Archive for December, 2009

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.