The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

It is tempting to see many if not most of Andy Warhol’s films as portraits, even when they are mixed with narrative elements, such as The Closet, My Hustler, The Chelsea Girls, or Bike Boy. In some ways, the 472 Screen Tests, in their deceptive simplicity, provide the most accessible window into Warhol’s brilliant cinematic achievement. Last year, I watched all of the Screen Tests that are currently available (including the two of Bob Dylan and the longer one of Salvador Dali), or roughly twenty hours of them. 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, the DVD release from Plexifilm, presents a very small sampling to music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. Purists might argue that the addition of music alters the visual integrity of the originally silent films, but it’s hard to fault this “re-contextualization” by Ben Harrison, associate curator of performance at the Andy Warhol Museum, when Warhol himself was intrigued by such experiments during his intermedia or expanded cinema phase during 1966–1967.

Not only did Warhol show films like Lupe, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and More Milk Yvette as double-screen works, but he also projected many of his single-screen works, including the Screen Tests, in other unorthodox ways – such as on the walls, ceilings, and bodies of performers – as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI). The EPI became a powerful and intense mixed-media event that consisted of the live music by the Velvet Underground, pop songs, multiple-screen projections of film, slide projectors, a stroboscopic light show, dancing (often Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov dressed in leather outfits and brandishing whips) and theater. The intent was to provide audiences with a more immersive experience that resulted from bombarding the senses by combining a variety of different art forms.

The Screen Tests were shot on 100-foot rolls of 16mm film at 24 fps, but projected at the slower speed of 16 fps. The thirteen included here aren’t necessarily the best screen tests, though they include some of my favorites, such as the one of Ann Buchanan, which I’ve written about previously. A number of people cry in the larger corpus of the Screen Tests, just as many of the subjects attempt to stare down the camera. People also smoke or eat or perform other activities, such as when Baby Jane Holzer brushes her teeth. Warhol understood the transformative power of the camera to affect and alter whatever occurs in front of it. Mary Woronov, who also appears in one the Screen Tests included here, acknowledges this when she writes in Eyewitness to Warhol: “Afterwards, like a new convert, I couldn’t stop talking about what a genius Andy Warhol was – the way people’s expressions changed in the Screen Tests, making it a psychological study as the images cracked and their real personalities crept naked out of their eyeballs; the idea of conferring immortality onto unknowns – everyone’s democratic little minute of fame – mixed with the deafening speechlessness of it all.”

The first screen test begins with a closeup shot of Ann Buchanan, framed from the neck up. As we view the image, the lighting is distinctly flat. Her left cheek is a bit hotter than the one on the right, which makes her left eye more prominent. We see two points of light reflected in her left eye, while a single point appears in her right one. Her hair is straggly; her facial expression is remarkably neutral. Buchanan stares directly at us, almost as if transfixed by the camera. Buchanan’s eyelids quiver ever so slightly at one point, but she doesn’t blink. Her throat and cheek also move imperceptibly, but Buchanan never loses her concentration. A pinpoint of light appears on the inside part of her right eye, which later flutters again. A minute-and-a-half into the film, what appears to be a tear forms at the bottom of Buchanan’s right eye. A half-minute afterwards, a tear falls from it, followed by another one ten seconds later. Her throat moves, and a third tear rolls down the right side of her cheek. Meanwhile Buchanan’s left eye fills with tears as well, as another from her right eye rolls down her face. Nearly three minutes into the film, a new tear drips from her chin, followed by a tear from her left eye, which continues for the rest of the film.

The fact that Ann Buchanan cries during her screen test is mind boggling. The shock of this is compounded by the utter discrepancy between her deadpan expression and the tears that emanate from her eyes. How in the world has she managed to cry? Do her tears stem from the tension of trying not to blink, from the lighting, or do they derive from her being able to employ the technique of emotional recall? Buchanan was not a Method actor, however, so her screen test confounds our expectations. Callie Angell in Andy Warhol Screen Tests indicates that this was Warhol’s favorite screen test, and it’s easy to see why. Buchanan’s rigid stare and wide eyes are very doll-like in appearance, so that her spontaneous gesture of crying while being filmed reminds us of one of those crying dolls, inanimate, yet capable of such an uncanny display of emotion. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’s synthesized score manages to level out the emotional peaks and valleys of Buchanan’s screen test.

Paul America, the subject of the next screen test, became the object of all the other characters’ desires in My Hustler, the only Warhol feature in which he appeared. Paul was also romantically involved with Edie Sedgwick, who refused to appear in the film, so that it more or less became an Edie film without Edie. One of the things that becomes obvious about the Screen Tests is how the basic elements of cinema – light and the passage of time – end up determining the portrait of the person. Paul America (whose real name was Paul Johnson) is lit by a key light from screen left without any fill light from the right, thus placing half of his face in dark shadow. Whereas Buchanan is intensely fixated, Paul America appears distracted. He stares at the camera, chews gum, smirks and smiles, moves his head and eyes in various directions – all in an effort to appear casually seductive. The music, with lyrics that talk about drugs and contain lines like “I could hypnotize a pancake, I could levitate the Pope” appears to comment on certain known aspects of Paul America’s life. There is a video portrait from 1965 that was shown as part of the Warhol show “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” curated by Eva Meyer-Hermann at the Wexner Center in Columbus. In it, Paul is apparently high on drugs and talks about them for much of the video while playing with a switchblade knife.

In Edie Sedgwick, the subject of the third screen test, there’s little question that Warhol found his greatest superstar. As a mute, last-minute addition to Vinyl (1965), Edie managed to become the film’s major focal point – her expressive reactions provide the moral conscience to the sadistic main action taking place – even though she’s relegated to sitting on a wooden trunk on the side of the frame for the entire film. In Kitchen (1965), Edie was able to create authentic moments within a deliberately over-the-top Ronald Tavel farce. Edie’s screen presence illuminates some of Warhol’s very best films during this period, such as Vinyl, Kitchen, Poor Little Rich Girl, Beauty # 2, Restaurant, and Outer and Inner Space.

Warhol was fascinated by Hollywood glamour, especially “stars” who had the ability to carry entire motion pictures just by their ineffable screen presence. The magic of cinema involves the transformation that occurs between a performer and her or his image. In POPism, Warhol writes: “The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.” Edie not only had intrinsic beauty, but, as Poor Little Rich Girl proves, she managed to be utterly fascinating even when out of focus for the first half of the film. Warhol did numerous screen tests of Edie, and, yes, I confess I could watch her forever. This particular screen test, which is not a terribly flattering one, reveals a certain “doe in the spotlight” vulnerability.

Billy Name (Linich), who starred in Haircut #1 (1963) comes across as the epitome of cool. His head angled slightly, he wears dark sunglasses throughout and barely moves during his screen test. Susan Bottomly (aka International Velvet) is lit by a key light on screen right. Her mop of thick black hair melds with the negative space that seems to envelop half of her moon-shaped face, as if she’s about to be completely swallowed up by darkness. Actor Dennis Hopper vacillates between Method Acting – he portrays a highly sensitive and somewhat distraught young man – and acknowledging his reliance on acting techniques, such as affective memory. Under the gaze of the sustained take, the artifice of his performance becomes manifest.

To lyrics of “I Found It Not So,” Mary Woronov, her face slightly overexposed, stares directly at us with menacing wolf-like eyes. Numerous times she appears as if she might grace a smile, but doesn’t – until the very end, and then ever so slightly. For those interested in understanding how Mary developed the armor of an alluring ice queen in many Warhol films, such as her portrayal of Hanoi Hannah in The Chelsea Girls or as a whip dancer in EPI, I suggest you read her extraordinary account of cavorting with the Warhol crowd, Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory. I had the pleasure of meeting Mary at the Warhol symposium at the Wexner Center, where I spoke to her following her panel presentation. She seemed surprised that I knew her small gem of a book on the Screen Tests, but when I told her I thought she was incredible in Hedy, she admitted it was her favorite performance, and added, “I’m really nice in that film, aren’t I?” As the store detective who has to arrest the fourteen-year-old Hedy (played by Mario Montez) for shoplifting, Montez’s sheer vulnerability obviously resonated with her in a profound way that reads so clearly on the screen. Mary went on to act in other plays and films and to have a career as a writer. She’s apparently the subject of a new film that’s currently in production.

Edie might have been Warhol’s greatest star, but Nico, who fronted as lead singer for the Velvets, was the most stunningly beautiful superstar. In Swimming Underground, Mary Woronov describes the intimidating aspect of Nico: “She was so beautiful she expected everyone to want to fuck her, even the furniture, which groaned out loud when she walked into the room. I had seen chairs creep across the carpet in the hopes that she might sit down on them.” The film that embodies this is The Closet (1966), which was originally shot as part of The Chelsea Girls (1966), but wasn’t incorporated into the longer film. It features Nico and Randy Bourscheidt, a shy and boyishly handsome young man, who seems nervous to find himself in a Warhol film, playing opposite the beautiful superstar. When Nico alludes to Bourscheidt now being an actor, he downplays the notion, indicating he’s much too uptight. He discusses being in a musical in high school, and his father telling him afterwards that he was very stiff. Nico indicates that it’s when you think about acting that you become self-conscious, and then it becomes “disastrous.” She continues, “You should ignore the fact that you’re acting at all.” This is exactly what Nico does in her screen test, which is the exact opposite of Dennis Hopper’s acting and much closer to Warhol’s notion of a superstar.

Freddy Herko, the Judson dancer, who performed in Haircut # 1, Warhol’s intricately choreographed striptease and peep show, creates one of the most fascinating screen tests as he smokes a cigarette, and several times gets up and  repositions his entire body within the frame. The lighting is dark and incredibly moody, as Herko moves in and out of shadows. At one point only a sliver of his face is all that remains visible on the right side of the frame. He then leans on his arm. It’s easy to view his screen test as a minimal dance piece confined to the cramped space of the camera frame. But besides its formal interest, there’s something very brooding about Herko’s screen test – the way he purses his lips, manipulates the cigarette as he smokes it, and seems to withdraw into himself like a doomed character in a film noir. Not long after this screen test, he would dance out the fifth floor window of a Village apartment to his death, making him one of the early casualties of the scene.

Richard Rheem was Warhol’s live-in lover for a time around 1966. He appears in Warhol’s outrageous fantasy portrait of his own mother as an aging homicidal movie star, Mrs Warhol (1966), in which Richard plays the latest of her many husbands. Rheem also had a small role in Since (1966), the Warhol film on the JFK assassination, in which Warhol became fascinated by television’s ability to reproduce or replay the same exact image over and over again. Warhol was enamored of technical mistakes in a mechanical medium such as film. Another of the truly fascinating screen tests, the one of Rheem exhibits a technical problem. The film had slipped in the gate of the Bolex during filming as a result of improper threading, blurring Rheem’s image, as Warhol zooms in and out and tilts up and down, altering the focus and composition. Rheem more or less sits there impassively, his prim and proper appearance creating a stark contrast to Warhol’s arbitrary camera movements. The slippage of Rheem’s image obviously mirrors what Warhol was doing in his silkscreens.

There is a famous photo of Andy Warhol, reproduced multiple times on the cover of The Andy Warhol Diaries (edited by Pat Hackett) of Andy either being thoughtful or slyly giving the middle finger (as in “fuck you”). Ingrid Superstar does a riff on this for her entire screen test. Ingrid was naive, sincere and funny, and her best role might have been in Bike Boy, where she appears in a cramped kitchen with Joe Spencer, a biker who sits unresponsively in the corner, as Ingrid ridicules his tattoos and self-absorption, and suggests that he must be gay. Ingrid then delivers a humorous monologue about eggs, while Joe leans against the wall, rolls his eyes in reaction to her, and stares directly at the camera. He never notices as Ingrid loosens her bra and eventually exposes her breasts while talking about vegetables and various cooking recipes.

Warhol made a series of screen tests of Lou Reed’s lips and eye, as well as what appear to be commercials for Hershey chocolate bars and Coca Cola (Nico also did similar screen tests with the same two products). In this screen test, Lou Reed drinks a Coke, though he doesn’t seem to finish it entirely. If this appears to be one of the least interesting of the screen tests included on the DVD, the soundtrack – a rendition of a previously unknown song by the Velvets entitled “Not a Young Man Anymore” – doesn’t do much either to enhance the image or penetrate the surface. The final screen test is of Baby Jane Holzer, who appeared in several Warhol films including, Kiss, Couch, and Soap Opera, as she vigorously brushes her teeth.

Film differs from photographic snapshots in somehow always conveying a sense of the present, even when these screen tests are now over forty-years-old. Despite the sense of presentness that moving images convey, it’s hard to watch 13 Most Beautiful without thinking of the lives of the various subjects, especially those lost to us in tragic ways, such as Edie, Nico, Paul America, Freddy Herko, and Ingrid Superstar, who mysteriously disappeared at some point in the late 1980s. So it’s nice that they and the others included here manage to live on in the Screen Tests, Warhol’s ambitious attempt to document and hang onto the images of the Factory people who surrounded him.

The DVD includes a booklet containing information about the genesis of the project, statements about the Screen Tests by Andy Warhol Museum Director Thomas Sokolowski and film and video curator Geralyn Huxley, biographical information for each screen test, and notes by Dean Wareham on scoring the Screen Tests. The DVD allows you to play the Screen Tests with or without the music tracks that were created for them. Warhol films have been hard to see other than at museums, so if you’ve never seen any of Warhol’s films, 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests provides a compelling introduction.

Posted 1 November, 2009