Ronald Tavel, Mario Montez, and Edie Sedgwick strut their superstardom in these early works by the master of pop kitsch camp
For most people, the quintessential “Andy Warhol film” is Trash, or perhaps Heat, or maybe Bad, or even the 3-D versions of Dracula or Frankenstein that bear his name. But these are all in fact Paul Morrissey’s films; Warhol had nothing to do with them besides adding his name to boost the box-office. True Warhol films are works like Chelsea Girls and Empire, Bikeboy and Blow Job, or the present duo, Restaurant and Screen Test #2, both from 1965. Morrissey and Warhol have a certain campiness in common, but there’s ultimately very little resemblance between a commercially minded film like Trash and any of the early Warhols, whose sheer unmarketability is one of their themes.
Warhol himself called his early films no more than “a way of passing the time,” and he was so dismissive of convention that he’d sometimes continue to “shoot” scenes even without film in the camera. Such attitudes make it tempting to dismiss the work, much of it unseen in years and some of it never seen, as perverse and pointless. Even today, audiences usually storm the exits on the rare occasion when a grueling epic like Empire (1964), an eight-hour static image of the Empire State Building, is shown.
Warhol’s high standing as a visual artist and cultural icon has overshadowed his radical work in the cinema, but the recent emergence of many of his early films may change some of that. Restaurant — not to be confused with Nude Restaurant — shows Warhol’s sensibility in full flower. The film opens with the barest of establishing shots, a brief glimpse of a bunch of prattling party-goers at a restaurant. Instantly the scene switches to an image beloved by the Academy, an artful still life of objects on a table — silverware, a drink, a purse, lovingly captured by an unblinking camera. But Warhol undermines this classical motif by holding the shot interminably, with only an occasional hand moving at the edge of the frame and the relentless drone of mocking laughter and vague dialogue in the background. Eventually the camera pulls back to show the full scene, with Factory rejects like Edie Sedgwick and Ondine carrying on like the seedy superstars they were, laughing and drinking and dishing. Warhol’s amused indifference to a detail like clear sound makes their chatter a kind of absurdist white noise, occasionally punctuated by Edie’s braying laugh and screams of phrases like “You’re a pig!” The film’s contemptuous treatment of these self-deluded, self-absorbed denizens implies a comically absurd world in a way that no normal narrative could, and puts Warhol in the same cultural space as weary modernists like Samuel Beckett.
Screen Test #2 has just two characters, but we only see one of them, and only in a single fuzzy head shot that comprises the entire film. The head belongs to drag queen Mario Montez, and her foil is an offscreen Ronald Tavel, who conducts this bizarre audition by putting poor Mario through a brutal series of acting exercises. While the narcissistic Mario’s attention continually wanders back to combing her cheap wig, Tavel insists, in his queenly voice, that she must do everything he says in order to become “a great star.” This includes enacting a “lady of leisure,” endlessly repeating the word “DI-AR-RHE-A” as if it were “the rain in Spain,” pretending she has a bottle up her ass, portraying a “wild gypsy girl!” in a remake of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and — in a camp apotheosis — pretending to be a “female geek.” Montez is surprisingly unfazed (perhaps because she’s too busy thinking about her hair), even when Tavel begins screaming that her “geek” pretend to eat a live chicken: “You’re a wild, savage, insane, demoniacal female geek! Eat it, you bitch! You wild bitch!” Tavel, who later founded the Ridiculous Theater Company, was a major presence on these early films, but this screamingly funny scene is surely one of his crowning moments.
The masterful Screen Test #2, shown for the first time on the West Coast in 1998 (at the San Francisco Cinematheque), recalls Warhol’s silkscreens and serial paintings in its doomed attempt to penetrate the landscape of the human face. But putting his concerns into motion through film, even in the narrow focus of a 70-minute head shot, allows Warhol to literally animate his attack on the constraints of classicism, logic, and sense. Montez is both pathetically petty and larger-than-life, self-dramatizing and self-deluded, controlled by an absurdly abusive unseen force in the form of the evil Tavel. This is a star vehicle pared to its essence, shorn of the plush trappings of story and set, investing Mario’s smallest gestures with dazzling camp hauteur.