When Film as a Subversive Art was first published in 1974, it was already after the fact. Amos Vogel had spent 16 years – from 1947 to 1963 – running the legendary Cinema 16 film society in New York, during which time he had explored the outer limits of eclecticism – avant-garde experiments next to anthropological documentaries, propaganda next to pornography. Along the way he had helped to engender an entire subculture, inspiring a young Jonas Mekas to found Anthology Film Archives and, outside New York, a generation of young film programmers to mix their messages. What marked Vogel out was his almost indecent sensitivity to any image that burnt, whatever its provenance.
Film as a Subversive Art draws heavily on Vogel’s programming years. The book is organized thematically, in chapters exploring different ways in which film can subvert conventions of viewing and experience: ‘The Destruction of Time and Space’ or ‘The Ultimate Secret: Death’, for instance. Each chapter is prefaced by a short essay, but the substance of the book is in the carefully compiled lists of films that follow each text and the copious black and white illustrations. Films rarely receive more than a couple of hundred words, often a simple précis, but this compression allows the full galaxy of film’s transgressors and black magicians to feature: Stan Brakhage and Otto Muehl rub shoulders with Alain Resnais and Orson Welles, not to mention war newsreels and televised gynaecology, in a manner that prizes elective affinities over categorical good taste. In this way Vogel’s book mirrors the underground anthology films of the time – a kind of Mondo Avant-Garde. The heavily captioned illustrations, meanwhile, function as a kind of parallel text; Vogel’s taxonomic eye organizes them in such a way that they often overwhelm the writing and begin to resemble collages by Hans-
Some sections bear the stigma of faded taboos – subversion, as Vogel himself acknowledges, remains a movable feast. For example, Vogel’s hopes for the ‘porno-political’ and what he calls ‘erotic realism’ look quaint, as does his lament at the lack of on-screen ejaculations. The book is certainly blotchy, partial, sometimes sententious. Nevertheless, Film as a Subversive Art, in this facsimile edition, now resembles nothing so much as an archaeological find. At the time it was presumably intended in part as a sourcebook for other programmers; now that independent (and particularly 16mm) film distribution and exhibition have been almost obliterated, it is a guide to an invisible city. Cinemas as subversive spaces, thriving on their suppressed sociality – places we go together to be alone, as Jean-Luc Godard, one of Vogel’s avatars, once put it – are in perhaps terminal decline; film has receded into an increasingly amorphous moving-image culture, in which viewing is more fundamentally solitary. Between the lines Vogel’s book is testament to a history of screenings and cinema-going as much as it is to the films themselves. While Vogel’s contemporary Manny Farber produced his best insights in microcosm, with his elegant decompositions of individual films, Film as a Subversive Art provides a kind of complementary aerial perspective: a scattergun survey of vanished filmic vistas.