The Chelsea Girls has a classical grandeur about it, something from Victor Hugo. Its grandeur is the grandeur of its subject, the human scope of its subject. And it is a tragic film. The lives that we see in this film are full of desperation, hardness, and terror. It's there for everybody to see and to think about. Every work of art helps us to understand ourselves by describing to us those aspects of our lives, which we either know little of or fear. It's there in black on white before our eyes, this collection of desperate creatures, the desperate part of our being, the avant-garde of our being. And one of the amazing things about this film is that the people in it are not really actors; or if they are acting, their acting becomes unimportant. It becomes part of their personalities, and there they are, totally real, with their transformed, intensified selves. The screen acting is expanded by an ambiguity between real and unreal. This is part of Warhol's filming technique, and very often it is a painful technique. There is the girl who walks from scene to scene crying, real tears, really hurt; a girl, under LSD probably, who isn't even aware, or only half aware, that she is being filmed; the "priest" who gives into a fit of rage (a real rage) and the slaps the girl right and left (a real slap, not the actors slap) when she begins to talk about God-in probably the most dramatic religious sequence ever filmed. Toward the end, the film bursts into color-not the usual color-movie color but a dramatized exalted, screaming red color of terror.
Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls, like most underground movies, may never be seen by filmgoers outside the flickering, hard-chaired "cinemathèques" in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nevertheless it is a fascinating and significant movie event.
The underground cinema is the natural expression of a class: the young American dropouts who call all others copouts, the generation turned on, in and under; that subspecies at once passive and hysterical, sagacious and silly; that cadre of bizarre haberdashers who make far-out threads to replace the emperor's new clothes. In a sense The Chelsea Girls is the testament of that class, the Iliad of the underground.
And Andy Warhol, that smiling alfalfa-haired, infant-eyed, no-aged Peter Pan of Pop Art, is an appropriate Homer for such an epic. Ground to confetti in the public mills, Warhol nevertheless bestrides the infantile age like a prodigy on the potty. His notorious early films were all interminable, static depictions of such themes as a man interminably smoking a cigar, a chap interminably eating, a fellow interminably sleeping and the Empire State Building interminably existing. These anti-movies had the outrageous anti-logic of children-nutty children. They asked, with idiotic relevance, primitive questions in a time whose supersophistication is simply another form of insanity. Now Warhol has turned his baleful, catatonic camera on the dropout generation and asked them to show how they drop. The droppings presumably take place in the Chelsea Hotel, the historic Waldorf of New York's bohemia. There Warhol peeps into eight different rooms to give us eight gamy hours of ... life. But, in a masterstroke, he splits his screen to show two peeps simultaneously. The resulting nearly four-hour film sets the eyes on alert, the teeth on edge and the heart on trial.
The heart is on trial because it fights against even wanting to know about the existence of Warhol's Chelsea-hell with its dottily damned. But where is the subject matter of today's novels, plays, films ? The privileged few ? Hardly of primary importance, right ? The dispossessed ? Touching, but hardly central, right ? The great middle-middle-middle class ? Boresville, no ? The fact is that in today's splintered world, Warhol's split screen people are just as meaningful as Jack Gelber's garrulous junkies, Edward Albee's spiteful comedians, John Updike's poetic suburbanites. So there they are, two helpings at a time — in color and black-and-white — the fat lesbian pill popper who lives on the telephone like a junkie Molly Goldberg; the tomato-faced W.C. Fields-like mother ranting against her over-cool son while his passive chick sits frozen with intimidation; that same chick in another room, herself now the sadist to her passive chicks; a vacantly beautiful blonde endlessly trimming her bangs like the Lady of Shallot waiting for a lanceless Lancelot; a blonde-helmeted boy, an Achilles of Narcissism, doing an onanistic monologue-and-strip in a colored stroboscopic limbo which makes him look like Man regressing to a primal homunculus.
Confessions: The film's semi-improvised, charade-like self-consciousness is often irritating — but even that is part of its macabre veracity. This veracity is epitomized by a not-really-young, eagle-faced, self-confessed homosexual who emits an electric crackle of outrageously amusing dialogue as he plays at being the Pope: "During my Popage the Catholic Church has disappeared and Greenwich Village is in its place ... My flock consists of human beings of any sort — junkies, thieves, criminals, the rejected by society. That's who I'm Pope for-the few who really care ... Come in, honey, and confess. The cameras are rolling. This is a new kind of confession — it's called True Confessions."
Sad, bad, mad, glad world caught in the convolutions of its own put-on. But The Chelsea Girls is one of those semidocuments that seem to be the most pointed art forms of the day. It is as if there had been cameras concealed in the fleshpots of Caligula's Rome. Film societies and universities should have a look at this movie, which touches more nerves than a multifariously perverse world will ever admit.
The impact of The Chelsea Girls lies not in what it's about, which is readily seen, its ingredients known from newspapers, movies, nightclubs, and public domain fantasies, but in the uniqueness and oddities of its treatment of its material. The two screens, the 'radical' and not-so-radical juxtaposition of images, the compressed space, the self-conscious offbeat styles of acting, the humor that has one foot in, one foot out, of camp, the camera that seems to be attached to someone's foreskin half the time, the 'rules' of behaviour that gradually come to light — but all I'm doing is describing. Each one of these things naturally has a different effect. I must stick to the two specific things that hold the most satisfaction for me.
One is the dual-screen device with its constantly changing inside edge. I began to watch on second viewing the inside edge rather than one screen or the other. Nico's child's head next to the looming Ondine; the moody purplish nervous detail of the Malanga scene next to a corner of the loaded static bed. The inside edge delineates another story, another interaction of characters, and more than any other part of the frame contains the condensed imagery, emphasizing how the image mashes up against the edge and is restrained from spilling out. This is a familiar concept in painting, if somewhat unfashionable in that area at the moment. To see it visualized to such an extreme in cinema is a new experience.
The second source of satisfaction is the realization of limits as defined by the 'rules.' One very soon begins to see that there is a strict protocol governing most of the interactions, which when defied produces jarring results, as when Hannah tells Superstar, "you aren't supposed to like it," or Ondine gets upset when told he's a phony. The rules of the game narrow down to 'maintain your character' and 'don't give the game away.' Since no standards of professionalism infuse the acting, these two rules, far from supporting a meaningless, or at best unconsidered convention, here produce very unusual results, made even more pointed by lapses. The frequent infractions of the rules do not go unnoticed by the performers. The knowledge that they are playing the game according to rules, hence that they know both what they're doing and when they're not doing it, is reassuring, projecting a sense order and economy. This particular set of limitations-working within them and treading dangerously at their outer edge-evokes an extravagant logic and provides much of the dark humor of the film.
Movies record the collective life of their audiences. And the dreams are continually changing. In the beginning was Hollywood, that innocent paste-diamond Paradise where square-jawed, square-shouldered He was joined in romantic union with Platinum-in satin She, thus glorifying innumerable mundane matings and ritualistically reiterating that it's love alone that makes the world go round.
Then came the Fall, the eating of the bitter fruit of knowledge and the end of the lover-conquers-all, lived happily-ever after myth. The age of the art house import brought films in which sleek, attractive married or half-married couples suffer glamorously in existential angst. These films provide a narcissistic dream in which the anxiety and boredom of marriage a la mode are made glamorous for today's swinging middle class. And for such boredom, some cinematic consolations-escalating sex frankness, all-but-nude couples all-but-coupling, nymphomania, prostitution, adultery and even incest. But the taboos on these activities remain intact in real life-otherwise, where's the fun ?
Enter the Underground Cinema, which offers a new dream, a nightmare for some, but for some a return to the androgynous pre-Adamic Paradise before the split into male and female. The sudden popular success of several Underground films indicates a major psychic shift may be in process.
Only a year ago, at a New York Film Festival seminar on Underground Cinema at Lincoln Center, distributors laughed off the idea presented by Jonas Mekas, guiding spirit of the Filmmaker's Co-op, the Underground films might be distributed through commercial channels. They didn't share Mekas's fanatic faith in the revolutionary new cinema. It was ludicrous to think the general public could accept the Underground's casual "home movies" with their taboo subjects, erratic lengths and unorthodox 16mm size.
But even Mekas, who decided the Co-op would aim for its own small Cinematheque showcases in larger cities, could not have dreamed that less than year later Underground films — notably The Chelsea Girls, Scorpio Rising, My Hustler, and Chafed Elbows-would be chalking up long runs in art houses over the country as well as in New York, and be on their way to runs in England, Canada, and Sweden; that the Underground group would be preparing to open two Greenwich Village showcases for the new and classic avant-garde films, and to bring its cinematheque theater, located in the bowels of the Wurlitzer building, into the light of day by giving it a marquee on 4SecondStreet; that a national chain of art houses would be adapting its projectors to 16 mm films so they look as good as the standard 35 mm, a tremendous breakthrough in the light of the long taboo against the 16 mm; and that the Hudson Theater on 44th Street would be giving itself over to Warhol's films exclusively as a result of the 7-week run of My Hustler. (The current offering is I, a Man, a Warhol-eye view of sex between the sexes, parodying a current Swedish import about a nymphomaniac. Opening Thursday is Dope, the title referring not to narcotics but to the mentality of the motorcyclist hero.)
The Chelsea Girls, which was the first Underground film to surface up to an art house showing and is so far the masterpiece of the "Baudelairean Cinema," sets out the cosmogony within which a good part of the Underground Cinema takes place. Andy Warhol's beautiful girls and boys lolling enigmatically and endlessly on unmade beds in tacky rooms have excited a disturbed admiration on the part of many critics, who see in the film visions of Hell and the end of Western Civilization.
From high priest of Pop via Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes, Warhol became for the critics who praised the film the peer of Joyce, Dante, Dickens, and D. W. Griffith. Drugs and sex, the surface matter of the film, stirred intimations of doom in serious-minded viewers. Andy's peeping Tom camera, at once passionately curious and passively detached, had discovered the young fantasts with their fetishistically perfect haircuts and turned-on eyes in the act of freaking-out. The narcotic languor of the subjects in Warhol's epic begins to communicate itself to the audience during the 3 1/2 hours of Nirvana on two schizoid screens. Visions of girls in filmy chemises lackadaisically sticking pins into each other, a young man eating an apple and reading a book while his male bedmates are sexually occupied just off-screen, and Ondine, the "Pope of Greenwich Village," endlessly haranguing, gradually wear down the viewer's stepped-up Western time-sense, seducing him into a suspension of his normal value system. More disturbing than the contagious lethargy of the movie is the deeper message: these dreamy swingers, playing their little games, clearly question the most basic assumption of our culture — namely that heterosexual coupling, happy or unhappy, moral or immoral, is a socially significant enterprise worthy of the closest possible scrutiny. Hollywood's tinsel titillation and the art house film's hard bedrock fornication are replaced by a new sexual mythology, a cool, low-keyed playful polymorphism. The conscious mind may reject the surface matter of the film, and talk about Dante's Inferno. But the subliminal message flashed by the images of these young glamorous types, who are the ideal of beauty held up to us on magazine covers and in TV commercials, is utterly subversive: Pacificism in the battle of the sexes, and with it the shedding of all the other straitjackets of social role-playing for a heady unguarded moment, the viewer glimpses a new lotus land. Move over and make room for me on the bed. The message must have some timely magnetism because The Chelsea Girls, in addition to its prolonged run in cities over the country and its contracts to be shown abroad, is generating works in other art forms. Two members of Warhol's Velvet Underground electronic rock group are completing an opera based on the film. It will open in Stockholm in January, in connection with a Warhol art show sponsored by the Swedish government. After Stockholm, a fashionable Texas department store plans to bring the opera to Dallas, where the film ran for six weeks. In addition, Nico, one of the female superstars of The Chelsea Girls, has just put out a record album which includes a moody, Kurt Weillish song about the characters in the film. Grove Press, in addition to publishing film scripts of both The Chelsea Girls and My Hustler, is bringing out the autobiography of Pope Ondine, which he recorded on tape in a 24-hour session.
Noting the success of Underground Cinema, Variety reports commercial filmmaking here and abroad are planning to use homosexual themes in their movies on the theory that sympathetic treatment of this subject is what lures the audiences. But the commercial movie men, addicted to sociological and psychological concepts and to slick, impersonal camera work, cannot achieve the filmic poetry which the offbeat sexual mystique provides for the Underground. In addition to providing a pervasive vision that informs every image and the general tone of the films, this mystique makes possible the creation of symbolic superstars like Mario Montez, named after the late star of the 1940's grade B movies. Mario, who appears in The Chelsea Girls, Flaming Creatures, and at least 10 other Underground epics, has a divinity achieved by no Hollywood goddess. With that eternal feminine gesture of pushing the hair of his-her rat's nest wig from a pancaked cheek, and pouring from the depths of his-her liquid dark eyes a painful sweetness that passeth understanding, he-she projects a vision of androgyne mysteries, a glimpse of the unio mystica, the blessed union of all striving opposites.
The special poetry of the Underground films is expressed in highly varied styles by the individual filmmakers. The Chelsea Girls and My Hustler are novelistic, bringing new characters and situations to the screen. Jack Smith's still-banned Flaming Creatures depicts the exotic "pageantry of Transvestia and the magic of Fairyland" as the Film Culture award puts it, in phantasmagoric terms. Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising on the other hand is a brilliant feat of investing daily life with magic vision, in a complex, surrealist view of motorcycle cultists.
Not all of the expanded audience for the Underground Cinema is ready for its esoteric message. This was evident after a recent showing of the long-running Scorpio at the Gate Theater on downtown Second Avenue. A matron with neatly bouffed gray hair turned to her husband in the lobby and commented on a scene in the movie, the "Dressing adagio," in which the camera lingers on a young cyclist. Photographed in rich blue tones, while a rock 'n' roll record, "She Wore Blu-ue Velvet," provides an ironic background, he slowly dons blue work shirt, jeans, and cyclist's gear with the hieratic gestures of a priest donning religious vestments or a transvestite putting on drag. Apparently oblivious to the homoerotic charm of the scene, the matron mused, "So you see this guy putting on his shirt, and he buttons it, then he puts on his pants, then he puts on his fancy belt and he buckles it-so what's to see ?" Her husband shrugged noncommittally.
Re-examining Andy Warhol's early masterpiece of avant-garde cinema. The Museum of the Moving Image in New York City closed out the series Visions of New York: Films from the 1960's Underground with Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls.
The Chelsea Girls was made at the peak of avant-garde cinema in 1966. It is a 3 ? hour epic which is comprised of twelve 30-minute films shown double projected side by side. There are no cuts within any sequence. Warhol was using newsreel cameras that could record 30 minutes of film at once; it had the capability of recording the sound directly onto the film, creating an instant optical track. This technique prevented separation from picture and sound, so in order to keep sync, Warhol had to make a film without any cuts for 30 minutes, and that is exactly what he did with The Chelsea Girls.
The Chelsea Girls takes place in the Chelsea Hotel in eight different rooms. The film can be shown in any order, letting the projectionist have a creative role in the film. However, Warhol has conceived of the standard order that we see today. The film stars nearly every "star" to come out of The Factory including, Gerard Malanga, Mary Woronov, Ingrid Superstar, Bob "Ondine" Olivio, International Velvet, Brigid Polk and the ever alluring Nico.
Each actor in the film is compelled to create a spectacle. Ondine plays the role of the pope, and keeps us amused for a full hour with his boisterous persona. Mary Woronov acts as the sadist who has control over the other females in the room with her hostile attitude. Ingrid Superstar shows up in almost all of the segments and is constantly chatting to keep us entertained. The only person in the film who seems real is Nico. Her presence on screen is so captivating; we follow her every move. She is in two segments, one in black and white, the other in color. She is the true "star" of the film; not putting on an act, or trying to entertain us. The dope dealer played by the hilarious Brigid Polk adds some comic relief and a little bit of grit.
The Chelsea Girls is a movie "experience." Warhol uses the camera as his weapon. The actors before his camera try their hardest to put on a narcissistic show for us and themselves. Warhol pulls out the tragedy, beauty and sadness of the people he films. He creates stars but then tears them apart on screen. He wants to see his stars drop before us.
The Chelsea Girls is a masterpiece of the cinema, which can not be explained, but experienced. It draws you into this new realm and, when you least expect it, you are thrown right back out.