Paris-based cinephile/critic Harry Tuttle is hosting a Contemplative Cinema Blog-A-Thon.
In the fall, I got the chance to see an Andy Warhol exhibit curated by David Cronenberg at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and also catch some of the Warhol retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario. Before they fly out of my head entirely, I thought I’d set down some facts, impressions and general thoughts.
I’ve always been a big Warhol fan—especially of the ideas generated by and surrounding his artworks—but until recently I’d seen almost no films by him except a few Screen Tests. I remembered J. Hoberman’s line about Warhol (“the most influential unseen oeuvre in movie history”) and tried to make a special effort to take in whatever films I could. I also spent much time at the Cronenberg exhibit (on two separate visits) and picked up the audio CD of his remarkably insightful “audio tour.”
To begin with, some facts. Warhol bought a 16 mm Bolex camera and started making films in 1963. Almost all his films were made in the five-year period from 1963-1968. As Michael O’Pray has pointed out, these years can be roughly divided into three phases: (1) 1963-64: silent, relatively short B&W films made with the Bolex, like Kiss, Sleep, Eat, Haircut, Blow-Job, and the Screen Tests; (2) 1964-66: longer films, often an hour or more, with sound, like Beauty #2, Kitchen and The Chelsea Girls; (3) 1967-68: an attempt to build upon the commercial success of The Chelsea Girls, with a slightly tighter and clearer, more realist narrative, probably under the increasing influence of Paul Morrissey. Films in this phase include: My Hustler, Nude Restaurant and Lonesome Cowboys. Valerie Solanas shot Warhol in 1968, which abruptly ended his active, hands-on filmmaking activities. He did continue to sign Morrissey films like Flesh, Trash and Heat over the next couple of years.
Most people think of the little-seen Sleep (1963) as a single unchanging shot of a man sleeping for six hours. Actually, it was made over a period of several months, and is edited together from various takes and angles. Each shot uses static camera and lasts about three minutes, the length of a hundred-foot roll of film. Many shots are looped or repeated, so the film is not a faithful recording of ‘passing time’—time has been manipulated. I point this out because knowledge about the way Warhol’s films were made does add, I think, to the conceptual richness of his work. The film would be less interesting (for me) without knowing these production details since Warhol is in part (but not only) a conceptual artist.
I watched about a half-hour of Sleep at the exhibit. I have two points of concern about films that are part of an art exhibit these days: (1) more and more, they are being shown on DVD and not celluloid; and (2) sometimes (as for these Warhol films) there is no place to sit if you want to watch them—you have to stand, which quickly gets uncomfortable, not to mention the bustle of the circulating crowd around you....
Warhol’s brilliant stroke in his early films is to shoot them at 24 frames per second and then turn around and project them at 16 frames per second (silent speed). This has the effect of slowing down movement, stretching time and giving the image an ethereal languor. Cronenberg points out that even in a fixed-camera shot of utter stillness (e.g. a man sleeping), the image itself does not stay the same. Just as repeated silk-screened frames in a Warhol painting differ in markings and gradations of color, no two film frames are completely identical because the distribution of grain is unique and different in each frame.
A certain ‘purity’ about early Warhol. When a film does nothing but show an act like sleeping, eating or getting a haircut in life-like detail, it liberates the artwork from drama! The ‘narrative’ has no past and no future—only present. Just pure here-and-now-ness. There’s no backstory, suspense, psychology, central conflict or denouement. There is only the (intensely) material image, and there is duration (the passage of time). The freedom that this allows is unprecedented in movies and thus, more than a little discomfiting. What are we to do with such a work? What are we to do with the time—this lengthy, perpetual awareness of the present—that the work floods us with?
Also, these films weren't necessarily intended to be watched in a movie theater, from beginning to end, in one sitting. It is well-known that Warhol often projected his films at the Factory while he worked, or during parties. They were almost like moving paintings hanging on a wall, to be looked at intermittently. They moved in and out of one’s consciousness over the course of a few hours. Perhaps, each time, a particular (and different) detail might catch the eye. And spur a particular (and different) cinematic or extra-cinematic reflection or contemplation.
For me, the single most fascinating thing about Warhol’s work is its relationship to ideas of authorship. It’s ironic: experimental cinema, more than any other, is associated with hand-made artisanal production over which a single creator has an enormous degree of control. Warhol on the other hand seemed to find ingenious ways of giving up control! And the various ways in which he renounced control are not trivial but significant and interesting:
(1) Rather than carefully determining and varying the length of a shot according to some dramatic criterion (like almost all other filmmakers do), he used, arbitrarily, an element of technological chance: e.g. the length of a hundred-foot roll of film; (2) His famously ‘machinic’ manner of production: turn on the camera and leave, as he did for many of the Screen Tests. This industrial mode of production also shows up in the seriality of his work: repeated silk-screened images, or the standard format of the (400+) Screen Tests; (3) His use of ‘found’ elements. Instead of casting professional actors he often used friends and other artists. Liz Taylor (in his paintings) and The Empire State Building (in his film) were ‘found’ material alike.
Another thought: 110 years ago, the length of a single, unedited shot in the Lumière films—a little under a minute—was also determined by technological happenstance. Real time and cinematic time were equal in those films. But quickly, practices of continuity editing began to compress time. Warhol’s films reverse this process by uncompressing time, distending it, returning it to its original starting point, real time....
LINKS: (1) A fantastic essay on Warhol's films by Thom Andersen at Rouge; (2) A great post on Walt Disney by David Bordwell; (3) Lots of early Thomas Edison films (1891-1900) are handily viewable here (thanks, Darren!); (4) Jim Emerson says: "Up with contempt!"
I watched fewer films in 2006 than I did the year before. It probably had something to do with more time spent blogging, reading, etc., but nevertheless, I ask you: what good is a cinephile who doesn't watch a lot of films? So, I've made some new year's cinema resolutions: (1) Watch a film a day. On busy or long days, it can be a short film, even UbuWeb! (2) Religiously keep a film-log; (3) Within 24 hours of watching a film, jot down some notes about it.
Make any cinema-related new year's resolutions, however casual? Confess if you like.