Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Andy Warhol's Silent Film Portraits: a Review of a Review

From the left, the films “Edie Sedgwick,” “Kiss” and “Lou Reed”
Richard Perry/The New York Times
By Charles Kessler

Andy Warhol, POPism, The Warhol Sixties by Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett:
I never liked the idea of picking out certain scenes and pieces of time and putting them together, because it ends up being different from what really happened -- it's just not like life, it seems so corny. ....I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I'd film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie. ...To play the poor little rich girl in the movie, Edie didn't need a script--if she needed a script she wouldn't have been right for the part

I was so disappointed with Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of Andy Warhol's Films, unfortunately one of the only reviews so far, that I thought the best way to write about this show would be to comment [in bold and bracketed] on his review and supplement it with applicable quotes from Warhol and others (in italics).

Here it is:

Who is the fairest of them all? Edie Sedgwick, that’s who, no contest. Of the 13 subjects of the short films known as “Screen Tests”  featured in “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” at the Museum of Modern Art, none are loved more by the camera than that doomed “it girl” of the 1960s.

In the mid-60s Warhol made nearly 500 silent, black-and-white films of people mostly sitting still as if for photographic portraits. Some performed and some reacted to off-camera questions and comments. [For the great majority of these films, however, Warhol walked away while the camera ran.

From a Bizarre Magazine interview with Mary Woronov:]
Andy put you on a stool, then puts the camera in front of you. There are lots of people around usually. And then he turns the camera on, and he walks away, and all the people walk away too, but you're standing there in front of this camera.

...The whole purpose is to shoot people for five minutes and see what happens. What invariably happens is somebody either tries to put on a pose, but they end up being more themselves later, they drop everything because the length of time is absurd. Finally, you see the real person behind the facade.

He shot them on 16-millimeter film and showed them slightly slowed down so that they had a languid, meditative mood. (Warhol did not call them screen tests initially; they acquired that label later.) [Significantly Warhol called them “film portraits.”]

In the same period he made his punishingly long, excruciatingly uneventful films “Sleep” (1963), “Kiss” (1963-64) and “Empire” (1964), which will be screened during the run of the exhibition in a specially built small theater.  [Warhol called these films “moving pictures” (pun no doubt intended) and didn’t initially expect people to sit and watch them in a theater for eight hours any more than they’d look at a painting for eight hours. Warhol himself would only stay a few minutes at screenings. Nevertheless, as was typical for Warhol, he went along with it and made boredom a characteristic of his art.

Andy Warhol, POPism:]
I've been quoted as saying "I like boring things." Well I said it and I meant it. But that doesn't mean I'm not bored by them. ...if I'm going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don't want it to be essentially the same -- I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.
[I think this statement is also relevant to an understanding of his “Death and Disaster” paintings — a topic for another post.]

Organized by Klaus Biesenbach, the museum’s chief curator at large, the show presents all but one of these films as digital projections. A portrait of the collector Ethel Scull is presented conventionally, projected on an old-fashioned, portable screen.
“Ethel Scull,” four-minute 16 mm film loop, 1964   Richard Perry/The New York Times
Leaving aside for the moment the questionable practice of digitizing these films, the 13 portraits are fascinating period artifacts. Excepting that of Scull, each four-minute loop is projected above eye-level onto white surfaces framed by black borders in one big room.

Other than that of Sedgwick, each offers more surface than depth.  [Only if you think capturing what people are really like is superficial — but that would eliminate some of the greatest art and literature ever created.] Lou Reed and Allen Ginsberg stare unblinking at the camera as if to defy its attempt to probe their innermost selves. Dennis Hopper knits his brow, looks restlessly this way and that, sings and generally displays the assortment of tics that would become his stock in trade as an actor. [That’s why Warhol hardly ever used professional actors — this reality is more interesting and truer than actors faking unselfconsciousness (or self-consciousness for that matter) or, in the case here of Dennis Hopper, filling the time with his actor shtick.] Paul America chews gum and smirks, evidently in response to off-camera provocations.

[Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol's Index (Book):]
Q:  Why do you let your camera run for the time it runs?
A:  Well, this way I can catch people being themselves instead of setting up a scene and shooting it and letting people act out parts that were written because it's better to act naturally than act like someone else because you really get a better picture of people being themselves instead of trying to act like they're themselves.

Susan Sontag looks like an ordinary, bland young woman of the period. [That’s probably why Warhol almost always used neurotics, addicts and drama queens — they’re more interesting. But even here he accurately captures her personality; he could hardly do otherwise.] Foaming at the mouth as she brushes her teeth, Baby Jane Holzer is neither sexy nor funny. [I thought it was very funny and sexy -- but okay.] With his voluptuous lips, chiseled cheeks and hair over one eyebrow, Gino Piserchio could be auditioning for a role as one of the vain, empty-headed male models in “Zoolander.”

If the singer Nico was charismatic, you would not know it from her portrait, which keeps zooming in for close-ups of her eyes and lips. In contrast the actress Kyoko Kishida, who has an infectious smile, seems fresh and unguarded. [I agree Nico’s isn’t very interesting, maybe because, like Dennis Hopper, she was used to being filmed and admired. Maybe that’s why there’s all this zooming. This film is about beauty so he focuses in on beautiful details.

Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol:]
I really don't care that much about "Beauties." What I really like are Talkers. To me, good talkers are beautiful because good talk is what I love. The word itself shows why I like Talkers better than Beauties, why I tape more than I film. It's not "talkies." Talkers are doing something. Beauties are being something. Which isn't necessarily bad, it's just that I don't know what it is they're being. It's more fun to be with people who are doing things.
But only Sedgwick’s portrait is transfixing. With her great doe eyes and asymmetrical half smile, she seems hesitant and self-conscious, and that is what makes her portrait so affecting. She is incapable of dissimulating. [But dissimulating is real too.] Neither posing nor projecting; she appears vulnerable, emotionally naked even, and because of that, somehow brave. It is easy to see why Warhol was so infatuated with her. She was the Audrey Hepburn, the Grace Kelly, of the New York demimonde, and it is heartbreaking to see her so young and so full of promise just six years before her death by drug overdose at 28 in 1971.

Warhol’s early films are important because of the way they flout popular movie conventions and lay bare the material facts of cinematic experience. [They did that, but they remain important because of the immediate and effortless way they capture human feeling.] To endure almost an hour of close-ups of different couples kissing in “Kiss,” or eight hours and five minutes of a single, nocturnal view of the Empire State Building (“Empire”) as the office lights progressively go out, or more than five hours of the poet John Giorno sleeping (“Sleep”) would be, in theory, to become painfully hyperalert to the reality of sitting in a dark room in front of light and shadows projected onto a white screen. At best you might enter into a be-here-now state of Zen-like consciousness.

[Andy Warhol, POPism:]
...That had always fascinated me, the way people could sit by a window or on a porch all day and look out and never be bored, but then if they went to a movie or a play, they suddenly objected to being bored. I always felt that a very slow film could be just as interesting as a porch-sit if you thought about it the same way.

In these works Warhol anticipated what would come to be known as Structural Film, which, like Modernist painting, calls attention to the essential properties of the medium. Michael Snow, Douglas Gordon and Sharon Lockhart are just three of countless artists who have mined this vein.

As for digitization, it is an understandable but unsatisfying compromise. As Mr. Biesenbach observes in a MoMA blog post, with 16-millimeter film and projectors an endangered species, it is, for now, the best way to make Warhol’s films widely available. But much is lost in translation. You don’t have to get too close to the projections to see the pixels, which are distracting. [Given that Warhol thought of these films as “moving pictures,” at least initially, this presentation is even better than the original, and it’s likely Warhol would love it. And, BTW, I didn’t notice any pixilation; in fact these digital projections were a lot cleaner than the only film shown -- the one of Ethel Scull.] It is like seeing a movie on television, and that casts in doubt their status as works of art.

Are they authentic artworks, reproductions, documents or some kind of in-between hybrid? With popular movies that focus on plot, character and illusory scenes, it matters less whether we see them as film or digital projections. With Structural Film, truth to the original is more imperative. [Of course they’re reproductions, they’re films for God’s sake. This is such an old and sophomoric criticism that it needs no rebuttal.]

We would not accept a machine-made reproduction as an adequate substitute for a famous painting; a purist justifiably would say the same about film. [What the hell is he talking about? Film makers don’t expect to control what projector is used or how big the projection will be or where their films are shown. And unfortunately they have no control over the condition of the film either.] So here we are between a rock and a hard place. We get to see the films, but once removed and not the way Warhol meant them to be seen. Then again, were he alive today, would he care? Probably not.  [True — probably not. But there is a certain refined, slick, aspect to this presentation that does seem at odds with Warhol’s sensibility.

Andy Warhol, POPism:]
Raw and crude is the way I liked our movies to look, and there's a similarity between the sound of that album (The Velvet Underground) and the texture of Chelsea Girls, which came out of the same time.

“Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” is on view through March 21 at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400,


Carl Belz said...

I really enjoyed your engaging and enlightening responses to the Warhol review. (I like it structurally as well, the point-for-point commentary)

thomas said...

Kind of kitschy the way they're installed; to resemble paintings. That is a three dimensional frame around the images?
They were exhibited like this at PS1 about 10 years ago.

You know, if you're going to change the works material, why not change the scale and project them wall-sized, warts (pixels) and all. Would be fitting with Warhol's interest in images and disintegration. And put them in the lobby; it'd be good for tourism. maybe.

Charles Kessler said...

Yes, they were 3D frames, Thomas, but they didn't seem to me kitschy as much as very handsome and refined.