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 'anti-film' and 'unartistic', without 'form' and 'dramatic content.' Quite the contrary. Not only does Warhol conform to two of [John] Grierson's rules for good documentary:
(1) It must master its material on the spot and come in intimacy to ordering it.
(2) It must follow Flaherty in his distinction between description and drama. (You photograph the natural but by juxtaposition of detail create an interpretation of it).
… but he is also an innovator in a newly-innovated movement—Camp…. (p. 20)
Firstly, Warhol masters his material and comes to intimacy with it by maintaining a congruity between his 'tools' and 'materials.' His nauseous, drugged, hysterical and lax technique is not out of text with his subject matter….
Since Camp stresses form to the exclusion of content, Warhol created the form and conflict (dramatic content) of a male and female homosexual duel for attention, thereby relieving the need for any sort of plot or gesture from the artist….
Some more concrete examples of dramatic content: the fag tirade of the Pope against the married chick obviously held the attention and caused reactions in the audience with whom I saw the film, as did the masochistic dyke scenes … the violent episodes. It seemed that the bawdier and more physical the action was, the more the audience stirred, was impressed. This is telling of two things: (a) that Shakespeare's 'groundling', who we all study and snigger condescendingly at, is not so far removed from us, and (b) the total spontaneity of the improvisations was effective. That is, one forgot momentarily the social and moral stigmas of the 'actors' … they became more universal in the sheer exhibition and display of their passions, perverted or not….
One of the most impressive and ironic elements of the film was the great beauty of some of the characters and individual shots. Some unintentional movements of the camera often produced quite artistic compositions and patterns on the screen, especially those in color. The theme of finding beauty in randomly exposing and touching reality to media, or splattering media helter-skelter is indicative of abstract expressionism….
If nothing else, we must laud Warhol for perpetuating the traditional American phenomenon: the successful rebel. He has the guts (if not the aplomb of a public spectacle) to disagree with and deviate from conventions, thumb his nose at and cajole the masses and elite minorities in the New York and American art 'scene', and make a minor fortune, establish a major infamy, doing it. (p. 21)
Pamela Crawford, "Andy Warhol's 'Chelsea Girls'," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1968 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. 1, No. 3, Winter, 1967–68, pp. 20-1.