Sunday 26 November 2023

Films about Warhol’s milieu

Finally, my Film Ireland reviews of a couple of films about Warhol’s milieu.

I Shot Andy Warhol Directed by Mary Harron

Nico Icon Directed by Susanne Ofteringer

New York in the mid to late sixties, and more particularly Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, was the centre of the universe, if that constantly transmigrating and transmogrifying concept can be said to exist at all, and if the two films under review can be lent credence.  Both present portraits of independently minded, visionary women, who were drawn to that milieu.

Mary Harron’s biopic of Valerie Solanis, the militant lesbian feminist would-be playwright, founder and sole member of SCUM, (Society for Cutting Up Men), and author of the infamous SCUM Manifesto, is the less satisfying offering of the two. This has nothing to do with Harron’s direction, which although her debut, is very assured. It has more to do with the fact that she seeks to give us a balanced picture of an unbalanced individual, and so becomes an apologist for the psychopathology which leads to attempted murder. “I’m not justifying the shooting,” Harron has said in an interview, referring to Solanis’ gunning down of Warhol in his office in June 1968, but then goes on to defend her as a misunderstood, underprivileged woman who was ahead of her time.  “Even as a celebrity assassin she was in the wrong time,” Harron concludes. What next?  The Michael Chapman biopic, entitled I Shot John Lennon, a detailed account of how a deprived childhood and dysfunctional family background led another of life’s losers to take a pot shot at the former Beatle? Society’s to blame, as usual. Spare us.

Perhaps part of the reason for this kid-gloves feel is Harron’s choice of the soft-centred Lili Taylor to play the abrasive Solanis, which certainly isn’t type-casting. “But if you cast someone who was really grating, nobody could watch the movie,” offers Harron, by way of explanation. My point exactly. I rest my case. As it is, we get Solanis running around looking like a slightly more zany version of Janis Ian, a nicely neurotic Jewish girl you could take home to meet Mother, rather than the psychotic gun-toter she became.  Most of the other central performances, most notably Jared Harris as Warhol, but also Lothaire Blutheau as publisher Maurice Girodias and Stephen Dorff as transvestite Candy Darling, are excellent. Harris, in particular, captures perfectly the jittery aloofness of Warhol, while also hinting at the essential benevolence one imagines it masked. John Cale’s score and a marvellous soundtrack contribute to a film well worth seeing for anyone interested in the period, but probably best taken with a pinch of salt.

Susanne Ofteringer’s Nico Icon is a different story, just as its subject was as different from Solanis as could be, and as a documentary composed entirely of interviews and archive footage, doesn’t have the tedious historical accuracy and consequent manipulation of sympathy question marks hanging over it which spoil I Shot Andy Warhol, or at least not to the same extent.

Nico was, as former keyboardist in her band James Young says early in the film, “the Chelsea girl peroxide blonde Marlene Dietrich moon goddess vamp creature who turned into a middle-aged junkie.” At the risk of sounding indulgently romantic, what is interesting about this trajectory is how much of it was volitional, to the extent that the life became part of the art. The daughter of a ‘good German’ killed by the Gestapo, she wanted to be ‘not German’. She became deracinated, and subsequently lived in France, America, Italy, England and Spain. A stunningly beautiful woman who hated being objectified, she gave up modelling to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter. Unlike a Twiggy or a Samantha Fox, she had the voice and the talent to do it. In the process she went from being blonde and wearing white to hennaing her hair and wearing black. Both Young and Paul Morrisey comment on how she started hating her good looks, and became proud of her rotting teeth, her bad skin, her needle tracks. “She was so happy to be called ugly,” says Morrisey. She wanted to be ‘not beautiful’. When asked if she has any regrets, she answers: “No regrets...Only one, that I was born a woman instead of a man.” She wanted to be ‘not woman’. She wanted to be her opposite. In the end, the journey was completed.

Introduced to Warhol by Bob Dylan, having already recorded a solo single, ‘I’m Not Sayin’’, she sang on the first Velvet Underground album, (because, according to Morrisey, Lou Reed was considered “too seedy, not a good singer, not a good personality.”) She went on to make a string of solo albums, of which Chelsea Girls is perhaps the best known. John Cale says that of all the work that came out of the Velvets, what he did with Nico is what he is most proud of, and calls The Marble Index, which he produced, “a contribution to European classical music.” The ever highly articulate and intelligent Cale sums up the Nico odyssey best: “It was a solitary dream where occasional friendships were struck and abandoned, and was so highly personal that it was very painful.”

The film is very well edited and cut, with much use of split screens, and even seems to go in for a bit of imitative form, as the straight linear interviews of the early part give way to more fragmented excerpts as the madness kicks in. One tiny criticism is that the whole would have been enhanced by contributions from both Nico’s mother and Lou Reed, but presumably they refused to give their consent.

It remains to tackle the question of Warhol’s culpability in the decline and demise of these two very different women, both of whom died in 1988, Solanis of pneumonia and emphysema in a welfare hotel in San Francisco, Nico of a brain haemorrhage in Ibiza.  Sure, the casualty rate at The Factory was rather high, but as Billy Name says in Ofteringer’s film, “Anyone who had skills or talent was accepted”. Warhol wasn’t an exploiter, in that he made no money out of the projects other than his own work, but rather a facilitator who gave people the opportunity to do their own work. A line from ‘It Wasn’t Me’, a song from John Cale and Lou Reed’s tribute album to Warhol, Songs For Drella, where Reed sings as Andy, could be applied to Solanis: ‘It wasn’t me who hurt you, I showed you possibilities/The problems you had were there before you met me.’  Another line from the same song has equal force in the case of Nico: ‘I never said stick a needle in your arm and die.’ Of course Warhol was no moral philosopher, but he was a  highly influential artist and patron. Without him it is unlikely that the greatest band in the history of rock music would have existed, or at least become so influential themselves.  (“They didn’t have a lot of fans, but every one of them went out and formed his own band.” Brain Eno.) And far from being im- or a-moral, The Factory had the loose but highly evolved ethical system of a subculture. Warhol’s Catholic childhood always poked through. (Reed to Warhol: “That guy’s an ignorant fool.” Warhol: “Hey, what if he thinks that about you?”) He may have lived among messy people, but he wasn’t messy himself.  Warhol was right: Solanis should have got a job. He even gave her one, acting in one of his films, ironically, I, A Man. It was her own increasingly erratic and alienating behaviour which led to her excommunication from Warhol’s circle. And if she was so independent and sure of her beliefs, why was she relying solely on Warhol and Girodias to produce her play and publish her Manifesto, and then turning against them? Nico had talent, and partially fulfilled her potential. Solanis, despite what Harron would have us believe, was an idiotic ideologue who hung around The Factory, the kind of talentless psychopath who hovers on the fringes of the avant-garde, and of whom one must beware if, like Warhol, one chooses to work there. 

First published in Film Ireland

Andy Warhol's Films

What was then the IFC (Irish Film Centre), now the IFI, had a season of Warhol’s films to coincide with the IMMA retrospective. I wrote about them too.

Taking Time, or Wasting It?

“I like boring things. When you just sit and look out of a window, that’s enjoyable. It takes up time. Yeah. Really, you see people looking out of their windows all the time.  I do. If you’re not looking out of a window, you’re sitting in a shop looking at the street. My films are just a way of taking up time.” So said Andy Warhol of his approach to film-making. And, of course, the time would have passed anyway, as Beckett remarked with reference to his many anti-heroes, whose major preoccupation is the filling in of passing time (which is the major preoccupation of all of us, it seems to me).

At first sight it may seem that drawing any parallel between Beckett and Warhol is the ultimate in the yoking together by violence of heterogeneous ideas, as Samuel Johnson declared was the modus operandi of metaphysical poets, but they are similar enough in their exploration of extreme areas of consciousness, in their paring back to its essentials and refinement of a given style while simultaneously testing the boundaries of that style just as they strip it back, and in their obsessively monocular focus, through an aesthetic methodology of replication or repetition, on an idea or image.

This article was commissioned to coincide with the ‘Andy Warhol’s Cinema’ season currently running at the Irish Film Centre, with the goading challenge of being written from the perspective of, ‘Why should anyone bother going? It’s as interesting as watching paint dry’, thus inviting me to cast myself yet again in the role of apologist for Warhol. So what follows will necessarily consist of a few observations and pointers about the films, rather than being an in-depth discussion of any of them, partly because I haven’t seen them all, and partly because, to quote Warhol himself from the last interview of his life in 1987, “They’re better talked about than seen.”

It is vaguely unsettling to think that Warhol lost faith in his films as films, that he was unaware that, as Amy Taubin wrote in her 1994 Sight and Sound article entitled ‘My Time Is Not Your Time’: ‘The intervention he had made in the society of the spectacle was as profound as what Godard had done in roughly the same extended 60’s moment. But if Godard framed his psychosexual obsessions within a political analysis of global economic power, Warhol, the American anti-intellectual, transformed his psychosexual identity into a world view.’

There is undoubtedly a link between the eerie visual effect of Warhol’s 16mm films (achieved by their being shot at 24 fps but projected at 16 fps) and the hyper-reality of his paintings and silk-screen prints. As Dennis J Cipnic noted in his essay ‘Andy Warhol: Iconographer’:

                   Warhol casts to character and lets his performers make up their

                   own lines to fit basic story requirements.  But it is his aim to

                   avoid wholly persons, and I think this has to do with his life-long

                   insistence on confronting reality. Just as he might have painted

                   fictitiously labelled cans, or anonymous bottles instead of Coke

                   bottles, Warhol could have used ordinary actors and given them

                   scripted dialogue. However, if his painted objects had been

                   entirely fictitious, they could not have been icons, and I believe

                   exactly the same principle applies to his films.

Warhol’s cinema is a response to the Hollywood films he grew up with, films that were available to every American, just like Campbell’s Soup and Coca Cola. Lou Reed and John Cale enlarge on Cipnic’s point in ‘Starlight’, a song from their 1990 Warhol tribute album, Songs for Drella: ‘You know that shooting up’s for real/That person who’s screaming, that’s the way he really feels/We’re all improvising, five movies in a week/If Hollywood doesn’t call us – we’ll be sick’. This verse neatly brings together the iconic quality mentioned above, and the fact that Warhol’s films were both a furious parody of Hollywood’s norms, and an attempt to seek its approval because, even though he criticised it, he also admired it. “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic.” But Warhol’s remit was larger still. He saw the beauty in the everyday, and in the ugly.

He was an autodidact with a motion picture camera, and obviously regarded the camera exactly as he did the tools of a painter, as a mechanical means to an end, with certain contingent characteristics of its own, of which he could make use. He saw that with newsreels and documentaries, where the cameraman is concerned almost exclusively with content, these characteristics become very apparent: lenses go in and out of focus; exposure is not always precisely correct; framing wanders; shots may be held for too long or not long enough. Warhol and his assistant Paul Morrissey both felt that to retain this quality of technical improvisation greatly added to a film’s verisimilitude and believability. The more attention is drawn to the means of production, that we are made aware that it is not a transparent medium through which we view a given reality, paradoxically the more real what we view seems, while the supposedly transparent processes Hollywood uses in the service of realism actually give us pure fantasy.

As for the subject matter, the ‘content’, the amount of space allotted here forbids lengthy consideration, but is worth quoting from Thomas Crow’s essay, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’: 

                   Yet the quality of “dead-pan” is significantly different from the

                   passivity that Swenson (an interviewer) expected Warhol to endorse.

                   It is a consciously maintained absence of expression intended to

                   disguise interest and engagement.

Warhol meant it, maaan. Personal statements can be made through the fissures inevitable in B-movie production, since they have low budgets and are largely free of high-level interference. If you had to reduce Warhol’s cinema to one theme, say what his films are about in one sentence, it would be that they are a camp send-up and full-frontal attack on the Hollywood myth of sexual normality. Sexual identity is problematised, constructed as a masquerade which is an imperfect shield for a terrible anxiety about sexual difference. So now you know.

  Of course, it is the absence of traditional narrative thrust that is so off-putting to an audience conditioned by Hollywood, and wherein lies a lot of the satiric comment which makes him the anti-Hollywood director par excellence, the prince in exile. The number of walkouts at the first evening of films in the IFC, Kiss, Haircut and Blow Job was gratifying, especially because the people who left were not leaving in chagrin due to being shocked, but because they were bored to death. But boredom is perhaps the most constant feature of life, and it is a wonder it faired so badly in the novels which are filed in the canon as nineteenth century realist fiction. Boredom, for Warhol, is both not boring at all, and more boring than you ever imagined.Watching paint dry? That’s what artists do all the time.

First published in Film Ireland magazine

Andy Warhol - After The Party: Works 1956-1986 - IMMA 1997-1998

Apropos our visit to the 'Three Times Out' Andy Warhol exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery during the week, here's a review I remember writing of IMMA's 'After The Party' Warhol exhibition, which ran from 21 Nov 1997 to 22 Mar 1998. How Time doth fly.

After The Party

Andy Warhol Works 1956 - 1986

Irish Museum of Modern Art

What can be added, in a short review of a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of one of the world’s most famous artists - one of whose overriding concerns was the nature of fame - to the unwieldy body of discourse and uneven attempts at exegesis that already exist and are growing exponentially, about that artist’s life and work? Space, in the form of column inches, may be filled, but does anything new or worthwhile get said? Maybe the reiteration of that hoary old maxim to the affect that ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, that can be detected in and surmised from most of the criticism that is being written about this oeuvre is merely an eloquent testimony, intentionally or unintentionally on the part of its writers, to the force and potency, the truth and beauty, of the work it is written about. The ubiquity of the commodity that is Warhol’s work in our everyday lives is the fitting denouement to the critique of the ubiquity of commodities that takes place in that work, through seemingly effortless and endless repetition. So perhaps the greatest compliment anyone, including a critic, could pay the master of the deadpan is to engage in a species of ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’, as Barthes called it in an essay in Mythologies, and simply say nothing, or nothing new, or as little that is new as it is polite and politic to do, and merely trot out what has been said before.

Barthes characterises ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’ thus:

'Critics (of books or drama) often use two rather singular arguments. The first consists in suddenly deciding that the true subject of criticism is ineffable, and criticism, as a consequence, unnecessary. The other, which also reappears periodically, consists in confessing that one is too stupid, too unenlightened to understand a book reputedly philosophical'.

But however justifiable some of the accusations of the ‘King’s New Clothes’ may be when levelled at the effusive excesses or wilful obscurantism of much Warhol criticism, and criticism of modern art in general, taking fogeyish refuge in either of the fraudulent approaches against which Barthes directed his strictures will not suffice when dealing with what is on display here. For, if one is acknowledging an inability to understand merely to call into question the good faith of the artist and not one’s own, then one has no business being a critic. And Warhol’s art is neither so ineffable nor so philosophical as to preclude understanding (if only because no art is). Nor so disposable, inconsequential, stupid, trivial, and all the other meaningless, in this context, adjectives one constantly hears bandied about and around in relation to it.

Two quotes from Thomas Crow’s essay, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, reproduced in the excellent IMMA exhibition catalogue, are apposite. Firstly: ‘What has also gone unobserved is the contradiction at the core of the usual interpretation of Warhol’s work: that the authority for the supposed effacement of the author’s voice in Warhol’s pictures is none other than the author’s voice itself.’; and, secondly: ‘Yet the quality of “dead-pan” is significantly different from the passivity that Swenson (an interviewer) expected Warhol to endorse. It is a consciously maintained absence of expression intended to disguise interest and engagement.’

Warhol was both a greater tragedian and a greater comedian than any of his contemporaries. Nominally a pop artist, he was by times and by turns, an expressionist, a minimalist and a conceptualist, but both much more serious and much more fun than any practitioners in these obviously reductive and ultimately arbitrary categories. Those broad brush strokes and bright colours are fairly expressionistic, but in a more channelled framework; those ‘Silver Clouds’ helium balloons share the preoccupations of minimalist sculptors, in drawing the viewer’s attention to the artificial nature of the gallery space, and the space occupied by the artwork itself; that ‘Last Supper’ reproduction, doubled as it is, asks just as many questions as the conceptualists about representation, and about the fate of what we have been taught to think of as the greatest historical works of art, if their ability to retain their uniqueness or mystique cannot stand up to mass production.

The IMMA exhibition is representative rather than inclusive, but most of the usual suspects are on show. The space is used exceptionally well, and the groupings of works in the many small, well-lit rooms is thoughtful and sensitive. I found especially moving and revealing the drawings done by the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola. If I had to select a favourite series, it would be ‘Myths’, because, well, I’m interested in myths. The ‘Disaster’ and ‘Gun’ series, and the ‘Chairman Mao’ portrait and ‘Hammer and Sickle’ still life, show that as a good American citizen Warhol was exercised by threats to the American way of life, both from the inside and the outside. They also exemplify his darker, more sombre and serious mode. The ‘Dollar Signs’ sketches refer to the idea of the artwork representing money above all else, both to producer and consumer, and link art directly to its monetary value. They also show his funnier, more frivolous and frolicsome side. Of course, like everything else in Warhol, these handy but crude divisions begin to blur and break down. If you can make what could be thought of as a joke out of something that could be thought of as serious, and make what could be thought of as a serious point through something that could be thought of as a joke, you’ve really got something. Nevertheless, the synthetic polymer paint and silk-screen on canvas works ‘Skull’, ‘Cross’ and ‘Self-Portrait’, are affecting intimations of mortality, inviting one to meditate, like Samuel Johnson did in his great poem, on the vanity of human wishes, when all is over, after the party.

Warhol’s interest in contemporary culture extended beyond the limits of conventional fine art to film making, record cover design and production, and the set design and promotion of multimedia events called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, featuring performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico. Indeed, it is via the latter activity that I was first introduced to his work. His art rejected distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, between fine art and commercial art, at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. It may now reek of post-modern irony, perhaps chiefly because that is the lens through which it is presently viewed, but it was made long before such a way of seeing had become the dominant sensibility, the main means of apprehending and appreciating works of art. Antecedents of it can be found in the work of Oscar Wilde, of Ronald Firbank, of Cole Porter, and it was thoroughly delineated in Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on Camp’, but it had always been generally distrusted because of a supposed lack of deep feeling on the part of the artist, which resulted in a paucity of genuine profundity in the art. Insofar as this anti-romantic method has now gained such huge currency, Warhol could be said to have ironically followed the Wordsworthian dictum of creating the taste by which he is understood. There he is, a closet romantic all the time. Nor is it fair to saddle him with responsibility for the thousand and one pale imitators who have sprung up in his wake. Blaming Andy Warhol for Jeff Koons is like holding The Sex Pistols responsible for every third rate punk band you’ve ever heard.

If you’re looking for social comment, reflected here through individual portraiture, consider J. G. Ballard’s remarks in the annotated version of The Atrocity Exhibition:

'A kind of banalisation of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup. Warhol’s screen-prints show the process at work. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy drain the tragedy from the lives of the these desperate women, while his day-glow palette returns them to the innocent world of the child’s colouring book.’

What a pity Warhol isn’t around to do Diana, since he would undoubtedly provide a simultaneously more affectionate and more visceral memorial than a rehashed ballad which actually started life as a song about Marilyn Monroe. (Could one of his assistants or disciples give us one instead? After all, it is a commonplace among Warhol’s detractors that his helpers did most of the physical work involved in producing the art. As if Renaissance masters didn’t do the same thing, presiding over workshops akin to The Factory. Is a style more personal than a process, when it is inextricably bound up with that process?) Untempered, gushing praise may be just as reprehensible a critical strategy as the blind and dumb varieties, but when we recognise the range and depth of Warhol’s interests and his achievements, his ‘persona that has sanctioned a wide range of experiments in non-elite culture far beyond the world of art’ as Crow has it, we begin to realise what a true original Warhol really was, and remains, if the use of the word ‘original’ is not too much of an insult to his memory, his celebrity, his legacy.

Commissioned for Circa Magazine