An edited version of this article was published on Art Wednesday, 10 April 2013.
Of the many Warholisms, the one that rings most true in his film output is “the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting”, since there’s never really any action to come. Warhol’s films simply happen, but they do so in a provocative and often menacing way.
Ever needing provocation, I headed to the ICA over the weekend to witness the UK cinema premieres of three newly-restored Warhol films.Sleep, the first of the typically Warholian mono-action epics, screens his lover, John Giorno, slumbering naked in Warhol’s apartment. Alongside its continual screening, the ICA scheduled the viewings of two ‘feature films’ co-directed with Paul Morrison, Chelsea Girls and Vinyl.
The former, the action of which takes place in the centre of New York City’s creative universe – Hotel Chelsea, follows the lives of a number of the young ‘superstars’ that clustered around the Factory scene. Over six hours of footage is divided by splitscreen, giving us a diptych binary of the ‘white’ and ‘black’ aspects of the life of the hotel’s residents. The action takes place in front of a rapidly panning and zooming lens, giving the film a cool and detached aesthetic. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is a challenge of patience that at moments (with emphasis on ‘moments’) explodes with vainglorious brilliance and sordid shock-tactic.
Vinyl is a barely-watchable pre-Kubrick interpretation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. In a starkly minimalist mise-en-scène, Factory superstars including Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Melanga shambolically play out the tale of ultra-violence and state control in the 70 minute film peppered with musical numbers by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas.
While sharing a similar aesthetic as the fixed-lens Factory ‘screen tests’, the ‘actors’ bodies are cooped into a tight frame and shallow space (presumably in some corner of the Factory) and the camera stares down on them cruelly at a steep angle. There’s something sadistic about the film above and beyond the erotically-charged torture of Malenga – the cold Warholian objectivity is palpable throughout and the crude acting is almost abject. With no dialogue or real part to play, Sedgwick mostly looks on smoking, and appears in the film simply to appear, intermittently dancing and sniffing (what appears to be) poppers along with the other actors.
Both films have divided the critics since their release and will never be universally appreciated, I’ll admit I also found them hard to watch – they’re challenging to watch in their entirety for all but the most fanatical Factory scene devotees. The now late Roger Ebert observed that Chelsea Girls employed “perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the flavour of the meal.” Whatever you may think of each film, they’ve made their mark more as a cultural statement, an epochal happening that we can still see reflected in self-destructive celebrities and the intrusive lenses through which we view them.