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Mechanical Animals: Warhol’s Chelsea Girls

If there is a distinct visual pleasure to be found in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), it is right in the middle of the screen.  The experimental film consists of 12 reels of unedited 16mm footage, two of which are simultaneously projected side by side on the same screen (making for 6 reel pairings), with the soundtrack from only one of the reels being played at any given time (although the audio queues are less than explicit).  This conceit – some might say gimmick – puts two competing images in front of the audience, allowing each individual’s eye the freedom to move back and forth between the two, feeling out whatever rhythms it chooses.  But the images do not always stay separated; often they overlap along their center seams, melting into one another and creating ghosts in the mechanical process – faces superimpose on one another, gesturing limbs disappear into the fabric of drapes and bed sheets.  So much of the cinematic experience is defined by the invisibility of the frame – the hard, clean edges the surround the film image in darkness – and our implicit acceptance of that frame, even if we are being made aware of what the camera’s perceptive chooses to include and what it chooses to omit.  The edges of Chelsea Girls though are rough, boxy, blurry, vaguely defined, and constantly visible, thus swapping a submissive acceptance for a heightened awareness of the mechanical process – that of light being blasted through 24 frames a second.

Chelsea Girls is a hard film to see.  Viewings are rare due to the limited number of prints left, and the multiple projectors need to screen them.  And while the film is available on DVD in Europe, it is not in the states, which is probably for the best since the film is, specific to the technology it was made with, an analogue experience.  Digital renderings of the reels would rob them of their translucence, and strip the film of the potential for visual alchemy.1

The screening I attended back in November, at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill.  It was the first time the film had been shown in North Carolina (with prints on loan from the New York MOMA), and the event was plagued by technical difficulties pretty much from the start: audio was garbled, film strips would not feed properly, and the focus would sway in and out.  A little before the halfway mark, one of the three projectors being used violently died entirely, forcing the projectionists to stagger the paired reels, with one starting (and thus ending) several minutes after its mate.

And yet, the technical chaos seemed to only enhance the experience.  Late into the three and half hour running time, I did seriously start to wonder if sitting all the way through Chelsea Girls was akin to the time I listened to Metal Machine Music start to finish, which would make me dumber than both Warhol and Lou Reed.  But such thoughts got lost in a feeling of genuine entrancement, as one reel would spool out, and the leader for the next would pop on screen.   Taken out of their ‘proper’ alignment, the two reels found ways to coil into each other and arrest the imagination: a mother decrying her son’s taste in women commented on a soundless quarrel between a middle-aged man and his school-boy lover; the strained, desperate glances of two women – one consumed by anger, the other painfully vulnerable – meeting mid-screen, then bouncing away.

Each of Chelsea Girls’s 12 reels is a self-contained entity; a single long take of an improvised scenario taking place in one of the rooms of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. The details of the scenarios themselves – domestic tableauxs, drugs injections, hallucinations, parties, lovers quarrels, interrogations in to sexual histories, verbal beratings intent on psychic damage – are not of much consequence.  They are elliptical, containing conversations and monologues that have no beginning and no end, with one scene feeding into the next.  Chelsea Girls is not about these improvised dramatic events captured by the camera, so much as it is about the psychology that the camera’s presence induces in the performers, the psychology we the viewer invest in what we are watching, and that vast, mechanically produced detachment between the two.

Detachment was, after all, the operative aesthetic of Warhol’s Factory, of which Chelsea Girls is a prime artifact.  The film’s performers were all Factory regulars, some of whom were well known beyond the scene – Mario Montez, Hanoi Hannah, Brigid Polk, Pope Ondine, Nico (whose debut album released a year later shares its name with the film), and Eric Emerson, whose entire sequence is a monologue detailing his acid trip.  All of them clearly seek to project the boho cool that was their trademark, but the power the camera lacks to transmit airs, it makes up for with the power to critique and subvert.  Chelsea Girls doesn’t document ‘60s cool so much as it demonstrates the limits of mechanical reproduction, showing that it can’t really reproduce anything of substance at all.  Chelsea Girls doesn’t bring us into the world of the Factory; it exposes that world as pure surface, pure artifice.  Warhol called the film his “home movies.”

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The silk screens of Campbell’s soup cans, Elvis Presley, Chairman Mao etc. that make up Warhol’s best-known work don’t have much juice to them once they are conceptually understood.  The advertising and pop culture imagery that we consume everyday makes up a complex visual language that our hyper-post-whatever capitalist society teaches us in order to shape our desires.  By aesthticizing one particular image at a time, Warhol was able to divorce that image from the process of visual signification, opening up a space for the viewer to contemplate how images are propagated and consumed through mechanical reproduction.  But by divorcing an image from what it signifies, Warhol also isolates it, depriving it of its vitality.  The silk screens don’t hold the eye because, despite the bold colors, they are entirely static.

With the freedom of movement given to the eye via the duel projections, Chelsea Girls allows for a similar consideration mechanized visual grammar, but while being immersed in it as it functions, not separated from it while it is in stasis.  Chelsea Girls is often an anarchic, pretentious mess, but by having no time for the conventions of cinematic language, it also offers a more complete deconstruction of its medium than any other film I’ve seen.

Of all the film conventions we take for granted, the one Chelsea Girls most immediately undercuts is our reliance on the cutting between multiple camera vantages that allows us to psychologically construct a sense of physical space.  When I mentioned up top that the 12 reels of Chelsea Girls were unedited film, I meant just that:  each of the reels is one long, uninterrupted take from a camera stationed in a single position.   There is movement – the camera pans and tilts, and the lens zooms in and out – but it is blatant and erratic, and does nothing to give the pictorial field depth.  We never have any sense that we are in the room with camera, or that we are looking at anything but moving pictures of a performance.  The result is a conscious voyeurism, but one quite different from that of Michael Powell’s audience-indicting thriller Peeping Tom (1960).   Unlike Powell’s film, which gives the audience’s voyeurism a medium in the psychotic anti-hero Mark Lewis, Chelsea Girls’s visual point of entry is immediate.  We the audience are actively required to look, and thus to understand what we are, and what we are not, consuming.

Befitting its voyeuristic nature, Chelsea Girls is a highly sexual movie.  Those sharp, unanticipated zooms are often into close ups of eyes, mouths, breasts, crotches and asses, giving explicit shape to the audience’s ogling, making us uncomfortably aware that we were likely already focusing on the same anatomy.  We are also privy to a number of conversations on sex, a recurring topic in Chelsea Girls.  Pope Odin’s ‘confessions’ are mostly interrogations into the sexual histories of various women.  The answers Odin’s questions illicit are frank and lewd – deflowering details, preferred positions, specific turn-ons, etc. – but they are also utterly phony.  The ‘confessor’ uses the explicit vocabulary of sex, but it is to present a specific idea of sex she assumes the audience assumes is her idea of sex.  Which is to say she presents an idea of sex, but one that has no relation to the physical and emotional act.  She is posing in a manner that she assumes will meet our expectations of how she should be posed.

At times the posing in Chelsea Girls is literal.  Beyond being a film about sex, Chelsea Girls is very much a film about homosexuality and the affectations ascribed to sexual orientations.  Warhol’s crowd was often tagged derisively as ‘swish’ – even by other contemporary gay artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – and that ‘swishyness’ is flaunted and parodied throughout the film.  In one reel several gay men, most in their underwear, pile on top of bed a and entertain each other with flirty, airy stories.  The sequence definitely feels like an over-pitched farce, but it also steers our attention to the deliberate nature of specific postures and movements.  When the young men dived up an orange, we see the sexuality they intentionally inject into the act of chewing.  Later on, one character opens a book by John Barthes (a sort of collision of metafictions…), and the act of reading is not about absorbing text, but about the way the book is held to demonstrate effeteness.  The crux of the reel comes when the camera pushes in on a specific young man with a very boyish face, and holds him in close-up.  The whole time, the young man doesn’t speak, but listens, keenly aware that a camera is watching him as he works to find a way to hold his face that conveys his sexuality and intellect.  The camera veers away sharply when it is his turn to talk, as if he was more meaningfully communicating when he was silent.

Every action in Chelsea Girls is a performance.  We see Nico trimming her bangs in a kitchen, both altering her appearance for us and fetishizing the process of that alteration.  Brigid Polk complains aimlessly and shoves synergies into her body, creating black comedy kabuki.  And Hanoi Hannah chastises a group of dim-bulb models, demonstrating her alpha girl status not to them (who need no help being cowed), but to the audience.  The camera does not record these performances, it is the catalyst for them.  Every action, every self-conscious attempt to vivify a sense of desire or despair in Chelsea Girls is exaggerated to amplify the point that those actions are strictly a response to the camera.  Without the camera none of the gestures, none of the words, none of the emotions on screen would exist.  The camera literally produced them.

Conversely, Chelsea Girls wants us to understand that, just as any sense of physical space on screen would be a product of our imagination, so is any emotional response we might have to the images we are watching.  Any emotional content we find in the film comes from us investing our own emotions in the images, not from the images themselves.  The frames are celluloid and emulsion, and contain no emotional essence.  Watching Chelsea Girls, we become like Powell’s Mark Lewis – who longs to capture the perfect terror of death on film – continually searching for a sense of genuine feeling in a medium that is unable to convey feeling.  As Chelsea Girls winds towards its end, Eric Emerson, under the influence of heavy psychedelics, rubs his stomach and wonders aloud if the camera can capture anything at all.

It is this fundamental disconnection between production and reception inherent in all mechanically reproduced images that is the real subject of Chelsea Girls.  But it is not until the last two reels that the film stops considering this disconnection in the comic abstract, and starts considering it as a painful condition.  In those reels we see Nico gently sobbing next to Pope Odine flying into an unhinged, pathetic rage when one woman refuses to ‘confess’ to him.  The images are representations of emotional expression, but they represent nothing beyond themselves.  They are empty to us, nothing but light and sound.

The inability to meaningfully connect in Chelsea Girls is remarkably thematically similar to several other films of the 60s, including Michelangelo Antonini’s L’Avventura.  Antonini’s film is also concerned with the way capitalist production divorces individuals from a sense of tangible meaning – in L’Avventura a young woman literally disappears, which is made all the more haunting as her disappearance is never of explained and is of no consequence – but in the context of a narrative, which allows the audience to make that existential consideration real in our own minds.  Chelsea Girls’s lack of narrative enables it’s far more radically deconstruction of the film medium and of capitalist production, but it also limits its ability to resonate beyond itself.  Warhol’s interest in film was not in its story-telling possibilities, but as an object unto itself.

But strictly as an object, Chelsea Girls is fascinating.  True to Warhol’s description, the film is, in its very form, a series of home movies, in the analogue, Super 8/VHS sense.  I have vivid memories of fathers, grandfathers and uncles shooting hours of tape of Christmases and birthday parties, in shaky, long takes – most operators were limited to using the Record and Stop buttons.  They recorded images of facial features and body gestures and vocal tics that we would all out grow, but that the camera compelled us to express in the moment. There was never any feeling that these videos documented a sort of realism, but in the sense that these tapes were objects of nostalgia, they were more real than any other film.  Now amateur videographers have sophisticated digital cameras and the ability to edit and shape their family memories into professional-grade narratives, all in the name of more fully ‘documenting.’   We can be so overeager to buy into the illusions the medium affords us, that we forget what a film really is.  Chelsea Girls is art that, as trite as the expression has become, just is what it is.

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Postscript: The Varsity Theater screening of Chelsea Girls I attended coincided with an exhibit of Warhol’s personal Polaroid collection at UNC’s Ackland Art Museum.  The snapshots, expertly curated and arranged, show pop culture icons alongside unknowns, often striking the same poses for the camera, mirroring many of the themes of the film.  Also on display were a number of portraits by Cindy Sheerman, Niki S. Lee, and others, which all


1 Unfortunately all of the screenshots presented here are from a DVD edition of the film, and so they do not properly demonstrate just how vital projection is to the overall impact.  I kindly ask for you to use your imagination, and just go with me on this.

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