What do Edie Sedgwick, Hedy Lamarr, Mary Woronov, and a pack of queer cowpokes have in common? Andy Warhol, natch.
The Whitney Museum and New York MOMA’s restoration of Andy Warhol’s staggering film legacy – 4,000 individual works at last count – is making it possible to finally start to assess the Popmeister’s contribution to cinema. For too long he’s been associated with Paul Morrissey’s distinctly different and ultimately quite un-Warholesque films like Trash and Heat (no putdown of those classics intended).
Warhol’s disengagement with an art form whose course he radically altered is legendary; the image of a permanently distracted Andy turning on a camera, corralling some of his “superstars” to primp and prance in front of it, then wandering off on some new tangent seems irrefutable. And arguably some of the best of the early films that are only recently surfacing suggest another auteur at work: poet and campmeister Ronald Tavel.
But it’s Warhol’s personality that dominates, just as it does his more obviously personal works like the silkscreens. A film like Outer and Inner Space (1965), with multiple Edie Sedgwicks, is clearly related to the multiple Elvises, or electric chairs, or soup cans. The obsession with surface, and the terror of what lies beneath it, that’s rampant in his visual art is all over films like Hedy and Horse (both 1965) and, supremely, the hundreds of four-minute Screen Tests (1964-66) he shot that are just now being uncovered. And Warhol’s attraction to everything kitsch, camp, and queer in his pop art is more than evident in the films, the individual contributions of a fabulous parade of demented drag queens, preening hustlers, and self-absorbed fag hags notwithstanding. In March 1999, the S.F. Cinematheque hosted “Pop Resurrection: A Warhol Weekend” to help us judge these things firsthand.
The Popmeister’s sadistic streak (disguised as calculated indifference and whimsical incompetence) is most blatantly displayed in the Screen Tests series. Warhol “instructed” (it’s hard to imagine his wishes taking such a firm form) his subjects to simply sit still and not talk or move while he photographed them. While most of the ten people in this sampling (including Susan Sontag) become increasingly disturbed by this process of naked objectification, at least the wonderful Mary Woronov shows some kick in her brief segment; she’s the only one who actively challenges the camera, obviously torn between obeying Warhol’s directive and the demands of her own larger than life personality. Through sheer force of will she breaks through, glaring back at the camera, tossing her head, and barely suppressing a smirk. Less resistant is Edie Sedgwick, seen here in all her fragile, fleeting beauty. Four minutes is plenty of time to watch a person begin to unravel; that’s what Edie, like several of the other subjects here, starts to do under Warhol’s pitiless gaze.
Less disturbing and infinitely more campy is Hedy, starring legendary drag queen and Factory staple Mario Montez playing a beleaguered Hedy Lamarr post-stardom. The opening shot of this 66-minute film has Hedy under the knife – she’s getting plastic surgery to make her look like the “14-year-old girl” she imagines herself to be. While Hedy raves on about how beautiful she is, the surgeon (Ronald Tavel), perhaps sick of her mindless egotism, screams: “I’ll give you the face of an 80-year-old hag!” From here, she goes to a “store” where she’s caught shoplifting by a very young Mary Woronov. Next it’s a trial, with Tavel now her judge, and her five ex-husbands (among them Gerard Malanga) her jury. Along the way she sings “I Feel Pretty” and “Young at Heart” while the husbands prance decoratively around her.
Montez’s Hedy is brilliantly detached from the melodrama around her, too self-consumed to notice or care. She pauses to pose no matter what the circumstance. Her response to a string of indignities – treacherous husbands, rude shopgirls, threatening surgeons – is as stoic as Margaret Dumont’s to one of Groucho’s importunities, and she sometimes casually turns these assaults to her advantage, as when she forces one of her tormentors (Woronov) to hold the mirror while she primps. Too, she stylishly endures Warhol’s constant narrative ruptures, remaining grimly poised as technicians adjust the lighting and Factory gawkers stare at her from the sidelines. And she bravely endures the film’s refusal to even consider the idea of verisimilitude – the “store” is just a table in the Factory; the “court” is a file cabinet and a table a few feet away.
Ronald Tavel is listed as the scenarist for Hedy, and he’s also a driving force behind Horse, a “classic western” according to Tavel and clearly the inspiration for Lonesome Cowboys. Here there’s even less interest in realism – this “western” takes place indoors, in the Factory. We know it’s a western because there’s a real horse standing on the Factory floor indifferently eating hay, and four hunky young men in vaguely western gear saying things like “Get outta town!” and “One of you two guys is a murderer!” Other “characters” coexist onscreen but far outside the narrative. They include the horse’s trainer; Edie Sedgwick, who answers the phone and meanders around; Andy, who comes and goes; various technicians, onlookers, undesignated street people, and a string of super- and perhaps substars.
The cowboys – who include well-known art critic Gregory Battcock – spend most of the movie capsizing every western cliché and dragging the homo subtexts to the surface. So the time-honored poker game becomes a strip poker game, with an offscreen Tavel screaming at the boys to take their clothes off, which of course they’re all too happy to do. And the cowboy’s legendary love of his horse becomes a quasi-zoophilic romp as our boys suggestively pet and paw Old Paint, and “the Kid,” stripped to his undies, giddily humps its back. Among the camp curiosities here are the shifting accents (sometimes “western,” sometimes Brooklyn); a guy who unzips another’s pants with his toes; and the sudden intrusion of a cheesy aria that’s wildly dramatized by one of the boys, who takes the concept of “horse opera” to its literal extreme.
Don’t worry if you arrive late for this one. Warhol was as subtly sadistic toward his audience (if he imagined one) as he was toward his players. This film is 99 minutes long, and the first third is mostly an extended shot of the horse eating.