Scott Macdonald's Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society

By Frye, Brian | Millennium Film Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Scott Macdonald's Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society


Frye, Brian, Millennium Film Journal


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 that the Vogels championed in the 1940s and 1950s has seen flush and lean times, but is still discovering itself. And Cinema 16 has entered the history books, most notably through 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 Winston 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 others. 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." 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 through 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 through 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. …

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