The Films of Andy Warhol: A Retrospective

December 16, 2009

Nico and Andy: film still from "Chelsea Girls"

It was in 1963, a year before his first public gallery show, that Andy Warhol bought his first cine camera and a tape recorder… he knew from the beginning that he wanted to make films, and make films he did… Between 1963 and 1968, Warhol made more than 60 films as well as over 500 short black and white screen tests (filmed mostly of Factory visitors and friends). In styles ranging from minimalist avant-garde to commercial “sexploitation,” Warhol’s films have been highly regarded for their radical exploration beyond the frontiers of conventional Hollywood cinema.

Warhol on the famous red couch in the silver-lined Factory, 1967

Warhol with his screenprints, in the Factory

It was easy for Andy to transition into film-making, in large part, because of the Factory and its Superstars. Located on 47th street in Midtown Manhattan, the Factory served as Warhol’s living space, work space and play space, quickly becoming the hip hangout for  those Warhol surrounded himself with. It was at the Factory, that Andy produced the silkscreens by which he became famous. Working day and night on his paintings, it became apparent that in order to continue mass producing his images, he would need help. Thus, Warhol assembled a menagerie of drag queens, drug addicts, musicians, socialites, free thinkers and adult film performers, who would become known as the Warhol Superstars, in order to help him complete his work. It was the Superstars that took on the focal roles in Warhol’s films.

Warhol and some of his Superstars

Sleep (1963) was Warhol’s six-hour long film debut. Comprised of one long, continuous shot of close friend John Giorno sleeping for eight hours, the camera slowly pans over different parts of Giorno’s body. The film, itself, is really only twenty minutes long, the rest being repetition of the film’s opening sequence, repeating the techniques of the silkscreen pictures Warhol loved. Sleep premiered on January 17th, 1964 at the Film-makers’ Cooperative… of the nine people in attendance, two left within the first hour of the film. Warhol was not surprised, as he considered Sleep to be an “anti-film,” a medium that would reach few in a Hollywood obsessed culture. Nevertheless, Warhol pressed on with his experimental films, disregarding entirely the rules of traditional fictional film.

Excerpt from Sleep

Continuing with his penchant for repetition, Warhol went on to make a series of films much like Sleep, focusing on the repetition of an array of mundane, everyday tasks. Kiss (1963) is, perhaps, Warhol’s most well known short film. Filmed on 16mm film, in black and white, the film is comprised of a continuous shot of two people kissing. The window/frame of the shot is quite small, bringing the viewer right into the action of the kiss. Furthermore, the lighting used on the couple illuminates them while also casting a series of shadows, allowing for a more intimate feel.

Excerpt from Kiss

Kiss has been coined, by some, as the beginning of Warhol’s “sexploitation” films… a class of independently produced, low budget films, generally associated with the 1960’s, serving as a vehicle for the exhibition of non-explicit sexual situations/gratuitous nudity. Blow Job (1964) drives deeper into sexploitation films, providing thirty-five minutes of one continuous shot of the face of DeVeren Bookwalter while he is receiving oral sex from filmmaker Williard Maas. The film, however, only suggests the act of oral sex as the camera never actually tilts down below Bookwalter’s chin.

Excerpt from Blow Job

Again with the repetition of an extremely banal act, Warhol made Eat in 1964. The forty-five minute long film is comprised of, surprise surprise, a continuous shot of, pop artist, Robert Indiana engaged in the process of eating a mushroom, after which he is accompanied by a cat.

Excerpt from Eat

Empire (1964) presents an eight hour view of Manhattan’s pride and joy, the Empire State Building, as filmed from the 44th floor of the Time-Life Building.

Excerpt from Empire

Warhol felt that his first films, made with stationary objects, were not least of all supposed to help his audience get to know one another. He explained that people sitting in a movie theatre typically find themselves in some phantasy world, fueled by what they are watching on the screen. If something disturbing happens in the film, the audience will, more likely than not, turn to the person next to them, but only momentarily as to not miss the action on the screen. Warhol claimed that with his films, one could do more than they could with any other film… they could eat, drink, smoke, cough and look away from the screen and then back again, all the while finding that everything happening in the film was still there, right in front of them.

Warhol found his first commercial success with Chelsea Girls (1966), a panorama of scenes consisting of five chapters, each chapter focusing on a different Warhol Superstar as they lived their daily lives at the Chelsea Hotel and various other NYC locations. Filmed on 16mm film, primarily in black and white, with bouts of color photography found sparingly, the film’s original cut was six and a half hours long. Ultimately, the film’s run time was cut in half, the final product being just over three hours. In terms of viewing, two films were projected next to each other, simultaneously, accompanied by two soundtracks which alternated between screens in an attempt to emphasize one story line over the other. The film lacks a clear narrative, rather solely consisting of raw footage of the Superstars in their every day interactions, ranging from the mundane to the flamboyant. Furthermore, Warhol’s concept for the film was that it would be unlike watching a regular movie, as the two projectors could never achieve exact synchronization from viewing to viewing… Therefore, despite specific instructions of where individual sequences should be played, each viewing of the film would, in essence, be an entirely different experience.

Chelsea Girls was the first avant-garde film to achieve extensive commercial exhibition, though that does not mean it was well received by the critics. Roger Ebert, who gave the film one out of four stars, stated in his review, “…what we have here is 3 1/2 hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them.” Regardless of what the critics had to say, Warhol redefined the film-going experience for a wide range of audiences, attracting some serious critical attention and publicity, along the way.

Excerpt from Chelsea Girls

Warhol’s films, quite literally, turned the conventions of Classical Hollywood Cinema upside down. Chalked full of uncut, boringly long sequences with little to no change in image or focus, Andy’s films strayed far from the clear narrative path. It seems as if there is no law of film making that he did not violate, making frequent use of sloppy camera work, amateur film making skills and carelessness of sound. Furthermore, instead of focusing on a clear story line, Andy optimized the banal, the themes of his films focusing on mundane tasks, if not inanimate objects. On top of the unconventional filming techniques, the Superstars consciously acted, if you could call it that, with exaggerated gestures and a sense of clumsiness. What Warhol created, was a striking and fresh look at how cinema has to function. He purposefully ignored the rules of the game, aiming to unmask the lively reality of the time, amidst the background of traditional Hollywood cliches. Yet, it is worth noting that for as hard as Warhol strived to be his own entity, outside of Hollywood, he could not have done so without it, for his films work in juxtaposition to the classical ideal they repel… taking meaning in, not only what they are, but more so, in what they are not. While Hollywood was striving to portray a reality more real than reality itself, Warhol strived to portray reality in its actuality… and whether or not one finds his films worthwhile or interesting, they cannot deny that he met his goal.

Sources:

1. Angel, Callie, Thomas Sokolowski, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Glenn Lowry. Andy Warhol Motion Pictures. Annapolis: KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2005. Print.

2. Angell, Callie. Andy Warhol screen tests : the films of Andy Warhol : catalogue raisonné. New York: N.H. Abrams, 2006. Print.

3. Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.

4. Honnef, Klaus. Andy Warhol: 1928-1987. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2005. Print.

5. Kane, Daniel. We saw the light : conversations between the new American cinema and poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2009. Print.

6. Warhol, Andy. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Grand Central, 1991. Print.

7. Watson, Steven. Factory Made Warhol and the Sixties. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print.

Only the French would house a cinema inside of a palace…

December 10, 2009

1. The Dreamers, 2003

2. Written by: Gilbert Adair – Directed by: Bernando Bertolucci – Produced by: Jeremy Thomas – Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures

3. Intrigued by Bertolucci, in general, as well as the soundtrack to the film, I first viewed The Dreamers after renting the DVD on a whim. What a wonderful decision.

4. Target Audience: While English is the primary language spoken in the film, there is also a great deal of French, as the story takes place in France, during the 1960′s. The Dreamers is appealing to those interested in 60′s/French culture as well as those who are interested in foreign cinema. Additionally, the film rings true to typical Bertolucci fashion in the sense that it deals, explicitly, with sexual themes and was released in two formats, one being an unrated version, the other with a rating of NC-17. Lastly, the film is extremely appealing to someone who is interested in cinema history as it makes frequent references to the great films of the past.

5. Categorized as a French/British/Italian drama, The Dreamers was distributed, in the states, by Fox Searchlight Pictures, a film division of 20th Century Fox specializing in independent and British films. The film is based on the novel “The Holy Innocents,” by Gilbert Adair, whom also wrote the screenplay for the film… However, Burtolucci, ever the auteur, maintained artistic control of the picture, going so far as to insist changes be made to the screenplay during pre-production.

6. Film Description: Set to the backdrop of the tumultuous political landscape of Paris in 1968, The Dreamers tells the story of Matthew (an American), Theo and Isabelle (French twins), self-identified cinephiles, who are drawn together through their passion for film. With their parents gone for a month, Theo and Isabelle welcome Matthew into their hearts and home, dragging him into an orgy of indulgence, bringing an end to not only their innocence, but also his own. Trapped inside of their self-created, dream-like wonder, they explore their sexuality, emotions and sense of self, only waking from their dream when the reality of the revolution forces itself upon their daily lives.

7. Technical Considerations: Visually, The Dreamers is stunning. The backdrop of Paris, alone, is beautiful, but going beyond that, Bertolucci pays close attention to every fine detail, placing the audience right into the dream world the characters have created for themselves. Furthermore, Bertolucci pays homage to the great films of the past by not only re-enacting classic film scenes with his characters, but by also using actual footage from said movies, creating a grand tour through cinema history.

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea

December 9, 2009

1. Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001

2. Written by: Alfonso Cuaron and Carlos Cuaron – Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron – Produced by: Alfonso Cuaron and Jorge Vergara – Distributed by: IFC Films (In the United States) and 20th Century Fox (in Mexico)

3. I first viewed this film in High School, on DVD… though I’ve revisited it many times over the years.

4. Target Audience: This is a beautiful film that will appeal to fans of foreign cinema. However, it should be noted that the film deals heavily with graphic sexuality, at least in terms of what Americans are used to. The film was released without a rating, in the states, as to avoid the taboo NC-17 stamp. In terms of DVD, there exist two versions of the film… the original unrated version as well as a tamed down R rated version. Personally, after viewing both versions, I would advise audiences to cast ideals of sexuality and how it is portrayed in the movies aside, and opt for the unrated version as the watered down version lacks several pertinent scenes which help to establish the plot of the film.

5. While the film was originally distributed, in Mexico, by 20th Century Fox, one of the six major film studios, when it came to the American release, the film was distributed by IFC Films, a company which focuses on independent films/documentaries. Y Tu Mama Tambien, by Mexican film standards, was in no way an independent film, but rather a feature with a decently heavy budget. However, by American standards, this film easily classifies as independent, mostly due to the controversial and unabashed depiction sexuality explored in the film.

6. Film Description: Abandoned by their girlfriends for the summer, teens Tenoch and Julio decide to have an adventure of their own. After meeting Luisa, a mysteriously beautiful late 20-something, at a family wedding, the boys decide that they will embark on a road trip in search of  a beautiful, secretive, and ultimately fictional beach. Hoping to impress Luisa, they invite her along, and as she is desperate to escape Mexico City, she accepts. Along the way, seduction, lust, argument and the contrast of the trio against the harsh realities of the poverty that surrounds them, ensure. What unfolds is an exploration, of themselves, both sexually and mentally.

7. Technical Considerations: The king of capturing picturesque landscape views, Cuaron paints a beautiful image of the Mexican countryside in this impeccably visual film. Through his meticulous attention to detail, Cuaron is able to convey the trials and tribulations of every day life, amongst city-folk and country-folk, alike. Color-wise, the film almost has a vintage feel to it, but never-the-less, the images jump off the screen, reinforcing the beauty that surrounds the main characters. A truly beautiful film, both in terms of visuals and plot.

You cannot run from this – it will follow you.

December 9, 2009

1. Paranormal Activity, 2007

2. Written by: Oren Peli – Directed by: Oren Peli – Produced by: Jason Blum and Steven Schneider – Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

3. I viewed this film during one of the test screenings at a Chicago movie theater, previous to its nation wide release.

4. Target Audience: Horror film fans… it’s marketed as being the scariest movie of the decade (while that’s a lie, in my opinion, the film isn’t without its share of scares).

5. Paranormal Activity is the epitome of an independent film. Made with a budget of $15,000 and a shooting schedule of 7 days (filmed entirely in Peli’s own home), the film first premiered in 2007 at Screamfest. Miramax originally showed interest, though when Sundance refused to screen the film, Miramax backed out. In 2008, a DVD of the film ended up at Dreamworks… highly impressed with the film, they passed the DVD on to Steven Spielberg… with his approval, Paramount agreed to distribute the film. The film was finally released September 25th, 2009 in 13 college towns. When 12 of the 13 showings sold out, Peli took to the internet, encouraging people to demand the film and where it would play next, by voting on a website called eventful.com. By Friday, October 2nd, the movie had expanded to 20 more markets, including Chicago and New York… all 33 screenings sold out. The following Tuesday, Paramount announced that the movie would see a wide release if it received one million demands on eventful… by Friday, the counter was well over a million and as such, Paramount announced that the film would see a wide release on October 16th. As of October 25th, Paranormal Activity had grossed over $61 million in the US and Canada.

6. Film Description: Katie and Micah, a couple on their way toward engagement, move into their first home together in the burbs of San Diego. All is going well until Katie reveals that she has been haunted by some sort of ghostly entity for the majority of her life, and believes it has followed her into her new home. Determined to get to the bottom of the problem, Micah buys a video camera, which he leaves on all night in the couples bedroom, in order to record any sort of paranormal activity. What unfolds in a roller coaster ride of emotion, as Katie and Micah not only discover what is haunting their home, but also learn how to cope with said entity.

7. Technical Considerations: The entire film was show with a hand held video camera, often by Micah instead of Peli, to create a more authentic feel. Much like The Blairwitch Project, Paranormal Activity is striving for the mockumentary feel… it’s as if the audience is experiencing what Katie and Micah are experiencing, right along side them.

She was my Rushmore.

December 9, 2009

1. Rushmore, 1998

2. Written by: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson – Directed by: Wed Anderson – Produced by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson, Barry Mendel – Distributed by: Touchstone Pictures

3. I’ve viewed this film several times over the years via DVD.

4. Target Audience: Teens and adults, alike.

5. The film was originally to be distributed by New line Cinema, however, the company and Anderson couldn’t come to an agreement on a budget. Therefore, Anderson, Wilson and Mendel held an auction for the film’s rights… eventually striking a deal with Joe Roth, the then chair of Walt Disney Studios, who offered the final budget of $10 million. With such a heft budget, the line between mainstream and independent cinema is obviously a bit blurred in the case of Rushmore. The true independence of this film comes from Wes Anderson’s position as an auteur… unwilling to relinquish any artistic control over his product.

6. Film Description: Max Fischer is a precocious 15-year-old whose reason for living is his attendance at Rushmore, a private school in which he’s not doing well in any of his classes, but where he’s the king of extracurricular activities – from being in the beekeeping society to writing and producing plays, etc. However,  his life begins to change when he finds out that he is on academic probation as well as when he stumbles into love with Miss Cross, a pretty elementary school teacher at Rushmore. Added to the mix is his friendship with Herman Blume, a wealthy industrialist and father to boys who attend the school, who also finds himself attracted to Miss Cross. Max’s fate becomes inextricably tied to this odd love triangle, laying the basis for the film’s story.

7. Technical Considerations: Stylistically, the film has somewhat of a retro 60′s feel to it… very bold colors with great attention to detail. I was definitely reminded of films such as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, and even Chinatown. Anderson strives, and succeeds, in creating a visually rich environment that works with the story line and characters as opposed to standing alone as its own entity.

Final Research Project: The Films of Andy Warhol

November 9, 2009

Below, you will find the sources I’ve deemed will work best for my research project (which explores the films of Andy Warhol and how they juxtapose against conventional Hollywood cinema – a further proposal will follow). Any additional suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

1. Angel, Callie, Thomas Sokolowski, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Glenn Lowry. Andy Warhol Motion Pictures. Annapolis: KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2005. Print.

2. Angell, Callie. Andy Warhol screen tests : the films of Andy Warhol : catalogue raisonné. New York: N.H. Abrams, 2006. Print.

3. Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.

4. Honnef, Klaus. Andy Warhol: 1928-1987. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2005. Print.

5. Kane, Daniel. We saw the light : conversations between the new American cinema and poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2009. Print.

6. Warhol, Andy. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Grand Central, 1991. Print.

7. Watson, Steven. Factory Made Warhol and the Sixties. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print.

Tripping through the 1970′s, via Video Art

October 28, 2009

September 23rd’s lecture took the class on a visual trip through the 1970′s via Video Art, a movement which, at the time, was new to the film making industry. Video Art, which came to be during the 1960′s and 1970′s, is not film, but rather art that relies on moving pictures to comprise video/audio data. Video Art differs from classical Hollywood cinema in the sense that it doesn’t rely on typical film conventions. For example, Video Art may choose to exclude actors, dialogue and/or a discernible narrative/plot. While traditional cinema seeks to entertain, Video Art is much more concerned with the mediums being used. Versulca’s Switch Monitor Drift (1976) falls into the later, focusing more on the visual images that are created through the Video Art, while Phil Morton’s General Motors (1970′s) uses the new style in a way that tells a story while simultaneously manipulating the medium at hand. The final product is a mix of documentary meets the absurd. Nam June Paik also blurs the borders by using Video Art. In his 1978 film Merce by Merce By Paik, Paik presents the audience with 15 minutes of  Merce Cunningham’s contemporary choreography placed in front of a green screen. Paik’s film demonstrates the overlapping that was occurring in the arts during the 60′s and 70′s while also highlighting the ethos of creating this type of art: to reveal and show the audience the process involved in making Video Art (we see Cunningham in front of the green screen before/during/after the images are generated via the screen). While Video Art still exists today, it’s more so used through installation art.

A Response to Professor Michael Booth

October 28, 2009

During September 21st’s class, we were graced by the presence of Loyola Professor Michael Booth. The aim of his lecture? To help us further understand the differences between independent cinema versus classical Hollywood cinema. He demonstrated these differences through two important films… Billy Wilder’s Double Idemity (1944), and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Wilder’s film, distributed by Paramount Studios, is the epitome of classical Hollywood conventions… the story is told through a linear narrative, it opens with typical shot sequences (wide establishing shot, moving to a medium shot, in for the close up, back out to a medium shot), makes use of cut-away shots for sake of continuity and fixates upon the male gaze. Despite the typical Hollywood conventions, Wilder managed to create a solid film. Deren, too, created a solid film… however, she strays greatly from any sort of typical film standards. Meshes…, which is only 14 minutes long, was a silent film. It wasn’t until much late that music, non-diagetic audio at that, was added to the score. Additionally, Deren casts away the convention of opening a film with an establishing shot and instead goes straight in to extreme closeups. Her reasoning for this? By avoiding an opening establishing shot, Deren is able to avoid establishing that the character we are seeing is a female and thus she cannot immediately become a fixture of the male gaze. In fact, Deren works, throughout the film to avoid casting her protagonist amidst the male gaze… the character behaves in a manner that is constantly looking inside of herself, thus controlling what the audience is able to see of her. Because Deren refuses to be looked at through the lens of the male gaze, she makes it incredibly difficult for the audience to see her as a sexual object. Instead, she presents images in a matter-of-fact way, leaving little room to fetish-ize the image being shown. Deren also makes use of unusual camera angles and jumps. For example, through a series of irrational cuts, or jump-cuts if you will, objects move all about the screen, breaking continuity and creating a general feeling of chaos. Again, she does this to keep the audience focused on the story as opposed to gazing at the woman. Being that Deren’s movie was made in 1943, her unconventional ways were highly criticized. However, that mattered not to Deren… she was going to make her movie, the way she wanted, or she wasn’t going to make it at all.

I’m not even supposed to be here today!

October 28, 2009

1. Clerks, 1994

2. Written by: Kevin Smith – Directed by: Kevin Smith – Produced by: Kevin Smith and Kevin Mosier – Distributed by: Miramax Films

3. I viewed this film from the comfort of my living room.

4. Target audience: definitely adults. This comedy is filled with foul language and raunchy topics/scenes… you know, all the usual filth that makes for a great comedy.

5. Clerks is easy to classify as an independent film as auteur Kevin Smith wrote, produced, directed and acted in this film. Additionally, the film was made with the minuscule budget of $27,000 and filmed in the convenience store where Smith worked at the time, in order to save money. Furthermore, Smith sold a large portion of his comic book collection, maxed out at least eight credit cards, dipped into his college fund and used insurance money from a car that was lost in a flood, in order to fund the film.

6. Film Description: It’s just another day in the life of Dante Hicks, a Quickstop employee who has been called into work, despite the fact that it’s his day off. However, being called into work on a Saturday is the least of his problems, as Dante is simultaneously trying to deal with still being enamored with his high school sweetheart, Caitlin, while also managing his current serious relationship with Veronica, a women with strong opinions and determination to get Dante out of Quickstop and into college. Then there’s Randall,  Dante’s best friend who runs the video store next door and is even less dedicated to his job than Dante. The film unfolds over the course of this Saturday, as the audience watches Dante attempt to handle all that’s on his plate while also maintaining the Quickstop… will he succeed?

7. Technical Considerations: Shot in black-and-white film and roughly edited, in an attempt to save money, Clerks has a bit of a documentary feel to it. The plot isn’t based on big Hollywood action scenes and classical conventions, but rather Smith is simply capturing, on film, how Dante handles the stress of his daily life. The film lacks special effects and fancy scenery, instead focusing on the mundane reinforcing that this is just another day in the life of an average guy. Personally, I appreciated the minimalism used in filming the movie as it made it much easier to understand and empathize with Dante’s plight.

Are they slow moving, Chief?

October 28, 2009

1. Night of the Living Dead, 1968

2. Written by: George Romero and John Russo – Directed by: George Romero – Produced by: Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner – Distributed by: The Walter Reade Organization

3. I’ve viewed this film, numerous times, mostly at home.

4. Target audience: Horror movie fans

5. Night of the Living Dead is considered an independent film as it was made with the mere budget of $114,000. Due to the incredibly small budget, all artistic control was maintained by the writers/producers/director. For example, while shopping for a distributor, Romero turned down offers from Columbia and American International Pictures in order to keep the gore and ending in tact. Romero has been quoted as saying, “Everyone want[ed] a Hollywood ending, but we stuck to our guns.”

6: Film Description: Chaos descends upon rural Pennsylvania as the dead rise and begin feasting on any and all human flesh. Speculation as to why this is happening rests on a radiation-covered NASA satellite returning from Venus, but the cause of the situation means little when trying to survive. The plot thickens when the protagonists discover that anyone who is killed, sans major head trauma, will return as a flesh-eating zombie, including anyone who was merely bitten by the infected. Additionally, the only way to stop the zombies is to destroy their brains. Amongst these circumstances, a small group of characters take refuge in an abandoned farmhouse while trying to survive the night. Their only hope rests on getting some gasoline from a nearby pump into a truck that is running on empty, but this requires braving the hordes of ravenous walking corpses outside. When they finally put their plans into action, panic and personal tensions only add to the terror as they try to survive.

7. Technical Considerations: The film was shot in black-and-white on 35mm film due to budget constraints. However, the grainy look of the film actually appeals to the story line, giving the film the feel of a documentary. It’s as if the audience is watching real-time footage of society rapidly losing its stability, adding to the drama and horror of the film.

 


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