Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol and The Black Hole of the Camera
Reviewed by Michael Sicinski
“Our Kind of Movie”—The Films of Andy Warhol
by Douglas Crimp. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. 171 pp., illus. Hardcover: $27.95.
The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol
by J. J. Murphy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. 303 pp., illus. Hardcover: $70.00 and Paperback: $29.95.
The cinema of Andy Warhol has not exactly been neglected, but the amount of critical attention that has been afforded these films over the years is hardly commensurable to their vitality and importance. Certainly, Warhol’s work in film has nothing close to the popular notoriety of the man’s Pop Art canvases, nor has Warhol’s cinema generated the same kind of art historical cottage industry that fortifies his output in other media like a kind of discursive rampart. This speaks to a number of issues specific to both the Warholian corpus and his broader place within twentieth-century visual culture. It probably doesn’t need to be said any longer that Warhol’s mass-reproductive maneuver—both the generation of silkscreened images as semisubstitutes for personalized gestures from the Artist’s hand, and his insertion of icons and logos from the mass-media vernacular into the fine art context—was the most significant conceptual sea change in Western art since the Duchampian readymade. Warhol’s exposure of the aesthetic realm’s constant imbrication with sullied concerns of business and publicity constituted a crisis point, even for the very notion of an avant-garde critique, which had the capacity to stand apart from those social and political institutions it aimed to question. The soup can, the Marilyn, and the Brillo box, in a sense, sounded the death knell for the “relative autonomy” of art.
But Warhol’s films posed different challenges. As some critics have noted, cinema and silkscreens are both processes of mechanical reproduction, and Warhol employed both, often for similar purposes. Portraiture is one key facet of Warhol’s art that carries across both media. Still, the mass acceptance of, say, multiple, multicolored Elizabeth Taylors on canvas (on the one hand) and the relative indifference to Warhol’s slow, protracted screenings of strangers eating, sleeping, or receiving oral pleasure (on the other) speaks to both the lure of celebrity and, perhaps more importantly, the pivotal role of temporality as a compositional element. Warhol exacted a kind of control over the viewer when he unleashed a film, with a bounded running time (even if he purportedly didn’t mind having them screened in clubs and at parties, in ambient fashion); the Warholian gaze becomes locked in place, a kind of Plato’s Cave devoted exclusively to the shadows and their glittering “truth.”
So despite the fact that Warhol and his Factory cohort began making cinema within months of his New York gallery debut, the films have long been regarded, even if informally, as a somewhat separate body of work. Apart from the 1966 commercial crossover The Chelsea Girls, the films were a coterie phenomenon, and Warhol even removed them from circulation in the early Seventies. In recent years, a number of scholars have been taking advantage of the fact that the films have reentered circulation, through the preservation efforts of the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art. It seems that nearly every year, a “new” Warhol film reemerges, its preservation complete. During the absence of the films from the scene, of course, not all that much scholarship was produced. While many of the stalwarts of the avant-garde critical community engaged with Warhol—Fred Camper, David James, Amy Taubin, and the late Paul Arthur—for a good long while we were stuck with Stephen Koch’s Stargazer, a catty, innuendo-laden tome from the early Seventies, as the only semiacademic monograph on Warhol the filmmaker.
Interest has burgeoned as the films have been rediscovered. But despite numerous scholars delivering conference papers and publishing journal articles about Warhol’s cinema since “the thaw,” it’s telling that we are now witnessing the release of two separate monographs on the experimental filmmaker who, as David James rightly observed in his Allegories of Cinema, really stands alongside Stan Brakhage in terms of aesthetic influence. Sadly, this is a situation that is entirely understandable. Everyone involved in “Warhol Studies” knew who was producing the definitive monograph on the films—the late Callie Angell. Her knowledge on the topic was as encyclopedic as it was generous, and the authors of both of the new Warhol books, Douglas Crimp and J. J. Murphy, fully acknowledge that their projects would have been difficult if not impossible without her assistance.
Of her projected catalogue raisonné, Angell was able only to finish her work on the Screen Tests before her untimely death, and although the woman and her work can never be replaced, Warhol studies carries on. The emergence of these two works on Warhol in such close temporal proximity is a positive development, indeed, much like the sudden boom in scholarly studies on Jean-Luc Godard at the end of the Nineties when several of his films returned to circulation. And, much as Kaja Silverman, Harun Farocki, and David Sterritt covered similar Godardian territory from angles, which were productive in their divergence, Crimp and Murphy each mark their own path through the Warholian celluloid corpus.
More specifically, “Our Kind of Movie” and The Black Hole of the Camera could be considered two maps of the same planet, emphasizing and magnifying different land masses like the Mercator versus the Mollweide projections. The shift in emphases, in fact, can be read right off the titles. Crimp’s book is an examination of Warhol’s cinema as a set of formal objects that embody a radical queer politics, one that instantiates community without “relationality” as conventionally conceived. The films, then, are spaces that generate as-yet-undefined social relations, both in their making and, potentially, at the site of spectatorship. By contrast, Murphy (borrowing his title from onetime-Superstar-gone-“legit” Mary Woronov) understands Warhol’s cinema to be an instigator of “psychodrama” (in a strictly psychological sense, borrowed from Erving Goffman and Eric Bentley), in which situations are created that will push performers into an existential crisis of self-revelation, largely against their will. In short, Crimp finds the films to be modernist talismans of an alternative kinship; Murphy, records of a systematic Theatre of Cruelty.
If I’m ultimately much more sympathetic to Crimp’s reading of Warhol (full disclosure: I was a student of Crimp in grad school), this isn’t to say that Murphy’s viewpoint doesn’t have its compelling aspects. One of the areas Black Hole examines in significant depth is the particular use of off-screen direction that characterizes some of the key films from Warhol’s early sound period. Crimp, of course, examines these films as well, but Murphy is much more interested in articulating the specific dynamics between the unseen voice and a given performer as a way of illuminating the fiction/documentary gray area that certain of the films evoke. In particular, Murphy devotes full chapters to the films scripted and “directed” by Ronald Tavel and those similarly involving Chuck Wein. (He also concludes with a consideration on Paul Morrissey, whose teaming with Warhol Murphy, like most others, considers the effective end of “Warhol cinema.”)
This is a notable move on Murphy’s part, for several reasons. For one, it allows him to dissect, for example, Tavel’s slow humiliation of Mario Montez in Screen Test #2 (1965), in which the off-screen interlocutor demands, among other things, that Montez stick a bottle up his ass and (emotionally) break the illusion of his female impersonation by pulling out his penis. Murphy’s approach also allows him to compare the relative success of Tavel’s cruelty (in provoking psychodrama, which for Murphy yields narrative interest), as compared with that of Wein. Warhol’s later collaborator, says Murphy, “clearly borrows some of the same techniques of psychodrama that Tavel had exploited earlier, but he doesn’t have the same wit or verbal dexterity” (116). What Wein did have was the trust of Edie Sedgwick, whose emotional instability he could play for cinematic paydirt, especially if she happened to be under the influence.
Black Hole provides analyses of virtually all of the Warhol films in current distribution, and while some are closer and more formally detailed than others, simply the fact of Murphy’s intensive study of Warhol’s vast oeuvre makes the book highly valuable. At the same time, Murphy’s focus is hardly neutral, something the author never exactly announces to the reader. As one reads Murphy’s chapter on Wein, certain discrepancies in tone appear like fault lines. In describing Sedgwick (or “Edie,” as he continually refers to her, with presumed intimacy), he describes her as “beautiful” (77), mentions her “attractive crossed legs” (102), and notes that even though she was not the movie star Warhol had hopes of making her, she plays on in Restaurant (1965) and “she clearly looks like one.” (Murphy also notes that Sedgwick struggled with bulimia and loved horses.) By contrast, his description of John Giorno in Sleep (1963) is one of adamant distaste.
Later on in the passage, Murphy describes Giorno as looking like he is either sick or dead, and characterizes Sleep as a film that is essentially about mortality and decay.
It is difficult not to read passages like these as enacting a kind of defensive heterosexualization of Warhol’s cinema. Given that the sight of a gay man in bed reflects death for Murphy above all, it’s impossible not to think of Leo Bersani’s classic essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”
But apart from this or that overtone in Murphy’s book, or its occasional overreliance on Factory lore, there is an odd parallel tendency that we might call “straightening” Warhol, by other means. Murphy, an experimental filmmaker in the Seventies who made at least two acknowledged classics, Print Generation (1973) and Sky Blue Water Light Sign (1972), turned to narrative filmmaking in the Eighties. He also began teaching screenwriting and has published a book on “how independent screenplays work.” This, I think it is fair to say, goes a long way toward explaining what is ultimately Murphy’s dominant refrain throughout Black Hole, which is that many if not most of Warhol’s films can best be understood as narrative works.
He prizes the psychodramas and their cruelty because, for him, these incidents provoke “narrative” within the overall drift of a loose structure designed to provoke such extremity. In his analyses of Restaurant (1965) and Hedy (1966), Murphy claims that Warhol’s jarring camerawork and seemingly unmotivated zooms are in fact “functional” and “interpretive” (90), in service to narrative information. He even argues that in a film such as Empire (1964), the movement from dusk to night is a narrative of sorts (although I’d question the value of the term at this stage in its elasticity). Using the psychodrama concept, Murphy thinks Warhol’s cinema has a greater affinity with that of John Cassavetes than with “amateurs” like Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas (245). (Note the category error; the proud badge of amateur—“one who loves”—taken up by the American avant-garde becomes conflated with the unprofessional messing around that Paul Morrissey took it as his charge to eradicate.) By the end of Black Hole of the Camera, Murphy has derived a highly unique, counterintuitive map, tracing Warhol’s cinematic influence to the heart of U.S. art cinema: Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, even “mumblecore.”
This isn’t wrong. Van Sant’s recent auteur works, such as his long-take trilogy made with the late Harris Savides as d.p. (2002’s Gerry, 2003’s Elephant, and 2005’s Last Days) are unthinkable without Warhol. (However I am not so sure that Jarmusch owes as much to Warhol as he does to James Benning.) Nevertheless, there is a strong undercurrent throughout Murphy’s book that, in order for Warhol to be truly understood and appreciated, he must be recuperated as an art-house narrative auteur, for whom the commercial energies of The Chelsea Girls (1967) were always already there. By contrast, Crimp’s take on Warhol’s relationship to narrativity, and screenwriting in particular, seems far more suggestive. This is because Crimp’s reading in “Our Kind” manages, among other things, to explore the Warhol/Tavel collaboration in a way that gives Tavel his due, just as absolutely as Murphy does, while arriving at a more radical conclusion.
It should be noted from the outset, by the way, that Crimp’s project with Warhol is broader than Murphy’s, in the sense that it has explicit political stakes. The Warhol project is the newest phase of a psychoanalytically-inflected, anti-identitarian queer leftism that has been at the heart of Crimp’s work ever since he and his theoretical art criticism (primarily associated with his tenure at the pioneering journal October) collided with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. An earlier Crimp effort, the 1989 essay “Mourning and Militancy,” broke ground (and silence) by insisting that AIDS activism had to allow space for sorrow and pain, not just a constant forging ahead. (This is a lesson that breast cancer activism is still struggling to learn, as we see in Léa Pool’s 2011 documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc.) In “Our Kind,” Crimp adapts concepts from Bersani and the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, proposing a relationality that refuses “relationship,” with all the (hetero)normativity that entails.
What does this mean for the Warhol films? To return to the question of the filmmaker’s collaboration with Tavel, Crimp sees those films’ value—The Life of Juanita Castro, Vinyl, Horse (all 1965), Hedy (1966) and others—in the incompatibility of Tavel’s screenwriting aims with Warhol’s deliberately haphazard direction. It was “an active confrontation,” Crimp states, between two highly gifted artists who were not ignoring one another, in some Cagean manner, but operating at cross purposes, to productive, often explosive effect.
In aesthetic as well as ethical terms, Crimp seems to implicitly invoke Adorno, if not Heidegger. The artwork is a field in which incompatible semiotic systems (Tavel’s clipped, gutter-literate prose; Warhol’s spatial articulations and unyielding commitment to permeable diegesis) approach one another asymptotically, retaining their unique character, permitting the “final product” to be the field of operations, not some hypothetical meld.
This idea of singularity, wherein beings come into contact, affect one another, without “subjecting” one another—in both the psychoanalytic sense, of projecting egoic subjectivity onto the Other, and the more common parlance of subjecting the Other to one’s own will—is a queer ethic that Crimp finds throughout Warhol’s cinema. Even in Screen Test #2, which features Tavel slowly attempting to humiliate Mario Montez, Crimp discovers that, through Montez’s hurt and ultimately his dignity, the film creates a set of relationships rather different than the psychodramatic ones Murphy found. This, I would argue, is because Crimp locates the film’s “meaning” not within its enclosed diegetic space but in its triangulation with the spectator. Crimp argues that shame is a fundamental part of queer identity, one that identity politics’ focus on “Pride” tends to occlude. This is partly because the shame of others is something cannot properly be “shared” or coopted. Shame is part of the Other’s absolute singularity; in Heideggerian terms, it is the subject’s “ownmost.” And yet, our shared susceptibility to shame provokes a noncooptive relationality—the start of a possible queer politic.
In terms of Montez’s exposure, Crimp finds not drama but empathy (my word, not his), and watching the performer’s shame both instigates a sense of shame in the viewer and permits us to really see Mario Montez in his absolute singularity. Citing Michael Warner, Crimp notes that “queer scenes are the true salons des refuses, where the most heterogeneous people are brought into great intimacy by their common experience of being despised and rejected in a world of norms that they now recognize as false morality” (Warner, The Trouble With Normal, 35-36). In this regard, can’t we see Screen Test #2 as even more of an exposure of Ronald Tavel—his own shame, his possible transphobia, his catty one-upmanship—and a document of Montez’s hard-bitten dignity? Still, in his shame, he provokes similar feelings in ourselves that, by definition, go to the very heart of what cannot be assimilated.
In this regard, “Our Kind of Movie” is fundamentally about Warhol’s cinema as a (perhaps unexpected) constellation wherein formal invention and ethical possibility coincide, without locking horns in a dialectic or one exhausting the other. Crimp’s formal analysis of an underknown film like The Closet (1966), featuring Nico and Randy Bourscheidt, for example, emphasizes Warholian filmic space as both enclosure and fluctuation, with camerawork continually shifting the viewer’s relation to the allegedly confining onscreen space, as well as the film-world of the two performers, engaged in a tussle of relation and nonrelation. Bourscheidt comments to Nico that “there are some variations [of color] in here,” noting that leaving the closet would make no real existential difference in their perception. This tells us that The Closet is Warhol’s ambivalent deconstruction of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Leaving “the closet” does not yield The Truth, but rather a different set of appearances, and both “worlds” possess their own integrity and their own absolute singularity. In this respect, Crimp locates in the films of Andy Warhol not only an ethics but an epistemology—in this case, a literal “epistemology of the closet”—that attends to the particularity, and the peculiarity (the “queerness”), of things, of all the unique bodies before our eyes awaiting illumination.
This is the difference between Crimp’s Warhol and Murphy’s. And while I freely admit, as I did above, that I personally find Crimp’s to be not only more persuasive but more productive, the very ethic of singularity that Crimp finds in Warhol also indicates that Murphy’s path through Warhol generates its own valuable perspective. Queerness, after all, is not absolutely definable, and by tracing an experimental-narrative trajectory through Warhol’s cinema, The Black Hole of the Camera leads us to Van Sant or, arguably, Ira Sachs—directors whose exploration of affect and engagement remains linked to the telling of stories. And when Crimp, in describing the politics of Warhol’s formal method, writes that “it maintains both the self and the other in their fundamental distinctiveness, a distinctiveness that is for me the radical meaning of queer” (66), we can certainly apply this radical queer reading to the relationship between these two books.
Perhaps it’s no secret by now that this is what I have been trying to do. Murphy’s close formal analyses and organizational emphasis on screenwriting, or more precisely the presence or absence of a scenario and its function as a framework for psychodrama, are a record of a viewing method, one that keeps the filmic object apart from the spectator. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does maintain the subject/object relationship—the “putting at a distance”—characteristic of Western viewership since the advent of Renaissance perspective. This is the clean, logical filmic space that Warhol seems intent on demolishing. The fact that Murphy strives to put it back together again is, in a way, a kind of service. It will certainly edge Warhol’s cinema toward greater legibility.
But Crimp’s encounter with Warhol’s cinema is quite different. It is actually of a piece with his earlier encounters with the sculptures of Richard Serra and Donald Judd, or for that matter his confrontations with Burroughs-Wellcome, the NYPD, or other capitalist-governmental structures as a member of ACT UP. An Other is impassive unless you engage with it. You are the “other term” that completes the circuit of meaning. Some structures (those of entrenched power, particularly) are antagonistic. They are not queer; they demand an encounter that changes them, and to some extent, whether we acknowledge it or not, we become changed in the process. This is partly what Crimp describes in his discussion of shame. But the queer artwork, unlike the hostile, homophobic state, offers us a chance to encounter the Other without threat. We meet, we explore, we part—not without putting ourselves on the line, but not as something to be changed. Instead, the engagement described in “Our Kind of Movie” offers us the opportunity to experience the singularity of a few people through a rather queer moment in time.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher based in Houston.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine