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Amos Vogel, influential film scholar, dies at 91

Amos Vogel, who pioneered an appreciation for avant-garde and experimental film and who co-founded the influential New York Film Festival, died April 24 at 91.

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Philadelphia film writer Sam Adams said Vogel helped “give birth” to understanding that films could consciously set out to become art. “He didn’t just screen films,” Adams said. “He very deliberately created a film culture in New York – an educational and cultural environment. He was very conscious of his pedagogical role.”

Director Martin Scorsese said, “If you’re looking for the origins of film culture in America, look no further than Amos Vogel.”

Vogel’s 1974 book, Film as Subversive Art, even though it has been out of print for many years was “so ahead of his time…that the ideas that he penned some 30 years ago are still relevant today.” The book, which sells for $50 an up “analyzes how aesthetic, sexual, and ideological subversives use one of the most powerful art forms of our day to exchange or manipulate our conscious and unconscious, demystify visual taboos, destroy dated cinematic forms, and undermine existing value systems and institutions. This subversion of form, as well as of content, is placed within the context of the contemporary world view of science, philosophy, and modern art, and is illuminated by a detailed examination of over 500 films, including many banned, rarely seen, or never released works.”

Vogel was born in Vienna and “arrived in America a penniless teen after escaping the Nazis” in 1938. He founded the now legendary film club Cinema 16 with his wife, Marcia, and experimental filmmaker Maya Deren in 1947. Cinema 16’s members viewed avant-garde and independent films by John Cassavetes, Roman Polanski, Kenneth Anger, Alain Resnais, and others.

In the 2004 documentary, “Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16,” Vogel was portrayed as a fighter against the conservatism of the film industry’s Hays Code and government censors. “I have remained a radical,” Vogel said in the film.

The film society was noted for eclectic programs that might include films such as Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon, The Garden Spider,” a short featuring close-ups of a spider at work, “New Faces Come Back,” a documentary about plastic surgery performed on RAF fliers, “Weegee’s New York,” the only film made by the legendary tabloid photographer, and even the infamous Nazi prpaganda film, “The Eternal Jew.”

Vogel started the Annenberg Cinematheque at University of Pennsylvania, and taught there and at Harvard University, New School for Social Research and New York University.

He collaborated with Maurice Sendak on the 1963 children’s book, How Little Lori Visited Times Square.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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