Independent film in New York City has had several champions throughout its lifetime; one of the most vocal and committed being film critic and historian, Amos Vogel. Vogel, with his wife Marcia, has spent a lifetime promoting independent film and filmmakers, first through their non-profit membership organization, Cinema 16, and later as director of the New York Film Festival under the umbrella of Lincoln Center.
Amos Vogel (neé Vogelbaum) was born in Vienna Austria, on April 18, 1921. His mother, Matel, was a kindergarten teacher and his father, Samuel, a lawyer. According to an interview by Scott MacDonald, Vogel had always shown an interest in the cinema, frequenting many screenings and was a member of a large film society in Vienna. He was forced to emigrate during the Anschluss and fled to Cuba with his mother. After a short period in detention, Vogel was able to enter the United States settling in New York in 1939. He received a B.A. in Political Science and Economics at the New School for Social Research in 1949. During his time as an undergraduate, Vogel married Marcia Diener. It was also at this time that Vogel became aware of the abundance of 16 mm film that existed, but were not being shown to the public, mainly because of cost. These were not avant-garde film, but films that could be considered nonfiction, e.g. educational films, documentaries.
In 1947, Vogel and his wife, Marcia, founded Cinema 16 which grew into the largest film society within the United States. At its pinnacle, the society had seven thousand members who regularly attended screenings at the High School of Fashion Industries (in Manhattan) and other locations throughout New York City. Vogel, his wife Marcia, and later his assistant Jack Goelman spent countless hours screening films, creating events based upon numerous themes, and writing extensive program notes in order to engage their audiences with independent cinema. By the 1950s, Cinema 16 had begun to establish itself as a salient distributor of independent film. These were distributed to film societies, universities, museums, and other interested parties.
As the influence of Cinema 16 spread, Vogel added special events to the regular and scrupulously planned screenings. A Children's Cinema designed for aged 4 through 8 ran for two seasons. For three years, in collaboration with the Curator of Film at the George Eastman House, Vogel brought Cinema 16 members onto "field trips" where they spent an entire weekend devoted to nothing but film. There were courses sponsored by Cinema 16 at local universities and institutions. Several publications were issued, including an essay on Kurasawa's Rashomon by Parker Tyler and a quarterly entitled Filmwise. Awards, such as the Robert Flaherty Award for documentary film and the Creative Film Foundation Awards (1956-1960), for experimental films, helped focus attention upon the growing interest in independent and experimental cinema.
By the early 1960s, running Cinema 16 became increasingly difficult. Rising financial costs, coupled with competition from other entertainment venues, such as art-house theaters and television made sustaining a viable and vibrant organization almost impossible. Cinema 16's final season was in 1963. In the early 1990s, Cinema 16 retrospectives and tributes were conducted at the Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Film Forum.
Vogel went on to be director of The New York Film Festival, a position he held from 1963 until 1968 and director of the Film Department (1964-1968), both at Lincoln Center. Later he served as a film consultant for Grove Press and National Educational Television, and in 1973, was named a professor of communications at the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. He held this position until 1993. Vogel has also been visiting faculty at Harvard, New York University, and Columbia University.
In addition to his teaching, Amos Vogel is a prolific author. He was a columnist for The Village Voice and Film Comment from 1971 until 1985. In 1974, he wrote a book entitled Film as a Subversive Art, an analysis of the ways in which "subversive" material, be it ideological or sexual, can be used within the medium of film in order to manipulate the viewers conscious and unconscious mind. Vogel examines over five hundred films, many of which were rarely seen or banned works. The book was translated into five languages and issued in ten editions. Vogel was also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Cineaste, Saturday Review, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Hollywood Quarterly, Afterimage, Antioch Review, and other film publications.
He was a member of innumerable international film juries and was an invited guest of Cannes, Moscow, Berlin, Venice, Karlovyvary, Oberhausen, and many other international film festivals. Honors for Amos Vogel include the 1994 and 1998 Award for Pioneering Work and Writings on behalf of Independent Cinema from the Anthology Film Archives and the Robert J. Flaherty International Film Seminars, respectively. He also holds an honorary M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Marcia Vogel passed away in February 2009. She is survived by her husband and her two sons, Steven and Loring. Amos continues to live in New York City.