The Films of Andy Warhol: A Retrospective

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.

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