The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 185-188
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Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society. Scott MacDonald. Temple University Press, 2002
For decades the only books available on the history of American avant-garde cinema were either hagiographies or art history-inflected narratives of great men and their movements. Valorizing the film artist, such histories implied little need for the kind of institutional [End Page 185] histories that film studies was beginning to produce in the 1980s and after in relation to Hollywood. However, as I noted in my Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), avant-garde film movements can only be historically circumscribed if they are constituted in terms of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception. Thankfully, the work of creating such institutional histories has now begun, as evidenced in David James's work on the West Coast avant-garde and Scott MacDonald's smashing book on Cinema 16, the New York film society founded by Amos and Marcia Vogel in the late 1940s, which became the primary sounding board for much American avant-garde film production in the 1950s.
First published as a special double issue of Wide Angle in 1997, Scott MacDonald's book consists of an introductory essay, interviews with numerous participants, every program over the society's fifteen-year history, selected articles by Vogel and others, and, most important, correspondence between Vogel and such avant-garde filmmakers as Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Joseph Cornell, Gregory Markopoulos, Sidney Peterson, Frank Staufacher, Willard Maas, Jordon Belson, and numerous others. Taken from Vogel's files of thousands of letters, MacDonald based his selection on their importance in relation to "the development of Cinema 16," to film history, and to "attitudes" of famous filmmakers to their work (27). Ordered chronologically, this collection of documents reads like a novel with an ever-changing cast of characters and offers enough documentation for several dissertations.
Cinema 16 was the most successful film society of the twentieth century, presenting monthly film programs to its seven thousand members at several different screening spaces around New York City. When Cinema 16 scheduled an evening of films, toute New York, including many of the city's most famous intellectuals, showed up for the party. As audience surveys demonstrated, Cinema 16 audiences were overwhelmingly young (59 percent under thirty), educated (75 percent college grads), affluent (55 percent professionals or in business), and presumably white, although Vogel was also a pioneer in programming minority film work, as evidenced by Melvin van Peebles's remarks (354). By the early 1950s, Cinema 16 had also become one of the most important distributors of American avant-garde cinema, making the films of Anger and his colleagues available to hundreds of burgeoning film clubs, universities, and other nonprofit screens. Finally, Cinema 16 organized special events, awards evenings, and even college film courses. Its demise in 1963 came almost as quickly as its appearance, when Vogel was unable to eliminate a $20,000 deficit. Surprisingly, he had run his vibrant program for fifteen years without government subsidies or foundation grants, relying solely on membership dues, which he refused to raise.
Scott MacDonald's informative introduction contextualizes Amos Vogel's achievement, emphasizing Cinema 16's mass appeal and its mixed programming, which nevertheless represented an alternative to Hollywood studio product: "From the very beginning, Vogel was determined to demonstrate that there is an alternative to industry-made cinema, an alternative that is in touch with practical and spiritual lives of individuals, whether these lives are represented by committed documentarians or expressed in abstract or psychodramatic imagery" (9). Cinema 16 programs offered avant-garde films, documentaries, scientific films, travel films, as well as classic silent and sound films, including European art films and Hollywood features. As MacDonald notes, the model for such programs was to be found in Vogel's experience of a film society in his native Vienna in the early 1930s, and he mentions the London Film Society as a forerunner.
However, I would go further and state that...