Andy Warhol Film Technique Structure

Apparent Return as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 3.320 KB)


The Apparent Return of Representation. Ambivalence structures in Warhol’s early work

in: Andy Warhol. Paintings 1960-1986, ed. by Martin Schwander, exhibition catalogue Kunstmuseum Luzern 1995, Stuttgart 1995, S. 43-53 and 76-78.

Chapter II

„What Warhol was trying to move toward in the films was a stillness.“ (Ronald Tavel)

The most striking feature of the films is their peculiar quality of working against their own medium. Warhol develops a syntax that deliberately evades the elements that usually make the film distinct from other visual media (e.g. its functional and dramatic possibilities). In the first place this is because subjects are chosen that are able to manage with a minimum of plot: a sleeping man (John Giorno in Sleep) (fig. l), a man eating (Robert Indiana in Eat) (fig. 2) or a man smoking (Henry Geldzahler in the film of the same name), or even a building, which naturally remains completely motionless, while just the seasons change (the Empire State Building in Empire) (fig. 3). The films do represent a happening in time and are thus fundamentally narrative, but they eschew anything that can be considered filmic narration, i.e. organic development of a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is obvious even after a few minutes what events or non-events are to be expected, although the films have substantial running times (Henry Geldzahler 100 minutes, Sleep six hours, Empire eight hours). The film action cannot be distinguished from elemental everyday actions and situations. Warhol says that his best actor is the one who blinked only three times in ten minutes. When asked if he was confusing blinking with acting he answered yes. This indifference-process is related to that of minimally structured Happenings or Events. They may contain instructions like: „One foot forward. Transfer weight to this foot. Repeat as often as desired“or „Opening a closed window. Closing an open window“ where Henry Geldzahler, curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is given the simple instruction to sit in front of the camera and smoke a cigar.

If the Happening is concerned with the tension between the difference and indifference of art and life, Warhol does not evoke this tension only in the filmed event (is Henry Geldzahler’s smoking an everyday incident and thus life, or is it acting and therefore art), but also in the result, the film. Here the corresponding question arises of whether the latter is art or non-art (e.g. a form of documentary film). Despite this important distinction, which results from the live nature of the Happenings and the representation character of Warhol’s films, both are related in that they both aim at the dialectic of changing from one to the other (difference) and simultaneity of both (indifference). In both cases it is also the viewer who has to choose between the two ways of taking the film, as the work does not make a preliminary decision.

The elemental everyday quality and poverty of action in the filmed events finds its counterpart in the nature of the film. The first crucial element here is that the camera confronts what is filmed directly. Usually it remains completely motionless during filming. If it is moved, however, then it is exclusively on its own axis. The same is true of the camera angle, which is only rarely somewhat altered by a zoom. Empire, for example, has precisely the same camera setting for the whole of its eight hours. When the film is projected there is a direct correspondence between the camera’s fixed view of the object and the viewer of the film’s perspective, which remains the same – a correspondence that does not occur in a traditional film, when the viewer is first standing in a bedroom and then with the protagonists in a car while at the same time remaining motionless in his seat.

Warhol also chooses not to use editing and montage, which permit the condensation of time and the establishment of a narrative structure – indeed the very things in which film semiologists see the actual language-character of the medium. The reels of which the film consists are shot in one go and also shown as a whole. In this way they follow the principle of synchrony, i.e. the time they represent corresponds both to the time needed to shoot the film and the time needed to watch it.

And so Warhol calculates the greatest possible closeness of art and reality not only in the content of the film, but at the same time in his decisions about shooting and projecting. An artistic transformation of reality scarcely takes place. The semantics and syntax of the film correspond with that of the documentary „cinéma direct“, which aims to make us forget the medium in favour of what is represented. According to Warhol’s statements his films are then no better and no worse than what they show. It is possible to treat what is projected like something that is physically present, e.g. to go away and come back again without having missed more film time than precisely the time of your own absence. Warhol perceives his films as a kind of permanent background, and this is how they are shown in the Factory. The films are projected in part of the space along with everything else that is going on, without demanding more than absent-minded attention: „You could do more things with my movies than any other kinds of movies: you could eat and drink and smoke and cough and look away and they’d still be there.“ People do essentially the same thing on the screen and in front of the screen – eating, drinking, smoking etc. The filmed people are different from the real people only through the fact of being there as a filmed double. But a description of this kind considers only one pole of the films. The other one is a blatant anti-illusionism that makes the viewer clearly aware of the difference between cinema and reality. Thus the films, to start with the most striking feature, are of a quality that is wretched when measured by normal standards. This applies to picture and sound, which is usually incomprehensible (where the films are not silent anyway, which in the epoch of the sound film is in itself a considerable alienation). The medium thrusts itself in front what is seen like a clouding filter. Additionally the leaders are not cut off at the beginning and end of the individual reels. This means that the film is interrupted at regular intervals and reduced for a few moments to what it materially is: a mere strip of celluloid. And finally camera panning and zooming are used so arbitrarily and erratically that they do not serve to make the film’s events any clearer, but to a certain extent in a formalistic reorientation to themselves the zoom simply expresses itself as a zoom and the pan as a pan.

More subtle and less immediately obvious devices are used to work against filmic illusion. The crucial feature for the aesthetic of the silent films (which include Sleep, Eat, Henry Geldzahler and Empire) is that although they were filmed at a speed of 24 frames per second they are projected at 16 frames per second. This „ritardando“ by a third, although merely the result of an adjustment to the projector, creates an enormous effect. The slowing down is too gentle to be perceived as a technical manipulation, for which reason the expression „slow motion“, which is most usually used in film literature, is inappropriate in this case. Instead the viewer, who because of the filmic structure is convinced that he is present at a real-time incident, ascribes the measured quality of the event to the person or object being filmed, which seems to exist in a sphere of extended being. A kind of „magic realism“ with an almost hypnotic effect develops. Warhol’s frequent interventions into chronology are aimed in the same direction. In Eat, for example, Robert Indiana does nothing but eat a single mushroom for 45 minutes. But this mushroom refuses to get any smaller, and constantly renews itself. Warhol ran the ten reels of which the film consists on a random principle. And Sleep lasts for six hours only because the individual reels are shown several times in a different sequence. This explodes even these minimal dramatic structures. The relationship of part and whole is cancelled, and the films become fundamentally open to endless lengthening. Warhol emphasized this by the way in which he provided the silent films with sound on certain occasions. At the première of Sleep he put two transistor radios on the stage, tuned them to different stations and let them play continuous rock music. He found a different variant for the presentation of his films at the 1964 New York Film Festival. He asked composer La Monte Young to write a soundtrack that could be used equally well for all the four films. Like the composer’s other work it consisted of a single endless electronically generated note.

Chelsea Girls, Warhol’s most complex film, has anti-illusionism almost built into its programme. The film lasts for over three hours, and consists of twelve 30-minute reels which, following Warhol’s usual procedure were shot at one go and had nothing else done to them. They contain twelve scenes, all set in the „Chelsea“ artists‘ hotel in New York, but beyond this do not form a coherent dramatic whole. Chelsea Girls is designed for double projection, i.e. two spools are screened simultaneously alongside each other. The two screenings, which compete from the outset because they are concurrent, are now brought into conflict with each other by means of various other devices. Firstly the reels are staggered in terms of time. One begins when the other has already been showing for five minutes, and ends when the next scene is already showing alongside. Secondly, sound is available from only one reel at a time. As each reel starts with its sound, the sound changes side each time a new reel starts and turns the other one, whose sound had been heard so far, into a silent film. And finally four reels were shot in colour and eight in black and white. The projection sequence is fixed in such a way that all the possible combinations are produced: two black and white, two colour, and one colour and one black and white.

Something that has already been observed in terms of panning and zooming and the provision of „sound“ for the silent films is repeated on a more complex plane. Warhol deconstructs the medium and makes the viewer aware of its components (the mechanics, the camera, the reels, the colour, the sound etc.) one at a time. This recombination of the elements runs counter to the synthesis to an organic whole that first enables a conventional film to achieve dramatic fiction. Warhol replaces this synthesis by putting independent units together; they are placed alongside and behind each other in a serial, anti-compositional and virtually unlimited sequence. This reveals the concrete structure of the way in which both the individual unit and the whole sequence came into being.

Thus the syntax of the film reveals qualities of the kind familiar from Minimal Art, despite all material differences. For example, Donald Judd’s series of identical boxes show the same tension between development and repetition, bearing the stamp of a completed whole and virtually infinite expandability that can also be seen in the series of reels in Warhol’s films, always the same length and often with practically the same content (fig. 4). The fact that such a relationship is possible at all between a medium that is as such representative, narrative and composing and a cultural language the attempts to exclude representation, narration and composition from its own works is significant. It points to the kind of ambivalence that is a characteristic of the films. The indifference with which Warhol directs his camera at people and objects („… it’s so easy to make movies, you just shoot and every picture really comes out right“), means that the viewer’s perception swings ceaselessly between a structurally indifferent registration of the object represented and an object-indifferent registration of the structure. The films are judged in a correspondingly conflicting way. They may seem to one person to be a reduction of the medium to a concrete, self-referential surface, but Jonas Mekas, who was director of the New York „Film-Makers Cooperative“ in the 60s, which premiered most of the films, placed them in the tradition of documentary, „cinéma verite“, which aimed at objective representation of the object. But if the films „document“ something, then it is neither the reality nor the concrete qualities of the medium. It is the process of filmic representation itself that they take as their subject, in that their mimetic and concrete-self-referential structure compels constant redetermination of the relationship between the two. „All my films are artificial, but then everything is sort of artificial, I don’t know where artificial stops and real starts.“ (Andy Warhol).

Chapter I
Punkt Chapter II
Pfeil Chapter III
Apparent Return as print version (PDF with illus. and fn. 3.320 KB)

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