Andy Warhol's Blow Job

Article excerpt

Roy Grundmann. Andy Warhol's Blow Job. Temple University Press, 2003. 228 pages; $22.95.

Teasing Quality

The early underground cinema of Andy Warhol points the way to the spangled postmodernism of our own times. This is not just a matter of the fascination with pop culture and those by now proverbial fifteen minutes of fame; it can be seen also in his playfulness, his manipulation of mass images, even in his refusal to communicate meaning in any conventional, narrative sense. For the Warhol of the early 1960s, as for all of us now, reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

The first factory films were minimalist embodiments of this, and Blow Job is one of the best known, although it is more of an idea hovering in the ether than a film that anyone has actually seen. Made in 1964, it consists of one, silent, monochrome shot in which a young man, starkly lit against a brick wall, indicates by his facial expressions and gestures that someone below the frame is performing a service that cannot be specified in a respectable journal. Roy Grundmann points out that the film's myth-in-the-ether status lies in its teasing quality. The "poser," as he calls the man, could be precisely that, because there may, or may not be anyone giving the pleasure, and, even if there were, there is no way of knowing whether it is a man or a woman. This means that viewers are faced with fundamental questions about the relationship between the seer and the seen. Moreover, if they are gay male viewers, then they are confronted with other, labyrinthine issues surrounding the nature of specifically white, gay identity.

This book is a journey into that labyrinth; queer history, cultural studies and the more abstruse aspects of film theory are our guides. In Grundmann's view, the film is a historical document poised between Eisenhower's squeaky-clean America on the one hand, and, on the other, what might be called the countercultural break-up of the later 1960s. It spoke, therefore, for a time when gay men were grappling with the pre-Stone-wall problems of visibility and invisibility, and were trying to resolve them by appropriating certain popular images, which, in themselves, were not as exclusively heterosexual as they first appeared. …