Saturday, March 12, 2016

Chelsea Girls

CHELSEA GIRLS                 A-       
USA  (210 mi)  1966  d:  Andy Warhol  co-director:  Paul Morrissey

If anybody wants to know what those summer days of ‘66 were like in New York for us, all I can say is go see Chelsea Girls. I’ve never seen it without feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was right back there all over again. It may have looked like a horror show … to some outside people, but to us it was more like a comfort – after all, we were a group of people who understood each other’s problems.
—Andy Warhol

CHELSEA GIRLS (1966) is the first underground film to be shown in commercial theaters, opening the doors to other underground films, costing only $1500 to make, yet grossing over half a million dollars in just the first two years, though officials ruled against screening the film at Cannes.  It was a hit in New York City, critically acclaimed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, while banned in Chicago and Boston.  Easily Warhol’s most famous film, Newsweek described it as “The Iliad of the Underground,” introducing to the world a myriad of weird and eccentric characters from Warhol’s Factory of stars, lacking any formal narrative, following various residents of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, shown on a split screen, presented side by side from two projectors, an effect also used in his earlier short OUTER AND INNER SPACE (1966), with one starting about 5-minutes before the next screen, moving the audio sound from one side to the other, seemingly at random, while the other plays out in silence.  Directed, co-written (with Ronald Tavel), produced, and filmed by Warhol, the film is presented in 12 unedited reels running about 30-minutes in length, feeling more like a documentary, where it stands today as a remarkable time capsule of the 60’s, featuring original music by the end from the Velvet Underground that sounds like a rare live performance.  Warhol was a remarkably prolific filmmaker, making more than 100 movies, and 472 film portraits, mostly two to four-minute uninterrupted shots that he called Screen Tests of artists, celebrities, guests, friends, or anyone that he thought had “star potential,” usually slowing the film speed considerably when projecting them, ultimately withdrawing all his films from circulation in the early 70’s, only becoming available again after his death in 1987, where many have been restored for viewing status.  He began making films in 1963 only after experiencing success as a painter and sculptor, where one of his earliest is the 5-hour-and-21-minute SLEEP (1963), which is exactly that, originally conceived with an idea of filming a sleeping Brigitte Bardot, but the man filmed was his friend and lover, poet John Giorno.  The original screening was attended by only nine people, with two exiting during the first hour, a minimalist technique he would exaggerate even further with the 8-hour EMPIRE (1964), a single static shot of the Empire State Building from early evening until nearly 3 am the next day.  In these exhaustive works, the audience becomes an extension of the live performance witnessed onscreen.

In the beginning of 1966, Warhol began a collaboration with the musical group the Velvet Underground, icons of the music world today, but they were extremely “unpopular” at the time, with a droning electric viola and lyrics that focused on drugs, prostitution, S & M, and other gritty topics that were considered controversial at the time, banned from the airwaves, defined by avant-garde or experimental rock, doing several Screen Tests of German lead singer Nico (Christa Pӓffgen), which along with clips from EMPIRE (1964) and VINYL (1965) would be blown up to play as a backdrop behind the performers, featuring various dancers from the Factory (like Mary Woronov and Gerard Malanga) along with a multi-screen film projection and elaborate light shows known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which eventually became associated with live rock shows of the era, used regularly by rock promoter Bill Graham at the Fillmore East and Fillmore West.  It was during this experimentation with multiple formats that Warhol conceived CHELSEA GIRLS, each segment featuring his underground stable of Factory stars, including Nico (and her children), Pope Ondine (Bob Olivio), Brigid Polk (Brigid Berlin), Ingrid Superstar (Ingrid Von Scheven), International Velvet (Susan Bottomly), Mary Woronov, Ed Hood, Rene Ricard, Patrick Fleming, Angelina “Pepper” Davis, Eric Emerson, poet, photographer and filmmaker Gerard Malanga, experimental filmmaker Marie Menken, and transvestite Mario Montez.  One thing that immediately stands out is Warhol pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech, exhibiting an extreme tolerance of both the drug culture and homosexuality, where both had rarely been expressed so openly before.  What Warhol could express as an underground filmmaker was considerably less commercial, and less censored, like his earlier film BLOW JOB (1963), a single 35-minute shot of the expressions captured on a man’s face as he receives oral sex, opening up an entirely new world not only to the 1960s counterculture, but a new gay audience which was finally being represented onscreen, where gay characters were being depicted as complex human beings.  Growing out of Kerouac and the Beat Generation, some of whose writers were openly gay, like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, whose notorious censorship trials about graphic sexual depictions of homosexual sex eventually liberates the written word, Warhol, along with experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who successfully fought his own obscenity charges, helped define cinema as art rather than pornography.  Warhol was fighting similar battles on the art front, mass producing silkscreens in much the same way corporations mass-produced consumer goods, redefining standards of what was considered art, attracting fringe characters who were adult film performers, drag queens, drug addicts, musicians, or would-be celebrities that helped him create his paintings, starred in his films, or mixed with wealthy socialites, creating their own subculture while contributing to the legendary atmosphere of the times.     

CHELSEA GIRLS was one of the last pure art films Warhol made before he got involved producing sexploitation movies like LONESOME COWBOYS (1968), TRASH (1970), and HEAT (1972) directed by Paul Morrissey that made a lot more money playing in commercial theaters.  Even today, snippets of Warhol’s Screen Tests may be seen playing silently in the video galleries of modern art museums, where arguably more people see them in a single day than ever watched them throughout Warhol’s lifetime, even if they’re only glanced at occasionally.  Tedium is part of the Warhol experience, where the camera passively records the banality of existence, filming ordinary human experiences, like trimming one’s hair, washing dishes, talking on the telephone, complaining bitterly about something or somebody, being bored, injecting drugs, talking about oneself, dominating the discussion, interjecting rude comments and insults, telling others to “shut up,” where things grow increasingly hostile after a while, occasionally growing wildly out of control, where the real subject appears to be close-ups, with the camera remaining in a fixed position often zooming in and out, altering the focus, sometimes side to side, yet what we see remains the same throughout each reel, where there’s a good deal of familiarity and repetition that the audience must adjust to, as everything takes place in the claustrophobic confines of small hotel rooms.  Apparently Nico, Brigid Berlin, and International Velvet lived in the Chelsea Hotel, through Brigid claimed she only spent about one night a week in her room, visiting others continuously, where the film does provide an interchangeable feel of moving from room to room, where people come and go, as if transience is part of the overall experience.  The narcissistic fixation on oneself is obvious, as these individuals are obsessed with themselves a half century before the era of selfies, showing little patience or regard for others, as if they’ve lived their entire lives for this one moment to shine.  For some, like Ondine or Mary Woronov, being in front of a camera is the most naturalistic thing in the world, where they’re free to say whatever they want, and both are lucid and intelligible, but aggressively vicious, while Nico, on the other hand, feels as if she’s used to people constantly taking her picture, like a fashion model, where she may have no other life except in front of a camera.  Shot from June to September in 1966, the film is generally improvised, with only one written scene by Ron Tavel, the “Hanoi Hannah” sequence starring Woronov.  When Jonas Mekas asked for a film to screen, Morrisey and Warhol reduced the footage to 12 reels, with the first seven (and reel 11) in black and white, while the other four are in color, growing increasingly hallucinogenic by the end, where they decided to show them on two screens in order to reduce the film time from 6 ½ to 3 ½ hours. 

One of the interesting aspects of this particular film is how each experience is slightly different, where projectors may be stuck behind a booth or may be out in the open, changing reels in the same dark room as the viewing audience, where the whirr of the projectors is the initial sound heard before anything appears onscreen and is part of the sound heard throughout.  Initially when released in the 60’s the reel changes were completely random, where the projector could simply pick and choose them in any order, though by now there is an established order and symmetry to the film, yet the actual sequences seen side-by-side are altered by the timing of the reel changes, which are different in each screening, as each reel plays out until it runs into a blank leader and goes dark.  As a result, no two screenings are exactly alike.  Shot in the Chelsea Hotel, the Factory, and various other apartments including the Velvet Underground’s apartment on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, the film begins and ends on Nico, initially seen trimming her bangs in her kitchen by staring into a handheld mirror, occasionally interrupted by her 4-year old son Ari while talking idly with friends.   The second reel introduces Pope Ondine, supposedly the “Pope” of Greenwich Village, with Ingrid Superstar as they engage in a contentious discussion about their lifestyles, The Chelsea Girl (1966), Paul Morrissey - Andy Warhol ...  YouTube (3:50), urging her to make a holy confession (while in the same breath acknowledging a deep-seeded hatred for the church), then berating her when it’s not personal enough, going on an extended rant of his own, demanding that she admit to being a lesbian, and when she refuses, screams at her, “I’ve seen you at Page Three and a lot of other dyke joints!”  When Ingrid refuses to be bullied, Ondine denounces her, “You’re a subspecies, my dear.  You’re not even a vegetable!”  The third reel introduces an overconfident Brigid Berlin (aka Brigid Polk), who delights in conducting various drug transactions by phone while lying or sitting in her bed, eventually injecting amphetamines into her system by sticking a needle into her butt through her blue jeans, as if this defiant portrait defines who she is.  The fourth reel introduces two men lying on a bed, an older poet, art critic, and painter Rene Ricard dressed in a bathrobe, and pretty boy Patrick Fleming, his own personal boy toy who is dressed only in white undies.  Two women eventually protrude from the edge of the frame, one of whom ties up Patrick with a belt, but most of this is mere horseplay.  Reels 5 and 6 blend into each other, introducing Mary Woronov as Hanoi Hannah, talking with International Velvet, who is literally caked with mascara, while Brigid is confined to a place underneath a desk.  Occasionally Brigid might scream something, but Hannah simply tells her to “shut up.”  By the next segment, another woman (Pepper Davis) has been added to the room, while Hannah has become more intimidating, unleashing her venom towards each of them, but in camp fashion, as if she is the dominant dyke in a prison cell.  This segment is notable for the tears seen streaming down Pepper’s face, as she is living a visible nightmare.

Scripted or not, the prevailing tone throughout is a pronounced sadomasochism, where inflicting obvious hurt and pain is definitely part of the process, while others, perhaps not so willingly, are on the receiving end of vicious verbal attacks, though it’s expressed in the manner of a trashy melodrama, like something you might pick up in a dime store novel with a lurid picture on the cover.  The viewer is implicated in what takes place onscreen, as voyeurism is the prescribed Warhol methodology, where the artist literally takes hold of your brain by forcing what he likes onto the screen, making each individual viewer come to terms with what they see.  Of interest, Woronov was the only actress to learn her lines, not that anybody noticed or seemed to care, as they were too busy establishing their own character in front of the camera.  By reel seven, which feels shortened, we have returned to the “boys in the bed,” though this time drag queen Mario Montez, dressed like she’s costumed for Gone with the Wind, sings several songs.  Neither of them are visibly impressed, though Patrick Fleming takes great pleasure in openly flirting in front of Rene, which only makes him want to possess him even more, like he’s his own personal property.  By reel 8, the film switches to color, as we observe Marie Menken, an avant-garde artist in her own right, dressed in a hat resembling Bella Abzug, playing the character of a Mother berating her son, Gerard Malanga, denouncing him as a “hippie,” while he’s placed in the disadvantageous position of having to defend his marriage to Hanoi Hannah, who sits inertly in the corner dressed in a white shirt and tie.  Mother’s assertive harangue stands in stark contrast to the passive indifference expressed by the other two.  By reel nine, the tone has shifted, becoming more psychedelic, as this is largely a long and rambling soliloquy by Eric Emerson, a trained classical ballet dancer who was supposedly on LSD at the time.  As he grooves on his own body, becoming a literal striptease of the body and soul, one can already hear the spacy refrains of Walking in Space - Hair - YouTube (4:38) from the musical Hair that would be released the following year, while reel 10 is an assembled Factory audience, like a Greek chorus, that bears witness to his earth shift, predominately expressed through lighting effects and changing colors on facial close-ups.  These voiceless characters act as more of a set-up for what follows, as reel eleven is the most devastating of them all. 

Returning back to the stark reality of black and white, Pope Ondine, a gay, self-proclaimed high priest in the art of the mindfuck, who sees himself as a kind of savant able to gaze deeply into other people’s souls, gives himself a fix of amphetamine before he takes centerstage.  Desiring a willing subject who will offer a full confession, it turns out to be Ronna Page, a friend of Jonas Mekas and Gerard Malanga, who has the unmitigated gall to call him a phony.  Erupting in anger, Ondine first throws water in her face before slapping her silly in full assault mode, where his misogynist posture is on full display, a dreadfully horrific moment even when viewed half a century later.  There’s nothing contrived or phony about this as she scurries away, vehemently upset even twenty minutes later, still screaming back at him offstage, certainly among the most dramatically uncomfortable scenes in cinema, as he shows no remorse and instead relentlessly attacks this woman voraciously for the duration of the screen time, reduced to having little more to offer the camera than yet another fix.  Without question, Ondine is a dick.  Through his actions, we’re forced to conclude the drug-induced pathway seeking freedom and liberation is also the pathway to prison and one’s own personal hell, where his performance has been compared to Sartre’s No Exit.  Fortunately there’s more.  While Ondine has the final word, as that reel sputters to an end, a live performance of a Velvet Underground jam session plays out in a musical ascension during the final reel, returning back to Nico, who is captured in a wordless portrait through Day-Glo colors and red filters, but can be seen crying, an apt response to what was just viewed on the other screen, though the real context revealed later is that she’s listening to music, perhaps the same revelatory music we’re listening to.  The music and the hallucinogenic light show on Nico’s alluring face brings the film to a close, where the music continues well after the celluloid ends and the room turns to dark.  The final two sequences are electrifying.  Despite the passage of time and an amateur nature of some of the performances, the entire piece maintains a modernistic mindset, like a brilliantly choreographed ballet of mood shifts.   

Jonas Mekas from The Village Voice, September 29, 1966, The Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol) Reviews

The Chelsea Girls has a classical grandeur about it, something from Victor Hugo. Its grandeur is the grandeur of its subject, the human scope of its subject. And it is a tragic film. The lives that we see in this film are full of desperation, hardness, and terror. It’s there for everybody to see and to think about. Every work of art helps us to understand ourselves by describing to us those aspects of our lives, which we either know little of or fear. It’s there in black on white before our eyes, this collection of desperate creatures, the desperate part of our being, the avant-garde of our being. And one of the amazing things about this film is that the people in it are not really actors; or if they are acting, their acting becomes unimportant. It becomes part of their personalities, and there they are, totally real, with their transformed, intensified selves. The screen acting is expanded by an ambiguity between real and unreal. This is part of Warhol’s filming technique, and very often it is a painful technique. There is the girl who walks from scene to scene crying, real tears, really hurt; a girl, under LSD probably, who isn't even aware, or only half aware, that she is being filmed; the “priest” who gives into a fit of rage (a real rage) and then slaps the girl right and left (a real slap, not the actors slap) when she begins to talk about God-in probably the most dramatic religious sequence ever filmed. Toward the end, the film bursts into color-not the usual color-movie color but a dramatized exalted, screaming red color of terror.

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