Monday, December 20, 2010

You & Me & Andy Warhol & The Velvet Underground & Nico & Vinyl & Every-Damn-Body Else We Know

Ah, the wonders of foreign exports. I love to be an importer-exporter, as Art Vandelay might put it. And in this case I decided to shell out a few extra clams to finally see my first Andy Warhol directed movies - for the most part you can only see his directed underground films at museums, these ones even have the Museum of Modern Art as title cards before the movies.  

Did I want to start with the real extremes of this, if nothing else, daring and just don't-give-a-shit arteeste?  Would I be able to sit through an 8-hour shot- only breaking to change the film cans in the camera- of the Empire State building at night?  How about some random dude sleeping for 5 hours?  Warhol went to such extremes almost as ideas more than actual movies.  You first hear about Empire or Sleep, or somewhat less extreme by today's standards Blow-Job (what do you think that's about? actually it's just a shot of the guy receiving's face so go figure), and you go (in full Lewis Black voice) "That's fucking NUTS!"  Why do such a thing?  Well, maybe someone else would?

Maybe the crumbling Hollywood system circa 1964 might get some funny ideas of ways to lure in audiences.  Who needs a sleeping pill when you can come in and pay a dollar to fall asleep watching a fucking double-epic film of a building?  For a lot of his movies you don't even need to see the movies themselves; just hearing about them is probably the point.  Or maybe it's attuned to his ingratiating sense of repitition (see the soup cans or silk screens for that).  As Banksy said, "Warhol took iconic images and kept repeating them until they became meaningless, but at least there was something still iconic about them."  I have to wonder what will happen when Thierry Guetta picks up a camera... oh wait, Life Remote Control. Dog help us all.

But where was I?  Yeah, this DVD.  So, I picked it up for two specific reasons: 1) it was a very good deal to be able to get two movies in one, and each was at least somewhat reasonably short in length for movies, each just a little over one-hour each.  And 2) they contained subject matter that intrigued me, one being a movie showing the newly formed Velvet Underground with Nico performing, and the other a movie called 'Vinyl' that is supposedly a "loose" adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, long before Kubrick's film did its iconic work.

So I sat back, relaxed, and knew I had to keep my eyes to the screen....

I started with The Velvet Underground and Nico.  And boy howdy, it was a trip.  It's the kind of trip you wish you hadn't taken after a while, and it only intermittently delivers some good times.  The first thing you must, must, MUST know if you are a Velvet fan- as I've been becoming over the past couple of years- is that this is the earliest period, their starting point with Nico, the Swedish model-singer-actress-what-have-you and that Warhol's participation was more as a booking agent and producer.  It was "his" band the way that The Sex Pistols were Malcolm McLaren's group, which is to say not really.  Sure he 'produced' the group's first banana-covered album (ho-ho), but the band arguably really hit their stride once they left Warhol, specifically with their final album (albeit without John Cale) titled Loaded.  Jam that shit in your car some time, it's a lot of fun.

When they were with Warhol, however, they were still extremely experimental, and doing long-ass jams in a similar way as the Grateful Dead would do later: so long as jams that you would need Raoul Duke's whole carload of psychedelics to get by.  And Warhol's "Film" (must use quotes here for justification) is not them performing some of their more well-known songs from the debut LP like 'Heroin' or 'Venus in Furs', or even one of their best songs 'Femme Fatale'.  No no no, this is one of the jams (there is a track I believe on that first LP like that, only that was cut way down due to the constraints of an LP at the time).  And Warhol and his camerman Paul "Flesh for Frankenstein/Dracula/etc" Morrissey, decided to document this auspicious occasion of their jamming out.

And... what the fuck is this?  I really have to wonder what Warhol's intention was here.  As a document of a performance, as a "concert movie" it's all over the place, a total mixed bag of nuts.  The biggest problem is an inconsistency with what to do with the camera.  When Warhol/Morrissey keep the lens focused on a face or a full person or an instrument, hell even that cute little kid that Nico's got there, it's actually kind of interesting.  Kind of.  At least you can see some raw attitude in those moments of momentary stillness on a person or an instrument.  And even at first the experiment of zooming in and out on faces and roaming around works.  Kind of.

But this is an hour-long jam, and the camerawork continues to go through its motions for a full hour.  An hour of a Wayne's World intro-style EXTREME CLOSE-UP can be annoying as all hell after a while.  Such as for an hour.  And this doesn't count the out-of-focus angles as Morrissey tries to hone in on the band members, or sometimes just wanders off (later in the film the Fuzz comes to break up the distorted-rock commotion, but nobody can hear the cops even after the band stops so the documentary aspect is also totally shit).  I have to think that it was a camera test, that maybe Morrissey was still a novice at cinematography and decided to test out his lens and tri-pod and pans and zooms and the lighting (which also goes in and out) on a performance at the "Factory" of the Velvets and Nico just doing their thing.

One of the things Warhol was known for was for trying to make an audience feel bored and empty, which he thought was "good" somehow.  "Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel." (hey, his words, not mine)  This isn't a case like Empire where one looks at the same image non-stop- or doesn't, as case might be- this is for all intents and purposes and document of the band in its time and place.  Who knows, maybe for its time and place it was all so innovative to do such crazy things with a camera (like zoom-in, zoom-out, zoom-IN, zoom-in, focus-in, focus-out).  It's like camera aerobics or something.  For some it might be captivating - or if it's projected on a wall at a party and one only has to glance at it for short bursts while talking with friends.  Maybe that was its reason for being.

But what about the band?  Those are the bastards I wanted to see play.  It doesn't help that the jam, as good as the musicians are at it (save for Nico who doesn't have much to do except to play maracas and at one point try some weird slide crap on a guitar that no one can hear), is so long and repetitive that it, too, loses its meaning in the miasma of the camera style.  I should also note there are no edits at all- hey, who needs a flatbed when it can be all in-camera, man?  To be sure, there are moments where the band picks up and makes it rock a bit, and a lot of this, ironically, comes in the last ten minutes when one of the guitarists steps away (I forget which as Lou Reed is the one given the most screen time, maybe due to proximity or his "cool" detached manner), and a violin player comes in.  I suppose if you love a good, long jam, this is at least musically (when the sound doesn't DIP OUT, argh), it's enjoyable experimental/alternative listening.

But as a movie of any kind of sort outside of a test or an experiment, it's a mess.  I have to wonder of Warhol and Morrissey were just fucking with people with this.  Who could they show it to outside of little underground cliques or the slavish-adoration at the Factory?  Maybe... that was enough for him.  I also wonder if the intention was to bore or to get an actual emotional reaction?  Perhaps the worst thing one could say to Warhol after watching it is that it was 'great' and made one feel something positive.  It's an assault on the senses, and even as a rock and roller it goes too far and becomes dated in its anti-conventional style.  It both bored and annoyed me.  Guess that's a win for the 15-minute dude, eh?

"Bring out the gimp."
"But the gimp's sleeping."
"... well, I guess you're just gonna have to go wake him up now, wont you?" 

Pulp Fiction

Vinyl is significant in it actually does, after the really, really mixed-bag of The Velvet Underground and Nico, show me that Warhol is somewhat serious about his craft as a filmmaker.  It's daring as an experiment actually pays off, for the patient and willing viewer that is.  Where-as Velvet took its camera cues from an epileptic monkey on amyls, Vinyl is more ambitious in its minimalist way.  And as an adaptation of Clockwork Orange it's... only so close as to maybe reference street crime and being "bad" or "good" and signing your life away.  If your looking for droogs, need not enter here you do.

Vinyl is, as Velvet was in all actuality and Sleep and Blow Job and Empire, all in 'one shot'.  Curiously I never really saw the film change its cans, though maybe that was an editing trick (or maybe not, I'd have to see it again to be sure), but it all looks to be a movie 'in-camera' as it were.  It's a kind of deranged classic of framing and composition.  Warhol of course is open for improvisation- he doesn't seem like the kind of guy, on the opposite end of Kubrick ironically enough on this project- to do a lot of "takes".  Just roll and let it happen.  In that sense Warhol had a perverted sense of mixing documentary and fiction, or maybe as with Herzog the lines could blur.  This is no way to compare the two filmmakers, but there you go I just did by accident.

So, the movie.  It's about a, uh, I guess a street hoodlum who see the cops as "good" but doesn't want to be "good" and wants to rail against the fuckers.  The film starts out on a shot of this man's face (played by a not-good-but-interesting actor Gerald Malanga) and pulls out to show the whole scene: a woman (Edie Sedgwick) on the right side, a 'doctor' or some authority figure on the left, and a few figures in the back.  One of these figures, for at least the first half of the movie, is being tortured while standing up.  This makes for a morbidly funny picture as Malanga and Sedgwick dance not once but twice to Martha and the Vandella's fantastic "Nowhere to Run" (this is where Warhol has his best sense of play and fun, something that seems uncharacteristic but must have its moments).  Then it goes on to have a 'story' of Victor (Malanga) being caught, brought in for the "treatment" of the Ludovico sort, though it's never called that here perhaps for copyright reasons, and then Victor proceeds to get tortured.  Oh, and there's a Gimp in there too.  And he's not sleeping.

This is a movie that, if one can get keyed in to it, does entertain.  I was never bored by this, and I have to give credit to Warhol, whether by actual direction or by accident, had a vision for where he wanted to go with the actors and the framing of his 'shot(s)'.  It's all content and some style, as the actors move in and out of the frame and it barely changes once it makes its move down into its wide-angle position on all of the players for the movie.  Another weird note is that Warhol didn't write the dialog that's given to the actors, many of whom are clearly not professionals by any stretch of the imagination.  They even look like they're reading off of the newspapers and stuff they have in their hands, which gives the movie a kind of bizarre theatricality to it.

Vinyl takes a look at what few didn't realize was around at the time, if anyone outside the factory or small underground NYC theaters saw this, which is the culture or mentality of S&M and punishment, maybe for pleasure, maybe not.  I have to wonder if it was all a put-on, and maybe it was.  Warhol must have had a sick-puppy sense of humor, and it comes out here.  Certainly I was laughing through a lot of it- maybe at it, but who knows, it is meant to be camp to an extent- and it succeeds on the level of actually being about "something".  What that is fully, I don't know.  Whatever themes it gleams off of Burgess' novel are very trivial; it could have been any book that's anti-authority and about a juvenile delinquent.  The one thing separating it is its science fiction nature of torture and surrendering the body to "science" as it were.

I suppose as a recontamination it could go like this: If you have to see one Warhol movie in your life, it might as well be this one.  But only if you despise things like cut-aways and montage.  If you've also been looking for the longest-take-imaginable, it's here.  If you're looking for a coherent adaptation of Burgess' novel... stick with Kubrick, even if he possibly, though not likely, ripped-off the opening shot of his film from Warhol's opening of this movie.  Like it or not, its a deranged would-be master piece of single-shot filmmaking.

Velvet Undergound and Nico - Femme Fatale

No comments:

Post a Comment