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The homage to the New York film curator Amos Vogel (1921–2012) pays tribute to a personality for whom film culture was a collective, emancipatory adventure and who paved a path for cinema work that Arsenal took as well and which remains relevant today. The three-part program kicked off in September with a focus on the legendary Cinema 16, “a film society for the adult moviegoer” founded by Vogel and his wife Marcia in 1947 that was the cradle of the New York experimental film movement. From November 8th to 15th, attention will shift to the Sixties: the successive establishment of the “New American Cinema,” as well as other upheavals and key moments of a decade in which the seventh art reinvented itself again.

Already in the contemporary perception of experimental film, the New York Film-Makers' Coop and its canon of New American Cinema played a dominant role, and it continues to do so today. While the productivity of the New York scene was undoubtedly crucial for a broad, and soon international, reception and appreciation of experimental film forms, its dominance also led to limitations and omissions in film history. The November program, by contrast, follows a call that had been formulated at the time by Amos Vogel for an understanding of the avant-garde that was broader geographically and more sophisticated in form. With “A Changing Canon” as a working title, different curators have put together programs that show the heterogeneity of experimental film scenes in the US, but also draw attention to contemporaneous burgeoning movements in Europe and recall how the “underground” itself was soon to be undermined. Once again: The guardians of freedom, as Vogel said in the final sentence of his book “Film as a Subversive Art” (1974) “at all times and under all conditions, are the subversives.”

Repeat: The Cinema of Improvisation (8.11.) The opening program recalls the key role once again that Cinema 16 had for the New American Cinema. In November 1959, it presented a startling double bill called The Cinema of Improvisation: John Cassavetes’ debut SHADOWS (USA 1959), in which Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldini and Hugh Hurd played three siblings trying to find a way to lead a life together that transcends prevailing conventions, and one of the first showcase films of the Beat movement, PULL MY DAISY (USA 1959) by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. While they shared a commitment to the present, to jazz and to non-conformity, the improvised emergence of these two films was a myth.  SHADOWS, like all of Cassavetes’ later films, was preceded by months of rehearsals and the supposed spontaneity with which the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso crashed a dinner party in PULL MY DAISY followed a precise script, adapted from a text by Jack Kerouac. The same combination of films was presented at the Spoleto film festival in 1961 as part of a program showcasing “Nuovo Cinema Americano”.    

ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT (USA 1958, 9.11.) Stan Brakhage's longest film to date divided opinion. Vogel saw it for the first time in 1958 at the Experimental Film Festival in Brussels and noted: "silent - silent," "movement never stops," "terrible for eyes," "show only as wild experiment" - and: "bad audience," "lots people leave”. What triggered turbulent protests in Brussels is now considered a milestone in Brakhage's oeuvre: a reflection on light, seeing and spirituality that radically broke with traditional montage techniques. Vogel's refusal to screen the film at Cinema 16 led to a temporary break with Brakhage, who until then had been one of his closest contacts in the experimental film scene. The film critic Parker Tyler, Brakhage's mentor and Vogel's friend and companion, also rejected the film. The film scholar Henning Engelke will introduce the landmark ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT with a montage of the correspondence and arguments between Vogel, Brakhage and Tyler that gives an insight on the changing experimental film culture of the late 1950s.

CHANGES IN FILM: ATTEMPTS FROM NEW YORK (10.11.). On December 8th, 1965, Amos Vogel presented a film program entitled “Versuche aus New York” ("Attempts from New York") at the Berlin Congress Hall. He was joined on stage by Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Bruce Conner, Carmen d'Avino, Ed Emshwiller and Stan Vanderbeek as representatives of recent American cinema, as well as by Walter Höllerer, the director of the Literary Colloquium Berlin (LCB), whose newly founded film section had organized the event. The selection of films and guests that Amos Vogel made for the occasion can be read as a matrix of his positioning within the New American Cinema movement, though he refrained from using the term here because it was already too closely identified with Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers' Coop. The nearly three-hour event was filmed for television and a 75-minute edited version broadcast in January 1966. This included half of the films shown - with audible reactions from the audience -, Vogel's brief introductions of the participants and their personal statements, at times related to the pioneering spirit of experimental film, at others to an excursion to East Berlin undertaken the day before. Stan Vanderbeek closed the evening with a manifesto for a new, tech-savvy film avant-garde and an Expanded Cinema projection. The (almost complete) sequence of films shown that night can be seen on Nov 11th.

Permission to cross the white line, Sir! The Living Theatre and THE BRIG. An event on November 15th at the Literary Colloquium Berlin will address a parallel project to Amos Vogel’s film program from the same period: The first play in the “Modernes Theater auf kleinen Bühnen” (Modern Theater on Small Stages) series launched by the LCB was The Brig staged by the New York-based The Living Theater, which was in self-imposed exile in Berlin at the time, at the end of 1964. There is a television recording of the performance at the Akademie der Künste and the introductory conversation between Walter Höllerer and the co-founders of the ensemble Judith Malina and Julian Beck. The film of the same name THE BRIG (USA 1964) by Jonas and Adolphas Mekas was made during the last performance of the play in New York. A viewing of the two works will provide the basis for a conversation between the curator Nora Molitor and the dramaturg Henning Fülle about the troubled dynamics between film and theater.

These dynamics are also at work in Shirley Clarke's THE CONNECTION (USA 1961, 10.11.), based on a play by Jack Gelber that The Living Theater had premiered two years earlier in New York. Shirley Clarke took the play-within-a-play structure of the original and transposed it to a film-within-a-film narrative about a director who wants to make a movie with junkies and is waiting with them for their dealer to arrive. Clarke's brilliantly directed kammerspiel (the entire film takes place in the same apartment) raised uncomfortable questions about the cult of authenticity in politically engaged documentary cinema.

Repeat: Attempts from New York (Berlin Congress Hall, 1965) (11.11.) An extensive reconstruction of the before-mentioned program put together by Amos Vogel and shown to a packed Berlin Congress Hall (today’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt) in 1965. It opened with two collage films by Bruce Conner, A MOVIE (1958) and COSMIC RAY (1962), satirical pamphlets against the American cultural industry’s infatuation with war. Carmen D’Avinos animated films A TRIP (1960) and PIANISSIMO (1963) are multi-colored marvels in which the sheer fascination with moving images lives on. Stan Brakhage showed three works that illustrated his technique for manipulating film material creatively: TWO: CREELEY/MCCLURE (1965), in which two “portraits” of Robert Creeley and Michael McClure are superimposed on one filmstrip, DOG STAR MAN PART II (1963), in which a baby coming to life (i.e., sight) is showered with a wealth of physical visual intrusions, and MOTHLIGHT (1963), for which Brakhage exposed particles of dead moths directly on a filmstrip. Ed Emshwiller was a pioneer of the experimental film movement, whose work Vogel followed with great sympathy from the start. In THANATOPSIS (1962), he set the "inner torments" of a man to a pulsating soundtrack. Shirley Clarke's SCARY TIME (1960) shows children in different countries, their games, their masks, their poverty. Originally commissioned by UNICEF, the film was never distributed, presumably because Clarke did not indulge any euphemisms in her portrayal. It will be followed by her famous bridge ballet BRIDGES-GO-ROUND (1958), which she presented in Berlin as "my last dance film”. The Berlin evening concluded with Stan Vanderbeek's attempt to transpose his Feedback #1, a work conceived for multiple projectors, onto the architecture of the Congress Hall. This live found-footage montage, designed to be updated constantly, cannot be reconstructed; instead, Vanderbeek's BREATHDEATH (1963), a crazy ghost train ride through his trove of images with a congenial soundtrack by Jay Watt, will be shown.  

A Changing Canon: The Western American Experimental (12.11.) An important event in the historiography of the decade is the "New American Cinema Exhibition", organized by Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers' Coop, that toured Europe for the first time in 1964. Less acclaimed, but no less interesting from a cinematic and historical point of view, was a 26-film program entitled "The Western American Experimental," which had already been shown six months earlier in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and in part by the Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek (forerunner of today’s Arsenal) in Berlin. It was put together by Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand, who founded the Canyon Cinema Collective in Berkeley in 1961. Their selection presented mainly filmmakers who were still barely known and who even later did not go on to become part of the mainstream of New American Cinema. John Sundholm and Miguel Fernandéz Labayen are currently conducting joint research on the gradual arrival of the New American Cinema in Europe.  Besides Stan Brakhage's REFLECTIONS ON BLACK (1955),– “four possible sexual dramas, visualized by a blind man” (Amos Vogel) – their selection from the "West Coast" program focuses on films that warrant (re)discovering: Film as fundamentally a play of light in such works as THE SEASON’S CHANGE (1960) and Will Hindle’s debut PASTORALE D’ÉTÉ (1958); Christopher Maclaine’s BEAT (1958), an atmospheric snapshot of San Francisco’s Beat scene, or HAVE YOU SOLD YOUR DOZEN ROSES? (1959), in which Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites a cynically cheerful poem about contrapuntal shots of a garbage dump. At the beginning and end of the program are films that were made a little later: Ben Van Meter’s POON TANG TRILOGY (1965), a kind of cine-tract against the notorious film censorship at the time in California and Chick Strand’s second film, ANSELMO (1967), in which she describes the ordeal of making a gift to a Mexican friend.  

I’m Mad – Outtakes from the History of Yugoslav Unconventional Cinema (12.11.) When Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney packed their suitcases for the second New American Cinema Exhibition in the summer of 1967, they could not predict where the journey would end up taking them. Between pre-scheduled stops, the tour took spontaneous detours now and then. One of them took Sitney in December 1967 to the Genre Experimental Film Festival (GEFF) in Zagreb, which since 1963 had been the vibrant meeting place for the Yugoslav experimental film scene, based in nationwide amateur film clubs. In the "atmosphere of useful chaos" that, according to Dušan Makavejev, characterized the GEFF, Sitney's traveling circus may have offered just as many old hats as new inspirations. In any case, one local reviewer declared that the New American Cinema had not lived up to the Dadaist standards of the Zagreb festival. The GEFF was organized by the Kinoclub Zagreb, which championed “anti-film,” that led Mihovil Pansini to make K3 ILI ČISTO NEBO BEZ OBLAKA (K3 or Clear Sky Without Clouds, 1963) which set a trend before becoming a joke. Yugoslavian experimental film-makers also launched attacks on material, punched holes in filmstrips, scratched them, sewed them, glued them together as in Vladimir Petek’s MOST (Bridge, 1963) and SRETANJE (Encounter, 1963), shook their cameras madly to distort the image, as Ante Verzotti does in FLUORESCENCIJE (Fluorescences, 1966), and allowed mystical cinematic supernovas to emerge through the rigorous application of editing principles, as in Ivan Martinac’s I'M MAD (1967) or SVE ILI NIŠTA (Everything or Nothing, 1968). The Zagreb-based film scholar Petra Belc will present a selection of 12 films that provide an insight into what at the time was possibly the most agile and also idiosyncratic experimental film scene in Europe.

13 Confusions: Subverting the Subversion (13.11.) Another program put together by Petra Belc will show nine films that aimed to deconstruct the platitudes and tropes of an avant-garde that has become canonical, in order to give a new shape to the subversive, with a critique from within. It traces a basic Dadaist impulse - embodied in Hugo Ball's last sound poem, "Gadji Beri Bimba," which is played as an opening - and shows films that kept alive anarchist desires outside the canon: for example, Jane Conger Belson's "mock-experimental" ODDS & ENDS (USA 1959) or Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley’s SCHMEERGUNTZ (USA 1966), a visual pillow fight against the sexism of consumer society – and many “underground” films. The wildest jokes of anti-film often became its most famous museum pieces – KARIOKINEZA (Karyokinesis, 1965) by Zlatko Hajdler – and while the destruction of film material was turned into art here, Tatjana Ivančić was no less demonstrative when she exposed the precious raw material with close-ups of her cat lapping up milk (DO POSLJEDNJE KAPI, Until the Last Drop, 1972). A nagging “So?” or “Yes, but is it art?” runs through the program. The title “13 Confusions” cites an article that has since become famous, which Amos Vogel published in Evergreen Review in the summer of 1967. The “underground” was at the pinnacle of its international popularity when he called for it to be rescued ”from the blind rejection of commercial reviewers and the blind acceptance of its own apostles.“  

The European Knokke '67 and some deviations (13.11.) The frictional processes of this decade were amplified at the fourth EXPRMNTL festival, which took place over New Year’s 1967/68 in the Belgian seaside resort of Knokke-le-Zoute. There again, the dominant presence of New American Cinema gave its international perception a renewed boost, but also brought forth vociferous criticism and anarchist happenings, motivating European film scenes to go their own way. Miguel Fernández Labayen and John Sundholm have made a selection from the nearly 100 films shown in Knokke, which showcase various European experimental film contexts, including the egg dance MARKENEIER (FRG 1967) by Lutz Mommartz, who was awarded one of the main prizes in Knokke for Selbstschüsse, and Stephen Dwoskin’s SOLILOQUY (GB 1967), which combines Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses with close-ups of a female face. In a certain way, IL MOSTRO VERDE (Italy 1967) by Tonino De Bernardi and Paolo Menzio was both the fruit and the conclusion of the previous summer of encounters. The film emerged from a meeting with an icon of American experimental film, Taylor Mead, at Turin's Galleria Arte Moderna, where Sitney and Mekas had kicked off their European tour in July that same year. The green monster of the title is a metaphor for the spirit of creative sharing between poets, filmmakers and performers staged here in sound and image.

Modelle: Filmgalerie Hannover / Knokke 1967 (14.11.) “Why does a human being have a head, why does s/he have eyes and ears, why does s/he have a brain in her/his skull?” Klaus Partzsch's parodic manifesto for a new film, created at the animation desk, bore the programmatic title ANFANG (Beginning) (FRG 1965) and referred directly to the establishment of the Filmgalerie Hannover that he and Peter Grobe had set rolling. The Filmgalerie was looking for a new audience with more alert receptors and associated watching films together with creating new ones. Of the numerous film experiments that Partzsch and Grobe conducted during this time, one was also shown in Knokke in 1967: the short film SCHNITTE (Cuts) (FRG 1965), in which the practicing architect Peter Grobe transfers a horizontal design for an interior space onto the filmstrip. With Claudia von Alemann's EXPRMNTL 4 KNOKKE (FRG 1968), the program curated by Peter Hoffmann once again takes a look at this key moment in the decade. With visible enthusiasm, Claudia von Alemann moves her camera between the various fronts that form and dissolve like flash mobs during the course of the festival: around Yoko Ono, Harun Farocki and the Belgian Minister of Culture.

Like in the first part of this critical homage to Amos Vogel, on 14th November at 6 p.m. anybody interested is invited to an exchange about the films of the preceding days. This time, the hour-long Response will be introduced by the film curator Gary Vanisian.

Learning from Cinema 16: Experimental films for high school students (11.11.) Stefanie Schlüter has put together a school program from this homage, which presents different facets of experimental filmmaking. (th)

“The gatekeepers exist to be overthrown.”, curated by Tobias Hering, will continue in January. Special thanks go to the co-curators, to Steven and Loring Vogel, Scott MacDonald, Erika and Ulrich Gregor, Literary Colloquium Berlin. The program was made possible by a grant from the Capital Cultural Fund.

Funded by:

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