Left: Andy Warhol, Vinyl, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 66 minutes. Gerard Malanga. Right: Andy Warhol, Screen Test #2, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 67 minutes. Mario Montez. Both images © 2009 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.

DRAMA, AS WE ALL KNOW, IS CONFLICT. Ask any aspiring screenwriter. Conflict between characters, conflict within characters, conflict between characters and external circumstances. Among the many subversions and perversions that shape the film oeuvre of Andy Warhol, the treatment of conflict is paramount. In the films of the silent period, which by and large are portraits—the four-and-a-half minute Screen Tests and the longer single-subject movies such as Eat (1964) or Henry Geldzahler (1964)—conflict resides within the person on the screen and usually involves the ambivalent emotions and impulses that arise when one finds oneself on camera with no specific instructions on how to fill time. This conflict may also apply to the viewer, who may feel similarly ambivalent about sitting through (enduring) a movie in which time and drama are so relentlessly split apart. “Should I stay or should I go?”—the apropos lyric for the audience, especially when faced with a movie, no matter its visual pleasures, where the subject is unconscious (Sleep [1963]) or inanimate (Empire [1964]).

It’s not surprising, then, that when Warhol began to avail himself of the sync-sound capability of the Auricon camera (largely used in the 1960s for news gathering), all hell broke loose. The Warhol talkies are defined by the extraordinary level of verbal abuse hurled by the actors at one another. And yet for all the arguing, sniping, and fighting, the talkies are hardly any more dramatic than the silents, since the arguments themselves have no resolution and effect no change. Inertia prevails.

The Anthology Film Archives series “Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol” includes ten of the talkies on which Warhol collaborated with Tavel, the playwright who coined the name the Theatre of the Ridiculous. (Tavel’s program note for the first Theatre of the Ridiculous stage production, the 1965 double bill of his one-act plays Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro, succinctly states: “We have passed beyond the absurd: Our position is absolutely preposterous.”) According to Callie Angell, Warhol scholar and author of the catalogue raisonné on the Warhol films, the difference between the Warhol-Tavel collaborations and Warhol’s other talkies is that Tavel’s screenplays had an explicit agenda that Warhol, the director, tried to subvert or foil. Drama, therefore, was built into the film object through this calculated conflict between the vision of the writer and that of the director, rather than being implicit in narrative or performance.

Andy Warhol, Vinyl, 1965. (Excerpt)

For example, Vinyl (1965), Tavel’s reimagining of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, was written for an all-male cast. Sixty-six minutes long, it was shot from a single fixed-camera position, and the deep-space Renaissance perspectival composition is among Warhol’s richest and most elegant. The action in the foreground involves the “re-education” of a self-described “JD” (Gerard Malanga), who is chained, whipped, and tortured by various supposed agents of the police state. The actors read their lines from a script, and their rough-trade posing is unconvincing even as parody. In the shadowy recesses of the image, however, another man is being stripped and beaten, and although it is difficult to make out exactly what is transpiring, something about the brutality seems disturbingly real. At the last minute, Warhol threw a cog into the dialectic of Tavel’s exclusively homoerotic s/m machine by giving Edie Sedgwick, his newly discovered Park Avenue superstar, a nonspeaking role. Sedgwick is positioned in the extreme right foreground, her bare arms and platinum-hair-topped visage dazzlingly white—literally and figuratively, she’s overexposed. Chain-smoking, occasionally laughing at nothing in particular while attempting to ignore the meaning of the fictitious spectacle occurring next to her and the actuality of a man being tortured, perhaps not unpleasurably, behind her, she is, in Hollywood lingo, the fish out of water and, in the complete otherness of her gender and class, the most perversely fascinating object on the screen.

Vinyl and The Chelsea Girls (1966), for which Tavel scripted two sequences, are the most familiar films in the series. Among the other must-sees: Kitchen (1965), one of the funniest of the Sedgwick vehicles; Space (1965), which gives the lie to the myth that Warhol never moved the camera; and Hedy (1966), Screen Test #2 (1965), and Harlot (1964), all of which star Mario Montez, the most intense and moving of the drag queens adored by the cameras of both Warhol and Jack Smith. Montez, who lives in Florida and performed publicly for the first time in decades at a recent Smith conference in Berlin, may be present at some of the screenings on December 13 and 14. Angell will introduce Screen Test #1 and Screen Test #2 tonight (December 10). Tavel, sadly, died suddenly this past March at age seventy-two. His website, ronaldtavel.com lives on, and there you will find, in addition to most of his plays and screenplays, his brilliant reflections on Warhol, Smith, and the still resistant, still resonant underground movie and theater scene of the ’60s, in which he played no small part.

“Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol,” runs December 10–17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Warhol scholar Callie Angell introduces Screen Test #1 on Thursday, December 10. For more details, click here.

Amy Taubin