"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 contrived. What the males and females say and do happens, for the most part, to be interesting. Several speakers in the accumulated reels begin their monologues: "What should I say?" This is less a ploy of amateur acting than actual self-consciousness, and Warhol has what seems to be remarkable good luck in recording a variety of awkward but fascinating poses….
Andy Warhol's camera observes. Once selected, his subjects move and sometimes speak before the observing camera, but they never essentially change. This is not to say that the subjects are viewed as insects, pinned down by a cold eye, and finally squashed by a blackout. They are provoked, if only by being observed, to express some image of themselves; and in so doing they reveal both a pose and something of its antecedent. With utter candor they admit the put-on. Yet in all of Warhol's films I have seen, people remain subjects…. These people share a literalness of being, the quality we noticed in its primitive form in the Campbell's soup can, upon which Warhol conferred artistic immortality, thereby acquiring the reputation of crank. To study a person or an object for its literalness is acutely honest. Why then in these films does it seem a fraud?
We are accustomed to search for moral content in art. Rightly so, if we include the progressive revelation of truth as a moral objective of art…. All things call out their being to us. This is the truth to which art directs us and which, in the process of time, is gradually revealed by art. This view of art, it seems to me, provides an idiom congenial to the films of Warhol, films which, as things, strike most spectators as too crude to be art, too static to be life. (p. 6)
One major problem is that this film so relentlessly satirizes the audience. The film says: Did you come for pornography? Then you will be teased and finally bored. Did you come for photography? Then you will probably leave with a headache. Did you come for psychology? Then you will get contradictions, maybe utter incoherence. I have not seen that Andy Warhol has ever made any promises about his films, he has never ridden on any new wave. But don't we sometimes admire, even love, the person who we feel is making no effort at all to please us?…
Warhol's subjects, suddenly in front of the camera, simply endure its scrutiny as best they can. Often, understandably, the result is discomfiting for both subject and spectator. By the mere fact of duration Warhol's world becomes mundane….
Yet "The Chelsea Girls", like the rest of the Warhol films, is finally oppressive. No amount of interpretation, nor even the plentiful humor of the dialogues, can dispel the dry taste of its literalness. The whole movement of underground films now surfacing seems to be groaning under the onus of carrying...
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a message without flagrantly moralizing. The flood of homemadefilms poétiques has by no means reached its crest. But the wave of Warhol's films contributes nothing to it. His films achieve exceptional mediocrity by exhibiting certain unvarnished truths which can neither purge nor please. Good art cannot long remain merely chic. Warhol's art evokes what James called "the ache of the actual", the sensation that being itself can be stripped down no farther than a literal pose. (p. 7)
Jay Wilson, "Andy Warhol Literally," in The Yale Literary Magazine (copyright © by the Yale Literary Society 1967; reprinted by permission of The Yale Literary Magazine), Vol. CXXXV, No. 5, May, 1967, pp. 6-7.