Stephen Koch

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2949

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)

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The hinge of redemption is death. And so is Warhol's central theme finally death. He is an artist whose glamour is rooted in despair, meditating on the flesh, the murderous passage of time, the obliteration of the self, the unworkability of ordinary living. As against them, he proposes the momentary glow of a presence, an image—anyone's, if only they can leap out of the fade-out of inexistence into the presence of the star. (p. 12)

Speaking very roughly, Warhol's early films belong in the stream of nonnarrative, "poetic" avant-garde cinema, a very vital branch of modernism linked historically to Duchamp, Cocteau, and Buñuel, and that transplant of modernist thinking to the American sensibility that has been most conspicuous here in painting. But parallel to the rise of post-war abstraction in painting was the emergence of the American film avant-garde. Warhol inherited both aspects of this parallel development. (p. 19)

Warhol is a sweet, silent, pathologically mild-mannered man with intuitive genius for stepping into the mainstream of philosophy, art, aesthetic history, and the sociology of both the media and the image in our time and simply standing there, as if he were in a chic living room at their exact point of convergence. Most writers agree that his gift is not fundamentally plastic but theatrical…. But almost nobody notices that Warhol's art has a remarkable relevance to certain traditions about art and the artist that have dominated important aspects of Western cultural life at least since Baudelaire, or that Warhol's style speaks to and through those traditions with an ultranaïve and often staggering economy of means. (pp. 21-2)

Here, I think, is the center of Warhol's power as an artist: The obsession of this profoundly withdrawn man—this profoundly withdrawn star—with human presence, which he invariably renders as a cool, velvety, immediate absence. That is his paradox, why he is the phantom of the media, why he is the tycoon of passivity, why the gaze of his vision as an artist operates the way it does. Presence: It is, of course, elusive, particularly because grasping it means a close examination of our own perceptions as we look. (pp. 29-30)

Warhol is a way of looking at the world, and all his work in whatever medium manifests that way. It is a style that renders the presence of the real absent, a prettification that is also a metaphysical transformation that both creates and springs from an alternate consciousness, an alternate world, an alternate sexuality, an alternate art, and an alternate film. (p. 30)

The most powerful of the silent Warhol films are dominated by [a] voyeuristic aesthetic, but their immediate look modulates considerably from case to case. In Sleep, the languid, immobile frame changes from one sleek pictorial voluptuity to another; from the image of the breathing abdomen, to a long shot of the nearly nude body (shot from the knee at an angle just high enough to reveal the sleeper's entire body stretching back into space), to a close-up of the sleeper's expressionless face—frontally, in profile—and then back again, the pattern recapitulated. But, in Kiss, almost every shot is framed in exactly the same way: It is the standard close-up of the kiss and fadeout. (p. 44)

[Blow-Job] is a piece of pornographic wit. Kiss and its fascination rest on a paradox of proximity and distance. The same paradox is at work in Blow-Job, but that paradoxical space of the close-up (in real life the space of the kiss, itself) is compounded by the fact that the film's real action is taking pace very much out of frame. Seeing Kiss, the audience witnesses a nearness and distance impossible in life. In Blow-Job, that space is further displaced into an imagined focus of interest, twenty inches below the frame, which the face actually on the screen never for a moment lets us forget. Perversely obdurate, the frame absolutely refuses to move toward the midriff, insists upon itself in a thirty-five minute close-up that must be the apotheosis of the "re-action shot," never to be surpassed. But that same insistence, with equally obdurate perversity, diverts attention Elsewhere, lower down, towards the Great Unseen…. (p. 48)

In Blow-Job, the fellated penis in the focus of attention; it's excluded from the frame. In erotic and artistic terms, this exclusion marks the difference between Warhol and Morrissey as film-makers. Warhol is uninterested in a spectacle that gives quite that much: That perversity, if such it can be called, is perhaps what saves him from the risk he takes in every major work he has ever produced, which is to be a mere decorator. One senses the power of that refusal, and it becomes the theme of his art.

Warhol is a man who, for all his intelligence, does not really understand people very well: Personhood is a mystery to him. His works gain their power from proposing the structure of that mystery. His voyeuristic obsession with the portrait is the arena in which this aspect of his art is most obvious. On the other hand, he is deeply engaged in the impersonality of a pornographic experience of the Other: The alternate dimension of Warhol's mystified experience of the Person is a violent anonymity. (p. 50)

[In Haircut, as] in all the films, the spectator's gaze is kept extremely close to complete stillness (there are, however, as in the early films, some very slight, and very slow, movements of the camera, though almost exclusively as zooms). But, in Haircut, that stillness is not entirely unbroken; it is, in fact, invited, is even directed, to move. For the first time in Warhol films within the silent style, a visual event occurs (for example, the near vanishing of the cowboy into the darkness of the end of the loft); for the first time, attention is not held in focus on a single and singular visual phenomenon, with its small changes. It is forced to notice things and disregard others, however momentarily; one finds that one must choose where attention will be given. (p. 55)

Haircut is about holding still: It is about a cinematic paradox of movement and stillness, borrowed, among other things, from the aesthetic of the painted portrait and transposed to film…. Linich holds still to have his hair cut, to have his picture taken, to have a movie made about him. A movie about the stillness and motion of the eye itself. Because, as [Ronald] Tavel put it, what Warhol was trying to move toward in the films was a stillness. Here we must pause, for if this stillness is indeed Warhol's theme, its strange meaning is not yet clear. (pp. 57-8)

Empire is so stupendously perverse it is almost awesome. Utterly disregarding any possible source of visual interest for the audience, it follows a cinematic witticism to the bottom of the night, subsuming the greatest and most hilariously debased of all monuments to Warhols' beloved Art Deco into a work of absolute vacuity. (p. 60)

Yet Empire retains a spooky staying power as a locus classicus not of the screen but of the mind…. In Empire, the knot between the conceptual and the concrete is conceived in its simplest terms, literalized, and simply united. It is one of Warhol's most striking techniques: The dissolution of central imaginative and metaphoric tropes that dominates the art literalized and thereby dissolved. (pp. 60-1)

[Warhol's talking films] make the question of authorship an intriguing and baffling little matter. They have a uniform style, the true Warhol style. They are about his relationship to time, his displaced experience of the camera, his remote fascinations. (p. 65)

For all its fist fights, arm-twisting, groveling, whining, sneering, for all its he-men pilloried and tortured, Vinyl is silly with a look of farcical corn ball amateurism. The actors—very visibly reading their lines from idiot sheets out of frame—are hardly able to get the words right, let alone believe what they are being made to say. The film is laughably self-indulgent with its subject. Obsession and disaffection, cliché and confusion, the monstrous and the ridiculous skitter all over the screen like the peal of a long, embarrassed giggle.

And yet, there is something deadly serious about it all. (p. 70)

[Vinyl is] little more than a series of cinematic tableaux, a set of sexualized poses. The screen is drenched with theatricalized sex, sex that flexes its muscles, fills its chest, grimaces, and then (naturally) holds still. The movement of the film through the projector is an insistent reminder of the possibility of movement film itself promises, but that possibility is very much at odds with a posturing immobility—a sexual immobility—that is in fact what the film is about, both formally and in its content. (p. 73)

Within the realm of its formal structure, the stillness in Vinyl has the same motive as does bondage in ethics. It is a consequence of guilt.

That is the secret fascination of Vinyl and its language, the reason for its place among the most interesting films made within the celebrated vocabulary of sadomasochism. Warhol's flimic language in Vinyl involves itself in the horrors that underlie the 1960's frenzied grace and frozen hysteria. And, as in all of Warhol's best films, the effects seem to be located at an extraordinary cinematic distance from our perceptions. (pp. 73-4)

If Vinyl is intended as entertainment, it must be judged a failure. It is, as so often happens with Warhol's films, not a self contained spectacle but a work that creates a situation for its spectator, playing with his perceptions, his indifference and his fascinations, his curiosity and his anger…. The distancing effect of Vinyl, the yanking but limp-wristed alienations it induces, function to destroy the prospect of a familiar, immediate gratification—narrative and sexual pleasure—in favor of another, more remote and less familiar experience. (p. 74)

[Hedy] is one again dominated by a certain pictorialism, but here the camera moves, following its characters through sinuous, undefined corridors of space, seeming to make the quadrilateral hall of the Factory a twisting shadowy region of distraction and confusion. (p. 75)

When the camera is indeed so kind as to have a look at Hedy and her problems, we are invariably in an amorphous, faintly expressionistic, theatrical and dreamlike space. But, when the camera looks away, in order to zero in on a scab of paint or a pillar or the battered wood of the floor, we are abruptly returned to the concrete, to real space and real time, bereft of its theatrics by a simple flick of the cameraman's wrist.

The inattentive camera is one of Warhol's most pronounced stylistic habits. That camera will not give the spectacle before it its full concern. One senses the constant tug of its refusal to submit to the domination of the scene and its idea, its interest; that camera is like a restless child who keeps looking away, staring around the room, not giving in to that dominating experience that is everyone else's concern. (p. 77)

[My Hustler] is a film without mystery—without filmic mystery and with few psychological mysteries, either. It seemed to be more like a "real" movie…. If not precisely entertaining, My Hustler was at least very interesting on some very simple level. There were real people up there, there was a situation on the screen, the situation was being consecutively played out. It had human interest—is there another kind?—and just a bit more as a result of its subject. (p. 82)

This is one of the first Warholvian works—certainly the first discussed here—in which the work's fundamental qualities as film don't happen to be particularly interesting….

[It] is not the filming that can hold attention: It is the movements of those bodies, filled with the clichéd tics of the national vocabulary of masculine body language—so familiarly parodied everywhere that they have become absurd; we Americans have caught on to at least that much. Yet they are also informed with something that is almost primordial; a complex interchange, probing the realities of the body's space and its meanings…. (p. 84)

The Chelsea Girls is not a narrative work, but it does move through time in the rhythm of narrative. It does develop, in a strictly structural sense, toward a finality, as opposed to a mere termination. But it is a finality that functions only by virtue of bringing the eye to rest. Indeed, it does even better than that…. (p. 90)

The Chelsea Girls seems almost an act of aggression, though it must be called aggression of a very special kind. A cliché leaps to mind: The film is mind-blowing, an inept cliché that has leapt into a good many people's minds. The work overloads the circuit of perception. Some may find it a little explosive and shocking, there is a great deal of sadomasochism in it, and a great many needles shooting methadrine. And, for its pleasures, the film may seem to fellate consciousness in a contactless voluptuity. Fine, but I dislike the cliché. I feel a certain contempt for it. We should prize our minds more highly, and The Chelsea Girls seems to me, on the contrary, mind-defining…. Its special characteristic is to flirt with the idea of entirely abandoning any aesthetic, stretching itself across the realm of disorientation while at the same time quietly announcing its coherence. (p. 91)

The Chelsea Girls is haunted, dominated, by the problem of authenticity.

It is sensed through an extraordinarily delicate, though usually comic, exploration of its actors' presences, as their eroticism is sensed through those presences. Everybody has surely guessed that, within the psychological structure of The Chelsea Girls' aesthetic, there is an important link between the whole operation of the film and the exclusively homosexual, sadomasochistic sexuality that pervades it…. But the film is also an anthology of variations on an almost cautionary style of personal presence, something that has its own little drama, its own story. (p. 94)

[In] the works immediately following The Chelsea Girls something absolutely grotesque happened to Warhol's two finest gifts: his visual intelligence and his taste. It was simply this: Degradation. The Loves of Ondine, Nude Restaurant, and, to a lesser degree, Lonesome Cowboys are degraded and degrading works. Even one who prides himself on strong nerves must recoil from them. (p. 100)

[Nude Restaurant] is not so repellent a failure as Loves of Ondine, though, unlike that movie, which has at least some amusing moments before the catastrophe, I cannot think of a single inch of footage in Nude Restaurant that seems to me worth looking at. Watching it is rather like being present at the most boring party of one's entire life. Looking at all those bodies and g-strings, a wave of murderous indifference passes over the mind and clamps itself down, never to move until the last dull frame has been run through the projector. One thinks, pathetically, there is a book to write, surely there is something here. Did he perhaps imagine he was doing or saying something about pornography? One is too bored even to speculate. (p. 103)

[Lonesome Cowboys] is a bad film, even an abominably bad film. It is sloppily made. It does not do what it wants to do. It is very boring. But, even though it is bad, it is among the most critically interesting of Warhol's bad films, because it is a pivotal work in his career both as a film-maker and as a public personality. It is the last film he completed before being shot, the last properly attributed to him rather than Paul Morrissey, the last he directed entirely on his own. And, in that sense, it is very suggestive, particularly about the relation between the master and his pupil. (p. 105)

Lonesome Cowboys is definitely Warhol's own. He wanted to make a Western about sex, and, however deep his interest in that idea this very gifted man had no gift for dealing with it. (pp. 105-06)

Quite apart from the vision of human relations so arbitrarily sprung in the opening of Lonesome Cowboys, Warhol's idea had opened up to him a cinematic concept that, if used, might have made the film a really interesting work. He might have been able to refract the present and the real through the Western myth of an idylic past. Warhol had placed himself squarely in that cinematic situation to which Jean-Luc Godard refers when he speaks of documentary becoming fiction and fiction becoming documentary. (p. 107)

There are no crises in Lonesome Cowboys, because there is no critical consciousness. One senses that Warhol does not know what to do with his double vision of the world and the flesh, and that, even if he knew, he wouldn't or couldn't do it. Only a critical consciousness could undertake such a task—and Warhol has, from the beginning, pitched his very being on the complete refusal to assume critical consciousness. He is a man to whom the world happens. (p. 108)

Stephen Koch, in his Stargazer: Andy Warhol's World and His Films (copyright © 1973 by Stephen Koch; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston), Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1973, 155 p.

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