Screening Warhol: New Takes on the Artist and Filmmaker
The Menil Collection & Rice University Media Center
In 1964 when avant garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas headed over to The Factory to present Andy Warhol with Film Culture magazine's Independent Film Award (a fruit basket), he brought along his Bolex camera. Mekas' film, aptly called Award Presentation to Andy Warhol, 1964, 12 minutes, includes Andy Warhol, Baby Jane Holzer, Niko, Gerard Malanga, Ivy Nicholsen, Kenneth King and Naomi Levine. Like the films for which Warhol was being honored, Mekas' film was an unscripted cinema verité of the 1960s New York art world. Unlike Warhol's films, Mekas' was short and edited.
Warhol's passion for the unedited-- his longest film **** was 25 hours-- continues to elicit questions and was largely the topic of the film series and symposium "Screening Warhol: New Takes on the Artist and Filmmaker" at Rice University Media Center and The Menil Collection. Inspired by the recent restoration of some of Warhol's 4000 plus film works, "Screening Warhol" was an impressive undertaking that included among other films a world premiere of Sunset-- a commission of John and Dominique de Menil for a chapel in San Antonio-- and presentations by authors and scholars Callie Angell, Douglas Crimp, David James, Lynne Tillman and Branden W. Joseph. Like many of Warhol's films, the series was more of an endurance test than a crowd pleaser.
Warhol's films from 1964-68 broke all of the tropes that the Hollywood studio system had developed over 60 years. No crosscutting, no special effects, no directing, no editing. Warhol's camera was static and his characters were obliged to improvise for 33 non-stop minutes (the duration of a 1200' film magazine). What surfaces in those endless minutes is idiosyncratic behavior, self-consciousness, humor and awkward silence. On-screen drug use made performing fun for some of Warhol's Superstars like Ondine (Robert Olivio) and Brigid Berlin in Imitation of Christ. As they lay in bed shooting up, Ondine and Berlin seem sleepy and slap happy. Other characters seem to unravel as the camera rolls like Edie Sedgewick in Kitchen; she continually sneezes as a signal for a line cue. In Horse, a "sex" western, six or so cowboys stand around a horse for 100 minutes. The few lines written by Ronald Tavel include "I'm the Kid from Laramie. Hang me on yonder tree". The cowboys eventually resort to wrestling and crotch grabbing to pass the time. As Lynne Tillman stated at the symposium, "Warhol's characters were self-conscious even when they were nearly unconscious."
The screenings at Rice Media Center were a measure of tolerance levels. Typically more than one half the audience abandoned ship before the end of the evening. Lasting the entire duration of a film was an achievement. On Frameworks, an internet listserve for experimental film, the resurgence of Warhol's films around the country is a hot topic. A message with the subject heading "Boredom/Warhol" elicited 22 responses on kinds of boredom, Buddhism and boredom, Boredom and the Ego, Structural Film, time and boredom, etc. One of the responses came from Callie Angell, one of the "Screening Warhol" symposium speakers and Adjunct Curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum. (Angell is currently cataloging over 1000 reels of Warhol's films.) Angell described Warhol's films as producing "productive boredom" which elicits a heightened perceptiveness. Similarly, a critic for the Village Voice commented after watching 25 hours of **** in 1967, "I became all perception, no memory, no intelligence." He also admitted that being on speed helped.