Magazine article The Spectator

The Ultimate Jam Session

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ultimate Jam Session

Article excerpt

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 handcranked 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. And it certainly proved popular - at least in a cult kind of way. At its height, Cinema 16 had so many members that it regularly packed out the 1,600-seat Fashion Industries Auditorium on West 24th Street. What's more, folk like Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando were paying to get in. This was the place to get an education in cinema.

Many in Vogel's audience would have nodded in thoughtful agreement at a polemic that had appeared the previous year in Film Culture magazine. It was written by an actor and aspiring director, John Cassavetes, and it started with one hell of a bang: 'Hollywood is not failing. It has failed.' Specifically, he was troubled by the dishonesty and exclusivity of the American film industry. Hollywood made, packaged, mass-marketed and sold a dream which just didn't ring true with Cassavetes - or the age itself. So he decided to combat the problem head-on. He decided to make his own feature.

Let's skip the history of Cassavetes's Shadows here; suffice it to say that there's still controversy over the different cuts of the film: which version is more radical, which is truer, that kind of thing. But the fundamental point remains: that, from its Charles Mingus score to its final title card, Shadows is all about improvisation and spontaneity. Gone are the complicated set-ups of Product Hollywood; replaced with footage shot hastily, and cheaply, on the streets and in the bars of New York. And gone, too, is deliberate melodrama; replaced with a haphazard focus on the lives of three AfricanAmerican siblings. …

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