After THE CHELSEA GIRLS, Andy Warhol can no longer be written off as “the Peter Pan of the Underground”. Where once he was thought flippant, he is now deemed significant. Where once he was vague and ambiguous, he cannot dodge what is real. Where once he was capricious, he has suddenly stumbled past the label on the soup can into that indefinable essence within.

THE CHELSEA GIRLS is the “first underground blockbuster”. It is three and one half hours long. Allegedly filmed in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, CHELSEA GIRLS engages a small repertory of undergound personalities in locations ranging from West 23rd Street and East 47th Street in Manhattan to Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Mass. Warhol employs a split-screen technique in which two dissimilar reels of film are projected in tandem on the screen, supposedly (in one of Warhol’s obvious obscurities) to allow the audience to look at another movie if they get tired of the first one. THE CHELSEA GIRLS abounds with media innovations, as Warhol breaks from black-and-white into brilliant color. While the occasional blurts into outstanding visual effects may be the primary interest of Warhol himself, it is the “content” (or what would otherwise be the foil for the cinematography) of the movie which eventually draws viewer and director alike from what could have been an overdrawn, though pretty picture. In THE BALCONY, Jean Genet entangled his actors in a web of illusion and reality, resulting in ultimate confusion between life, life’s delegation of its participants to a role, and life’s relegation of its participants to a function. In THE CHELSEA GIRLS, Warhol weaves a framework by providing his “actors” with an environment and a situation, but it is the “actors” who will eventually wind themselves so deeply into the web of reality and unreality that they cannot extricate themselves when the reel is over. They are not acting, merely pretending, but the airs they assume and the people they imagine themselves to be become so overwhelming that they forget that they know they are only playing a game.
THE CHELSEA GIRLS opens in a small apartment kitchen with Nico (as Nico), Eric Emerson (as Eric), and intermittent appearances by Nico’s small son, Ari (as Ari), causally conversing in a simple, unaffected dialogue in black and white on the right half of the screen; Nico closes the movie on the left, languidly gazing into the distance as brilliant colored patterns are projected onto her face and music vaguely echoes the colors. Between the two Nico sequences, striking in their serenity, a myriad of faces appear and reappear and the tone builds almost unconsciously from the uncolored ennui of the first frames, very real in their representation of the game between Eric and Nico that is real every day in family situations, to the unreality of Nico’s oblivion amid the garish patterns and weird music which would have been beautiful, which would have been equally placid in atmosphere if three hours of growing paranoia had not interrupted the first peaceful frames from the last, frightening in their quiet. The “game” cannot be forgotten, neither by the players nor the audience.

Mario Montez “pretends” to be the last of the big Hollywood glamour queens, yet this voluptuous siren is a male, a transvestite. At first the audience laughs, but soon it is almost ready to believe, as Mario himself must, that it is seeing a beautiful woman. Four in a room (in one of the few partially-scripted sequences) pretend to be Lesbians indulging in some supposed sado-masochistic rite, but soon they become so immersed in their ritual that one of the girls (Susan Bottomly) complains, “Mary, You’re hurting me. You’re not supposed to hurt me.” Marie Menken plays at harassing her “son”, Gerard Malanga, for his adolescent over-cool, but soon she begins to mean her criticism. (Gerard Malanga’s mother was originally supposed to play his “mother” in the scene.) Warhol’s camera flits from place to place, blurring objects and bringing into focus that which is not really central to the action (an ear rather than a furious mouth, an elbow rather than a thrashing hand, etc.), but as the players and the audience and Warhol himself become more and more absorbed in what is happening, the camera begins to depict the action and forgets gimmicky idiosyncrasies.

It is in the Pope Ondine confessional that THE CHELSEA GIRLS achieves and aching profundity, the toppling of many levels of illusion into not-quite reality. Ondine, and amphetamine patriarch, pretends to receive confessors in a glib, spontaneous wit. He rants a bit, but it is getting late and he complains to Warhol that he is tried, he wants to “jerk off”. Finally, a girl comes to him and “makes up” a story to confess to the Pope of some mythical problem she has with an imaginary boyfriend; Ondine gleefully suggests a mildly off-color sacrilege. The girl pretends doubt the Pope and calls him a phony, at which he slaps her across the face and continues lashing, chasing her around the room while the camera remains stationery and friends off-camera attempt to calm down both Ondine and the girl. An embarrassed silence is apparent in the audience, which is affronted by the situation, which has emerged from such as a gay and frivolous atmosphere; they are confused over who is real and who is phony: the pretentious girl or Ondine, playfully masquerading as Pope.

Through self-sufficiency in character selection (i.e., drawing from the personal resources of friends and acquaintances), almost complete abandon of script, and absolute freedom in cinematography, Andy Warhol has single-handedly gifted the movie industry with a significant, quite miraculous innovation. Unconsciously delving into the eternal problem of reality, CHELSEA GIRLS applies this theme to the frequently very unreal Underground and simply becomes an acutely personal comment from and upon a generation which often is too hidden in roles it has divined for itself to open up and produce. The real members of the Underground occasionally hide behind standards of “cool”; it is not until they pretend and step to another level of illusion that they can sometime lean over and see themselves layers and layers beneath—this is why CHELSEA GIRLS is artistically profound; it has stripped away the layers.

FILM CULTURE No. 44, Spring 1967