Magazine article Art Monthly

Warhol's Screens

Magazine article Art Monthly

Warhol's Screens

Article excerpt

With a full panoply of showings at the BFI in London last August and September and in the extraordinary Warhol retrospective currently showing at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, audiences have been treated to what is undoubtedly the most complete survey to date of Warhol's prodigious output of films. The transfer of the material from celluloid to DVD (and their release by the Andy Warhol Foundation) has suddenly made the films much more accessible, allowing us to re-evaluate the importance of film within Warhol's total body of work, and perhaps to speculate on what Warhol would have done had he lived to work with digital media.

There are perhaps very few people who have sat through the five hours and twenty-one minutes of Sleep, 1963, or the eight hours of Empire, 1969, as the films rattled their way through a 16mm projector, but imagine the films presented as wall-hung plasma screens; they would then be like continuously running, ambient films, somewhere between moving pictures and static paintings, something to be glanced at now and again. The Empire State Building would then be an icon on a par with the Coca-Cola bottles or dollar bills that Warhol painted or silkscreened. Or would it have more in common with a webcam, like Wolfgang Staehle's 2001 panorama of the Lower Manhattan skyline that inadvertently captured the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11? Yet the equipment that Warhol originally used to shoot his films was far from the seamless ubiquity of digital media. His first camera, purchased in 1963, was a motor-driven Bolex that could be loaded with 100-foot spools of film each lasting three minutes. The film cost only $3 plus another $6 for processing. Most of the scores of 'Screen Tests' that Warhol made in the mid 60s involved simply sitting the subject before the camera and turning it on, resulting in a three-minute portrait, showing the subject staring impassively into the lens or fidgeting nervously. Henry Geldzahler had to endure more than an hour of the camera's gaze, with the resulting film lasting 99 minutes projected at 16 frames a second. The two films made in 1964 featuring the transvestite Mario Montez eating a banana clearly reveal the influence of Jack Smith, whose 1963 underground classic Flaming Creatures was not only a homage to Hollywood B-movie starlets like Maria Montez, but also filmed in a tableau style that Warhol was to make frequent use of. Another recurrent device is the action that takes place out of frame. This is most evident in Blow Job, 1964, where we see only the head and upper torso of the fellatee, but it is also an essential element in Screen Test #2, 1965, one of Warhol's first sound films, in which Montez is filmed auditioning for the role of Esmeralda in a movie version of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris. Off-screen we hear Ronald Tavel, Warhol's resident scriptwriter, directing and goading Montez.

On one of the several audio tapes in the Stedelijk Museum exhibition, we can hear Edie Sedgwick telling Warhol how to make films, advising him to take more control of directing and to exploit Factory regular Ondine's 'natural' qualities. Warhol was probably not assertive or experienced enough for the former, but he certainly appreciated the latter (at least until Ondine's frequent amphetamine-fuelled temper tantrums got him barred from the Factory). …

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