A Concrete Warhol

blowjob

Only after Andy Warhol’s death in 1987 did it become truly possible to view his films. Before that, screenings were sporadic when not altogether clandestine, due to the difficulty of obtaining prints or because the circulation of his films, except in very select circuits, was forbidden. Nevertheless, this did not discourage a body of criticism from developing a discourse, even by those who did not have the privilege of actually attending the “premieres” of his films. At times, this criticism even had a founding role, with its conceptual approach which embraced the artistic “act” – the event – as a substitution for the concreteness of the work itself. In fact, this principle continues to be applied to some titles which have probably been lost to us forever, or are no longer available in their complete versions (the complete series of Kiss, the 6 hours of Sleep, or the 8 hours of Empire). There are also some films that can no longer be shown in their original contexts (The Velvet Underground and Nico, which were part of the show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the 25 hours of the various “episodes” of ****, or Four Stars, which were screened in superimposition). Yet today, the availability of some titles on film, and even more frequently in VHS and DVD too, makes it possible to correct that primitive critical approach in less abstract terms.

To begin with, the following are some details on the works proposed in this DVD (it should be remembered that all of the titles are “attributed”, and in any case they are not mentioned on the prints).

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Kiss (34′)

The series of “kisses”, whose total number is unknown, was filmed in part in August, and then in November and December 1963, in black and white. The films were silent, and shot at a speed of 24 frames per second, with a 16mm Bolex equipped with standard 100-foot rolls (equivalent to 3′ at 24 fps). The “Kisses of Naomi Levine” were screened for the first time at the Gramercy Arts Theater of New York in September 1963 under the title Andy Warhol Serial. Individual “kisses” were screened as openers before a main film. Filmographies indicate a total running time of 50′ for the series.

The selection proposed in 1989 by the Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol, and in this DVD, consists of 13 “kisses” with running times that range from 2’45″ to 2’55″, opening and end leaders included, except no. 1 (50″) and no. 2 (1 ’50″), for a total running time of 34’12″. Details in the various filmographies make it possible to identify the actors (from left to right in the shot): no.1, Naomi Levine and a man with a moustache, glasses, tie and jacket; no. 2 (slightly out of focus at the beginning), N. L. and Gerard Malanga; no. 3 (slightly out of focus), a girl with blond hair and a man with black hair and dark jacket; no. 4 (on a couch), Fred Herko (the man with the light hair?) and John Dodd (the man with the black curly hair?); no. 5 (with standing subjects under a harsh frontal light), Baby Jane Holzer and a young man with light hair; no. 6 (standing), a youth with short dark hair and checked shirt (Mark Lancaster?) and G. M.; no. 7 (the same background as nos. 1 and 2), N. L. and a man with a moustache (different from the one in no. 1); no. 8 (a medium close up on a dappled couch), a man with black hair and a woman with long black hair, both dressed in black; no. 9, Rufus Collins and N. L.; no. 10, a man with dark hair and striped shirt and a boy with light hair; no. 11 (standing), a girl with long black hair (who is not the same as the girl in no. 8) and a man in a wide-striped shirt; no. 12 (standing), a youth with short dark hair and striped shirt, and a girl with long light hair; no. 13, N. L. and a man (who at least from the nose seems to be the same as no. 10). It is difficult to be more precise, even though the filmographies indicate another partner for Naomi Levine (Ed Sanders: the man in nos. 1, 7 or 13?), and two for Baby Jane Holzer (John Palmer, who therefore could be the man in no. 5, and Malanga, who however in this selection does not appear with her. Nor should the couple Palmer-Andrew Meyer appear either, though they too are indicated in the filmographies. Indeed, the young man in no. 5 does not seem to be one of the men in the unidentified male couple of no. 10). According to different sources, this film and the other Warhol silents were meant to be projected at 16 fps (sometimes at 18 fps to avoid the annoying flicker created by the slower speed) even though they were shot at 24 fps; however, this prescription has not always been respected. In the telecine of the four silents provided by the mentioned Estate (therefore the only “official” one, or at least the only “authorized” one) there was a cutting on the four sides of the original film frame, following a practice which is unfortunately quite widespread. What’s more, the telecine was realised at the standard speed of 24 fps. In other words, while the result of the original projection was an evident, and unnatural, slow motion effect (both at 16 and 18 fps), with the Estate telecine all actions are brought back to the “natural” quality of the 24 fps shooting (25 on video). It must also be noted that in the different filmographies this slow motion effect in projection is never mentioned, and it is therefore difficult to state if the running time for Warhol’s silent films, cited in our filmography, is related to a 16, 18, or 24 fps speed.

Most of the “kisses” were filmed in static shots (but at least in nos. 1 and 2 the camera was handheld), except for no. 4, which had a rapid zoom backwards, no. 6, where it seems there is a slight pan to the right (to bring Malanga back into the frame, since he risked going off screen), and no. 11, in which at a certain point the camera jerks slightly. The shots are generally close-ups; except in no. 4, in which the zoom ends up in an almost full shot of the two partners, no. 8, in a medium close up, and no. 13, in extreme close up.

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Blow Job (26′)

This film was shot (with the same technical specifications as Kiss) in one day, during the winter of 1963-64, with an unknown actor. It was screened for the first time at the Washington Square Gallery of New York on 16 July 1964.

The version proposed in 1989 by the previously mentioned Estate and preserved by the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art, has a running time of 26’06″ at 24 fps (beginning after the brief black leader following the added caption concerning the Museum, and up to the white leader at the end of the film). According to Roy Grundmann, the author of a painstaking and excellent book, Andy Warhol’s ”Blow Job”, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 191, that mentions Callie Angell, curator of the Andy Warhol Project of the Whitney Museum responsible for the cataloguing and restoration of Warhol’s films, Blow Job runs 41′ at 16 fps (and 36′ at 18 fps).

The film consists of 9 “segments” of approximately 3′ each, including the beginning and end leaders. They were all filmed with the same type of frontal static shot and with the subject slightly off-centre to the left.

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Empire (60′)

Filmed on the night of 25 June 1964 from the 44th (or 41th according to Mekas) floor of the Time-Life Building, with an Auricon 16mm sound camera (though the film was silent and at 24 fps). It was screened for the first time in its entire 8-hour-5-minute running time at the City Hall Cinema of New York, by the Filmmakers’ Coop., on 6 March 1965.

The Auricon used was a film camera with non-standard rolls, modified thus for newsreels to enable the recording of sound directly on film (since the interruption caused by changing the standard roll would interfere in the shooting of exceptional documentary events). According to information on this type of camera, it was equipped with 400-foot rolls equivalent to 11′ at 24 fps, and was the same used in the first direct cinema films (for example Primary, 1959-60 directed by Richard Leacock, and others), or in The Brig (1965), directed by Jonas Mekas, who used three of these cameras to film the show of the Living Theatre continuously for 120′. News items concerning the filming of Empire (included in this book) referred to 1200-foot rolls, equivalent to almost 33′ at 24 fps.

The excerpt of 60’13″ proposed in this DVD would appear to be what was circulated, in the years after it was first presented, as “a taste” of the original, that cannot be shown anymore. It was taken from the middle of the film (not from the beginning, at sunset, when there was still some light and the Empire State Building appears partially veiled in fog). There are no beginning or end leaders and it does not show the splicing which should have existed between the two 33′ rolls (since the running time is 60′). Nevertheless, no source mentions filming was not absolutely continuous, since every 33′ the roll had to be changed, nor is there any mention of the possible presence of leaders between each roll, or even of splices. There is not even any mention of the many flares, veilings or other “disturbances” that interfere with the static image, in fact the film’s most obvious characteristic.

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Mario Banana (3’30″ + 3’30″)

This was shot as a silent film at 24 fps with the same Bolex used for Kiss and Blow Job. It was made in November 1964 in several versions, one (or more than one) which was in colour. It starred the famous underground transvestite Mario Montez (an admirer of the Mexican actress Maria Montez, which explains his stage name). It was screened for the first time (and was an award winner) at the Los Angeles Filmmakers’ Festival in January 1965.

The DVD contains two versions which are very similar in action, though not identical. The first is in colour and the second in black and white (though the latter was probably the first produced). The running times of both films is 3’30″, beginning and end leaders included. Distribution and copyright credits were added at the beginning and the end of the film (The Museum of Modern Art Film Library, and 1996, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.).

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May Irwin Kiss

The following are comments on the films themselves, all of which belong to the “portrait” genre (including the “object portrait” genre, to which Empire belongs). Here, Warhol parodies the development of the silent movies (which explains his choice of a 16 fps projection speed). In Kiss he begins with one of the many “primitive” films of American cinema: the very popular May Irwin Kiss (also known as Kiss Scene or Kiss) which was filmed in mid-April 1896. It is claimed that the film was “produced” (today we would say “directed”) by Norman Raff and Frank Gammon, and promoted by “The New York World” for the Edison Manufacturing Company. The cameraman was William Heise, and the main roles were portrayed by two famous stage actors, May Irwin and John C. Rice. At the time, this film, almost a unicum of very early cinema, must have seemed quite racy if not downright pornographic (which also explains its popularity). Yet Warhol’s film too, though viewed by the more uninhibited early-60s audiences, must have had quite an effect on them as well, if not for the explicit nature of the kisses, at least for their unusual duration (3′ is a long time…), and above all because of a “black-with-white” kiss (no. 9) and of three “man-with-man” kisses (nos. 4, 6 and 10). In the succession of kisses, this series starts with two shorter kisses, almost as if to prepare viewers for the duration of the following ones, and ends with a kiss filmed much closer up than the others, as if to conclude with the “essence” of the kiss. Here “naturalistic” elements are rejected and full attention is focused to the nose-lips-chin profile highlighted by the intensely modulated chiaroscuro. As a whole, it is not the types of couples which make the 13 kisses different, as much as the types of kisses themselves. They range from the violent no. 4, to the extremely delicate nos. 8 and 11 (a continuous grazing of the lips rather than real kisses). Another characteristic is the type of pleasurable reaction shown by the partners. By far the most outstanding, and which gave rise to the entire series, were the kisses of Naomi Levine (nos. 1, 2, 7, 9, 13) that often express a highly moving sensuous tenderness. Thus the series is also a study of the subtle nuances of the human face (as was Blow Job almost to a scientific degree). No. 4 should be noted as the only episode that is “out of style”, not only in that the partners are bare-chested, but above all because of a backward zoom that reveals without any doubt that the two kissers are both young men (something that was not completely clear when they were still seen in close up). This introduced an element of surprise which was completely new to Warhol’s “observational” cinema. An important element common to all the episodes was the use of artificial light (presumably from one source only). This modulated the partners’ faces with very fine nuances which were worthy of Warhol the painter. This element gave that tinge of abstraction to the entire series. Thus it became “beautiful” to see on its own, beyond any consideration of the self-reflexivity of the film itself (authorized firstly by the leaders in the film, with respective flares of light), which in this work is in fact quite marginal. In short, Kiss is above all a film “with a subject”. It describes what we see, as well as the viewer’s projection-identification relationship with what is seen. Moreover, it would be quite forced to introduce a discussion on the dialectics between artifice and naturalness. The partners almost give the impression they are kissing in absolute seriousness and that they are unaware of the camera.

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The naturalism of shooting in close-up was already outdistanced in Blow Job, at least for its duration. The repetition, or the repetition compulsion of the action forces the viewer to concentrate on the details; the movements of the face, the modulations of light, the wall which serves as a background, and the “noise” elements. The latter range from those incorporated in the original (snows, flares of light in the leaders) to those which were due to wear and tear later on (stripes, missing frames). Therefore, we have all the time we need, if we are not frenetically conditioned by the title and therefore the “conclusion” of the “blow job”, to pass from the concreteness of the premise to the abstraction of the result. In otherwords, to the substitution of the “dramatic” (or pornographic) concreteness with the “filmic” one, and to reflect as we go on the many faces of this extraordinary film. These various faces are not only those of the young man, even if the variations might seem minimal, but above all those which might come to mind from time to time, depending upon who is watching. These range from the mythology of the black leatherjacket (remember James Dean?), to the diabolical iconography (a face that seems like a skull when the young man looks down and his eye sockets become black and empty), and the mystic (the ecstasy when he lifts his head and the light hits his face from the left, making it appear almost transparent as white as it is). There is a dual off-screen presence: an explicit “who” (one or more people?) moving below – it seems indisputable, not only because of the context in which the film was made, but also because of the young man’s movements, that it is a male – and the implicit (but not absent, even though the young man hardly ever looks into the camera) “who” that moves in front of him: in other words, the camera and the person behind it. Indeed, the two off-screen presences produce both torment and pleasure. They subject the young man to a subtle passage from stages of pleasure to stages of suffering, where there is only the slightest difference between self-identification and possible performance exhibition.

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Empire may rightly be considered the apotheosis of Warhol’s silent films, and the director’s most clearly self-reflexive film. Indeed, even after only a few minutes, we are forced to relegate the “subject” to the background (including all of its symbolic associations – political and sexual – moreover accentuated today by the destruction of the Twin Towers. It is equally true that, in Blow Job, we cannot avoid thinking of the symbolic connotations derived from the tremendous media coverage of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair). What forces itself to the foreground is the film itself, its materiality: the grain (emphasized by the dominant black); the snow (that comes from the inevitable deposit of dust at the time of developing and printing); the frequent gauzes and flares of light (probably due to a purposely clumsy development of the original negative). In addition, here too there is all of the subsequent “noise” added over the years by the wear and tear of the film (slashes and stains). Finally, and most importantly in this case, the effects of viewing the film on video instead of seeing it projected on film. The framing is rigorously fixed and perfectly centred (except for a curious and very quick pan to the right at the very beginning. This, however, could have been caused by a framing adjustment during the telecine stage). What we see is the top of the Empire State Building, even if in fact only the lights of the top floors emerge out of the night, and the spire above them, despite a few illuminated dots below. One of these – on the left and slightly larger than the others, at times pulsating and disappearing – introduces (at least in this excerpt) the only “movement” that may be attributed to the so-called “pro-filmic”. And yet, the film is alive with movement from the “filmic” point of view (if you would like to prove it to yourself, try watching it frame by frame). In this sense, Empire is the most concrete, the most material film that Warhol ever made. But it is also his most abstract, or most conceptual film. For, even if we take into account the tremendous movement at the material level, rather than the fixed “subject”, nevertheless after a while (an hour?) it is truly impossible to watch, since it is “useless” to continue, and the “idea” thus replaces the reality of the viewing. That is, unless you think of Empire as an installation (something that has already been done), or a painting in movement, a nice flat television with liquid crystals hung on the wall of your home, broadcasting it, if not in a loop, at intervals, precisely of 8 hours…

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Maria Banana is not only the “obscene” version of both Kiss and Blow Job, in the sense that what is hidden in these films is now exhibited (the tongue held between the two mouths, which only at times appeared in Kiss; and what happens off screen, in the case of Blow Job). The film also alludes, in the form of a parody, to a must of gay (but not only) cult: “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat”, a number from the beautiful and extravagant musical by Busby Berkeley The Gangs All Here (1943). In it, Carmen Miranda dances, wearing a hat decorated with bananas, accompanied by girls with giant bananas on their heads too. Warhol filmed this scene in a close-up static shot with Mario reclining on a couch as he deliciously savours a banana. He peels it, then sucks it and licks it with obvious enjoyment, throwing more than suggestive looks at the viewer. Unlike other Warhol players, Mario acts with visible self-gratification, throwing looks at the camera that seem more “murderous” in the colour version, and more languorous in the black and white. The latter version, slightly over-exposed, is dominated by white, and appears more immaterial; the colour version, however, highlights all the details of the star’s rather studied way of dressing. Out of subtraction, or out of excess, both of the versions thus end up relegating to the background the very action that a pornographic imagination would want in close up. Warhol’s “obscenity” is not that of a Peeping Tom, but rather that of someone who attempts, with the most rudimentary means that film offers, to see what is “beyond the scene”.

 

Published in Adriano Aprà (ed.), Andy Warhol. 4 Silent Movies/4 film muti, DVD booklet for Kiss, Empire, Mario Banana, Blow Job, Rarovideo/Interferenze, Rome 2004, pp. 37-42.

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