AFS Celebrates Culture-Defying Movies With Film as a Subversive Art

Revolution in the cinema

Lars Nilsen still remembers the first time he held a copy of Amos Vogel's Film as a Subversive Art. It was 1993, and he was working in the Strand Bookstore at 12th and Broadway in New York. The cover, a still from 1971 Yugoslavian erotic political thesis W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, merely hinted at the contents: articles about and stills from over 600 films, all intriguing outsiders to mainstream cinema. Nilsen, with trademarked self-effacing humor, said, "I remember [being] not only drawn into the book, not only drawn into the films, but drawn into the idea of being a pain in the ass film-type intellectual. It's very seductive."

Growing up in Oklahoma meant the odds of a print copy of this rare and prized volume making its way into the hands of Jazmyne Moreno were long, but she stumbled across a PDF on an online forum. "It seemed like something I had to read," she said, and it filled a gap in her ongoing film education, away from the centers of cinema. "There was nobody to say, 'You should read this, you should watch this,' so it had to come from somewhere."

Now both have channeled the education within its pages into careers as programmers at AFS Cinema, and are reciprocating its influence with Film as a Subversive Art, an eight-film series running all July that Nilsen described as a tribute not just to the book but "to Vogel's generation of film programmers who were going in and seeking out films that were subversive on their own merits."

Vogel is arguably the forefather of American arthouse film bookers. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1921, he fled from the Nazis in 1938, and in 1947 he founded the seminal Cinema 16 film club in New York. Inspired by the cinema clubs of Europe that specialized in dissident, avant-garde, and experimental films, for 17 years he and his wife, Marcia, introduced American audiences to a whole wave of bleeding-edge filmmakers, from Agnès Varda to John Cassavetes to Stan Brakhage, Yasujir Ozu, Richard Lester, and more. In doing so he also helped formalize the idea of a film programmer, and his approach to curation is still influential. "Most of what we do, we take from him," said Moreno. "The idea of film as high culture comes from Vogel and his generation."

In 1963 Vogel transferred that booking expertise when he co-founded the New York Film Festival, while his encyclopedic knowledge was laid down in 1974 in Film as a Subversive Art, a guide to transgressive movies – not in some simplistic exploitation fashion, but in forcing society to reexamine norms. Nilsen said, "It wasn't just, 'Oh, it's shaking up people at the cocktail party.' These were shaking up governments or shaking up cultures."

Every reprinting seems to spark another round of programming inspired by Vogel's work. With a new edition (the first since 2005) by Film Desk Books on the racks, this time it's AFS Cinema's turn. The series began last weekend with Le Révélateur, Philippe Garrel's 1968 experimental portrait of a family, and continues this week with Coming Apart (1969), starring Rip Torn in a proto-found-footage psychosexual drama. The season continues with Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969), Juraj Jakubisko's searing commentary on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, before wrapping up with a landmark depiction of female sexuality in cinema, 1932's Ecstasy.

Copies of the new edition of Vogel's work will be available for purchase at all screenings. "It's a perfect facsimile edition," Nilsen said, "and it still works. People are drawn not only into the book but into that world of being a subversive film enthusiast."

Film as Subversive Art at AFS Cinema

6406 N. I-35 #3100,

Coming Apart (1969): Thu., July 14, 7:30pm; Sat., July 16, 4:30pm

Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969): Thu., July 21, 7:30pm; Sat., July 23, 2pm

Ecstasy (1932): Thu., July 28, 7:30pm; Sat., July 30, 4:30pm

Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel, Film Desk Books, 336 pp., $44

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AFS Cinema, Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel, Lars Nilsen, Jazmyne Moreno

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