The currently available version of I a Man consists of eight episodes, the number of encounters the leading male character has with just as many women. The encounters are all separate, and we know that they were shot at two different times, that they were not edited following the order in which they were shot and that there were other versions of the film with six and nine episodes (the latter probably including yet another encounter which was then cut). Each episode lasts between 6 and 10 minutes, except for the last one – the first one to be shot – which lasts around 32 minutes. The dialogue appears to be improvised following a brief outline.
The eight episodes
The first episode takes place in three settings: a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It’s morning, Tom Baker and Cynthia May have just woken up. Tom, who was seduced by the girl the previous night, tries to make love with her again, but Cynthia is afraid her parents or the maid will turn up. So Tom suggests making love under the bed, but all we see are their tangled feet. In the kitchen, while they are having breakfast, Cynthia throws her coffee in Tom’s face in response to one of his rude comments. The camera suddenly cuts to a close up of Tom’s face who stares into it at length. Next, we see Tom by himself in a medium shot still staring into the camera and strumming a guitar in the bathroom. Then the camera playfully captures various moments in which Tom pulls his trousers up and down, revealing his bottom.
The second episode takes place at night, first on a terrace from which we can see the lights of the traffic below, then in a sitting room. After some extremely quick flashes of lights almost comprising an abstract mini-film, we see Tom with Stephanie Graves wearing an elegant flowery dress. They are hugging each other passionately. Then we see them in the living room (with film posters on the wall). Tom is lying on the sofa watching television, while Stephanie is naked but covered with a towel. They continue to smooch, which maybe leads to something else or not (the strobe cut acts almost as a form of censorship). In the dialogue which follows we discover that she is a kept woman and that the apartment is the nest where she meets her rich lover twice a week.
The third episode takes place in a rather anonymous room. Tom is with the blonde and voluptuous Ingrid Superstar. They are seated at a table. Tom makes fun of her chubbiness and asks to see her breasts, which Ingrid reveals and Tom gropes. Not long after, Tom’s provocations continue. The table is transformed into a catafalque, Ingrid lies down and Tom places a candelabra between her legs. Tom pretends to be capable of raising the dead (in this case, the spirit of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin), but the “ceremony” remains a parody and no sexual act is consumed, because Ingrid starts talking about her lover, an architect. The episode ends with a close-up of Tom smoking.
The fourth episode takes place in an even more limited setting, where the most outstanding thing is an elegant tapestry hanging behind the characters: Tom (visibly changed compared to the other scenes, with much longer hair) and Nico, almost always in close-up shots. The camera lingers on Nico’s face – modulated by the light, framed by her long, blonde hair – emphasizing her charm and mystery. More than a scene, it is more like a portrait, similar to Warhol silent series, Portraits. Nico is smoking a joint, drinking and talking about her lover, a painter, then about her sick friend in Ibiza. She is looking for comfort and tenderness, caring embraces and caresses. A series of close-up shots of Tom’s nervously smoking conclude the scene too.
The fifth episode takes place in a Lower East Side apartment (the lights of night-time traffic can be seen through a window). Tom is with Ultra Violet, a foreign girl who is lying on the floor with her legs raised. Her green shirt is unbuttoned. Tom, shirtless, is caressing her chest in-between her boyish breasts. Violet asks him to kiss her. The kiss continues, in progressive jump cuts and extreme close-ups, but it is more a “playful” kiss than a truly passionate one, and which reminds us of Warhol silent series, Kiss. This episode also ends with Tom smoking.
The sixth episode takes place in the bedroom of Tom’s apartment. The walls are covered with abstract paintings. The television is on. Ivy Nicholson is with Tom. It is morning and they have just gotten out of bed. Ivy is in her pants and bra. The episode starts with a rapid series of strobe cuts. They both seem dissatisfied with the night they spent together. Shortly afterwards we see Ivy dressed. She is very nervous. Tom says he has work to do and says goodbye to her. Tom, in a close-up shot, is smoking.
The seventh episode takes place on the stairs, in almost pitch-black darkness. Tom is with Valerie Solanas. Valerie touched his bottom in the elevator and Tom is trying to follow up on her provocation. But Valerie makes fun of him, drives him mad, provokes him and prevents him from entering her place, occupied by her girlfriend is. At a certain point, Tom takes his shirt off to show her his bare chest, making things worse. Valerie, who has become increasingly aggressive, cuts him off by telling him that she doesn’t really live there, and leaves. Tom, in a close-up shot, is smoking.
The eighth episode takes place in Tom’s apartment (as the sixth episode). He is with Bettina Coffin. They are lying down on a bed full of cushions. After some time, Tom undresses and undoes Bettina’s bra. He is rather aggressive and provoking with Bettina. They talk about having already met, but Tom cannot remember where. Bettina is married and has a child. At a certain point, the conversation focuses on her husband’s fear of cockroaches. This episode is not only the longest, but also the one with the most dialogue, which is almost obsessive. Tom massages her shoulders. Just as they seem to be making some progress, a series of strobe cuts prevents us from seeing what actually happens. In fact, she feels guilty and the episode ends with flashes of light at the end of the reel while she is on the phone with her brother, with whom she was supposed to have had a dinner arrangement a couple of hours earlier.
Sex as a Frustration
The main character, Tom Baker, encounters women in all the episodes who disappoint his expectations just as, we presume, those of a spectator watching a sexploitation film. Perhaps at that time, seeing or, more often, just glimpsing half-naked bodies, breasts, sexual organs and coupling in a public theatre, may have caused a sensation, as would be natural. But today we cannot help but notice the girls’ ability with which they hide more than they reveal (by dragging the bed sheets with them as they get up, shots of legs used to block our view, etc.). In any case, frustration is the dominant theme of the film, almost as if sex, displayed on posters in the theatre lobby, hailed as a redeeming force by a counter-cultural minority of New Yorkers, works on the screen as a pretext, revealing different and deeper conscious and unconscious realities. I a Man, Warhol’s first outright heterosexual film, uses a character, Tom Baker, as the core of its strategy, with whom male viewers are forced to identify. Each encounter produces, in Tom and in the viewer, the expectation of a “conclusion”, and each time it is debated, postponed, deflected or concealed. We know very little about Tom. He always acts in a somewhat arrogant manner, treating the girls with a high deegre of self-confidence and superiority. However, we do get to know much more, directly or indirectly, about the girls. Apparently (but over-consciously in the case of Valerie Solanas), they always end up questioning the sexual hierarchy, in order to assert their own reasoning, to refuse the subservient role Tom wants to impose on them. In this sense, the film is a true portrait of the problems connected to the “sexual revolution” experienced both in films and in the contemporary society of those times. Compared to the promise of “liberation”, only for males, the contrasting needs of women emerge, and for them liberation may turn into a more subtle form of submission. All the episodes (except the second and last one) end with Tom, isolated in a close-up and obviously disappointed, but also unable to realize what has happened. The act of taking rapid puffs of his cigarette is an almost masturbatory gesture. The last episode was put at the end, despite being the first one shot, precisely because it is probably the only one in which Tom lets himself go and and reveals himself to a certain extent and, in so doing, seems to become aware of the pointlessness of his manly, over-confident behavior.
“Cutting” Used to Provoke Frustration
Frustration on a narrative plane is confirmed on a formal plane. I a Man is the film in which Warhol perfects the strobe cut technique – a quick switching the camera off then back on during the shooting phase, without apparent sign of the action being interrupted. This applies both to image and sound (which implies that the film was presumably shot with a sound-on-filmcamera, like an Auricon, which simultaneously and directly records the sound on film). The on-screen effects is that of a rapid succession of “illegible” frames, accompanied by a “bip-bip” sound which penetrates the action as if it were an electric shock.
I don’t know how Warhol used the strobe cut technique in his previous films. In I a Man there is an obsessive use of it, not so much as an editing technique, but more like the director’s “live” intervention and, therefore, necessarily improvised, on what is presumably a sequence-shot. The strobe cut places Warhol close to underground film-makers from whom he seemed so different, those who were able to capture fragmented visions, almost frame by frame: a sort of action filming, which imprints the direct intervention of the person who is filming. It is not specifically a matter of editing, at least not in the “standardizing” sense that Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s collaborator at that time, would have wanted in order to make Warhol a more narrative kind of film-maker rather than being stranded in experimentation. If any changes were made in post-production editing, they are not as important as those made on the spot with the strobe cut technique. The different shots do not come across as a calculated alternation of shots which are more or less close-ups of one character or the other, as in traditional film-making. Rather, we have the impression that this alternation was executed by eliminating, by using the strobe cut technique or by traditional editing techniques in the moment when the camera moved towards or away from the characters (with zoom or pan shots) while constantly maintaining a frontal angle. This gives us a double impressions: on the one hand, the strobe cutshatters the frontal sequence-shot, causing the continuity of the filming to have a jerky, syncopated rhythm, not only visually, as described, but also in the sound; on the other hand the director’s intervention acts as a sort of comment on what the viewer is watching and hearing, frustrating both the expectations of possible evolutions of the action and the concept of the inevitable passing of time which the sequence-shot techniques prompts us to expect.
I a Man and My Hustler
I a Man includes references to previous Warhol films. As we mentioned before, the fourth episode, which focuses on Nico’s face, could be a chapter from the Portraits series, whereas the final part of the fifth episode with Ultra Violet, could be an appendix of the Kiss series. But the most interesting correlation is the one that can be made with My Hustler. We must not forget that I a Man was made on request by the Hudson Theatre, to replicate the success of the previous film. However, I a Man works as a sort of reversed remake with respect to My Hustler. Tom Baker is, in his own way, a heterosexual hustler, who lets himself be “hired” by women, and towards whom he maintains an active position although its outcome is to provoke refusal. The structure of the film is centrifugal: Tom is the centre from which the eight women irradiate. On the contrary, My Hustler has a centripetal structure: Paul America, at the centre, attracts the energy of his various suitors whose attempts to capture their object of desire are all prevented. This opposition between the two films, each mirroring one another, is confirmed on a formal level by the different function of the sequence-shot filming: extenuating in the case of My Hustler, where the energy invested on Paul progressively wears out over the prolonged duration of the shot; frustrating in the case of I a Man, where the fragmentation of continuity mimics the idea of a continuously interrupted coitus. The off-screen action, which in My Hustler are a key element of the mise-en-scene, becomes, in I a Man, the dramaturgic element of the dialogue (where there is always mention of “someone else” – a lover, husband, relative – who comes between Tom and the girl he is with at that moment). On the other hand, we wonder how each episode, once finished, influences – off-screen –the subsequent ones: as a memory, that of the viewers if not Tom’s (the “slap” of the coffee cup thrown in his face, Ingrid’s comic performance, the tender “aesthetical” relationship with Nico, Ivy’s neurosis, Valerie’s “radical” feminism…). In this way each episode, echoing in another, ends up being a fragment of the same experience. Each girl, similar to the other as if she were an echo, embodies the aspect of a single female figure with whom the main character obsessively collides. I a Man is about the compulsion to repeat.
Published, as Compulsion to Repeat, in the DVD booklet for My Hustler/I a Man, Rarovideo/Interferenze, Rome 2005, pp. 48-52.