The following article on Andy Warhol first appeared in the May/June 1971 issue of Art in America (vol. 59 no. 3). The author, David Bourdon, would later write Warhol,one of the most respected biographies of the artist.
Warhol as Filmmaker
by David Bourdon
Far from being a neutral and impassive recorder of daily life, or a cinematic journalist documenting present-day depravity, Andy Warhol has constructed a stylized, extremely interpretive view of contemporary life that, however real it might seem on screen, is closer to fantasy than to any kind of reality with which most of us are familiar.
More talked about than seen, more emulated than admired, Andy Warhol's films will probably survive as legends rather than as living classics that people will want to see again and again. Currently, there is a fairly broad consensus that he is among the most important, provocative and influential filmmakers of the sixties. To the general public, he is best known as the originator of the marathon motionless movie, whose petrified camera dutifully records an inactive image, and as the purveyor of voyeuristic nudity, obscenity, homosexuality, transvestitism, drugs and various other X-rated activities.
But to art and cinema connoisseurs Warhol has scored many conceptual coups and stylistic innovations: some see him as a "primitive" who has taken cinema "back to its origins, to the days of Lumiere, for a rejuvenation and a cleansing" (Jonas Mekas); others see him as an especially gifted recorder of "the seemingly unimportant details that make up our daily lives" (Samuel Adams Green). A lot has been made of how scrupulously he records ordinary events "as they are," and of his beneficent inclination to let his performers just "be themselves." Finally, there has been a great deal of emphasis on his equation of real-time with reel-time - if it takes a man three minutes to eat a banana, that slice of life is filmed and projected for three minutes without cuts. But far from being literal transcriptions of reality, Warhol's films are more inventive, artificial and art-directed than some of his admirers would like to believe.
Warhol made his debut as a filmmaker with fortuitous timing. Being familiar with avant-garde painting, sculpture, music and dance, he was able to approach film with a broader and more sophisticated outlook than was available to most "underground" filmmakers. Some of his initial experiments in 1963 were with single-frame shooting (photographing one frame at a time with a hand-held camera) a stylistic technique already employed by several independent filmmakers, such as Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulos and Taylor Mead. But he soon realized that long takes were the antithesis of what was by then an accepted convention and so he began making "motionless" movies. Bringing movies to a standstill had less to do with investigating the fundamental nature of film than it had to do with the exploration of a then-emerging esthetic - the Minimalist esthetic. He had already experimented with monotony in paintings made up of images identically repeated in regimented rows; and his Minimalist inclinations were reinforced by his awareness of several musical works: John Cage's notorious "silent" composition, 4' 33"; La Monte Young's "eternal" drone music; and the eighteen-hour performance in 1963 of Erik Satie's Vexations, an eighty-second piano piece repeated 840 times.
The first phase of Warhol's quasi-fantastic vision was of a spaced-out, slow-motion world in which people really do sleep eight hours, while others devote nearly as much time to such lethargic inactivities as eating a mushroom or smoking a cigar. This is a silent world, rendered in contrasty black-and-white, and stripped of any incidental interest and climax. It is usually inhabited by a single performer, seen frontally and in close-up, whose luxury and torment it is to while away an eternity of time on some simple, relatively meaningless task. The camera is stationary, the image seldom varies within the frame, and any movement, action or facial expression is decelerated to such a sluggish pace that it begins to exert a trancelike effect on the viewer - who, like the person on-screen, feels victimized by torpor. The effect is of a microscopic detail that is senseless in itself but acquires significance through magnification and persistence. Staring at the immobile and inexpressive face on screen, the viewer may think of all the worthwhile things he should be doing instead of sitting here bored out of his mind. Suddenly, the face on screen is charged with melodrama; the performer has uncontrollably blinked or swallowed, and the involuntary action becomes a highly dramatic event, as climactic in context as the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. (Warhol once said his best actor was someone who blinked only three times in ten minutes. Question: Aren't you confusing blinking with acting? Warhol: Yes.)
The notion of introducing stillness to movies was a radical idea. No one had to see Sleep to be provoked by the very concept of such a movie. The fact that Warhol's early films are still talked about more than they are seen can be interpreted as their strength, demonstrating the power of the idea, or as their defect, suggesting they do not transcend the idea. However, anyone who has actually sat through the films knows how words fail to convey the experience. Consequently it would be wrong to say that Warhol's films are so conceptual that they can be adequately described or experienced in words.
After the outraged reception of Sleep, Warhol deliberately set about filming movies of exaggerated length. In most movies, time is compressed so that lengthy activities appear of much shorter duration; but in a Warhol movie, inconsequential activities are prolonged so that the minutes seem to drag like days. To begin, with, the duration of the filmed action was totally artificial. Who in his right mind spends forty-five minutes eating a mushroom? Warhol instructed his performers to remain as motionless as possible, and to prolong their actions as long as possible. To stretch out the time even further, Warhol frequently films the scene at sound speed (twenty-four frames per second), then projected it at silent speed (sixteen frames per second), so that whatever movement the image might be capable of was shown in protracted slow motion. "When nothing happens, you have a chance to think about everything," Warhol explained.
The second phase of Warhol's vision began in 1963, when he started experimenting with sound, color, camera movement, action, narrative and editing. In this phase, the performers became interesting as personalities. Warhol presented a highly selective gallery of gorgeously gaunt, stylishly garbed and imaginatively barbered young men and women who languorously display themselves, but seem reluctant to put their often appealing bodies to any constructive or even self-satisfying use; they spout tedious monologues, as if unwinding from some pent-up paranoia that can be dispelled, or maintained, only through the recital of all their problems, past and present. These sometimes droll, sometimes pathetic monologists seem quagmired in unsatisfactory roles or situations, and apparently the only way they can sustain their gossamer fantasies is by trying to convince us of their veracity. But their self-image is askew and, like some manic individual striving to keep a grip on reality, they maintain an obsessive stranglehold on their only audience - the camera. Their whole world threatens to slide into oblivion at any moment, and even the riveting gaze of the camera cannot seem to secure it.
The manufactured chitchat and confessional soliloquies seem endless. During the screening of Sleep, members of the audience sometimes ran up to the screen and yelled in the slumbering man's ear: "Wake Up!" The interminable chatter in the later movies makes people want to scream: "Shut up!" But suddenly, the interminable story trails out in mid-sentence, just a few words before the possible punch line, as the over exposed and lank end of the reel passes through the projector. We are left wanting to know the conclusion of the monologue we could not bring ourselves to listen to. We are made to feel the regrettable transience of what had seemed an excruciating boring scene. Those ridiculous people with their tiresome sagas emerge in retrospect as poignant creatures who deserved more of our sympathy and attention.
The feeling of impermanence is one of the strongest impressions left by Warhol's films. No matter how static the image, no matter how lengthy the monologue, no matter how tedious and unendurable the movies seem while we watch them, we are left with a sense of their brevity.
Even the physical record of Warhol's cinematic achievement is beginning to look impermanent. From 1964 through 1967, Warhol's film production was prodigious. Scores of movies were shot, but entire reels and projects were abandoned, and only what was felt to be successful was publicly shown. No authoritative record was ever kept of titles, dates, number of reels, cast and collaborators. Reconstructing the data now is largely a matter of guesswork, although a few attempts have been made to catalogue the oeuvre. The studio film library presently consists of miscellaneous cans of prints randomly stacked in steel cabinets at the rear of the Factory. (Warhol has put the original films in storage, where they are probably in even greater disorder.) Nevertheless, many of the films have been damaged, or have totally vanished; even the original print of Sleep is missing. In other cases, such as the twenty-five-hour-long **** (Four Stars), cans of films are present, but nobody has any idea in what sequence they were originally shown. The casual attitude toward shooting the movies carried over into their projection. Even in regular screenings at commercial theaters, the reels were inexplicably jumbled, or one reel was deleted from one showing but not the next, leading to such wholesale variations that some reviewers began citing the date and hour of the performance they had attended. It is unlikely that very many of the films will ever be accurately reconstructed as they were originally screened - which is symptomatic of the "benign neglect" with which Warhol treats all of his work.
From the beginning, Warhol was a shrewd and canny photographer who knowingly got the effects he wanted. He expended considerable thought and effort on the proper lighting, angle and setup. In the early movies, he favored strong sidelighting with harsh shadows, and most often concentrated on the frontal image (the most informative and iconic angle), which he centered and tightly framed. Once he had a satisfactory setup, he could turn on the camera's motor and walk away. Later he experimented with zooms and pans. "His zooms are perhaps the first anti-zooms in film history," according to to Andrew Sarris, for whom "Warhol's zooms swoop on inessential details with unerring inaccuracy." They seldom correspond to any ostensible narrative or presumed story-line, and seem deliberately inattentive to the on-screen action, often missing significant moments. During the shooting of one scene of Lonesome Cowboys in Old Tucson, Viva was nearly urinated upon by her antagonist's horse and then, losing her footing in the mud and falling against the hind legs of her own horse, nearly trampled upon. Warhol missed both events because he was zooming in on a storefront sign across the street.
The sound in Warhol movies, though steadily improving, is still below professional standards. Warhol claims that the bad sound was at first done deliberately, because clear sound was too expensive. More likely, good sound was never really considered a desirable virtue. When Sleep was first shown, the accompanying sound was provided by two transistor radios on stage, tuned to different rock stations. When Warhol was invited to show four films at the 1964 New York Film Festival, he commissioned La Monte Young to compose a taped soundtrack that could be used for all four - the droning sound of a bow being played over a brass mortar. Now that Warhol turns the camera off and on during a sequence, he does it without regard for what the performers are saying, so that dialogue is arbitrarily punctuated and blipped without concern for content.
At first, Warhol refused to do any editing. Entire reels might be deleted, but there were no internal cuts within a reel. All the reels were spliced together, end-to-end, including the blank film leader, so that the image was interrupted every three minutes or so by over-exposed reel ends, and then flashes of clear light, which became a kind of dynamic interlude between sections of the static image, giving a sense of structural rhythm to the film. Later, he began turning the camera off and on during a sequence to make the film look cut and also, he says, "to give it texture." Purists, who admire the unedited reality of early Warhol, are distressed that he now stops the camera. "Since everyone says I never stop the camera," Warhol said, "I stop it now, start and stop, and that makes it look cut." To make certain it looks cut, he does not splice out the frames of blank film between scenes that a professional filmmaker would delete. Consequently, when the movie is shown, there are intermittent white flashes, accompanied by a screech on the soundtrack. The strobelike effect has been dubbed the Warhol "strobecut," although technically it is not a cut at all. Like the zooms, the strobecuts do not necessarily relate to anything at all on-screen, but they often make us suspect something has been deliberately eliminated or censored. For the past few years, real editing has been performed on Warhol films in a attempt to make the movies faster-paced and more entertaining.
Over the years, scores of people have contributed their ideas and services to Warhol's movies. In addition to being unusually receptive to other people's suggestions and talents, Warhol has always demonstrated an unstinting willingness to let others collaborate with him. The most enduring and therefore most important collaborator is Paul Morrissey, an independent filmmaker until he joined forces with Warhol in 1965. Morrissey served as executive producer, scriptwriter, editor, one-man crew and business manager, and in 1968 began making his own movies under the aegis of Andy Warhol Films, Inc. Morrissey's influence on Warhol productions has been stabilizing and conventionalizing. Under his guidance, there has been a greater emphasis upon narrative (erotic stories with "redeeming social value"), technically competent camera work and sound, better-paced editing - and more routine ambitions. Morrissey's own films, Flesh and Trash, are slick, formularized versions of Warhol's films - but more professional, and more entertaining. Both Flesh and Trash have achieved commercial success.
"My influence was that I was a movie person, not an art person," says Morrissey. "An art person would have encouraged Andy to stay with the fixed camera and the rigid structure. Andy's form was extremely stylized, and people though the content was very frivolous. My notion was that the content is what is said by the people and how they look. The emphasis now is less or very minimally on the form and all on the content. And of course modern art is completely concerned with form and the elimination of content. In that sense, Andy is completely against the grain of modern art, and more in the tradition of reactionary folk art. You can only be a child so long and be revolutionary, and Andy served his apprenticeship as a revolutionary in the art world and in the movie world. But it's pathetic to see a person not develop and not grow."
Although schematic plot outlines are usually decided upon in advance, Warhol's performers are expected to improvise their own dialogue. "Professional actors and actresses are all wrong for my movies," says Warhol. "They have something in mind." According to Morrissey, it is television that has eliminated the necessity of speaking written lines in front of the camera. He marvels that movie actors are able to speak freely on television talk shows, yet freeze before a movie camera because they are unaccustomed to working without a script. There is complete unanimity in the Warhol company that performers should be capable of making up their own lines. "How can people read other people's words?" Warhol asks. "It sounds so phony." Morrissey, who is more doctrinaire, declares, "If an actor can't make up his own lines, he's no good." Viva, a supreme monologist who describes herself as "the last dying gasp of verbosity," reminds listeners that "Mae West also wrote her own lines." As Viva puts it: "Men seem to have trouble doing these non-script things. It's a natural thing for women and fags - they ramble on. But straight men are much more self-conscious about it."
It is sometimes assumed that Warhol simply pushes people in front of the camera and "lets them be themselves." This impression is seemingly corroborated by his statement quoted by Gene Youngblood: "I leave the camera running until it runs out of film because that way I can catch people being themselves. It's better to act naturally than to set up a scene and act like someone else. You get a better picture of people being themselves instead of trying to act like they're themselves."
But very few people manage to be "themselves" in front of a camera. Warhol lets his performers be "themselves" in roles that correspond to their own characters. He selects people whose looks and personalities almost - but not quite - coincide with the characters he wishes to create. Most often, it is the discrepancies in the the behavior of a person trying to impersonate someone similar to himself that register most vividly. Warhol has a ringmaster's ability to make his egocentric superstars expose their private selves. But his most diabolical ploy comes into effect when he deliberately goes one step too far, by asking the performer to do something that the performer thinks is degrading or contrary to his nature - for instance, getting slapped around, or fondling someone of the opposite sex.
"People always think that the people we use in our films are less than something," says Morrissey. "Actually everybody we use has to be a thousand times extra to stand up to our kind of filmmaking. Our people are more than actors.."
Perhaps the only viable generalization that can be made about Warhol's people is that they do not represent a broad cross-section of Middle America. The range of personality types is surprisingly narrow, and apparently conforms to certain Factory stereotypes. The male roles generally fall into three groups: (1) handsome brutes with splendidly faceted face planes and good muscular definition (Joe Dallesandro, Louis Waldon, Tom Hompertz); (2) raunchy but comical homosexuals who talk as if they had ravenous appetites for sex and drugs but look physically incapable of obtaining either (Taylor Mead, Ondine); and (3) transvestites (Mario Montez, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn). The female roles are only slightly more typical: (1) idealized, immaculate beauties who do not have much to say (Nico, Edie Sedgwick); (2) bawdy beauties who talk too much (Viva, Jane Forth); and (3) overweight and overstimulated grotesques (Brigid Polk, Lil Picard, Tally Brown). Most of the characters depicted in Warhol's movies exist on the fringe of society, being societal dropouts or rejects who go on having middle-class values and aspirations. They are not even good at what little they can do. The best-looking men tend to be impotent, and the best-looking women had trouble bedding any man at all. And the transvestites are tacky, with make-do hairdos, runs in their stockings and no falsies.
Often condemned for advocating nudity and homosexuality in his movies, Warhol now finds himself scorned by a younger generation which demands even more sexual liberation. He has managed to antagonize both the Women's Lib and Gay Liberation movements, which lump him among their many reactionary foes. According to Morrissey, "Andy is despised by Gay Liberation and the Women's Revolt, whatever it is, because Andy just presents it and doesn't take a position. An artist's obligation is not to take a position ever, just to present. Andy's basic position on every subject, if he has any, is comical. The absence of a position necessitates a comical attitude to make it bearable. And the most serious position a person can take is the frivolous position."
Warhol recently completed a film on the subject of Women's Lib that will not endear him to that movement, because the cast is comprised almost entirely of transvestites, at least one of which impersonates a lesbian. Around the Factory, this role reversal is considered quite amusing. "It's hard for Andy or any of the female impersonators to put down the movement," says Morrissey, "because it's a subject that neither Andy nor any of the female impersonators have the vaguest notion about. I don't know anything about it either. I hear a little bit about it on the talk shows - equal pay, etcetera, blah blah. But the logical extension of what they obviously want is to be a man, so why not have men represent them?"
Warhol's interest in film appears to be fading: he is less productive and his few film projects are less ambitious. It is difficult to determine whether his present lethargy is a temporary rest period, or a lasting consequence of the monstrous murder attempt of 1968. He exhibits almost none of the creative drives and ambitions that motivated him before he was gunned down. Despite his camerawork on Blue Movie and the unreleased Women's Lib movie (the last films he has photographed himself), he increasingly presents himself as an executive producer, a remote movie mogul whose chief interest is the supervision of an efficient and profitable production company. (Jed Johnson, an intensely quiet young man from California, who has worked at the Factory for three years, now edits and photographs some of the new films.) But when Warhol is not gloating over his supposed retirement from active movie-making, he makes vague murmurs about wanting to do something experimental again.
For a few years in the mid-sixties, Warhol displayed such incredible energy, produced so many paintings, sculptures and movies, that it seems almost unreasonable to expect more from him. From 1964 to 1967, he went through a rapid turnover of cinematic styles - from the stately Giottoesque stability of the early films, to the baroque superimpositions of the middle period, to the episodic sex narratives that culminated in the suppressed Blue Movie. In his early films, Warhol deliberately innovated certain conventions for extending and redefining our notion of reality through his unique treatment of the duration of time. But to my mind, the later works are more vibrant, intellectually more challenging and visually more satisfying. His camerawork reached a creative height in **** (Four Stars) with superb color photography and brilliant in-camera editing that he has not yet surpassed.
It is a tribute to his originality that his films have had an overwhelming effect upon an entire generation of younger experimental filmmakers, and that they have also had an influence upon such strongly individualistic filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Norman Mailer and Shirley Clarke. But more important than the matter of influences is the fact that from the hundreds of reels that passed through his camera there emerged so many dazzling images and memorable scenes - a fragmentary but nonetheless valuable contribution to cinematic art.