Anarchic Cinema: The Anti-Film & Why I Hate Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol is often considered a pioneer of the "anti-film" or cinematic nihilism, though his films themselves leave much to be desired.
As you can imagine by now, this entry into our “anarchy as art” conversation may be a tad contentious. Though considering Andy Warhol as one of the most controversial figures in all of art history, he’d probably take this inclusion as a compliment, as fallout from his career can still be felt radiating throughout the modern artistic consciousness.
On Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls
An introduction of this diatribe is perfectly summed up by the reaction to Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls released in 1966 (co-directed with Paul Morrissey, who would famously denounce his relationship with Warhol, due to years of Warhol receiving credit for his ideas). It was a film that broke convention by being two separate screens playing at the same time, leaving the editing to the attention of the audience, of which Roger Ebert wrote, “…what we have here is 3½ hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them.”
Warhol, whose work now fetches price tags in the multi-millions and is showcased in museums and collections around the world, was one of the most eccentric talents ever profiled. Revered as a progenitor of modern visual art theory, his work has inspired some of the most groundbreaking explorations in modern history, his official foundation still supporting and funding artists of all stripes.
Also, Ebert snagged the best summation words to encompass Warhol’s whole artistic existence: making art for the sake of it, and not a damn thing else. In the instance of his movies, this can be called cinematic nihilism, or the “anti-film” (deliberately subverting film language and storytelling), and its critics can range from those slightly annoyed to severely venomous (almost hilariously so in some cases). Though quite honestly, Andy Warhol’s utter apathy in the face of life, death, and art is what originally set my grounds for Anarchic Cinema.
Let me explain why I absolutely hate the man.
Andy Warhol’s career as a filmmaker and producer began roughly in 1963 with his feature Sleep, which was a single long take of his lover John Giorno, sleeping uninterrupted for nearly 5½ hours. No tricks, no movement, no story. Only nine people attended the premiere, two of which left before the first hour was up. He would make dozens of such films over the next several years, always trying something a little newer each time, though almost always with the same tedious result.
Sleep’s format would copy to even greater extremes the next year in Warhol’s more infamous eight-hour single-shot Empire. This slow-motion uninterrupted shot of the Empire State Building is utterly painful to watch from start to finish (this also includes the Museum of Modern Art’s two-hour edit), as nothing of even slight interest or import occurs. When asked in bewilderment as to why he would waste so much film stock on the torrid task, Warhol responded that he wanted to literally capture time passing. While he certainly achieved this, why it had to be such an drawn-out tedium that it requires a full work day to observe, I’ll never understand. Jonas Mekas (the cinematographer of the film, and a name we will come to dissect in later installments) posited that Empire would profoundly influence all future avant-garde cinema. Well…
Yes and No
Andy Warhol would irreparably alter the course of avant-garde filmmaking, directly spawning the No Wave Movement with his central ideas, though it wasn’t achieved with Empire. It was with his 35-minute silent film Blow Job, made in January 1964. Its sole focus is on the facial expressions of DeVeren Bookwalter as he received fellatio from an unseen partner (again, slowed down considerably). The short is lascivious without being exploitative, and in doing this, indirectly began to legitimize erotica in mainstream art, aiding the forebears of the Sexual Revolution.
Now, how come I don’t mention Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) as the more important foundation of this evolution? True, both he and Warhol are known for provocative sexualized works which culminated in their arrests on obscenity charges at certain points in their careers; both of their subsequent court cases stand as victories for free expression in art. The catch is, Anger made a point in his film, expousing homoerotica and sadomasachism with “being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas and the fourth of July.” This work’s themes are still discussed and debated to this day, and Anger himself would revise the film on-and-off until roughly 1980, so it exists as an ever-evolving piece reflective of temperamental cultural shifts.
Warhol’s point was with his film; it resolutely exists and you have to recognize its existence, even if you hate the fact that you must. Because we must acknowledge it as art, we must also recognize that sexual arousal and pleasure (simulated or not) on-screen can also be considered art; a thought that sent most critics and audiences of the time calling foul against Blow Job. Its import and interpretation (like most of Andy Warhol’s films) never evolved with subsequent decades, and ultimately is overlooked when discussing the power of avant-garde ’60s cinema.
But when stacked up against one another in the heat of the moment, regardless of what statement either work was intrinsically or incidentally making, the more dramatic shift in art occurred via a famous deconstructive artist nearing the peak of his rather astonishing career. This is opposed to an upstart just beginning to make waves in a far more conservative sociocultural time in American history. Anger is another significant figure we will also come to discuss, but his significant contributions lie elsewhere.
A Step Back
Returning to Nick Zedd from the previous installment for a moment; the base of Transgressive Cinema is 200-proof Warhol. Warhol’s philosophies set the standard from which the No Wave movement birthed itself, the punk attitudes and renegade personalities set against the world blended with the chaos of the pop art and Beat Poetry movements. However, there is a significant divergence between Warhol and transgressive movies; they were completely different breeds of cinematic nihilism. What I call “Warhol Film” (a specific anti-film attitude which included Ronald Tavel) was a micro-school of art with a passively apathetic approach. As Paul Morrissey put it, “He’s the essence of passivity…he just isn’t there.”
Transgressive Cinema was aggressive nihilism. It was reactive, even explosive against the very world that spawned it. However, as the dictionary definition of nihilism would be life without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value, how could one be ‘aggressively’ nihilistic?
Let’s put it like this…
Warhol Film is the equivalent of standing in traffic. Obstructing everyone and everything with no care for the consequences. You do not respond to the angry shouts and car horns blaring in your ears, or even if you get run over by a bus driver trying to stay on schedule. Thus, this is passive nihilism. Transgressive Cinema is the equivalent of the scene in the Blues Brothers where they crash bombastically through a mall without ever once giving a look of concern for the safety of anyone or anything. This is aggressive nihilism.
Whereas Transgressive Cinema rejects the tenants of convention and tradition, it still created a self-perpetuating, anti-establishment system and a trove counter-cultural objectives which gave birth to numerous interpretations that are still being used in practice to this very day. Warhol Film (though cherry-picked almost unrecognizably into many different incarnations such as Remodernist Film and Dogma 95) in essence ceased to exist with the death of Andy Warhol. It was something completely unique to the man and the ambitions of many indie artists of the time without carrying over like the rest of his artistic contributions. But if I have said so much about how Warhol contributed to the world and to Anarchic Cinema, why does the article bear this title?
Because I hate the man’s art. Plain and simple. His non-purpose is something that is almost demigod-like, but it doesn’t mean I cannot find most of his movies (that I have seen) downright awful. I never learn from, enjoy, or want to seek out any of his other works after watching one of his terrible reels of unguided irrelevance and ineptitude. His passiveness is so extreme, I cannot in good conscious even refer to him as a “director”, because I feel that is an insult to all other who bear the title. Though my reaction to his films may be what he strove to achieve, I just do not care, and no matter how hard I tried, I still do not care. His most guilty contenders are L’Amour (directed with Morrissey), Space, Eating Too Fast, Camp, and his especially atrocious Vinyl (the first loose adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange).
Ironically, I do credit Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie to be his best film, but not because of the film itself; more or less a half-an-hour of Louis Waldon and Viva improvising dialogue and having unsimulated sex on-screen. Just as shallowly developed as any of his other works, he created the very first pornographic film to receive any kind of commercial release in the United States (which was immediately stopped when Warhol was arrested), that wasn’t funded and released through the support and guidance of organized crime.
Blue Movie legitimizing hardcore sexual acts on screen would be the direct inspiration of porno chic, or the Golden Age of Porn, arising with films such as Mona (1970), Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). This was the beginning for mainstream acceptance of explicit sexuality in movies and setting the stage for the next evolution in the Sexual Revolution which would carry into the 1980s. Though this possible progression would tragically backfire after Miller v. California in 1973, its effects are felt in the industry and in the art world to this day. So, I have to give credit where it is due.
Chelsea Girls, Sleep, Empire, and Blow Job weren’t made to take cinematic deconstruction to the extremes for the sake of a good experiment. Arguably the highest quality film Warhol ever created (again with Paul Morrissey) was The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound, which was only improvised rehearsal footage, and even that is a stretch because its significance is only prominent due to its direct influence over more pioneering works produced afterwards (such as Amos Poe and Ivan Kral’s The Blank Generation).
Andy Warhol and The Factory’s “hey look here, we made a thing” breed of creation was the rebellion in and of itself. So damn the results as long as they can call whatever they make art, because why not? Isn’t that what art is about? That’s Anarchic Cinema.
What are your thoughts on Andy Warhol?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.