Peter Hoskin celebrates 50 years of American independent cinema
As so often, our story begins with Mickey Mouse and a child’s pliant mind. The child in this case was Amos Vogel, growing up in 1930s Vienna. His father had bought him a small hand-cranked film projector, and the kid Vogel used to sit there, winding the handle and watching Mickey, Krazy Kat and other cartoon characters dance across the walls. Only there was frequently something odd, something perverse, about their movements. You see, Vogel used to enjoy running the projector in reverse — making the films, and the characters, go backwards.
The experience must have tripped some wires in the young boy’s head. It surely can’t be an accident that he became one of the world’s most provocative, devoted and influential proponents of experimental cinema. And, 50 years ago, he proved it beyond doubt by arranging a landmark film screening which catalysed a change in how film lovers, artists and studio chiefs saw the medium.
Cut to 1959 and New York where, amid the optimism of the postwar years, things were really stirring. Madison Avenue was booming, the cityscape was getting taller and glassier, and the Cadillacs all had tail fins. But, behind the scenes, 10,000 men and women were working to subvert a culture which they believed had become sterile. There was the Beat Generation, scribbling their obscene odes and bashing out their spontaneous prose. There were the jazz musicians, who were taking bebop into ever more esoteric terrain. And there was Vogel himself, who had established a film society in the city over a decade earlier.
This was the legendary Cinema 16, and nothing was beyond its range, reach or ambition. From the avant-garde work of Kenneth Anger, to the latest Bollywood musicals, the idea was simply to screen films and expand horizons.