Warhol films get some serious reconsideration

Those who admire Andy Warhol's painting and sculpture tend to consider his films a minor addendum to his ``real'' work - or worse, as a kind of stunt. Even the master of Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, they reason, couldn't have been serious when he made a six-hour movie of a man sleeping, or an eight-hour view of the Empire State Building. Thoughtful critics have taken Mr. Warhol's films seriously for more than 20 years, though, and time is bearing out their judgment.

Brilliance gave way to the banal

There's an enormous range in the content, style, and worthiness of the several dozen films Warhol directed between 1963 and '68. The earliest are generally the most brilliant. The later ones - which were, in their day, the most widely seen - tend to submerge their great theoretical interest in banal and distasteful content.

At his worst, Warhol was indeed the uninspired self-publicist his detractors have attacked. At his best, however, he was an uncompromising film artist with a visionary awareness of cinema's untapped possibilities.

This is why the Whitney Museum of American Art deserves applause for its recent exhibition, ``The Films of Andy Warhol: An Introduction,'' consisting of 16 films that have not been publicly screened for many years. Still to come is a more complete retrospective, to be accompanied by a scholarly catalog. In collaboration with the Whitney, meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art is engaged in collecting, sorting out, indexing, and preserving a wealth of Warhol's finished films, outtakes, unprinted reels, and unreleased movies.

Minimalist beginnings

The development of Warhol's cinema echoed the development of film history as a whole. He started with a radically basic approach to his medium and (like minimalist composers in the music world) and allowed himself to add more elements only when they were absolutely needed to expand his vocabulary.

Hence his earliest works, with titles like ``Eat'' and ``Kiss,'' recall the simplicity of 1890s experiments by Thomas Edison and the Lumi`ere brothers: They are silent, photographed in black and white, and generally shot from unchanging camera positions. Subsequent films gradually add sound, then camera movement, and finally color.

One ingredient of mainstream film that Warhol avoids, however, is narrative. His movies tell no stories until (beginning with ``Flesh'' in 1968) he stopped directing movies personally, turning over the reins to Paul Morrissey and other associates. At this point, films ``presented by Andy Warhol'' take on a less appetizing character.

`Sleep' cut by five hours

Warhol's earliest films are his best, largely because they represent his most radical efforts to rethink the nature and purpose of cinema. A movie like ``Sleep'' is no stunt. Even in the 42-minute excerpt shown by the Whitney, it reveals itself as a carefully crafted study in time and pictorial composition, complete with artfully arranged camera angles and sophisticated devices (freeze-frames, repeated shots, slow-speed projection) that purposefully attenuate the film's already leisurely images.

More astonishing yet is ``Empire,'' also represented at the Whitney by an excerpt of about 45 minutes. Here the camera focuses on a single object for an immensely long time. Yet, once the moviegoer suspends normal expectations, the screen is alive with activity. Lights within the camera's range blink; the textures of the image change as various filters pass across the lens; and imperfections in the film itself take on a dramatic character.

Aside from their audacious use of time, the most noteworthy aspect of Warhol's early films is their cinematography. His lighting setups are simple but canny, producing rich textures and surprisingly sensuous contrasts. The increasingly dark images of ``Haircut'' give that movie a visual drama that belies its minimal content. Parts of it could have been photographed on the moon, so stark and assertive are its black-and-white tones.

In his next round of films, Warhol toyed with narrative but never quite gave in to its temptations. When making ``talkies'' he was less interested in storytelling than in human behavior, which he tried to capture in an unvarnished state. Pictures like ``Beauty No. 2'' and ``The Velvet Underground and Nico'' combine a visual fascination with performances and dialogues of, alas, flamboyant foolishness.

``Vinyl,'' based on Anthony Burgess's novel ``A Clockwork Orange,'' strives for a down-and-dirty kind of intellectual content, while ``Harlot'' has moments of genuine wit, and ``My Hustler'' achieves an unexpected poignancy. Seen in retrospect, though, all these talkathons (and the often creepy characters who dominate them) are buildups to ``The Chelsea Girls,'' the cornerstone of Warhol's sound-movie period. Visually, this film has startling impact, moving from primitive B&W images to shots with aggressive colors and ferocious camera movements. In this case the performances have a disturbing power as well, culminating in an all-too-real burst of uncontrolled temper by Ondine, one of Warhol's so-called superstars.

Warhol's last movies as a director, such as ``I, a Man'' and ``Lonesome Cowboys,'' seem apathetic and unsurprising in comparison with earlier efforts, suggesting that their director had wearied of rethinking the boundaries of cinema and was now just fooling around.

The combined efforts of the two museums will soon bring Warhol's early and middle-period movies to the ``experimental film'' circuit again, and there's every chance that his later pictures will again make their way to theaters (and videocassettes) on the strength of their outspoken and sometimes outrageous subject matter. It's important to discriminate between Warhol's best efforts and those that rest on shakier foundations. His movies often lose their way in a self-generated fog of narcissism - manifested by the preening amateurs who appear in them, and by Warhol himself, who expected the world to celebrate trifles just because he aimed his camera at them. But this doesn't dilute the power or the importance of his best films, which remain charged with a sense of unabashed wonder at the mysterious power of cinematic images.

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