Untimely Cinema: ‘“Our Kind of Movie” The Films of Andy Warhol’

The popular image of Warhol as only a be-wigged hipster coming-on deadpan about Campbell’s soup cans reduces the scope of Warhol’s work, his profound influence on contemporary culture, and his incredible difference from that culture, as well. Warhol was not only a painter, and more generally a conceptual artist, he was also one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. Indeed, had Warhol made only films, he would be considered one of the most prolific and influential avant-garde filmmakers to ever pick up a camera.

In his new book “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, Douglas Crimp offers a deeply textured account of what it is to watch a Warhol film, and just what some of these films might mean. His accomplishment is profound, deeply personal, and provides viewers new to Warhol’s cinema a model of how to attend to and understand what is on the screen. Such a guide is absolutely necessary, as Warhol’s films are in so many ways some of the most deceptively simple images ever created; while the camera might not move, and the subjects might seem to be doing nothing, his films interrogate the very nature of what a film is and how it might capture, refract, and produce a shifting constellation of desire and identification, simultaneously documenting the pivotal moment of the mid-’60s just as the culture began to pivot so radically.

With few exceptions, Warhol’s films are not easily available, and most people haven’t seen them. Seeing Warhol’s films really means attending museum screenings in New York or other major cities To describe the films, one might easily think Warhol is simply putting us on. Most famously, there are the hundreds of silent Screen Tests, in which an unmoving camera offers a close-up shot of a face—famous or more often not—each takes about four minutes to project. Then there are films like Sleep (1963), in which an unmoving camera records poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes, or Empire (1964), eight hours and five minutes of an unmoving camera recording an image of the Empire State building, mostly at night.

There are masterpieces of pornographic wit and quite serious reflection, like Blow-Job (1964), in which the audience is given 35 minutes of a silent, unmoving, close-up shot of a young man’s face as he is fellated. Though most often shot at sound-speed of 24 frames-per-second, Warhol usually projected these films at silent speed, 16 or 18 frames-per-second, making them longer and giving them an uncanny quality. Warhol also shot many sound films, most famously The Chelsea Girls (1966), three and 1/2 hours of split-screen improvisation by Warhol’s superstars, including Nico, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, Mary Woronov, International Velvet, Mario Montez and others.

Crimp points out that it’s difficult to generalize about Warhol films because there are so many of them, just over 600, and they changed so rapidly as he made them and as he worked with different collaborators, that any statement could be quickly contradicted. However, in the films that are most known and most discussed, particularly the Screen Tests and early films like Empire, Warhol challenges his viewers to look at the world in a new way. The screen tests are perhaps the best place to start, as a collection entitled 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, consisting of some of the most famous, like Denis Hopper and Lou Reed, as well as the better known Warhol superstars.

Watching the Screen Tests unwind, what is the viewer supposed to see, especially if screening them silently, as they were originally shot? What does it mean that Warhol asks us to focus our attention on a closely-framed, unedited, unmoving camera that captures four minutes of a face? Looking directly at this single subject, mustering the attention this requires, flies in the face of our current cultural obsession with linking, moving, and simultaneous images. Even in the early’ 60s, it was a challenge for his subjects.Crimp writes, “In most cases, the subjects were asked to hold still for the duration of the 100-foot Bolex reel, refraining, if possible, even from blinking; but to do as instructed for three minutes while staring at Warhol’s camera proved impossible for for even the most intrepid of sitters.”

Crimp goes on to quote the great Warhol film critic Callie Angell who observed that the Screen Tests “are some very intense performances, performances which emerge from the tension that is created when people are asked to behave as if they were their own image.” Crimp writes, “The gradual defeat of the sitters facial composure—whether through increasing numbers of blinks, twitching around the mouth, or, in the astonishing case of a Screen Test of Ann Buchanan, tears streaming down her cheeks from her successfully unblinking eyes—constitutes much of the interest in these films.”

In essence, what we watch in a Warhol Screen Test is the inability to the subject to maintain a pose, a performed image of themselves, while simultaneously the slow projection speed asks the viewer to give the kind of profound and lingering attention that makes that subject into a kind of meditation on identity and desire that, if the viewer is willing enter into it, creates a new mode of perception.

Crimp is insistent throughout that Warhol’s achievement in these films is creating a different mode of perception. Crimp writes of the Screen Tests, “Watching them—properly projected in a movie theater—changes the way we look at faces. And not only faces.” For Crimp, Warhol’s films create a new sense of time by extending it, thematizing it, and asking us to experience time as duration. Writing about the attention it takes to properly view the Screen Tests, or even Empire, Crimp suggests that watching Warhol’s films transforms our anxieties about time, and he writes of his own experience watching Warhol’s films with Jonathan Flatley that “On the simplest level, we had become completely relaxed about how much time was passing and not all all impatient at the films’ usually long-seeming duration. We felt at that moment as if we could go on watching Warhol films for days on end and continue to enjoy the experience thoroughly. Our time, to reverse-paraphrase Taubin, had become Warhol’s time.” Given the speed of our digitally connected world and its demands that we divide our attention into micro-seconds, the time of Warhol’s cinema is today more radical than ever before.

For Crimp, Warhol changed and challenged the forms of cinema, but his desire to do this, and his success, are deeply a part of his queerness, and also part of how queer culture was articulated in an era before some forms of gay life were legitimated. In fact, Crimp tells us in the introduction that he did not initially intend to write a book about Warhol at all: “I had set out to write about 1960s New York City Queer Culture… and in the process discovered the full extent and richness of Warhol’s filmmaking.” Crimp writes movingly about the power of Warhol’s cinema, especially in the late ’60s, to change his own life by putting on screen a very different vision of the what life might feel like and what it might be about: “The Chelsea Girls changed my life. Very soon after I saw it in 1967, I quit school, moved to New York City, and got a job working as an assistant to the legendary fashion designer Charles James, who lived in a suite of run-down rooms at the Chelsea Hotel.”

What Warhol puts on screen is “a three-and-a-half-hour, split-screen non-narrative movie about a bunch of queers and junkies at a seedy residential hotel in what was then not an upscale New York neighborhood (Chelsey boys were far in the future).” It was amazing that Warhol had secured a national release for this film, and that it played in major cities across the county and was widely reviewed. For Crimp, the reviewer who most got it at the time was the little known Rosalyn Regelson, writing in the New York Times: “These dreamy swingers , playing their little games, clearly question the most basic assumption of our culture—namely that heterosexual coupling, happy or unhappy, moral or immoral, is a socially significant enterprise worthy of the closest possible scrutiny. Hollywood’s tinsel titillation and the art house film’s hard, bedrock fornication are replaced by a new sexual mythology, a cool, low-key playful polymorphism.” In essence, what Warhol puts on screen is an entire lifeworld that is not coordinated by heterosexual desire.

In the case of The Chelsea Girls in particular, the film also breaks out of the insistent coupling of Hollywood style as well. As Crimp puts it, “The most significant relationships in The Chelsea Girls are mostly those that are created as chance encounters between the two screens: coincidences, resonances, dissonances, alignments, syncopations, rhymes and contrasts: black-and-white juxtaposed with color, a predominantly dark reel juxtaposed with a predominantly light one, a pair or a group on one reel, a lone man or woman on the other.” For Crimp, not only do the subjects of The Chelsea Girls transgress normativity, so does the form of the film itself. As he puts it, “Two screens side by side, but not fitting together. Rather, as Warhol said in a different context, ‘somehow misfitting together.’

For Crimp, “misfitting together” is the deeply ethical, challenging, sometimes painful, and always critical heart of Warhol’s films. He argues that most representations of contemporary gay life end up either desexualizing it or affirming only the most narrow and normative forms of queerness. For Crimp, Warhol puts on screen a far different, more diverse, and far more liberating vision of queerness. He writes, “it seemed important to me to recognize that there can—indeed must– be ways of making queer differences and singularities visible without always entailing the charge of violation, making visible in ways that we would call ethical.” This is what he believes Warhol has achieved, particularly in a short film starring Mario Montez entitled Screen Test No. 2 (1965), a 66 minute sound film in which Warhol collaborator Ronald Tavel interviews the superstar for a possible role in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Screen Test No. 2 is perplexing. The charismatic and extraordinarily vulnerable Montez in interviewed by a sadistic Tavel, who spends the film moving from small humiliations, for instance making the star repeat the word “diarrhea” and demanding she mime the actions of a carnival geek, to ultimately demanding that the drag queen reveal his sex, which for Montez was perhaps the most painfully, shaming act that Tavel could have imagined. Superficially, the film might well be read as a merely a self-indulgent, sadistic exercise whose sole goal is to make Montez look pathetic. These scenes, and many others in many Warhol films, include just such scenes of cruelty, in which someone is exposed, humiliated, and shamed.

But what if it isn’t only the person on screen who is shamed? Crimp quotes the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. She writes: “One of the strangest features of shame (but, I would argue, the most theoretically significant) is the way bad treatment of someone else, bad treatment by someone else, someone else’s embarrassment, stigma, debility, blame or pain, seemingly having nothing to do with me, can so readily flood me—assuming that I”m a shame-prone person—with this sensation whose very suffusiveness seems to delineate my precise, individual outlines in the most isolating way imaginable.”

In essence, if as a viewer of Warhol’s films you are shame-prone, and Crimp argues that given what it is to grow-up gay such feelings are often a defining experience though hardly unique to queer identities. If we have a certain capacity to feel shame, Warhol’s film will put us in a particularly uncomfortable, and potentially transformational, state. He writes of Screen Test No. 2:

“Rather, what I see, when, say, I see Mario Montez in Screen Test No. 2, is a performer in the moment of being exposed such that he becomes, as Warhol said, ‘so for real.’ By maintaining our attention to the film, and being open the experience of shame, something happens: Rather, we remain there with our disquiet—which is, after all, what? It is our encounter, on the one hand, with the absolute difference of another, his or her ‘so-for-realness,’ and, on the other hand, with the other’s shame, both the shame that extracts his or her “so-for-realness” from the already “for-real” performativity of Warhol’s performers, and the shame that we accept as also ours, but curiously also ours alone. I am thus not ‘like’ Mario, but the distinctiveness that is revealed in Mario invades me—’floods me,” to use Sedgwick’s words—and my own distinctiveness is revealed simultaneously. I too, feel exposed.”

Crimp’s reading demands an almost complete reversal of much Warhol criticism and interpretation. The usual reading of Warhol is that his camera is sadistic, its unmoving, relentless gaze on either the beauty or abjection of its subjects is utterly indifferent to either their ecstasy or their pain. Crimp suggests that reading Warhol as only indifference is a mistake, or perhaps more precisely that though the camera remains indifferent, we do not. Particularly in his readings of the films in which Mario Montez appears, Crimp provides a compelling interpretation that accounts for disquieting power of that relentless gaze to involve us emotionally at a profound level.

Observing that Warhol had little interest in fantastic fictions, Crimp writes, “Warhol had no comparable interest in the exotic. He sought expansion—“liking things”—not by constructing fantasy worlds, but through a single-minded attentiveness to the world as he found it” (135). Warhol’s films teach us how to attend to the world, to relate to it in completely new ways. Crimp concludes his book with a long and telling quotation from Warhol’s collaborator Ronald Tavel, who reports that Warhol:

“…would sit and watch [his own films] for endless hours with one leg crossed over the other and his face in his hands and his elbows on his knees, with absolute fascination and he was puzzled why the public wasn’t equally fascinated. When we stopped off at a screening of Empire to see how it was doing, and there were six people in the theater, he said, ”Well, look at that. They’ll just pile in to see’—and he referred to some Hollywood blockbuster, you know—’and nobody comes to see Empire‘; It was a genuine remark, he was not dissembling He said to me, ‘Why don’t they come in droves to see Empire?’ So we should not think that these films were not interesting to him or that he didn’t want them to be interesting. As with any visual artist, the entire visual world was fascinating to him, and he did behave rather traditionally in that sense. I mean, after watching a face for three hours in a Warhol movie, you never look at faces again in the same way.”

What did Warhol see, what so captured his attention as he watched his own films? Douglas Crimp helps to to see something of what the artist saw, to enter into a different sense of time and a different sense of how we might relate to the world through the films of Andy Warhol.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers