text The Bad and the Beautiful: La Guerre est Commencée Vogel achieves what all his work seems to aim at.
While writing about the riots at the Cannes Film Festival 1968 Vogel connects cinema with the world and its politics. He for example starts the text by writing about Vietnam which seems at first to be very far from Cannes but then suddenly parallels appear. As soon as one thinks one knows his formula he detects a moment of cinematic beauty in politics like when he describes how Geraldine Chaplin tried to stop her film from being shown and appeared right before the screen at the same time as a close-up of her face was visible on the screen. There is a great deal of irony here but also an urgency that demands for a serious take on art and film.
A good example for the way Vogel's thinking connected political and aesthetic issues is presented when he writes about Steven Spielberg's Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He dislikes Hollywood not for being Hollywood or entertainment but for not doing justice to its social relevance, its influence on people. He especially mourns about the Spielberg Generation, when blockbusters took out the last breath of deepness in commercial cinema and it all became a matter of cynical spectacles and sensations that manipulated audiences in following racist or pseudo-religious motives.
In combining this text with Vogel's take on Art In The Third Reich the book for once matches the subversion of its subject. In every other aspect it is not sand, but oil which follows the path of a great and difficult man. The good thing about it is that one is able to judge by oneself; the bad thing is that some opinions expressed have a redundant air about them. Being a book about the thoughts of a man this attitude works nevertheless, as one is able to see how profound an intellectual way of dealing with cinema can be.
Almost all texts in the book show the constant search for the new and undiscovered by Vogel. It gives much room for Vogel's thoughts on cinema. Some reports on festivals, streams of the time and singular films are printed for the first time. He is very much in favor of movements in cinema, be it the famous Nouvelle Vague, New American Cinema, New German Cinema or the Third Cinema of South America. He also embraced the animation film when "(...) some scholars continued to solemnly maintain that animation is not cinema."
Following Vogel's opinion film is an art for the young. After the financial breakdown of Cinema 16, Vogel played an important role in establishing the New York Film Festival. He lived in a time when film became a culture of its own in the USA. Film Schools were founded, film studies became an academic field and many important figures in film criticism and film making were part of this world.
As the essays in the book follow a chronological order one can clearly sense this evolution. After Vogel felt that the New York Film Festival has been compromised (there is also a highly interesting letter to Maya Deren about the topic in the book) he left and started a teaching career.
In his essay The Philadelphia Story Michael Chaiken describes Vogel's time at Annenberg and his ideas about teaching cinema. It is clearly a life work as opposed to the life and work of Amos Vogel as he always draws back to his first ideas, his first experiences with the medium, the world it surrounds it and the world it shows.
At the end of a year which marked the 50th anniversary of the Austrian Filmmuseum the book comes as a further indication of the connections between the film culture in Vienna and the one at the East Coast of the USA. It also shows how huge the cinematic potential and energy was around 50 years ago. Looking at it now we seem to be in a desert. The subversive power of cinema is always menaced by its disentanglement of society. Who cares?
Fighters like Vogel are clearly needed and there are only few of the left, those film buffs that aim for education instead of creative self fulfillment. Therefore it is an important pleasure that Be Sand, Not Oil is published at a place where the very notion of cinema education and its appeal are still lived by its sandy and not so oily director Alexander Horwath who may be (next to a few others, among them clearly Adrian Martin) one of the last Vogels in cinema.