Once Upon A Time In America: Underground Films Revisited

It seems that anyone making a movie or television series set in New York City in the 1960’s and early 1970’s finds it  irresistible to include something about the Underground Film scene that flourished in New York at that time, particularly as it relates to Andy Warhol and his bizarre friends/entourage. (In an earlier blog post on Andy Warhol, I discussed some of the reasons for this fascination.).  Furthermore, I find it rather amusing to see casting notices for some of these projects which contain the names of persons long forgotten and hardly known during their “15 minutes of fame” that  derived from their association with the Underground movement.  Just what were Underground Films?

Well, that’s difficult to say because it was such an eclectic movement; but one thing these rather amateurish films had in common was the cachet that they were films that you were not supposed to see.  I know that the concept of forbidden films may be difficult to comprehend today, when with cable television and the internet, “anything goes” and there is “everything for everybody”; however in those dark days there  was certainly something conspiratorial in just attempting to see such films  You learned about screenings mainly by word of mouth and announcements  in Underground (i.e. counter culture) newspapers—which, themselves, contained things you were not supposed to read, written by writers who often employed noms de guerre. Most screenings were held in lofts in the industrial part of town or church basements.  In fact, just getting to these showings was scarier than anything you would ever see on the screen.  And  having made your way to one of these films, if you felt that the man sitting next to you might be an undercover agent, you may  not have been paranoid : Underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s  notorious Flaming Creatures (1963) was seized by the authorities after its first public showing, never to be screened again for decades; and one of Andy Warhol’s films suffered a similar fate.

What happened to the participants of the Underground at the end of their “15 minutes of fame?”  Most moved on.  Andy Warhol, for example, went on to make films that were more and more exploitive and commercial.  However, for many “moving on” meant moving on to the next world, as so many of them died tragically young.

But to get back to the special fascination that this particular era has today, it seems every talented young actress wants to play the tragic Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick; British actress Sienna Miller played her last.  And then there is the enigmatic Nico of Warhol’s illustrious Velvet Underground; what a splendid role for an actress who possesses her statuesque good looks. But what about Mario Montesz, another Warhol “superstar”?  How would a good actor play one who was universally acknowledged to be so terrible?  Mario Montez was a female impersonator who patterned himself after Maria Montez, a Hollywood actress who appeared in many exotic low budget adventure films. (It should be noted that Maria Montez was considered by many as “the world’s worst actress.”)   And as far as female impersonators go, Mario Montez was, himself, considered to be“pretty bad.”   But perhaps the  key to portraying him can be found in critic Parker Tyler’s astute observation: “Mario Montez does not impersonate Maria Montez; he is (that is, wishes to be) Maria Montez.”  Mario passed away in 2013; sadly, he was one of only a few veterans of the Underground to have survived to old age.

Let the record show that once upon a time in America, if you were determined and not afraid, you could see films that you were not supposed to see!

Wild Strawberries Revisited

The past few weeks here in the United States, we have experienced  something of a stir about the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, which is a sequel to Ms. Lee’s 1960 acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird.  This much anticipated book has taken 55 years to finally appear—the reasons for which I will not go into here.  Much of the controversy about the book is not just literary; it has to do with the fact that it appears the central character (of both books), attorney Atticus Finch, is not the man we thought him to be, prompting more than one front page article on the subject in the New York Times.  Why should there be such an interest in a fictional character?   Well, maybe some of that interest has had to do with actor Gregory Peck’s superb interpretation of him in the 1962 film adaptation of the first book.  But beyond that, a lot has to do with the peculiar and rare phenomenon where a fictional character becomes much more than a fictional character; in fact, takes on a life of its own.  And what particularly intrigued me, as I have learned in following the controversy, is the fact that more has been written about the character Atticus Finch in journals aimed at the legal profession than in literary ones.  This non-literary fascination with Atticus Finch recalls to mind a similar such fascination with the character Isak Borg of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries.

The name Isak Borg is probably not well known to the general public—and that also includes the film-going public.  But he is well-known to the mental health profession in America; and that is for two important reasons.  The first is because Isak Borg is seventy-six years old, which is unusually old for the main character of a film.  The second reason is that in America, mental health professionals (e.g. psychiatrists) are severely restricted in writing about their patients in professional journals.  Furthermore, they are usually prohibited from writing about the perceived mental problems of people they have never treated, particularly public figures.  So who can they write about?  Why fictional characters, of course.

The use of literature to illustrate an important theory is not new to the field of mental health: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, used a character from ancient Greek drama, Oedipus, to formulate one of his most important theories—the oedipal complex.  Although Freud had no knowledge of the film Wild Strawberries—he died years before the film was made– the film made a distinct impression on three people who are/were practitioners  of the field that Freud helped pioneer: psychotherapy; I will recount some of those impressions now.

Dr. Harvey Greenberg in an article entitled “The Rags of Time” (1975) subjects Isak Borg to the rigors of psychoanalysis.  Characterizing his study as “psychoanalytic notes on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries,” Dr. Greenberg pays particular attention to Isak’s childhood relationship with his mother, whose perceived coldness figured prominently in the psychological and emotional problems that plagued Borg throughout his life.   Dr. Greenberg also provides a Freudian interpretation to the many dreams of Wild Strawberries.  In particular, he points out that at least one of the dreams in the film was what Freud termed an “examination” dream, in which the dreamer finds himself taking an exam in which he is ill-prepared for ;  however, the purpose of such a dream is to reassure the dreamer of  his ability to handle and resolve current stress or neurotic conflict in his life.  This is perhaps a key to understanding Isak Borg’s character: for most of his life Isak had to overcome disappointment ithat he was ill-prepared for: e.g. his fiancée abandoning him, a loveless marriage and an unfaithful wife; but persevere he always did.  (It should be noted that in Swedish the word borg means fortress.)

Erick Erickson was another mental health care professional who saw in Isak Borg a promising teaching tool.  Erickson was more than just a health care professional: he was a giant in the field.  A renowned psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist, Erickson broke with Freud in the area of personality development.  Whereas Freud concentrated almost exclusively on the infantile development of the psyche, Erickson saw its development as a lifelong process.  Erickson divided this development into eight stages:

  1. Infancy
  2. Early childhood
  3. Play Age
  4. School Age
  5. Adolescence
  6. Young Adulthood
  7. Adulthood
  8. Old Age

In a chapter {A Life History: Revalidation and Reinvolvement ) from a book [Vital Involvement In Old Age (1986]] that he authored with two other people,  Erickson uses Borg’s life to illustrate the above eight stages.  Obviously the last stage, old age, has particular significance as it relates to Wild Strawberries.  Erickson explains that the word wisdom symbolizes the strength of this last stage of life.  It is indeed ironic to associate the word wisdom with Isak Borg, as wisdom was the one thing that escaped him for most of his life, despite his education.  Erikson, in justifying the use of a fictional character to present his theories and clinical findings, goes beyond the obvious need to protect the privacy of actual patients; he notes that “artistic works of greatness have a way of presenting in a convincing form some total truths about life, which rarely characterize other reports and abstracts of a human life, making it truly a life history.”

Dr. Bob Knight, in his book Psychotherapy with Older Adults (1996) also employs Isak Borg as a teaching example.  Dr. Knight stresses the cautions that need to be taken when employing a “life review” with elderly patients—and certainly Wild Strawberries was a “life review,” among other things.

The central aesthetic question pertaining to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, as I indicated in my book The Screenplay as Literature, was whether or not Isak Borg undergoes any significant change after this “life review.”  My answer was that he did not.  Furthermore, I wrote, “Besides, from the point of view of dramaturgy, what would be the point of such a change anyway?  At the age of seventy-six, what effect on his own life and the life of others could such change have?”  I then noted that Isak’s wife was dead, and then there was the rather acrimonious relationship between Isak and his son.  However, where I may have seen a mellowed, somber stoicism as the  best outcome for Isak, Knight sees hopeful potential.  He points out that Borg still is mentally sharp and could practice his profession if he so chooses.  Then there is the fact that he soon will become a grandfather—so why shouldn’t he become a doting grandparent?  And as for romance, Knight reminds us that his cousin Sara, who is now 75 years old and still beautiful, is a widow: why not marry her?  Keep in mind that Sara rejected Isak when he was a young man and married his older brother.

Well, I don’t see any of the above as likely to transpire, particularly a marriage between Isak and Sara.  I still stand by my original literary analysis of the film and screenplay—rather than a psychological one.  But, then again, who am I to deny that where there’s life, there’s hope!

Michelangelo Antonioni Revisited

A few years ago (2007), headlines were made when two legendary filmmakers died within one day of each other: Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, respectively.  They, including Federico Fellini (who died in 1993), had dominated European filmmaking during the late 1950’s and throughout most of the 1960’s.  Most people, whether cinema lovers or not, were familiar with the names of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, while Antonioni, who had continued to make films into his nineties (he died at the age of 92), was largely forgotten.  I have often asked myself why his name has faded while those of his two illustrious contemporaries have survived.  Sometimes I think the reason is to be found in the fact that none of his films have ever been made into Broadway musicals: Fellini has had two musicals based on his films and Bergman has had one.  I often wonder why someone has not adapted Antonioni’s L’avventura into a musical, although I am sure someone has at least thought of it.  What I am really saying here is that for an average audience, Antonioni was probably the least accessible of the three.  Let us now review Antonioni’s long and distinguished career and his contributions to film as art and “the screenplay as literature.”

Although Antonioni had worked on the fringes of Italian film production for many years, he did not make his first feature film until the age of thirty-eight in 1950.  The plot of his first feature, Cronaca di un amore, a sordid melodrama, is not important for us.  But what are important are the discoveries he was to make in filming it.  For example, his habit of shooting rather long scenes was born spontaneously on the very first day of filming.  Soon he began to follow his characters until he felt the need to move on to another exercise.  For Antonioni this was the best way to be real, to be true:  that is to be inside the scene, exactly as in life.  But it was not just in the use of the camera that Antonioni was to make discoveries in the making of his first film, but in storytelling as well.  After Cronaca di un amore  opened in Paris in 1951, one French critic observed that the film “spins no plot; on the contrary, it draws a discursive tale to which the word ‘End’ is written only after the play of events has dispersed its three characters.”

I vinti  (1952), La signora senza camelie (1953), Le amiche (1955) and Il grido (1957)

In his next four feature films following Cronaca di un amore, Antonioni continued to make important discoveries and develop new techniques.   This was particularly true with regard to the subject of pictorial composition (e.g. the framing of the shot).  In this regard he went far beyond what had been the accepted conventions at the time.  For example, it had long been known in theater, and subsequently recognized in film, that the position of the actor’s body in relation to the audience (e.g. full face and profile) affected the intensity (strong, weak, etc.) of the dialogue delivered by him.   However, Antonioni discovered that   “a line spoken by an actor in profile doesn’t have the same meaning as one given in full-face.  Likewise, a phrase addressed to the camera placed above the actor doesn’t have the same meaning it would if the camera were placed below him.”  Thus, pictorial composition in Antonioni’s films came to serve as a means of conveying meaning—and sometimes meaning not directly expressed in the script—as well as feeling, intensity and mood.

Perhaps the most important discovery about cinema that Antonioni made during this early period was concerned with plot and story construction.  “Thus I have rid myself of much unnecessary technical baggage,” he related, “eliminating all the logical narrative transitions, all those connective links between sequences where one sequence served as the springboard for the one that followed. . . cinema today should be tied to truth rather than to logic.”  And how would Antonioni accomplish this?  By structuring his films according to the rhythm of everyday life, and not according to dramatic conventions—that was what would come to be known as The Cinema of Antonioni.

It was not until 1960, when his sixth feature film, L’avventura , was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, that Antonioni’s cinematic techniques and discoveries were to achieve the world-wide recognition and attention they so rightly deserved (up until that time, Antonioni was little known outside his own country, and none of his previous five features had yet been released in the United States).   Antonioni referred to this peculiar love story as a “mystery in reverse.”  A girl (Anna) vanishes and her friends conduct a search but never find her.   At the end of the film, the remaining characters go off in different directions, apparently forgetting about the lost girl.  What infuriated many of those who first saw this quite remarkable film at Cannes was that they never did find out what became of the girl, Anna.  This is not as illogical as it may seem, critic Pierre Leprohon observes:  “what concerns Antonioni . . . is the characters and their relation to themselves and to events.  Why, then, should he sustain interest in facts that have ceased to interest the heroes of the story he is telling?”  This was indeed a revolutionary concept in 1960: for an author to concern himself with only those things that interest his characters—and not his audience—was akin to giving them a life of their own, something utterly unheard of in cinema at that time.

While L’avventura did deviate significantly from previous theatrical traditions, it still contained one age-old dramatic element—although perhaps unintentionally—suspense.  In Antonioni’s next film, La notte (1961), however, even this element is lacking: we are not so much concerned with whether or not the protagonists find a way out of their predicament, but with the magnitude of their problem and how they go about solving it (or perhaps their lack of concern about finding a solution).

La notte (“The Night”) examines an intellectual crisis that is faced by an Italian writer, Giovanni; his relationship with his wife, Lidia: and the disintegration of his marriage—all three of which are obviously inter-related.  An American film of the same period and with the same subject matter would probably have concentrated on the reasons for the writer’s mental state and the failure of his marriage—a la Freud—relying heavily on the use of flashbacks.  However, Antonioni does no such thing: he does not attempt to analyze the situation—there are no flashbacks; he merely presents the situation as it exists for our examination, which covers approximately eighteen hours   in the life of the protagonists.    This one day (and night) in the life of the protagonists is not, however, just any ordinary day; in fact, it is a very important day, when a great deal of self-knowledge is to be gained (the couple come to the terrible realization that they no longer love each other).

In his next film, L’eclisse (1962), Antonioni continued to expand and perfect the techniques noted in La note and L’avventura.  L’eclisse (“The Eclipse”) is the third and final part of this trilogy examining the phenomenon of love (or lack of it) in our time—a modern love story (ca. 1962).  The film deals primarily with one character, a young career woman, Vittoria, and her new lover, Piero, a stockbroker; there is a strong implication that this relationship, like an “eclipse,” will be short-lived.  New for Antonioni in this film  are a very unusual documentary on the Roman stock exchange  and an Eisensteinian montage at the end that in an abstract manner attempts to tie together all the narrative and thematic threads of the film into one unified statement.  The rationale for this documentary digression into the world of money and banking is to illustrate the prison of investments and speculation that Vittoria’s lover is trapped in, affecting his every aspect, including his love life.  Antonioni’s premise is that the “world today is ruled by money, greed for money, fear of money” and that this “leads to a dangerous passivity towards problems of the spirit;” yet his premise becomes lost in this story where the two protagonists are so vibrantly alive.    The montage at the film’s end, however, is more successful than the aforementioned premise.  Here Antonioni juxtaposes several shots (fifty-eight in all) which show the places where most of the liaisons between the heroine and her lover took place and where they were, for brief moments, so happy, but shots in which the two lovers are conspicuously absent, perhaps a comment on the permanence of things and objects contrasted with the ephemeral nature of human relationships.

Antonioni’s next film, Deserto rosso (1964) is unquestionably his most masterful—the culmination and total perfection of his previous cinematic techniques and discoveries, as well as his first experiment in the use of color.  Deserto rosso (“The Red Desert”) is the story of the mental deterioration of a young, married woman.  Here, Antonioni’s use of color is a completely subjective one: the colors that we see are by and large exactly those that the characters see (Antonioni is reported to have painted a marsh gray for this film because that was the way his characters felt when they looked at it).

After Deserto rosso, Antonioni made three films in English.  I didn’t find any of the three particularly distinguished, but I will recount them for you anyway.  In 1966 Antonioni made Blowup, a mystery about a fashion photographer set in the “swinging” London of the 1960’s.  In 1970, he made Zabriskie Point, a film that dealt with the American “counter-culture” movement of the 1960’s.  Finally in 1975 he made The Passenger, another mystery film.  The first one, Blowup, was the most successful of the three, both critically and financially.  However, as this was essentially a purely entertainment film, it did little to advance the art of film or Antonioni’s reputation, although his mastery of his medium is certainly in evidence.  Zabriske Point was an unmitigated disaster, both critically and financially, although the film was meant to do more than entertain—which it certainly did not.   The Passenger, which starred Jack Nicholson, was, at least for me, the most interesting of the three.  It contained a seven minute scene consisting of one take that is still talked about today.  It is not easy for a filmmaker to transition from one culture and/or another language to a new one:  Antonioni’s experience in this regard demonstrates why.

Antonioni was to make just three more feature films during his lifetime.  They were Il mistera di Oberwald (“The Mystery of Oberwald”), 1981; Identificazione di una donna (“Identification of a Woman”), 1982; and Al di la delle nuvole (“Beyond the Clouds”).  I have to admit that I have seen none of the three, so I cannot comment on them.   Furthermore, none of them received wide distribution in the United States .
Antonioni was very supportive of my work on The Screenplay as Literature and graciously gave me permission to quote extensively from his screenplays.  One year when I was going to the Cannes Film Festival I had learned that Antonioni was also to be in attendance.  I brought with me a copy of my book in which I wrote a dedication and which I intended to give to him.  The dedication reads as follows:

To Michelangelo Antonioni,

The greatest creative talent that the Cinema has ever known and the inspiration for this book.

Regrettably I never met up with him that year, or any time afterwards.  By the way, I do not find that the passage of time has changed the validity of the above dedication.

Michelangelo Antonioni was ahead of his time.  Even today he is still ahead of his time.  Maybe in another fifty years Cinema will finally catch up with him.

Andy Warhol Revisited

When we look back at the turbulent 1960’s in America, along with the very somnolent 
1970’s which followed, two names from that era are still prominent today:  Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol.  Mr. Jagger’s name has not only survived, but he has too, still performing with his rock group the Rolling Stones with the same vigor and intensity that made him famous in the Sixties.  I guess you could say that he is the gift that keeps on giving.  The posthumous celebrity of Andy Warhol is also rather intriguing:  in his lifetime he was a shameless self-promoter whose work many have said was of dubious artistic merit.  Yet his stature continues to grow:  every month we read how his paintings have achieved new records at auction, and more books have been written, and more films have been made, about him and the colorful (and sometimes) tragic hangers-on who frequented his notorious “Factory” than of any other comparable figure from the Twentieth Century—with the possible exception of F. Scott Fitzgerald (of “Roaring Twenties” fame).  Not bad for someone whose name has been associated with the quote “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”  Perhaps this remarkable fascination with him can partly be explained by the fact that Andy Warhol and is bizarre entourage may have been the closest thing we had in the Sixties to compare to the celebrated literary salons of the 1920’s and the 1930’s (e.g. Gertrude Stein in Paris and  Dorothy Parker and the roundtable at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, respectively).  But it is not Andy Warhol the dubious celebrity that I wish to re-examine here, but Andy Warhol the filmmaker.  Although the stature of Andy Warhol the pop artist has grown immensely since his death, his stature as a filmmaker has not.  And that is shame, because he should be considered as one of the more important filmmakers of the second half of the Twentieth Century.

 Warhol was associated with a movement in America referred to as The New American Cinema, or more commonly, “The Underground”.  This group of very diverse independent filmmakers, mainly located in New York, came together in September 1960 to issue a vituperative manifesto condemning what they called the perverse “official cinema” of their day:  Hollywood.    What this very disparate group of filmmakers had in common, besides their loathing for Hollywood and all it stood for, was that their films were rather amateurish, technically inept and made with mostly amateur equipment.  And in those instances, where they did employ “actors,” they tended to be exhibitionist amateurs.  (Although Warhol is often associated with “The New American Cinema”, it does not mean, as we shall see, that he shared their political views.)

 Warhol was a “Johnny-come-lately” to the New York Underground scene, not making his first film until 1963, the year in which he is reported to have acquired his first movie camera.  But Warhol quickly made up for lost time and became the most prolific filmmakers of the entire movement.  So prolific had Warhol become that critic Sheldon Renan was able, four years later, to divide his work into four periods, although Renan was quick to point out that Warhol’s combined films actually constituted part of one huge work: a definitive documentary on the scandalous people who made up New York’s bizarre demi-monde.  But it is not the subject of Warhol’s films–shock and degradation– that I wish to examine here, but Warhol the visual artist, which is reflected best in his earliest films.

The films of Warhol’s first period, such as Eat (1963), Sleep (1963), Haircut (1964), Kiss (1964), and Empire (1964), were primarily characterized by their static photography (e.g. little or no camera movement) and very mundane subject matter (e.g. a man sleeping for six hours and the Empire State Building photographed uninterruptedly from dawn to dusk).  It is not at all surprising, given the unorthodox length of these first films (along with the fact that little or nothing happened in them), that the preponderance of critical opinion concerning Andy Warhol as a novice filmmaker was that he was either a charlatan, or, at best, the perpetrator of a bizarre hoax, meant to be an insult to the intelligence of his audience.  Yet nothing could be further from the truth; for what Warhol was attempting to do was to discover the artistic potentialities inherent in the film medium, as if he himself were the first filmmaker ever to conduct such an inquiry.  The magazine Film Culture—in awarding him their Six Independent Film Award (1964)—noted the experimental and exploratory nature of these earliest films of Warhol.  They extolled him for “taking cinema back to its origins, to the days of Lumiere, for a rejuvenation and a cleansing. . . ..We begin to realize that we have never, really, seen haircutting, or eating.  We have cut our hair, we have eaten, but we have never really seen those actions. . . .A new way of looking at things and at the screen is given through the personal vision of Warhol . . .” {Italics my own}.  Warhol undoubtedly was not jesting when he said in a 1966 interview that the filmmaker who influenced him the most was Thomas Edison! 

If it can be accurately said that the films of Warhol’s first period explored the potentialities of black-and-white cinematography, then the films of his second period began as an exploration of the potentialities of the sound film.  And just as was the case with the first sound films made in Hollywood in the late 1920’s, Warhol’s first experiments with sound were also “one hundred per cent talkies.”  More often than not the actors (or “non-actors,” more precisely) would stare blankly into the camera and chatter incessantly.

Having discovered that films could talk, Warhol, just like Hollywood before him, determined that talking films demanded stories: thus the need for writers who could write talking scripts, both for Hollywood and Warhol.  This was a critical juncture for Andy Warhol; for whereas his previous film endeavors were akin to still life studies that solely reflected his own personal vision, his sound films  were collaborative efforts that may not have reflected his own personal philosophy.  A case In point was Warhol’s collaboration with Ronald Tavel, a playwright who was associated with New York’s Theatre of the Ridiculous.  Tavel, like most people associated with The New American Cinema, also endorsed their anti-Hollywood bias.  This is certainly reflected in Warhol’s Harlot (1965), a savage parody of the life of the late Hollywood star Jean Harlow, for which Tavel wrote the script.  But this seems to be the furthest from Warhol’s true feelings about Hollywood, as all his life he appeared to have been enthralled with its stars and glamor (case in point: Warhol’s celebrated silk-screen portrait of Marilyn Monroe).

These early sound films, which were directed by Warhol in 1965 and 1966, constitute his second and third period.  Although these films were often scripted, they relied heavily on improvisation.  Here Warhol developed a very unusual improvisational technique in which the “actors” say things to each other which have little to do with the roles they are portraying, or the story-line, but which were solely intended to “put on” the “actors” they are playing against and elicit responses that are often humiliating and embarrassing.  In some instances it has been alleged that Warhol made up false stories about what one “actor” said about another in order to provoke an enraged response—which it usually did.  This may be all too familiar to those of you who have watched cotemporary “Reality” television, of which Warhol is the true father.

The films of Andy Warhol’s fourth period were generally put together from separate half-hour takes that featured different “superstars” from his growing repertory company (and which often exploited their pitiful attempts at self-degradation).  Warhol’s two major works of this period were Four Star (1967) and The Chelsea Girls (1966)Four Star consisted of twenty-five hours of film footage made up of one-real segments.  The film was exhibited one time only in New York for its entire length.   Afterwards, it was broken down into mostly two-hour segments and released as separate films.  In Four Star Warhol continued his exploration of the film medium, this time in a segment in which he experiments with the potentialities of color film stock (just as he did with black-and-white in Empire).  Called “Sunset in California,” this segment depicts a complete California sunset, highlighting the extraordinary color changes that it is possible to observe during one of nature’s most beautiful events.  However, it was Warhol’s second major work of this period, The Chelsea Girls, which constituted his piece de resistance and his most important contribution to film. Released a year earlier than Four Star, Chelsea Girls was a Greenwich Village version of Dante’s Inferno in which the tortured denizens of the New York sub-culture (of which Warhol was, again, the chief chronicler), candidly bare their souls (and sometimes their bodies, too) before a cold, cynical camera that grinds on without mercy.  But it is not the subject matter of The Chelsea Girls which distinguishes it from Warhol’s other films, but his employment of split-screen, double projection, with the sound alternating between the two screens.  Remarkably, the technique appeared to work.  I remember seeing the film at a large theater on Broadway (New York City).  Most of the audience comprised people who wanted to see the newest avant garde thing.  However, they had paid good money to see the film and expected to be engaged.  And it appeared that they were; I recall  few of the audience walking out.

Unfortunately, The Chelsea Girls, along with most of Warhol’s early films remain lost films.  They are “lost” not because they do not exist but because they can now only be seen at infrequent museum showings.  This is a shame because I believe that a wider audience exists for them and could learn much from them; I, myself, wish that I may have the opportunity once again to see The Chelsea Girls and explore its many layers of innovation.

After The Chelsea Girls and Four Star, Warhol’s output of feature-length films increased, but the amount of innovation to be found in them, if any, declined.  Most of these films were Gay-themed parodies: Lonesome Cowboys (1968), for example, was a Gay Western.  Subsequent to his recovery from a gun-shot wound  in 1968 that was inflicted by an irate actress from one of his films, Warhol ceased to direct films entirely.  Films that were labeled “Warhol” films continued to be made for years afterwards, employing the Warhol style and many of his entourage, but they were directed by others and possessed little merit. 

Many directors have come to film from the visual arts, but few have had the humility to first learn and master the medium as Andy Warhol had once done.  And most have made the same mistake that Warhol did, which is to plunge into narrative filmmaking without first fully comprehending its complexities.  For that reason narrative films made by visual artists are usually visually impressive, but narratively disappointing.  For a brief period Andy Warhol, with his talent and discipline as a visual artist, took film in a new direction.  But because of personal reasons, or perhaps a growing lack of interest, Warhol abandoned filmmaking as a creative outlet and concentrated his enormous talents elsewhere.