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!

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.