The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol

Mandy Merck evaluates a surprising study of a US icon's visionary, sometimes cosmic, cinema

August 30, 2012

Before he produced the better-known Paul Morrissey features Flesh, Trash and Heat, Andy Warhol directed hundreds of experimental films, including 472 short portraits of Factory visitors and almost 100 of greater length. In 1970 he withdrew these largely non-commercial works from what was in any case limited distribution. After his death in 1987, a lengthy process of viewing and cataloguing the films began, and it has not yet reached the second volume of the catalogue raisonné. Only a handful of the 1960s films have ever been issued on DVD, so those who wish to view them must hire prints or book screenings at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the film archive at the University of California, Los Angeles. These obstacles make J.J. Murphy's detailed discussion of 56 of these works an impressive project, even before he surprises the reader with his insistence on their dramatic character.

An experimental film-maker himself, Murphy is also a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's famed department of communication arts. His attention to the formal detail of these films is not exceptional for Warhol criticism, which has historically emphasised their avant-garde problematising of temporality, space, sound, viewpoint and frame. For the portrait films or "screen tests" taken of visitors to The Factory, Warhol typically asked his subjects to sit still, look at the camera and avoid blinking as they were filmed for 2.7 minutes (the duration of a 100ft film roll) at 24 frames per second. The silent portrait was then projected at two-thirds the shooting speed for 4.2 minutes, giving the slowed film the impression of a still image - one that would then uncannily weep or defiantly chew gum, grimace or - in the case of the ageing Marcel Duchamp - signal "cut".

Murphy moves from these miniature character tests to the psychodramas that arose from Warhol's penchant for submitting his non-actors to the unpredictable consequences of their own narcissism, drug-taking, psychic instability and bitchy repartee. (As he points out, Warhol's fascination with conversation would eventually take him out of cinema and into his video versions of television chat shows.) But despite his attraction to conflict, dramatic incident and spectacle, Warhol was never interested in plot and causality. Whereas Morrissey made money by ensuring that the spectator would want to know what happened next, "a Warhol film", as avant-garde film-maker Jonas Mekas wrote disparagingly of Flesh, "never gives you the impression that it wants to make itself interesting". Anyone impatient with this kind of pandering might be intrigued by a five-hour film of a slumbering poet in Sleep; or Horse, a Western that literalises the term "horse opera" with Florence Foster Jenkins' off-key rendition of Gounod's Faust; or My Hustler, the pursuit of a handsome young rent boy by four Fire Island sophisticates that, in the words of art scholar Douglas Crimp, "just ends". Or, as Murphy relates with considerable relish, the very idea of "commissioning a dialogue script, Their Town, for The Chelsea Girls and not playing the sound". But the drama that he enjoys so much is not simply that of flouting film conventions or common sense. Discussing the much-discussed but little-watched vigil over the sleeping John Giorno, Murphy follows its descent from Sleep to death, when in the final reel the extreme contrasts of black and white transform this decreasingly eroticised "mass of flesh" into a corpse and the film into a horror story about dying in your sleep.

Warhol, who would himself die in his sleep after a routine gall bladder operation, returned repeatedly to the theme of mortality in his 1960s Death and Disasters series and the 1976 "Skull" paintings, and Murphy enters a strong claim for his Gothicism. Similarly, where others have speculated on the flares, flashes and white circles in Empire, Murphy offers a 1,000-word footnote on its film stock, aperture width and lab processing, and then marvels at how these contingencies turn the floodlit tower of the Empire State Building into a space station in a star-studded galaxy: "Just as Sleep is not really a film about a man sleeping, but rather a meditation on death, so Empire turns out to be a celestial, or cosmic, film." If his title - The Black Hole of the Camera - suggests the still-prevalent characterisation of the filmmaker as a disaffected voyeur, Murphy's engaging study gives us Warhol the visionary instead.

The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol

By J.J. Murphy

University of California Press

336pp £48.95 and £19.95

ISBN 97805201876 and 1883

Published April 2012

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