Andy Warhol: The Factory Culture of 'Screen Tests' and Performance in 'Chelsea Girls'.

When discussing the nature of performance in the filmography of Andy Warhol, it is necessary to understand the cultural and social milieu that he created around both himself, and his Factory superstars. Chelsea Girls was the first underground film to achieve any semblance of commercial success or distribution, but without any background knowledge of the vibrant avant-garde cinema tradition which had flourished throughout the Sixties in New York City, one may be forgiven for being at a loss as to the motives of Warhol and his ‘actors’. Performance, and the process of acting itself within a Warhol film, eschews the pervasive ideas of ‘realism’, upheld by the Hollywood tradition. Moreover, to understand what Kotch calls the “psychological subtleties of the Warholvian talk performance” in Chelsea Girls, you have to examine the works which preceded it; namely the extensive and infamous Screen Tests, which Warhol conducted from 1964-1966.[1] Specifically, I shall be looking at the Screen Test of Ann Buchanan. In doing so, I hope to demystify the multifaceted iterations and styles of silent performance, and ‘talk performance’ in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, and enquire into the intertwined elements of personality, competition, mental instability, and substance abuse, which come together to create a ‘factory star performance’.

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Warhol produced “more than four hundred black-and-white moving image portraits” within the space of four years.[2]  He collated them into series, with Thirteen Most Beautiful Women featuring the screen test of Ann Buchanan, which is known to be his favorite.[3] It is easy to deduce why. Throughout his filmmaking career, Warhol was obsessed with dialectic between “performance and the more authentic behavior by non-actors”, constantly attempting to blur and destabilize the relationship between his subjects’ on and off camera personalities.[4] Buchanan’s screen test does just this and more, simultaneously adhering to the structure to which each film was prescribed (a still camera, a plain background, and an instruction not to blink), while subverting it by channeling a static and “uncanny display of emotion”.[5] The four minute ‘stillie’ as Warhol liked to call them, is shot in partial slow motion at 16fps, adding an almost imperceptible element of drama to the tears which gradually fall from her obediently un-blinking eyes. Here we reach the crux of the dialectic which Warhol seeks to explore; a type of performance which confounds the viewer in its simultaneous authenticity and self-awareness. Doing so without the aid of speech is even more impressive. Buchanan is fully aware of the presence of the camera and the nature of the screen test, and yet by staring directly into the lens, she communicates something so pure that it threatens to subvert the narcissism of medium. It makes the viewer question whether her tears are caused by the physical act of staring for four minutes, by a purposeful emotional recollection, or by a genuine and unplanned outpouring of emotion, constrained and then reproduced by the framework of the screen test.

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Underlying this cynicism however, is a desire for her ‘performance’ to be genuine; on the part of the viewer, a willingness to be moved. A desire for it to be an honest representation of what it purports to portray; that is, an ‘involuntary revelation’ in the words of Murphy.[6]  Remes notes how her tears seem to be “a visual representation of {…] the way these demons can manifest themselves without our permission”.[7] It would appear that this reading has some validity. Murphy notes that “Buchanan was not a Method actor”, and thus, we can safely examine the screen test through the lens of psychodrama.[8]  While Warhol did not coin the term ‘psychodrama’, his films owe much of their emotional affectivity to the techniques developed by psychotherapist Jacob Moreno. Within psychodrama the protagonist “often undergoes an intense emotional experience that leads to deep personal insight.”[9] Warhol would deliberately introduce instability, doubt, confusion, and substances into his scenes, often choosing mentally unstable people as actors, with the intention of capturing these aforementioned psychodramatic transformations on camera. Buchanan’s is one of the few silent screen tests which successfully does so, on a par with the ‘involuntary revelations’ which occur in Chelsea Girls which we will come to later.

Murphy’s adapted description of psychodrama highlights; “those peak moments of dramatic interaction where the artifice of the performance or situation suddenly breaks down, and the performer as well as the audience experiences a heightened sense of reality.”[10] As such it has commonalities with cinéma-vérité’s ideas around reality and performance, in so much as it seeks to capture the elusive trope of ‘real life’. This analysis of Warholvian psychodrama is not only crucial to understanding his filmic intentions, but also to quantify the true cultural value of Chelsea Girls as a landmark for unashamed and protracted portrayals of selfhood, outside the realm of documentary.

Warhol’s great achievement with Chelsea Girls, was arguably to introduce and normalize the underground characters of his everyday life, to a mass audience; an act which destabilized the notion of what being ‘underground’ or avant-garde really meant. However, its is important to note that the twelve scenes which comprise the film, were not originally intended for the wider audience which they eventually reached, you and I included. The screenings of these ‘performances’ were primarily for those who had already participated in the making of them, as well as the wider milieu of Warhol’s 47th Street Factory studio culture. Crucially, the projections themselves were regarded as a type of performance, with the projectionist taking his or her own creative license to combine, phase, and fade the sound and images to their own personal taste for each screening.[11]  The split screen presentation we now know was originally multiple projectors  which played in conjunction with live music and light shows; this was known as ‘expanded cinema’.[12]

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Expanded Cinema matters because it allowed for a new, more distracted form of engagement with on screen performance. The eye is allowed to drift from one projection to another, guided more by boredom than by interest. Each reel of Chelsea Girls is approximately half an hour long, and like Screen Tests (but in a more advanced form), it is a type of portraiture. However, they do not merely convey the actor’s likeness, but instead, are portraits of personality. Henry Geldzahler notes from his own experience, that “if you sit somebody in front of a camera for an hour and a half and don’t tell them what to do, they’re going to do everything, their whole vocabulary”.[13] In this way we can see each performance from the actors, as a macrocosm for their larger-than-life personalities. And thanks to Warhol’s “flawless personal taste” in choosing his subjects, “there is virtually nobody in The Chelsea Girls who fails to have a relation to the camera that works.”[14] Warhol’s involvement in the underground scene, meant that he attracted social outcasts and misfits to the factory, as well as the celebrities, many of whom star in his films. This was the unifying nature of Warholvian Superstardom. Transvestites, drag queens, models, gays, and lesbians alike, shared his silver screen. Essentially, what is lacking is any kind of normativity. For Warhol, it seems that what made for an interesting scene was not merely a conflict of personalities, but also a strong sexual undercurrent; a precarious dialectic between extraordinary glamour, and flamboyant personalities; between delicate beauty and brash confidence.

In every interaction of our lives we are performing to a greater or lesser extent, be that through gender roles, sexuality, or varying social situations. By virtue of choosing subjects who are already subverting the norms of personality, he is already accustomed to, and must necessarily engage with, radical notions of performance in an everyday context.  Being in front of a camera is no different, be that for ‘documentary’ or psychodramatic purposes. Warhol’s stars are all remarkable in their own right, and self-absorbed to the extreme. Their personalities are formulated and performed in an environment where “living and being seen cojoin”.[15] Kotch suggests that “through the actor’s self awareness, one perceives the camera’s felt presence, as if in a mirror”.[16] The first reel of the film, Nico in Kitchen, is laden with the symbolism of this type of narcissism. Nico is introduced to us, in media res, too distracted by her own appearance in a hand-held mirror to acknowledge the camera (and by implication, the audience), or to engage with the one sided conversation being directed towards her. Yet in this lack of acknowledgement, there is an implicit understanding that her preening is for the purposes of the camera itself, and that our gaze is one of aesthetic fetishisation. Kotch calls this “ironic sensuality”, and to varying degrees, it becomes the iterative theme of each individual reel.

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We see this self-awareness, bordering on narcissism, over-performed in Eric says all, as well as in Boys in bed, and famously of course, in Pope Ondine. Each of these reels feature strong, yet divergent expressions of homosexual personalities. Eric Emerson’s erotically charged presence sways across the screen, playing and responding to the camera as though it were a potential lover, or better yet his own reflection. Ondine on the other hand, projects unwavering confidence and wit, symptomatic of the delicately constructed pride that belies, and subsequently destabilizes his persona when baited with the jibe ‘phony’. His ensuing outburst of violence and verbal abuse towards the unsuspecting Rona Page is really the crucial moment of  ‘involuntary revelation’ in the whole film. Ondine’s unexpected and relentless rage is the moment where the viewer is jolted out of the lethargic spell of the film’s “merciless clock time”, and forced to acknowledge (or at least question) that what they have witnessed up until this point has been performance.[17] This outburst is not performance. This is not someone ‘playing at being themself’, but rather, a genuine psychological rupture in the continuum of detached ‘talk performance’ which has pervaded this reel and others in the film; a pure moment of psychodrama.[18]  It fully engages with Warhol’s intended dialectic between performance and authenticity. You can almost imagine Warhol standing in the shadows behind the set, silently watching the scene unfold from a distance with intent eyes, and a wry smile, while his chaotic objective plays out perfectly before the camera.

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Throughout the filmography of Warhol, there is a preoccupation with performance and the reproduction of personality in all its innumerable permutations. His Screen Tests stand as portraits of personality; temporally and physically constrained spaces in which a performance of the subject’s more intimate identity is extruded onto 16mm film, with varying degrees of success. Ann Buchanan tears are a beautifully minimalist reaction to the medium, creating the maximum psychodramatic effect. In contrast, the ‘talk performances’ in Chelsea Girls are bold and unashamed in their portrayals of non-normative selfhood, and glamour, but nevertheless provide access to ‘involuntary revelations’ that help us to glimpse some deeper truth about the subject. But when discussing the nature of truth and performance, to capture even this glimpse, is all we can truly hope for, and it is in itself, a high accolade. Both the Screen Tests, and Chelsea Girls navigate the delicate relationship between authenticity and self-awareness, and in doing so, seek to re-invent how truth and performance can be portrayed on screen.

 

 

 

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Kotch, Steven. “The Chelsea Girls,” in Stargazer: The Life, World, and Films of Andy Warhol,

revised ed., New York: Marion Boyars, 1991.

Osterweil, Ara. The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists,

Vol. 7, No. 1. Spring, 2007.

Murphy, J.J.. “Introduction: Try Not To Blink,” in The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of

Andy Warhol, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Remes, Justin. “Introduction” in Motion [Less] Pictures: The cinema of Stasis, Columbia

University Press, 2015.

Pierson, Michele. ‘Week 6 Lecture’ in American Underground Cinema, Londonl; King’s

College London, 26/10/16.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filmography

The Chelsea Girls. DVD. Directed by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, New York: 1966.

 

13 Most Beautiful Boys. DVD. Directed by Andy Warhol, New York, 1964.

 

13 Most Beautiful Women. DVD. Directed by Andy Warhol, New York, 1964.

 

[1] Steven Kotch, “The Chelsea Girls,” in Stargazer: The Life, World, and Films of Andy Warhol, revised ed. (New York: Marion Boyars, 1991), 89.

[2] Ara Osterweil, The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 2007), 100.

[3] J.J. Murphy “Introduction: Try Not To Blink,” in The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 2.

[4] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 4.

[5] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 2.

[6] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 5.

[7] Justin Remes, “Introduction” in Motion [Less] Pictures: The cinema of Stasis (Columbia University Press: 2015), 28.

[8] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 2.

[9] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 9.

[10] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 9.

[11] Michele Pierson, Week 6 Lecture, KCL, 26/10/16

[12] Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 13.

[13] Henry Geldzahler, quoted in Murphy, Try Not To Blink, 5.

[14] Steven Kotch, “The Chelsea Girls,” in Stargazer: The Life, World, and Films of Andy Warhol, revised ed. (New York: Marion Boyars, 1991), 93.

[15] Koch, Stargazer, 94.

[16] Koch, Stargazer, 94.

[17] Koch, Stargazer, 90.

[18] Koch, Stargazer, 87.

Merrick Winter