The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


For Callie Angell (1948–2010)

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

I learned the news about the passing of Callie Angell the other day. It made me sad, a feeling that has stayed with me days later. I knew Callie Angell from when I lived in NYC in the ’70s. I didn’t know her well, but we hung around in the same circles and I often ran into her at screenings at Anthology Film Archives where she worked for Jonas Mekas. As the curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project, she was responsible for the painstaking task of archiving all of Andy Warhol’s films.

I had a chance to chat with her after a gap of nearly thirty years at the Warhol Symposium, which was part of the “Other Voices, Other Rooms” exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the fall of 2008. Whenever factual questions related to the films arose at the symposium, everyone automatically would look to her. Callie always had the answer. It’s safe to say that Callie Angell knew more about Warhol’s films than anyone else in the world. Her work has provided the groundwork for all future Warhol scholarship. Her two slim catalogs on Warhol’s films at The Whitney Museum are seminal pieces. She wrote major articles in The Andy Warhol Museum and on Outer and Inner Space in Millennium Film Journal. Her encyclopedic book Andy Warhol Screen Tests is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Warhol’s films.

I have referenced Callie in other blogs I’ve written on Warhol (please see here and here and here and here). There’s simply no way to avoid citing her. Jim Hoberman wrote a really nice memorial tribute about Callie in the Village Voice. I’m posting this piece about a little-known, but extremely important Warhol film Since (1966) – a work that I’m very fond of, but which no one ever seems to talk about – as my own personal tribute to her:

In his book POPism, Andy Warhol commented about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963: “What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everyone to feel so sad. It seems like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing.” The Kennedys had captured the imagination of the public and become a modern American myth. Warhol would turn Jackie Kennedy into an iconic image of national grief in the numerous silkscreens that he made of her. Douglas Fogle also reminds us in ANDY WARHOL/ SUPERNOVA, “As television broadcasts would endlessly show footage from the 8mm film taken of the Kennedy assassination by Abraham Zapruder, Jackie herself would become the unwitting star of her very own film.” Another avant-garde filmmaker, Bruce Conner, made a film of Kennedy’s assassination, Report (1967), so perhaps it was inevitable that Warhol would also shoot his own film about this traumatic event, which had so transfixed the nation that no one could leave their television sets for several days.

Conner used pre-existing or found footage, such as that taken by Zapruder, to comment on mass media itself. To a certain extent, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy were media creations. They were sold to us just like appliances, which is why Warhol claimed not to see any differences between the commercials and other types of television programming, including the news. Warhol’s version of the Kennedy assassination, Since, turns out to be one of his most anarchic films. It’s almost as if the death of the president becomes directly related to the sense of utter chaos that seems to exist among the participants on the set. Like Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of . . . (1963), Warhol’s Since seems so heavily reliant on improvisation that it appears at times to lack any sort of clear sense of direction (even though there’s evidence in the actual film of at least some type of written treatment).

In Since, Warhol inadvertently plays Abraham Zapruder by filming the media events that the actors stage for the camera. The film features Ondine, as Lyndon B. Johnson, in the lead role. Other cast members include: Ingrid Superstar (Lady Bird Johnson), Mary Woronov (John F. Kennedy), Susan Bottomly (Jackie Kennedy), and Richard Rheem (Texas Governor John Connally). Gerard Malanga and Ronnie Cutrone, the artist and one-time Warhol assistant, play a combination of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. There is no attempt at realism. A large, crumpled sheet of red construction paper becomes blood. A banana substitutes for a gun. The couch in the Factory serves as a car. Rather than evoking sadness, Since is rather comedic.

Warhol’s mobile camera moves around the set in a seemingly random fashion. Each assassination attempt results in some type of incomplete coverage – the shaky camera movement often misses the important action, but invariably ends up focusing on the blood. Inflatable Baby Ruth candy bars create their own commercials within the film. Indeed, Since, along with Soap Opera (1964), might be viewed as the Warhol films that relate most directly to Pop Art. It’s probably not a coincidence that both deal with Warhol’s fascination with television. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol comments, “Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”

As we view Ondine in a closeup shot at the opening of Since, a male voice offscreen indicates the conceptual framework of the film, which will follow the model of the “Oswald display on television.” He continues: “First it happened, then it was played back in tape, and then it was played back in slow motion . . . Except that we don’t have to maintain the stiff character portrayals – like one individual can assume another role, assuming that he has assumed that role by choice originally.” The commentator also states that we’re not in Dallas. Ondine seems surprised and immediately contradicts this by saying, “It’s marvelous being in Dallas with the President.”

The participants appear to be pretty confused about the events. They are unable, for instance, to cite the proper street on which the motorcade is traveling or to supply the name of the Book Depository. Ondine indicates that Ingrid Superstar is his First Lady. He initially seems to think he’s the President, but then is informed that he’s actually the Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Ondine announces that he has to hire the assassins, suggesting one of the common conspiracy theories surrounding the event, namely LBJ’s desire to be president at all costs.

Ondine gradually becomes frustrated, mostly because the other characters aren’t very imaginative in their repartee, especially Ingrid Superstar. Ondine complains that they “are absolutely boring.” The only person Ondine praises is the “close-mouthed” Jack Kennedy (his pal, Mary Woronov), who he claims “may have been the most interesting person here.” At one point Ondine turns his back to the camera in protest. He then addresses his fellow performers: “We all have to try to cohesively keep attention away from Jack and play some kind of a vague scene. I hate to be the announcer of this, but I really think that we’re all lacking in character. I have mine, sketchy as it is – I’m still trying to maintain it. After insulting others on the set, Ondine yells, “What the hell is the matter with you people?”

It’s almost as if by trying to stage the Kennedy assassination as a television event on film, Warhol is showing the inability of a theatrical presentation to be convincing or to hold our interest, because it’s incapable of employing the very techniques – repetition, slow motion, images of real celebrities in moments of tragedy – that kept viewers glued to their television sets, even though what they were watching was as minimal as anything Warhol had done in his own films. Since is ultimately about the artifice of live theater, and the fact that it relies so heavily on a suspension of disbelief.

In theater, an action is always different, whereas Warhol was fascinated with mechanical reproduction, with television’s ability to reproduce or replay the same exact image over and over again. On the other hand, Warhol allows for imaginative transformation to take place. Not only are objects mutable, but characters can change identities, gender roles, and move between the living and dead. Throughout Since, the recording apparatus – camera and microphone – as well as the lights becomes an intricate part of the action. Warhol stages the assassination of JFK, not as an historical event, but, largely due to the impact of television, as the media spectacle it truly was.

Note: For a detailed analysis of Since and other Warhol films, please see my book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Posted 15 May, 2010

Indie Film in the Cross Fire

Producer Mike S. Ryan has written a very provocative piece about indie cinema, entitled “Straight Talk,” in the latest issue of Filmmaker. He writes: “What concerns me, though, is not the slow, vague emergence of new business strategies but the idea that filmmakers need to adjust their ideas to conform to these so-called new models.” He makes an ardent defense of indie work that might not be commercially viable or adaptable to viral marketing plans. This comes on the heels of Michael Tully’s “The TAKE-BACK Manifesto,” which appeared on indieWIRE. Tully’s manifesto takes aim at the countless panels about social networking as a promotional tool.

I agree with Ryan on his point that filmmakers really need to concentrate their main energies on doing their work. I suspect that Ted Hope’s “The Twenty New Rules: What we all MUST TRY to do prior to shooting,” which he posted on his blog Truly Free Film last November, might be one of the hidden targets of both pieces. Hope’s notion that indie filmmakers, on top of making films, should be promoting them endlessly via social networking strategies is a daunting and unenviable task. I confess I get exhausted just reading through Hope’s wish list. A colleague asked whether I’d ever make another film if I had to do this. I told him, “absolutely not.” Note that Ted Hope’s checklist is what you’re supposed to be doing before you shoot the film. What about after it’s done?

Filmmaker Jon Jost commented on Hope’s site at the time: “I sincerely doubt that Godard Tarkovsky Rocha Marker Gehr Hutton Antonioni Dorsky Parajadnov and a list of 1000 other really great filmmakers ever gave 10 seconds of thought to the above [Twenty New Rules]. This is not about filmmaking, it is about marketing. This is 100% bought and sold into the Great Market Economy mentality, and there isn’t a milligram of ‘truly free’ about it at all. This is like Jeff Koons in the ‘arts.’” I’m not surprised that Jon Jost’s remarks were ignored by Hope as well as the other respondents. Ironically, Jost wrote about the death of indie cinema in 1989, while Ted Hope wrote its obituary in 1995.

Mike Ryan is right that such endeavors can drain the creative energy of indie filmmakers and take them away from what’s really essential, which is making the best work possible. In his very measured response to Tully’s “The TAKE-BACK Manifesto,” Brian Geldin over at The Film Panel Notetaker quotes me as pointing this out in relation to Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters (FEM) some years back. Their indefatigable self-promotion, which turned their film and digital media project FEM into the hit it would not have been otherwise, is laudable on some level, but depressing on another. I expressed the concern that, in their obsession with promotion, Buice and Crumley risked becoming full-time marketers rather than artists.

The notion that the marketing campaign needs to start before the process of making the film is a Hollywood idea, so Ryan and Tully and Jost are right to be critical of applying it to indie cinema, which many of us would prefer to provide some type of alternative practice. Ryan writes: “We need to get back to the heart and soul of what it means to be independent and stop chasing the mainstream dragon; it was a pipe dream to begin with.” In addition, such strategies only work for a certain type of film. It’s like designing the CD cover before you’ve ever sat down to make the music. It also makes the actual production of the film seem like a mechanical process rather than one of exploration and discovery. How can mimicking the methods of Hollywood be the brilliant new liberating strategy for indie cinema?

Mike Ryan suggests that good work will always be recognized by the market, but I wish I shared his implicit faith that talent always gets recognized and rewarded. Successful people or insiders always seem to make this claim, yet I have a sneaking suspicion that sheer luck might be an equally critical factor. Ryan concedes that truly visionary or more difficult work may never find success in the mainstream. I don’t bemoan the fact that Gummo, Munyurangabo, Frownland, or Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America never played at my local multiplex. These films don’t represent a mainstream sensibility. Yet there’s definitely a smaller audience, a niche market, for more difficult and challenging work.

In the case of someone like Béla Tarr, the financing of international art cinema represents a very different context. American indie filmmakers labor under the large shadow cast by Hollywood – the most entrenched film industry in the world. If indie filmmakers make a feature, they are automatically competing against Hollywood, which just happens to control the major distribution outlets. That’s a pretty hard battle to win.

Mike Ryan writes: “There is a problem with independent film today, but it’s not that filmmakers don’t have access to the marketing tools they need. If we create strong innovative work audiences will come, and in turn, new forms of profit will evolve. But if we start by encouraging filmmakers to please as wide an audience as possible then we will destroy what is alive and essential about alternative cinema. New distribution strategies are inevitable, but we should not allow our search for new platforms to dilute the content or crush the dreams of our next generation of auteurs.”

Mike argues that distribution isn’t the big issue plaguing independent film today. He insists it’s always been a problem for indie cinema, but I think we have to concede that things have gotten much worse. Doesn’t Ronnie Bronstein, who made Frownland, deserve to get his money back, or how about Lance Hammer or Chris Smith? I’m still waiting for someone to put out the DVD of Chris Smith’s The Pool, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival how many years ago now? So distribution remains a huge roadblock, and illegal downloads are helping to destroy what little market there remains for low-budget independent cinema.

If you live outside of New York City, it’s next to impossible to see the best indie work being produced. The current theatrical model that plays the film in a smaller market such as Madison, Wisconsin (if at all) many months later and a couple of weeks before the DVD release is not helping indie filmmakers find an audience. There is an audience for independent cinema, but those of us who live outside NYC or Los Angeles would like to be able to see the new films when they are released and we’re first reading about them, not months later. It’s really a challenge to see truly indie cinema these days.

Mike Ryan concedes that some brilliant films out there aren’t finding their audiences. He doesn’t blame the filmmakers, but that fact that youth culture has been co-opted. Ryan writes: “It’s the fault of the youth audience whose minds have been melded by the corporate consumer-entertainment machine. What was potentially indie film’s next greatest audience didn’t materialize because it never learned about true rebellion, what counter culture means and where it is often found. It’s often conjured up and cultivated under smelly overpasses by angry outsiders, not in corporate-sponsored high-tech think tanks by salaried media trend experts.”

I was initially taken back by Ryan’s indictment of youth culture (as a gross generalization), but I think his remarks need to be placed within the context of some of the views expressed in Anthony Kaufman’s column “Youthquake: Where Is the Under 30s Audience For Indie Film?” in the same issue of Filmmaker. Kaufman quotes Alex Johnson of WBP Labs as saying, “I’ll stream movies on Netflix, rent from my Xbox, use torrents, whatever is easiest. If I can watch something on my cell phone, I will.” Because in the new age of watching-whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want, according to Johnson, “it’s really about being able to watch it immediately and talk to other people about it and be a part of that conversation.” Johnson later “suggests that ‘event-izing’ a film can work for both big movies – like Twilight-watching parties – and small movies, if a group of like-minded young folks can embrace seeing a film as a social happening.”

Both Ryan and his Hammer to Nail colleague Michael Tully make a point of emphasizing that they are only interested in the quality of the film, whereas Johnson appears less concerned about film as an aesthetic experience than as something about which to converse – in other words, social networking. Immediacy and the social experience appear to trump everything else. Ryan later concedes that it’s not entirely young people’s fault, but the fact that indie film has been co-opted by the mainstream, robbing it of the vitality that differentiated it in the first place.

Mike Ryan says: “I am not into indie film because I like being part of an indie ‘community.’ I don’t help make bold, boundary-pushing work because I want to connect to or be part of a group of outsiders.” Because I personally believe that indie film is a community, I was puzzled by his remarks until I was able to place them in context. It’s like art museums having singles nights for young people, hoping that they might notice the art on the walls once they’ve been lured to the museum by the prospect of drinks and music and social interaction. Ryan and Tully only care about the art on the wall or, in this case, the quality of the film on the screen.

Alternative methods need to be explored for connecting indie films with audiences, but they should not take priority over the actual quality of the work. You have to have something worth marketing, or what’s the point? Michael Tully concludes: “All of this talking about ‘finances,’ and ‘connecting’ and ‘publicity’ is the insidious language of a corporate, numbers-before-content mindset. Truly personal, independent cinema has never been preoccupied with these details, and making us feel guilty for not caring about them is not the answer. You’re only driving the most talented souls away. Can we get back to talking about movies, please?”

Posted 3 May, 2010