PRINT Summer 1966


Camp, Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol began as a film-maker by making extremely long films in which nothing, or almost nothing, happened. “Sleep” and “Empire” managed to astonish people by their overweening length and their insistent silence. Warhol reduced the cinema to its simplest possible manifestation—a single image that moved. This was also its first manifestation historically: Muybridge’s trotting horse, Dickson’s sneezing man, Lumiere’s decelerating train. But where these primitive films lasted only a few minutes Warhol’s first film “Sleep” lasted eight hours in its original version. By this radical elongation of filmic time, Warhol succeeded in duplicating the shock that met Lumiere’s train and those other earliest reproductions of the natural world on the motion picture screen, and in restoring to film its original irrational function of presenting things to look at without any comment or artifice. To dramatize this regression, Warhol chose to show objects in repose instead of rapid motion: a man sleeping, a man eating with exaggerated languor, a man sitting in a barber chair being given a haircut, a man lying on a couch smoking a cigar.

Since then, Warhol’s films have evolved as if he were systematically recreating the cinema. A rudimentary form of editing and asynchronous sound appeared in “Tarzan and Jane Regained—Sort of” made in 1964. Then, in 1965, Warhol introduced synchronous sound into his pictures and standardized their duration at about seventy minutes, reproducing developments that occurred originally in the twenties.

But he continues to base his films on movement and expression within a continuous frame rather than on editing. In most of his films, Warhol returns real time to the cinema. For a while it seemed that the very essence of film form was the creation of a synthetic time through editing. The handling of space within the frame as a forming principle was ignored. Warhol has attempted to demonstrate that both these formal principles can coexist in the cinema. On this subject of montage, Jean-Luc Godard once wrote that editing is “to bring out the soul under the mind, the passion behind the scheme; to make the heart prevail over the intelligence through the notion of space in favor of that of time.” Warhol’s films demonstrate the aptness of this remark. His cinema is the cinema of cold intelligence. It is passionless and also merciless. Perhaps this is why it disturbs so many people.

The first of Warhol’s new sync sound films to be shown in Los Angeles was “Camp,” made late in 1965. It is essentially one unedited shot, interrupted only by one reel change. As the film begins, the performers are grouped in Warhol’s studio as are the figures in Courbet’s painting of 1855, “L’Atelier,” which Courbet called “the moral and physical history of my studio” (perhaps the parallels between the two works are more than superficial). There is no simple order to the arrangement: people are seated on a couch, on hard-backed wooden chairs, and on stools; they are standing against a wall in the background. The whole scene is lit with a garish melodrama created not only by stationary lights, but also by portable Sun-Guns carried about by T-shirted technicians who wander into the frame occasionally to light a certain spot or to move a microphone. The performers are listed in the program “in order of appearance” as “Baby Jane Holzer, Paul Swan, Mario Montez, Mar-Mar, Jody Babb, Tally Brown, Jack Smith, Fufu Smith, Donyle, Tosh Carillo, and your host, Gerard Malanga.” As this program note suggests, the format is that of a variety show. People are introduced and they perform and act for a set period of time.

Paul Swan in an abbreviated gladiator costume which seems to be a series of oversized diapers does a death scene to the accompaniment of Wagner. He is asked to repeat it and does so. Baby Jane Holzer, wearing a poor boy sweater and wide-wale corduroy trousers, comes forward and dances with him, then disappears. (“I knew it, I knew it, I knew she was a stupid bitch,” one girl in the audience said of Baby Jane after her brief, seemingly inconclusive appearance.)

Mario Montez appears as a female impersonator dressed demurely in a long flowery dress. He sings “If I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” and dances. As he dances, the cameraman zooms in and out. Never has the zoom been so gratuitously abused. Another cameraman might use the same technique to suggest an earthquake or the shock of a rocket ship blasting off.

Mar-Mar, a chubby middle-aged man, dresses as a clown and deports himself as one. He wears two ties: a bow tie and a straight long tie. A teddy bear hangs on a chain from his belt like a codpiece. He delivers a parodistic political oration for William Buckley and performs a series of yo-yo tricks: rocking the baby, walking the dog, around the world.

Jody Babb has been sitting on a stool swinging her leg in studied nervousness. Now the microphone is brought over to her. She announces she is going to sing a song although she only knows part of it. She detaches the microphone from its stand and walks around singing “Let Me Entertain You” in a halting, untrained voice. At one point she interrupts herself to give an aside, “I’m bombing.” Actually she succeeds more than any of her predecessors in entertaining. In the middle of her act, the reel ends.

At the opening of the second reel—some time has passed, but the camera has not moved—the M.C., Gerard Malanga, introduces himself and reads a poem entitled “Camp,” a short parody of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It ends with the line, “Who would ever guess I was a boy?” Tally Brown, a very fat woman in a low-cut dress, just talks. None of us are really camping, she says, we’re all playing ourselves, an observation as true as it is tautological.

Jack Smith refuses to perform. He stands, then he asks in a whining, almost lifeless voice, “Can we open the closet?” He pauses, then repeats the same question. Finally he walks toward the closet, very slowly it seems. As he wanders off toward the closet—a glass case empty except for one Batman comic—the film becomes increasingly incoherent. The portable lights and the microphone follow him only intermittently. Indistinctly, we hear the other performers getting up, moving around. Elsewhere there are voices saying words we can’t discern. Snatches of Ramsey Lewis’s version of “The In Crowd” are played somewhere off camera. Jack Smith passes by another couch on which two girls are sitting; when the camera passes, one gets up and walks away; the other remains seated, lit in silhouette. Finally the closet is reached. The suspense that has been built by this ponderous journey is immediately dispelled. The camera continues to roam freely, occasionally moving in to a close-up of Jack Smith clutching the key to the no longer mysterious closet, then finally panning back to the other performers.

Fufu Smith, who wears a railroad engineer’s cap and sunglasses, steps forward from the group and sets down a small oval of ‘O’ gauge model railroad track in the empty space before the camera. He takes an engine and a few cars from his pockets and arranges them on the track. They chug around and around accompanied by amplified railroad sound effects.

Then Donyle—a tall, spindly, but strikingly beautiful Negro model—appears from a couch. She strides before the camera as if modeling her backless dress and fur wrap. Then her walk shifts fluidly into a graceful, languorous dance. As this, the film’s first assured performance begins, the film ends.

One can view “Camp” as just the TV vaudeville it copies and criticize it as a Variety reviewer might criticize the latest edition of The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show. By these standards, “Camp” should be boring. And most viewers, trying to define their experience of the film, discover that word first. But the TV format is a put on, so perhaps the audience was more resentful than bored. For “Camp” plays with the whole mystique of show business, the idea that we can be better entertained by people we don’t know who appear on a TV or movie screen than we can by ourselves or our friends.

It would seem then that the film holds its performers up to ridicule by making impossible demands upon them. Warhol has created expectation in his audience that his performers cannot fulfill with his program note: “The camera work is so bad, the lighting is awful, the technical work is terrible—but the people are fantastic!” Further, the people before the camera are probably objects of envy to the audience, so they are waiting to catch their flaws; they come to see Baby Jane Holzer exposed as stupid, phony. These people are struggling, sometimes painfully, sometimes successfully, to entertain us by amusing themselves. The merciless, objective camera offers no help and shows no pity. It doesn’t stop, it doesn’t turn away. But somehow the performers aren’t ridiculous. They are inadequate but in their inadequacy lies their humanity; their performances are more moving than the super-real, carefully edited pastiches of personality we usually see on the movie screen. The indivisible other side of objectivity is faith.

Thom Andersen