“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.”—Andy Warhol
American pop artist Andy Warhol was one of the biggest names of the 20th-century art industry. He was a leading pop icon himself who deeply influenced the advertising and celebrity culture of the 1960s. Although he is primarily known as the man behind the artistic movement called Pop Art, Warhol ventured into cinema as well. Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol shot close to 500 short films.
Born Andrew Warhola in Pennsylvania, he studied commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He started off his career by designing advertisements for women’s shoes, his first commission had been to draw shoes for Glamour magazine in the late 1940s.
After becoming (in)famous for his pop-art depiction of ordinary objects such as Campbell’s Soup cans and silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, Warhol took a break from painting and started making experimental films in the ’60s.
On his 92nd birth anniversary, we take a look at some of the controversial and highly unusual films that Andy Warhol devoted his artistic energies to, films that changed how we look at cinema itself.
Top 10 Andy Warhol Films:
10. Lonesome Cowboys (1968)
Warhol collaborated with famous filmmaker Paul Morrissey for this film which featured five renegade gay cowboys and their (mis)adventures in a small western town. Highly erotic in nature, Warhol takes apart the normative mythology of Westerns and imparts his own political and aesthetic vision to it.
The film is nonchalant and irreverent, with little to no regard for narrative structures and cinematic norms. Warhol’s highly experimental feature film introduced new stylistic initiatives that would be explored further by directors like John Waters.
9. Empire (1964)
The apotheosis of Warhol’s continuous experiments with time through the cinematic medium, this eight-hour-long film features nothing but a static shot of the Empire State Building, with little to no developments, filmed from early evening until nearly 3am on 24-25 July 1964 from an office of the Rockefeller Foundation, on the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building, 51st Street and 6th Avenue, New York.
Maybe it is the ultimate subversive act, frustrating the viewer and suspending him in a state of limbo. Empire classifies as one of Warhol’s “anti-films”, films that were supposed to challenge the conventions of cinema.
8. Blow Job (1964)
Blow Job is an experimental take on the sexual act that manages to convert the profane to the profound and then deconstructs itself to reveal nothing at all. For the entirety of the 36 minutes of screen time, a fixed camera focuses on DeVeren Bookwalter’s face who appears to be on the receiving end of the act in the title.
His expression keeps changing, revealing ecstasy as well as boredom, engagement as well as detachment. Warhol famously said that the act was performed by “five beautiful boys”, something which adds another dimension to the short film. Blow Job challenged the societally constructed idea of sexuality by introducing Queer sensibilities to that very limited framework.
7. Vinyl (1965)
This was a short adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, which came six years before Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Vinyl is more conventional than his other works because it is a scripted film, thanks to a collaboration with playwright Ronald Tavel. However, it is still pretty experimental and blurs the lines between fake violence and real.
Warhol’s aesthetic vision works very well with Burgess’ ideological exposition as the film launches an apathetic investigation of the dichotomy of torture. It certainly makes for an interesting addition to the vast discourse that revolves around A Clockwork Orange.
6. Kiss (1963)
The 16mm black-and-white film is a collection of shorter works which features couples kissing, depicting heteronormative as well as homosexual couples. It challenged the sensibilities of the audience of that time by asserting that same-sex couples were equal.
Kiss is an important part of the gay pride narrative because it is a product of the political as well as the aesthetic vision of one of the most influential artists of all time, Andy Warhol. It featured Naomi Levine, Gerard Malanga, Rufus Collins, Johnny Dodd and Ed Sanders.
5. Poor Little Rich Girl (1965)
Edie Sedgwick, one of Warhol’s most frequent collaborators, stars in this avant-garde impressionistic portrait/documentary.
We see her smoking, dressing up, talking on the phone, makes coffee and exercising in bed. The first half is deliberately out of focus, another experiment that Warhol employs to dissect the gaze of the camera. In the second half, Edie does her best to avoid the camera and neglects the voices that try to direct her and tell her what to do.
She refuses to become the object of the camera.
4. The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound (1966)
In this 67-minute film, Warhol recorded a practice session of the legendary band at his Factory in January 1966. During this time, Warhol took a break from his paintings and expanded his interests. He became the manager and producer of The Velvet Underground. Warhol’s self-reflexive filming, the mellow tunes and the cops arriving work together in a discordant but artistic way.
Warhol grew disillusioned with the art world. He explained why he decided to work with The Velvet Underground, “I hate objects, and I hate to go to museums and see pictures of the world, because they look so important and they don’t really mean anything.”
3. Beauty #2 (1965)
Beauty #2 is the better-known film of his two-part “Beauty” series. The 1965 film stars Edie Sedgwick, Gino Piserchio and Chuck Wein. While Sedgwick and Piserchio indulge in flirting and romantic gestures on a bed, Wein continuously disrupts the moment by asking Sedgwick questions that are a source of frustration for her. Like Warhol often loved to do, Beauty #2 became avant-garde by teasing the pornographic realm but never really setting foot in it.
Filmmaker Pedro Costa expressed his enthusiasm for Warhol’s experimental work, “In a film I absolutely love, Beauty #2, you hear the voice of a guy directing Edie Sedgwick, so there is direction and there is some mise-en-scene and everything goes towards a certain point in the film, a very serious moment. And those moments can be very frightening, exciting, or exhilarating.”
2. Outer and Inner Space (1965)
A 16mm film of Edie Sedgwick watching a pre-recorded tape of herself on a television monitor, Outer and Inner Space is one of Warhol’s most interesting experiments with film. This was the first time he used video, multiplying and layering images to further erase the distinction between the signifier and the signified.
Two reels, side-by-side, play simultaneously while Edie interviews herself. Outer and Inner Space is artistic as well as an intellectual exercise that makes us question the very nature of cinema. How long until the suspension of disbelief is shattered?
In an interview, Warhol explained what he liked about the film, “Someone put his arm in front of the screen to change channels while we were taping and the effect was very dimensional. We found you can position someone in front of a TV set and have it going while you’re recording. If you have close-ups in the TV screen, you can cut back and forth and get great effects.”
1. The Chelsea Girls (1966)
The most famous film that Warhol ever made, the 1966 effort chronicles the goings-on at the famous Chelsea Hotel: a faux pope taking confessions, a drunken mother insulting her son and his mute girlfriend, four women fighting in a bedroom and other hedonistic extravagances mixed with the rotting stench of the corpse of morality. The four-hour film was presented in a split screen with two separate reels projected side-by-side. However, the sound is audible from only one, another interesting take on voyeurism. It featured a handful of Warhol’s famous collaborators, including Nico, Brigid Berlin, Ondine and Mario Montez.
Famous American filmmaker Gus Van Sant remembers, “In his art and in his films, Andy loved the line between what was phony and what was real. At a screening of The Chelsea Girls, I once heard someone behind me ask, ‘Is this a real movie?’
“This was a distinction sometimes used to suggest the difference between a Hollywood movie and a porno film or some other type of experimental cinema. To Andy, the movie was a movie, and that’s all that mattered. It was more real than any real movie.”