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The ‘60s Without Compromise:
Watching Warhol’s Films

Thom Andersen

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The first Andy Warhol movie I saw was Sleep. It was June 1964 at the Cinema Theater on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the birthplace of Midnight Movies. Sleep didn’t begin at midnight, it began around 6.45pm. It’s a long movie, as I recall, it ended around 12.30am. There were about five hundred people in the theatre when the film began; there were about ten left when the movie ended. I was one of them, although I didn’t watch the whole movie: after four hours or so, I slipped out for a snack at the coffee shop around the corner.

Mike Getz, the theatre manager and programmer, sent a slightly misleading account of the screening to Jonas Mekas, who printed it in his ‘Movie Journal’ column in the Village Voice. Getz described something close to a riot in the lobby of the theater that began only a few minutes after the start of the film. I had noticed that most of the audience had left during the first half-hour, and I could hear from inside the quiet auditorium that something was going on in the lobby. So I got up and checked it out. The lobby was jammed with people, almost all of them screaming at Mike Getz. They all wanted their money back, and he was resisting. There was a sign on the box office window announcing there would be no refunds, and, according to Getz in his letter to Mekas, he told people:



1. Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971 (New York: Collier, 1972), pp. 146-147.

  ... you knew you were going to see something strange, unusual, daring, that lasted six hours ... I believe that Sleep was properly advertised. I said in my ads that it was an unusual six-hour movie. You came here knowing that you were going to see something unusual about sleep and I think you are. (1)  



What his account left out is the ad line that brought five hundred people to watch Sleep: ‘A film so unusual it may never be shown again.’

The scene in the lobby was a lot more exciting than the movie being projected inside, but soon enough Getz gave in, at least partly, by offering free passes for another show at the Cinema to anyone who wanted one. He claimed that he gave out two hundred passes (he also gave out passes to everyone who was there at the end, which we accepted as though they were boy scout merit badges).

I don’t think I stuck around long enough to see the matter resolved. A riot or a near-riot can be monotonous, too. So I walked back into the auditorium and watched the movie. For me it created a profound happiness. A lazy person’s meditation? Maybe. Or was it just being able to watch a movie that allowed the play of my voluntary attention, to put it in Hugo Münsterberg’s terms? That is, here was a movie that was self-sufficient, like a tree or a stone or a building. It didn’t need me, and I didn’t need it. ‘Minimal’ wasn’t and isn’t the right term for it, but I think you could call it ‘reductionist’.



2. Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 3.

  Or you could call it ‘Pop Art.’ The impulse behind the movement was to paint something so obvious no one had noticed it, something that therefore demanded acknowledgment. As Warhol would write, ‘The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognise in a split second ... all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.’ (2) The first paintings he exhibited (in Los Angeles, as it happened) depicted the labels of soup cans. So, when he came to making movies, what could be more obvious than to film a man sleeping? We spend a great part of our lives sleeping, but we never see sleeping represented in moving pictures. Pop Art wasn’t so much about turning low culture into high culture as it was about turning the mundane into the representable, and sleeping is even more mundane than a can of soup.  



The mundane becomes representable, at least in Warhol’s work, through a process of reduction. The most beautiful and obvious example I ever saw was not officially part of his artistic production, and so it has not been noted by critics or biographers. It was his contribution to a collection of celebrity Christmas trees exhibited at the Hallmark Gallery in New York City in December 1964. The trees must have been twenty feet tall, and they were ornately, even baroquely overdecorated. In this celebration of conspicuous wealth and excess, Warhol’s tree stood out because it was bare. No bulbs, no strings of lights or tinsel, no stars, no décor at all, just a magnificent fir tree. It was as if he set out to prove that ornament is crime and he did it, in a way I’ll never forget.

In Sleep, the reduction is achieved simply by framing and duration. I didn’t demand my money back because I had known what to expect, more or less. Actually I had read that it was a single shot of a man sleeping that lasted eight hours, with no sound. Apparently that was the concept. It was silent, but it didn’t run eight hours (the official running time at sixteen frames per second is five hours, twenty-one minutes), and there were a number of shots taken from different angles. I don’t really remember the shots, but I remember the cuts, or at least I remember the effect they had. The first visible cut was a surprise, but I anticipated the rest and so I watched the film in a mood of mounting suspense. When would the cut come? What new aspect of the sleeper would it reveal?

The idea of suspense is often misunderstood, both in its application to conventional dramatic narrative films and in its application to more unconventional films. I have called suspense ‘just another alienation effect’, and I ascribed this conception of it to Alfred Hitchcock as well. That is, it is not an end in itself. Creating suspense alienates the familiar, makes it strange, so that our appreciation of it is heightened.


3. Eugene Vale, The Technique of Screenplay Writing: An Analysis of the Dramatic Structure of Motion Pictures (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1972).



However, as Eugene Vale has pointed out in his classic manual on screenplay writing, suspense is a secondary effect. It depends on anticipation, which depends on intention. Someone must intend to do something, and there must be something in the way that makes us uncertain about the success of the intention. According to Vale, this ‘something’ may be an obstacle, a complication or, best of all, a counter-intention. Rocky will win the fight or he will lose the fight (his opponent supplies the counter-intention). (3)

Suspense in this account depends on a set of simple binary alternatives (although in an actual movie, it is enriched by the establishment of a series of sub-intentions, each of which confronts its own opposition). In Sleep, it is more complex, closer to the kind of suspense we feel watching a horror film. The monster is lurking about and can strike at any moment. When will the attack come? Will the intended victim be able to ward it off? The cuts in Sleep are like the sudden appearances of the monster in horror movies, inevitable in the long run but unexpected in their actual manifestation. They are startling, if not scary. We have been given time to settle into one field of vision, and without warning it is instantaneously replaced by another.




It is a kind of formal suspense, analogous to the suspense that sustains sonata form in music. It doesn’t depend on creating identification with a character. Anticipation is created by establishing a set of rules, which will be maintained throughout the film. Warhol would prove adept at establishing these rules quite early in his films and maintaining some basic rules from one film to another (shot durations determined by standard lengths of sixteen millimetre film; a ‘stock company’ of performers reappearing in a number of films).

To put it another way, the intentions of the filmmaker replace the intentions of the protagonist. What, then, is the obstacle? It is simply the resistance of the material. It may be the length of a film roll, or the character of an actor, or the limitations of the reproductive apparatus. As we watch Poor Little Rich Girl, we wonder if the off-screen voice reciting the credits will get through them all before the film runs out. He doesn’t: the movie ends as he says, ‘photographed by Andy ... ’ In Vinyl, on the other hand, the dialogue scripted by Ronald Tavel runs out long before the roll of film has run through the camera. How will the actors respond? They are unable or unwilling to stay in character, and they begin to party, that is, to dance and make inconsequential talk, providing an unexpectedly festive ending to a movie that is composed mostly of simulated torture.

Warhol movies don’t really have happy endings or unhappy endings. They just end. We are left suspended, but that’s just as well. Movies that depend on binary suspense, even good ones like The Day of the Jackal (1973), usually have disappointing endings. It’s almost a rule: the stronger the suspense, the weaker the resolution. When intention and counter-intention have equal strength, the victory of one or the other will seem arbitrary. Once upon a time, Hollywood screenwriters were capable of inventing a surprising and satisfying resolution for this conflict, but they don’t even seem to try any more.

In Warhol movies, the struggle between intention and material is never-ending. There are occasionally climactic passages, like Ondine’s tirade near the end of The Chelsea Girls, but these are necessarily exceptional. I value more the ambiguous conclusions, especially the ending of The Nude Restaurant, filmed in October 1967.


4. Steven Watson, Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties (New York: Pantheon, 2003).



In the third reel, Taylor Mead starts a conversation with a young man seated at a foreground table who had been a silent witness through most of the film, like Edie Sedgwick in Vinyl. This youth is not part of Warhol’s ‘stock company’; this is his only appearance in a Warhol film. According to Steven Watson’s account of the filming in Factory Made, he was an army deserter on the run, and he assumed the name ‘Julian Burroughs’ and claimed to be the son of William S. Burroughs to hide his identity. Warhol and Paul Morrissey had discovered him on the street just before the filming. They had noticed his anti-war button, and Morrissey thought it would be interesting to have a ‘political type’ in the film. (4)

In the movie, Burroughs calls himself an ‘activist’, and his talk with Mead becomes a colloquy on styles of political resistance. Burroughs is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t understand Mead and he can’t deviate from his standard appeal for support. Searching for some gesture of commitment from Mead, Burroughs asks him, ‘Would you take a deserter into your house and hide him from the law?’ After some indecision or confusion, Mead drawls wistfully, ‘I want someone beautiful to live with.’ Trying to accommodate him, Burroughs suggests, ‘Perhaps we can send some pictures.’ Not wanting his languor to be taken as complacency, Mead tells Burroughs, ‘I’ve been to jail nine times.’ His statement has the desired effect: Burroughs is impressed. Burroughs asks, ‘Civil rights activities?’ Mead responds, ‘No, personal rights ... activities.’



  Despite an evident disgust with the Vietnam War, Mead can’t offer any alternative to the stolid militancy of Burroughs. ‘Where is Lee Harvey Oswald now that we really need him?’ he asks, but without anger or intensity. Burroughs seems to give up his efforts at persuasion. He turns to the camera and speaks directly to us, announcing the next big anti-war demonstration: ‘December fourth. The Resistance. We hope to see you there in front of the Federal Building in several cities across the United States.’ He manages to finish just before the last roll of film runs out, leaving just enough time for Viva to add an anticlimactic question: ‘Where’s the Federal Building?’ By chance, it seems, the ending of The Nude Restaurant is almost as militant as Waiting for Lefty. Of course, that demonstration had passed long before I saw The Nude Restaurant, but the war went on, and there were other demonstrations.  




5. Mekas, Movie Journal, p. 181.


But I am getting ahead of my story; my attempt to recall or reconstruct my experience of Sleep has led me from Warhol’s first film to one of his last. As it happened, Mike Getz’s advertisement for Sleep (‘ ... so daring it may never be shown again’) turned out to be almost literally true. I don’t know of any other screenings of Sleep until a series of restored Warhol films were presented at the Whitney Museum in March and April of 1994. Sleep would soon be overshadowed by the more ‘radically minimal’ Empire, filmed in July 1964 with a sixteen millimetre Auricon camera that allowed a continuous thirty-three minute take. Empire really was eight hours long, it had an equally obvious subject – the Empire State Building from dusk to the wee hours of the morning – and its premiere caused a riot, not in provincial Los Angeles, but in New York City itself with Jonas Mekas as the scapegoat. He would later complain that a crowd of disgruntled spectators ‘were threatening to solve the question of the new vision and new cinema by breaking chairs on our heads.’ (5)

Getz did continue to show Warhol movies, but only on Saturdays at midnight, as part of his weekly shows of ‘underground’ movies, and the crowds were always small, at least until The Chelsea Girls had a regular run beginning in March 1967. Throughout 1964 and 1965, the Cinema presented a number of Warhol’s silent, black and white, one-take movies, including Eat, Haircut and Blow Job.

These movies inspired Jonas Mekas to write in August 1964:




6. Ibid, p. 154.

  It is not a prediction but a certainty that soon we are going to see dozens of Eat, Haircut or Sleep movies done by different filmmakers ... What to some still looks like actionless nonsense, with the shift of our consciousness which is taking place will become an endless variety and an endless excitement of seeing similar subjects or the same subject done differently by different artists. (6)  



At the time, I thought this was a reasonable pronouncement, and I looked forward to the prospect as much as Mekas did. How could we be so deluded?

Of course, there were a good number of single-take movies produced in the late ‘60s, but they were all cleverer or more complex than the ones Warhol made. Some were so ingenious that they inspired a fancy new phrase to characterise them, ‘structural film’ – although it’s hard for me to grasp how a film composed of a single shot can be structural. No one could afford to be as humble or as just plain dumb as Warhol. No one could resist the temptation to make a film better, even though some possibilities for spontaneity or surprise had to be sacrificed.

Although there weren’t dozens of Sleep movies, Warhol’s silent films weren’t artless enough to retain their radicality. The painterly compositions and dramatic high-contrast lighting make them resemble his silk-screened portraits. Now that they have moved from movie theatres to museums, they are no longer capable of sparking riots. Presented in a manner that discourages rather than demands sustained attention, they don’t discomfort the viewer. The installation of three silent Warhol Screen Tests, side by side in the second floor video gallery at the renovated New York Museum of Modern Art, is strikingly beautiful. As I stood watching them (there were no chairs or benches in the gallery), it occurred to me that they probably have more viewers in a day here than they had through Warhol’s lifetime, although many of these viewers only glance at them.


7. Victor Bockris, Warhol (London: Muller, 1989).









Yet Warhol’s sound movies are as abrasive as ever. They’re not like other movies, and they’re not like his paintings. When first screened, they were controversial in a way no movie can be today. By 1967 they had made Warhol ‘the most hated artist in America,’ as Victor Bockris would put it in his Warhol biography. (7) The camerawork and the casting are often perverse. They mix elements of fiction and documentary in a manner that is sometimes unsettling or confusing. The composition of the image is often very complex, particularly after he began using colour film stock in December 1965. Sometimes the frame is very elegant, but sometimes it verges on incoherence.

It’s not quite a commonplace to say that these movies are the most vivid and accurate documents of America in the mid ‘60s, but I can’t pass it off as an original observation. In Factory Made, Steven Watson concluded, ‘Art and artifact, they record the ‘60s like nothing else.’ I’ve said something similar many times, but the observation may seem capricious. After all, they record moments from the lives of a marginal, very untypical set of people. They weren’t representative social types, and (the members of the Velvet Underground excluded) their fame or notoriety rested exclusively on their appearance in Warhol films or their association with him. In 1970, Jonas Mekas characterised them in rather harsh terms: ‘the film division of the Factory attracted to itself all the sad, disappointed, frustrated, unfulfilled, persecuted, outcast, unrealised, eccentric, egocentric ... talents and personalities.’

During the ‘60s, claims for the timeliness or social relevance of Warhol films were resisted perhaps too fervently. Reviewing The Chelsea Girls in the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote:



  It seems wrong to see this picture speaking volumes about contemporary society, so withdrawn are its people, who are far too cut off from the rest of the world to be in conflict with it and whose hells, after all, are self-created. What The Chelsea Girls really is, is a testament to man’s immutable, infinite capacity for meaningless and vastly unsympathetic self-destruction.  



Perhaps I should note that this was a favourable review.

Expressing a very different perspective, Warhol would later write:




8. Warhol & Hackett, Popism, p. 185.

  If anybody wants to know what those summer days of ’66 were like in New York for us, all I can say is go see Chelsea Girls. I’ve never seen it without feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was right back there all over again. It may have looked like a horror show … to some outside people, but to us it was more like a comfort – after all, we were a group of people who understood each other’s problems. (8)  


  Although my summer days of 1966 weren’t like those depicted in The Chelsea Girls, my first impression of the movie was closer to Warhol’s perspective. Because the conversations recorded weren’t instrumental – these people were just talking to amuse themselves, not to articulate a plot point – they seemed innocent to me. The performers were weird, I might have thought, but we all act weird sometimes, at least in private, and what was remarkable about The Chelsea Girls was precisely that it recorded private moments so faithfully and exposed them to public view. And the performers are touchingly honest. They may be desperate to find something to say, but they’re incapable of the banal pleasantries most of us fall back on when we must say something. Asked to tell his life story, Eric Emerson says, ‘I usually talk to myself, but I don’t really have anything to say. So I won’t say anything. I’ll just sit and groove on myself.’ Then his thoughts lead him into a long, sublimely absurd monologue about sweat and the taste of salted apples. In any case, The Chelsea Girls isn’t No Exit. Anybody can leave the scene at any time, and Mario Montez does walk out after taking offense over some bitchy remarks directed at him by Ed Hood.  


9. Mekas, Movie Journal, p. 257.


But I began to understand Kevin Thomas’ argument better when I saw The Chelsea Girls again recently. I couldn’t help noticing that every conversation is a struggle for power and sometimes the struggles turn ugly, although they are generally one-sided. When the will to dominate is strong, there can be no reciprocity, and little comfort, it would seem. The movie reminded me that the summer of 1966 was not a summer of love. There was that escalating war in Vietnam, to which The Chelsea Girls alludes by giving Mary Woronov the name ‘Hanoi Hannah’, and the war had come home in spasms of apparently senseless violence. We could read about it in any newspaper. In July we were horrified to read that a man named Richard Speck had methodically stabbed and strangled to death eight student nurses in Chicago, and then two weeks later an ex-Marine named Charles Whitman surpassed him by shooting forty-three people from atop the University of Texas library tower, killing twelve of them. The violent uprisings that had begun the previous summer in Los Angeles spread to New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, South Bend and Jacksonville. Had Warhol’s performers, isolated as they were, internalised this violence? Had we all? That was the meaning Jonas Mekas took from the film when he saw it in September 1966: ‘The terror and hardness that we see in The Chelsea Girls is the same terror and hardness that is burning Vietnam; and it’s the essence and blood of our culture, of our ways of living: This is the Great Society.’ (9)

To Kevin Thomas, The Chelsea Girls is repulsive; to Mekas, it’s tragic. Thomas wanted to hold it as far away as possible; Mekas believed we were all implicated in its ‘holy terror’. I think they both downplay too much the contingency in Warhol’s method and the complicity between him and the performers. But the terror and the hardness are there. Today they are still a part of our culture. We almost take them for granted.

But there is something else in The Chelsea Girls and Warhol’s other sound films that belonged to the ‘60s but passed away, the sense that the world can be changed by individual action. The most popular American movie of the ‘60s was It’s a Wonderful Life (although it was released in 1946, it was not appreciated until the ‘60s) in which Jimmy Stewart is made to see that one person can change the world. What makes his life worth living is the struggle against capitalism in its neo-liberal guise. It was only in the Reagan-Thatcher ‘80s that Wim Wenders could revise the script (in Wings of Desire, 1987) to suggest that pure consumption was enough to lure an angel to become human.




This ‘60’s belief was a political faith and also a faith in art. Warhol’s performers were willing to expose themselves so completely because they believed they were creating something new and important. It was a feeling that didn’t need to be articulated at the time but, years later, writing in the Village Voice, Viva would express these sentiments unashamedly: ‘The feeling that we were on to something good led us to approach this seemingly random improvisational method with a contagious enthusiasm and a deadly seriousness that we tried hard to hide.’ Watching the movies, I feel both the enthusiasm and the disavowal of it. This tension between idealism and cynicism gives the movies an energy that can’t be recreated today, even when similar methods are adopted.

In her memoir, Viva also noted a thematic consistency in the Warhol movies that has been too little appreciated: ‘In Andy’s movies women are always the strong ones, the beautiful ones and the ones who control everything. Men turn out to be these empty animals.’ The sexual politics in Warhol movies can still be startling; in the ‘60s, it made them subversive and prophetic. The staircase conversation between Tom Baker and Valerie Solanas in I a Man couldn’t have been a stronger demonstration of her theories about men had she scripted it all herself. As the film progresses, Baker’s sexual complacency is gradually eroded until he is finally exposed as nothing more than an ‘empty animal’. Viva herself completes the exposure of Joe Spencer in Bike Boy, luring him to undress and then collapsing into a fit of hysterical laughter. As the final reel of film runs out, she tells him, ‘I’m just laughing because you’re so funny.’ He manages to get in the beginning of a response: ‘Funny? I ain’t funny.’

I would amend her observation by adding that the struggle of the sexes in Warhol movies is also a struggle among classes. As an artist with working class roots and attitudes, Warhol was particularly sensitive to ways class revealed itself in the most intimate social relations, as well as in public commercial exchanges. In his paintings, he worked to transform humble working class icons – from the label of a Campbell’s soup can to a kitschy plastic model of The Last Supper – into high-priced museum artifacts. In his movies, he set up encounters that emphasised class differences.

So he created a sexual dynamic in his sound films that recapitulates the sexual dynamic in screwball comedies of the ‘30s such as It Happened One Night. Poor men, rich women. In ‘30s comedies, a working class man tames a bourgeois woman so that they will fall in love on his terms. In a sense, they are proletarian fantasies of class reconciliation. But Warhol is more realistic. Poverty does not necessarily inspire witty repartee. His working class heroes (they are now nomadic hustlers) try to follow the script laid out in the ‘30s, but they cannot hold the attention of the bohemian heiresses they woo. In It Happened One Night, Clark Gable could divert Claudette Colbert by showing her how to dunk donuts; in Bike Boy, Joe Spencer can’t even satisfy Viva’s curiosity about the sexual customs of Hell’s Angels. The mutual incomprehension is overwhelming, as it had been in the previous scene pitting Spencer against Hearst press heiress Brigid Berlin.

I can’t recall for sure whether these dynamics were apparent to me back in the ‘60s. I think not. Like everyone else of my acquaintance, I wanted to believe that class differences were not that significant. In many ways, it was a useful illusion, founded on a generous impulse, but it was also the primary limitation of ‘60s counter-consciousness. It underlay the fatal schism between the anti-war movement and the traditional workers’ movement that eventually destroyed both.

The sense of disillusion that pervades Warhol’s sound movies derives precisely from the absence of this illusion. Class differences are always there, and they are felt keenly. We are allowed to see both the hidden injuries of class and its hidden benefits (for some). In Blue Movie, for example, Viva has occasion to explain how she counters harassment by the police (a constant problem for Warhol and his company during the late ‘60s). Her father was a prominent attorney, and, she says, he ‘ran the police station, and I always felt that they were servants. And I treat them like servants. Treat the police like servants, and they’ll act like servants.’

Warhol’s movies expressed the openness and exuberance of the ‘60s without compromise, but they insisted on struggle as an inescapable part of the era. That is why they record and reveal the ‘60s like nothing else. Maybe they also reveal our times.




This essay first appeared in the Viennale catalogue, October 2005.


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