BY Peter Wollen in Profiles | 06 MAY 94
Featured in
Issue 16

Little Stabs at Happiness

The interpretation of Andy Warhol's films

BY Peter Wollen in Profiles | 06 MAY 94

Andy Warhol's films have been interpreted in two very different ways: negatively, as late examples of 'underground' film and positively, as early examples of 'structural' film. Perhaps this has been particularly obvious in Britain. Warhol was quickly welcomed here as a filmmaker whose primary subject-matter was time, and his films were seen as pioneering investigations into 'the experience of duration', as Malcolm LeGrice put it, thus paving the way for Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967). From this point of view, Empire was the key Warhol film, backed up by all the other work which relied on a static camera, no editing and minimal on-screen action - Kiss (1963), Sleep (1963), Haircut (1963), Eat (1963), etc. A similar line was also developed in America, where even Gregory Battcock, who appeared in films like Horse (1965) and Drunk (1965), came out for Empire as the classic Warhol film. He argued that 'the selection of the Empire State Building [as subject] is primarily a device for presenting the full range of tones from black to white', just as Screen Test #2 (1965), although its 'apparent subject may be transvestism', is really about 'film itself' and can usefully be likened to a Franz Kline painting because of its 'strong black-and-white contrasts'. So much for drag queens.

Screen Test #2 stars Mario Montez - a Puerto Rican transvestite who was the obvious star of 60s 'underground' film - appearing not only in a number of Warhol films, from Harlot (1965) to Chelsea Girls (1966), but also in films by Ron Rice (Chumlum (1964)), Bill Vehr (Avocada (1966), Brothel (1965)) and, most important of all, Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures (1963), Normal Love (1963)). Smith was without a doubt the main early model for Warhol's entry into film-making. Warhol filmed Smith filming Normal Love and cast Smith as Dracula in his own silent Batman Dracula (1965), described by Stephen Koch 'as very much influenced by the style of Jack Smith'. Smith is perhaps most vividly known today through Ron Vawter's brilliant and moving impersonation of him in his performance piece, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. Smith's historical role, however, was extremely important, not only for 'underground' film, but also for experimental theatre in New York. For example, when Warhol bought an Auricon 16mm sound camera in 1965 to replace his previous 8mm silent Bolex, he brought in Ronald Tavel to write the scenarios for his new sound films, beginning with Screen Test #1 and #2. Later that year, after making a number of films with Warhol (of which Vinyl (1965) is the best known today), Tavel walked out after a confrontation with Warhol's new 'superstar', Edie Sedgwick. With John Vaccaro, a disciple of Jack Smith, Tavel then founded The Playhouse of the Ridiculous in order to put his Warhol scripts on as stage plays, with Mario Montez, for example, re-enacting Screen Test to an audience. Later the company split and Montez went to Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which also launched such future Warhol favourites as Ondine and Mary Woronow, both dominating presences in Chelsea Girls.

In reality, there was a single performance community of mainly queer and frequently transvestite actors, who might appear in a Jack Smith performance or an Andy Warhol movie, or a film by one of Smith's many collaborators, or a performance for the Ridiculous Theatre Company, or whatever. This performance community also overlapped with Judson Dance and with leading Factory personnel, such as Billy Name. 'Underground' film, Judson Dance, off-off-Broadway, happenings, the Factory, etc., should be all seen as part of one performance eco-system. LaMonte Young, for instance, could play in a band with Andy Warhol, appear in Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, and be a leading figure in Fluxus.

Jack Smith best expressed his own personal aesthetic in his extraordinary essay, 'The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez', published in the Winter 1962/3 issue of Film Culture. Maria Montez - who gave her name, of course, to Mario - was a Dominican actress who made a number of B-movies for Universal during the war, set in desert, jungle or tropical island locations, and featuring elaborate and exotic costumes and sets. Film, in Montez movies, Smith argued, became a place ('Montezland', as he dubbed it) where trashy and mouldy fantasies of the utmost beauty could be realised on camera. Smith fearlessly defended 'stilted, phony imagery', 'atrocious acting', 'simple-minded plots', stupid scripts, technical incompetence, etc., in the name of a greater beauty which redeemed trash and phoniness and mouldiness for art. Smith's aesthetic shared many qualities with 'camp' (itself a crucial ingredient of Warhol's art) but pushed 'camp' much further than usual into the domain of secret trashy pleasures and sheer badness or 'pastiness' as Smith called it. Maria Montez movies - of which the most memorable were Arabian Nights (1942) (with Montez as Scheherazade), White Savage (1943), Cobra Woman (1944) and Siren of Atlantis (1948) - provided a model which Smith could recreate with even lower budgets and trashier material, greater sexual explicitness and little or no attention to pacing or audience-grabbing, making a cult of Jack Smith out of his own cult of Maria Montez.

It is important to realise that Warhol's film work largely continued this cult tradition, falling within the broad definition of mouldy film - or, as Jonas Mekas titled it, in more elevated terms, 'Baudelairean cinema'. This is also true, to a considerable extent, of Warhol's upmarket gallery art, which fed voraciously on the trashy culture of fanzines and pulp tabloids, recycled in lurid colours with little concern for technical excellence in silkscreen-making. Warhol, formed in the fashion world, was always careful to cultivate an upper level of socialites and art intellectuals as well as a bohemian stratum of art trash, transvestites, crystal meth freaks, and so on, but his allegiance to the Jack Smith world was never entirely dissipated. In a way, the Empress of Iran was just another fantasy queen from Montezland as far as Warhol was concerned. Using Jack Smith's words, written in defence of his adored Montez, we might insist that Warhol's film art 'came about because (as in the case of von Sternberg) an inflexible person committed to an obsession was given his way through some fortuitous circumstance. Results of this sort of thing TRANSCEND FILM TECHNIQUE. Not barely - but resoundingly, meaningfully, with magnificence, with the vigour that one exposed human being always has - and with failure.'

Books profitably consulted include Andy Warhol: Film Factory, edited by Michael O'Pray (BFI Publishing: London, 1989); Warhol: Conversations About the Artist, by Patrick S. Smith (UMI Research Press: Ann Arbor, 1988); The Baudelairean Cinema, by Carel Rowe (UMI Research Press: Ann Arbor, 1982); Queer Theatre, by Stefan Brecht (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt um Main, 1978); Greenwich Village 1963, by Sally Banes (Duke University Press: Durham and London, l993); Jonas Mekas' Movie Journal (Macmillan: New York, 1972); Gregory Battcock's anthology, The New American Cinema (Dutton: New York, 1967); Maria Montez: Mujer y Estrella, by Pablo Clase, Hijo (Editorial del Nordeste: Santo Domingo, 1985) Arthur Lubin, an Oral History by James Desmarais (Directors Guild of America: Los Angeles, 1977) - Lubin directed Maria Montez in a number of her key films. She also worked with more famous directors such as Robert Siodmak (Cobra Woman) and Max Ophuls (The Exile). Bockris, of course, was indispensable as always.