The pop artist’s films were eerily prescient
NOTHING SPECIAL: ANDY WARHOL’S STAR SYSTEM from Friday (October 30) to January 25, 2016, at TIFF Bell Lightbox. tiff.net. Rating: NNNNN
The films produced by Andy Warhol during the Factory’s prolific 1960s heyday are both emblematic of their era and eerily prescient.
A 19-film sidebar to TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Warhol exhibition, Nothing Special: Andy Warhol’s Star System functions as a time capsule in which so much of what defines 21st-century culture, from the celebrity-manufacturing engine of social media to the mass media’s fusion of atrocity and spectacle, has already been diagnosed, dissected and transformed into avant-garde divertissement. Though stark, offbeat and faux-amateurish, these films are, in their way, entertaining.
Warhol’s 60s films bear scant resemblance to those made by his experimental cinema contemporaries like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow. Rather, Warhol’s distinctive use of genre, repetition and transparent artifice evinces a kinship with concurrent theatrical innovations from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
This is nowhere more apparent than in 1965’s Kitchen (November 19, 9 pm), whose very title invokes the early Sam Shepard plays performed at La MaMa. Unfolding entirely within one cramped set cluttered with appliances and brand-name products, it features five actors, each inhabiting various archetypal roles, while a still photographer roams in and out of frame.
One moment two actors play mother and son the next they’re lovers immersed in a power struggle. A showcase for the charismatic Edie Sedgwick, Kitchen eclipses banal domesticity with bohemian ennui, rampant consumerism with ribald sexuality, high camp with an earnest longing to be seen and desired.
Kitchen’s recipe is revisited with still greater complexity in 1968’s The Nude Restaurant (January 2, 6:30 pm), in which the abundant skin on display can’t compete with Viva’s orb-like eyes as she unspools a string of anecdotes critiquing hypocritical social mores. Though surrounded by hot cowboys, Viva’s just as compelling in Lonesome Cowboys (January 1, 6:15 pm), a flamboyantly queer western decades ahead of Brokeback Mountain.
Warhol radically reconfigured the raw elements of Hollywood cinema. He assembled his own stable of so-called superstars, many of whom were featured in 1966’s The Chelsea Girls (October 30, 6:30 pm), a mesmerizing dual-screen projection of vignettes – and a box office smash.
Warhol had an innate feel for the transfixing allure of a face confronted with a camera’s gaze. His Screen Tests (a selection screens January 23, 6:30 pm) are as important to our understanding of the power of close-ups as anything from Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes.
So many of Warhol’s films court alienation, yet the Screen Tests are shot through with an astonishing intimacy and an invitation to identify. To paraphrase a beloved song from the Velvet Underground (whose debut Warhol administered), Warhol could be your mirror. This remarkable selection of films invites you to step through the looking glass.
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