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Amos Vogel, a Leading Figure of Modern American Film Culture, Dies at 91

Amos Vogel - P 2012

The Vienna native created the landmark film society Cinema 16 and then co-founded the New York Film Festival.

Amos Vogel, creator of the influential Manhattan avant garde film club Cinema 16 and co-founder of the New York Film Festival, died Tuesday in his apartment off Washington Square Park. He was 91.

With New York missing the serious film societies prevalent in his native Austria, Vogel and his wife Marcia in 1947 founded Cinema 16 for moviegoers thirsty for "films you cannot see elsewhere."

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During the next 16 years, Vogel opened the public's eyes to such filmmakers as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, Brian De Palma, Georges Franju, Richard Lester, Nagisa Oshima, Roman Polanski, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Carlos Saura, François Truffaut and Agnes Varda and to such films as John CassavetesShadows (1959). At its height, the nonprofit Cinema 16 boasted a membership of 6,000 and regularly sold out 1,500-seat screenings.

"If you’re looking for the origins of film culture in America, look no further than Amos Vogel," director Martin Scorsese said in a statement.

"Amos opened the doors to every possibility in film viewing, film exhibiton, film curating and 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."

In an era of conservatism marked by the Hays Code, Vogel battled New York censors to show button-pushing movies from the U.S. and abroad to local audiences.

“I have remained a radical,” Vogel said in Paul Cronin’s 2004 documentary Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16.

“Hollywood and television are constantly giving us things that we've already seen. “The most interesting films are precisely those that show things that have never been seen before or show things in a completely new way. This is something that upsets many people or prevents them from appreciating 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.”

Vogel co-founded the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center with Richard Roud in 1963 and served as its program director for its first five years.

In 1973, Vogel started the Annenberg Cinematheque at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught for two decades. He also taught at Harvard University, at the New School for Social Research and at New York University.

His 1974 book, Film as a Subversive Art, is a must-have for any cineaste, containing lavish illustrations and essays on more than 600 films. He also wrote the children's book How Little Lori Visited Times Square, published in 1963 with illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

Vogel also worked as a film consultant to Grove Press and National Educational Television and as a program director of the National Public Television Conference. And he helped select films for the Cannes, Moscow, Berlin and Venice film festivals.

“When trying to describe Amos Vogel’s impact on American film culture, one quickly runs out of superlatives,” Film Society program director Richard Pena said. “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.”

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

E-mail: Mike.Barnes@THR.com

Twitter: @mikebarnes4