Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Film Review #56: Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film *** (2006) *** Director: Ric Burns *** Cast: Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Edie Sedgwick *** This week’s national prime-time PBS American Masters broadcast of Ric Burns’ four-hour Andy Warhol doc follows the film’s exclusive two-week theatrical engagement earlier this month at Film Forum in New York City. As hometown try-outs go – both Burns and his production company, Steeplechase Films, make Manhattan their home – that was an undiluted triumph. Other movies on might get a 100% rating, but I don’t remember them. *** The Film Forum gig is part of a trend toward more varied distribution formats – either stand-alone theatrical releases or limited theater engagements combined with televised broadcast – that is one outcome of the recent surge in popularity and production of documentary films. Similarly, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Stanley Nelson has reliably been stocking PBS’ American Experience series with a feature length doc every year or so. Now, after enthusiastic festival receptions since last spring, Jonestown, his film about the 1978 Peoples Temple incident, opens October 20th at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema and then in a handful of other cities before its national PBS broadcast next year. *** Andy Warhol also extends Ric Burns’ own recent turn toward using the lives of artists to discuss American life. We know Burns for broad-canvas projects designed for multiple evening viewing on PBS – docs on New York City, the massive Civil War series with his brother Ken, and the six-part The Way West. After tightening his focus with the Donner Party film, Burns turned for subjects to photographer Ansel Adams and playwright Eugene O’Neill. Now Warhol, an artist Burns says he himself actually knew little about before this project. *** Andy Warhol is so appealing partially because Burns shares with the rest of us that sense of suddenly noticing what’s been in our midst. The film opens with a long montage of talking heads who appear again throughout to form a commentary that complements narration by composer-performance artist Laurie Anderson - I for one am itching to ask her where narrating Andy Warhol's life fits in her body of work! Among these commentators, art critic David Hickey says that Warhol, founder of the 1960’s Pop Art movement, was “so American that he was virtually invisible to us.” One of the great pleasures of this film are the successive moments of illumination about Warhol’s life and work, not only the unknown nuggets – even some vast tracts – but the focus Burns brings to what had previously subsided to background buzz by its very familiarity. *** Also early on, writer Stephen Kock comments that Warhol’s “great gift was immediacy. This is it. This is it. Nothing more. Right now.” Right from the start, Burns addresses the dilemma of making a narrative film about an artist who was short on narrative, even in his own extensive filmmaking projects. Burns includes a great deal of archival footage, some of it speeded up, of Warhol in the midst of that present, doing his work. And Burns lets Kock goes on to put Warhol in the Romantic tradition, adding that “we are always on the edge of death, because we are always losing the moment.” *** Over four hours, while juggling an abundance of topics, Burns returns to the themes of Warhol’s invisibility and how his art expressed and addressed immediacy repeatedly and in many ways. He manages not to dwell on the sensational in Warhol’s career – a minefield in itself, given the sometimes clashing mix of Warhol’s personal infatuation with celebrity and his work’s comments upon it. Instead, Burns picks and enlarges key components. Here are just four of my favorite parts. *** Burns’ treatment of Warhol’s early years in a middle-European immigrant slum in Pittsburgh, his mother’s life-long encouragement of his art, and how he got from there to art lessons at Carnegie Tech to 1950’s Madison Avenue together comprise a model of documentary’s multipurpose exposition and editing. We see what art rescued Warhol from as well as how it fueled both his drive for celebrity and his later art. The comparison between the Eastern Orthodox church icons of Warhol’s boyhood and his later Marilyn Monroe portraits is one of the many small lightening bolts in this film. *** Although Warhol’s real hey-day was the 60’s and 70’s, Burns spends considerable time on the 50’s. This rescues a whole body of Warhol’s work that is largely unknown nowadays – especially(since he later insisted he couldn’t draw) his exceedingly fine and prolific draughtsmanship, not just the blotted-line technique that advertising clients loved, but for example the stunning nude studies he did. Burns’ decision to spend some time in the 50’s also rescues what it meant in practice to move from commercial to fine art. When we say Warhol erased the line between them, we usually think about subject matter: soup cans and multiple silk-screened, flamboyantly colored portraits based on photos. But it meant how art was carried on too. Not just that, as an employee of Bonwit Teller, Warhol was able to take advantage of the department store’s annual perk to staff to exhibit their “off-hours” art work in the store’s display windows. But that including crowds of people in your studio was a part of how you did the art itself, not something incidental indicating that you'd party later. *** Movie people can’t help but glory in the sections about Warhol’s extensive film experiments, for the chance to see rare clips from them and watch their production, and for the discussions of what Warhol was doing and the inspiration that his curiosity and freshness provides for how any of us approach cinema. You can dip in anywhere here. Warhol’s early movies were silent and often addressed time, such as the tantalizing tension created in his early Sleep. Here, the camera rests on Warhol’s sometime-lover John Giorno’s sleeping face in real time – the voice-over in Burns' doc points out that painting doesn’t offer real time, even as literal time disappears for the sleeper himself. You might know about Warhol’s later split-screen 6 1/2-hour long film Chelsea Girls, but Burns bothering to include the earlier ones pays off. *** Along with Warhol’s movies came his “superstars.” Burns wisely chooses to highlight one from this period, which again has multiple uses. The Velvet Underground and Nico are there, and Ondine and Candy Darling and the rest, but the young troubled blue-blood Edie Sedgwick embodies Warhol’s indie film period. Her demise from drugs, while Warhol looked on and largely did nothing, illustrates a side that Burns manages to include as part of the man and as something other artists, such as Bob Dylan, had positions about. *** Burns’ mastery at juggling such an enormous career is surely a result of past work on grand scales. But I am struck at something else that emerges here. At one point when covering the 1964-68 period of the Factory, Warhol’s vast, silver-painted East 47th Street studio, Burns quotes Warhol on the motley crew of hangers-on he invited in, from drag queens to Harvard flower-children to other artists and intellectuals, “I don’t feel all these people are hanging around me. I’m more hanging around them.” *** Crucially, the talking heads that Burns includes are as integral to a film about Warhol’s art as they were to the art itself. Warhol’s rise was rapid – both as a commercial artist and as a “serious” artist. This occurred in the midst of people who could articulate what he was doing, at a moment when critical voices mattered much more than today. In some ways we’re in a similar, sympathetic period now – our version is an increasing attention on “public art” projects that put art back in everyday life and seek to erase aesthetic distance. Paradoxically Warhol’s influence may also be part of today’s bad press and general disregard of critics. Already an incredibly rich window on Warhol’s life, work and times, Burns’ film opens another on our own. I can hardly wait for his next project. ***** Written for & published there on 9/21/06.