When Andy Warhol made the switch from painting to filmmaking, he took popular culture by surprise. Warhol was hardly the first artist of his era to traverse media, but he was one of the most prominent and famed, a decidedly off-kilter celebrity who created a personality not fit for prime-time yet nonetheless held a continued presence in prime-time.
But the most shocking thing about Warhol’s films was the ways in which they presented the exact opposite of his notorious artwork. Where Warhol’s paintings and prints explored the ubiquitous presence of major movie stars, his own films cast a troupe of eccentric outsiders deemed the alternate universe superstars of his own downtown “factory.” Where Warhol’s paintings created “original” works of glossy, mass-produced products familiar to everyone in a society inundated by advertising (e.g., the infamous Campbell’s soup can), his films were raw, deliberately unpolished, often unedited events that challenged the inherently manufactured nature of the film medium (and, thus, they’re frustratingly hard to see outside of big cities).
Whether you delight for a rare screening of the double-projected Chelsea Girls or scoff at the very idea of Empire, Warhol’s films captured a unique place and time in which uninhibited self-expression was king and even the movies could be a happening.
So here ‘s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the snow-haired savant who did with cinema what an extraterrestrial might do with the English language.
Think Outside of Evaluative Constructs
Warhol has been cast as a pop artist and an underground filmmaker but, like many other artists, he resisted labels. He didn’t do this because he thought culture writers and critics were falsely casting him in a scene or movement (he practically invented the scene he was part of), but because he saw the similarities of culture high and low, above ground and below. For him, painting soup cans was less a Banksy-esque critique of brand culture than it was a sociological study of art culture as a consumer practice: placing a painting in a museum and selling it for tens of thousands of dollars reveals that high art is in many ways part of a commercial racket as Coca-Cola. What Warhol did was collapse the spaces that each of these cultural objects are typically relegated to. That’s why Warhol deemed his art studios “factories,” even when he and his cohort lived what outside observers might deem an impoverished lifestyle: artists and advertisers are each producers of culture.
It’s not surprising then that Warhol is something of a materialist when it comes to art. Sure, Warhol is performing the same disinterestedness here that he often affected in interviews throughout the 1960s, but what he reveals is nonetheless important: the materials (a canvas, a film camera) are all relatively shared, but the worth we assign to it (good/bad, high/low) are all constructs produced after the fact. In this sense, then, all films are essentially good by existing as “something put to film,” which is as a fitting summary as any for Warhol’s cinema.
This whole interview is worth watching by the way, so give it a rewind if only to hear Nico say “bowtie films.”
Movies Feel More Real Than Reality
“Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there – I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television – you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”
In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the multimedia artist details the surreal experience of getting shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968 (an event that, like many stories of Warhol’s life, was later made into a film). He described this same story once in a conversation with Alfred Hitchcock. In movies and TV, even during panicked moments, events seem somewhat clear, straightforward, and conscionable, which is what we’ve accepted as the terms of “reality,” yet many real-life experiences are something altogether different. Real life is disorienting and confusing, even when one isn’t being met by a bullet; the movies, by contrast, seem profoundly, oddly real.
This dialectic seems present throughout Warhol’s filmography. On the one hand, films like Sleep and Empire seem controlled and presentable to an almost absurd degree: “real” things are exhaustively realized as what we recognize them to be. But by prolonging the experience, by making us watch something we rarely pay much attention to, that sense of realness can become transformed into an event. By contrast, films like Blow Job and Chelsea Girls bring some necessary uncertainty and disorientation back into cinema. In all of Blow Job and in many moments of Chelsea Girls, we’re never certain if we’re seeing quite what we think we might be seeing.
Watch and Learn
“What I was actually trying to do in my early movies was show how people can meet other people and what they can do and what they can say to each other. That was the whole idea: two people getting acquainted. And then when you saw it and you saw the sheer simplicity of it, you learned what it was all about. Those movies showed you how some people act and react with other people. They were like actual sociological ‘For instance’s. They were like documentaries, and if you thought it could apply to you, it was an example, and if it didn’t apply to you, at least it was a documentary…”
There is no doubt that Warhol’s films both participated in and captured a “scene” particular to NYC in the 1960s. As endurance challenges like Sleep and Empire no doubt evince, Warhol was compelled by the act of observation. Often rejecting the title of “director” in interviews, Warhol declared that he got his “kicks” from watching people, and that it was these people, not him, who directed the films. Though he certainly had a vision, Warhol approached cinema more as a means of documentation than dictation. Perhaps no other film demonstrates this quote best than Chelsea Girls, Warhol’s experiment in capturing many residents of the Chelsea hotel (also many of Warhol’s superstars) simultaneously, using a double projection style to make one feel as if they’re peering into two hotel rooms at once. Perhaps Warhol was an unsung devotee to direct cinema whose work belongs on a shelf alongside Pennebaker and the Maylses brothers.
Don’t Cast Jane Fonda
But seriously, the fact that Candy Darling was in Warhol films – and Jane Fonda wasn’t – is essential: his work often explored and experimented with fame. The seeming contradiction of an “underground superstar” points to the fact that fame is a category applied to people as represented through media. It doesn’t even have to be attached to money. Media is fame’s mobilizing force, and thus “anybody” can be a superstar, hence that whole “fifteen minutes” thing (and Candy did indeed become a star amongst devotees of the NYC art scene). So yeah, casting is important.
Devote the Whole Weekend to It
“I have all of these things to do, see. I’m making this full-length feature called ‘Since.’ which is going to be 25 hours long. So you can see there’s a lot of work involved in it, and I really wanted to get it finished this weekend.”
This has to be amongst the best quotes for an interview that never actually took place. During his early years as a film critic, Roger Ebert had scheduled an interview with Warhol to discuss his underground films. Warhol forgot, and the above was the excuse he gave Ebert.
What a liberating, free-wheeling approach to filmmaking, especially considering that this was well before the digital era. Nearly fifty years later, we can all be Andy Warhol with relatively minimal effort. And isn’t that precisely his point?
What We’ve Learned: Make “Bad” Movies
“No director in human history has ever made or will ever make worse movies. Warhol makes Ed Wood look like Ingmar Bergman.”
We usually end this column with a summary, but I thought it’d be appropriate to end with National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia’s cautionary “tip” (read: wholesale dismissal) to filmmakers, a not uncommon response to Warhol’s filmography.
It doesn’t matter if Andy Warhol’s movies are “good” or “bad,” “interesting” or “dull,” or whether or not you even “understand them.” Warhol never set out to make movies that resemble anything we recognize as normative filmmaking, movies that fit into any lingering evaluative tendencies we might apply as a reflex. Movies, for Warhol, was simply a given throughout his entire life and career. Outside of his work as a filmmaker, his paintings showed an obsession with movies, his later life and career demonstrated a continual attraction to filmmakers as well as the media spotlight, and almost three decades after his death we still make movies about Andy Warhol. While Andy Warhol’s greater influence can be seen throughout postmodern culture in multifaceted ways (from “fifteen” minutes to Lou Reed’s legacy), movies held a special place as a guiding force not only in his life and work, but his understanding of and relationship to reality itself.
What we can best learn from Warhol is that it often doesn’t really matter if his movies, or anyone’s movies, are good or bad – movies are a part of our lives and will continue to be in ways that we might never fully understand the implications of. And Warhol’s cinema, whatever you may think of it, was no doubt a radically democratized filmmaking style (thus, his emphasis on observing others), even if he was the man behind the camera and held the title to the so-called factories. Of course, Warhol didn’t ever actually make movies that “anyone” could make, but he made it seem like he did. Shouldn’t we all, if we so desire, embrace the freedom to make bad movies?
And to prove Warhol brought out the eccentricity in everyone, I leave you with a conversation between him, Bianca Jagger, and Steven Spielberg about radio teeth. Cheers, you superstars.