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PRINT January 2013

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Andy Warhol’s San Diego Surf

Andy Warhol, San Diego Surf, 1968/1996, 16 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes. Unidentified surfer and Tom Hompertz.

IN ANDY WARHOL AND PAT HACKETT’S POPISM (1980), there is but half a page devoted to the shooting of a movie that has come to be titled San Diego Surf (1968/1996). Warhol recounts that he, Paul Morrissey, and Viva went to Southern California on a college speaking tour and then stayed to make a surfing movie. They rented a beachfront mansion in La Jolla and a couple of nearby houses for the cast and crew. Warhol recalls:

Everybody was so happy being in La Jolla that the New York problems we usually made our movies about went away—the edge came right off everybody. I mean, it wasn’t like our going out, say, to the Hamptons to film, where it was just a day-trip extension of New York City. . . . From time to time I’d try to provoke a few fights so I could film them but everybody was too relaxed even to fight. I guess that’s why the whole thing turned out to be more of a memento of a bunch of friends taking a vacation together than a movie.

Back in New York, the “edge” returned when Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas in the Factory’s Union Square West office. Later in Popism, Warhol briefly mentions that, while he was recuperating, he spent some of his time editing Lonesome Cowboys—a movie shot a few months before San Diego Surf—down to an acceptable length for the porn theaters that had become the preferred outlet for Factory films. He doesn’t mention doing similar work on the surfer movie. Indeed, he makes no further reference to the film at all. Perhaps Warhol realized that the footage lacked not only dramatic conflict but convincing hard-core action.

In 1995, the Andy Warhol Foundation commissioned Morrissey, Warhol’s co-cameraman on the La Jolla shoot, to finish the film using what the Warhol Museum described as a “rough cut” and “notes.” The result, San Diego Surf, finally made its debut this past autumn in the Museum of Modern Art’s “To Save and Project” series and is getting a weeklong run at the museum this month. Introducing the screening in October, Taylor Mead, who stars in the film along with Viva, Louis Waldon, and Joe Dallesandro, commented that it was great to work with Andy because “it was like there was no one behind the camera.” Morrissey, notably absent from the festivities, did not lay claim to the film as he did Women in Revolt (1971), which he bought the rights to and reissued on DVD with himself credited as writer and director. (J. Hoberman, in his 2004 essay “Women in Revolt: Late, Last, or Post Warhol,” contests Morrissey’s claim of auteurship.)

Having vamped here almost as long, proportionately, as Viva and Waldon do in the last great Warhol film, Blue Movie (1968), before consummating the deed that gave the film its blunt original title, Fuck, I’ll try to assess the aesthetic interest and “redeeming social value” of San Diego Surf. As for the latter, there is none—nor is there anything so obscene it would need to be redeemed. Sexually, it seems almost as infantile as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures; so, come to think of it, perhaps Warhol decided San Diego Surf wasn’t worth the trouble it would have caused if he finished it, because we all know what the Law did to Smith’s masterpiece. Or maybe he discovered that Mead’s mooning and his musings about someone “greasing his board so he could put it in a dolphin’s behind” just didn’t suit his personal taste in porn. He might have found some solace in Lonesome Cowboys, but let’s face it, Mead and Viva as a “middle-class” husband and wife who lust after the hard-bodied surfers living next door wouldn’t have done it for him.

But for us, San Diego Surf has its interest. It is an example of Warhol’s attempt to make a narrative film that was more like a Hollywood movie, by including frequent cutaways, for instance. That the alternation between masters and close-ups—shot simultaneously with two cameras but no consideration of lighting continuity—proves more monotonous than Warhol’s unedited, single-setup films may be the fault of the concept or of Morrissey’s dogged editing. Cast in absurdly inappropriate roles, Viva and Mead soar in improvised monologues that are both valiant and hilarious. Mead’s adaptation of the jazz lyric “Beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar” is especially choice. But San Diego Surf is most memorable for a single moment in which life interrupts artifice more horrifyingly than in any other Warhol film. Standing on a flagstone terrace, motormouthed Viva is so carried away with the sound of her own voice that she allows the baby she is holding (and which has been “borrowed” from the owners of the house) to slip from her grasp. If not for a lunging save by the not ordinarily quick-witted Dallesandro, the unimaginable might have happened. For a moment, everyone on the screen is aghast (as are we)—and then things return to the normal Warholian version of performance as truth without consequence.

Andy Warhol’s San Diego Surf is playing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Jan. 23–28.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.