PRINT October 2012


two new studies of Warhol’s films

Left: Cover of Douglas Crimp, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012). Right: Cover of J. J. Murphy, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012).

Douglas Crimp, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 184 pages; J. J. Murphy, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 320 pages.

THE MARKET seems able to bear an almost unlimited number of books on Andy Warhol. Most are about as substantial as Uniqlo’s line of Warhol T-shirts and do just as little for his artistic reputation. Two recent publications, however—Douglas Crimp’s “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol and J. J. Murphy’s The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol—stand out as substantive contributions that reveal the scope and importance of Warhol’s dauntingly large cinematic corpus. While differing from each other in style, approach, and organization, both are likely to be consulted for years to come.

Murphy’s The Black Hole of the Camera (its title taken from a comment by Warhol superstar Mary Woronov) aspires to inclusiveness, with individual sections devoted to each of the more than fifty Warhol films restored to date (save for Sunset [1967]) grouped within chapters that range from Warhol’s earliest films through collaborations with Ronald Tavel and Chuck Wein, “expanded cinema” works including The Chelsea Girls (1966), “sexploitation” films such as The Nude Restaurant (1967), and even the first four features directed by Paul Morrissey (Flesh [1968–69], Trash [1970], Women in Revolt [1971], and Heat [1972]). An accomplished filmmaker himself, Murphy shows remarkable sensitivity to Warhol’s surfaces, framing, and camerawork; the overt or surreptitious presence of narrative tropes and structures (which he traces into even the most minimal films); and the varying degrees of drama (or “psychodrama,” one of Murphy’s main avenues of approach to Warhol’s cinema) among the characters on screen.

Murphy’s book (like Crimp’s) represents an impressive investment of labor, not only in viewing time (no small feat when one film is the eight-hour-long Empire [1964]), but also in sorting through the abundance of secondary literature. He attentively uncovers new facts and original insights—for instance, that the infamous set-up in The Life of Juanita Castro (1965), in which the actors all stare from neatly arranged, stepped-back rows toward a fictional camera to the left of the frame, derived from a family photograph of Fidel Castro’s sister’s wedding published in Life magazine. The connection not only makes the puzzling mise-en-scène more comprehensible, but adds a new dimension to the play of still versus moving images central to all facets of Warhol’s art.

Much of the book is devoted to detailed but nonetheless synthetic film overviews, presented in clear and objective prose that will undoubtedly lend the volume an important second life as a reference work, a comprehensive Warhol film guide, at least until completion of the catalogue raisonné undertaken by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Andy Warhol Film Project. (Murphy expressly omits Warhol’s nearly five hundred four-minute Screen Test portrait films, already brilliantly discussed in the catalogue raisonné’s first volume by the late Callie Angell, whose importance and loss are noted by both Murphy and Crimp.) Like most readers, I suspect, I found the entries’ interest varied in inverse proportion to my familiarity with the films. Analyses of two movies I’ve not yet seen—Screen Test #1 (1965), in which Tavel taunts Warhol’s then boyfriend Philip Fagan, and Face (1965), a two-reel close-up of Edie Sedgwick—were thoroughly absorbing, but descriptions of films I know more intimately proved, unsurprisingly, less so. Sometimes, the synoptic quality of Murphy’s discussions, however careful, seemed to clothe subjective reactions in objective guise. For instance, while Murphy’s captivation with Sedgwick is evident, he is no fan of the Tavel-scripted Kitchen (1965), which abounds with incestuous double entendres and identity confusion among two pairs of characters who differ in gender while sharing homophonic names: Jo, Joe, Mikie, and Mikey. Whereas I have always found Kitchen particularly intriguing, both as a script and as performed for the camera, Murphy ultimately dismisses it as the “silly contrivances of an otherwise absurd plot,” nominating Sedgwick’s unscripted moments as the film’s primary attraction.

One consequence of the manner in which Warhol refused the standard interpellative procedures of mainstream Hollywood cinema is his films’ capacity to change quite dramatically depending on the circumstances of their showing and the viewer’s attentiveness and subjective investments. Whether by reducing profilmic events to such an extent that the viewer’s interest almost inevitably wanders—as in Empire and even Blow Job (1964)—or, inversely, by so multiplying the foci of visual attraction throughout the frame (and, eventually, across multiple screens)—as in Haircut (No. 1) (1963), Couch (1964), Vinyl (1965), and The Chelsea Girls—Warhol frees, or pushes, his audiences to investigate the visual field subjectively, thereby giving rise to the “very personal” and “very varied” receptive mode that Warhol’s associate Jack Smith described as “thoughts via images,” which, “[m]ore interesting . . . than discovering what is a script writer’s exact meaning . . . always give rise to a complex of feelings, thots [sic], conjectures, speculations, etc.”* Both Murphy and Crimp acknowledge and deftly characterize the particular viewing phenomenology induced by Warhol’s cinema. Yet, in the case of Kitchen and certain other films, including the Tavel-scripted Vinyl and Horse (1965), I found that Murphy’s objective tone inadvertently threatened to restrict movies capable of offering a wider variety of readings.

No doubt, this aspect of The Black Hole of the Camera would not have struck me as forcefully if not for the contrast with “Our Kind of Movie.” The latter makes no claim either to objectivity or to comprehensive scope. On the contrary, Crimp goes out of his way in the preface to portray both the structure and the tenor of his book as nearly occasional, the majority of its chapters originating as lectures still marked by the contingencies of their initial delivery. Yet, Crimp’s modesty belies the impressive achievement his volume represents. More than merely oral or discursive, Crimp’s writing is properly dialogical.

For Crimp, Warhol’s cinema and the Factory habitués depicted in it represent an especially compelling microcosm of 1960s New York queer culture. His intellectual aim—and the book’s signal theoretical contribution—is to understand, drawing on the work of Leo Bersani, Michael Warner, and others, a “relationality” instantiated by these films and the community depicted in them “that depends on neither identification nor disidentification with—on neither merging with nor violence toward—others.” Such an intersubjective relation, a “coming together to stay apart,” as one chapter title puts it, “maintains both the self and the other in their fundamental distinctiveness” and in this exemplifies, for Crimp, “the radical meaning of queer.”

From the beginning, in the first chapter’s detailed reading of Blow Job—wherein the play of light and shadow falling across DeVerne Bookwalter’s face alternately obscures and reveals his eyes to initiate a complex interplay of (largely missed) glances between subject, camera, and viewer—Crimp elucidates how “Warhol’s unfailing formal sense constructs [his films’] sexual politics.” Crimp ultimately discovers in Blow Job “an ethics of antivoyeuristic looking,” a form of vision that does not attempt to capture, encapsulate, objectify, or categorize the subject presented on screen. As Crimp goes on to argue (drawing, in part, on Smith), the controlling, and often expressly moralizing, function of mainstream cinema derives from its concentration on narrative, precisely what Warhol sought in a variety of ways both to undermine and, paradoxically, to expand. “Whereas typically script, cinematic technique, and performance are concerted to focus our interest on relationships and their storyline development,” Crimp argues, “[i]n the Warhol-Tavel films, in addition to the ridiculous scenario, a prop, a space, a shot’s composition; its lighting, its framing and persistent reframing; a musical chord, an actor’s distraction or extra-diagetic movement: all these aspects of the cinematic image, and more, make claims on our attention and provide sources of pleasure.”

In this way, Crimp’s dialogical approach to his materials enacts much the same ethical imperative he argues for on an analytic register. For Crimp’s interrogation of Warhol’s films never seeks to take possession of them. It may be too much to assert that his prose mimics the thought processes to which viewers are delivered by Warhol’s cinema, the manner in which one’s attention moves across and even away from the screen in front of one’s eyes, wandering toward various associated conjectures, including relations to other Warhol movies, and subsequently filtering back to the film that again solicits our attention. Nevertheless, there is something of that texture to Crimp’s writing throughout the book. This enables him not only to convey the phenomenology of film viewing (accentuated, as it is, in the case of Warhol’s cinema), but also to engage in nuanced give and take with his critical interlocutors: Angell, Stephen Koch, David E. James, and, in a different way, Stefan Brecht, among others. Crimp’s dialogical relation to other voices extends even to his own, as he turns back to arguments and observations made in previous chapters (sometimes in addendums added expressly for this purpose), just as he turns back to films he has already explored in order to take one more look, assess one more fact, or investigate one more implication. The result is that both Crimp’s argument and his engagement with Warhol’s cinema open themselves to an internal differentiation that defers the premature foreclosure of an “interpretation.” Crimp’s writing thus exemplifies Bersani’s call for a “self [that], at least implicitly, recognizes otherness already there in itself; [that] performs its own self-alienation.” As a consequence, “Our Kind of Movie” rewards repeated readings, yielding, like a conversation with a good friend or well-informed colleague, new insights with every engagement.

I don’t want to give the impression that Crimp doesn’t put his own spin on Warhol’s films. His narration of the arc of Tavel’s humiliation of Mario Montez in Screen Test #2 (1965), for instance, is as inflected by his own investments and intellectual aims as Murphy’s characterization of Sedgwick’s role in Kitchen. In that sense, Crimp’s and Murphy’s books complement one another. (Indeed, Murphy reveals how versions of both the unzipped fly and commending one’s soul unto God—incidents at the heart of Crimp’s reading of Screen Test #2—were prefigured in Screen Test #1.) Yet, whereas Murphy provides a more quantitatively comprehensive overview of the range and diversity of Warhol’s cinema (and is, in this, an important achievement), Crimp manages more subtly to reveal the manner in which Warhol’s cinema not only allows us to see difference, but also, and as a necessary component of this, to see differently. While “Our Kind of Movie” stands on its own for its contributions to queer theory, queer history, and Warhol’s social and political significance for both, it can be appreciated equally for the exemplary way in which it articulates the richness, complexities, and demands of Warhol’s cinema. As such, I find it telling that Crimp chooses to conclude his book not with a summation of the sociological and theoretical interests that initially brought him to the subject, but with an epilogue devoted to the materiality of Warhol’s films, one that amounts to an impassioned (though low-key) plea to experience these movies as they are best seen: in a darkened theater, on 16-mm film, projected at the proper speed, in their full duration, and among an audience, however small. Crimp and Murphy share this respect for Warhol’s cinema, and their books equally challenge the entire field to discover the pleasures and rewards of respecting the specificity and integrity of Warhol’s production.

Branden W. Joseph is Frank Gallipoli professor of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University.

*Jack Smith, “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez” (1962–63), in Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, ed. J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997), 33.