It’s intriguing how certain topics remain elusive cinematic subject matter. The Civil War, for example, has yet to be translated into the epic struggle for national identity that the conflict highlighted. Instead, it’s a well loved Ken Burns documentary, with lots of minor motion picture pick-ups along the way. Similarly, the end of the world – Bible style – has a stifled creative history. Unless you’re a televangelist looking to craft more direct to DVD donation fodder, most filmmakers won’t touch the idea with a set of seven seals. And then there is Andy Warhol’s Factory. A veritable hotbed of pop culture karma in the 1960s, this workspace wonderland was the famed contemporary artist’s haven. It was also a hang out for such iconic entities as the Velvet Underground, Paul Morrissey, and multiple underground ‘superstars’. Yet all attempts to capture the man and his mythos have been borderline caricatures, turning the complicated craftsman into a shill in a shabby wig.
Factory Girl hopes to change all that. Focusing on Warhol’s most infamous ‘discovery’, the poor little rich girl Edie Sedgwick, and her rapid rise and even more dramatic fall, director George Hickenlooper wisely avoids sensation to grab a glimpse behind the pair’s infamous façade. Hobbled by issues both premade and unexpected (Bob Dylan threatened a lawsuit to have his name and music removed from the film), what started out as some manner of period fantasy was reduced to a better than average biopic – one that happily avoids many of the genre’s more formulaic facets. On the new Unrated DVD offered by the Weinstein Company, Hickenlooper gets one last chance at commercial and critical redemption. Presenting what he considers as close to the “director’s cut” as audiences are liable to see, there’s also a commentary that completes the overview of a production both mired in controversy and bubbling over with amazing personal talent.
When we first meet Edie, played perfectly by Sienna Miller, we sense something is wrong. Perhaps the least practical gal ever to dream in dimensions, the brown haired beauty believed herself destined to be part of the burgeoning New York post-modern art scene. Running away to the Big Apple, she’s spotted by new craze on the block (the chameleon like Guy Pearce is dead on as Warhol) and soon, the two are collaborating on several of the artist’s notorious underground films. As her profile increases, so do her problems. Cut off financially by her snobby, well to do family, Edie’s party girl persona tends to both cheer up and chafe her brittle mentor. When a famous folksinger takes a likening to the perky pixie, things start falling apart. Warhol grows petty and jealous, while the confused feelings she has leads Edie deeper into drug abuse.
At this moment, that big cinematic spoiler known as melodrama could have seeped in, giving Hickenlooper his mandatory material ending. We’d watch as Warhol’s star rises while Edie continues her self-destructive ways. In a phony final shot, the wildly successful art revolutionary would hold his throne, while our faded heroine lies dead in a gutter, needle jutting out of her arm or empty pill bottle by her side. But the filmmaker refuses to supply such well worn pretense. Instead, he lets Factory Girl fully develop its symbiotic/suicidal attachment the unusual couple possessed, and within that dynamic, gives us clear indication of who these people really were.
Warhol’s posthumous world, built as much on his reputation as his reality, fails to really explain what drove this aesthetic deconstructionist. Factory Girl suggests that, as a gay man veiled behind social norms and personal problems, Warhol was a creator incapable of properly channeling his talents. He needed an almost constant stream of stimulation to bring his ideas to life. His was an art of slapdash successes, a never-ending experimentation to see what would cause a stir. His love for Edie was partly based in such interchangeable conceits. But unlike other cogs in his manipulating machine, the sunny socialite really got to him. She touched a part inside Warhol that few women – perhaps only his mother – ever really connected to. That’s why his apparent rejection (for Dylan) turned so spiteful. It was really nothing more than the pathetic misplaced pain of a confused manchild.
Similarly, Edie is viewed as a damaged individual looking for someone to care for her. She doesn’t want to set trends as much as find someone who will simply let her be herself. The constant inference of sexual abuse from family members (her father Fuzzy) and friends suggests this core of wanting. Her inconsistent actions – never good with money, always asking for help, rejecting responsibility for her hedonistic aims – makes her the perfect target for fame’s traps. The lure of the limelight is what draws her in. The emptiness in what she finds inside is what leads her toward more extreme escapes. This is why she takes Warhol’s rejection so hard – she needs the security and hates being accountable for her indiscretions. The relationship with Dylan would never have worked. He is portrayed as wanting her to take blame as much as give it. All Edie wanted was a cocoon to crawl into. There she could manage the metamorphosis she wanted to achieve. And for a while, Warhol provided that.
To capture this subtle shift between characters on film requires actors of great skill, and in at least two of his three leads, Hickenlooper discovered some amazing talent. Guy Pearce plays Warhol in a way that seems inconsequential at first. He’s got the look, and the lost wandering gaze, but we initially feel this will be a performance geared in kabuki instead of practicality. But then our director drops the iconography and lets us see the anemic artist for who he really is. Pearce pulls off the fragile, flawed persona brilliantly, turning Warhol into a three dimensional, less opaque individual. Similarly, Sienna Miller really surprises as Edie. This kind of loopy, misplaced character would be easy to overplay. She’d be so much larger than life that we’d never once believe her hopes or her horrors. But thanks to a desire to both mimic and expand on who Edie Sedgwick was, as well as some interesting directorial choices, Miller makes us experience who this broken babe really was. It may not be the tour de force Hickenlooper believes it is, but it remains a solid piece of interpretation.
The weakest link here is Hayden Christensen as a character known only as “the Folksinger” (though we do hear Edie call him “Billy” more than once). Cast because of his obvious resemblance – when properly made-up – to Dylan circa 1965, the actor forever tied to George Lucas’ horrendous Star Wars prequels can’t find the proper balance between caricature and clarity. His put-on voice sounds like a bad imitation half the time, and he plays this important man as bursting with nervous frustration, not poetic ideals. Even when he’s waxing philosophically about following your own path, he sounds irritated not inspired. Had a way been found to keep Dylan happy and out of the courthouse over this project, it’s possible that Christensen would have more to work with here. As it is, his minor time on screen distracts us from the real relationships at hand.
Still, the draw between Warhol and Sedgwick is so strong and handled so well that Factory Girl manages to easily overcome its other minor flaws. We don’t really get to know the whole Factory scene, especially important elements like the other iconic leeches who made the warehouse space their home away from home. The Velvet Underground is lightly touched on (apparently, Lou Reed is none too happy with this movie as well) and some of the more important films to feature Sedgwick (Chelsea Girls, ****) are barely mentioned. True, the interpersonal element is the draw, and thanks to Pearce and Miller, it works incredibly well. But the backdrop is still one of the most intriguing aspects of pop culture’s past. Even on a small budget, some of the significant signposts need to be featured. Of course, Hickenlooper has an answer for why he made the creative choices he did. His DVD commentary is a snarky slam on everyone who doesn’t get his approach.
But there is also an inherent flaw in such motion picture narrow-mindedness. Warhol, like the Civil War and the End of Days is a subject so large in scope and significance that an insular ideal robs the material of its meaning. Unless it can resonate beyond the myopic, we literally loose the big picture. Factory Girl is still an effective, well made dissection of two flawed personalities playing each other for the ultimate ends. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a good one told very well. Too bad it couldn’t broaden beyond its self-imposed horizons to show us the prominence of pop art in the overall ‘60s revolution. Maybe Hickenlooper believes that by illustrating Warhol and Sedgwick’s volatile time together he’s done that. In his defense, he’s made a fine film. Unfortunately, there is more to the tale than this.