Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Film as a Subversive Art

Film as a Subversive Art is the best book ever written about film and certainly the best illustrated (seeing stills for some of the rare films it discussed spurred me on to track down these films and in some cases the stills provided the only information available anywhere about certain films). First published in 1974 (the same year as another milestone tome, P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde), this film guide wrapped inside a philosophical treatise was long out of print until a recent second publishing in 2005. My advice to film geeks: Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore to buy this book!

Other than a forward by film scholar Scott MacDonald, the only new thing in the 2005 edition is the preface by its author, Cinema 16 and New York Film Festival founder Amos Vogel, but it is so spot-on in its sentiments about the current state of the medium that I had to regurgitate it here for Net surfers. By the way, in 2003 Paul Cronin directed an hour-long British documentary called Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16. Alas, it is not available stateside. If it were, it would serve - like its companion book - as a reminder to cinephiles everywhere that the arthouse/independent films and film festivals we take for granted today would not have existed without the efforts of people like Amos Vogel.

Amos Vogel

Contemporary America - a late capitalist colossus owned by corporations while parading as a democracy and dominated by rabid commercialism and consumerism - is attempting to dominate the world via transnationals, Hollywood cinema and television, the export of American cultural "values," the Disneyfication of the globe. It is 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: a universal leveling down, an anesthetizing, pernicious blandness.

The space in which this infantilization of the human race is most clearly revealed is 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 market, totally driven by commercial imperatives, saturated by ubiquitous commercials that deliver audiences to advertisers (not programs to audiences), and an ever larger spectrum 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 my 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 the last blood-drenched century when there seemed to be hope: the egalitarian impulses behind the 1917 Russian revolution (perverted within less than 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). Now several years into the Millenium, these humanist impulses seem 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 this book as well as, even more importantly, those that continue to me made today. Not those fake "independent" films whose makers only aspire to be 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 pleasure, then, for a man of cinema, to help discover and support these "exceptions." Though I am now in my 80s, my search continues unabated.

Well put, old man!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend got me this book at a yard sale. This is when it was out of print. It was like finding gold.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was envious of Adele's ownership of an original printing of Vogel's book. But I became excited when the reprint came out, and it was 50% larger than the original!

As it turned out, though, it was printed on thicker, more durable paper, thus merely giving the APPEARANCE of being significantly larger. Save for a new introduction, the new printing is identical to the original.

2:17 AM  

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