April 25, 2012

Amos Vogel, 1921-2012

Amos Vogel has just died in New York, aged 91. A page like this gives you the basic highlights of his life; this one gives you much more. I first came across Amos Vogel about a decade ago. Justin Paton asked me to write a short piece for a Landfall issue that was themed around "Screens", within a sub-section on "screen memories". That was Landfall 205, published May 2003. Justin headlined the piece "Perpetual Mirage". It went:
The words “fata morgana” mean “mirage”, and it’s an apt name for the Werner Herzog film that I love the most and have seen the least. Herzog’s visionary ambition and romantic mysticism seem as ’70s as progressive rock to us now, and if that’s true, then it’s the audience’s loss as well as Herzog’s. Maybe, in a thought worthy of Herzog himself, it’s humanity’s loss. I saw the 1970 film Fata Morgana at the Wellington Film Society in about 1990. Those are the facts. All else is impression and memory. In Fata Morgana, Herzog filmed deserts and mirages in the Sahara, he filmed dunes and wreckage. He had Lotte Eisner – whom he once walked from Munich to Paris in winter to see – narrate a creation myth, and he produced some striking black humour from the friction of word and image: “In the Golden Age, man and wife live in harmony,” says the text against a shot of what Amos Vogel describes in a book on Herzog as “a catatonic drummer and a tacky female pianist on a tiny stage in a brothel [performing] a piece they have played a thousand times without any emotion, endlessly, off-key”. I remember that image and others now, but I rely on Vogel’s account, because I’ve never seen the film again. Curiously, Vogel relays his sadness at seeing Fata Morgana after a decade – the print has fallen into faded and scratched disrepair and he wonders if great works live for a moment in time and then vanish. I understand that feeling. The elusive film is itself about remoteness, about images that appear and disappear, about – Vogel again – “Herzog’s lament for the unfulfilled promise of a Genesis and a Paradise that somehow failed”. I’ve recently learnt that Fata Morgana has been issued on DVD – I could order it online as I type this, but I’m apprehensive. Why? Maybe I’m nostalgic for an age when experiences were less accessible and less available, when films existed substantially in your memory and only partly in the world. Maybe I’m nostalgic for the vanishing idea of remoteness itself.
2003 wasn't all that long ago, but it can seem that now: pre-social media, pre-Google and Wikipedia, pre-You Tube, back when internet shopping was a novelty ("I could order it online ...") and before Grizzly Man fully restored Herzog's reputation. Back then, it was almost impossible to find out anything about Fata Morgana; the Vogel account I relied on was "On Seeing a Mirage", his chapter in Timothy Corrigan's The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History (1986), which was hard to find too -- you couldn't just buy it, and I think I eventually tracked down a library copy (so this was also pre-the Herzog publishing boom). More recently, I've got Amos Vogel's classic Film as a Subversive Art (originally 1974), with its brilliant capsule review of Fata Morgana, and a great quote on the back. The quote goes, "Amos Vogel is the moral conscience of the world of cinema" -- credited to one Werner Herzog. Anyway, if remoteness was "vanishing" then, it has fully disappeared now. There's no fighting it: of course I bought that Fata Morgana DVD.

That Landfall was the one with John Dolan's infamous and heartfelt "Galadriel and I: A Fatwah Against Peter Jackson", and screen memories from William Dart (seeing What's New Pussycat? in 1966), Kate Camp (Aussie soap The Young Doctors), Annie Goldson (Frederick Wiseman's High School), Anne Kennedy (seeing Barry Lyndon in 1976), Maddie Leach (seeing The Black Hole in 1979) and Sarah Quigley (seeing The Sound of Music).