U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Amos Vogel: The Soul of Postwar NYC Movie Culture

On Tuesday April 24, 2012 Amos Vogel died at his home in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan.  When writing my dissertation on the way movies challenged the idea of art in twentieth century America, which subsequently became my first book, the only person I wanted to interview (really wanted to interview) was Amos Vogel.  He and his wife Marcia let visit with them for an extended afternoon in 1999 in their spacious apartment in which they lived, by that point, for probably 40 or 50.  I interviewed both of them because they had jointly founded and operated the single most influential and significant alternative cinema in postwar NYC–Cinema 16.  Cinema 16 was technically a club–people had to pay dues and become members–and so skirted around the draconian censorship laws that blanketed big city movie cultures, perhaps most acutely in New York.  There is an amazing collection of documents and essays on Cinema 16 published by the very good film historian Scott MacDonald.  The Vogels worked tirelessly to bring the best experimental, European, and independent films to their members–who numbered in the few thousands at the club’s peak.  Many filmmakers, from Stan Brakhage to Alfred Hitchcock, spoke to audiences at screenings.  The success of this enterprise could not be measured by ticket sales or palatial settings, but by the people in film who moved through Cinema 16 at one time or another: from critics such as Andrew Sarris and John Simon to filmmakers such as the Mekas brothers and Roman Polanski.

The influence of Cinema 16 enabled Amos to make a pitch to the president and board of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to be the film programmer for a cinema festival there.  Along with British film critic Richard Roud, Vogel directed the first film festival there in 1963.  The NYTimes has a solid obituary about Vogel and the arc of his career.  
I could not let Vogel’s passing go without acknowledging how significant his influence was over New York City movie culture and my understanding of it.  I have written about Vogel for this blog before and will continue to teach about the critical and theoretical stands Amos Vogel took in the most vibrant period of American movie culture.