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

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