Has any twentieth century artist opened so many eyes as Andy Warhol? He freed America from the tyranny of consumerist brainwash. In 1969, after walking through an exhibit of his work in Vancouver, I no longer thought Campbell’s synonymous with soup, nor Brillo synonymous with scrub pads. As Monet and Seurat had opened the eyes of France to the umbrellas under which she stood, Warhol reflected America thorough key images such as Electric Chair, Car Crash, and a cover of the National Enquirer announcing the divorce of Elizabeth Taylor from Eddie Fisher, an event that closed the Kennedy era as surely as Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.
Two decades later, at a posthumous exhibit in Manhattan, I felt like I was walking through time, revisiting crucial moments of the American history through which I had lived. Marilyn, Elvis, Reagan, and Mao took their places alongside the inspirational yet oppressive scene of “The Last Supper.” now re-imagined as a concrete part of the modern world. In the years since Warhol’s death, no new artist has come forth to open America’s eyes to what we are today. We still see with eyes of the past, as evidenced by the cheap plagiarisms of Warhol’s celebrity silkscreens that helped sell the Obama presidency.
When watching a Warhol film, everything outside of that film disappears, including time. They are sometimes loud, raucous and stimulating, and other times so stripped of content that the viewer looks through the image into the medium itself. So little happens in his eight hour “Empire” that a piece of dust caught in the projector might be as disrupting as the appearance of a swarm of bees at a girl scout picnic. “Kiss,” on the other hand, is rapturously sensual, the simultaneous experience of action and reverie.
What are we looking at when we see “Chelsea Girls?” In a word, humanity. These twelve half-hour reels, projected two at a time, one with sound and the other silent, side by side, take us into the rooms of the Chelsea hotel where its residents take and sell drugs, give and take sex, pose and preen, argue and seduce, sing and rant, talk on the phone, and cry alone.
The first half is mostly shot in black and white. Nico is in the kitchen trimming her bangs while a man and a baby skirt the edges of the screen, coming in and out of the frame with the randomness of boredom. On the other screen, Pope Ondine scrapes mock confessions out of Ingrid Superstar. They are two people plundering each other for the glitter of lies and memory waste. The film runs out, replaced on one side by the horrible Brigid Polk with her junkie needle and telephone, and on the other by boys in bed, a party with a rotating guest list that never ends and never goes anywhere.
The second hour finds Warhol cutting a film in half, doubling the events of a single room by repeating the same image through different compositions, finding two faces on the same person, and joining two similar images shot at different times into one split rectangle. Some of the results are exquisite, but the content is all roaring cruelty as Hannah Hanoi lashes out at her mostly female coterie in the manner of “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS,”
As the film continues, so much of what we want to see is out of the frame that our gaze becomes more intent. We glimpse a figure at the edge of the screen and want to know the person. We wait for their re-appearance, craving an encounter. We look at the silent screen and want to hear what is being said, even as we become disinterested in the prattle coming from the side of the screen with the sound. It is a carnival tease, these rooms full of people who we cannot get close to in a scene dominated by tiresome rants or an exhibitionist eating a piece of fruit.
The final hour is in full color, with the cast of the film taking a premature curtain call in gelatinous baths of purple and yellow, while a red-tinged Eric tells the pathetic story of a boy who loves too much and too perversely in a world that ridicules and despises him. The colors are reminiscent of Kenneth Anger, but Warhol’s frail humanity stands in mortal contrast to the strength of Anger’s demonic figures. Finally, we have Nico, alone in a room where the color is as active as the light shows of the exploding plastic inevitable, crying. Next to her, but as far away as love, is Ondine, in black and white with half of his face in shadow, a human being making one last attempt to communicate with the world. But the music gets louder and his voice becomes softer and eventually it all fades to black.