ON any list of movies that are talked about more often than they're seen, Andy Warhol's legendary ``Empire'' surely rates a top position. Produced in 1964, it consists of a single shot of the Empire State Building - filling the screen for a full eight hours as its 10 reels of 16-mm film creep through the projector at slow-motion speed.
Not surprisingly, ``Empire'' has rarely been shown in its entirety; its last New York screenings were more than two decades ago - and few people have actually viewed it. Now the Whitney Museum of American Art is filling this gap with four showings of the movie in an exhibition called ``The Films of Andy Warhol: Part II.''
And if a day of ``Empire'' merely whets the appetite of die-hard Warhol admirers, they can drop by for other programs and catch more other neglected classics, including the comparatively brief ``Sleep,'' a movie of a sleeping man that lasts a mere five hours and 21 minutes. Warhol's movies aren't all so limited in their content and unblinking in their gaze, any more than his painting was restricted to the soup cans and Brillo boxes that put him and Pop Art on the map. After the minimalism of his early film career, which began with ``Sleep'' in 1963 and ended shortly after ``Empire'' the following year, Warhol worked through a string of different styles and subjects.
The results range from campy portrait films like ``Lupe'' and ``Bufferin'' to spaced-out sexploitation pictures such as ``Bike Boy'' and ``I a Man,'' and finally to relatively conventional (if doggedly outrageous) story films directed by collaborators with slightly more realistic notions of box-office appeal. While these and other Warhol movies are wildly uneven in quality, the best of them rank with the most important avant-garde films of the past 25 years. What distinguishes them is the audacity of their ideas - few artists have so profoundly questioned the basic assumptions that underlie our conceptions of cinema - and the over-the-top zealousness of their execution.
Many of Warhol's most celebrated films, including such key efforts as the surrealistic ``Vinyl'' and the two-screen movie ``Chelsea Girls,'' were shown at the Whitney in its previous Warhol program a few seasons ago. Like that event, the new exhibition marks the completion of another phase in conservation activities by the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, which have undertaken the task of preserving all of Warhol's major films and making them available for the first time since 1972, when they were taken out of public circulation.
Callie Angell, the Whitney curator who organized the current series, finds numerous areas of interest in Warhol's cinema. These include the sociological value of his films, as documents of attitudes and living styles that flourished on the cultural margins during the 1960s, and the influence they have exerted on later filmmakers with experimental tastes. Angell is also fascinated by the fact that many film-lovers talk knowingly about Warhol's cinema without having seen the movies themselves - often getting the facts wrong, as when the diversely photographed and heavily edited ``Sleep'' is inaccurately described as an eight-hour film with a single camera position.
As one of the few people who have sat through ``Empire'' from beginning to end, Angell reports that it was quite enjoyable to enter a meditative state of mind and focus attention on the smallest details of the movie's single image. Linking it with the minimalist films that preceded it - such as ``Eat,'' which shows a well-known painter eating a mushroom - she relates it to key avant-garde movements in other artistic fields during the '60s. Among these are John Cage's experiments with duration in music; the exploration of everyday actions in modern dance; and the desire of some filmmakers to create a cinema with strong connections to the aesthetics of representational painting.
Nor was viewing ``Empire'' a totally static experience. ``It looked like different things while I was watching it,'' Angell recalls. ``For about two reels it looked like a paintbrush that was dipped in paint and stuck on a canvas!''
This doesn't mean Angell would recommend the movie to everyone, though, or even that Warhol intended it to be seen like an ordinary film. ``He always said he wanted to make films that people could look at, and go away for a meal or a conversation, and then come back, and the film would still be there,'' the curator notes. ``He wanted a film that would exist like a painting. And he was obsessed with the idea that a film could last forever.... I suspect this is a religious idea he had. He went to church almost every day, and he talked about making a life of Christ that would last 31 days, and a 30-day film of the Bible, with each page projected on the screen long enough to be read.'' Many more Warhol movies have yet to be released for exhibition; he produced almost 300 hours of film - only 39 hours have been officially conserved so far - as well as a vast amount of video work, much intended for commercial broadcast.
This body of work should be approached with caution by most moviegoers, since Warhol often documented sexual material (both verbal and visual) with unusual directness. Angell cites the documentary aspect of the films as one reason why they are worthy of being preserved and seen, but she also acknowledges their continuing power to provoke and even anger their audiences.
``I think it's interesting how countercultural these films still seem,'' she says. ``I just showed a bunch of them in Australia, and some of the response was really strong. The films are as effectively radical now as they ever were in the '60s.''
* ``The Films of Andy Warhol: Part II'' runs March 30 to April 24 at the Whitney.