The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Bike Boy

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

The motorcyclist has been a figure of rebellion in American popular culture in the Post-Second World War era, as exemplified by Marlon Brando’s role in The Wild One (1953). Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), a film that strongly influenced Andy Warhol, focuses on the image of the motorcyclist and uses montage editing to create connections between a gang of motorcyclists, Christianity, and Nazi imagery. The film is about how leaders of each of the three groups use ritual to create a death cult. A motorcycle also features prominently in two other Andy Warhol films, notably the unfinished Batman Dracula and Couch. What no doubt attracted Warhol to the subject is the way the figure of the motorcyclist functions as an icon of both masculinity and gay desire. In Bike Boy (1967-68), Warhol cleverly deconstructs the power of this iconic image through his extended portrait of a biker named Joe Spencer.

Bike Boy begins with a close-up of Spencer’s face. In a series of strobe cuts that focus mostly on his muscular upper torso and on various parts of his body, we watch Joe take an extended shower. While little attention has been paid to Warhol’s use of color in his films, Joe is bathed in warm golden light against a background of black shower tiles. Spencer continually looks offscreen for some sort of direction. He’s obviously soaped up the various parts of his body and rinsed under the shower head numerous times already, but Spencer obviously doesn’t have a clue about Warhol’s desire to make his naked body the object of the camera’s gaze.

Joe Spencer has been set up beforehand. The shower scene goes on for an interminable length of time, the clothing salesmen treat him as a comic figure, and Ed Hood, playing the role of friend and confidant, gets Joe to reveal a side of him that most people wouldn’t want to know. It’s not a pretty picture. The scene with Ingrid Superstar in the kitchen is an obvious setup as well. Joe stands there, leaning against the wall and smoking a cigarette, as he strikes a Marlon Brando-like pose for the camera while she exposes her naked breasts behind him. Brigid Berlin goes right to the heart of the matter by calling Joe a “faggot.” Brigid ridicules his working-class accent and corrects his pronunciation of various words. Joe is no match for the verbal dexterity of either Brigid or Viva.

The scene with Viva is by far the longest in the film. Joe finds her more attractive than Brigid, whom he repeatedly claims isn’t his type and doesn’t turn him on. He seems far more interested in the prospect of making it with Viva, who calls him on his clichéd tattoos, especially the swastika, and his morbid obsession with death symbols. Of course, Viva, who subsequently would make an acting career out of pointing out men’s sexual inadequacies, is the perfect casting choice to puncture Joe Spencer’s grandiose sense of himself.

Joe claims that Viva’s not going to be able to handle what he’s going to do to her, but she challenges him. Joe’s description of having sex with women seems more appropriate to a butcher shop. He makes it sound as if he’s filleting a piece of meat, “Boy when I get them in bed, lay them out flat, you know. First I strip them down, you know. I lay them flat on that bed, you know. I go like that, you know, rub my hands, and (makes a sound) . . . right in bed I go.” Viva later tells him, “You sound like a meat cleaver.” He answers, “I’m just a saw.”

Despite his professed interest in having sex with Viva, Joe tries to evade it for as long as possible. The two of them eventually make out on the couch with their clothes on. Joe slips off his boots. After a smoke, Joe disrobes Viva, who lies naked, while Joe also strips. In various strobe cuts, Warhol has Spencer repeat the action of him pulling off his pants. Joe stands up naked. The action repeats. Joe keeps giving Viva a drag from his cigarette, but as he stands, his limp penis is obvious. He then sits down next to her on the couch. We see his naked body in the foreground of the shot, as Viva’s hands embrace him and she looks up at him and begins to laugh. When Joe asks why she’s laughing at him, Viva tells him, “I’m not laughing at you at all. . . I’m just laughing because you’re so funny.”

In a perverse way, Bike Boy lives up to its billing as an exploitation film. Brigid Berlin is absolutely right in her assessment of Joe – he’s “a lot of talk.” By film’s end, we’ve grown tired of Spencer’s macho bluster – his threats of violence, his revelations of bestiality, his misogyny, vulgarity, narcissism, bad politics, juvenile jokes, general stupidity, and inability to become sexually aroused by a naked woman. Warhol initially presents us with a sexy, muscular motorcyclist, but he deflates this mythic figure, as we watch Joe turn gradually into an object of ridicule.

Note: For a detailed analysis of Bike Boy 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 16 March, 2010

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

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Mary Jordan’s absorbing documentary portrait of the legendary filmmaker and performer, certainly gives a strong flavor of this underground artist, whose importance never really has been disputed within avant-garde circles, even if he’s not a household name or nearly as famous as many of the other major artists he influenced, including Andy Warhol, John Waters, or the Italian director Federico Fellini.

Jack Smith (1932-1989) led a very troubled life. Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio. His mother, who married three times, moved to Galveston, Texas and then to Kenosha, Wisconsin. The film reveals that she left Jack and his sister, Sue Slater, alone for two weeks before the final relocation. It’s no wonder that Smith blamed his mother for sending him “crippled” out into the world. In a letter to her, which he recites in the film, he confesses, “I’m left with feelings of jealousy, mistrust of women, homosexuality, impotence.”

Jack Smith’s issues were not only with his mother, but with the world at large. A militant anarchist, the intensely political Smith railed against capitalism in the guise of “Landlordism” and “Lobsterism” – his own colorful vocabulary for “exploitation” – as the source of much of his own and society’s ills. A modern-day Proudhon, Smith couldn’t fathom either paying rent or art collecting – to him both were merely different forms of theft.

Smith vented against people and institutions for not supporting him in his artistic endeavors, believing that “real art” was destined to get “mutilated” within capitalist culture. He became famous for making one of the most notorious underground films of the 1960s, Flaming Creatures (1962) – a baroque, gender-bending orgy of naked and costumed bodies, which was busted and became a test case of censorship laws. The experience had a traumatic effect on both Jack Smith and his career. The reception of Flaming Creatures became a rationalization for his “never making any masterpieces again” or finishing any of his later films.

As a child, Smith became enthralled with the B-movie actress Maria Montez, who became a lifelong obsession. According to the composer John Zorn, Jack would cry whenever he watched her movies. The late playwright and Warhol screenwriter Ronald Tavel calls the actress a “diva,” while John Vaccaro refers to her as “the apotheosis of the drag queen.” Only filmmaker Nick Zedd counters that he couldn’t understand this adoration of Montez because she was such a “mediocre actress.” When Smith was dying in the hospital after deliberately contracting AIDS, Tavel suggests that rather than being bored, Jack was happy because it gave him more time to ruminate about Montez.

For Jack, Maria Montez represented the epitome of exotic glamour. To him, she became a fantastic imaginary world that replaced the ugly one in which he found himself. Smith turned the NYC loft where he lived for the last nine years of his life into a virtual fantasy land. The film provides a glimpse of Smith’s glorious inner life by tracking through what was in reality an elaborate and colorful stage set, which was dismantled and destroyed after his death.

Jack’s performances were notorious within the art world. He would announce that an event would begin at a certain prescribed time and then delay it for hours, causing many audience members to flee when nothing happened. Tavel suggests that Smith did this deliberately. He quotes Jack as saying, “I don’t want the scum of Baghdad. I want only the best.” The artist who insists that art should be made free to the masses turns out to be an elitist at heart. Jack Smith was full of contradictions, but his own response to the issue of audience was simply: “Something had to be done in order to keep them from becoming sofa-roosting cabbages.”

My only personal experience with Jack Smith was being invited to a small gathering at someone’s loft in the late 1970s where it was rumored that Jack was going to perform. Throughout the night, he made strange faces, glared at people suspiciously, periodically whispered in the host’s ear, and continually disappeared into a hall closet, where he seemed to rummage around for hours. Needless to say, Jack lived up to his reputation, and I finally left around midnight. Yet what he was actually doing could be construed as a weird performance of sorts.

Jack Smith’s personal animosity for Jonas Mekas became another major fixation. Smith despised Mekas for using Flaming Creatures as part of an anti-censorship crusade during the 1960s. Smith complains that Mekas could “be made to seem like a saint, to be in the position of defending something, when he’s really kicking it to death.” Ronald Tavel suggests that Mekas’s strategy was to make “as much money as possible from those films and give as little as possible to the filmmaker.”

Although Jonas appears in the film, it’s never clear that he’s ever responding to such charges, which is one of the unfortunate drawbacks of Jordan’s decision to make a heavily-edited compilation film. As far as information obtained from interviews, it’s simply not possible to understand either the questions or the context of the answers. In any event, I seriously doubt that there were buckets of money to be made from screening Flaming Creatures at the time, or that Jonas secretly was pocketing money that was owed to Smith.

Smith began to refer to Mekas by a variety of disparaging names, including “Uncle Fishhook.” Sylvère Lotringer helped to legitimize Jack’s personal attacks on Mekas in a 1978 issue of Semiotext(e). As Lotringer explains in Jordan’s film, Uncle Fishhook became a symbol of the system: “Uncle Fishhook became like this kind of embodiment of a myth that was so much bigger than Jonas Mekas could be.” Jack also had the bad habit of turning on people. Lotringer tells of hearing rumors that Jack was walking around the East Village with an ax and wanted to kill him.

There are plenty of published sources on the ongoing feud between Mekas and Jack Smith, but we never do get to hear Jonas’s side. There is an explanation for why Mekas withheld the original film of Flaming Creatures from Jack Smith once it came into his possession. As an archivist, Mekas wanted to preserve Jack’s legacy, especially because Smith would project and edit his originals during screenings that he turned into theatrical events. Is trying to save the original of Flaming Creatures such a bad thing? For Smith, it became part of a larger paranoid conspiracy in which he cast himself in the role of victim.

Jordan’s film also glorifies Jack Smith at the expense of Andy Warhol. As Nayland Blake rightly states: “So many contemporary artists trace their practice back to Warhol at this point, and a lot of the important ideas in Warhol come from Jack.” Robert Wilson indicates that Warhol couldn’t have made the films he did without having known Jack. John Waters claims of Jack Smith: “He did it all first. He started something that other people took and became more successful with.”

Lawrence Rinder, the museum curator and director, along with noted composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad, point to Warhol’s Factory and the whole notion of superstars as deriving from Jack Smith. Artist Mike Kelly mentions the fact that Warhol used Smith’s actors for his own films. Yet none of this is really news. Warhol, who watched films at the Filmmakers’ Cinemateque prior to making them, was influenced by many experimental filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Ron Rice, and Jack Smith. Warhol never denied his admiration for Smith’s work. Instead he indicates that Smith was “the only person I would ever copy” and adds, “I just think he makes the best movies.”

Jack Smith appeared in a number of Warhol films, including the unfinished Batman/Dracula (1964), Camp (1965), and Hedy (1966). George Kuchar points out that in Batman/Dracula, Warhol failed to record all of Jack Smith’s performance because of bad framing. Henry Hills and others claim that Smith took over Camp, where he managed to get Warhol to move his camera. Mekas suggests that the two artists clashed because Smith wanted to have complete control. If Smith was all about control, Warhol was the exact opposite – he was interested in abdicating authorial control.

Mario Montez, Jack’s drag-queen incarnation of Maria Montez, appeared in a number of Warhol films as well, which Smith didn’t appreciate. Like an overly protective parent, Jack Smith criticizes how Mario Montez was being employed by Warhol. While Smith never specifies a title, he seems to have in mind Screen Test # 2 (1965) when he laments: “I just hate to see this happening to Mario. Slowly watching Mario’s brain being eaten away . . .”

The schism between Smith and Warhol was personal, but also represents the difference between a baroque and pop sensibility. Smith had a trash aesthetic. His art was about making something beautiful out of nothing. Warhol used techniques of mass production in his art, hence the whole idea of The Factory, which enabled him to become an incredibly prolific artist. Jack Smith takes a direct swipe at Warhol when he suggests that “manufacturing and making art” are  two different endeavors.  Warhol obviously didn’t think so. Smith insists, “I want to be uncommercial film personified.” Warhol, on the other hand, always had commercial aspirations and made the fact that art was a business only too evident.

While the film certainly sides with Smith over Warhol, the film’s compilation technique allows it to move, for instance, from John Waters saying, “He [Jack Smith] was a great personality and a great filmmaker who changed everything” to someone claiming that “Jack Smith was the real Warhol.” Frankly, I find that to be an incredible leap. There is no question that Jack Smith exerted an enormous influence on Warhol, but what does it mean to say he was “the real Warhol?” In different voices of various interviewees, Jordan also edits fragments of the interviews into the hyperbolic assertion that Jack Smith reinvented theater, photography, film, performance art, glitter, installation art, time, and music videos.

Many notable artists get a chance to discuss Jack Smith and the brilliance of his work, which alone makes this film worth viewing. Voice critic J. Hoberman, who has written extensively on the work of Jack Smith, is sorely missing as an interviewee for reasons that have to do with the making of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis and issues related to Smith’s estate (For details, click here and here). And the inclusion of scholars, such as Callie Angell, might have provided the film with a more balanced perspective on Warhol.

Smith’s social critique extended to curators, museums, and foundations, whose real function he believed was “commercialization.” Only John Waters introduces a dose of reality into Jack Smith’s vilification of museums: “He bit every hand that could ever, ever feed him. And so, the problem is nobody knows his movies because of that. And he never finished them. And if he maybe had been a little less difficult, maybe we would have seen his movies more. They’re very obscure now. He bit the hand! Museums. . . who else is going to show them? It’s [sic] not going to play at Radio City Music Hall!”

Toward the end of the film, Smith makes a startling and rare admission about himself in terms of his artistic career: “It’s my fault. I haven’t been organized properly. . . I was never organized nearly enough. I didn’t know those things.” But, as Jack Smith insightfully points out, had he done all the things he should have done or that were expected of him, “I wouldn’t have been the same person.”

Posted 29 May, 2009

A Walk into the Sea

In 1966, Danny Williams, one of Andy Warhol’s former lovers and a significant force behind the psychedelic light shows of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, disappeared while visiting his family in New England. Following his early success as an editor for the Maysles brothers, Williams, a Harvard graduate, gravitated to the Factory in hopes of jump-starting his film career. Esther B. Robinson’s poignant exploration into the short life of her deceased uncle, A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007), now available on DVD, explores the mystery of what happened by utilizing 20 rolls of 16 mm footage shot by Williams and uncovered by Warhol film curator and archivist, Callie Angell, and by interspersing filmed interviews with various family members and Factory regulars.

As might be expected given the circumstances, A Walk into the Sea ends up providing an unflattering glimpse into life at the notorious silver-colored Factory – an artistic scene where internecine struggles and heavy drug use left many victims. Paul Morrissey blames Williams’s death on the Zeitgeist by viewing him as “a casualty of the era.” Danny’s mother, Nadia Williams, insists, “He didn’t OD. He went for a pleasant swim.” The most intriguing answer to the riddle Robinson poses in her Rashomon-like investigation, however, turns out to be provided by the famed Velvet Underground musician John Cale who suggests: “When you’re asking people to come up with a story on why this happened, you’re asking them to come up with a version of how they would like to do it themselves. So as long as you know when you’re asking one question, you’re asking five or six other ones. Then that gives you a ‘clear’ on how to read the answer.”

One of the issues the film inadvertently raises has to do with authorship – what creative role Danny Williams actually played in Warhol’s films. Morrissey and Billy Name (another Warhol boyfriend who doesn’t hide his jealousy towards Danny) both downplay the contribution of Williams. Other observers, such as photographer Nat Finkelstein and Ronald Nemeth (whose film Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable is part of the ambitious exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms,” currently at the Wexner Center in Columbus) provide counter perspectives. Chuck Wein, who introduced Williams to Warhol, strongly identifies with Danny’s subsequent erasure, while Callie Angell provides the most sober perspective, mainly because she has no vested interest at stake other than her own sense of film scholarship.

Even at the recent symposium on Warhol’s work at the Wexner Center, the issue of authorship caused lively debate. Richard Meyer, professor of art history at USC, questioned why Thomas Crow and art historians still find it necessary to attribute authorship solely to Warhol given the inherently collaborative nature of his artistic practice. The answer is bound up with the whole notion of “branding.” In his recent book on the economics of the art world, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson discusses how branding works within the art world by citing the careers of artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Warhol.

Damien Hirst’s art works, including his spot paintings, for instance, are all done by assistants. As Thompson explains, someone named Rachel does the best job of painting the spots. In fact, Hirst insists that if you’re a collector you really want to own one of the paintings executed by her because she’s so much better at painting spots than everyone else, including him. Does that make Rachel the true author of Hirst’s spot paintings? Not really. Hirst comments, “I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas, but I wouldn’t like a factory to produce the ideas.” Warhol wasn’t so fussy. He took ideas wherever he could get them, including those that came from other people. Yet, as one of the panelists at the Wexner symposium pointed out, Warhol nevertheless controlled which ideas he ultimately chose to brand as his own.

There are differences between the timeworn tradition of artists having assistants and what went on at Warhol’s Factory. For one thing, art assistants are generally paid for their work, so it’s considered “work for hire.” Because Warhol wasn’t making any money from his films initially, no one was paid for their services, and roles were never clearly defined. Another important difference was that Warhol’s Factory was as much a social scene as a space where art was created, thus confusing the divide between the two. Nameth and Finkelstein make a strong case for the significance of Danny Williams in creating the light shows for the expanded cinema phase of Warhol’s filmmaking. Nadia Williams suggests that Danny was starting to get credit for his work on the light shows in reviews, causing resentment on Warhol’s part. In response, Paul Morrissey glowers at the camera and snarls: “It’s not true.” Nadia Williams complains, “Why should he [Warhol] get mad that someone else in his crew got some credit. You never got any credit. All the credit went to one guy.”

Morrissey’s interviews in A Walk into the Sea minimize not only the contributions of Williams, but those of Warhol as well. In discussing the EPI, for instance, Morrissey claims: “There was no use for lights in the show. There were projectors showing movies. And you can’t have lights on top of movies, you wash the movies out.” When Robinson probes Danny’s use of colored lights, Morrissey responds, “There were no colored lights. There was a spotlight with gels. And you turned the gels, and you have a pink, a green, or a blue.” He dismisses Nameth as any sort of credible authority, while Nameth, in turn, marvels at the complexity of Williams’s diagrams. John Cale remembers a fistfight over cables between Danny Williams and Paul Morrissey in the balcony at a club called Poor Richard’s in Chicago. In terms of credit, Gerard Malanga indicates that Danny “basically fell through the woodwork here.” Morrissey once again finds it necessary to diminish Williams’s contribution. He replies: “I was telling Andy what to do for eight or nine years, and I’m barely in any book. They don’t want to know. They think Andy did this and Andy did that. And then Andy wanted to do this. . . and it’s all a myth, so you can’t expect anything else. I’m not sure whether [when] Danny was there, he had any actual influence on things that happened while he was there. Because, while he was there, it was from, you know, My Hustler until the Velvet Underground and all that stuff, I was running the whole thing.”

Like Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s well-known biography Edie, A Walk into the Sea manages to demonize Warhol as a calculating, Machiavellian figure, largely as a result of certain interviews included in the film. In his autobiography POPism, Warhol defends himself against such claims that he was “evil” by insisting that he was actually powerless when it came to making people do his bidding. He writes: “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.” Danny Williams’s acknowledged drug use serves as a case in point.

As a documentary portrait, A Walk into the Sea provides few concrete biographical details of Danny Williams. In his biography on Warhol, Victor Bockris describes the personal relationship between Williams and Warhol as extremely volatile. He recounts an incident in a restaurant on Christopher Street where Williams, in an angry outburst, ripped off Andy’s silver wig. Warhol eventually threw Williams out of his townhouse. Contrary to Billy Name’s wishes – the details of which are recounted in the film – Williams moved into the Factory. Bockris writes: “The handsome Harvard preppie turned into an addict, his hair matted and stringy, his skin coated with the silver dust that crumbled from the walls of the Factory, his glasses broken and taped together. When he fell into one of his funks, sometimes threatening suicide, Andy screamed at him to ‘shape up.’ Everyone joined in.” Bockris’s description of the news of Danny’s disappearance and Warhol’s refusal to speak with his mother gets brought up again in the film by Danny’s sister, Julia Robinson, who wonders, “What were they afraid of? Why weren’t they willing to talk?” Morrissey answers, “I’m sure, you know, he [Warhol] was saddened by it, but, at the same time, he didn’t let anything affect him.”

A lucky coincidence leads Esther Robinson to Callie Angell, who had been trying to locate the family of Danny Williams for seven years. As a result, Robinson is able to show us examples of Danny’s own films. His black and white films represent interesting experiments with high-contrast images, strobing, in-camera rhythmic editing, abstract passages involving light patterns, and a buoyant sense of filmic play, which Nameth wants to claim as proof of Williams’s influence on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Morrissey undercuts this by saying: “I never was told that Danny was a filmmaker. I thought he . . . had a camera and he was taking shots. But he had never put together a film and shown it to anyone. So I was the only one who had ever made films, who . . . arrived at the studio, if you want to call it that.” Strangely, neither Gerard Malanga nor Billy remember Danny Williams with a camera, despite appearing in footage that he shot. Callie Angell talks about Warhol empowering others artistically. She discusses the fact that he gave his 35 mm Pentax still camera to Billy and his 16 mm Bolex movie camera to Danny, which she interprets as confirmation of Warhol’s high regard for both Williams and his talent.

Billy Name describes the Darwinian nature of life inside the Factory, where strong personalities were only too willing to push out those who were weaker. John Cale indicates: “It was based on insecurity. It was like everyone was like afraid of being left out, so they created a part for themselves.” Callie Angell suggests that Warhol tried to engage those around him in his projects, thereby creating a false sense that they were responsible for the ideas. Chuck Wein, for instance, insists that My Hustler (1965) was totally his movie: “I wrote it, directed it, the whole thing.” Ironically, his remark runs directly counter to Morrissey’s earlier claims of authorship regarding the same movie.

In terms of interpersonal dynamics, Nadia Williams believes that Warhol was playing favorites and that Danny had fallen out of favor. She claims, “He was being dominated. . . And who wants to be dominated? I think domination is evil.” Danny Fields suggests that everyone was in love with Andy. Even Brigid Berlin, Warhol’s close confidant for many years, provides a critical perspective on Andy’s perverted sense of intimacy. Nat Finkelstein adds, “There was a cultish kind of setup that was going on over there.” Danny’s mother critiques photos of her son, bristling at ones that makes him look “effeminate” or “too soft.” She doesn’t think he seemed despondent on the night he disappeared, and wonders, “Why would he throw it away? He had everything to live for.”

In answer to speculation that Danny committed suicide, Gerard Malanga claims he never knew for sure. He suggests that it’s a kind of “connect-the-dots” approach, “where you’ve got a car, it’s at the edge of a cliff, near the water.” Because there’s no real evidence, the various interviewees project their own psychic needs onto Danny, and indirectly onto Warhol. Danny’s sister questions whether his disappearance was an attempt to start his life afresh. She still wonders whether Danny might have had a rendezvous with someone that night, or possibly was murdered, noting, “But it is very strange that the body was never found.” Al Maysles conjectures that maybe Danny just walked out to sea, as was befitting his poetic sensibility.

A Walk into the Sea ends with the mystery of its subject still very much intact. Esther Robinson seems acutely aware of how the film operates. She told Ed Halter of the Village Voice: “In order to justify their roles, a lot of the Factory people have to remember themselves as central and everyone else as peripheral. So you get these very singular sensibilities, all of which contradict one another. I was more interested in what people say happened – the narratives people tell themselves so they can go on living after something traumatic. That’s true of my family, and I would say that’s true of people in Warhol’s circle.”

Posted 30 November, 2008

I, a Man

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

Andy Warhol’s first deliberate effort to make a commercial sexploitation film was I, a Man (1967–68 ), which was supposed to feature both Nico and Jim Morrison, but Morrison backed out at the last minute – possibly because Warhol wanted him to have sexual intercourse on-screen – and he was replaced by an actor friend of Morrison’s named Tom Baker. In I, a Man, Baker attempts to have sex with eight different women: Cynthia May, Stephanie Graves, Ingrid Superstar, Nico, Ultra Violet, Ivy Nicholson, Valerie Solanas, and Bettina Coffin. The scenes are separated by shots of Baker reflectively smoking a cigarette. It’s a very simple premise – one that certainly fits the notion of a sexploitation film by presenting an opportunity to display a number of different female bodies, while also being a test of Baker’s seductive power. In terms of the casting, I, a Man featured Warhol superstars: Nico, Ingrid Superstar, and Ultra Violet. In addition, Valerie Solanas, the lesbian author of the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) and Ivy Nicholson would add unpredictable elements to the film.

Who knew at the time that the inclusion of Valerie Solanas would guarantee that I, a Man would become an important historical document whatever anyone thought about the artistic merits of the film. Yet, as strange as it might seem within the context of a sexploitation film, the scene with Valerie, in many ways, epitomizes the real power and energy of Warhol’s cinema. Valerie’s hatred of men stemmed from her own personal history. She reportedly was sexually abused by her father as a child and resorted to prostitution as an economic means of survival. In the SCUM Manifesto, Valerie writes with a venomous rage, mixed with trenchant humor, about the inherent inferiority of the male species: “Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.” She talks about females “who’d sink a shiv into a man’s chest or ram an ice pick up his asshole as soon as look at him.”

Set on a stairwell, rather than an apartment, which suggests a potential site of sexual molestation, Tom Baker’s attempt to coerce Valerie to let him into her apartment bristles with subtext. Even if you didn’t know anything about Valerie, there’s a creepy quality to the scene, but, Warhol, of course, is interested in creating a situation that has built-in dramatic conflict. The two characters have opposite goals. Baker wants to get inside her apartment, whereas Valerie wants to prevent this at all cost. Given her personal background and his ostensible desire to screw, it has the potential to develop into a combustible situation. That’s why its recreation in Mary Harron’s film can never measure up to what Warhol managed to stage in I, a Man.

The scene begins with a pulsating stairwell that been lit to look like a German Expressionist set, with the verticals suggesting prison bars. Valerie comes up the stairs followed by Tom Baker. When they arrive at the door to her apartment, he asks, “You got the key?” Valerie searches her pockets, has second thoughts, and suddenly asks, “Hey, what am I doing up here with a finko like you?” A strobe cut restages it on the landing just below, but we hear Valerie repeat the last part of her dialogue. She then says, “I can’t figure it out – you’re a fink.” This makes even Baker laugh. He responds, “You don’t even know me.” They talk about the business of his squishy ass. He wants to go inside, but Valerie indicates that her roommate is there, and adds that she’s squishier than him. Valerie asks him, “But what else have you got?” He says, “I don’t talk about those things, baby.” Baker suggests that they can explore each others bodies, but Valerie quite rightly insists, “Look, I’ve got the upper hand. We must not forget that.”

Valerie squeezes Baker’s ass once more in an attempt to get rid of him, but he trails after her. At the landing, Tom says, “Listen, Valerie, just stop here for a second. I just want to see something.” They disappear into the shadows, but he has his hands on her. Valerie, says, “Hey, come on, man. I mean, like this is rape. I don’t dig that shit.” Baker takes off his shirt, while Valerie struggles, “Hey, come on, man! Goddamn it. Hey, come on! What’s this shit, man?” She protests, “My roommate’s very jealous. She’s possessive. She’s very possessive.” After strobe cuts, the two smoke cigarettes in a different location on the stairs. Valerie claims not to like his “tits” and they argue about them. Baker finally says, “What is it in your head that you don’t dig about men?”

In the strobe cuts that follow, Valerie waves off the camera and then later smiles for a very brief visible moment – a decidedly mixed message that matches the bizarre dynamics of the situation. Alluding to the SCUM Manifesto, Baker asks her, “What is it some philosophy you have in life that you don’t . . . ?” Valerie, however, turns the tables on him by inquiring whether Baker likes men. He indicates that he hasn’t “balled” men since he was young. He argues that, in pursuing women, he’s following his “instincts.” Valerie responds that she’s also following hers, and asks pointedly, “Why should my standards be lower than yours?”

Since they both share the same instincts, Baker suggests a possible threesome with her roommate, but Valerie indicates that her roommate wouldn’t like him. After strobe cuts, the camera moves closer to Valerie, as her face, especially her eyes, moves in and out of the light. Baker tries to block her way, but Valerie claims not to live there and, in a stunning gender reversal, says, “I want to go home. I want to beat my meat.” She pushes past him, and, in another shot, Valerie asks the crew whether she should go all the way down the stairs, as she heads out and the scene ends.

Baker claims that he never felt that Valerie posed a personal threat. Instead, he says, “I found her intelligent, funny, almost charming, and very, very frightened.” Baker never explains why Valerie seemed frightened, but it’s clear that he has been given enough information about Valerie to push the scene to the limits – the hint of possible rape, the allusions to the SCUM Manifesto and the biological basis for her sexual politics – in order to make Valerie feel threatened and uncomfortable. Warhol listed Valerie in the published credits under a silly pseudonym “Valeria Solanis.” Although Valerie reportedly was humiliated when she saw the actual film, she nevertheless wrote Warhol a postcard dated August 25, 1967: “Dear Andy, I’ve been noticing gross misspellings of my name in articles & reviews connected with ‘I, A Man.’ Please note correct spelling.” In the true Warholian fashion, even Valerie appreciated the value of publicity.

Note: For a detailed analysis of I, a Man 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 6 August, 2008

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