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Issue 29

Living Film

Comparing film with life

BY Lynne Tillman and Richard Flood in Profiles | 06 SEP 96

Any contemporary story about the past, or even the present, acts like a fairy tale, telling us about ourselves through imagined, extreme analogies. Historical reconstructions reveal us looking back in a hall of mirrors. I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), directed by Mary Harron, is complicated in its depiction of a recent history, complex in its aims and ambitions, and in its filmic conception and production. It's complicated to watch, especially if you lived through the period it represents or wandered through some of its scenes.

Using or producing Warhol history - any history - is a tender, touchy project, troublingly familiar. In 1994, I spent some intense months interviewing Factory people and writing the text for The Velvet Years, Warhol and the Factory 1965-1967 to accompany Stephen Shore's photographs. A weight called responsibility hangs over anyone who trafficks in history. If one accepts the role of the critic, one should first be self-critical. If one uses history, one should historicise oneself. These are daunting, half-possible tasks - pulling yourself out of your thoughts while in them.

Since a return to the past is impossible, a fantasy, what does it mean to be faithful to history? Can we only recognise and record the past as a problem for the present in the present? I Shot Andy Warhol is seen through a prism of positions, when, a) one already has ideas about Warhol, b) has little information about him or the period, and/or c) did or didn't live through it. A dramatic, vivid, uneasy movie, it leaves traces, unsettles, produces shocks of recognition and misrecognition.

After a packed press screening, I shared a cab with three friends. One said: 'Andy seemed pretty nice'. One responded: 'I thought he was disgusting'. One just listened. The friend who thought Warhol seemed nice in the movie likes Warhol's work; the friend who thought he was disgusting hates it, him. Like most things, the movie is likely to confirm some already-received ideas and opinions, while threatening others.

In Michael Auder's video, Chelsea Girls with Andy Warhol (1971-76), Viva (Susan Hoffman) and Brigid Polk (Brigid Berlin) are filmed in the Chelsea Hotel, talking to Warhol over the phone. Warhol doesn't know he's being audiotaped. Later, Warhol's on camera with Viva and others. Auder's video is a knowing slice of behind-the-scene life, a surreptitious glance at Warhol. Everyone seems simultaneously devious, smug and naive, which might be the effect of video verité. But is there ever a 'real' Warhol lurking, an Andy without preconceptions? What's verité anyway?

Harron's Warhol is the enigmatic, charismatic leader. In a memorably charged, discomforting scene, he's seated on a couch at a party, surrounded by four women vying for his attention, his anything. He might be pleased, embarrassed or annoyed; just a happy voyeur or narcissist. Max Weber never said charismatic leaders were nice. Deeply curious creatures, they're concocted of unfailing and dubious charm; they're disturbing figures, who are often disturbed. Jared Harris' Warhol is a blend of ambiguities - passivity, playfulness, cruelty, sweetness, indifference. Lili Taylor plays Valerie Solanas as intelligent, edgy, wry; like the others, wants to get close to him, wants something from him - in her case to produce her play.

At the factory and in Harron's movie, Warhol's the centre. He's the half-empty or half-full glass, matter for projection. Watching I Shot Andy Warhol is also made from projections; on the cinematic couch, each of us is a case of identification or dis-identification. Once Warhol enters the movie, the narrative, like Solanas, is swayed and changed by his presence. This may be my projection. And my reading of the title I Shot Andy Warhol may also be. The title generates questions about the movie's attitude towards Warhol that may have been unintended and unthought; it carries the all-too-prevalent ambivalence and cynicism to Warhol and to his near-death.

Based on a script written by Harron and Dan Minnehan, the movie reconstructs and plunders history, but not as documentary. History conforms to the rules of narrative fiction. It's easy to jerk reflexively to a re-creation, to its not being what it was, really. I kept thinking: I don't know what it was. Harron's decision to portray Solanas in a fiction and as a fictional character signifies her understanding of the problems of 'finding Solanas'. The real Warhol, the real Solanas are the wrong things to look for. So why do we look anyway?

Recently there were three exhibitions in New York, all taking historical stock: at Exit Art/the 'First World', curated by Brian Wallis, 'Counterculture: Alternative Information from the Underground Press to the Internet'; at the Drawing Center, 'Cultural Economies: Histories from the Alternative Arts Movement, NYC', curated by Julie Ault of Group Material; and at Artists' Space, 'Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free: The History of Squat Theater', curated by Eva Buchmuller, Claudia Gould, and Anna Koos. Covering work from the 60s to the mid-80s, the shows are evidence of a determined, backward glance, of the desire to collect and study cultures that have, or seem to have, disappeared. Is it coherence we're searching for, attested to by past strategies or movements, not necessarily recognised at the time as movements or as coherent? What are the uses of history? To turn pieces into wholes, most especially when a present seems splintered?

In I Shot Andy Warhol the spectacle of the 60s runs across the screen, scenes seen through the lens of the 90s, and it's a wild, scary juxtaposition. Solanas - writer, lesbian, feminist who turned tricks, a paranoid who was ill before her introduction to Warhol - becomes the entryway into that difficult, turbulent time, while the Factory is a microcosm of a society and culture in revolt and convulsion.

The chaos of change in the 60s, its sexual openness and its outlaws, finds a place in the movie's mises-en-scènes: the Factory party, the backroom at Max's, the New York diner scenes. The re-enactments reminded me of late, strange nights and strange places. The tableaux seemed superimposed onto the past, out of alignment, but they jarred memory from sleep and were close enough, disconcerting. They felt like archaeological sites: I was at a cinematic excavation. A weird sense of distended space and time, of continuities and discontinuities, connections and disconnections, multiplied the movie's complexity.

We're history's orphans, shaped by it, abandoned by it, searching ironically for our birth parents. Through our representations of what's no longer available, we discover our hunger for what's missed, lost. Idealised or demonised, there are our reflections, our images, on flat surfaces. Valerie Solanas, representative of an anguished, vital time in American history, is a kind of access to the period, a sad way to Warhol and the fantasy and possibilities of a now-glamourous lost moment. (Her SCUM Manifesto, an excoriating, anti-male tract, is definitely symptomatic of the time.) The elusive, brilliant Warhol encountered Valerie Solanas, an extremely disturbed, ambitious, thwarted, talented woman. Her failure to thrive in his, or any, environment turned their meeting into a tragic collision. In all its perplexing, telling, fraught overdeterminations, that crash is a product of history, made in and about America.

Minnesota Nice Richard Flood on Fargo

I've been thinking about the Joel and Ethan Coen movie, Fargo (1996). I've been trying to figure out why it left me elated and flattened all at once. A big part of my mixed reaction is due, I'm convinced, to the film's setting in the state of Minnesota (with a preface and afterword in North Dakota). I happen to have recently moved to Minnesota, and I went to see Fargo with all the anticipation of the newly baptised to their first church meeting. Before Minnesota, I'd lived on the East Coast, and trust me, nothing on the East Coast can in any way prepare you for what is west of it. The Minnesota I'd been creating for myself since my arrival was necessarily more exotic than prosaic. I really wasn't interested in how it conformed to what I knew, only how it differed.

The key to the difference was the Mississippi River, legendary divider of America's East and West. The epic grain elevators that flank its shoreline give the place a purpose that is mythic - feeding America. Here was where the harvest of the Great Plains was distributed so that a nation would never go hungry. A couple of car rides later, the grain silos were joined by the ore docks which spread up along the shore of Lake Superior from Duluth. Unlike the wholesome volumetrics of the concrete elevators, the ore docks are spidery and sinister. Railroad tracks feed down to the lake from the Iron Range and disappear behind chain link fencing through jumbles of smoking outbuildings and onto silhouetted trestles where the ore is loaded onto waiting tankers. For me, ore is almost better than grain - more brutal, bigger businesses and bigger bastards running them. Also the names of the ranges - Cuyuna, Mesabi, Vermillion - have a great, moody poetic ring to them. The final component in my Minnesota is the lumber, the lost treasure of the state and its greatest shame. By the early part of this century, what had been one of America's biggest forests and Minnesota's greatest bounty was gone - cut, shipped and banked. All that remains is a scattering of millwork and paper plants, the stench of which pulverises the towns which depend on them.

However, Minnesota's vanished forests left another legacy, altogether weirder than the stomach-churning scent of paper pulp: Paul Bunyan, the satanic totem host of every tourist-driven village in the state. There are Paul Bunyan statues all over Minnesota, each one more grotesquely hearty than the next, each more gigantically and enigmatically welcoming than its predecessor down the road. Bunyan and his familiar, Babe the Blue Ox, first entered the ranks of American folk legends in 1910 thanks to the fanciful prose of a columnist for the Detroit News-Tribune. Nowadays, Bunyan's most unique contribution to mythology is that he was created as a hero for capitalism rather than evolving as a hero from necessity - a Frankenstein monster in the guise of a lumberjack, blithely deforesting the mid-West when not frolicking with his ox.

Paul Bunyan is the omnipotent, uncaring god who presides over the Coens' Fargo. He is present as an enormous, mute sculpture, a brother to the statue which arrives to take Don Giovanni plummeting into the bowels of hell. Bearded with a blood-red mouth, wearing a chequered lumberjack shirt and hefting an axe, the Coen's Bunyan is situated in the town of Brainerd, the film's moral epicentre. It is from here that Fargo's undistractible and pregnant heroine sheriff, Marge Gunderson, sets forth on a journey to solve a grisly string of murders. Marge is set up as a bit of another regional cliché; she's 'Minnesota nice'. The modifier I've heard more than a few times from other East Coast transplants is 'Minnesota nice; as cold as ice' and, indeed, it's true of Marge who tracks her prey with the fuzzy, warm-blooded intensity of a starving wolf.

The corruption in Fargo starts in Minneapolis, Minnesota's mercantile capital where money is milled from grain, ore and lumber. An everyman by name, Jerry Lundegaard has come up against a problem that only dollars can resolve. He constructs a kidnapping plot in which his wife will be harmlessly taken hostage by two goons-for-hire from Fargo. Her ransom will be paid by her affluent father and suburban life will prosaically continue. Of course, nothing goes right and a wrath as insatiable as that borne by Eumenides against the house of Atreus is unleashed in the wintery whiteout of a midwestern tract development.

Jerry's Minnesota is very different from my Minnesota. This is not to suggest the Coens portrayal is inaccurate - they were, after all, brought up in suburban Minneapolis - only that I have so assiduously avoided the reality of the suburban islanding, driving by on my way to grain, ore and lumber. Getting stuck in a split level house of Atreus was not my idea of Minnesota and the awful, dysfunctional rhythms of Jerry's family could just have easily been enacted in New Jersey. This was part of what was so flattening about Fargo, the idea that all American suburbs are essentially the same. The suburbs have historically been the ruin of American cities: divide the behemoth up anyway you have to; just get Mister and Missus home to their glare of light on the horizon before the baby-sitter slips another dose of Ritalin to their heir who is gnawing on the shag carpet in the family room. Fargo gets the suburbs frighteningly right.

It is the arrival of the kidnappers from Fargo which throws the film back into an unmistakable midwest as they drive into a Minneapolis that is cold and white and rich. Kidnappers and extortionist are suddenly, giddily let loose on a state filled with Scandinavian-accented, apple-cheeked victims and witnesses; everything that could go wrong does. The two parties are in tenuous communication through a paroled Native-American, Shep, the only 'other' in the film. It is Shep's existentially careless relationship with his 'others' which sets the plot on its relentlessly fatal course. Once the exposition is out of the way, things just convulse and move on: flat accents lead into flatter landscapes as snow-bleached highway shoulders and lakeside cabins start sprouting bodies like the darling buds of May.

As in the best of the Coen's films (Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991)) the stakes in Fargo are remarkably low - chump change, really. All the escalating awfulness needn't ever have happened but, somehow, it's the pettiness of the prize which gives the film its curious moral gravity. At Fargo's particularly American end, Jerry finds himself in a seedy motel and his response is equivalent to a child's tantrum over being sent to bed in the middle of a favourite cartoon. What he has wrought is nothing compared to what has been denied him. Jerry's tantrum holds within it the encapsulated, levelling power of Fargo. The film was never about the midwest in general or Minnesota in particular. It was about America and the toll that the country's drift from entitlement has taken. Jerry Lundegaard is a spoiled everyman, one of an army of everymen brought up to believe there'd always be a chicken in the pot. When there isn't, Fargo turns into Waco or Ruby Ridge or Oklahoma City. It's a national parable and the message is devastating.