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

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

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

Like Harmony Korine’s Gummo, Tony Stone’s Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America is the type of film that will polarize critics and audiences, even those sympathetic to independent film. Except for a few positive reviews – most notably by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and a spirited defense of its originality by Mike Ryan on the indie blog Hammer to Nail – most responses are what you might expect from a narrative film that eschews complexity of characterization, plot, and dialogue in favor of a poetic exploration of visuals, sound, and music. Severed Ways is a Modern Gothic period piece that is shot much more like an experimental film or a very inspired home movie, where the actual story is far less interesting or important than the music soundtrack and the spectacular natural landscapes its two main characters traverse for nearly two hours of screen time.

Like so many narratives by younger film directors today, Severed Ways relies on a rough outline rather than a traditional script (see my recent article on this in the Journal of Screenwriting). Stone is much more concerned with improvising while on location – the weather became a major structuring device – which is one of the decided benefits of low-budget digital cinema. For instance, there’s an incredible shot toward the end of the film where Orn chops a tree frantically, and the sun behind him keeps obliterating his image into a burst of white frames as he rhythmically swings his ax.

The stunning imagery of the film continually trumps story, which is what you might expect from someone who studied with a bunch of experimental filmmakers (Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, and Adolfas Mekas) at Bard College. In an interview on The House Next Door, Stone defends the power of visual storytelling: “There’s so much to show and explain through the visuals, editing and simple pacing. Most films are spending most of their time figuring out how to frame a conversation. It’s pretty liberating to be free of that restraint.”

Based on Thorfinn Karlsefni’s actual expedition from Greenland to the New World, Severed Ways tells the story of two Vikings – Orn (Tony Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) – who become stranded after the rest of their party have been slaughtered by the local tribe of Abenaki, whom the Vikings call “skraelings” in 1007 AD. Orn and Volnard wander off into the interior in hopes of finding others and survival. Along the way, they stumble upon a makeshift church with a huge cross and two monks. Orn attacks and kills one of them, while Volnard spares the other one after running him down. We understand his motivation from a previous flashback involving his sister’s love affair with a Christian.

A relationship develops between Volnard and the remaining monk, which epitomizes the split between paganism and Christianity. The scene of the monk washing Volnard’s feet is an obvious religious reference, but also hints at possible erotic overtones. Whatever the case, their secret meetings will have later ramifications for Orn and Volnard, who are revealed to be contrasting characters. Stone at one point provides a dream of Orn’s wife (Gaby Hoffmann), who castigates him for going on the journey and turning out to be “an embarrassment to the Norse.” She also indicates she’s now married to another man “who actually knows how to service me.” In a utter male fantasy, Orn later gets drugged and raped by a female Abenaki, who at first stalks him from a distance. As might be expected, the specter of death hovers over the remainder of the film.

Plot, however, is really beside the point in Severed Ways. The few subtitles are too fast to read, and the minimal dialogue, when understood, appears very stilted (especially when it employs contemporary idioms delivered in highly mannered Old Norse). The huge red chapter headings that are interspersed throughout add an odd sense of gravity, even though they are more or less extraneous or blatantly obvious in terms of the actual story. In lesser hands, Severed Ways might seem laughable – and judging from responses on the Internet, many people consider the film to be just that – but Stone’s insistence on the connection between the Vikings and black metal provides an interesting revisionist spin on the history of this country.

The scene of the two Vikings burning down the church with fiery torches at night, has contemporary parallels to the black metal subculture in Norway, which is reinforced through Stone’s inclusion of soundtrack music by Burzum (Varg Vikernes). A notorious figure in black metal subculture, Vikernes was convicted of murder and setting fires to churches, and spent time in prison for these crimes. In this regard, Severed Ways recalls Banks Violette’s haunting multi-media sculptural installation of a burned-out church, fabricated in salt, at the Whitney Museum in 2005. It featured black metal music by Snorre W. Ruch, who was also associated with Vikernes.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Stone made films as a teenager and played as a child in the main locations for the film (which was shot in Vermont, but also apparently in Newfoundland and Maine). With Severed Ways, Stone seemed able to tap into his own childhood and teenage filmmaking as a source of inspiration. He told an interviewer: “I’ve said this a bunch, but as a kid we used to run around, pretend to kill each other, make forts, and build fires, and not much was changed. This is an extension of that cranked up and documented.”

There’s a shot roughly twenty minutes into the film where Orn defecates in closeup, and then wipes himself with leaves from nearby branches – a scene that appears to have grossed out many viewers. Back in college when I saw my first Andy Warhol films, I remember being surprised when Paul America suddenly took a pee in the bathroom scene of My Hustler (1965), and Louis Waldon literally urinated on screen in Lonesome Cowboys (1968). I realized I hadn’t seen that in a film before. In showing the primitive conditions of the early Norse, Stone’s inclusion of such material makes sense. Have folks never gone camping? If moviegoers are really so shocked and disgusted by this, then Stone’s deliberate in-your-face attitude might provide a much-needed corrective.

Throughout Severed Ways, Stone emphasizes the sheer physicality of early exploration. The Vikings chop down trees, build shelters, spear fish in the creek, slaughter and eviscerate chickens, make fires, and seem to walk endlessly through thick brush and forests. Stone’s approach is a lot like that of Lance Hammer in Ballast. He’s less interested in a dialogue-driven film than in how we actually experience the characters. He commented: “But I think you can read a lot into people by their physicality, how they walk, chop. I think it’s more accurate and fairer to the characters. I think it’s far more interesting to decipher characters by actions than words that conveniently tell you who these people are immediately and give you their backstory within five minutes of watching a movie. That’s not how life works.” One memorable shot shows Orn headbanging to black metal while chopping a tree – a visual joke involving the chapter heading titled “camp,” as well as a playful joke about the relationship between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in film.

Just as Warhol was apt to point his camera at something other than the main action, that’s equally true of Stone. We get the closeup of Orn previously mentioned or a plant or grass against the sky, but some important narrative action might be filmed so closely with a shaky mobile camera or in such an extreme wide shot tableau that it’s rendered less legible on a narrative level. One crucial scene involving Volnard resorts to synecdoche. Yet what Stone does choose to focus upon always turns out to be visually fascinating.

Like the very best outsider art, there’s an obsessive quality to Severed Ways – an intensity and insistence to Stone’s eccentric vision that shines through nearly every frame. The film exudes a sense of mad conviction, and, to its credit, Severed Ways is never really predictable. There’s a love of nature, a sense of child-like wonder at the natural world depicted here – a sense of paradise about to be lost as a result of the “discovery” of America by the Norse. On Columbus Day, I happened to pass a protest on campus by a small group of American Indians, who drummed and chanted. One held a sign that read, “The only thing that Columbus discovered was that he was lost.” The same could be said of these Vikings.

While Severed Ways might be much too weird for most mainstream viewers, I’m nevertheless grateful to Magnolia Home Entertainment for releasing this unusual film on DVD. Compared to most of the formulaic movies playing at the local multiplex, I’ll take weird any day.

Posted 16 October, 2009

Goodbye Solo

The location of Ramin Bahrani’s third feature Goodbye Solo (2009) has shifted from New York City – the setting for his first two films Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2008) – to his home town of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While the film clearly references Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (1997), it actually reminds me of Robinson Devor’s Police Beat (2005), which was set in Seattle and co-written with the African writer Charles Mudede. In a similar vein, Goodbye Solo is about a clash of cultures, as a very outgoing Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) – like Z, the Senegalese bicycle cop in Devor’s film – attempts to navigate unfamiliar personal terrain in trying to adapt to the mores of a new country.

In making a distinctly regional film, Bahrani shows us not only the downtown dominated by César Pelli’s famous skyscraper (which looks gorgeous at night), but Winston-Salem’s more seamy underside. In other words, we see the city from the perspective of an immigrant, which was also true of Man Push Cart. Shot in a continuous take, the opening scene of Goodbye Solo provides the film’s setup. One’s of Solo’s passengers, a cranky old white Southerner named William (Red West), wants Solo to drop him off on Blowing Mountain two hours away on a specific date. For his trouble, William offers to pay him a thousand dollars – no questions asked. But Solo is inquisitive by nature. As he tries to joke with William, the man’s true intentions suddenly dawn on him.

Buried underneath the story of these two contrasting characters, lies a kind of film noir mystery with a ticking clock, in which Solo gets thrust into the role of an unlikely detective. Solo tries to befriend the hard-nosed William. He badgers William with myriad questions and invades his privacy in ways that only a naïve outsider might be bold enough to attempt. Solo invites William home after a night of drinking, and later turns up to crash at his motel room. The cab driver gets information about him through a bartender friend, checks William’s medication at the pharmacy, and rummages through his belongings in an attempt to unravel the secret that lurks behind the man’s desperate action.

Whereas Solo is warm, open and buoyantly optimistic despite every reason not to be, William is cold, closed, and an utter pessimist. He continually demands that Solo stay out of his life, even as the two develop some type of relationship or accommodation. Just as Z in Police Beat can’t understand the behavior of Rachel, the woman with whom he’s infatuated, Solo is likewise baffled by William’s actions. Z also cannot understand why the prostitute, Mary, would give up her kid to social services rather than to family. Solo criticizes the fact that families don’t stay together in America. Solo explains to William that in Senegal your family will always provide for you. Even if you don’t have teeth, he tells him, people will feed you the food. William replies coldly, “Why aren’t you there now?”

Solo learns that William at one time drove a Harley, has a tattoo, and has returned to town after thirty years. Solo also knows that he loves movies, which is where he takes him on the night when William proposes the deal. Solo’s preoccupation with William becomes an obsessive fixation, especially as the date draws nearer. Solo’s concerns about William overshadow those in his own life, which appears to be falling apart. Solo separates from his Mexican wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), even though Quiera’s due to have his baby. He also dreams of being a flight attendant, which is part of the conflict with Quiera, along with the fact that he hangs out with friends and hasn’t fixed up the taxi that sits idly outside their house.

For Solo, William represents the mystery of American culture, where family roots have been severed and individualism has replaced a sense of community. Indeed, Solo’s relentless pursuit of William becomes a form of projection – a way to avoid his own problems by trying to solve those of someone else. For all his talk about family values, Solo seems less troubled by the fact that his own family is actually splitting apart. Solo’s multicultural marriage represents a mini-drama within the larger one he’s facing in being an African immigrant trying to assimilate into a southern American city.

At William’s motel, Solo confesses to William that he misses his wife and Alex. Solo manages to keep in touch with Alex once she gets a cell phone. He marvels when she takes his picture in front of a hot dog place and later sends it to him via his cell phone. Neither Solo nor William can fathom how such a thing is possible. The screenplay, co-written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi (who also co-wrote Chop Shop), is extremely subtle and deceptively complex. It is only very late in the film that we come to understand the parallels between these two men, and why Solo cares so deeply about what happens to William.

Bahrani’s direction in Goodbye Solo is remarkably self-assured. He’s attuned to the faces of performers – basically nonprofessionals and a character actor (West) thrust into a major role. Red West’s owl-like features – mussed hair, overly baggy inset eyes, and wrinkled countenance – serve as a roadmap of his past life. Bahrani’s camera holds on the expression of his actors just long enough to convey the depth of their emotions. In a climactic scene, Bahrani uses a series of reaction shots between William and Solo who simply stare at each other – he smartly understands that words would be extraneous here. Many directors have made impressive debut features, only to begin a downward slide in subsequent works, but the 34-year-old Bahrani appears to be getting better and better with each film.

In Goodbye Solo, Bahrani’s visual style seems almost effortless. On Blowing Mountain, the sound of wind intensifies to a roar. Along with Solo, we too feel as if we’re standing on a mountain top, overlooking a breathtaking landscape shrouded in mist, which gave me a sense of vertigo. The image conjures up the famous German Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Bahrani’s allusion is richly evocative – personally, politically, philosophically, and metaphorically – as Solo ponders the events that have transpired, as well as his own fate, within the broader context of the natural world.

Posted 5 August, 2009

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