PRINT February 1968


Four Stars and Hold Me While I’m Naked

The theaters of the Underground—often five or six docile customers in an improbable place that looks like a bombed-out air shelter or the downstairs ladies room at the old Paramount—offer a weirdly satisfying experience. For two dollars the spectator gets five bedraggled two-reelers, and, after a sojourn with incompetence, chaos, nouveau culture taste, he leaves this land’s end theater feeling unaccountably spry.

In the clique-ish, subdued atmosphere of the New Cinema Playhouse, Tambellini’s Gate, there is more than an attempt to dump the whole history of films. One glance at the pock marked terrain, the placid spectator, suggests a new concept of honesty and beauty based on beggarly conditions. Tambellini’s paradise, the Gate, on 2nd Avenue, starts as an entrance to an old apartment house, moves through a twenties marble hallway and, after the customer buys a two dollar ticket, immediately engulfs him in a black chamber. God help him. The big sensation here is the ancient unreliable floor, which, like the ceiling in this blitzed miniature cathedral, is indescribable. Sometimes, the shredded carpeting, with its patches of masking tape, feels as spongy and sandy as the beach at Waikiki. Actually, it is an old room of murky origins, painted flat black, no two dimensions the same. There is a bombed out area in the front half, which houses the screen, and a number of wooden constructions that have been started by a non-union carpenter and then thrown up as a bad job.

A respectable uncle of the Gate Theater, the New Cinema is located dead center in the basement of the Wurlitzer Building. This likable chamber has filigree woodwork, flat dove grey walls, and a legitimate cashier’s window that belongs in front of Carnegie Hall. The theater, somewhat larger, sits behind the cashier’s booth, and has these piquant walls which epitomize the ancient Stonehenge character of the Underground. Alongside the seats are little arches scalloped along the wall, each one with its own recessed ledge on which the customers sit,when they’re not asleep in the aisle or sitting with trademark lassitude in the seats.

The Undergrounders with the quickest talent—Warhol’s virile close closeup, George Kuchar’s homely family humor with pixy-ish use of a roly poly flirt, Bruce Bailie’s Castro Street—are involved in what seems like a sentimentality but is much better than that. The apparent sentimentality: the idea that a shrunken, impoverished film is necessarily purer, more honest than a highly budgeted studio film. Actually, the KucharWarhol is so impoverished that it gives a spectator the kind of disenchantment, sordidness, feverish wastage that no other movie even suggests. The films of late Bergman-Godard-Penn, like a private elevated paradise in lovely waltz time, are based on ideals in acting, camerawork and story technique that have become absurdly removed from the spectator’s experience.

Right now, the Head Chef is a bland pastry with bangs whose newest film, Four Stars, is almost a Ulysses of non sequiturs dished up with the most galling largesse. Warhol’s latest is a sort of jaded valentine in 28 flavors, in which he salaams, butters-up, betrays, and fondles the three female exhibitionists he favors: a 1967 Theda Bara whose chief feature is a deep kohl line, a nymphet who is boyishly slender, short-haired, gamin like, and, finally, the female Falstaff of his company: a Grotesque who suggests the underworld of drugs and dissipated, humiliated flesh.

With its rich gem-like image and its elegance, this sinister movie is dedicated to exposing people as far from their life functions as possible. From its opening shot of Nico chanting (a primitive sound in which the notes are sucked in and rasped out), the audience is disengaged. The actors are continually in non acts: they sit in bathtubs with no thought of bathing, couples are in bed boring themselves to death, endless application of cosmetics for no apparent purpose, a hungerless face eats an apple, a slender body rolls his Chinos down and up.

Devoting about 20 minutes of droning improvisations to each of its “stars,” (Ultra Violet, Viva, International Velvet), the movie offers a violently physical image. It’s as though the whole of Genet’s perverted world were funneling into the shot, from every inch of the frame, by way of the rawest closeup technique and those Drool colors—sherbet, bonbons, marzipan, icing—now fashionable in Leo Castelli’s, Capezio’s, and Schrafft’s.

This image is basically the Harper’s Bazaar photo set in motion, most of the motion coming from superimposed sounds and scenes. For example, in one rapid-jawing segment, a female Lenny Bruce comes on in a silvery boutique, doing a stand-up monologue sitting down. Wearing knee high silver boots, a blond wig (a big bouffant job, every lock like a banana), fondling and twirling gadgets made of tiny mirrors arranged in mosaics, this human poison pen letter is seen and heard in triplicate. Her big joke about a 12 year old and his erection keeps returning, so that, like the horse race in Kubrick’s The Killing, every line returns three or four times. Despite the hopped-up monologue, the cliché-lurid lamé-on-lamé setup, the scene is weirdly cozy.

One real problem today is the fecund quality of Warhol’s image. There are dragging sections: a gang of lymph nodes wrapping themselves in bands of yard goods. Even this scene picks up incredible vegetation of vitality when a hirsute honey-bun describes his rape by an adorable Puerto Rican “Golden Gloves type“ and his three uncles named Sammy. This dreadnaught extrovert, detailing his quadruple “sex” (“it was disgusting . . . I just lay there and let it happen”) is wearing a red satin mantilla, the scene is like a pajama party, with everyone lying around the floor. An outrageous ham actor steams with life, due to Warhol’s parlay of indolence, who cares, fun, and a largesse eye which seems to lap shots, sounds, into a unique multiplied vivacity.

Compared to the posh beauty parlors called Cinema One and Two, the Underground theater (Warhol’s evocative beach scene in Four Stars) is a realistic pleasure as long as it plumbs, flaunts the fly-by-night, escaped-convict qualities that are so present in the terrain. Hold Me While I’m Naked (Kuchar) is a hit-miss funny film, because, like the Gate Theater, it seems like a mockery of the detailed movie courses now taught in every university. For the Kuchars, Edison has just invented the movie camera, and the industry is getting ready for its infancy. Even the various themes that come back like a belch in Underground film—the big party or orgy, lyricism in the bathroom, the body beautiful or ugly, genre work around the film-maker’s home, exotic clutter—are all present in any Kuchar two-reeler.

In a lunkish comedy about two marriages gone flat, the cornerstone of humor is anything that can be exaggerated, bushwacked, so that it is fashionably out-of-kilter, gruesome. The most toothsome of its actors—a grotesque bratwurst played by Bob Cowan—has such funny factors as straight-cut long hair parted in the middle, skinny legs, a pillow beneath his shirt. His comedy, a sluggish, witless version of a type of goon comedy kids sometimes use in their playacting, is built around a bent-kneed walk that suggests his body is a heavy flour sack.

The sad thing about George Ku-char’s soured talent is not so much the confusion, the skidding around in old movies, Jewish Mama humor, do it yourself Rabelais, but the curious assumption that the audience—particularly the In Society segment—are enthralled with the very smell of his rambunctious, galumphing Bronx personality.

Manny Farber