The Innovators 1960-1970: The big wig

Film still for The Innovators 1960-1970: The big wig

When Andy Warhol turned film-maker, he cocked a snook at Hollywood and the avant-garde, changing both forever, argues Mike O'Pray

In Harmony Korine's recent no-budget, quasi-documentary feature film Gummo there is a memorable head-and-shoulder shot - slowed down and fairly long-held - of 90s chic icon Chloë Sevigny with her breasts black-taped, gazing into the camera. It is pure Warhol. Her narcissism, knowing sexiness and acknowledgement of the camera's gaze are all characteristic of a type of film-making first practised in early 60s New York, film-making of a shocking audacity that attracted the fashionable yet repelled much of the art world.

Pop artist Andy Warhol's films are important because they influenced two kinds of cinema: Hollywood absorbed their gritty street-life realism, their sexual explicitness and on-the-edge performances; the avant-garde reworked his long-take, fixed-camera aesthetic into what came to be known as structural film - an austere, formalist project.

When he started making films in 1963, however, Warhol knew nothing about the mechanics of film. Whatever he had gleaned about the contemporary underground film scene came from his friendship with Gerard Malanga, who introduced him to the veteran film-maker Marie Menken (one of the 'stars' of The Chelsea Girls, 1966) and took him to screenings at Jonas Mekas' Film-makers' Co-op. However, like any American of his generation he was brought up on classic Hollywood, and he was also familiar with gay porn films of the 50s.

At that moment in the early 60s, Warhol was on the crest of a wave as one of the most important artists on the New York scene, famous for his silk-screen paintings of iconic American figures (Marilyn Monroe), consumer objects (Campbell's soup cans) and dramatic images of death (lurid car accidents, the electric chair). He was an uncomfortable ally of fellow pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in their overthrowing of the abstract expressionist school of Pollock, De Kooning and co., who had dominated the art world throughout the 50s. Like Rauschenberg and Johns, Warhol was gay, but unlike them he embraced the swish, camp images and attitudes of the gay world, especially when he turned to film. His stance would come to dominate 60s popular culture. Cultivated camp soon became fashionable, notably in the theatricals of rock groups like the Rolling Stones - in many ways Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's use of Stones' singer Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) is a codicil to the Warholian moment.

Alone among major artists of the twentieth century Warhol committed himself seriously to film, so much so that in 1965 he stated that he was giving up painting. Warhol's prolific output, which ran to many hundreds of films, some only discovered after his death, was all produced between 1963 and 1968. These half-dozen years can be loosely divided into three phases. First, from 1963 to late 1964 there was a plethora of slow-projected (16 fps), silent, shortish black-and-white films shot on a Bolex - the favourite lightweight camera of avant-garde and documentary film-makers. The camera was static and the shooting unedited, the film's length determined by the length of the reel. Second, from 1964 Warhol used the Auricon camera with its built-in sound system (perversely, it was first used for the silent epic Empire). This was an intense, fertile period in which the slow-motion aesthetic gave way to a form of modernist 'theatre' aided and abetted by 'scriptwriter-collaborators' Chuck Wein and Ronald Tavel, the latter a dramatist associated with the Theatre of the Ridiculous. It was then that Warhol launched his 'superstars', including Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga, Viva and the drag artist Mario Montez. These films were often around 70 minutes in length, consisting of two single-take reels, each just over 30 minutes long - for instance, Wein's Beauty #2 (1965) or Tavel's Kitchen (1966), both 'starring' Edie Sedgwick. Warhol told Tavel that he didn't want plot, only 'incident'. The high point was probably reached with the commercially and critically successful The Chelsea Girls. The third phase is brief and not so distinctive, but it expresses a wider ambition and a realist clarity of narrative. In many ways it was an attempt to build on the commercial success of The Chelsea Girls under the driving force of the young Paul Morrissey, who disparaged the early 'art' films. The first step in this direction was My Hustler (1965); notable films of the period include Nude Restaurant and Lonesome Cowboys (both 1967). But after Valerie Solanas' bullets ripped into his body on 3 June 1968, Warhol's film involvement was much more at arm's length, though he continued to lend his imprimatur to films directed by Morrissey, such as Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972).

As a film-maker, Warhol achieved international fame without showing many of his films more than once or twice to small arthouse audiences in New York. Their word-of-mouth reputations sufficed. Sleep and Empire, both made in the early 60s, were more talked about than seen. The regular description of them - a single image shown for hours on end (only really true of Empire) - was enough to evoke awe and disbelief. But these images of extreme passivity (a building, an unconscious man), made with extreme passivity, were unique in Warhol's oeuvre. Most of Warhol's films were of people, often doing very little - or a lot - ineptly. His reputation as an innovator rests in this fascinating combination of a simple shooting style with the 'performances' he elicited.

So what was so new and fresh about these early films? It has been argued that they resemble and were inspired by the early single-reel films of the Lumières and others, but they are quite different. For one thing Warhol's films are genuinely silent, unlike the so-called silent cinema which always had a musical accompaniment. For another their subject matter is not banal. To see Sleep (1963), Eat (1963), Henry Geldzahler (1964) or any of the hundreds of 'screen tests' Warhol shot is to experience something utterly different to anything offered by the early film pioneers. Lastly, in their provocative amateurishness, lack of skill and seeming effortlessness, they were an audacious challenge (and, for many, an insult) to both Hollywood and the avant-garde. Warhol seemed to switch on the camera and walk away. This was film's own Duchampian moment and film has never recovered from it.

The films were also made in a unique context: the Factory, a huge fifth-floor loft (about 100 feet by 40 feet) on East 47th Street. Billy Name had decorated it in silver foil, and opera played incessantly in the background. It became a parody of a Hollywood studio. According to Stephen Koch, Warhol, through Name, Malanga and the brilliant Ondine, gathered "a-heads, street geniuses, poor little rich girls, the very chic, the desperately unknown, hustlers and call boys, prostitutes, museum curators, art dealers, rich collectors". The Factory was classy and glamorous, chic and dangerous, and the door was always open. Drugs, sex and the pale presence of the ultra-hip Warhol provided the nexus for this volatile group, which seemed democratic, but was intensely not so. The sexuality was gay and the drugs were largely amphetamines.

As far as the films themselves were concerned, authorship was an anachronism. The camera was permanently placed ready for action in front of a large couch. Whoever visited the Factory, and was accepted into the circle, could perform on the couch for the 100-foot reel, while Warhol, Malanga, Name or whoever was available operated the camera. As Warhol confessed, film-making was so easy. A selection of these endless rolls of film was put together in 1964, entitled Couch. It showed various people, some famous, some not, doing this or that: hanging out, sleeping, hoovering, eating bananas, sucking cocks, fucking each other, cleaning a motorbike and so on. Silent, slowed down and shot in high-contrast black-and-white chiaroscuro, the work at times had a classic sculptural look - especially the sex scenes. Such narcissism and passivity were utterly new, and created a cinema of fantasies acted out, uncluttered by dialogue, storylines, stars, even - in its dreamlike movement - time itself.

With the Bolex camera using 100-foot rolls of black-and-white film, Warhol also made portraits or what he called 'screen tests' of the New York literati, many of which were not seen until after his death. Almost in a Bazinian fashion, Warhol was interested in the surface of things. Art lies in the there-ness of things. They are fairly orthodox portraits: either head-and-shoulders or tight head shots with a single light, using chiaroscuro effects in the traditional photographic manner. The fame of his subjects - Allen Ginsberg, et al - give them an additional curiosity value. In his more elaborate, Hollywood-mimicking 'scripted' films, Warhol used such strong filmic personalities or physiognomies as Sedgwick, Malanga and Marie Menken. Never banal in the everyday sense of realism, these films are fantasy projections depicting a world both glamorous and dangerous.

Warhol's decision to allow the length of reel itself to be the unifying factor was made in the face of the sophistication of post-Golden Age Hollywood. It was also a gob-smacking stance to take against the American avant-garde film tradition of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, who all clung with varying degrees of enthusiasm to editing as a shaping tool. In his bleak, relentless single takes, Warhol became, in an odd way, the ultimate Bazinian in an Eisensteinian montage-based film culture. His work was not simply a development in avant-garde tradition or a marginal snook at the mainstream, but a seismic shift not only of form but of subject matter. Warhol's intense and austere gaze on the supposedly obscene, the sexual and the perverse is now a cornerstone of our visual culture. On the surface he is not as outlandish as other film artists such as Brakhage. His films are not abstract, out of focus, or experimentally disorganised. But they are often very long - a celebration and exploration of boredom, as some have argued.

The later sound camera allowed Warhol to develop a more theatrical style of film-making using the exhibitionists and friends who gathered in the Factory - gays, druggies, transvestites, beautiful men and women, dangerous personalities. The 'superstar' was born: Edie Sedgwick, Mario Montez, Gerard Malanga, Ondine, and later Ingrid Superstar, Viva, Candy Darling - a move, however bizarre, towards Warhol's ambition to make 'real' films. Malanga and others have stated that Warhol always wanted to make such films. On the evidence of the years from 1963 until the Morrissey films, this intention seems ambiguous. To think that a film like Eat - artist Robert Indiana languorously eating a mushroom and playing with a cat for 30 minutes - had anything much to do with Hollywood, you must believe either that Warhol was stupid or that he had some rather obscure game plan. Equally, the two-long-takes film Beauty #2, in which a half-naked Edie Sedgwick is on a bed being encouraged off-screen by Malanga and ex-boyfriend Chuck Wein to indulge in sex with a rather superfluous young man, hardly seems aimed at establishing a Hollywood career - except perhaps for its doomed 'star' with her easy upper-class ways and charismatic screen presence.

Beauty #2 was typical of many of the black-and-white sound films in its focus on sexuality, the ambiguities of 'performance' (people playing themselves) and the disjunction between image and sound. An early sound film was Harlot, shot in December 1964 and 'starring' transvestite Mario Montez in full drag, sprawled on the couch eating a banana with Carol Koshinskie. Behind them stood Malanga and Philip Fagan, Warhol's lover at the time. The sound comprises an off-shot discussion between Tavel and others about female movie stars. Characteristically, it is both a homage to Hollywood and a critique.

It was The Chelsea Girls that reached beyond the small New York scene to a wider international public. Seen by Hollywood directors and moguls, influential European art directors and movie stars, it had an impact rivalled in the same period only by Godard. Comprising 12 single-take reels, The Chelsea Girls was a novelty as a double-screen film, with sound only on one screen so that audiences never knew what was going on soundwise on the other screen. It ran for over three hours. Unlike Empire and Sleep, which were first shown in an installation context with people wandering in and out of the screening space, The Chelsea Girls played in a proper auditorium with big audiences soaking up the antics of Warhol's superstars.

The runaway success of The Chelsea Girls had a discernible effect on Hollywood, resulting in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969), which features a Factory party at which arty pretentiousness and decadence highlight the poverty of the two leads, Jon Voight's Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo. Schlesinger's movie humanism owes little to Warhol's amoralism. With its sentimentality, facile social conscience and deep cynicism about what Schlesinger saw as the self-indulgent elitism of the Warholian project, Midnight Cowboy can be seen as the establishment signposting the end of the 60s and of the Warholian project.

The art critic Barbara Rose claims that Warhol was "the inventor of the lifestyle of the 60s". He did encapsulate all its idealism, experimentalism, arrogance (even, at times, its silliness) and most of what was understood as cool. Cool is precisely the hijacking of low and marginal culture into the mainstream - borrowing from the black ghettos, from the drug world of the streets, from gay clubs, from S&M dress. Warhol was an artist operating in a tiny elite avant-garde in New York, but only Picasso in the modern period has had such universal recognition.

In the late 60s and 70s, Warhol's innovatory approach to sex, drugs and marginal lifestyles helped turn topics previously repressed by the Hollywood dream machine into commonplace subject matter for movies, formulating a new kind of gritty realism tinged by amoralism. For the avant-garde, meanwhile, Warhol's process and formal concerns were what mattered - in Britain, for instance, in the work of structural film-makers such as Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice, and, more recently, Young British Artists such as Sam Taylor Wood, Douglas Gordon and Gillian Wearing.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012