Ciao! Manhattan (1972)

[18 March 2003]

By John G. Nettles

Her Fog, Her Amphetamines, and Her Pearls

It is widely believed among Dylanologists that the “she” who takes, aches, and makes love just like a woman but breaks just like a little girl was Edie Sedgwick, the socialite fashion model perhaps most famous for being part of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd in the mid-‘60s. It’s also believed that Lou Reed wrote the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” about her. Neither claim is much of a stretch. Both songs paint portraits of a woman of two parts, manipulative yet fragile, glorious yet doomed, a girl who breaks hearts (her own included) as unconsciously as breathing.

In the pantheon of American mythology, Sedgwick was one of the Tragic Muses, those women who did not so much make things happen as stand still and allow things to happen to them. Zelda Fitzgerald was one, Marilyn Monroe another. Fabulous disasters. Plague Angels. Every photograph of Edie, with her boyish mop and kohl-rimmed, vulnerable eyes, is at once an invitation to fall in love with her and to watch helplessly as she fades away. She died in 1971 after a lifetime of drug use (begun by her parents, who reportedly had her heavily medicated as a child), chronic depression, hospitalization, and electroshock therapy burned her out at the age of 28. In the tradition of all American Tragic Muses, she became an icon, a pop-culture heroine whose posthumous power endures today.

Edie’s death came just weeks after filming Ciao! Manhattan, the most comprehensive primary document of Edie’s life that exists. Long out of circulation since its premiere in 1972, the film enjoyed a brief resurgence following the publication of Jean Stark and George Plimpton’s 1982 biography of Sedgwick, and is now available on DVD. Like Edie herself, Ciao! is a bifurcated piece of work. Partly a black-and-white film shot in New York in 1965, at the height of the floating art-and-fashion party era, partly a color film made in California in 1970 as the hippie Renaissance was crashing from its wretched excesses, it’s the story of Holly Golightly on the skids, watching and commenting on her own demise.

Directors John Palmer and David Weisman were among a group in the outer circle of Warhol’s Factory clique who began shooting a documentary on the NYC party scene around the adventures of Edie and hustler Paul America but never finished it, their budget evaporating and their cast out of control. America disappeared halfway through filming, only to be discovered in jail upstate on a pot bust. Edie accidentally burned down part of the Chelsea Hotel. The New York scene dried up and Palmer and Weisman were left with tons of great footage but no movie to speak of.

Three years later, the directors caught up with Edie in California, where she was living after several hospitalizations and adventures with the Hell’s Angels, and they began filming again, constructing an elaborate framing device which incorporated the earlier footage as a series of dreamlike flashbacks. The result is strange and tragic, beautiful and hideous.

Butch (Wesley Hayes), young drifter in a second-hand Mercedes, is making the requisite hippie-era pilgrimage to California when he stops to pick up a staggering, topless hitchhiker named Susan (Sedgwick) who collapses into his car. He takes her home, to the crumbling mansion where she lives with her crazed mother (Isabel Jewell), who is so obsessed with her pie-making business that she relegates Susan’s care to her lecherous psychiatrist (director Roger Vadim) and the silverware-pilfering houseboy (Geoffrey Briggs). Susan lives out back in the drained swimming pool, with a tent overhead and the walls plastered with blown-up photographs of herself and friends from her New York days. Here she lays around naked and coasting on a perpetual haze of pharmaceuticals and vodka, endlessly reliving her days as “1965’s Girl of the Year,” and chronicling the thinly disguised facts of Edie Sedgwick’s rise and fall.

In its review, the Village Voice compared Ciao! to Citizen Kane, but the film is actually closer to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with its fallen superstar continuously day-tripping on her glory days and clinging to the hapless stranger who has fallen into her web. Whether Palmer and Weisman were conscious of this parallel is uncertain, but if they had been aware of it and simply stuck to that premise while editing the film, Ciao! Manhattan would have been a much better film than it is.

In both the flashback sequences and the 1970 footage, Edie/Susan is electric, achingly beautiful, and painfully honest, especially when languidly discussing her relationship with Warhol or the suicides of both her older brothers. The rest of the film, a confusing and contrived business about a sinister millionaire who seeks to control everything through cocaine and microwaves, is just a mess that plays like a particularly bad William S. Burroughs routine. Ciao! is Edie Sedgwick, and it simply falls apart whenever she is offscreen.

Edie’s final scene in the film is both telling and disturbing. After sleeping with Susan, her new keeper Butch rushes her to her psychiatrist’s clinic and then watches through a crack in the door as the doctor kisses her, feels her up, and then wires her for electroshock. It’s Susan’s story in a nutshell, and thus Edie’s as she perceived it—her caretakers connect with her in the only way they or anyone else ever did, through her body, but then distance themselves and watch her crash and burn at a remove. Butch runs away and goes back on the road and learns of Susan’s death by happening upon the partially obscured newspaper headline that announced Edie’s death. It’s a meta-fictional conceit that reminds us painfully that for the preceding 90 minutes, we too have been voyeurs of the spectacular train wreck of Edie Sedgwick’s life, as complicit in her downfall as any of the real or fictional characters surrounding her, herself included.

Ciao! Manhattan is ultimately a testament to the odd, elastic nature of the ‘60s. The juxtaposition of Ciao!‘s images illustrates more than the black-and-white/color, East Coast/West Coast dichotomies of its surface. It also shows just how fleeting and disposable were youth and glamour and La Dolce Vita in an age that supposedly prized those elements the most. That’s what Warhol meant when he tossed off his greatly misinterpreted saw about everyone being famous for 15 minutes—not simply that all of us will experience fame, but that the nature of fame is to use people up and spit them out in short, perfunctory order. In the end, Edie understood this and left us this assortment of before-and-after pictures as her epitaph.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ciao-manhattan-dvd/