Considering that he has been
dubbed the Father of Pop – and that means, by now, both Pop Art and modern pop
culture – it is hardly surprising that our idea of Andy Warhol, celebrity
artist, is one comprised mainly of oft-repeated images and clichés. Warhol has
been immortalised over and over in songs, films and jokes. Off the top of my
head, I can immediately dredge up the following images of Warhol and his art:
– Andy the unoriginal, who killed uniqueness and originality in art
by appropriating other people's images and churning them out in multiples (a
Crowded House hit suggests that, amidst the glut of "cheap Picasso
fakes", "Andy Warhol must be laughing in his grave").
– Andy the indifferent. The man who never smiled. The dilettante who became an instantly successful underground filmmaker in the
‘60s by putting some people in front of the camera, turning it on, and walking
away. The man who cultivated an absence of personality,
sending along pleasant-looking stand-ins to do his lectures and personal
– Andy the workaholic, driven to ape the assembly-line industrial
production of his time by setting up a Factory to crank out art-objects at an
astonishingly over-productive rate.
– Andy the media citizen, who went where the money was, where fame
and glamour danced for a fleeting moment on the public stage. He painted
powerful celebrities in the ‘70s and ‘80s – TV stars, politicians, gallery
owners – and started the ultimate gossip-fashion-style magazine, Interview. 'Everyone will be famous for
fifteen minutes' Andy.
– Andy the subcultural, sexual transgressive, the decadent, the
"most openly gay artist who ever lived" (according to Richard Dyer).
This is the Andy incarnated by Crispin Glover in Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991), while psychedelic
parties rage in the Factory, the Velvet Underground crank up their noisy music,
and Nico (poor dead Nico) gives Jim Morrison head in an elevator, while his
girlfriend looks on in a druggy daze.
– Andy the exploiter, the pimp, the man who unleashed the demonic
forces of the underground and then could not, would not, control them. The catalogue of suicides, overdoses – and finally, Valerie Solanas'
angry murder attempt on his life.
– And finally, Andy the dry, ironic, conceptual joker,
purveyor of what he and others in the ‘80s called Popism – a cagey, ambiguous
sensibility. Did Andy really think his art was any good, or is it all a joke on
us? Was he, all the time, sending up big business,
Hollywood, high society, from his position
within the artworld? Between the images of Andy the reactionary sell-out and
Andy the spectacular subversive, stands this Andy: the troubling
hyperconformist, lost in the mirrors of a media society, whose intent is
impossible to completely figure.
When it comes to Warhol's
films – particularly the films he made in the early years of the Factory in the
early-to-mid-‘60s – many of these quite contradictory images of Andy emerge and
fight for attention in the spotlight. Even before he reached his grave, Andy
must have been laughing – or drily smiling, at least – at the way these films
were much more talked about than actually seen (which is still the case today).
They became, in the traditions of media hype and popular humour alike, far more
than legends in themselves – they became the symbols, the emblems, for all underground,
experimental film, at least to the many who had never
been exposed to an underground or experimental film. I cannot tell you how many
students I have taught whose first philistine reaction to the mere mention of
such cinema is: "Oh, avant-garde film, that's, like, twenty-four hours of
the Empire State building or a guy sleeping, and the lighting's awful, and it's
silent, and nothing ever happens. Oh sure, and all the arty-farts look at it
and go, oh wow, and they've all been sucked in – well I'm not letting that
happen to me!".
Already, in fact, I detect the
suspicion in the media reception to Warhol film retrospectives that it is al
just a brilliant publicity and posterity-seeking plot – these scrappy films
finally being made available in the aftermath of the artist's death. Could Andy
have been behind this stunt, too? A parodic mimicry, maybe, of the way
Hitchcock deliberately withdrew a selection of his masterpieces from
distribution until after his death?
But let us try to bury, for a
moment, the heated arguments over Warhol's intentions, his games, or his
ideology. Let us try to have a look at the films themselves. The 1991 touring retrospective program under review here – which is truly only a tip of the iceberg – contains
ten films: most importantly, some of the earliest ones like Blow Job, Vinyl, Sleep, Kiss and Beauty 2. These films are far from being simply conceptual jokes,
and they are compulsively watchable. They are truly among the most important
films of the modern cinema – and no one who is interested in the possibilities
of cinema will want to miss them.
Warhol is as profoundly
important a filmmaker as he is a Pop artist. His place in film history, however,
needs a very careful, exact description. Warhol is not a master filmmaker – not artful in any deliberated sense. He
really did just 'turn the camera on and walk away' quite often and, in this
sense, some of his films are indeed pure accidents. Yet Warhol, although he may
have had only a dim sense of it himself, discovered something in cinema – or
rather, he unleashed it.
Only two directors who came
into movies with no known filmmaking sense ended up, through the force of their
own impervious sensibilities, creating a new form of cinema. They are Warhol
and Marguerite Duras. Duras' cinema is built up tenaciously from the force of
the spoken, chanted, whispered and screamed word – a verbal incantation that
questions, and often empties, the images that accompany it. Warhol seized on time and on duration. The very idea of
looking at one thing, simply there on screen for an extraordinarily long time, was a truly radical move. Of course there had
previously been some amazing long takes in film (by Welles, Mizoguchi,
Hitchcock) – but they had been busy, meticulous, elaborate, suspenseful pieces
of staging. Warhol was a deliberate primitive, whose unelaborate approach was
akin to some of the earliest and most elemental films of silent cinema.
What Warhol unleashed was what
we might call dead time – the very
opposite of suspenseful, event-packed, narrative time. Watching his films is no
easy task, at least in the terms of conventional cinematic interest. Things
happen in his films like they do at a slow party, or in a halting conversation:
there are sudden, unexpected lurches from tedium to excitation and back again
to tedium. The air of these films is
sullen, thick, lazily confrontational. And, if you can
unburden yourself of traditional expectations of movie action, you will go on a
great ride with the strange rhythms and very odd events of Warhol's
slice-of-underground-life movies. This is particularly true of the epic
two-screen Chelsea Girls from 1966,
any screening of which is unquestionably the film event on any calendar.
So far I have discussed the
side of Warhol which relates to his cool, minimalist legacy – a legacy which
Warhol brilliantly translated to film after witnessing the early-‘60s
inspirations of Yvonne Rainer's experimental dance choreography and John Cage's
music. Those who subsequently drew on the force and inspiration of Warhol's
minimalist film experiments are legion – Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Wim
Wenders, not forgetting Australia's own Popist Super-8 film movement of the
Yet there is another, equally
important side to Warhol's cinema. As Peter Wollen remarked, Warhol’s genius
lay in the perverse combination of two seemingly incompatible movements:
minimalism and camp. Warhol drew much from the flamboyant, often hectic
bargain-basement cinema of Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar brothers.
Theres was truly an underground cinema – made with no money and little film
stock, destined for only marginal circulation (even though the films of John
Waters or David Lynch would hardly have come into being without their legacy).
The High Camp aspect of their work came from the use of fabulous nobodies as
instant screen superstars, forevermore property of their director. Warhol took
Uneasy – after Solanas' murder
attempt – with both the artistic underground and his own Factory, Warhol gave
his superstars over mainly to Paul Morrissey. Morrissey is a very different
filmmaker to Warhol, and an equally important one; he certainly continued
Andy's step-by-step, personal re-invention of cinema history. Warhol had begun
the process with completely primitive, black and white, silent and static
'movie portraits'; Morrissey cast the superstars in murky, messy colour
narratives like Flesh (1968), Trash (1970)
and Heat (1972) that recapture, in
their own camp way, the grace and surprise of D. W. Griffith's features.
The road leading from Warhol's Kiss in 1963 to Morrissey's Mixed Blood in 1985 may, at times, be an
uncomfortable and disconcerting one, with some unusual detours. But it is also
one of the most remarkable and riveting journeys of the modern cinema.
© Adrian Martin August 1991