This week brought news of the death of Amos Vogel, a man revered by many film wonks and, in the words of Martin Scorsese, “a giant” whose efforts constitute the very “origins of film culture in America.”
A huge claim, but Vogel did big things. Along with his late wife, Marcia Vogel, he started the film club Cinema 16, which screened “films you cannot see elsewhere” – at least not in late 1940s America. Vogel programmed experimental and avant garde works, documentaries and amateur films. The ambition behind these programs went far beyond introducing people to non-mainstream movies. According to notes for the club’s third screening in January 1948, by "bringing purposeful films to the general public, Cinema 16 will contribute to a great realization of the problems facing man in this atomic age.”
Vogel will be remembered for Cinema 16, for helping to found the New York Film Festival and for his book Film as a Subversive Art (a great read). But if all that seems long ago and far away, then look around you. His influence can be seen across Chicago’s independent cinema scene.
Of course 21st-century Chicago is very different from the Vogels' post-war New York. Here there's no scarcity of major name venues that provide access to all kinds of film from every part of the globe (Gene Siskel Film Center, Music Box Theatre, Doc Films, Block Cinema). But there are also stalwart independents like Facets Multi-Media or Chicago Filmmakers – which along the lines of Cinema 16 have memberships, and where an immersion in film can involve watching films or taking classes taught by film scholars and filmmakers alike.
We also have “micro” or DIY venues like The Nightingale or Cinema Borealis, which offer the same eclectic mix Vogel became famous for: experimental, oddball and popular films.
Film societies like the Northwest Chicago Film Society, White Light Cinema, and South Side Projections program regular or occasional series within existing venues, cinematic or not. Or you can get your film education on at Odd Obsession, which has one of the greatest DVD and VHS collections in the city.
The question is whether these all add up to that larger project Vogel embraced, to “build audiences” or as film critic Scott MacDonald would have it “to create a true community where people would come together to talk about political issues, to become better citizen[s]. The film society was, for Vogel, an aid to good citizenship in a democracy.”
Small-scale cineastes certainly preach to the choir - I love the intellectual and creative promiscuity of Chicago’s independent cinema scene, which is about on par with the level of cross-over and collaboration within our city’s improvised music world.
But the love does seem to reach beyond the regulars. Take the Portage Park neighborhood, which has both embraced and is willing to defend the variety of programming offered by its local movie theater. So out in the world there are glimmers of what local programmer/projector James Bond of Cinema Borealis has called that “undeniable collective beauty” of sitting together in the dark, watching some strange sweet mystery unfold.
To find out more about Vogel's efforts to improve the world through better film programming check out this extensive profile. And if you'd like to try to do some good via collective culture, peruse the rest of Weekender’s activist-style picks below!
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