“Coming Together to Stay Apart” – an analysis of the film scripts that Ronald Tavel wrote for Andy Warhol - was delivered as a lecture by Douglas Crimp at various institutions including the Dia: Beacon in New York in 2005; the Carnegie Mellon School of Art in Pittsburgh in 2005; and the University of Manchester in England in 2007.
Coming Together to Stay Apart
by Douglas Crimp
“At one point, Andy proposed to make a film called Lunch. He wanted to put me and Edie at a lunch table and have both of us talking, non-stop, not to each other. But with different silverware, different things to eat, so that it was a lunch entirely about noncommunication. It never happened, though. He didn’t describe it like that. That’s my saying it. He just sort of said, it would be great to do a film about lunch. You should talk, Edie should talk, you shouldn’t talk to each other.” (Gordon Baldwin interviewed in The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory, p. 30)
Almost everything we think we know about Andy Warhol’s films – that they were silent or, when made with sound, that the superstars talked on and on but said just whatever came to their minds at the moment – suggests that a screenplay for a Warhol film would make no sense. But this overlooks the fact that Ronald Tavel wrote a number of the undisputed masterpieces of Warhol’s vast film output – Screen Test #2, The Life of Juanita Castro, Horse, Vinyl, Hedy, and two sequences of The Chelsea Girls – and of the canonical Warhol films, this list makes up a good portion. If we add to this the fact that several of Tavel’s Warhol screenplays, staged in the theatre, resulted in the invention of the Theater of Ridiculous both in name and in founding style, then we must admit that this was one of the most productive artistic collaborations in the history of the avant-garde.1 But there are two strikingly odd things about this most fruitful of collaborations: First, the fame and fortune that accrues to the two partners is entirely asymmetrical: while everyone knows Warhol, who knows Tavel? And second, the partners worked at loggerheads. Their deliberate failure of cooperation will be my subject here. But before I come to it, let me say something about the regrettable eclipse of Ronald Tavel.
The genius of Warhol was not least his uncanny ability always to secure for himself the author function, and all the more so by protesting that he rarely had much at all to do with making his work, admitting openly that his work was really the yield of others – others’ ideas, others’ designs, others’ images, others’ abilities, others’ labor. But the more Warhol protested, the more he alone was credited.
Here’s a telling example: In Emile de Antonio’s documentary Painters Painting – which, notwithstanding its title, is mostly painters talking – Warhol sits on a couch next to Factory denizen Brigid Berlin facing a mirror. Standing behind them and also visible in the film frame, De Antonio aims his camera at the mirror and asks Warhol questions about his paintings, but Warhol demurs: ‘I don’t know. Brigid makes my paintings. What do you think, Brigid?’ All the other painters in the film – among them Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – answer de Antonio’s questions. Off camera, invisible, except for his appearance in the Warhol segment, de Antonio gets the artists to pontificate about their work, sometimes, - especially in the segments with Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitsky – by ventriloquizing Clement Greenberg. But no Andy. Andy puts De Antonio in the picture and gets Brigid to do the talking. If anyone holds forth in this segment, it is Brigid, but even she is canny enough, or maybe just uninterested enough, not to be a Greenberg dummy. Why, though, do I assume it was Andy who arranged this shot, setting up de Antonio instead of being set up by him? Why do I assign authorship for this one sequence of de Antonio’s famous film to Warhol? Simply because it allows Warhol, unlike every other painter in the film, not to be figured as claiming authorship of his work, and this is, of course, the standard Warhol gambit. As a result Warhol’s authorship trumps de Antonio’s even in the documentary auteur’s justly famous film.
Like de Antonio, Tavel is one of the few artists to have been closely associated with Warhol who created a truly significant independent body of work. But the documentarian’s and the playwright’s place in our collective memory and histories of 1960s counterculture is also asymmetrical. De Antonio is best known for films about subjects of enduring interest for some of the central political struggles of America’s postwar period – Point of Order (1964), about the 1954 Army – McCarthy hearings; Rush to Judgment (1967), about the Warren Commission investigation of the JFK assassination; In the Year of the Pig (1968), about the Vietnam war; and Millhouse (1971), about Richard Millhouse Nixon – while Tavel is known, by those who do know him, as the playwright of such works of Ridiculous Theater as The Life of Lady Godiva, Indira Gandhi’s Daring Device (both 1966), Gorilla Queen (1967) and Boy on the Straight-Back Chair (1969), in addition to the scenarios for Warhol’s films that were also done as plays, Screen Test, The Life of Juanita Castro, Shower, Kitchenette, and Vinyl (initially staged 1965 – 67).2 Like other figures of the 1960s queer underground, Tavel worked within and for an alternative community and culture, a queer culture that did not aspire to and usually didn’t get a hearing beyond its own precincts. Its acclaim stands in reverse proportion to its achievement, although no doubt part of its achievement is its remaining true to, and therefore restricted to, its alternative milieu. Warhol’s films form a central part of this queer underground, but in Warhol’s case, the market value that accrued to his paintings has retroactively conferred high cultural value upon all the rest of his work. As Michel Foucault explained in an essay published in 1969, the author-function fundamentally changed at the end of the 18th century, when its principle of appropriation shifted from one of surveillance to one of ownership, but ownership is unequally applied to the various forms of discourse and cultural production.3 Ephemeral forms, participatory forms, collaborative forms – all present difficulties for the author-function in the era of consumer capitalism, Thus, in a case such as the Warhol-Tavel films, the author-function is usurped by Warhol.
Still, I will assert that Ronald Tavel is indisputably the author of the Warhol screenplays – indeed the only author of screenplays for Warhol’s films – and that the screenplays resulted in indisputably significant movies.4 More important, the significance of these films, and their distinctiveness among Warhol’s films, is the consequence of the collaboration, a collaboration that must be differentiated from the usual condition of filmmaking, which perforce entails teamwork among writers, directors, producers, technicians, and actors. In the case of the Warhol-Tavel partnership the specific form and quality of the films results from a confrontation between Tavel’s script and Warhol’s manner of filmmaking during the time they worked toether. This manner was pithily summarized in a 1968 Film Culture interview with superstar Mario Montez. When asked “Does Warhol rehearse?” – and this question of rehearsal is one that arose again and again in Tavel’s working relationship with Warhol – Montez replied, “No – he doesn’t believe in editing – Rehearsing and editing are related.”5 For Warhol, indeed, they are.
The Warhol films for which Tavel wrote scenarios are all shot with an Auricon camera, which takes 1200 foot rolls, or roughly 33 minutes, of film. In every case but that of Horse, which uses three rolls and is thus just over 100 minutes long, and, of course, The Chelsea Girls, which is projected two reels at a time, side-by-side, and runs three and a half hours, the Warhol-Tavel films use two rolls spliced together to make 66-minute films. What makes this duration noteworthy is not its simple calculation, but the fact that the actors are required to carry on their activities for over an hour, uninterrupted but for a short break in the middle to reload the camera, and that the technical crew must also sustain its work throughout the length of the film. For the technicians, this sometimes requires little more than maintenance, since the shot is entirely unchanging: the camera never moves, focus is never changed, and lighting and sound levels remain steady. But this is less often the case than the minimalism that has come to be associated with Warhol’s cinema might suggest. Indeed, in Hedy, cast and crew move throughout the vast space of the furniture storage loft about the Warhol Factory that served as the film’s location, and Warhol follows along with his camera, which is even more mobile than the scene it sometimes captures, sometimes wanders away from.
More decisive, though, is the sort of pressure this duration puts on the players. Because Warhol refuses to edit, there is no going back, no fixing mistakes – for that matter, no such thing as a mistake in the sense that it might be rectified by a retake and edited into the finished film. The essential condition of ‘acting’ in a Warhol film is that you are left to your own devices and that whatever you do will simply be the way you appear in the film. If you make a fool of yourself, a fool you will be, for all to see (in David James’ famous formulation in Allegories of Cinema, “The situation is that of psychoanalysis; the camera is the silent analyst who has abandoned the subject to the necessity of his fantastic self-projection.”6)
But how does this manner of working use a scenario? Why did Warhol even want a scenario? A possible answer might be: Warhol didn’t yet realize that he didn’t need one. By that I mean that perhaps Warhol didn’t yet realize that to make sound films in which his superstars would speak, he didn’t need written scenes and dialogue; all he needed was the relentless rolling of his camera. But I don’t think we can make such an assertion simply because Warhol already had reason to know this, since, through the period when he was making films with Tavel’s screenplays, he was also making films with stories and dialogue – or better, situations and talk – that had no scenarios. These include the first Warhol sound film, Harlot, although Harlot is something of an anomaly in its radical disjuncture of sound and image (the scene taking place in the film frame is essentially silent while the soundtrack records three men – one of them Tavel – commenting on the scene taking place at some distance form them). But these films also include such well known non-scripted films as Poor Little Rich Girl, Beauty #2, My Hustler, and Camp. Throughout the period that Warhol made films from Tavel’s scenarios, he made an approximately equal number of films, in many ways stylistically similar, without scenarios.
So, I’ll pose the question again: Why did Warhol want a scenario? And I’ll answer with a paradox: Warhol wanted a scenario precisely because he didn’t want one.
Tavel gives us a number of clues about Warhol’s paradoxical objective: In The Life of Juanita Castro, Tavel plays the on-screen director who feeds the actors their lines, one at a time. He says, “Juanita, look at Fidel, and say, ‘You never really cared for the poor peasants,’” whereupon Marie Menken, playing Juanita, turns around to face Mercedes Ospina, playing Fidel, and says, “You never really cared for the poor peasants.” Asked whether taking on the director’s role – in both senses, directing the film and acting the part of the director in the film – had been his intention when writing the script, Tavel replied:
No I expected Andy to do it. But he read the script and then asked me to. At that point Andy certainly didn’t want people learning lines. You can see that if you glance at the script. The onscreen director tells everyone what to say and do. I would not have had the balls to suggest that I do that. It could have been one of his ways of destabilizing me. But I had the feeling he made the decision almost instantly. His instincts were so strong. He could depend on them. They seldom failed him… I handed him the script and he said you do it, Ronnie. I was slowly becoming aware that I was one of the people Warhol was studying… To be incapacitated in that way is part of the tension of Juanita.7
To be incapacitated, like being subject to the camera’s relentless rolling, like being analysed to the silent analyst, aptly characterizes the condition of working with Warhol: to be prevented from learning lines or otherwise preparing, to be kept consistently off-guard. Seeing The Life of Juanita Castro now, it is impossible to imagine Warhol himself playing the part of the director. There are too many lines to read, too many complex sentences and unpronounceable words; indeed, the script has entire lines in Spanish, in which Tavel is apparently fluent, while Warhol would certainly have been as much at a loss with the foreign tongue as is Marie Menken, who tries entirely unsuccessfully to repeat the Spanish lines Tavel feeds to her (the part was written for Mario Montez, but he declined, insisting that he didn’t do politics).
In any case, Tavel caught onto Warhol’s game right away, and devised his own way of playing it. About Horse, the next film after Juanita for which he wrote a scenario, he says, “It was one thing for Andy to remove himself to the extent of having me write and direct the film, but how then did I remove myself – as his instructed substitute?”8 How, in other words, could Tavel de-stabilize himself, now not on camera but off, in order to continue as “one of the people Warhol was studying?” Warhol would have us believe that he effected his own self-removal not only by using surrogates – like Brigid Berlin’s making his paintings or Tavel’s acting as director of his films – but also by simply switching the camera on and walking away. But the camera’s complex mobility in many films belies this claim; Warhol forced himself, too, to rely on his on-the spot instincts; he subjected himself, too, to incapacitation.9 Warhol famously wielded power by abjuring power.
For Horse, a hilarious, harrowing, homoerotic spoof of Hollywood Westerns, Tavel took his cue about how to keep himself off-guard from his vast storehouse of Hollywood knowledge:
While watching the odd, unexpected, and sometimes peculiarly slow responses of Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich in an art house re-run of The Garden of Allah, it occurred to me that those arresting, but glaze-eyed and deliberate reactions may have been achieved via Richard Boleslawski’s not letting either of them have any idea of what they were going to, and finally did, say next. I liked this intentional effect of unexpectedness, and imagined it had been achieved by having the film stars read lines off ‘idiot sheets’ they had never seen before, over each other’s shoulders; while their intriguing ‘searching’ adjustments (as if searching for what to say) were the sincere, stylized results of their not having been certain of where exactly off camera these idiot sheets would appear next.10
Tavel’s task in the case of Horse was to get 66 minutes of film footage from four unprepared and intimidated young men – Gregory Battcock, Tosh Carillo, Dan Cassidy, and Larry Latreille – and a horse. To accomplish it, Tavel devised a scheme in which he wrote the names of the actors on four placards and all the action and lines of dialogue on what he called cheat sheets. These latter were ordered in some semblance of a plot and would be held up in sequence by Warhol’s assistant Gerard Malanga on cue from Tavel, who moved about the periphery of the set and held up the placard bearing the name of one of the four actors, chosen in accordance with how he saw the story evolving. Seeing his name on Tavel’s cue card, the designated actor would turn to Malanga and read his line. “Since Andy’s assembly-line format precluded my own memorizing of the dialogue," Tavel recalls, “I would have to hold the script in one hand and select the name cards with the other. This concentration, coordination, and continuous decision on the name calls would stretch my ordinary energy, so I was depending on the anticipated adrenaline under that purposely manufactured stress.”11
Thus Tavel translated his odd intuition about the wooden acting by the two principals in The Garden of Allah into a means of not only prompting his actors to say their unlearned lines but also keeping himself in constant tense motion just off-screen – and indeed sometimes on screen: Tavel is occasionally heard giving voice-off instructions in the first reel, but toward the end of the third reel he walks into the frame and, consulting his script, feeds the actors their lines and instructs them in their actions, as he had in The Life of Juanita Castro, though with no sense in this case that this was a formal conceit of the film. As the unintentionally comic opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins returns for a second time to the soundtrack to screech the final trio from Gounod’s Faust, Tosh Carillo, by now wearing only a jock strap, gestures as if he himself were reaching the climax of the operatic ensemble. Tavel seems, though, to find Carillo’s poses inadequate and enters the scene to help him out, taking the role of Jenkins’s hapless baritone Thomas Burns to Carillo’s impersonation of the diva. We might take this for a rehearsal and thus conclude that Warhol wasn’t after all opposed to rehearsing so long as a rehearsal is something that takes place on camera, preferably at the end of the scenario being rehearsed.12
In any case, it seems Warhol did rehearse one of Tavel’s scenarios, but only in an instance in which he no doubt knew it wouldn’t yield anything like a scripted performance. Tavel’s scenario for Kitchen contains the following description:
The set is a clean white kitchen. A kitchen table and chairs. One wall of the kitchen is in frame and a calendar is on that wall, which is not actually a calendar but a copy of the scenario. Several articles are on the table, and hidden between them is another copy of the scenario. There is also a large book on the table, or two or three books, and copies of the scenario are hidden in the books. When the actors forget their lines, they should pretend to be reading the books, or can get up and go over to the calendar on the wall and read the scenario there, tearing off the pages of the scenario until they reach the place they want as if they were tearing off back dates.13
Although Kitchen “was rehearsed for a solid week,” according to Tavel, Edie Sedgwick, the film’s star, was hopeless at memorizing lines, no doubt because she was habitually on speed during this period of her life. Nevertheless, Warhol had Hollywood ambitions for her, very much liked this particular script, and thus “broke” with his tradition – although I should add the caveat here that never was there a tradition established in Warhol’s development as a filmmaker that wasn’t soon enough broken: silence quickly gave way to sound, black and white to color, the absolutely static shot to intricate camera work, and, in fact, many films are edited. Not only are there edits in some early Warhol films – they are indeed many and complex in Sleep, and there are crucial ones in Haircut #1 and My Hustler – but also by 1965-66 Warhol began fairly regularly using so-called “strobe cuts,” in-camera edits made by turning the camera off and then on again.
In spite of all these facts to the contrary, I return to Mario Montez’s insight that Warhol didn’t rehearse because he didn’t edit, and to my own assertion that Warhol paradoxically wanted a scenario from Tavel because he didn’t want one or, differently put, that he wanted a scenario but didn’t want anyone who would take part in its production to see it in advance. These are things that we know not only from what Warhol’s associates tell us but also from what we can discern from watching the films. Something that Horse and Kitchen share, and share with Vinyl, too, is that Tavel’s scenarios come to an end before the final reel runs out, after which something that resembles a rehearsal beings – or perhaps not a rehearsal, but something coaching the actors, in the case of Horse; wrapping up, in the case of Kitchen; or an amyl-nitrate –fueled disintegration, in the case of Vinyl. These moments give us an impression of the chaotic activity on Factory movie sets – an impression that is strongest in The Velvet Underground and Nico, which captures within the film’s frame, during the second reel, the police arriving at the Factory to investigate a noise complaint and the attempts by members of the Factory crowd, briefly including even Warhol himself, to mollify the befuddled officers, while the Velvets continue with their rehearsal. It is this almost invisible difference between the actors’ playing roles and just playing around – between that is, in the case of the Tavel films, following the scenario and simply carrying on in front of the camera – to which I want to turn for the remainder of my discussion.
It will be my claim that the deliberate divergence – or non-relation – between Tavel’s scenario and the film made from that scenario is a signifier for what Warhol and Tavel’s films would make a condition of relationality itself – the condition, that is, of our confrontations with others, with any other person, who must necessarily remain to us opaque, deeply, finally unknowable. Tavel clearly intuited, right from the start, the tension between the scenario and the film shot from it that Warhol would instigate, and he furthered that project of anti-relationality through what he asked the “characters” in the scenarios to do, that is, by giving their relations the quality of ridiculousness. But even Tavel’s ridiculous versions of conventional human relations are constantly abrogated by the superstars’ narcissism, such that the connections the characters make with each other are hardly to be considered relations at all in the usual sense of the term; they are, instead, to use Leo Bersnai’s suggestive terminology in his writing since his book Homos, 14 projections of the self, self-extensions, which Bersani also calls “disseminated connectedness, inaccurate replication, non-identitarian samesness.”15 Crucially, in this new form of relationality, if the self can locate itself elsewhere, in another, another who is at the same time opaque to it, it cannot at the same time be self-identical. In this narcissistic display, the self also, at least implicitly, recognizes otherness already there in itself, acknowledges, performs its own self-alienation. Bersani calls it a “self-effacing narcissim.”16
Let me provide some examples to illustrate these processes of narcissistic anti-relationality before I try to say why I believe the remaking of relationality is so significant.
I think it should be clear from what I’ve said so far that Warhol’s approach to filmmaking made it virtually impossible for Tavel’s scenarios to “work” in any conventional sense of the word, since the actors wouldn’t be learning their roles in advance. But in fact Warhol’s subversion of Tavel’s scenarios developed gradually, while Tavel both played Warhol’s own game and perversely wrote scenarios with increasingly elaborate plots and dialogue. At first, though, Tavel wrote screenplays that were not even meant to be seen by the on-screen performers in advance. With the screen-test films, Screen Test #1 as well as the more well-known Screen Test #2, only the off-screen director, played by Tavel, had access to his script; indeed Tavel wrote the script expressly and only for his own use.17 Reading from the script, he asked the on-screen performer, shown in close-up throughout, to utter lines, assume poses, and enact situations. The whole point, apparently, was to trip up the performer by suddenly inserting into the interview something that would embarrass or humiliate him (Philip Fagan’s shoplifting of lady’s underwear in Screen Test #1; Mario Montez’s “real” sex in Screen Test #218). As the off-screen voice of the tester, Tavel is allowed the confidence and authority that come from having written the lines and remaining beyond the camera len’s range.19 Following these films, for The Life of Juanita Castro, Tavel maintains the authority of writer/director, but must now – as we’ve seen – perform the role on-screen while unprepared to do so. Warhol thus began to impose what Tavel recognized as de-stabilizing demands, and no doubt he recognized them immediately for what they were because they were a version of just what he’d been doing to his screen-test subjects.
Things change fairly radically in the next three Warhol-Tavel films, Horse, Vinyl, and Kitchen. One thing remains essentially the same, though: except for a slight shift in camera angle between rolls and an occasional zoom in and out in Vinyl, there is still no camera movement. That too will change with Space and Hedy. What is new in the Tavel-scripted films immediately following The Life of Juanita Castro is the relation of actors to script. This begins with Horse. Each of the four actors in Horse plays a stock Hollywood Western part: the Kid, the Sheriff, Tex, and Mex. Their lines as written in the screenplay, and sometimes as actually delivered in the film, are also Hollywood Western clichés: “Why, it’s the kid!” “You’re a tinhorn,” “There’s gold in them thar hills,” and so forth. Interspersed with these are lines that spoof, or “queer,” the genre, lines such as, “Take it off.” “I’m a celibate,” “I’m an onanist,” “Beat it, beat it, beat it all day long.” Queerer still are the actions, which include an apparent sexual attachment to the horse on the part of all four actors, horseplay as sex play among the actors, and the excuse of the customary Hollywood Western’s anti-Mexican racism for Mex’s sexual humiliation (at one point from off-screen, as the Kid, the Sheriff, and Tex appear to be pummelling Mex, Tavel’s voice can be heard saying, “Feel him up, don’t beat him up”).20 Tavel’s queer pastiche of the Hollywood Western, fully discernable in the scenario, thus has all the characteristics of the Theater of the Ridiculous as Tavel and others would develop them – pop culture references both obvious and obscure, cornball jokes, perversion, ridicule, persecution.21 But Warhol doesn’t leave it there.
What does he add? Or subtract? Most obviously, there is the set, or the set-up. From it we see that Horse is a title that we must take quite literally: There is, first of all, a horse, whose name we eventually learn from the credits is “Mighty Bird, courtesy of the Dawn Animal Agency.” Mighty Bird stands smack in front of the Factory stairwell and elevator doors. His trainer holds him throughout the film. The “third reel” of Horse, shown between the two reels that Tavel’s scenario scripts, shows only this set-up. It is a 33 minute shot of Mighty Bird, his trainer beside him, and one of the four actors in the scenario, Larry Latreille, not yet in costume as the Kid, holding a microphone to the horse’s mouth. The horse and actors stand in front of the elevator, and nothing happens, or at least nothing “dramatic” happens, nothing requiring Tavel’s particular writing and directing abilities. This reel is, we might say, pure Warhol. Mighty Bird could just as well be Henry Geldzahler in the 88-minute silent portrait film of him, or the Empire State Building in the eight-hour Empire. The ridiculous antics of Tavel’s spoof Western have been replaced by a Warholian “idea,” the idea that all you really need to make a movie a Western is a horse. Whatever “incident” makes the film more than just this single idea that generates the film is, well, the sort of incident that makes the silent, minimal Warhol films the films they are – such incidents as flares of light between edited-together reels, or the blinks that interrupt a sitter’s stare, or the lights coming on in the Empire State Building. Among the incidents, in this case , is the appearance of Edie Sedgwick, discharged from the elevator behind Mighty Bird. A notable horsewoman herself, Sedgwick is both taken with the horse – she walks up to it, nuzzles it, whispers in its ear – and apparently unable to decide whether she belongs in the film at all. This imposition of a recognizably “Warhol” film reel between the two “Tavel” reels serves to mark the “failure” of the Warhol-Tavel collaboration.
In Horse’s two scripted reels, the characters’ relation to the horse is considerably less natural than Edie Sedgwick’s, the trainer’s, and Larry Latreille’s in the “third reel” (although it might be stretching the notion of “natural” to include holding a microphone to a horse’s mouth.) When the film starts, Latreille, as the Kid, sits bareback on Mighty Bird. The other three actors sit or stand in front of this queer pair and look directly at the camera. Eventually, they begin to speak lines. They do so awkwardly and with no discernible connection to what they’re saying. As we know from what Tavel has told us, they are reading from cue cards. Lines of dialogue have little or no continuity with the lines that precede them, although occasionally there is a relation, albeit a lackluster one: Thus, for example, the sheriff says, “one of you two is a murderer,” and the others say in turn, “It’s not me.” “It’s not me.” Whereupon the sheriff simply repeats his accusation, and the others repeat their denials. From off-screen comes Tavel’s voice reading the credits: “Andy Warhol’s Horse. The Sheriff is played by Gergory Battcock.” This recitation of the credits continues now and again through both reels of the film’s action. Occasionally the pay phone next to the elevator rings, and Malanga walks into the frame to answer it. At one point Warhol himself appears for a brief phone conversation. Thus, at no point does the action as written in the scenario take precedence over daily life at the Factory. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, daily life at the Factory during this period included, along with all sorts of other activities, making films, in this instance making the film called Horse. People come and go, sometimes within the camera’s range, while the director directs, the cameraman films, the sound person holds the boom, and the actors busy themselves playing their roles.
But playing a role in this film is anything but a straightforward matter. The actors read lines, they perform actions, but even when the lines are said by one actor to another or when the actions involve interaction, each actor appears to inhabit his own world. Dialogue and interaction never constitute anything like recognizable intersubjectivity. On the contrary, it is to the camera that each character addresses himself (Gregory Battcock frequently turns from addressing the other actors to look in the direction of the camera, as if seeking instruction or approval).
At one point the characters stand side-by-side facing the camera, directing their silent attention outward. They resemble nothing so much as a group of men standing in a row at a gay bar cruising someone opposite them. They solicit attention, however, by feigning indifference as to whether or not it is paid. It is the cruising style that has come to be known as “stand-and-pose” – a decidedly self-contained form of cruising that telegraphs something like: “I am indicating that I want you only to the extent that I am showing how desirable I am by demonstrating that I am capable of complete indifference to you.” From within this narcissistic display two of the characters, the Kid and the Sheriff, begin to feel each other up. As they do so, they continue to direct their gazes toward the camera, as if to signal that the attention each gives to the other is meant only to further appeal to the look of the camera. Even this literal physical connection with another maintains each in his self-regard.
By the following year, 1966, this relation of actor to camera that we see in Horse is also suspended, as the narcissism enacted by the performers begins to be assumed by Warhol’s camera itself, which adopts its own self-sufficiency as it moves in and around the actors and set independent of the storyline, of who is speaking, or even of where within the mise-en-scène the actors’ activities are taking place. In Hedy, as in the non-scripted Lupe before it, the camera becomes an autonomous ‘player,’ as it zooms in on extraneous details, pans distractedly away from the action, even tilts down to the floor or up to the ceiling. The deep space in which Hedy is shot, together with the minimal spotlighting of the action, allows the camera at times to wander off in the direction of total darkness. The lighting, too, takes on this character of self-sufficiency, as it illuminates one character or another, a few together, or none at all. In spite of the film’s elaborate, melodramatic story of Hedy Lamarr’s arrest for shoplifting and subsequent court trial and suicide, the separation of the actors from their roles – what David James designates their constant ‘falling out’ of their roles22 – together with the camera’s and lights’ mobile freedom and autonomy and the jarring incursions of soundtrack music by the Velvet Underground, overwhelm the story with other kinds of interest. Indeed it is this constant diversion of our attention from the human drama – however ridiculous the human drama is, however more ridiculous it is as written by Tavel, and however more ridiculous still as played by Warhol’s superstars – that constitutes the radical reorientation of relationality and sociality in these films.
What we see in these films is that the normative concentration of our interest on the story, on the drama of human relationships, will get us nowhere, will result only in frustration. But as soon as we remove our attention from that story, as soon as we locate our interest in a world in which characters – other people – and their stories – of relationships – are only one element among countless others, we find extraordinary recompense in new and unexpected pleasures of looking and new modes of being in the world. In the Warhol-Tavel films, in addition to the ridiculous scenario, a prop, a space, a shot’s composition; its lighting, its framing and persistent reframing; a musical chord, an actor’s distraction or extra-diagetic movement: all these aspects of the cinematic image, and more, make claims on our attention and provide sources of pleasure. Whereas typically script, cinematic technique, and performance are concerted to focus our interest on relationships and their storyline development, here they consistently move us beyond them. Indeed, they are the means for the complete dissolution of relationships and stories as we know them. (And how else do we know them but as endlessly repeated love stories?)
It is I think, especially moving and significant that this radical break with normative conditions of relationality should be the result of collaboration. Precisely at that moment when Warhol came most to rely on someone else, and moreover on someone else of a unique and highly articulated cultural sensibility, collaboration – coming together, working together – is undone. It is as if Warhol and Tavel each simply went about his imagination business at odds with the other as the very condition of working together. Moreover, each determined in his own distinctive way, with regard to plot, action, dialogue, setting, lighting, shooting, and especially to the actors’ narcissism, that each and every person or component of the film should maintain an extraordinary level of singularity.
I want to make it clear that this is not the sort of coming together of autonomous elements that we know from the innovative collaborative procedures of Merce Cunningham, in which the work of choreographer, composer, and set designer interact by sheer chance; and, interestingly, no artist seemed better to understand this autonomy-by-design than Warhol when he agreed to Cunningham’s use of his helium-filled silver Mylar pillows – or Silver Clouds, as he called them – as the setting for Cunningham’s RainForest of 1968. Warhol’s set would be literally in the way of the dancers, and the dancers would set the set in motion entirely by their chance encounters with its elements. But presumably for Warhol and Tavel, the problem with Cunningham’s procedures is that they are too benign. Individual autonomy is achieved by ignoring the implicit demand placed by one individual on another when the two come together. There is no impossibility, no cruelty, no ridicule, acknowledged in Cunningham’s dances. Indeed, under the sway of John Cage’s Zen-derived ideas, there is nothing that we would call narcissism in Cunningham’s aesthetic.
In Warhol and Tavel’s collaboration, the coming together of separate elements is far from a passive chance operation. Rather it is an active confrontation – working not individually in blithe cooperation but singularly at determined cross-purposes. But neither are these cross-purposes those of the usual competitive relations in which the one attempts to outdo, to master, or to abolish the other, but instead those designed to produce a scene that defies relationality as we know it: a radically new scene in which the self finds itself not through its identification or dis-identification with the other, but in its singularity among all the singular things of the world that it can “inhabit.” The Warhol-Tavel collaboration is a coming together in order to stay apart; it maintains both the self and the other in fundamental distinctiveness, a distinctiveness that is for me the radical meaning of queer. An ethical sociality might depend upon each of our abilities to find ourselves – our pleasures in being in the world with others – in that queer sort of distinctiveness.
1. Tavel wrote screenplays for the following completed Warhol films: Screen Test, Screen Test #2, Suicide, The Life of Juanita Castro, Horse, Vinyl, Kitchen, Space, Hedy, and the “Hanoi Hanna” and “Their Town” sequences of The Chelsea Girls. He also wrote a number of screenplays that were never produced as films, one of which, Shower, was produced as a play. Screen Test #2, The Life of Juanita Castro, and Vinyl were also done as plays.
2. For the Theater of the Ridiculous, see Ronald Tavel, “The Theater of the Ridiculous,” Tri-Quarterly 6 (1966), pp. 93-109; and Peter Michelson, “The Pop Scene and the Theater of the Ridiculous,” Tri-Quarterly 6 (1966), pp. 111-117; Stefan Brectht, Queer Theater (Frankfurt-am-Main, Suhrkamp, 1978); Theater of the Ridiculous, ed. Bonnie Mrarranca and Gautam Dasgupta (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998); for Tavel, see Dan Isaac, “Ronald Tavel: Ridiculous Playwright,” The Drama Review (Fall 1968).
3. Michel Foucault, “What is and Author?” in Michel Foucault: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 205-222.
4. In one of the most often cited interviews given by Warhol, he says, “I’m working principally with Ronald Tavel, a playwright, who’s written about ten movies for me; he writes the script and I sort of give him an idea of what I want and now he’s doing the films as off-Broadway plays.” (“Andy Warhol: My True Story,” in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, ed. Kenneth Goldsmith, p. 91). This interview, conducted by Gretchen Berg in the summer of 1966, was initially published in The East Village Other, 1 November 1966.
5. Gary McColgen, “The Superstar: An Interview with Mario Montez,” Film Culture no. 45 (1968), p. 19.
6. David E. James, Allegories of Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 69.
7. Ronald Tavel, “You Can’t Be Too Excessive: Interview von Matthias Haase und Marc Siegel, Golden Years – Materalien and Positionen zur queeren Subkulturen 1959-1974, ed. Diedrich Diederichsen, et al., (Graz: Camera Austria, 2006), p. 149.
8. Ronald Tavel, The Complete In-Facsimile Warhol Shooting Scripts
9. This blasé attitude is differently belied in the stationary-shot films by the care required to achieve the studied casualness of the shot.
10. Tavel, Complete Shooting Scripts.
11. Tavel, Complete Shooting Scripts.
12. A few years later, in Performance Demonstration, 1968. Yvonne Rainer would introduce rehearsal into her dance performances.
13. Tavel, Complete Shooting Scripts.
14. Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
15. Quoted in Tim Dean, Hal Foster, and Kaja Silverman, “A Conversation with Leo Bersani,” October 82 (Fall 1997), p. 13.
16. Also “masochistic narcissism” and impersonal narcissism” (Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Caravaggio’s Secrets (MIT Press, 1998), pp. 41 and 77 respectively.
17. In the staged version, John Vacarro, the play’s director, played the director.
18. See my essay “Mario Montez, For Shame,” in Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory (NY: Routledge, 2002), pp. 57-70.
19. Like the Screen Test films, Suicide is based on real-life episodes and facts of the life of the “tested” subject, but in this case notes transcribed and edited for a pre-film interview constitute the film’s text. Rock Bradett’s task as an actor, whose scarred wrists provide the screen image, was to read his own words from the script in front of him while the camera rolled. What made this particularly disconcerting for him was the fact that his confessions of homosexual liaisons and suicide attempts took place in front of not only the camera but also a crowd of journalists and Factory denizens that had gathered for the film shoot.
20. As Tavel puts it, “Horse’s lines imply… an outlook and literary themes… which, ideally, should demythologize the Western novel and film and introduce the hidden in the anthropometric image and stale ethnography of cowboys: their phallic worship, Levi competition, homosexuality, bestiality, onanism, racism, and institutionalized ignorance.” (Tavel, Complete Shooting Scripts).
21. “This movie more directly than any other experience, identifies my later formulating and naming a Theater of the Ridiculous” (Tavel, Complete Shooting Scripts).
22. David James, Allegories of Cinema, p. 71.