Monday, July 27, 2020

The short films of Andy Warhol

I’ve tried to understand what the big deal was about Andy Warhol. When I lived in Columbus, I went to a major Warhol exhibit and looked at his silkscreens, sat through a few of his films, read his history, but I can’t say I ever made a personal connection to any of it.

It’s easy to say, “You had to be there,” but in his case, I really feel that’s true. For all of the articles that testify to his importance to art history and pop culture history, I don’t grok any of it, and certainly not his films—I mean, who would want to sit through a static shot of the Empire State Building for eight damn hours? More to the point, who would feel such a film had value?

I get that Warhol was mostly pulling everyone’s collective leg with his work, but audiences of the 60s strike me as willing accomplices to the joke. I dunno. Still, his films have a relevancy because of who he was, if not for their content, so I will examine a few and try to appreciate the importance they may have. No promises.

from Bob Dylan’s screen test
the Warhol screen tests. Boy, did Warhol love making screen tests. In Hollywood, they determine an unknown actor’s suitability for a role. When he made them, it was more or less for kicks. If you walked into the Factory in those days, and he liked your looks enough, you could expect to go before the camera.

In the ones I watched, someone had the brilliant idea of setting them all to music. Perhaps that wasn’t the artist’s original intent, but it kept me watching instead of turning it off after two minutes of somebody staring into the camera. They became like music videos.

Nico looked bored and not very enamored of the camera, like she had something on her mind and was trying to figure out the best way to say it. Bob Dylan looked like he was waiting for something to happen and wondering if he was doing this right. Lou Reed wore sunglasses, which strikes me as a cheat, and drank a Coke. He brandished the bottle like he was in a commercial. Salvador Dali’s eyes were alert and ultra-aware, almost like he was in a horror movie. Dennis Hopper (couldn’t believe how young he was) sat the most still of the ones I saw. Warhol also played with the camera more, going in and out of focus, moving it around, etc.

I had thought they would all look the same after awhile but they didn’t.

Robert Indiana in Eat
Eat (1963). Robert Indiana was the artist who made that “Love” painting with the crooked o. In this one, we see him in close-up, sitting in a rocking chair in front of a window, eating a mushroom. And that’s it. Warhol actually slowed the film down, so it takes Indiana a long-ass time to eat something so small, though he must’ve had more than one.

Eat has no audio, so I put on music while I watched, and I admit that divided my attention, but then, maybe a quarter of the way into the movie, a plot twist! Indiana’s cat appears and climbs up onto his shoulder! For a few minutes he offers the cat some of his mushroom but the cat seems resistant. He appears again a little later and I feel confident in saying he steals the show.

Indiana stares out the window, rocks in his chair for a bit, looks thoughtful, wears his sporty hat. In the absence of a plot, changes in movement or unexpected occurrences, like the cat, count for action, but you can’t rely on them turning up when things get boring. The screen whiting out when it’s time to change reels almost comes as a relief.

The impression I get is of Warhol fooling around, discovering what he could do with the camera, not terribly concerned with the standard Hollywood conventions. When I described this to Virginia, she noted how making everyday activity such as this film-worthy was a new thing and was artistic in itself, but she also thought it was a kind of torture!

Edie Sedgwick in Outer and Inner Space
Outer and Inner Space (1966). Edie Sedgwick was 22 when she met Warhol in 1965, born to a wealthy family but raised by an abusive and narcissistic father. She suffered from an eating disorder, had spent time in a mental hospital and had an abortion. She came to New York from Santa Barbara, California with an $80,000 trust fund and hopes for a modeling career. She got a whole lot more. Here’s a Vanity Fair article from 2017 on the two of them.

Visually, this film was kinda fascinating: it’s Edie in split-screen, both on film and video, juxtaposed next to each other, one in real life, the other on videotape. I don’t know whether it was the print I saw on YouTube or not (it might’ve been a bootleg copy), but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I doubt it was anything important.

Video-Edie is captured in profile and she’s never distracted by anything off to the sides; she does nothing but look forward at who- or whatever is in front of her, talking. Film-Edie sits at a three-quarter angle and seems much more animated—and there are two screens of her like this, so there are actually four Edies instead of two. The two screens don’t always stay within the frame; Warhol moves the camera around and even futzes with Video-Edie’s image.

As a presence, Edie looks and talks like a normal girl, ostentatious earrings aside. This was the first time I had seen her in anything, so I didn’t have the preconceptions of her based on her troubled past. She could’ve been a college freshman chatting with her roommate in the quad. I can’t say there was anything about her that screamed Movie Star or even Celebrity... but Warhol saw her differently. I guess she paved the way for the likes of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, for whatever that’s worth.

The Velvet Underground in Boston
The Velvet Underground in Boston (1967). The Velvet Underground was the name of a paperback about really weird sex in the early 60s, and in 1965 a New York band called the Falling Spikes, formerly known as the Warlocks, discovered the name and liked it, because it evoked “underground cinema.” Not long after their second name change, they met Warhol and their fortunes changed dramatically. Here’s a Rolling Stone piece about their landmark album made with Nico.

A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were already part of the public consciousness by 1967, so I had hoped this concert footage of Warhol’s Factory house band would be in a similar vein. It is and it isn’t. It’s in color, and there’s lots of funky editing, with zooms, whip-pans, and other tricks, but the audio, which you’d think would be the major selling point of a video Warhol shot of the rock band he managed, is for shit: it’s distorted beyond recognition and while you can see the kids in the audience dancing, I don’t recognize the songs—not that I’m that familiar with their music anyway.

The cops show up at the end but it’s hard to tell why.

So based on what I’ve seen, Warhol’s films are kind of a mixed bag. Not as terrible as I thought they might be but not that exciting either.


  1. I think Virginia nailed it with the "artistic" yet at the same time "torture" description. My morning chuckle.

  2. Well, I don’t disagree, that’s for sure, but I did want to at least give his films a try.


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