The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


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

A Family Finds Entertainment

Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) initially came to the attention of the art world in an article by Dennis Cooper as one of the emerging artist picks in Artforum complete with the backstory of how video artist Sue de Beer discovered the work while on tour when someone showed her an excerpt on a social networking site. Trecartin’s forty-one minute madcap video went on to become one of the major hits of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Trecartin was picked up by Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Chelsea, and his work has since been included in the Saatchi Collection, cementing the young artist’s status as one of the art world’s hot new talents.

This past Fall, Trecartin had his first one-person show at Elizabeth Dee, where his latest video, the feature-length I-Be Area (2007), played in the back room as part of the exhibition. The new work displays much of the same manic inventiveness that distinguished Trecartin’s previous effort. In it, Trecartin morphs into a an assortment of different personae, while exploring issues of gender and identity, cloning, Internet adoption, and other aspects of digital culture. Trecartin’s characters share an idiosyncratic method of line delivery and stylized acting derived from campy children’s TV shows, as well as the video artist’s penchant for hysteria, chaos, destruction – reminiscent of Red Grooms – and ’70s-patterned clothes. Once more Trecartin’s use of color is wildly hallucinogenic, as characters’ bodies literally become canvasses for the artist’s carnival-like sense of bright acidic colors and wacky costuming, so that they all might easily be mistaken for clowns.

Although Trecartin works from a script, what’s truly amazing about his videos is how he is able to translate his vision to so many different performer friends, who in turn add an improvisational aspect to the work. In an interview on Filmbrats, Trecartin told Joe Swanberg, “I worked from a script extremely . . . But it wasn’t a line: process out of order and everything changed all the time. (Actors changed things and freedom happened) It was really malleable like playing football in a circle field. Like all nasty. It was a script.” The mannered language of Trecartin’s description of the process is not all that different from the zany speech patterns his characters employ in his videos. A Family Finds Entertainment has more of an overarching narrative than I-Be Area, as well as a layered density that creates a compressed sense of visual and sensory overload. Both image and sound, including the voices of the characters, are often so digitally manipulated that when simple live-action passages appear, they seem downright mundane and boring in comparison.

An energetic mixture of live action, animation and digital special effects, A Family Finds Entertainment is a teenage “coming out” film – a seeming indictment of the “poisonous” and incestuous aspects of the nuclear family. It tells the story of Skippy, a closeted gay teen, who, following a failed attempt at committing suicide, discovers queer sex, gets outed by his parents, and then banished from home. After briefly becoming the subject of a documentary film, Skippy gets hit by a car, before becoming born again at a wild party that culminates in a massive display of fire works. While Skippy’s story manages to provide the narrative thread that holds it all together, the video feels more like a medley. Various characters come and go, change identity, introduce non-sequiturs, play group games, engage in musical interludes, break into lengthy monologues, or chant advice like a Greek chorus. Even a large sea shell ends up conveying an important message to Skippy. Trecartin’s video seems like a TV “after-school special” gone bonkers.

A Family Finds Entertainment begins with colorful visual static, and the sound of thunder. A small white dog stares at the camera, then runs off as a light flashes. A young girl named Lisa opens the door of a closet and a clown-like guy (Trecartin) in painted face pops out, causing her to laugh. He asks, “Do I have to stay in here forever?” Trecartin, now dressed as a blond-haired woman and exaggerating the wiggle of her butt, chases Lisa upstairs with a spotlight and sits on her bed. Lisa’s mother comes to the door and sternly asks, “Lisa, what are you doing out of bed? It’s midnight.” As the mother leaves, she announces, “Lisa, it’s you that I love.” Lisa sits back down on the bed and suggests that she has a story inside a box – “like a bed-time story” – which provides a narrative frame for what follows.

We then blast off into outer space. Cheesy psychedelic graphics introduce four young people in a room. The screen divides into various planes of action. We see grainy live-action images, and then a shot of Ben playing a guitar, as Asher sings, “Show me something beautiful and I will live. Show me something to hold on to, and I will hold on.” The camera moves in closer to him, then dissolves to a woman in a green dress (later identified as Veronica) telling Ben, “That was so romantical,” and then addressing the singer, “And Asher, I loved that more than anything.” After Asher indicates the band plans to go on tour, Veronica turns and says, “Patty Mae, I hate you so much.” Patty Mae points to another woman and asks, “What about her?” Veronica proclaims, “I never waste my time on people who are muddy or inconvenient.” The other woman responds, “I’m not mud, it’s dirt. I fell down a hill,” as she makes a zig-zag pattern with her hands. Veronica then shifts her attention and demands, “Skippy, open that fucking fuck door of yours.”

Inside the bathroom, his voice altered to a lower pitch, Skippy (played by Trecartin) responds, “Never.” Ben and Asher suddenly get up to leave, and Veronica yells, “Skippy, your music friends are leaving because the show was a boring bore.” Skippy uses duct tape to attach a knife to the bathroom mirror. A frame within a frame appears and a smaller image of Skippy’s head tumbles down as he bends to turn on the bath water. Skippy announces, “I’m not sixteen anymore, but I feel like I’m five with sunglasses on.” He takes a Polaroid of himself and tries to flush it down the toilet. In a Southern accent Skippy insists, “I believe that somewhere there is something worth dying for, and I think it’s amazing.”After they leave, Skippy cuts his arm with the huge knife in a suicide attempt, as red paint pours down from the top of the frame. Covered in blood, Skippy runs outside and through the snow to a highway overpass, and then uses a garbage can cover to slide down a snowy hill.

An image of Skippy appears over a window, which then spins around as the screen divides into multiple images and Trecartin emplys other digital effects. Various friends respond to Skippy’s suicide attempt. A woman says, “For an evening I’ll cry for you. Not because I care, but because I’m emotional.” Two other women express hatred, which catches Skippy off-guard. One of the women chimes in, “I’ll give you a reason to die . . . to kill.” The white-faced Skippy responds, “Last night in a dream, I was told lots of things.” The woman in the purple dress denies this. They all recite in unison, “Open your eyes, cock. What you want isn’t what you need. What you need is right in front of you. But you have to feel it.” As everyone screams hysterically and one of the women cries, Skippy, holding a knife, continues to maintain, “I did it for fun” and “It’s funny.” Suddenly back in the bathroom again, Skippy wonders who bandaged his arm.

Tina enters, bringing a large seashell that contains a simple message for Skippy: “Don’t do it.” Tina warns, “Be careful of listening. It’s very influential.” Veronica then picks up the seashell. We hear the sound of running water and see a layered image that includes the seashell, tropical foliage, and a small snowman-like figure with a sign that says, “I prefer the tropics.” Veronica proclaims the shell to be amazing, and claims, “It’s like a vortex to the southern breeze.” Tina knocks on the door and announces that “Patty Mae is here.” This motivates Patty Mae, dressed in red and white, to do a minute-and-a half performance about the fact that she is actually in the room and not in the land of boys. As she continues her inspired monologue, Trecartin alters the pitch of her voice so that she sounds like one of the Chipmunks. Patty Mae concludes, “I need to accomplish something with my stuff.”

After more digital graphics, Skippy asks, “What was that?” The muddy woman explains, “A digital relic from a future age of cyber-chaos and analog holocaust.” We see a TV monitor that shows an abstract and colorful fish. The people on the monitor talk in high voices and we see shots of actual fish. Trecartin asks whether they’re ready to play the game. They proceed to play a game of cards in which they attempt to identify images in drawings. We hear words like “pooping” and “surfing,” and “fish.” The players then become concerned about their appearance, and one of them (later identified as Billy) exposes his genitalia, as everyone else laughs hysterically. The disc is turned over at intermission.

Billy lies naked on the couch (he has a white paint around his mouth and his erect white penis has been colored black). Skippy indicates that he has messy dreams and needs to be more confident. He insists, “No more fake blood for me. I want the real thing,” placing his hand on Billy’s penis. His mother, smoking a cigarette with exaggerated gestures, indicates her son is “mad . . . he’s like an alien . . . totally.” Skippy enters a room marked “Jesse and Hanks.” After greeting his parents, he asks, “What are you looking at?” His mother answers, “Son you need to give it up, yeah. This family is poisonous, yeah. You need to find a new home.” As his mother says this, she demonstrates the concept of home through a gesture with her hands, while her much younger husband chews gum.” Skippy’s father says the word “snake,” to which Skippy answers, “Mama is a snake. Yes, she is. Mama’s a snake.” His mother goes into the refrigerator, takes out an egg, and smashes it on the floor. Skippy’s father winks as he says “I love Skippy. I think he’s a winner.” His mother grabs the knife. She says to Skippy, “I’ll burn you like a witch, butt-plugger. I know your secret kept very well. Go eat some estrogen, homo.” His dad chimes in,”Yeah, with your gay friend, Billy.” Skippy asks, “How you know about Billy?”

Skippy’s mother opens the bedroom door, and Billy strolls in naked, even though Skippy continues to be in denial. His mother indicates that “family is poison” and that he “needs to find his home boys.” She takes a fifty-dollar bill out of her brassiere, gives it to Skippy, who rips open his shirt and puts it inside his own bra. His mother then orders him to “get the fuck out,” but, before he leaves, Skippy and his father share a lascivious kiss. Once outside, Skippy runs into a documentary video artist named Zoey, who wants to make a movie of him with her night-vision camera. As Skippy sprints into the street, he’s hit by a car driven by three other teenagers, including the muddy girl. The female driver says, “What the fuck was that?” The guy responds, “Some fucking fuck shit.” They laugh uncontrollably. The muddy girl complains, “Nobody understands me.” The driver explains that they’re only hanging out with her because their mothers are close friends.

Trecartin cuts from Skippy’s face to a colorful re-mixed song-and-dance number involving a red-haired young woman named Shin (played by Trecartin) and her friends, including Billy, complete with various digital effects. Shin screams, “So Honest! I can’t believe it. We are so unpredictable.” One of Shin’s friends, Linda, gets a phone call from Zoey about a boy named Skippy being hit by a car, but it takes awhile before Shin actually gets the message. Zoey asks for advice, but Shin responds, “Just keep filming him.” Shin then calls numerous friends to invite them to a party, as the screen breaks into fifteen images of talking heads at once. In a highly psychedelic sequence, someone asks, “Who’s outside?” Like a kind of Greek chorus, the group chants, “Skippy’s outside.” The person asks, “Am I his friend? Who is Skippy anyway?” Various answers are given: identity failure, exercise, a boring piece of homework, artificial intelligence, cosmic puke, and Michelella. The group repeats various aphorisms, such as, “We inhale anything. We can handle it.” Several guys, including Ben, hang out in a clubhouse. Two more guys arrive and announce that there is a dead boy outside and that a woman is filming him. Only Ben seems to have any misgivings about this news.

Amidst the Dionysian frenzy that ensues once Shin’s party begins, the narrative appears to be temporarily forgotten. But Skippy, or possibly his ghost, eventually rises from the moonlit street and announces, “I hear music.” As a musical note and other symbols float over the scene, Zoey suggests, “You should follow it.” Skippy replies,” I will.” Trecartin cuts to Shin bouncing up and down to music. Carrying a giant flaming sunflower, she leads the party outside, where the revelers sing the same song that Asher sang earlier, and a kind of baptism occurs in a round child’s swimming pool, which seems to transform Shin back into Skippy. In split-screen, the party culminates in a huge display of exploding fireworks, as Skippy dances ecstatically through the streets. Voices then yell for everyone to go inside. We see Skippy, who closes the door to a house. This is followed by credits, indicating that the video is “Dedicated to my Mom and Dad.”

I showed A Family Finds Entertainment last year as part of the Spotlight Film and Video series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). It can be viewed in segments on YouTube

Posted 27 January, 2008

Andy Warhol 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.

This is my contribution to the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at The House Next Door.

In thinking of the closeup, I almost invariably gravitate to the films of Andy Warhol, largely because so many of his films privilege this particular framing. In his extended screen test, Henry Geldzahler (1964), the then twenty-nine-year-old Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, loses his protracted battle with the camera, eventually regressing to an infantile state. In Screen Test #1 (1965), one of the longer sound portraits, Philip Fagan, Warhol’s inhibited lover at the time, lacks the verbal dexterity to counter the clever spider’s web of words that Ronald Tavel weaves to ensnare him, so that Fagan’s only response is to refuse to respond and stare silently off-screen, turning the screen test into a strange form of psychodrama. In Blow Job (1964), a film which Oggs Cruz has already written about, Warhol registers the activity of oral sex by concentrating the camera’s attention solely on a reaction shot of the recipient’s face.

The closeup is often used for dramatic emphasis in narrative films, but Warhol made entire films using only this shot, often as a form of portraiture. In the various Warhol Screen Tests – he created 472 of them – the issue of time becomes a crucial and distinguishing element. How can the subject fill up time? For Warhol, time is essentially determined by the length of the film that is running through the camera, even though he ultimately projects it at slower speed. Of the ones I’ve seen, by far the most fascinating screen test is the four-minute silent one of Ann Buchanan (1964), which appears as part of Warhol’s The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women (1964-65) and Four of Andy Warhol’s Most Beautiful Women (1964-69).

The 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, 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 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.

Posted 20 October, 2007

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