Sunday 26 November 2023

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

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