Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol: Blow Job (1964): 16 mm film, B&W, silent, approximately 41 minutes. Images courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum. © 2012 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of the Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.Andy Warhol: Blow Job (1964): 16 mm film, B&W, silent, approximately 41 minutes. Images courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum. © 2012 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of the Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.By Bill Clarke

Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol
By Douglas Crimp
MIT Press, 2012
184 pages, colour and black and white illustrations
$29.95 (hardcover)

The first time I saw Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1964) was in the mid-90s at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. It was less than five minutes into this approximately 30-minute black and white silent film that the three people sitting right behind me started giggling as the man on screen rolled and jerked his head in ecstasy at the fellating he is, supposedly, receiving off-screen. The chuckling, however, soon turned to bored fidgeting — “Are we going to see the blow job?”, one asked, exasperated — and then murmured chit-chat about where they were going to have dinner after the movie. Eventually, someone yelled at them to shut up or leave. They chose the latter.

Such is the challenge that Andy Warhol’s early films present to viewers who don’t know what they’re walking into: deceptively “simple” films in which the camera rarely moves, the people on screen seem to be making things up as they go along, and the scenarios often end abruptly in a flurry of white dots as the film runs out. In his book Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol, long-time art and cultural critic Douglas Crimp presents a series of highly readable and informative essays in which he shares his personal responses and interpretations of Warhol’s pre-1968 films. (Crimp does not consider post-1968 films like Trash, Heat or Women in Revolt, which were overseen by director Paul Morrissey, genuine Warhol films; in fact, he calls Morrissey a “pernicious influence” on Warhol’s film-making starting with 1968’s My Hustler.)

Given that Warhol made over 100 films between 1963 and 1968 (not including the 500 or so “screen tests”, four-minute, unedited, silent filmed portraits of Factory denizens and visitors), Crimp acknowledges that it is difficult to make blanket statements about what Warhol’s filmic output is ‘about’. However, three recurring ideas run throughout the book: first, that Warhol’s films are, foremost, about the medium of film itself; second, that for all the improvisation they contain, many of the films feature some remarkable performances (for example, Ondine’s performances as “the Pope“ in two sequences of The Chelsea Girls, 1966, have become legendary); and, third, that they require “a different kind of attention” than most film-goers are used to giving.

Andy Warhol: Screen Test: Dennis Hopper, reel #4 (1964-65): 16 mm film, B&W, silent, four minutes.Andy Warhol: Screen Test: Dennis Hopper, reel #4 (1964-65): 16 mm film, B&W, silent, four minutes.Crimp’s book comes at a pivotal time in the re-appraisal of Warhol’s films. Many of the films he discusses have long been unavailable for viewing outside of screenings at major art galleries, resulting in a lack of writing about many of them over the past 30 years. (Warhol withdrew many of his films from circulation in the early-70s.) Crimp references the last single-authored book of essays about Warhol’s films, Stargazer: Andy Warhol’s World and His Films by Stephen Koch. Stargazer, which appeared in 1973, feels dated according to Crimp because of an “arch, knowing and condescending” tone, especially when discussing the elements of queer sexuality and desire in Warhol’s films. (Such a tone isn’t surprising; the book was written when the American Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality a mental illness.) Today, of course, attitudes towards homosexuality are much different, providing Crimp with an opportunity to provide fresh takes on the content and themes of several Warhol films (especially those featuring the drag performer Mario Montez). And, as the Whitney and the MoMA in New York continue their conservation efforts around Warhol’s films, many are becoming more widely available. Several films, including screen tests featuring the most-famous faces (e.g., Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, Allen Ginsberg), the aforementioned Blow Job, and even the three-and-a-hour split-screen opus The Chelsea Girls can be found in their entirety online.

It seems that, for Crimp, Warhol’s screen tests distil the essence of what the artist was trying to achieve with film. Asking the sitters to be as still as possible and to not blink, Warhol shot at a sound film speed of 24 frames-per-second, but projected the films at a slower film speed of 16 or 18 frames-per-second. What is a viewer supposed to get out of watching a silent four-minute close-up of someone’s near-inanimate face? Warhol challenges viewers to focus their attention, to be receptive to the subtle climaxes of these films — a blink of an eye, a twitch at the corner of the sitter’s mouth — and to gradually realize that the screen tests embody ideas around performance and identity, and how fragile the relationship between them is. As quoted by Crimp, the Warhol film specialist Callie Angell noted that the screen test sitters were really “being asked to behave as if they were their own image”, which Crimp notes proved a challenge for many of them. It is the slow crumbling of these carefully cultivated personas captured by the unrelenting eye of Warhol’s camera that gives these films their hypnotic power.

Ultimately, Crimp’s wide-ranging essays in Our Kind of Movie make a strong case that, if Warhol had only made films, he would be considered as ground-breaking as his contemporaries Jack Smith, Barbara Rubin and Jonas Mekas (all of whom, coincidentally, subjected themselves to screen tests).