THE FILMS OF ANDY WARHOL: CINEMATIC TIME CAPSULES
By Lucy Fischer and Geralyn Huxley
--Critic Thom Andersen
A BACKWARD GLANCEIt is common knowledge that Andy Warhol was an inveterate collector. His so-called "time capsules" contained memorabilia of his own life and age– silverware from an airline, flea market finds, letters, announcements, and the like. We can also think of Andy Warhol’s films as "time capsules" too, since they, simultaneously, hark back to the earliest days of the movies and look forward to the cinema that follows.
When he says that Warhol symbolically reiterated all of film history, Thom Andersen is referring to certain stylistic elements in the work. Beginning with Warhol’s earliest films (like Kiss in 1963), his movies were rendered with a static camera, and offered the viewer a single shot. While the final version of Kiss runs some fifty minutes (and depicts a variety of couples engaged in the romantic act), it was originally shown as an avant-garde "serial"–with each "episode" focusing on one pair of lovers and lasting only four minutes. It is the calculated "primitivism" of this work that looks back toward the 1890s and the films of such French documentarists as Auguste and Louis Lumiere. In the United States, Thomas Alva Edison’s company also produced short, non-fiction subjects. One to which Warhol’s film pays tribute is the Irwin-Rice Kiss (1896)– a depiction of two actors (then performing on Broadway) in the throes of a theatrical embrace. Interestingly, that film was on the first program of movies shown in Pittsburgh at the Bijou Theater on September 5, 1896.
A similar faux "primitivism" marks Warhol’s Empire (1964), which presents a nearly continuous, eight-hour "stare" at the Empire State Building, filmed between the hours of dusk and dawn. While turn-of-the-century movies lasted only a few moments, they also often highlighted major monuments, such as the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids. While the purpose of early cinema was to provide viewers access to extraordinary places and events, Warhol’s goal is more metaphysical. He once noted: "My first films using the stationary objects were...made to help the audience get more acquainted with themselves."
Other aspects of Warhol’s oeuvre--shot in a brief period between 1963
and 1968-- look back to film history. His first movies were silent, as
were the earliest films (he only began to use sound in 1964). Moreover,
to accentuate his films’ duration and meditative quality, he projected
them at the traditional silent speed of sixteen frames per second. These
films were also shot in black-and-white (color did not enter the equation
until 1965). Furthermore, Warhol paid loving homage to many old-fashioned
Hollywood genres. When Kiss was released in episodic form, it revised the
old notion of the film "serial" (works like The Perils of Pauline or the
Adventures of Buck Rogers). By giving his films titles like Lonesome Cowboys
(1967), Soap Opera (1964), and Tarzan and Jane Regained...Sort of (1963),
Warhol also reprised some of the favored Hollywood formulas (the western,
melodrama, and the jungle film). Finally, with works like Hedy (1965),
Lupe (1965), Harlot (1964), and players like Mario Montez, Warhol made
reference to the Hollywood star system that produced Hedy Lamarr, Lupe
Velez, Jean Harlow, and Maria Montez). Significantly, a series of Warhol’s
movies are entitled Screen Tests (1965).
But, beyond the issue of sexuality, Warhol’s subject matter was unsettling in other ways. He was fascinated with reclaiming those individuals whom society considered "losers." As Barbara Kruger remarked, the Factory was a "site at which the marginalized could enthusiastically produce the image of their own (im)perfection." This fixation on eccentricity lives on beyond Warhol in such disconcerting documentaries as Gates of Heaven (1974) in which people discuss the deaths of their pets; and in Crumb (1994), a profile of an odd underground cartoonist. To some degree, we also see the similarity of Warhol’s obsession with fringe characters on much of daytime talk television (the shows of Montel Williams, Jerry Springer, and Jenny Jones), which feature a host of dysfunctional personalities. We also find its traces in such mainstream movies as Leaving Las Vegas (1995) or Trainspotting (1996), which depict the lives of the down-and-out and disaffected.
While some aspects of Warhol’s heritage are rather dark, other elements are quite droll. Warhol brought a comic "camp" sensibility to the American public (and even made a film of that name). Here, one thinks of his punning movie titles (Harlot instead of Harlow), and of his "over-the-top" sensibility (making a six-hour film about someone asleep). Much contemporary parody traces its roots to Warhol, as does the humor of Saturday Night Live, for which Warhol once produced segments.
Warhol’s films have often been described as voyeuristic. The artist himself admitted that he spent his time "just watching, [and] observing the world." This impulse led him toward a hyperbolic cinema verite style–seeking to record the world with a minimum of directorial mediation. As Warhol once commented, "With film you just turn on the camera and photograph something. I leave the camera running until it runs out of film because that way I can catch people being themselves." This is essentially what happens in sections of the three-hour epic, The Chelsea Girls (1966), as people come before the camera and posture and talk. It is this Warhol heritage that we see in the 1970s PBS television series, An American Family, which documents the lives of "average" people. We continue to feel Warhol’s impact on such contemporary "reality-based" television shows as PBS’s recent ten-hour An American Love Story, MTV’s Real World and Road Rules, and such web-based entertainment as JenniCam (in which a woman installs a live camera in her apartment whose record is fed to the internet).
Warhol’s most famous aphorism advanced the idea that everyone would eventually be famous for fifteen minutes; and, clearly, the cult of celebrity seduced him. Aside from becoming a superstar, himself, he had the power to turn Factory hangers-on into public luminaries. He accomplished this for such figures as Ondine (The Chelsea Girls), Baby Jane Holzer (The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women ), Edie Sedgwick (Poor Little Rich Girl ), and Joe Dallesandro (Trash ). Since Warhol’s death (a tragic one, with overtones of the demise of Elvis or Marilyn), America’s fixation on fame has only gotten stronger. Monica Lewinsky now hosts Saturday Night Live, and a news program interviews a woman caught accidentally in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As tabloids occupy progressively more space on the supermarket shelves, we recall that Warhol’s Hedy focused on Lamarr’s arrest for shoplifting and that More Milk Yvette (1965) referenced a homicidal scandal involving Lana Turner.
Finally, much of the eighties and nineties was identified with the tenets of Postmodernism—a love of popular culture, a fascination with surfaces, a play with irony, an interest in pastiche, and an attraction to duplicity. Clearly, this style characterized such contemporary films as Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), and Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). Once more, Warhol seems the primary philosopher of the movement, as well as the grand master of "simulacra." As he once stated: " I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real begins."
While Warhol asserted that, "at the end of his time," he did not want "to leave any leftovers," in truth, he did–in the form of a dynamic legacy of cinematic style, sensibility, and savvy. If he "lived for the future" and feared looking "old," he would be glad to know that, within the context of a new millennium, his films remain as fresh as ever.
WARHOL AND INDEPENDENT FILM IN PITTSBURGH
Beyond showing films, Andy also experimented with other means of producing images. As his friend, Nick Kish remembers: "We’d use a flashlight with clear wax paper and cut out lines of what we thought were human beings and animals, and run it across the round opening in a box in front of the flashlight to see if we could get it on the wall." By the age of nine, Andy owned a Kodak Brownie camera and took "pictures of just about anything."
When Warhol was a student at Carnegie Tech, he became involved with more ambitious projects. Jack Wilson, a classmate, recollects that, in 1948, Warhol and his fellow design majors directed a parodic film about one of their professors that involved "fast-paced comic encounters, mock murders, and chases through the city." Interestingly, just a few years earlier, in 1946, avant-garde filmmaker, Maya Deren, had shot sections of A Ritual in Transfigured Time in Pittsburgh, at the home of Betty Raphael.
During the years that have followed Warhol’s residence in Pittsburgh, the independent film tradition has continued. Stan Brakhage shot Eyes (1971) while riding in a city police car; Deux Ex (1971) at West Penn Hospital, and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) at the County Morgue. Hollis Frampton directed segments of his magnum opus, Magellan (1974) at U.S. Steel and at Pitt’s anatomy lab. Similarly, James Broughton filmed Erogeny (1976) while in the city. A host of other renowned experimental filmmakers have worked on their films here, including Storm De Hirsch, Gunvor Nelson, George Landow, Paul Sharits, Ken Jacobs, and Scott Bartlett.
The principal independent media production organization in the city is Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which was incorporated in 1971. Many film artists currently working in the city are or have been associated with the institution: Brady Lewis, Tony Buba, Paul Glabicki, Victor Grauer, John Cantine, Prajna Parasher, Wen Haw Tsao, Steffi Domike, Kenny Love, Brian Richmond, and Michael Johnsen.
For research on this article, the following texts were consulted:
Andy Warhol’s Art and Films (1986) by Patrick Smith; Remote Control:
Power, Cultures, and The World of Appearances (1993) by Barbara Kruger;
The Andy Warhol Museum Catalog (1994); Andy Warhol Film Factory by Michael
O’Pray; Artforum (June 1966); The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to
B and Back Again) by Andy Warhol; and Star Gazer: Andy Warhol’s World and
His Films, by Stephen Koch.
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