Screen Savers

Ed Halter on Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

Stills from Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, 1964–66. Left: Nico. Right: Edie Sedgwick.

STYLISHLY PACKAGED IN LEATHER BLACK AND FACTORY SILVER, 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests arrives as the first official DVD release devoted to films directed by Warhol, produced in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The selection culls a baker’s dozen from the 472 silent, single-reel 16-mm portraits Warhol shot at his studio between 1964 and 1966, inspired by the artist’s own “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys” and “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women,” two ongoing exhibition concepts for which Warhol chose different reels each time they screened.

Warhol’s subjects included both the haute-celebrity and the unknown: Archivist Callie Angel’s catalogue raisonné of the project chronicles personalities ranging from Bob Dylan and Salvador Dalí to an anonymous sitter merely labeled “Boy.” 13 Most Beautiful favors names central to Warhol lore, including screen tests for Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed, Billy Name, Nico, Mary Woronov, Jane Holzer, Paul America, and Ingrid Superstar, throwing in for good measure Dennis Hopper, who appears in Warhol’s 1963 film Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of. The remaining four beauties appear to be chosen for the formal properties of their tests: Ann Buchanan achieves the format’s stock-still ideal, staring directly into the camera as a lone tear crawls from her left eye; Susan Bottomly’s severe bob blends in with the background under harsh light, leaving a fragment of her face floating in quarter wedge against the void. Freddy Herko, too, nearly slips away into the darkness as he yawns and smokes a cigarette, presaging his demise: He notoriously danced out of his apartment window months after his shoot, his mind addled with amphetamines. Young Richard Rheem’s portrait pulses with camera fuck-ups and lens twiddlings. Flutters created by film stuck in the gate, probing zooms, and sudden reframings and refocusings all combine to give Rheem’s Screen Test a proto-structuralist feel, like a Michael Snow experiment in miniature.

According to the liner notes by Andy Warhol Museum curators, the concept behind 13 Most Beautiful exemplifies the institution’s mission, which includes “re-contextualizing Warhol’s work in ways that resonate in contemporary culture.” To this end, the museum commissioned sound tracks for each Screen Test from musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who perform as Dean & Britta and formerly worked together in the ’90s indie-rock band Luna, heir to Wareham’s earlier outfit Galaxie 500. According to Wareham, the duo also selected which Screen Tests to include. The results, however, play awkwardly at best. Mostly a mixture of Velvet-y guitar drones and ham-fisted lyrics (Sedgwick’s includes the line “They said you belonged on the silver screen,” crooned in gravelly voice), even the least obtrusive of Dean & Britta’s efforts disarm the haunting drag time of the Screen Tests, flattening their profundity into mere music-video wallpaper. Warhol himself was hardly a purist; after all, he threw images of Screen Tests behind Velvet Underground concerts, played Dionne Warwick records to them when he showed them to friends, and once even used them as background for a magazine fashion shoot. Nevertheless, 13 Most Beautiful will play most beautifully with the sound system off, allowing the viewer to savor Warhol the filmmaker, who masterfully exploited the mechanism of the camera in its capacity to preserve the hollow shape of time.