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Andy Warhol and His Films

A screen shot from Warhol's Empire. If you see this shot, you've seen the whole film.

A screen shot from Warhol's Empire. If you see this shot, you've seen the whole film.

Andy Warhol and His Films

By Melissa Maxwell

Along with various paintings depicting celebrities and ubiquitous objects, artist Andy Warhol created several films that ranged from light in plot to nonexistent in plot. The qualifications of what makes a film "good" or "bad" are varied. It could be plot, characters, effects, camera angles, or a whole combination of factors. An ideal combination can be style, story and emotion. The frame of mind of critics versus casual viewer is to be considered as the casual viewer is just looking for fun and entertainment while the critic is in search of a deeper meaning. A casual viewer will want something that will grab their attention and hold onto it. A film that is valued more as art than entertainment could affect how other movies are accepted. A film that is panned as not very good may be held up as art, simply because no one understands it.

Whether or not a film can be called art is called into question. After all, little is actually created as it already exists and is already captured on celluloid. Certainly, acting and script-writing call for creativity and originality. They may even be considered a form of art, if one takes a very broad definition of the term "art". Comic book artist and writer Scott McCloud has defined art as anything not directly connected to survival or reproduction. Director Bryan Singer has said "It's a privilege to be able to paint such big pictures, so to speak." A film maker, especially of the Underground type, may well take a craftsmanlike attitude to their work. Plot may take a backseat, or it may even be left standing on the corner. Avant-garde films are more about an ambient experience rather than the story that the average viewer is accustomed to.

It can be agreed that for a film to be "good", it must be entertaining, that is, not boring. It must grab attention and hold it. Roger Ebert has said "It's not what a film is about, but how it is about something." While there are many varying factors to what makes a film "good", it's replay value is the biggest. Ebert also concurs, having once said "Every great film should seem new every time you see it." However, both groups agree that what makes a movie "good" is subjective and a matter of taste. Let us keep in mind, Ebert became known for debating with other critics about whether or not a film was any good.

“Our movies may have looked like home movies,” Andy Warhol once wrote, responding to one of his critics, “but then our home wasn’t like anybody else’s.” From 1963 through 1968 Warhol shot hundreds of these home movies, work that is short and dauntingly long, silent and sound, scripted and improvised, often in black and white though also in color, still as death and alive to its moment. These films are like none other, a fact for which all filmmakers will be eternally grateful.

Warhol’s films received varying degrees of critical acclaim and provided employment for the hangers-on who frequented his studio, known as the Factory. One of those hangers-on was Valerie Solanas, founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), a radical feminist group and author of the SCUM Manifesto, a separatist attack on patriarchy. In 1968, feeling disrespected by Warhol, she shot him. An anger-filled letter from her, addressed to Warhol, refers to him as ‘Toad’. Reportedly, Solanas shot Warhol because he rejected one of her scripts. When one considers what Warhol's finished works were like, one wonders just how bad a script had to be for him to reject it.

Understanding the metaphysics of Warhol's serial imagery is a difficult task indeed. To start with, he didn't adhere to traditional art theories. His source material is just life as he saw it. He attempted to combine the duality between life and art. Warhol modeled his work on that of a factory, stating outright "I want to be a machine." in 1963. Warhol was both an observer and participant in modern pop culture, delving into the new media of video as well as conventional printed works.

To understand his work is to understand his cultural and political environment. Andy Warhol was a product of The Sixties, a tumultuous decade marked by a variety of social movements such as civil rights, feminism, student and youth protest, environmentalism and nascent conservatism. The zeitgeist of the time was one of global consciousness and gradually leaning to being more open-minded. Movies were becoming more dimensional, recognizing real feelings, people and events. Pop art developed as the rejection of abstract expressionism in favor of figurative art. Mass production was having its effect on the art world, and none more so than on Andy Warhol. Warhol appropriated mass produced images in attempt to bridge the gap between "high art" and "low art."

According to writer Jennifer Dyer, Warhol should not be taken too seriously or too lightly but as irony. Warhol was a fan of the mundane, making everyday objects and well known persons the centerpiece of his art. Thus, he became the embodiment of late-modern, capitalist, consumer culture. His images tended not to incite the viewer to contemplate a profound meaning, Rather, he presented the unpresentable, images that were instantly recognizable.

In an interview with Gerard Malanga in Kulchur 16, Warhol admitted up front that he was not very smart, and that was why he did what he did.Warhol's Empire caused a riot among movie goers who felt that they had been cheated. Andy Warhol shot the film at 24 frames per second, but screened it at 16 frames per second. Thus, although only six hours and 40 minutes of film was shot, the film is 8 hours and 5 minutes when screened. Several hours of nothing but the stagnant image of a building is simply not what many people would call a good movie. When asked why he wanted to make such an odd experimental film, Andy Warhol simply replied "To see time go by". It can be seen, at best, as a still life produced in a different media than usual. At worst, it is seen as a waste of celluloid. It serves no purpose, has no message, no meaning and certainly no one would bother to see it again, even if they could stomach the eight hour viewing to begin with. It can be asked whether Warhol succeeded in stripping away the mask of the nature of film or only obfuscated it all the more.

Warhol's films are, at least on the surface, flawed. Empire is long, stagnant and pointless. Shot on a dark night, there aren't even clouds to watch float by. It is nothing more than the lights of the Empire State Building glowing in the dark. It's argued that the film is meant to be viewed as a portrait of the famous New York building. Why, then, not just paint or photograph it? Why make people sit in semidarkness for eight hours?

Sleep follows the same formula. This "anti-film" is just five hours of John Giorno sleeping. Like with Empire, the audience formed a riot demanding their money back. I, A Man is a sloppily edited film consisting of an awkward tumble beneath anequally awkward tumble beneath the sheets. Eat is dragging, pointless and nearly painful to watch.The focus is entirely on the image and not on the narrative. Robert Indiana does nothing beyond eat mushrooms and play with a cat that looks as bored as the audience.

Warhol's take on Frankenstein has little regard for the original source material and makes the Saw franchise look tame in comparison. When not chopping off people's body parts, Dr. Frankenstein is making non-sequiter remarks about sex. This most outrageous parody of Frankenstein feels more like travesty, featuring a plethora of gore, sex, and bad taste in general. Baron von Frankenstein derives sexual satisfaction from his corpses (he delivers a particularly thought-provoking philosophy on life as he lustfully fondles a gall bladder); his wife seeks her pleasure from the monster himself.

The Chelsea Girls tries too hard to be avant-garde only to come off as confusing. Roger Ebert gave the film only one star and said "...what we have here is 3 1/2 hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them." As Warhol once commented, "With film you just turn on the camera and photograph something. I leave the camera running until it runs out of film because that way I can catch people being themselves." This is essentially what happens in sections of this three-hour epic as people come before the camera to posture and talk.

Another work known as Harlot consists of drag queen Mario Montez eating a banana, a gesture that would later be used in an episode of Married: With Children, only not quite as pointless. The setup is fraught with sexual tension, and sex is always the underlying subject of Warhol's movies. It gets attention, but it has nothing to keep attention in of itself. If everything in Warhol becomes a metaphor for sex, then perhaps for Warhol, fimmaking itself was the grandest metaphor for this preoccupation. By idly sitting back and letting the camera run as he was wont to do, Warhol was indulging in little more than a little artistic masturbation.

Warhol movies don’t really have happy endings or unhappy endings. They just end. The viewer left suspended. Movies that depend on binary suspense, even good ones like Se7en, usually have disappointing endings. We never are shown what's in the box, but we know and we care. No one knows or cares if/when John Giorno will wake up. It’s almost a rule: the stronger the suspense, the weaker the resolution. When intention and counter-intention have equal strength, the victory of one or the other will seem arbitrary.

In Warhol movies, the struggle between intention and material is never-ending. There are occasionally climactic passages, like Ondine’s tirade near the end of The Chelsea Girls, but these are necessarily exceptional.

To make an attempt to find anything redeeming in Warhol's films is an exercise in pompous affectation. His films make no sense, so rather than admit it, would be art connoisseurs pretend to understand it completely. If Warhol's purpose was to satire the ridiculous pseudo-intellectual crowd, he was far too subtle.