PRINT May 1996


Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol

THE SLEEK PAIR OF dark glasses sitting next to my computer keyboard has teeny portraits of mass murderers embedded in the sides of its plastic frame. Get it? They’re “dark” glasses, made in Austria, of all places, and available only at Moss, SoHo’s echt design store. These stark, degraded images are silkscreen-derived, off-register, generations away from whatever reality they could be said initially to represent.

Hmm. I don’t see any women in this lineup. These glasses, like so much else, would not have been possible without Andy Warhol, and wearing them, or any other pair of shades, would much improve the experience of watching I Shot Andy Warhol, a new, feature-length film about Valerie Solanas, who in 1968 plugged the artist with a Beretta and almost killed him.

Director-screenwriter Mary Harron must be given credit for a fecund idea, one that could unpack both the political promise and reductive, manipulative hyperbole of the late ’60s by looking closely at a sad, stupid event that media representation rendered unreal as soon as it happened. (Warhol was said to have been “cheated” out of this grisly quantum of fame by the shooting of Robert Kennedy two days later.) But in spite of this and in spite of a core of energetic, sympathetic performances, the film fails—for two disconnected reasons.

The first is merely a reality problem combined with lack of skill. Scenes that include more than two speaking actors are risibly wooden. Older members of the screening, myself included, laughed out loud at the glamour-boy portrayal of Maurice Girodias, ne’er-do-well head of Olympia Press. The chewy center of the film is a re-creation of a swinging, Pop-pillow party in the tin-foiled Factory, with Gerard Malanga—portrayed blandly by Donovan Leitch—doing his whip dance in front of an aggressively unlustrous Velvet Underground (more poetic license, whip dancing being less a Factory than a Dom staple); Factory regular Brigid “Polk” Berlin rolling around on the floor, pills sticking like sequins to her damp flesh; a misogynistic Ondine tart-tonguing the slumming Countess Blah Blah; principals pseudo-frugging with extras; extras making out with principals; a passive, bored Andy all alone on the sofa (played with just the right wrist by Jared Harris); this goes on and on and on with not a shred of wit or acid reflexiveness. (It even reads better than it films.) Compare please to the pathetic, nasty ’60s soiree in Midnight Cowboy or to the woozy distractions of Roger Corman’s The Trip, which, partywise, may now be likened to Citizen Kane. It should be noted that Warhol himself sent up the endlessness of Factory nights in “his own” voyeuristic, farseeing films, Chelsea Girls among them.

The second reason for the film’s failure is more serious, because it is a failure of ethics and understanding. This is partly the result of claiming, in the endnote of the film, that Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto (S.C.U.M. standing for the one-member “Society for Cutting Up Men”) was and is an influential radical text, a feminist classic. Far be it from me to lecture anyone about radical feminism, but though the term includes a range of beliefs and ideas, it was particularly useful in separating “feminism first and feminism only” theory and practice from other feminist strategies, such as socialist feminism or liberal (“electoral”) feminism. To achieve their achingly fair and practical goals, gay, women’s, and racial liberation movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s tapped repressed idealism and visionary utopianism in the most thrilling, convincing ways, but there was obvious danger when exaggerations of the ideal flopped over into literal, explosive, Weather Underground action. There was, of course, reason to be suspicious of reasonableness: the countercultural truism that “paranoia is heightened awareness” was verified in the wartime newspapers almost every day. But Solanas’ unsatiric rant was never taken seriously, politically, as anything but an individual symptom of a many-steps-removed social disease, one that could neither be validated nor invalidated by her inexcusable attempt to kill a particular human being, an artist whose minions neglected to return her script for a play called Up Your Ass.

Solanas may have been angry, but she was mostly mad. The film does not succeed in making the argument that her madness was an outgrowth of her anger: in fact, the story illustrates that her behavior was somewhat independent of her childhood sexual molestation and thwarted lesbian self. If the ambiguity of Solanas’ motives has any weight at all it is due almost entirely to the power of Lili Taylor’s swashbuckling performance as Solanas. Taylor, looking like an authentic Village urchin and sounding like Julie Kavner trapped in an episode of Laverne and Shirley, chomps her way through the role, the scenery, the other actors, and still seems hungry for more. Although she emotes in many directions at once, the script juxtaposes her manic misery simplistically with the plangent unhappiness of drag queen Candy Darling, played softly and sweetly by Stephen Dorff. Both, the film implies, are creative people trapped in the prison of gender, and both will ultimately die for it. Two peas in a sexist pod. Sure.

I Shot Andy Warhol doesn’t work because even the script must acknowledge that Solanas cannot “stand for” the so-called feminist victim. This is not Diary of a Mad Housewife. So the viewer is left wondering, Why her? Why bother at all? The film becomes just as complicit a user of this shooting as the publishing house that steals the impetus of the event to sell the speed-scented, hermetic, yet sometimes clever S.C.U.M. Manifesto. Did Andy’s “decadence” and deadpan exploitation of others evoke the bullet? It may be possible to link the violent act of an abused and abusive woman to a sexual-political critique of Warhol’s World of Pop, but it would take an awful lot of narrative deftness. I Shot Andy Warhol isn’t the film to do it. Even Paul Morrissey could make a better one.

Jeff Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Artforum.