The Black Hole Of The Camera: The Films Of Andy Warhol
Forget everything you think you know about Andy Warhol.
With the brilliant new book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol, author J. J. Murphy obviously focuses in on the artist’s filmmaking career. However, Murphy may just be the first writer to integrate movies such as Couch, Eat, Empire, Lonesome Cowboys and The Chelsea Girls into the totality of Warhol’s artistic pursuits, i.e. silk screening, painting, filmmaking, videomaking, tape recording and photography.
This is, unbelievably, the first time in cinema scholarship such an endeavor has ever been undertaken. That may seem like a shame, particularly given Warhol’s enormous filmic output and his stature as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Yet, it’s clear it’s been worth the wait for such an astute writer and Warhol film fan like Murphy to finally tackle the topic.
Previously, one of the problems with an in-depth analysis of most of Warhol’s films is that they were taken out of circulation almost immediately after they completed their screening runs. Therefore, most writing on them had to be based solely on — sometimes faulty — memories of those screenings and through generic descriptions of the films’ typically bland sounding set-ups, e.g. the film Haircut usually being described just as being about a man receiving a haircut.
Luckily, though, through recent preservation efforts, Murphy has been able to analyze Warhol’s prodigious film output directly, putting the lie to all previous conceptions about them. Reading through The Black Hole of the Camera, one will either be jealous of Murphy’s opportunity to study these films so closely or will consider him a candidate for sainthood for sitting through the entire eight hours of a single shot of the Empire State Building (Empire), five hours of a man sleeping (Sleep), a half-hour of a man eating a mushroom (Eat) and more.
Yet, by doing so, Murphy at last puts the lie to the long held assumption that to make these films Warhol simply turned on his camera and walked away until the last of the film roll passed through it. Just as he did with his book analyzing atypical screenplay structures, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work, Murphy continues to prove to be extremely adept and insightful in zeroing in on a challenging film’s hidden nuances that reveal its true intention at audience interaction.
When he was alive, Warhol constantly strove to misdirect his audience’s perception of his work, particularly by claiming that everything he did existed completely on a surface visual level and that there was no depth to anything he did, which is, of course, total bullshit. Warhol’s greatest artistic achievement is perhaps what could be considered the lifelong performance art piece of never publicly cracking the image that he was nothing more than a superficial visualist. Not once during his entire career did he ever break down and confess to — nor even hint at — at what all of his pursuits might actually mean taken as a whole.
Therefore his dabbling in different mediums is usually treated separately by those who analyze his work as if none of it is connected. Also, when it comes specifically to Warhol’s filmmaking career, it is typically analyzed as separate and disconnected periods. First, there are his static, pre-structuralist conceptual films such as Empire and Eat. Then, there’s his psychodrama period, such as his only semi-mainstream hit The Chelsea Girls. Then, there’s his sexploitation films, such as Lonesome Cowboys. And, lastly, there are the Warhol “produced” and Paul Morrisey directed films like Trash and Heat.
However, Murphy very successfully argues that there was a very deliberate evolution to Warhol’s filmmaking styles that can be discussed as a unified whole, as well as be integrated with the rest of his artistic career.
Warhol was, of course, obsessed with the idea of the “Superstar,” a person who is so inherently interesting that the viewer becomes fascinated with him or her just for being in front of the camera. His early films, then, would focus on just such an “interesting” person, as well as play with audience expectations as to what defines “interesting” behavior in a movie.
One of Warhol’s earliest films is Sleep, which as Murphy points out, is usually erroneously described as a single shot of a man sleeping. However, what Murphy actually finds is a film composed of 22 different shots that were filmed over a period of several weeks and edited in a deliberate visual arc that lends it an errant sort of plot. Since mainstream films gloss over the act of sleeping so that actors can presumably do more interesting things on screen, Warhol chooses to instead over-emphasize this mundane daily activity in one five hour-plus film starring his then-lover John Giorno. Plus, by filming this behavior 22 different ways, Warhol intends for the viewer to focus on not only the film’s subject, but the changes in the actual film projection, just in the same way he intended for viewers to pick up on the minute differences between his repetitive screen printing portraits.
In encouraging us to completely rethink Warhol, Murphy’s real strength is the way he’s able to make these films sound so alive and vibrant. Previous writers have perhaps followed Warhol’s lead in considering them as non-engaging objects, more interesting as conceptual pieces not to be actually viewed and studied. But in acutely describing their sometimes near-imperceptible changes in film processing, framing, actor arrangement and more, Murphy is able to make Warhol’s films sound as exciting as any big budget CGi spectacle. The only shame comes in the fact that most of these films are impossible to come across for intrigued viewers.
As Warhol’s filmmaking interests and practices evolved and became more comple, moving into the realms of psychodrama and sexploitation, so does The Black Hole of the Camera become more engrossing.
Also, the collaborative nature of Warhol’s working processes always brings up the thorny issue of artistic authorship. Yet, again, Murphy is able to clearly and cleanly define the artist’s authorial vision even when he was working with scenarist Ronald Tavel, instigator Chuck Wein and director Paul Morrissey.
Murphy gets his cues from both watching the actual films as well as through scholarly research, digging up articles and interviews to prove Warhol’s active engagement with his subjects. For example, Murphy has uncovered an obscure radio interview with witnesses to the production of the 1968 sexploitation film Bike Boy that proves Warhol was an active director while, on this particular project, collaborator Paul Morrissey was in charge of certain technical elements, such as placement of the lighting. This especially contradicts more recent statements from Morrissey who, over the years, has claimed more and more credit for his involvement.
The Black Hole of the Camera is a thoroughly engaging and exciting read, but thoroughly jam-packed with revelatory details and descriptions. Murphy, who was inspired in his own filmmaking career by watching Warhol’s films, shares his unbridled enthusiasm in the best ways that a true scholar and a devoted fan can. Like the ways Warhol’s films inspired Murphy, his book should serve as an inspiration to both future generations of filmmakers and to other scholars to reevaluate the contribution that Warhol made to the independent and underground film scene of the 1960s.
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