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 ultimate documentary solution toward which we seem to be lurching. Several of the characters, despite their incessant role-playing, are interesting, and you wish Warhol had taken the trouble (or had the talent?) to show them in depth—which we know is possible, since many cinéma-vérité films have done it with less outré people. But the best place to see The Chelsea Girls would really be on your TV set (if Warhol's friends were only permitted on the family medium) so you could talk, smoke, drink, doze, shoot, or whatever, and take them at their own pace. Warhol has kindly provided a second screen image, to which you can let your attention wander when the main image gets too lackadaisical, but even that cool gesture isn't enough to chill the medium below tepid.
Ernest Callenbach, "Short Notices: 'The Chelsea Girls'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1968 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter, 1967–68, p. 60.