April 26, 2012

Amos Vogel II

Yesterday, we talked about the late Amos Vogel, pioneer of exhibiting alternative cinema in the US, champion of Werner Herzog (and others) and author of the excellent Film as a Subversive Art (1974). The following should tell you just how valuable he was. A note to non-New Zealand readers: in New Zealand, we still consider it a really big deal whenever artistic achievements by locals or ex-pats are recognised abroad. I did exactly that kind of double-take when first stumbling on Vogel's capsule review of Len Lye's Free Radicals (link to the film), which I've reproduced below. Weirdly, it follows straight after his capsule on Fata Morgana ...

Free Radicals
Len Lye, USA, 1957 ?
'A Free Radical is a fundamental particle of matter which contains the energy of all chemical change, very much like a compressed spring before release. The film gives an artistically symbolic portrayal of fundamental energy.' With beautiful, exemplary economy, this long-neglected masterpiece of animation creates a perfectly controlled abstraction that foreshadowed the contemporary 'cosmic' view in its fusion of science and mystery. The nervous, vibrating, non-objective designs, under constant, agitated tension, were directly engraved on blank film -- black leader -- without the intervention of a camera.

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).

April 20, 2012

"What have you done?"


My Werewolf piece on Jim Marbrook's documentary Mental Notes -- plus Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and Spider -- is here. Damien Wilkins' song "Lake Alice" is here. The Aiotanga report can be found here. The Vanity Fair piece about the so-called cursed, unmade White Hotel film is here. A trailer for Costa Botes' documentary, Daytime Tiger, about the bipolar experiences of writer Michael Morrissey is here: the terrifying grandiosity is more vivid and believable than anything in the 90-plus minutes of The Insatiable Moon, where the mentally unwell are seen as holy fools, gifted prophets, enviably free. In discussions of Mental Notes, Kathy Dudding's film Asylum Pieces is nearly always mentioned: I'd like to see it (a trailer-like excerpt is here). The picture above is the women's room at Sunnyside Asylum, Christchurch, c1883 (photo from Christchurch City Libraries). The title of this blog is a key line of dialogue in Spider.