|First, to give an introductory description of Andy Warhol’s new
film THE CHELSEA GIRLS: All of it was shot in 16mm during the summer of
1966 in New York. The final running length is approximately 3 1/2 hours.
Two reels are projected simultaneously onto a double screen. This means
that the complete film consists of 12 thirty-five minute reels, pared down
from a larger number which proved unsatisfactory. Three of the 12 segments
are in color. Each has a sound track (each was shot in synchronous sound),
but usually only one side of the double screen sound track is in use for
the audience. As a new reel replaces a depleted one, that half of the screen
remains darkened while the projectionist makes the reel change. This unprofessional
method of presenting the film is entirely part of Warhol’s anti-Hollywood
approach to the film medium.
THE CHELSEA GIRLS is Warhol’s masterwork to date. There will be several more to come. It is well-known that he has done little painting over the past two years, with movies consuming more and more of his time. Currently, with aid from his regular helpers, Paul Morrissey and Gerard Malanga, Warhol is shooting anywhere from one to three hours of film a week. The prophesy of more masterworks to come is no hollow promise. With the exception of MY HUSTLER, all of Warhol’s films have lost money. THE CHELSEA GILRS is his first commercial success. Because of their high production costs, movies require that at the very least revenues from a film cover its expenses. The problem of financing has at one time of another limited, or completely curtailed, the work of such masters as Griffith, von Stroheim, Flaherty, Bunuel, and Orsen Welles. (Stanley Kubrick, even after the commercial and critical success of DR. STRANGELOVE had difficulty getting backing for his next picture.) THE CHELSEA GIRLS is Warhol’s first film to run well into the black; up to this point receipts from painting were subsidizing his film work.
THE CHELSEA GIRLS generated its own success byword of mouth, like all underground works of true quality through the New York film and Art world. By it’s third two-week run at Filmmaker’s Cinematheque, people were being turned away for lack of adequate seating space, and THE CHELSEA GIRLS was moved into a 57th Street “art house”. It was a big breakthrough for Warhol and for independent filmmaking in general in this country.
What is the reason for the film’s overwhelming appeal, particularly given it’s extraordinary length and Warhol’s loose approach? THE CHELSEA GIRLS was reviewed by the mass media, in which it was called everything from the cinema’s answer to Naked Lunch to a contemporary look at Hell (N.Y. Times, who else?), to a frank expose about drug addicts, lesbians, homosexuals, and all kinds of perverts. Warhol’s film is none of these. A comparison with the explosiveness of Bunuel’s monumental L’AGE D’OR or to the more overt violence of American gangster movies from Hawkes’ SCARFACE to Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS would be much more apropos in coming to an understanding of Warhol’s aesthetic. THE CHELSEA GIRLS bears a resemblance to L’AGE D’OR or SCARFACE specifically in terms of violence which is already manifest within the human psyche.
The best section (reel) of THE CHELSEA GIRLS is the last. Which contains “Pope” Ondine’s drug-inspired tantrum, instigated when a girl who has come to give a “confession” to him does not give it with what he considers to be proper respect. His blow-up comes upon us so quickly, without warning; we are shocked and taken immediately into an identifying position with him. In this, the second of two reels with Ondine, we see him “shoot up”, then sit around talking to no one in particular, finally getting bored and asking Paul Morrissey what he should do next. An unstaged scene has been set. Suddenly, we are aware that we are watching an undirected emotional explosion take place before our eyes. What is immediately obvious is that Ondine is not acting a part. He has been alone before us and the camera simply trying to pass the time (35 minutes, or 1200 feet of film) by “hearing the confession”, etc. His tantrum is embarrassing to us because it comes so close; he has bared too much of himself before us. The cinema can be a terrifying mirror, a voyeur’s vehicle into the ravages of the psyche (Cocteau). Is this what we look like in our own moments of bitter argument and frustrated rage? Warhol has provided us, as voyeurs, with a terrifying eyeful of ourselves. Ondine’s outburst is a function of a deepseated frustration, a profound dissatisfaction with himself, his life, his unachieved desire.
“The discontented animal is the neurotic animal, the animal with desires given in his nature which are not satisfied by culture. From the psychoanalytic point of view, these unsatisfied and repressed but immortal desires sustain the historical process. History is shaped, beyond our conscious wills, not by the cunning of Reason but by the cunning of Desire.” –Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death.
The section of Ondine’s fulmination scene, when he disappears form the camera view, says much for the relevance and the exceptional possibilities of Warhol’s loose camera technique. He races out of ram to chase the girl who has “confessed” from the room, and in the darkened studio the cameraman cannot find him. Ondine’s voice is still completely audible but there is no image on the screen for at least two minutes—a truly extraordinary piece of fortuitous cinema. We in the audience are struck with the oddest feeling of loss without Ondine, for whom we have just felt so embarrassed.
In this reel as in all the others, we are not necessarily shown the “real” Ondine, or person on view, but rather his reactions triggered by the situation of being before the camera—an off-balance condition of self-consciousness. We never really know when the various people who appear in THE CHELSEA GIRLS are playing some sort of extracurricular personality role and when they are not. A similar paradox exists in everyday life when we adopt certain shadings on out normal personality for the sake of social intercourse, out of some peculiarity of a particular situation, or simply out of ennui. Near the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s MARRIED WOMAN, the girls forces several questions on her lover, who is an actor by profession, to the effect that she wants to know when in making love to her he is acting and when he is being wholly sincere—a question which duly disturbs her lover because it is so impossible to answer. Role playing whether conscious or not is to one degree or another a fact of life. It is also a question very much at issue in the cinema since more traditional dramatic techniques like stage sets and poetic speech are most often irrelevant. The difficulty of putting precise limits on the definition of role playing becomes especially evident in regard to most of the scenes in THE CHELSEA GIRLS. We are witness to an intimate communion between the person seen and the camera. The camera is the audience for the person in front of it, and therefore, he will show himself with or without roles in direct proportion to his ability to open himself to eyes he doesn’t know.
By eschewing orthodox directorial commands and editing, by using only a minimum of lighting, and by merely setting up a situation for the people to play and banter back and forth, Warhol has provided a basis for the most direct communication between the people in front of the camera and the audience the cinema has yet known. In his own statement to Elinore Lester of the Times, Warhol said, “The lighting is bad, the camera work is bad, the projection is bad, but the people are beautiful.” THE CHELSEA GIRLS is completely committed to examining the intricacies and depths not of personality but of human-character. The use of drugs by several of the people is crucial to breaking down their personality barriers to the camera-audience. The fact that two of the best reels (with Duchess and Ondine) come about because the people on view are high bears this out. Looking at these results in a Freudian-Surrealist light, we recognize that drugs have broken down the barrier of the ego in pursuit of opening a path to the unconscious. And to this extent Warhol has realized the potential the Surrealists saw in the cinema as a “workshop of chance”. (1) The coiner of that phrase (one suspects it was Breton), as it appeared in La Revolution Surrealiste of April 1925, recognized the possibilities the cinema’s recording power had for freezing all sorts of accidents, off-guard gestures by actors, and character illuminating instances of bad acting that could never be reached with writing or the other traditional art forms.
Even the scenes in THE CHELSEA GIRLS where the people do not appear to be high, there resides a thorough-going atmosphere of day dreams and free association. As examples are Eric Emerson’s two-reel monologue praising his own body, the free-for-all make-believe game of sadomasochism by the girls (the namesakes of the title) Ingrid, Mary Might and International Velvet, and the ridiculously funny scene of the homosexuals in bed with Mario Montez in drag singing to them. Warhol’s relaxed movie playground might, to bring our terminology up to date, best be called the cinema of indeterminacy. A quote from John Cage as a direct parallel to the work Warhol is doing is indeed appropriate:
“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, not to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” (2) By refusing thus far to edit so much as a single over-exposed frame, by simply turning on the camera and casually focusing and zooming more or less at random, and by allowing the final projected sections to signify their beginning and end by the original exposure blotches caused when putting the film in and taking it out of the camera, Warhol’s movies state unequivocally that what is being seen is the product of a recording mechanism. Something Hollywood has never understood, except during the improvisational period of Sennett and Chaplin, is that first and foremost movies are instruments of recording. Erwin Panofsky brought attention to the reproduction-recording element in movies are in 1934 when he ended an essay by saying, “To prestylize reality prior to talking, it amount to dodging the problem. The problem is to manipulate and shoot unstylized reality in such a way that the result has style. This is a proposition no less legitimate and no less difficult than any proposition in the older arts.” (3) What Warhol gets on film, and so much of it is indistinguishable the product of chance, is an unadulterated record of events taking place within the arbitrary time span of 35 minutes. The indeterminate fruits of chance are as indelibly printed on the film as Pollock’s dried paint is on canvas or the Surrealists’ automatic writing is in type. In short Warhol has come up with an advanced solution to the problem posed by Panofsky more than a quarter of a century ago.
In typical dramatic filmmaking, in addition to a series of technical controls, the director is specifically in charge of manipulating emotions and characteristics not to be taken as actual, life-size ones, but as portrayals of more general statements about human nature. Portrayals are figurative and thus translatable into statement, or moral if you will. Metaphorical cinema reached an apogee in American gangster films and westerns in the fifties, Bergman, Kurosawa, Bresson, Fellini, Antonioni, and most pointedly in Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU. Warhol’s cinema is not metaphorical; it is much closer to life itself, and thus more intransigent, more difficult to define. His audience, unlike Hitchcock’s for instance, is not being manipulated toward a calculated end, but rather is free to establish a line of communication with what is being shown on the screen or not. Warhol’s cinema affords the spectator and open-ended response. During the moment of viewing we are at liberty to bear our own feelings and experiences of what is being seen or not. A Warhol film becomes a sounding board for the spectator’s own psyche as well as a tool for unlimited investigation of it.
The Chelsea Girls implies the impossibility of that old cliché about art capturing reality. It is decidedly more accurate to say that Warhol has opened up a whole new mirror of actuality, and the closer we get to it the more frightening it is. The family murder of Capote’s In Cold Blood or Burrough’s intimate descriptions of his long addiction to heroin are frightening because they are transcriptions of actual fact. We watch Ondine put the needle into his arm and “shoot up”, and what follows, his tantrum and neurotic rage, is terrifying because it is so completely without respite. There is no escape for us as members of the audience. It is impossible to look on his actions as figurative, as anything other than what they are. The unconscious is collective, Ondine’s explosion is our explosion; we can only accept it and have compassion. Warhol’s direct approach has been has been in the air for some time, from the Italian Neo-Realist films coming out of documentary to Godard’s recent work. Ever since BREATHLESS Godard has been working toward more improvisatory techniques in order to accomplish what he calls using the “cinema to seize life”. In his most recent film so far in this country, MASCULINE-FEMININE, several sequences are done in the form of long interviews, as one character seems to be feeling out the other. One might say that Warhol’s direct approach is too easy, that simply anyone could do the same thing simply sitting before the camera. That is exactly the point. The problem is first understanding this and then knowing how to work it. (Godard has said that it is easy enough to make movies, the techniques are readily available; and how many girls did Chaplin “find” because they chanced to catch his eye, and he made them into stars overnight.) The people Warhol works with are not necessarily all that exceptional, they simply happen to be his friends. Movies reveal so much of the person being filmed, all that is necessary is that the “actors” get used to operating in a manner resembling ordinary social intercourse before the camera. Last year several of Warhol’s films were shot from scripts by Ronald Travel (i.e., THE LIFE OF JUANITA CASTRO, KITCHEN, SCREEN TEST, and VINYL) with people who had not rehearsed their lines. By reading them for the first time before the camera, and odd off-balance effect of notoriously had acting was arrived at. What seemed like bad acting was really an indication of the person’s truer character coming forward under the conditions of having to read a script sight unseen.
Warhol’s fixed camera corresponds to the fixed condition of the person seated in the audience. To look at a painting or a piece of sculpture one is free to move about, but for a long period of time before the camera, we in the audience are brought into a closer relationship with the subject matter than otherwise possible. Panofsky discussing the potential function of the close-up has said, “…the camera transforms the human physiognomy into a huge field of action where…every subtle movement of the features, almost imperceptible from a distance, becomes and expressive event in visible space…” (4) Warhol’s concentration of the camera on a person for long durations allows us to delve deeply into the nature of his being and his actions. Some critics have said that Warhol’s obsessive concentration results only in boredom, and indeed upon occasion he has agreed, but in the process he has set up an examination of what exactly boredom is. Does it as Suzuki and Cage tend to deny, really exist? How often is boredom a function of our own ability to cope with a particular situation? In our increasingly affluent world with great quantities of leisure coming upon us, the issue of what boredom is is a subject of critical necessity.
In the twenties Fernand Leger, who had several theories about the special possibilities of magnifying and concentrating on objects before the camera, wrote that he would like to make a movie 24 hours long of a man and a women living through their daily routine. (5) Warhol has had the wish for some time of doing a 24 hour movie of Duchamp, following him through the activities of a normal day. This wish recognizes not only Warhol’s feeling of aesthetic affinity with Duchamp, but also implies further his sympathy with the camera’s impersonal and impassive nature. He allows the camera an independent function on its own terms. Warhol understands better than anyone else that what is seen in the movies must come by permitting the medium to reveal insight which issue from it almost automatically.
What makes Warhol a great artist is that he had the courage and knowledge to see that such ridiculously mundane objects as Brillo boxes and Campbell Soup cans could be the subjects of art, could be worthy vehicles of insight. Duchamp’s ready-mades are significant to us not because he exercised his personal will over them transforming them into art, but because he said that anything he seized more or less at random can be art if you want to look at it that way. In order to be aroused into inquiring insight, we must first be aroused to question. If we see a series of coke bottles in a painting or someone talking about himself at random before the camera, we are required to place in question not only the values of that which we see before us but our own as well. If one thing is made the subject of contemplation and placed in question, then why not another? Or in Rauschenberg’s words, “there is no poor subject”. (6)
“…The outcome of psychoanalysis is not ‘ego psychology’ but the doctrine of ‘anatta’ or no-self…”
“The ego is loquacity, the interior monologue, the soliloquy which isolates. The way of silence leads t the extinction of the ego…”
“It is in the unconscious that ‘we are members of one another’…” –Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body
Warhol’s refusal to incorporate personalized techniques in his work reflects his awareness of the problem that art is such an efoistic exercise where the artist as maker is caught between trying to say what he wants to say and the pure ego-stumping of having to put his signature on the work. (In this respect Warhol has used an industrialized stamp to “sign” some of his works; his movies usually bear no titles or credits, which actually is more a result of his casual approach than a specifically calculated attitude.) Movies are perhaps more efficient than painting to achieve a de-egoization because right away the instrument of expression is a machine. Warhol once said, in a now famous and much misunderstood statement, that he wished he could be like a machine. Even if the comment was made partly tongue-in-cheek (which since Warhol has in no way repudiated there is no reason to suspect it was), what should be interpreted from it is that he wanted to deny the hand, as a direct extension of the ego, in the work of art. The currently prominent works of Judd, Morris, Flavin, Andre, Lewitt, Smithson, and others with their interchangeable parts, farmed-out methods of construction, and unrestricted license on reproduction not only share but have expanded Warhol’s attitude of dissolving the ego in favor of freeing the potential reality of the unconscious.
1. ETUDES CINEMATOGRAPHIQUES, SURREALISME ET CINEMA, vol. 1, 1965, No.38-39, as quoted in “Remembrances of a Witness” by Georges Sadoul, p. 10-12.
2. SILENCE, John Cage, Weslyan University Press, Middletown, Conn. 1961, page 95.
3. From an essay, “Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures”, first written in 1934, revised in 1947 for CRITIQUE, and published recently in FILM: AN ANTHOLOGY, edited by Daniel Talbot, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966.
5. For Leger’s theories on the cinema’s special magnifying properties see “A New Realism – The Object” in THE LITTLE REVIEW, Winter 1916. Standish D. Lawder of the Yale History of Art Department was responsible for pointing out to me Leger’s wish to do a 24 hour film. His statement appeared in French (not yet translated) in an essay, “A Propos du Cinema”, in PLANS, No. 1, January 1939.
6. Op. Cit., 2, page 99.
This article was written for ARTFORUM, January 1967.