Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two Films by Andy Warhol

If you've ever heard anything at all about the films of Andy Warhol, you've probably heard that they're invariably boring--that his six-hour film of somebody sleeping, Sleep (1963), and his eight-four-hour film of the Empire State Building, Empire (1964), are ideas to be discussed more than they are movies to be seen. This reputation is not unfounded, but as Warhol produced a vast number of films in his factory days, and they're all extremely hard to come by, I was happy to have the opportunity on Friday to see two of them at the Cinémathèque Français, so I could experience them for myself.

The films were screened together as a single program, titled "Andy Warhol, Portraits," which is a good way of describing them. The first and shorter of the two, Blowjob (1963)--one of Warhol's best known films--consists entirely of a close-up of a young man who may or may not be getting a blowjob. The second, Eating Too Fast (1966), which is longer and not as well known, features a different young man staring blankly into the camera, but here Warhol employs pans and zooms to reveal more of his environment. Of the two, I prefer Blowjob because it's more mysterious, although it's not without boring parts, while Eating Too Much starts out mysteriously but eventually becomes merely tedious.

In Blowjob, the unresolved ambiguity of whether or not the subject is receiving a blowjob turns each piece of information into a potential clue. Behind the man is a brick wall, and the light is coming from directly above him, as if from a streetlight. However, the way he keeps leaning his head back suggests that he's sitting in a chair, making it unlikely he's on the street. (Besides, if he were getting a blowjob on the street, he'd probably want to find the darkest spot available to avoid being seen, rather than standing directly under a streetlight.) The way his head jerks around, it sometimes looks as though Warhol shot the film--or at least parts of it--in reverse motion, though I can't be sure. Then there's the possibility that the subject is faking it for the camera, which prompts the viewer to scrutinize his every facial twitch for signs of acting. Unfortunately, because of the way the scene's lit, each time the subject leans forward (which is often), his face becomes enveloped in shadows, which I found frustrating.

No fewer than five times during the movie, the screen go completely white as the camera runs out of film. A 400-foot roll of 16mm film stock is roughly equivalent to three minutes of footage. By my estimation, this makes the film about eighteen minutes long. Had the subject taken longer to finish, the film could've been even longer, but we wouldn't have any more information about him.

Warhol shot Eating Too Fast with sync sound, which gives us a few more clues to work with. The film opens with a close-up of the subject staring directly into the camera. Off-screen, we can faintly hear traffic and barking dogs in the distance. Since the light is hitting the subject side-on, neatly dividing his face into light and dark halves, we might infer that the only light source is an open window just off-screen, rather than any artificial light source (as is almost certainly the case in Blowjob). After a minute or so, we can hear a second person in the room, coughing and sipping a drink. Up to this point, Warhol is dropping lots of clues but giving no definitive answers.

The young man's vacant expression and occasional coughing suggest that he might be stoned. But once when he picks up the phone, he suddenly becomes more animated, which rules out this hypothesis. We don't hear the person on the other end of the line, although we gather from what the subject says that it's a friend of his, Bob, who just called to see how the subject is doing. During the conversation, there's an abrupt zoom out and pan down to reveal another person in the room. After the subject hangs up, he goes back to staring blankly at the camera for the remainder of the film, which is a while. (Working with a larger film magazine, Warhol doesn't have to change the reels, although there's a visible cut mid-way through the film.) The zooms and pans continue after the phone call ends, but since we don't learn any new information, they seem entirely pointless, and Warhol's clumsy technique in executing them is even more distracting.

The problem with both films is that they're not so much movies as they are paintings in time: Warhol trained his camera on a static situation, and held the shot for an arbitrary period of time. (The final reel of Blowjob, in which the subject lights a cigarette after climaxing, adds nothing, and one could easily lop it off and project the piece as a video loop in a gallery.) At the screening I went to, there were numerous walk-outs. I don't think the people who went to the show were expecting a traditional narrative or weren't sophisticated enough to appreciate the films. Rather, Warhol is incapable of sustaining a viewer's interest from beginning to end. Then again, I don't think he cared much about the audience either way.

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