Vinyl Cage

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The film begins with an extreme close-up of Gerard Malanga looking into the camera. His eyebrows have been enhanced with make-up, making him look “meaner”. After a while, he bends down and disappears from the screen only to reappear again almost immediately. He turns his head rhythmically from left to right. The camera pulls back slowly and we see that he is exercising with some hand held weights. He wears a fake leatherjacket (vinyl leather), a white T-shirt, light coloured jeans and black boots.

The scene is now a close full shot. We are in a room where the lighting leaves a great part of the rest of the room in darkness, highlighting seven characters: Gerard Malanga (Victor) in the middle; on the right, seated on a trunk, Edie Sedgwick, wearing a black open-necked, sleeveless cat-suit, a patterned belt and long black boots; on the left, seated on a rotating armchair, John D. MacDermott (the cop), a middle-aged middle-bald man, wearing a blackjacket and tie; in the bottom left-hand corner, curled up, Tosh Carrillo (the doctor), a young man wearing a white T-shirt and trousers; at the centre, behind Malanga, Robert Olivo (stage name Ondine), wearing a blackjumper and black trousers under a dark poncho, and with sunglasses; in the background, in the top left-hand corner, a man wearing a vinyl leatherjacket, sitting down (maybe Jacques Potin); on the right at the top, in the background, a young man wearing jeans and a dark T-shirt (presumably Larry Latreille) reading a magazine and then arriving on the scene with a whole load of other magazines. Apart from armchairs and chairs (four in total), magazines (they seem to be issues of “Playboy”), and trunks, a pole can also be seen on the set, a bit to the left, where the young man will be tied up in order to be tortured; and in the top left-hand corner, next to the seated man, there is a rotating lamp, which flashes on and off until the end of the film. Cigarettes, joints, substances to sniff, paper cups with drinks, beer cans, bags, chains, ropes, belts, masks, candles and other sadomasochist props are being passed round and, towards the end, what seems to be drugs in pill form. During the various scenes, the characters’ clothes change: Potin (if it’s not Latreille) takes off his jacket at a certain point and stays topless, then puts it back on while the boy is being tortured; the boy is then left topless and hisjeans are undone and then ripped during the torture; Malanga, after having danced for a while, takes off his jacket and leaves his T-shirt on; Malanga tears Olivo’s poncho during the fight and puts a leather mask with a funnel on him.

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The “plot” of the film could be summarized like this: Malanga provokes the young boy with Olivo’s help, then they both tie him to the pole and start to torture him. While Olivo unties the boy from the pole and ties him to the chair, leaving the place free for the doctor (who uses a bag full of “instruments”) and for Potin, Malanga recites his monologue where he boasts about his yobbish behaviour, then he runs wild with some rock amidst the laughs of the cop and Edie, then Olivo, sort of accompany him. For no apparent reason, Malanga starts arguing with Olivo but ends up worse off at the end. At this point, the cop takes action, makes Malanga sit down on a chair and gives him a kind of third degree which ends when he accepts to sign the papers for his “re-education”. He leaves the place free for the doctor, who ties Malanga up and starts the re-education under the eyes of the cop and Olivo, showing him invisible images of thuggish sadism on an invisible screen (while Potin tortures the boy), which increase when the vinyl leather mask is put on him. At the end of the re-education, the doctor frees him, then starts hugging him, kissing him, dancing with him and humiliating him with violence while the boy, who has been freed, participates and enjoys the game and Potin hugs Edie, who at last gets up from the trunk and starts dancing. All this is going on while the doctor gives out stuff to sniff and pills. In the last few seconds, the doctor gives Malanga’s hair a quick snip while the end of reel flashes makes the image fade more and more.

As with Sacha Guitry and Orson Welles, the title and author of the film are read out by a voiceover (presumably the voice of Ronald Tavel) at about 3 min 19 sec from the beginning: “Andy Warhol Vinyl”. The names of the actors and characters at about 28 min 39 seconds from the beginning (but apart from the cop’s name and the doctor’s name, the others aren’t mentioned in the dialogue). “Victor is played by Gerard Matanga; the Cop by J.D. MacDermott; the Doctor by Tosh Carrillo; Dume is played by Robert Olivo; Pug by Larry Latreille; the extras are Jacques Potin and Edie Sedgwick”. Towards the end of the film, at about 57 min 17 sec, the rest of the credits are listed by the same voice over: “The technical assistants are Bud Wirtschafter, George Hampshire, Gilbert Tedeschi, Jennifer Burns and Roger Trudeau; scenario by Ronald Tavel; direction Andy Warhol”.

Vinyl is composed of four shots. The first one lasts about 31 min 48 sec, and a flash of light can be seen at the end; the second one, edited with a straight cut, lasts only 4 minutes; the third shot, also edited with a straight cut, lasts about 16 minutes 44 sec; the fourth one, also edited with a straight cut, but strangely with continuous music, about 14 min 19 sec, and ends with the classic flash of light at the end of the reel. At the end a caption was added: “© 1989 The Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol. This notice is appearing at the request of The Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol”. Given the length of the shots, a modified Auricon camera must have been used. It was first used by Andy Warhol in Empire, with 1200 feet reets, and it allows for the sound to be recorded directly on film. The second shot is extremely short and it actually looks like the remains of the first one which has maybe some final frames cut out of it, perhaps due to too many flashes of light (unless they are missing simply due to the copy being worn, as happens in the third shot at around 3 min 37 sec from its beginning); the third one, even though it starts with the same camera angle as the two previous ones, sees the characters positioned in a slightly different way; it is obvious they moved while the reel was being changed. The last one begins, like the first, with a close-up, widening towards the end, with a slow zoom motion, to the standard full shot of the film. We can deduce that the passage from the first (plus second) shot to the third one came about without interrupting the action, while the only “grammatically correct” cut is the one from the third to the fourth shot, where we go from a full to a medium close shot of Victor with the vinyl leather mask.

The angle is a frontal one and from above. The background of the scene takes up the top part of the screen. The camera is fixed in the same position and the variations of field (at the beginning of the first and fourth shot) are singly produced by a zoom out. Even during the action, the seven characters remain close to each other, as if they were closed inside a cube, or even better a cage, from whose limits they cannot move out of. This clearly claustrophobic impression, accentuated by the obscure background, continues despite Edie Sedgwick and Robert Olivo moving out of shot (almost simultaneously, like when they return) in the first shot (unless the latter does not become absorbed by the dark in the background). The edges of the shot press, forcing the characters to remain in the shot (even if the telecine supplied by The Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol, following an unfortunately diffused practice, cuts the original shot along the four edges, therefore sacrificing parts of the characters’ bodies on the television screen and making the cop’s momentary exit from the scene, just afterthe beginning of the third reel, dubious. Maybe it was cut or maybe it was absorbed by the darkness, whereas it is obvious that the doctor is, at least partially, cut out when he moves behind Malanga to put the mask on him.)

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In a production strategy of this type what is off-screen is basically non-existent. Everything takes place within a frame. Yet what is off-screen exists, but it is of a different nature in respect to what is usually intended in cinema with this concept. Off-screen, on the left, a voice speaks (which could be attributed to Ronald Tavel) listing the cast and credits of the film, and every now and again “commenting” on the action; off-screen, always to the left, is Roger Trudeau, who holds up the idiot sheets that Gerard Malanga and John D. MacDermott visibly read their lines from (the position of Tavel and Trudeau can be deduced from some set stills by Billy Name 1); off-screen, we presume that Martha and the Vandellas and The Kinks’ records are being played. As far as Edie Sedgwick and Robert Olivo’s momentary absences from the screen, apart from what we know from who was present (Edie had gone to wee), these are basically of no influence to the rest of the action. The action is simple and at the same time complex. There is a main storyline, which is about the main character, Victor, logically positioned in the centre of the scene; there are others, simultaneous ones, who sometimes move within the “cage”, sometimes stay still, but move nonetheless. These various “narrative” lines become entwined with each other, and following one could mean missing another one, such is their compression.

The various lines compose a series of directions within the cage-cube. The main ones are the diagonal ones from the bottom edge on the right to the top on the left, and from the bottom edge on the left to the top one on the right. The first line starts from the trunk where Edie Sedgwick is seated and goes to the corner where the lamp is and where Potin is seated; the second line goes from the hunched up doctor to the chair where the boy will be tortured. In all this, the characters are moving around. At one point, the doctor gets up from the bottom left hand edge and goes to the top right hand edge, where Potin joins him. Robert Olivo moves, but basically remains on the left side of the “cage”, and so does the cop, who after having sat down for a long time, at a certain point stands up to question Malanga. Warhol, therefore, seems to keep certain rules present, as a painter but also as a filmmaker, which guide the direction of the viewers’ gaze, managing to make them complicated and in some way to exasperate them thanks to the restricted space chosen for their mise en scene. The simultaneous nature of the action alludes, exasperates and perhaps even mocks them given the restricted space, to the idea of depth of field mise en scene André Bazin talks about with reference to Welles.

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Once the strategy of the mise en scene is defined with a certain rigour, reminding us of the Expressionistic school (Fritz Lang and Welles), it can dare, with a sadically parodical or masochistically amusing attitude, to let the actors be free to do as they please. It will always remain a conditioned freedom, given the situation. The sadomasochism contained in the plot is reflected into the formal one of the direction. Warhol, off-screen, runs the risk of being blamed for the ridicule he exposes his “family” to, or actually to be laughed at for the blatantly amateurish style of the acting. Therefore in the foreground scene and in the background scene the camera shares a parallel sadomasochistic status. Opposition no longer exists between truth and fiction. The camera records with an ideal, if not technical, sequence shot, the truth of the performance, with all its fortuities. At the same time, the truthfulness of the set is rigidly framed by a calculated predisposition of geometric lines, of areas of light and dark, of the movements of bodies. As in all rigorous compositions, there is an element which evades the rule, represented by the female presence of Edie Sedgwick. Her purpose is eminently passive: she takes part distractedly in the game, inside the “cage of fools” without being absorbed. She observes, as Brecht would have said, like a “smoking spectator”, involuntarily producing a “distancing” with regards to the action. However, her purpose becomes eminently active and absorbing from the viewer’s point of view: attracted by her seraphic beauty, if heterosexual; disturbed, if homosexual, from her intrusion, openly displayed in the foreground.

Andy Warhol’s cinematographic gaze is a primary gaze, maybe even primitive and ingenious in the etymological sense of the term, honest and straightforward, lacking malice and the “ingenuity” which this term ends up meaning in English. It instinctively goes to the root of cinematographic expression using elements of “language” as it discovers them as if for the first time. For the viewers back then and present day viewers, for these “film buffs”, Warhol’s films are a therapeutic experience.


 

1 See Debra Miller, Billy Name. Stills from the Warhol Films, Prestel, Munich-New York, 1994, pages 45 and 50.

 

Published in the DVD booklet of Vinyl e The Velvet Underground & Nico, Rarovideo, Roma 2004.

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