From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sunday Magazine | May 8, 1994



In the 1974 film "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein," not to be confused with even the most unfaithful version of Mary Shelley's novel, there's some weird philosophy going on about sexual pleasure, the nature of death and certain internal organs. And you get to witness it all in 3-D, which becomes a particular displeasure after a man's gall bladder gets ripped from his body by the film's ultra-mad scientist. To paraphrase, film need not be pretty.

From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, Warhol extended his pop-cult iconoclasm into films, many of which were as perverse and playful as his art. Growing bored with his work as an artist, and fascinated by the moving image and its promise of instant celebrity, he bought a 16mm camera in the summer of 1963 and began to make his own movies. PG

His intent was clear: to put things on film that would force people to think about normalcy, good taste and the very definition of art.

In fact, some of these films are so provocative, that they're likely to shock people who think of Warhol in terms of soup cans and images of Elvis or Marilyn.

Films like "The Chelsea Girls" and "****" were the quintessence of what has come to be called "underground cinema." It's a movement that began to gestate with the birth of the movies -- Salvadore Dali and Luis Bunuel made their shocking short film, "Un Chien Andalou," in 1928 -- and finally came of age in the '50s and '60s with films by Warhol, Kenneth Anger, John Waters and even, some might say, George Romero.

Underground filmmakers, who worked way outside the mainstream of film production, certainly meant to question and criticize society's rigid middle- class notions. There was no particularly common theme -- what unified them was their iconoclasm (from two hours of people standing around naked discussing their lives to a 300-pound drag queen playing a typical American housewife). At the same time, their films usually played at midnight in bohemian cinemateques before small crowds of people who were probably already converted to their way of seeing the world. Like so much fringe art, the films played mostly to the already converted.

The turning point for this mini-revolution may have come in the fall of 1963, when Warhol presented his first film, "Kiss." Within a year, 17-year- old John Waters exhibited his seminal film, "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket," in a Baltimore coffee house. The work of these two would eventually bring underground cinema to the attention of a wider public. The national media took notice of Warhol's "The Chelsea Girls," his fame was skyrocketing, and Waters made the crossover to m ore Hollywood-style films.

The titles that followed tell much of the Warhol story: "Bad," "Trash," ''Harlot," Flesh," "My Hustler," "Nude Restaurant," "Blue Movie," ''Lonesome Cowboys" -- all typical topics from the Warhol stable of more than 60 films.

By 1968, Warhol had stopped "directing" the films himself, farming them out to proteges like Jed Johnson, who directed "Bad," and Paul Morrissey, who directed "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." These were all people who found their way to the Factory and who wanted desperately to join Warhol in becoming a part of America's counter-cultural history.

But the films still had the Warhol brand on them -- and often his name in the title. Except for Morrissey's work, which had larger budgets, somewhat coherent stories and a few special effects, Warhol's documentary-like films revolved around people so far out on the fringe that you spent most of the time waiting for them to fall off the edge. His films often moved more slowly than his art, and they depended on the improvisational skills of his ''actors," many of whom (like Viva, Ultra Violet and Candy Darling) were hangers-on and wanna-bes who would become Warhol "stars" for their proper 15 minutes.

Some of them, like the doomed former debutante Edie Sedgwick, even got half an hour. In 1965, Warhol spent $3,000 and bought the rights to Anthony Burgess' futuristic novel "A Clockwork Orange." His film version, which he called "Vinyl," featured the debut of the scene-stealing Sedgwick. Before dying of an accidental barbiturate overdose in 1971, she would go on to star in many other Warhol films, most notably "Poor Little Rich Girl," in which she ostensibly played herself.

In others of his films, the word plot took on a new meaning -- or no meaning.

For his now-infamous "Empire" -- the film everybody has heard of but nobody has the courage (or desire) to actually watch -- Warhol parked his camera on the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building and filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours. For "Eat," he filmed 45 minutes of a man consuming a mushroom. In "Haircut," one man gets a trim while another smokes marijuana and slowly disrobes. And in one of his most notorious films, which he premiered in 1964 without any advance publicity, Warhol offers a 33-minute close-up of a man's face while someone off-camera performs oral sex on him.

On Dec. 15 and 16, 1967, Warhol presented a unique underground film ''event." He called it "****," and it featured a compilation of outtakes from the earlier two years of film work at the Factory. For 24 hours, two projectors ran simultaneously and non-stop, projecting their images onto the same screen. The event was never restaged.

Yet many of Warhol's films did more than simply test a viewer's patience. ''My Hustler" is an absorbing semi-improvisational drama about ''scopophelia" (the love of looking) and seduction. It revolves around a middle-aged homosexual, the blond hustler he brings with him to Fire Island, and a few friends who all want to seduce the lad. And if you can stay with ''Nude Restaurant" for a while, the sight of people lolling about in various stages of undress begins to seem commonplace. Could Warhol have intended his film to nudity so effectively?

Despite the preponderance of flesh in Warhol's films, they actually contain very little lovemaking (or whatever you choose to call it). Sometimes it's because the people are too drunk or too stoned to do anything. But sometimes it seems like they're more absorbed by themselves than by the not-always-heavenly bodies on display.

Certainly his most important film was "The Chelsea Girls," which may be the best document of the Warhol entourage in existence. During its 3 1/2 hours, members of the Factory each get a full reel (20 minutes) to do whatever he or she wants to do in front of the camera. Warhol showed the reels two at a time in random order, one silent and one with sound. The film got an avalanche of legitimate press, including a laudatory piece in Newsweek and a scolding from The New York Times. Within months of its underground debut in 1966, it moved to a first-run theater.

In time, the new Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh intends to own everything its namesake ever committed to film. New York's Whitney Museum, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, is currently preserving all those films. That includes 500 reels of screen tests, 2,300 videos and more than 60 completed films. The Whitney will provide exhibition prints of the preserved films for the local museum.

For its opening in May, the museum will own nearly two dozen Warhol films, including "The Chelsea Girls," "My Hustler," "Trash," "Heat" and ''Nude Restaurant." Two weekly programs of films will be offered in the building's theater, and each will be shown five times, Prebor said. The ''still" films, such as "Empire" and "Sleep," will be shown continuously alongside related paintings.

Whether Warhol's films hold a significant place in film history is hardly worth arguing. The "midnight movies" of Warhol and others are so specialized and marginalized that it's virtually impossible to talk about them in the way we talk about more conventional cinema movements, like German Expressionism, Italian Neo-Realism or the French New Wave.

But Warhol's films, by the mere fact of their existence, beg a series of questions that seem to be at the center of all his work. By photographing a man asleep for eight hours and calling it a movie, Warhol examines the very nature of art, media, performance and reality. He asks us: What is an artist? What is art? How do we know it when we see it? Why does it matter? What is it worth?

These questions are usually more interesting to discuss after seeing a Warhol film than the film itself. So the availability of Warhol's prolific cinematic output will certainly advance the city's cultural life, if not by leaps and bounds, then at least by a hop, a skip and a jump.