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 appearances.
– 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 early ‘80s.
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