Scott MacDonald's Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society

Brian Frye

Printed in MFJ No. 42 (Fall 2004) Video: Vintage and Current


When Amos and Marcia Vogel launched Cinema 16 in 1947, they intended to "bridge the gap between documentary film productions and the public and thereby contribute to a greater realization of the problems facing man in the atomic age." God knows that the "problems facing man" remain less than fully realized. But Cinema 16 surely bridged the gap between documentary films and the public, and then some. The de facto birthplace of the New American Cinema, Cinema 16 quite literally changed the way that America and the world looked at movies. Sixty years later, the new cinema the Vogels championed in the 40s and 50s has seen flush and lean times, but is still discovering itself. And Cinema 16 has entered the history books, most notably though Scott MacDonald’s superb documentary history, Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society.

On November 4th, 1947, Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village hosted the first Cinema 16 screening. The program consisted of Martha Graham’s Lamentation, Douglas Crockwell’s Glen Falls Sequence, Phillip Stapp’s Boundary Lines, Sidney Peterson’s The Potted Psalm, and Julian Huxley and Stuart Legg’s Monkey Into Man. A mixture of abstraction, animation, surrealism and documentary, the show was a roaring success, as attested by Archer Winsten of the New York Post, then and now a notable friend of the experimental arts. "[Monkey Into Man] is a film no educated person would want to miss. If Cinema 16 can find more like it its success will be sensational." But Amos Vogel was disinclined to sit on his laurels.

By the end of the month, Vogel was corresponding with Kenneth Anger, who was to become a mainstay of Cinema 16. Vogel knew perfectly well that films like Anger’s Fireworks "could not possibly be shown to the general public." And the police gently reminded him. That realization prompted Vogel to transform Cinema 16 into a membership society on April 22, 1948. And so it remained throughout the rest of its run, eventually attracting thousands of members, and hosting everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Stan Brakhage. Vogel collected a hell of a list of sponsors, including Robert Flaherty, Paul Rotha, Siegfried Kracauer, W. H. Auden, Eddie Cantor, John Dos Passos, John Grierson, Man Ray, Parker Tyler, John Huston, Jean Renoir, and plenty more. And Cinema 16 showed a little of everything: silent films, arty features, experimental films, documentaries, educational films, and more, all attended by splendidly large and eclectic crowds. The closest approximation today is the Museum of Modern Art film series, where genuinely excellent programs vie with the smell of formaldehyde leaching from the audience.

Of course, critical reception of Cinema 16 was hardly uniformly positive. After the first screening, Vogel sent Sidney Peterson a check, and a letter noting that "comments on [The Potted Psalm], as you may have expected, ran from ‘go see a psychiatrist’ to ‘a masterpiece.’ Pick your choice." And similar hostility dogged Cinema 16 from beginning to end. In the April 1962 issue of Esquire, Dwight MacDonald "cast a cold eye" on the "art films" shown at Cinema 16, which had "remained though the decades a stagnant little back eddy," only sparsely studded with plums of commercial greatness. It folded shortly afterward, the apotheosis of an exhibition model whose time had come and gone.

MacDonald surveys the history of Cinema 16 though a collection of interviews, programs, program notes, letters, and assorted ephemera. The result easily ranks among the most important – and successful – books on experimental cinema of the last several years. Too many books on experimental film still tend to drift into windy pretense, cursorily disguised as "theory." MacDonald’s Cinema 16 is a welcome exception to the rule. Mercifully free of tedious theorizing, it focuses instead on what Cinema 16 was really about: showing and distributing movies.

The book begins with MacDonald’s brief summary of the history of Cinema 16, from its roots in the European cine-clubs of the 1920s and 30s, through its founding in 1947, its heyday in the 1950s and its eventual dissolution in 1963. Interviews with Amos and Marcia Vogel follow. But the bulk of the book consists of a chronological collection of Cinema 16 calendars and program notes, film reviews, articles by Vogel and company, and correspondence between Vogel and the various filmmakers whose films he showed and distributed. Much of the correspondence was with Kenneth Anger, who was one of Vogel’s most popular filmmakers.

Vogel’s businesslike approach to avant-garde film is striking. Despite his professedly Socialist values, Vogel drove a smart and hard bargain. His letters frequently discuss artistry, but they more frequently discuss percentages. Vogel was played straight and was a stickler for contracts, expressing very genuine shock and dismay whenever artists played fast and loose with their contractual obligations by selling prints or renting films on their own. It’s amusing and unusual to hear him inveigh against the "strings" attached to government grant money. For all his convictions, Vogel learned by hard experience to drive a bargain, though his good nature often got the better of him.

Today, nobody expects to make any money by showing experimental films. The benefits are peripheral, paying off largely in good-will and opportunities. Vogel incorporated Cinema 16 even before he started showing films, and treated it like a business from day one. He contracted with filmmakers, and expected them to honor those contracts. Vogel’s expressions of appalled dismay at Anger’s every contractual violation is charming and characteristic. He expected artists to take their business seriously, like he did. Yes, Vogel insisted that "the avant-garde will never die; it cannot die." But he knew that it could go broke, and watched it get there.

MacDonald implies that the demise of Cinema 16 was both tragic and necessary. Cinema 16 was still lively when it folded, but it was deeply in the red. That’s taken for granted today. It’s a rare arts organization that operates at a surplus anymore. But Cinema 16 was organized on a different model. It was intended to be a self-supporting business, and couldn’t operate properly otherwise. But it was more than that. For more than a decade, Vogel had nurtured – and subsidized – his replacements. First among these was Jonas Mekas, who first attended Cinema 16 programs, then showed his own film there, then founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives, which replaced Cinema 16. In the case of the Coop quite literally. Until very recently, the Coop office occupied Cinema 16’s old office at 175 Lexington Avenue.

The reality is that the demise of Cinema 16 was inevitable. The radicals demanded a radical cinema, and Cinema 16 wasn’t a strong enough business to survive. Ideology is a fickle friend, and when it moved on, Cinema 16 was no longer a going concern. So, the demise of Cinema 16 reflected a fundamental change in the self-conception of the experimental cinema and its relationship to commercial cinema. Vogel railed at critics like MacDonald, but Cinema 16 failed substantially because it could no longer convince them of its importance. Today, Cinema 16 is remembered primarily as an early champion of American avant-garde film. But it conceived of the avant-garde in a very particular way, that its successors rejected. Cinema 16 assumed that experimental films were an integral part (or counterpart) of the commercial cinema. And Vogel programmed films accordingly. Cinema 16 failed when that assumption became untenable. Cinema 16 was a business, and Vogel ran it like a businessman. Its successors are not businesses, but something different, and explicitly so. It’s hard to define "co-operative," but they sure as hell aren’t traditional businesses, and weren’t intended to be.

Still, Vogel let the transformation drag on, or just didn’t see it coming. Eulogizing Cinema 16 in 1963, he sounded a hopeful note, remarking that "the independent and avant-garde cinema in America has come into its own," and implying that Cinema 16 was simply no longer necessary. But his optimism was short-lived. By 1985, Vogel admitted that "despite the fact that the American avant-garde cinema movement became known worldwide, it could not, after awhile, sustain itself." Meaning that it never became a popular art form. Maybe it was never meant to be. Maybe Cinema 16 simply represents a now-passed historical moment, a peculiar concatenation of needs that converged once, and have moved apart ever since. Vogel believed that the avant-garde could improve the commercial cinema; instead it became something entirely different.

In his book Film as a Subversive Art, Vogel argued that "every work of art, to the extent that it is original and breaks with the past instead of repeating it, is subversive." On those terms, Cinema 16 was indeed subversive. But the kind of subversion practiced at Cinema 16 wasn’t terribly threatening. It didn’t condemn commercial cinema, but aimed to improve it. MacDonald’s book documents just how successfully Vogel accomplished that goal. According to Vogel, although "art can never take the place of social action . . . its task remains forever the same: to change consciousness." Maybe so. But whether or not the films Vogel showed at Cinema 16 changed anyone’s consciousness, they certainly changed the American cinema. And that’s no small feat, either.