Bright Lights Film Journal

Diamonds in the Toilet: Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls

Warhol’s timeless, trashy “girls” come a-callin’

More talked about than seen since its debut, The Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol’s infamous double-projected dive into a demimonde he created, is getting a rare theatrical revival. It’s hard to imagine that this experience – it’s as much spectacle as film, really – was His Pastiness’s first honest-to-god cinematic success. After years of showing his movies to his methed-up Factory friends and the stray camp follower who wandered in off the street, and perhaps because his time had simply come, Warhol was able to sell these “girls” to the hip mainstream. The Chelsea Girls was reviewed in The New York Times and many another venue, raked in a cool (for Warhol) $300,000 in six months of exhibition, and became one of the gaudiest baubles on the charm bracelet of the urban culture vulture circa 1966.

Warhol’s “methods” (a deceptive word that indicates more planning than he was capable of) are in full flower here. The idea behind the project was to film various Factory denizens doing what they did best: prattling, prancing, fondling each other, shooting up, screaming, applying makeup, confessing secrets, smacking and upbraiding each other, and all manner of other mayhem – all in takes so long that anything was possible, including torpor. Twelve 35-minute mini-movies were shot, in various rooms of the Chelsea Hotel (and a couple of apartments), with no editing, the camera mostly as still as a cadaver (but occasionally twirling around a room or zooming in and out). The sound was recorded as it happened, to create the greatest sense of immediacy and reality and to allow the notoriously slug-like filmmaker as little involvement in the process as possible. Some of the reels are color, some black-and-white. The stars were among Warhol’s most “super”: Gerard Malanga, Ingrid Superstar, Mary Woronov, International Velvet, Marie Menken, Eric Emerson, Mario Montez, Ondine, and a few others. The original “cut” ran over six hours, so Warhol and Morrissey decided to commercialize it by combining the six 35-minute movies into pairs. In an innovative touch that must have been as thrilling to projectionists as it was confounding to viewers, the former were corralled into the artistic process, being permitted to decide the order of projecting the segments, how to pair them off, and which one to run with sound and which without.

The effect was exhilarating, one of the defining moments in the artistic history of the decade. But the avant-garde production style wasn’t the main attraction for most viewers. Warhol’s scrapes with the law for films like Couch (which featured hardcore sex) created a panting audience dying to see The Wigged One’s latest opus. That it could be seen at respectable venues like New York’s Regency Theatre (where it premiered) made it that much sweeter. And if The Chelsea Girls didn’t show penetration (there is full-frontal male nudity for penisspotters, however), it did offer some unforgettably camp tableaux of s&m dykes, hustler queens, phony popes, mute chanteuses, hopheads, and all sorts of other chattering miscreants engaging in every kind of antisocial activity imaginable.

One of the most memorable sequences belongs to the queen with the Bronx bray, Ondine. He decided to be “the Pope of Greenwich Village,” taking the “confession” of Warhol’s alleged favorite, the brainless, shrieking, drug-drenched Ingrid Superstar. Ondine is a powerful presence here, eloquently expounding on his many duties as “the Pope” in one breath and screeching his hatred of the church in the other. In a hilarious extended dialogue, he accuses her of being a lesbian – “I’ve seen you at Page Three and a lot of other dyke joints!” – while she alternately denies and embraces the idea, as the mood strikes her. “You’re a subspecies, my dear. You’re not even a vegetable!” he screams. Inevitably, the pressure of 35 minutes of improv, even for the self-consumed Ondine, proves too much, and when another woman enters the scene and denounces him as a phony, Ondine verbally and physically assaults her. Ondine’s demand that the camera be stopped after he loses control were met with a bland but incontestable denial by Warhol, whose decision to keep the camera running at all cost produces some disturbing effects. Throughout the film there are moments where his refusal to stop shooting, his encouragement of the stars’ hunger for the spotlight at any cost, skirts the sadistic. Perhaps “skirt” is too tame; Warhol biographer Victor Bokris mentions that “To turn the pressure up, Andy and Paul [Morrissey] would plant rumors about unpleasant remarks someone had made about someone else.”

Warhol’s subtle sadism is matched frame for frame by the unrepentant narcissism of his superstars. That was one of the hallmark characteristics of this crowd, though the films’ ability to make extreme self-absorption in others both fascinating and funny is a miracle in itself. In one of the sequences, doomed diva Nico is seen in a kitchen with a kid and Eric Emerson, the masturbating mute queen in Heat. Nico, in choker close-up, makes primping into an art form, silently, and sadly it seems, trimming her fringe, studying herself in the mirror, posing and preening to enervating effect. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the quiet wreck onscreen died after falling off a bicycle some years later. Another magisterial narcissist from Warhol’s stable, Mario Montez, appears as a beleaguered, heavily mascara’d housewife, chatting in her mindless manner to a middle-aged pervert who fondles a passive, underwear-clad hustler. “I’m just a housewife, that’s all,” she says, eventually breaking into tears in the outré manner of a silent star under siege while the distracted perv demands the queen return some supposedly stolen property.

Commentators have made much of the “meaning” in the juxtapositions of what’s happening on the left and right screens, but it’s difficult to support very specific claims along these lines, since it’s the projectionist who chooses the pairings, and what one person sees may be entirely different at the next screening. More quantifiable are the oppositions that occur within the frame of a particular sequence. Frequently in the Warhol (and then Morrissey) canon, there’s a pairing of two distinctly different types, a harridan (often a queen or a fag hag) with a beautiful, narcissistic, indifferent male. The Chelsea Girls has several such scenes, most effectively a bizarre ménage of gorgeous Gerard Malanga, who has to defend his supposed marriage to “Hanoi Hannah” (Mary Woronov) to his alleged mother, played by Marie Menken. While Mom fumes and screams, denouncing him as a “hippie” and Hannah as “trash,” Malanga (“Son” in the credits) barely reacts. Hannah, looking dapper in a white shirt and tie, smolders silently in a corner. Menken is one of Warhol’s few grande dames but one of several of his troupe who can maintain a harridan pose – perhaps because that’s what she was – seemingly forever, impervious to all notions of good taste or restraint.

Drugs, especially methedrine, were a crucial component of this crowd, and they’re everywhere in The Chelsea Girls. Both Ondine and Brigid Polk shoot up in their sequences, with Ondine doing so ritualistically, while Brigid unceremoniously sticks a needle through her blue jeans. Drugs too may be at the heart of some of the more passive performances here, like Malanga’s or, in the Marie Menken sequence, Woronov’s. Woronov has one of the most thrilling scenes as a butch dyke who sadomasochistically abuses Ingrid Superstar, who’s curled up under a desk, sometimes pouting and sometimes yelling back at Woronov or International Velvet. Woronov is a rarity in the Warhol canon; with her geometric face and wolfish smirk, she seems quite unintimidated by the camera’s relentless gaze, never breaking down as Ondine did. With her thrilling contralto, she’s also a superb screamer, another common trait among the Warholians.

The Chelsea Girls was one of Warhol’s last pure “art” films (in the style of Empire, Sleep, etc.) before collaborator Paul Morrissey’s business-minded ways took over and created the more commercial “Warhol films” – Lonesome Cowboys, Trash, Heat, etc. – that maintained some of the art and made much more money. The film was greeted warmly at the time in most quarters. To Newsweek, it was “the Iliad of the Underground”; the Village Voice read it as a metaphor for “burning Vietnam.” Not everyone agreed, of course; Rex Reed called it “a three-and-a-half-hour cesspool of vulgarity and talentless confusion which is about as interesting as the inside of a toilet bowl.” Warhol might be the last to object to Reed’s scatological analogies, but surely those are diamonds floating in the bowl.