Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Early Exposure: The First Films of Andy Warhol


The more you look at the same exact thing, the more meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel. — Andy Warhol, 1975

In January 1964 Andy Warhol premiered Sleep, his first full-length foray into the medium of cinema after more than a decade of work in the realm of painting, ink illustration, and silkscreen visual art. Shot on 16mm film and running just under five-and-a-half hours in length, Sleep consists solely of a half-dozen randomly repeated shots of poet John Giorno asleep in the nude. Apart from a bed and a stack of books behind his head, Giorno, flanked by off-white walls and resting unawares, is the only discernible element to feature in Warhol’s succession of observant, unadorned compositions. There are an untold number of stories about the film’s first few screenings, with the reported walkouts (allegedly by Warhol himself) and verbal altercations accounting for more viewers than likely even saw the film before it was first pulled from circulation in 1972. And while more than 50 of Warhol’s more prominent films, including Sleep, have since been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Museum, they’ve never exactly been easy to see, playing mostly at one-off repertory screenings and gallery exhibitions since the artist’s death in 1987.

Now, 50 years after Sleep’s premiere and on the occasion of the Warhol Museum’s own 20th anniversary, 15 early, previously unseen shorts have been restored, digitized, and recently shown for the first time in Warhol’s hometown of Pittsburgh, as well as New York and Los Angeles, with musical accompaniment by five artists wholly indicative of his lasting influence. These intimate audio-visual performances, presented at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and UCLA’s Royce Hall under the title “Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol,” have likewise encouraged peripherally related affairs on both coasts. In Los Angeles alone there have been screenings of both Kiss (1963) and Blow Job (1964), as well as, respectively, the director’s most popular and infamous filmic projects, Chelsea Girls (1966) and Empire (1964). Together, alongside the Los Angeles premiere of Warhol’s 1979 art installation Shadows, a 102-panel series of hand-painted and silkscreened canvases, these events account for what is likely the most concentrated slate of West Coast–related Warhol activity in years.

Warhol first began experimenting with a Bolex camera in the summer of 1963, initiating a half-decade period during which he would produce hundreds of silent shorts and screen test portraits in addition to his increasingly ambitious exercises exploring the temporal capacity of the moving image. It’s from this early period of creativity that the 15 works comprising the “Exposed” program are drawn. Theoretically, the Bolex — utilizing as it does 100-foot rolls of 16mm stock, which even at capacity account for roughly only three minutes of silent footage each — could potentially hinder a first-time filmmaker’s budding creativity. Yet one of the great ironies of Warhol’s cinema is the inverse relationship between his accumulating resources and his advancing formal rigor. Indeed, many of Warhol’s most playful, freewheeling films were made early on, in short form, without the benefit of (or desire for) sound. Thus while his screen tests — essentially stationary, live-action head shots of fellow artists and frequenters of his East 47th Street loft, the Factory — portended the more observational tact of his lengthier projects, these early shorts embody a spirit of camaraderie and cinematic inquisitiveness, as his lens excitedly captures life and leisure in and around mid-’60s Manhattan.

In Warhol’s own words, these initial works were thoroughly intuitive experiments. “All through ’64 we filmed movies without sound. We were shooting so many, we never even bothered to give titles to a lot of them,” he’d say years later in a quote featured in J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1983 book Midnight Movies. Made around the same time, the 15 “Unseen” films do have titles — or at least descriptive epithets — but together betray a similarly innocent, languid (if not completely unconcerned) sense of artistic posterity. Ben Harrison, curator of performing arts at the Warhol Museum, likens them in the program notes to home movies. The first film in the series, John Washing (1963), certainly feels like one. A quite literal translation of its title, the four-and-a-half-minute short features the aforementioned John Giorno standing nude at the kitchen sink, washing dishes unperturbed as the sun shines softly through surrounding windows. Also from 1963 and of equally modest aim are Jill and Bob Indiana Etc., the former a rather jubilant recording of feminist author and one-time Village Voice cultural critic Jill Johnston wielding a shotgun as she dances in a grassy yard, the latter a more communal document featuring the eponymous pop art sculptor and painter Robert Indiana, along with a few conspicuous male and female companions, sitting, smiling, and smoking as life passes idly by.

The Factory faithful were a notoriously wide-ranging and eclectic group. An excerpt from Allen (1964) offers a small sampling of the spectrum of personalities who’d often congregate in Warhol’s silver-streaked arts space: Beat poet and authors Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and the titular Allen Ginsberg gathered on a small couch with artist Gerard Malanga, actor Taylor Mead, and Ginsberg’s romantic partner and poet himself, Peter Orlovsky. Here they are seen drinking, smoking, and congregating in what one has likely come to associate as a typical evening of Factory festivities. Malanga is also featured, this time on all fours, in Kiss the Boot (1966), nuzzling the leather-clad legs of actress and artist Mary Woronov. Captured in a single, provocative shot, Kiss the Boot is emblematic of the submissive, slightly sadomasochist bent of much of Warhol’s work, and as such feels of particular accord with the dark, droning avant-psychedelia of the Velvet Underground, a fresh-faced band Warhol befriended in 1966 and for whom he would provide the iconic banana logo for the landmark 1967 album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. With that association in mind, it’s nearly impossible to watch Kiss the Boot and not recall the “Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” refrain of the album’s centerpiece track, “Venus in Furs.”

The German-born Nico (née Christa Päffgen) would only work with The Velvet Underground on their debut record, but she was one of Warhol’s most recognizable superstars throughout the ’60s. She stars in the “Unseen” film Nico/Antoine (1966), wherein she and the French pop singer Pierre Antoine Muraccioli, seated side-by-side, share a banana in front of a blown-up picture of the image which would soon grace record shelves (“Peel Slowly and See”) and eventually become synonymous with her one-time musical collaborators. Eating likewise shares a prominent role in Mario Montez and Boy (1965), the most bizarre yet strangely intimate of the films. One of Warhol’s most prized superstars and a prominent figure in the underground film movement, Montez is seen in the film locked arm-in-arm with the young, anonymous Richard Schmidt, the two devouring a single cheeseburger, mouthfuls of ground beef and condiments proving no impediment to their exaggerated displays of lip-locked passion. Exuding a similar flamboyance is model/actress Susan Bottomly, a.k.a. International Velvet, whose work in Paraphernalia (1966) essentially amounts to posing in a sequin dress and oversized earrings, whip in hand, as Warhol’s handheld camera zooms in and out erratically, indulging a technique that is otherwise in short supply.

Other films, such as Superboy (1966), four minutes of an unidentified man drinking a Coca-Cola, and Jack Cigarette (1964), one carefully framed shot of a bearded Jack Smith smoking a cigarette while a woman stands out of focus in the background, are more restrained. Others still are actual screen tests, albeit featuring figures of such notoriety that the simple act of observing is inherently intriguing. Filmed in 1965, Warhol’s most recognizable muse, Edie Sedgwick, is seen in one film powdering and smoking as she sits casually atop a stool, her soft features impossibly seductive as she gazes calmly, slightly smiling, into the camera lens. Shot the following year, folk troubadour Donovan looks a little more dazed, tired, and let’s just say, relaxed, than Sedgwick. He picks his teeth and generally looks more awkward in front of a camera than Warhol’s regular troupe of would-be celebrities. The unlikely pair of artist Marcel Duchamp and model-turned-Marxist-radical Benedetta Barzini, meanwhile, sit for their own screen test in 1966, calmly sharing a single cigar. Warhol himself is such an implied presence in his work, particularly in these screen tests, that it can be startling when he’s actually seen in front of the camera rather than simply felt from behind. His appearance in Me and Taylor (1963), then, makes for an appropriate conclusion to the program. Shot in Warhol’s own apartment, the film features Warhol and Taylor Mead dancing, laughing, thrusting their hips, and riding a plastic carnival horse around the living room. It’s an endearing image, and one that poignantly humanizes some of the darker aspects shading Factory life.

The artists chosen by guest musical curator Dean Wareham (Dean & Britta, Galaxie 500) to score the “Unseen” films are an estimable assemblage of contemporary and classic sonic experimentalists. In addition to Wareham’s soft-focus guitar-pop accompaniment, there was former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine dispensing solo six-string soundscapes; Martin Rev, one-half of the pioneering no wave duo Suicide, providing circuit-damaged synth workouts; Eleanor Friedberger of Fiery Furnaces fame working media appropriated lyrics into full band formations; and Bradford Cox of indie rock titans Deerhunter, performing solo, aquatic-sounding compositions with a sampler, not unlike his work under the solo guise Atlas Sound. The house band supporting Verlaine and Friedberger, meanwhile, was comprised of ex-Icewater drummer Noah Hecht, Papercuts singer-songwriter Jason Quever, and Wareham’s wife and longtime collaborator Britta Phillips. Stylistically diverse yet spiritually attuned, these musicians worked reverently while still exploring the sonic and thematic possibilities afforded them by this unique setup.

It’s interesting to consider these 15 films alongside Warhol’s better known work from the same period. There’s certainly a stylistic similarity between these shorts and other films such as Kiss, a succession of three-and-a-half minute shots of a random assortment of kissing couples, and Blow Job, comprised of a single, slowed-down shot of the face of actor DeVeren Bookwalter presumably being serviced from off-screen. But durational provocations such as Sleep and Empire, each made in the intervening years, seem to operate on another plane of cinematic purity entirely. “Warhol’s idea of cinematic mise-en-scène consisted of turning on the camera, pointing it in the general direction of the performers, and just letting it run until the entire roll of film had been exposed,” writes Hoberman in Midnight Movies. Whether his subjects were human or inanimate, this indeed seems to be the general conceit of Warhol’s formal methodology. Within these coordinates, however, he’s able to construct and prompt intriguing questions regarding the nature of performance, the role of the filmmaker, and the transformative properties of space and time.

Empire, composed of a single, slow-motion view of the Empire State Building and the most extreme realization of the director’s durational conceptualization, for all its simplistic characterization as a real-time shot of an iconic, immutable object, is surprisingly dynamic, proceeding through a number of distinct movements across its eight-hour runtime. Sleep, made only one year prior, moves at a comparatively brisk clip, helped in this regard by the Bolex’s relatively limited recording capacity. (In contrast, Warhol shot Empire on the Auricon, a sound camera, allowing for much lengthier setups, but chose to project the film at silent speed anyway.) Thus the more frequent setups, which Warhol visually stimulates further by repeating each shot in random assortments. In this sense the film is both short, in terms of the amount of footage that was shot and implemented, and lengthy, in that it was intentionally extended and patterned to replicate an entire night’s sleep cycle.

These subtle yet significant structuring techniques were integrated and streamlined mostly proficiently in Chelsea Girls, a genuine underground phenomenon and a powerful reflection on an unsustainable ideology which Warhol himself had helped popularize (“It may have looked like a horror show … but to us it was more like a comfort,” Warhol would write of the film in his 1980 memoir POPism). Chelsea Girls not only brought the initial phase of Warhol’s cinematic career to an aesthetic and thematic culmination, but also anticipated the first relocation of the Factory from Midtown Manhattan to Union Square West, itself a spiritual transition for a social substrata defined as much by their psyches as their surroundings. Conceived as a split-screen, dual-projection experience, the film’s 12 unedited reels of footage (shot on both color and black-and-white stock) would be screened simultaneously, side-by-side, in random order but as purposefully chosen pairs, one image projecting sound, the other silent, in static alternation until the last reels had run to completion. The given effect, at once vibrant and volatile, would thus be one unique to each individual screening. The more ineffable sense that this polymorphous presentation instills, however, is one of infinitude, as if what we’re watching could conceivably continue unperturbed in a state of suspended stasis, intangible yet undeniably alive. And from this vantage, Warhol’s relentless prolificacy aligns with his notions regarding the essence of the image and the ability to transcend its meaning through a kind of unconscious engagement, accounting for both an insatiable creativity and a catalog of films that feel truly inexhaustible. [LARB]

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