Amos Vogel, right, with John Lennon. Image courtesy of Sticking Place Films.

The leading figure of modern American film culture, a rebellious champion of independent and international cinema and the co-founder of the New York Film Festival, Amos Vogel died yesterday in New York, the city where – in 1947 – he created the landmark film society Cinema 16.

From basement screenings in the 1940s to the grand halls of Lincoln Center in the 1960s, Amos Vogel shepherded alternative cinema to increasingly ravenous audiences at a time when discerning moviegoers were discovering influential auteurs. “The man was a giant,” Martin Scorsese told the Film Society of Lincoln Center last night, summing up the life of Vogel, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 91.

“With him an entire epoch ends,” added Werner Herzog in a statement to the Film Society this morning.  A close friend of Vogel's for more than 40 years, the filmmaker added, “The Last Lion has left us.”

Born Amos Vogelbaum in Vienna on April 18, 1921, he fled Austria in 1938 and came to America, fully intending to ultimately head to Israel. However, Vogel quickly fell for New York. He enrolled in The New School and eventually developed a curiosity for alternative cinema. He wanted to see political, experiment and documentary films, but they weren't available on New York City movie screens. Moved by the work of Maya Deren, Amos Vogel and his wife Marcia, a key co-conspirator, formed Cinema 16. They planned early programs at the small Provincetown Playhouse downtown because Deren had screened her own work there. The two ran the organization together through the early 1960s, working closely with Jack Goelman.

A pioneer of presenting what would eventually be called “independent film,” Amos Vogel embraced non-mainstream cinema. 16mm documentary, educational, scientific and experimental films were eventually screened for thousands of people weekly at venues in New York City as Cinema 16 outgrew the Playhouse.

“In a short time Vogel's screenings had attracted such a following that he had to find a larger auditorium,” noted Arthur Knight in his essential 1957 book, The Liveliest Art. Cinema 16 would re-screen programs five or six times to meet demand from moviegoers. “Films you cannot see elsewhere,” heralded an early promotional flyer for the organization. By the mid-1950s, Vogel and Goelman's curatorial approach was adopted by more than 450 film societies around the country affiliated with universities, museums or other cultural organizations, Arthur Knight noted at the time.

Amos Vogel later co-founded the New York Film Festival and co-programmed the carefully curated event with Richard Roud until 1968. He was also author of the influential book, Film As Subversive Art (published in 1974).

“He had an insatiable passion for independent film,” praised Film Society of Lincoln Center board member Wendy Keys yesterday. She was hired by Vogel in year four of the young New York Film Festival, which will celebrate its 50th Anniversary this fall. Vogel joined Film Society program director Richard Peña at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center last October to kick off a weekly series of screenings counting down to the 50th NYFF. Singled out by Peña, Vogel waved to the audience from his aisle seat.

Remembered as a gentle humanist, Vogel was beloved among many within the international film community of filmmakers, programmers, critics and cinephiles.

“When trying to describe Amos Vogel's impact on American film culture, one quickly runs out of superlatives,” Film Society program director Richard Peña wrote today. “His impact continues to be felt every day, and in my own personal case, every hour: 'What would Amos think of this?' is a thought that has informed my work as both a film programmer and professor of film studies for many years. Moreover, Amos was simply a wonderful person, and the friendship I felt from Amos and his beloved wife Marcia meant the world to me.”

Vogel's wife Marcia passed away in 2009. He is survived by two sons. 

“If you’re looking for the origins of film culture in America, look no further than Amos Vogel,” Martin Scorsese said in a statement to the Film Society of Lincoln Center late last night, “Between Cinema 16 (which he ran with his beloved wife Marcia and which opened our eyes to Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, Cassavetes’ Shadows, and hundreds of other visionary films and filmmakers), The New York Film Festival (which he co-founded with Richard Roud), and his book Film As a Subversive Art, Amos opened the doors to every possibility in film viewing, film exhibiton, film curating, film appreciation. He was also unfailingly generous, encouraging and supportive of so many young filmmakers, including me when I was just starting to make my first pictures. No doubt about it – the man was a giant.”

Cinema 16 grew at a time of conservatism in this country, subverting the expectations of an audience that popular films had cultivated. Creating his non-profit film society in the midst of the U.S. Hays Code that sought to restrict the content of American movies, Vogel battled New York City censors to show button-pushing movies from the U.S. and abroad to growing local audiences. As many as 3,000 people would gather for two Cinema 16 evening showings at Manhattan's Fashion Industries High School Auditorium on 27th Street at the height of the film society.

Ozu, Resnais, Rivette, Varda, Cassavetes, Bresson and Polanski were just some of the filmmakers that, like Scorsese, Vogel introduced to New York City moviegoers. In later years he even welcomed mainstream auteurs like Hitchcock to the society.

“Amos Vogel was a mentor, a guiding light for me. In his presence, you always rose,” said Wener Herzog in his statement to the Film Society today, “But his importance to me is of minor significance. What is significant is that with him an entire epoch ends. The Last Lion has left us. His traces are everywhere.”

Amos Vogel grew the membership of Cinema 16 to more than 7,000 people with ads in the Sunday New York Times, even though the paper's film critic Bowsley Crowther ignored the organization. Lacking cultural support and facing financial challenges, the organization ultimately faded. Yet, it paved the way for the creation of the New York Film Festival when Vogel joined Richard Roud at Lincoln Center in 1963. He launched the festival but left when the Film Society of Lincoln Center was launched by Martin Segal and others in 1969. 

“I have remained a radical,” Amos Vogel said simply, interviewed at age 82 in Paul Cronin's 2004 documentary, Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16. Watch the entire movie on Vimeo.

“Hollywood and television are constantly giving us things that we've already seen,” Vogel explained in the documentary, “The most interesting films are precisely those that show things that have never been seen before or show things in a compeletey new way. This is something that upsets many people or prevents them from appreicating what is being shown to them. I, on the other hand, prefer to be upset and one of my main criteria, in fact, in looking at films and in writing about them is the unpredictability of what I am seeing.”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center offers our deepest condolences to the Vogel family. We invite patrons, members and readers to share comments or remembrances in the comments area at the bottom of this article.

A selection of photos provided by Sticking Place Films are available on the FIlm Society of Lincoln Center's Facebook timeline.

Inside the Fashion Industries High School Auditorium in the 1950s. Image courtesy of Sticking Place Films.

Amos and Marcia Vogel in the 1940s. Image courtesy of Sticking Place Films.

Amos Vogel in recent years. Image courtesy of Sticking Place Films.