My (Extremely) Brief Encounter With Andy Warhol

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A few weeks ago, I read the New York Times obituary of Callie Angell, the former adjunct curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum, who had been had been researching and cataloguing Warhol’s films since 1991. I had no idea that this ambitious project was being undertaken, and I wasn’t sure what I thought about it.

It flashed me back to my college days at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, when I was a huge fan of Warhol’s films, despite the fact that I had never seen a single one. Most, if not all of the films had been withdrawn from circulation, or very rarely shown, certainly not in Madison. That didn’t stop me. I read everything I could about them, and I was totally fascinated.

One night in the late 70s in New York, I spotted Warhol at a party. I was dying to ask him about his films, but I couldn’t work up the nerve, so I just stood there watching him make his way down an appetizer table. He had occupied so much of my thoughts that it was weird for him to just be there, a plastic cup of wine in one hand and an hors d’oeuvres plate in the other. I realized it was now or never. He was as easy prey as he was ever going to be, so I pounced.

“Excuse me, Mr. Warhol, may I ask you a question?”

Warhol looked at me with his trademark languid affectlessness—a pose or really him?— the ultimate in coolness. He didn’t say anything.

“I’ve read all about your films, but I can’t see them.”

“Oh…” he said.

“Are they in distribution somewhere? Do you have any plans to bring them out?

“Not really.”

“You really should. A lot of people want to see them and they can’t.”

“Isn’t it better that way?”

“What do you mean? It’s not better at all--“

But he was gone, leaving me to wonder about what he meant by “Isn’t it better that way?” The hell it was! He was a very important artist and it wasn’t acceptable for him to keep his work all to himself.

I wanted to see “Sleep,” a single shot of a guy sleeping. I knew exactly how long, too. Five hours and twenty minutes. What a concept. I was of the age where my God was Godard. The thing that fueled so many late night discussions at the Plaza Tavern was “What can the Cinema be?” Godard told me that the Cinema could be anything. No limits. That’s why reading about this movie was so heady for me. I knew that most people would find it laughable and dismiss it, but that happens regularly with the most important things in art. But I wasn’t going to be satisfied with reading about “Sleep,” I wanted to see it for myself. What would it look like? Would it be funny? Would it be trance-like? Would it be boring? Would it put me to sleep too? I wanted to know.

“Isn’t it better that way?” Hell no. Drop that canapé and release your movies.

Empire I didn’t think I could get through all of “Empire,” though--eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building is a bit much, even for me. But it was known as a movie designed to be impossible to watch. I wouldn’t turn up for that screening, but I still wanted it shown. Scholars have written about it and they should be able to study it because it has such historical importance.

“Isn’t it better that way?”

“Blow Job” was only a half hour long, and the concept was really interesting. You don’t see the blowjobber, you only saw the blowjobee. You didn’t know if it was a man or woman administering the BeeJay, or even if it was happening at all. I believed that Warhol would insist on the film being real. Would the guy on the screen be self-conscious? Would you be able to read what was going on? “Blow Job” is a silent film, which might give it a feeling of gravity. Would it be like a low-rent Dreyer movie or would it be banal? Warhol was refusing to let me see a movie where I wouldn’t see anything.

His intransigence was forcing me play out all these crazy scenarios in my mind, without knowing anything about these movies except their concepts.

“Isn’t it better that way?”