Andy Warhol Essay - Critical Essays

Warhol, Andy


Andy Warhol 1928–

American director, artist, and author.

Warhol's controversial work stems from his conviction that he is empty and what he creates is meaningless. Critics seem to interpret his films for him, since they lack any composition or traditional qualities of beauty. His films appear to be mass-produced; Warhol's studio is, in fact, named the Factory because of its high production rate. While his early films were silent, overly long, and inert, later works included characters and minor activity. These films featured Warhol's "superstars": a group of minimally-talented people instructed only to "act normally." Warhol felt the presence of these "stars" far outshone their performances, that people are more interesting than stories. Though many find him a forerunner of minimalist cinematic expression and graphic screen sexuality, Warhol sees the camera only as a recorder of reality, not as an artistic tool.

Warhol studied art at Carnegie Institute of Technology, then worked as a commercial designer in New York. Warhol's early work popularized the reproduction of everyday objects, reflecting his preference for recreation over creation. In 1964, Warhol began making films because "Movies are easier to do than pictures. All you have to do is turn on the camera." Early films such as Sleep and Empire survey a motionless object for an extended period. Warhol stated that he "wanted the Empire State Building to be a star."

The films of 1964–65, such as My Hustler and Vinyl, further demonstrate Warhol's belief that everyone is a star. Consequently the quality of the film mattered little. Warhol, in fact, has often incorporated purposely anticinematic techniques, allowing the camera to wander and refusing to edit the film. Warhol also allows his team to collaborate as much or as little as they wish. Regardless of a film's critical reception, Warhol takes little credit for the finished result.

Warhol had his first commercial hit with Chelsea Girls. Many critics find its disjointed structure and disdain for cinematic technique an overbearing put-on. Devotees of underground movies, however, have applauded Warhol's use of twin screens as well as both black and white and color film. Warhol attributed this twin usage to the fact that he "finally had enough money for color film."

Lonesome Cowboys involves more plot and was shot on location. While action is more extensive in this film, characters are no deeper than before. Blue Movie follows a couple around an apartment and plays the passive observer as they talk, make love, shower, and eat. Warhol feels his greatest contribution to cinema has been in the area of sexual permissiveness on screen; since Blue Movie is a film of a real rather than enacted encounters, its documentary-like depiction of sex is noteworthy.

In 1968, a member of Warhol's Factory attempted to murder him. Though he survived, his creative output lessened, and successive films have been credited solely to his collaborator, Paul Morrissey. Warhol is the embodiment of his "nothing" philosophy. While others find artistic merit in his work, Warhol terms it "turning on a camera and letting people talk." When asked what the purpose of his films is, Warhol replied, "To take up time." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

Henry Geldzahler

Andy Warhol's films conceal their art exactly as his paintings do. The apparently sloppy and unedited is fascinating. What holds his work together in both media is the absolute control Andy Warhol has over his own sensibility—a sensibility as sweet and tough, as childish and commercial, as innocent and chic, as anything in our culture. Andy Warhol's eight hour Sleep movie must be infuriating to the impatient or the nervous or to those so busy they cannot allow the eye and the mind to adjust to a quieter, flowing sense of time. What appears boring is the elimination of incident, accident, story, sound and the moving camera…. The slightest variation becomes an event, something on which we can focus our attention. As less and less happens on the screen, we become satisfied with almost nothing and find the slightest shift in the body of the sleeper or the least movement of the camera interesting enough. The movie is not so much about sleep as it is about our capacity to see possibilities of an aspect of film carried to its logical conclusion reductio ad absurdum to some, indicating a new awareness to others. Andy Warhol wants to keep his editing to an absolute minimum and allow the camera and the subject to do the work. This of course cannot deny the special qualities of his personality; for it is Andy Warhol that holds the camera and it is through his eyes that we see the scene…. Andy Warhol's film, in which we are constantly aware of the filmic process, sometimes even seeing the frames that end the reels, frames that any sophisticated movie maker would edit out, makes us aware of exactly the limitations and qualities of film itself. A more incident-filled story would draw our attention from the fact that we are seeing a film. Sleep, one of Andy Warhol's first movies, is an indication of what he will soon be able to do: make content-less movies that are exactly filmed still-lifes with the minimum of motion necessary to retain the interested attention of the unprejudiced viewer.

Henry Geldzahler, "Some Notes on 'Sleep'," in Film Culture (copyright 1964 by Film Culture), No. 32, Spring, 1964, p. 13.

Jonas Mekas

[The work of Andy Warhol] is the last word in the Direct Cinema. It is hard to imagine anything more pure, less staged, and less directed than Andy Warhol's "Eat," "Empire," "Sleep," "Haircut," movies. I think that Andy Warhol is the most revolutionary of all film-makers working today. He is opening to film-makers a completely new and inexhaustible field of cinema reality. It is not a prediction but a certainty that soon we are going to see dozens of "Eat," "Haircut," or "Street" movies done by different film-makers and there will be good and bad and mediocre "Eat" movies, and very good "Eat" movies, and someone will make a masterpiece "Eat" movie. What to some still looks an actionless nonsense, with the shift of our consciousness which is taking place will become an endless variety and an endless excitement of seeing similar subjects or the same subject done differently by different artists. Instead of asking for Elephant Size Excitement we'll be able to find aesthetic enjoyment in the subtle play of nuances.

There is something religious about this…. There is something very humble and happy about a man (or a movie) who is content with eating an apple. It is a cinema that reveals the emergence of meditation and happiness in man. Eat your apple, enjoy your apple, it says. Where are you running, away from yourself, to what excitement? If all people could sit and watch the Empire State Building for eight hours and meditate upon it, there would be no more wars, no hate, no terror—there would be a happiness regained upon earth.

Jonas Mekas, "Movie Journal" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1964), in The Village Voice, Vol. IX, No. 43, August 13, 1964, p. 13.∗

Gregory Battcock

The presentation of the material in Blow Job is, once again, "anthological"—a mirror image, so to speak, which presents demands on our attention that are entirely without regard for that image's relation to the dialectic of the story. One of these demands arises through the use of the actor….

The lengthy (35 minute) blow job is accented by the paucity of expression demonstrated by the beautifully inept actor. Like the protagonist of other Warhol films, he is left to his own devices and since he is obviously either incapable of or uninterested in coping with the situation he finds himself in a fairly ludicrous position. In this sense the actor becomes an element or tool used in such a way never before considered in the film. This is another example of Warhol's formidable ability to extend and redefine reality—a preoccupation intrinsic to art. (p. 20)

Sex isn't plainly illustrated. Neither are sexual parts, acts or movements. Except for a bit of leather jacket which occasionally appears on the screen, the actor is as without identity as is the act. It is neither a homosexual nor heterosexual incident but rather personal, human and catholic….

The length of the film—of the blow job—is exaggerated probably to clarify the artist's dedication to the time element, as time is possibly the one most important element distinguishing the film medium from the other fine arts. And, if in most films, events are telescoped so that lengthy acts often appear much shorter on the screen, in a Warhol film they often appear longer, in their transition from actuality to the reality of the medium….

If the medium and message are to be considered as one, the films of Andy Warhol are the best illustration of the concept popularized by Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message. The deliberate recognition of the message = medium idea may partially explain why it is hardly necessary to see a Warhol film. There is little to see that can't be adequately described. (p. 21)

Gregory Battcock, "Notes on 'Blow Job': A Film by Andy Warhol," in Film Culture (copyright 1965 by Film Culture), No. 37, Summer, 1965, pp. 20-1.

Gregory Battcock

Screen Test is a transitional work both in technique and content…. Yet the "still image" device is still retained in Screen Test. (By "still image" I refer to Warhol's technique of reducing the action on the screen to small variations of posture on the part of the single image—variations that are further limited by Warhol's refusal to move the camera.) (p. 62)

The burden of the film rests squarely on the audience. The audience, never catered to, is abused, exposed and ridiculed. It is, at the same time, very much considered. The film represents certainly an extension of the new realism to such a degree that complacency which indeed goes hand in hand with much which is supposed to be avant-garde is notably absent…. If Sleep or Empire were films to turn on to, Screen Test is actively interesting because the viewer is forced into an immediate and not altogether unfamiliar involvement. (pp. 62-3)

In presenting these disturbing challenges to the nature of the medium, Warhol hinders understanding and sympathy by his choice of vehicle. However, sexual dualism represented on the screen can be taken as further proof of Warhol's intent to unmask the sexual fraud of the contemporary cinema….

The films of Warhol represent a coherent series of attacks on the restrictions and hypocracies of the media. Sleep makes use of the reduction concept: Couch and Henry Geldzahler play with suspense and anticipation: Blowjob an essay in humanism: Screen Test deals with the actor and the audience: Horse the sadomasochism underlying the good guy versus bad guy facade of the Western: and The Life Of Juanita Castro representing in its scope and pattern, the epic.

In this procession of films, there is no pause for reflection and little self-indulgent repetition. If, by now, the earlier works are of the classical avantgarde, the newer ones continue to present the challenge, uncertainty and polemic which is art. (p. 63)

Gregory Battcock, "Notes on 'Screen Test': A Film by Andy Warhol," in Film Culture (copyright 1965 by Film Culture), No. 38, Fall, 1965, pp. 62-3.

Parker Tyler

A part of Warhol's negotiable charm as a modern entertainer is his work as applied art-naiveté. There is something both perverse and violent about pasting the camera eye on a limited field of vision, with limited action inside it, and asking the spectator to paste his eye over that, and just wait. The ensuing charm, I should say, is more than a trifle masochistic. But take the contrary view. A high pulse exists in the modern temper (I mean everybody's temper) for elective affinity with occupations that dissociate themselves from the ugly spectacle of war, and lesser lethal agents, as forms of cutthroat competition. The very peacefulness of just watching a man eat a mushroom (even though, as if on purpose, he takes...

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Jay Wilson

"The Chelsea Girls", Warhol's most ambitious film to date, has been labeled "an odyssey of the new generation", "a voyage to the Hell of drop-outs and junkies". The theme, it would seem, is the searching trip; the chief symbol, that old haunt of artists, the Chelsea Hotel…. The agglomeration of scenes, in forty-five minute spurts projected two at a time on a split screen, hardly suggests any unified theme—of consecutive movement, ideas, or even locale…. You are faced not with obscurity but a more mysterious effect—mundane clarity. You expect the artistic film to speak a figurative language when its language is in fact simply literal.

The literal in "The Chelsea Girls" happens to be highly...

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Howard Thompson

[In this month's Andy Warhol picture, a stringy-haired blonde drawls,] "Are you as bored as I am?" Baby, we were stultified.

Undaunted devotees of underground cinema shouldn't be disappointed in "∗∗∗∗" That's what it is called—or, rather Mr. Warhol, whose films have long since risen above, or beyond, mere title credits, calls it. Maybe it's just as well….

The question, as with any Warhol film is why?

Mr. Warhol has superimposed three images on the screen, along with several soundtracks. Whether talking to themselves, one another or the camera, or wallowing around in frenzied deshabille or blinking in heavy-lidded stupor, they're truly a sight, for those...

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Andrew M. Lugg

[Warhol's] early "epic" films are similar in many respects to the paintings. There is not much difference between a man sleeping—Sleep (1964) and a corpse. Neither even requires much manipulation to translate it into an artifact. In Sleep, which is more of a record than anything else, the "cinema" element is almost irrelevant. It simply provides an environment for the event.

Empire came shortly after Sleep. Differing from the earlier film, it is not completely descriptive. The daytime sequence is hurried along, compressed, to give the main focus of the record, the coming of night, more emphasis. Here, Warhol shows that he is willing to interfere with the natural order of...

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Pamela Crawford

More than a randomly artistic, at times unconsciously brilliant and beautiful exposé of perversion and display of underground pop, hip and drug culture, Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls is a violent reflection of 'our times', a roundabout comment on middle class society. Rather than a documentary on the times, it is a document of the times, hence, more real; the film had little or no inherent thoughtfulness, but it is thought-provoking, thus, of more critical value than a traditionally formulated statement….

The continuous thread woven through Warhol's erratic and crude embroidery is the same as Ingmar Bergman's: suffering and guilt….

Chelsea Girls has been deemed...

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Ernest Callenbach

Watching The Chelsea Girls is like listening in on a very long phone conversation. It's mildly titillating—you keep wondering whether something isn't bound to happen, and when you're ready to give up, the scene and characters change so you begin wondering all over again. It's also dubious—as if the people talking know you're listening, and are thus putting on a somewhat special show for your benefit. The movie exploits the voyeuristic element inherent in all cinema, and like Warhol's Sleep and Empire it is probably a healthy slap in the face with the dead herring of photographic "realism"; but it shrinks from going the whole way into a genuinely candid, totally eavesdropping form—the...

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Brendan Gill

The speed and ease of [Warhol's] movie-making are based on the theory that nothing that an artist produces in the course of his work can fairly be called a mistake; everything he has done being of value because he has done it, all accidents are equally benign, and to have second thoughts about them, much less to consider "correcting" them, would be not only a waste of talent, time, and money but also a rude betrayal of the original inspiration. This appealingly circular theory has permitted Warhol to accumulate a very large number of movies in a very brief period of time; I have seen some of most of them and most of some of them, if not all of any of them, and I find that they run together in memory without...

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Claire Clouzot

What is enjoyable in Warhol, as usual, is the mixture of humor (conscious or unconscious?) and perversion. Hence the best moments [in I, A Man] are the staircase misunderstanding between Baker and a Mao-capped girl who resists his pressing advances, the close-ups of four feet playing with each other under a bed where Baker and girl two are trying out new amorous techniques, or the scene where Baker weighs the breasts of a girl as if they were apples. Because of the number of seduction scenes one man performs with changing female partners, the female species is reduced to an object to be moulded without conviction. Warhol achieves the negation of femininity through the epidermic game of ambivalence—in which he...

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David Denby

The dramatic action of [Viva and Louis, also known as Blue Movie and Fuck] consists of the two characters struggling to find enough to say and do to fill up the time it takes for the film to pass through the camera. (p. 42)

Several shots have been lyrically "composed" in silhouette, and something approaching a rhythm, or at least a punctuation, has been established by alternating long static takes in the classic manner and machine-gun clusters of frames…. The scene in which Viva and Louis screw (from start to finish) has been deliberately overexposed, and the unfiltered daylight floods in on the sheets, the air, and the interlocked bodies, changing them all into a heavenly pale...

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Michael Goodwin

A delightful blasphemy, [Imitation of Christ] actually looks more like Bike Boy than Lonesome Cowboys; basically, it's just a series of encounters between Patrick/Jesus/Warhol and everybody else. Endless rap, much of it funny, and more in-references than the human mind can stand. Warhol's directorial hand is stronger here than in previous films—and a lot of the time he seems to be feeding lines to the actors. Certainly, Bridget's speech about her son ("They tell me he's a genius. If that's genius, I want no part of it!") sounds too much like Mrs. Warhol to be an accident.

As usual, Warhol's illusion/reality games are right on. The tension that he sets up between his...

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Peter Buckley

[My Hustler] really is just a home movie made by a few people who know a bit about cameras and a bit about their subject, and like any homegrown product, it has its ups and downs.

On the up side is much of the chat, which in its bitchy way is quite funny, observant, and full of the hollow ring of truth. The camera work for the most part is annoyingly perfect…. (pp. 72, 74)

But the downer, and it is a major one, is the basic premise that these shallow, one-dimensional people are worth examining at all. They, and their situation, like their existence, are not really worth a second look, let alone seventy minutes of film. Unless of course one is making a little home movie to...

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Richard Schickel

[Ernie Kovacs's comment, "Show me a cowboy who rides sidesaddle, and I'll show you a gay ranchero"], which I heard the late great comedian throw away one time, is as accurate a summary of Andy Warhol's new movie, Lonesome Cowboys, as one can make. But the point of one of his films is never to be found in its content, but simply in its existence, whether it happens to be twenty-four hours long, as one of them is, or twenty-four minutes, as one of them might perfectly well be. None of the matters usually brought up when we talk about films—story, style, technique—has any relevance to his work. Indeed, I have no hesitancy in admitting that I left Cowboys ten minutes before it was over, on the grounds...

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Stephen Koch

Warhol was a central protagonist in a social drama that tried to make the 1960's look like another Age of Innocence. A childlike, gum-chewing naïveté inflects his visions of electric chairs and the ripped bloody bodies dangling from car wrecks; it merges with the pornographic lusting in so many of his films to touch them with an almost sweet aesthetic anodyne. Like that of the classic décadent, his aesthetics is the narcotic to a sense of damnation; unlike that of the décadent, his aesthetics is that not of a rarified connoisseur but displays the chintzy joys of American naïveté. (pp. 11-12)

The hinge of redemption is death. And so is Warhol's central theme finally death. He is an...

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John Russell Taylor

The essence of Warhol's art—and by extension that of the Factory he heads—is the straight look at things as they are, and acceptance of appearances as an important part, perhaps the most important part, of the truth. It is the same whether the object is a Campbell's Soup can or the Empire State Building or some people just living, just talking, just being in front of the camera. And if what people are is what they appear to be, what they appear to be is very importantly what they think they are, what they want to be thought….

We all define ourselves to some extent according to our own fantasies; the only difference with Warhol's drag ladies is that the discrepancy between the fantasy and the...

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