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Issue 16 May 1994 RSS

Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein

Film

Andy Warhol is Frankenstein

Andy Warhol is the only artist I can imagine wanting to play backwards. I first watched Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1974) in the same family living room where I had spun my Led Zeppelin record anti-clockwise, never catching that message about the devil. I remember thinking that the film, broadcast on the Playboy channel which my parents didn’t know came with basic cable, was where I wanted to be. I didn’t know where it was, but I knew if I watched the movie closely, I would find the secret message.

Watching Frankenstein 15 years later, I understand why I didn’t get it then, and also why I had liked the film even though I hadn’t known what was going on. That it seemed sort of gay was enough at the time - anything was enough in 1979. As with the Led Zeppelin album I didn’t think much about the meaning of the message; I just wanted to be in on the secret.

The Frankenstein myth, revolving as it does around production, secrecy, cultish followings and the master/servant relationship, is a great model for looking at Andy Warhol and the factory. Any examination of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein must take into consideration the relationship between the master and the disenfanchised servant that is mirrored within the construction of the Frankenstein lexicon: although Warhol’s in name, the film was written and directed by Paul Morrissey. In the making of this film, Morrissey becomes Warhol’s Benjamin Cheever, compiling and distributing his father’s secrets.1 The final obligation to protect the patriarch is at odds with the desire to reveal what lies behind his facade. Morrissey hints at the gauzy construction of Warhol’s homosexuality by collapsing it into the ambiguous sexualities of Baron Frankenstein and his monster. He connects the violence historically associated with the monster to a state of closeted sexuality, thus allowing a glimpse into Warhol’s much publicised but often evasive homosexuality. And just as over time, monster has eclipsed maker, assuming his name, so Morrissey’s film can be read as a description of Warhol as a split subject; both producer and product, a double Frankenstein.

The Factory and The Schloss

It was inevitable that the Factory would produce a monster movie and that the project would implicate the family tradition. Warhol was like the little old lady who lived in the shoe: for him, family was the Factory, a cornucopia of children lost and found and lost again. Just as those children were hardly innocents, so the title sequence of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein shows a pretty boy and a prim-faced girl, dissecting and beheading a doll in the confines of a basement laboratory. (David Cronenberg used a similar scene in his gyno-hysteric film Dead Ringers (1988), but more permissively placed his twin boys ‘out’ on their front lawn.2) Both films address the earliest stages of pathology and suggest childhood curiosity to be the breeding ground for horror, a place where more than a few family cats have been killed.

Much of the art produced in Warhol’s workplace-cum-clubhouse suggests a complicated attraction to unwatchable events.3 The Disasters, Car Crashes, Electric chairs, Race Riots, Jackies and 13 Most Wanted Men demonstrate Warhol’s desire to freeze-frame the grotesque, denying the viewer the flinch reflex and instead encouraging a sensual perusal. (The film Sleep could be seen as suspended animation, a coma or an OD; Empire, that infamous tranquilliser, owes its iconographic fortitude in part to the climax of King Kong (1932).)

The Maker as Monster

Like the slew of other Frankenstein films, Morrissey’s departs from Mary Shelley’s novel, yet it may be the closest interpretation of a desire hidden in the laboratory (read closet). In 1818, when Shelley published her book, homosexuality was yet to be defined as an identity. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the word ‘homosexual’ did not enter the common vocabulary until ‘the period stretching roughly between Wilde and Proust’, a period ‘prodigally productive of attempts to name, explain and define this new creature, the homosexual person’.4 Linking Warhol and Frankenstein presumes a shared, disjuncted and frozen homosexuality, an identity flushed of activity which asserts itself as notion rather than gesture. As a direct parallel to Warhol’s voyeuristic practices, Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, denied a partner of the same sex, collects pieces of dead men whom he shocks into life.

The scientist fashions a man who is ungoverned by the mores of his time. Film theorist Patricia White purports that the ‘horror’ genre has always been ripe for radical departures in the expression of sexuality. Magnifying a loophole in a structure that habitually resists a place of power for the ‘other’, she writes: ‘Concerned with the problem of “normal”, it [the genre] activates the “abnormal” in the threat or the figure of the monster.‘5 Here, I follow her own ‘uneasy’ lead of positing the monster as a metaphor for the threat that difference implies, difference here being homosexuality.

Out and In the Laboratory: Warhol as Creator

The closet stretches across the expanse of a heterosexual domain. When Baron Frankenstein leaves the sanctuary of his laboratory, he does not come ‘out’: he is only out when he is in. Inside the lab he builds a woman and a man, perfect specimens built to infiltrate and restructure the society that has exiled him. In Morrissey’s deliberate reversal of Biblical order, the woman is made first, and owes no part of her body to the male. This Edenic pair exist as separate entities, and share no connection other than Frankenstein. The Baron’s creatures will look and act ‘normal’ while subjugating themselves to their ‘abnormal’ master.6

Though the Baron already has children by his sister, he can only create the ‘right’ children when unencumbered by maternal care and authority.7 These gay-related themes are collapsed into Baron Frankenstein’s God complex and into the male’s envy of the woman-as-creator. Thus the Baron minces on about the outcome of the experiment to his adoring assistant: ‘The male we create will fall in love with my female dummy. They will mate and then she will bear me the children I want. They’re going to be the true start of a new race, entirely created by me, responding only to my bidding.’

Here, one witnesses the male desire to banish the female - to achieve procreation sans the womb. Warhol and his Frankenstein crave a clan that bares no resemblance to their own image, devaluing their own bodies by imaging a ‘utopian body’: the outside of a man fused with the inside of a woman. The Baron obsesses on the external when he muses about the brain and head needed for completion of the male creature: ‘What we really need now is the perfect nose - something that will represent the finest feature of the Serbian ideal.’

He defines the Serbian ideal as a direct descendant from classical Greece - a skirting reference to a culture that tolerated homosexual expression. But when complications arise that hark back to those good old Greco-Roman wrestling days, the Baron returns to this feature: ‘His perfect nose, his perfect nose, he has the perfect brain, he is the king I wanted and he failed.‘8 Homosexuality is seen as both an ideal and a disaster, and the film hinges on these colliding tenets. The male creature is unresponsive to Frankenstein’s perfect female, and this unresponsiveness keys into the ‘Adam and Steve’ tirade that decries homosexuality for playing no physical role in procreation. Yet heterosexuality is unattainable in the laboratory: the Baron is unable either to act it out or to produce it. In Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, heterosexuality functions as a swirly mass resistant to the scientist’s touch.

The Two are One

Baron Frankenstein tags himself as the ‘creator’, the mother of the perfect woman. But his attitude towards the female body is fuelled by a familiar triad of love, hate and envy: ‘Once I left my books and went with them. What happened? It was terrible, all these over-developed women with their large breasts, shapeless - and these women are supposed to give you pleasure, with their filthy movements and dirty talk. How can these women compare with a beautiful creation like mine, or even with my sister?‘9 Why does the Baron exempt his creation and also his sister from the swamp of ‘normal’ womanhood? Presumably because they are part of him - he and his sister are of the same flesh, and the woman he creates is his offspring. These women are acceptable to the Baron only as female aspects of his own self.

The fear and repulsion that Baron Frankenstein feels towards women may in part reflect a homosexuality in a state of repression. In An Introduction to the American Horror Film, Robin Wood characterises the monster as a station for ‘a dramatisation of the dual concept of the repressed/the Other, in the figure of the Monster’. Wood links the theory of ‘surplus repression’, which thrives in the state of the closet, to the impulses that drive the ‘monster’.10 If the Frankenstein problematic is related to the figure of the repressed homosexual, it is the heterosexist culture that has built the monster, who is borne not out of homosexuality per se but of the pervasiveness of homophobia. Thus monster is bound to maker, and the real threat comes from within the ‘normative’, not outside it.

Who’s That Knocking on the Door?

In a contestation of his ‘other’ side, the Baron engages in a symbolic act of rape (or even necrophilia) by inserting his hand into the sutured abdomen of the female ‘creature’. The penis is erased and deemed unnecessary, and a penetration of his own invention is made. This scene, replete with muffled moans and fluttering eyelids, is an impregnation fantasy veiled as sex: the Baron reaches into the body he has manufactured and implants an imaginary seed.11 That he has become impotent is no great guess; indeed it is his impotence that has instigated the project. Yet in replacing the phallus the Baron transcends conventional masculinity - he displaces his own gender, becoming as much a product of the laboratory as the monster.

Out and About: Warhol as Product

In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s creature turns into a monster when he is inadvertently hooked up to the brain of a killer. In Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein the brain is that of an effeminate man who is hoping to join a monastery. The comedy of errors is repeated, and the creature gets the brain of a sexually passive virgin instead of a lusty heterosexual. When Frankenstein realises that the creature doesn’t get it up for the female, he passes him on to his wife, the mother, for re-encryption. Instead of embracing her, however, the creature rejects the Oedipal contract and hugs her to death.

The Baroness Frankenstein was a marked woman from the start. Looking like a drag queen without the ample chest, she was the only one who really enjoyed a good roll in the hay - and desire in this film is rarely rewarded. Her role as token heterosexual is secure when she hires the local testosterone queen to be her bedroom attendant. Unfortunately for the Baroness, this model of virility is the best friend of the creature’s new head. When he discovers the castle’s secrets he initiates the unravelling of the ‘closet’.

The mother is punished for her sexual appetite, for her imperialistic recruitment of the lower-class handyman, and most importantly for her desire to change the creature. Morrissey’s Frankenstein demarcates a crisis within a crisis. The inverted (in Freud’s language, ‘abnormal’) Oedipus complex is coupled with the denial of choice. The creature illustrates the dilemma of an ‘unescorted Oedipal phase’, wherein the child who is attracted to her or his own sex is rebuked.12 Morrissey plays with this established paradigm, making the myth literal by endowing the creature with an empowering physicality. Here, an adaptation of the Oedipus complex locates the crisis. An inverted transference of desire cannot be accommodated. Parental lack of response (or even negative response) would cause an implosion of the Oedipus complex, and thus invite the first ‘closet’. This metaphorical space of alienation, what I call the Cardinal Closet, is the model for all other ‘closets’ entered and vacated in adolescence and adulthood.13

In the closet of Frankenstein’s laboratory, heterosexuality is an experiment. All attempts to transplant it are in vain. The prize head (chopped off with a pair of pruning shears) rejects the expectation placed upon the utopian body. Frankenstein’s monster, repudiated as homosexual and deprived of object-choice, fulfils the prophesy by taking the life of his parent figure, Baron Frankenstein. In this classic castration scene, a metal door closes on the Baron’s wrist and severs the phallus. Morrissey ends Warhol’s film with a free-for-all bloodletting, and allows only the children to survive.14 The boy and girl, perfect replicates of their incestuous parents, end the film with its beginning. The inheritance of Andy Warhol is secure.

1. Benjamin Cheever published a book of his father John Cheever’s letters, which revealed the double life of this bisexual man.

2. Shortly after his film Scanners (1980) the director began pre-production for David Cronenberg’s Frankenstein. The film was never made.

3. The painting White Disaster prefigures the closing scene in Frankenstein.

4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley, 1990 p.83

5. from an essay entitled Female Spectator, Lesbian Spector: The Haunting. pub. Inside/Out (New York: Routledge,1991) p.144

6. The original title of Morrissey’s film was Flesh for Frankenstein. This title foreshadows Warhol’s ‘landscapes’ - a code for bodies of hustlers used for their ‘torsos, buttocks and penises’. Warhol and Frankenstein both made a practice of collecting and separating body parts.

7. A tidy reference to the fear of raising a ‘sissy boy’ and to Warhol’s own upbringing and adult relationship with his mother.

8. Here Morrissey is doubtless taking a poke at Warhol’s nose-job.

9. Any number of diary entries feature less than gracious snippets about women’s weight. In another life Warhol might have had a career in diet counselling.

10. Wood writes: Surplus repression, on the other hand, is specific to a particular culture and is the process whereby people are conditioned from earliest infancy to take on predetermined roles within the culture.’ pub. Movies and Methods vol. 2, Berkeley 1985, p.195

11. While there is much pomp, romp and ribaldry in this X-rated production, the sex surpasses that of the basest horror films - the sex scene is mimicked by the Baron’s assistant, who literally fucks the female to death.

12. Luce Irigaray, This Sex which is not One, New York, Cornell University Press,1985. Originally published in French in 1977.

13. I would propose that the Cardinal Closet makes two appearances. First as an unconscious result of the transference attempted in the early years of the child, and again in adolescence, when the child recognises his or her homosexual feeling and again attempts a transference with the same-sex parent. The rejection in this second stage is more apparent. While heterosexual children might feel their parent’s unease with this ‘flirting’, the outcome does not, in the majority of cases, create a heterosexual closet.

14. The creature attains a momentary position of power, but then kills himself by disembowelment (a form of auto-eroticism if the hand has become the penis - or the stomach the anus/vagina). This is a useful illustration of the danger in attempting to enforce a change of sexual orientation.

Collier Schorr


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First published in
Issue 16, May 1994

by Collier Schorr

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