For most people the films of Andy Warhol were more fun to read about then to actually watch. In the case of films such as the 485-minute Empire (1964) or Sleep (1963), at 321 minutes, it’s hard to imagine someone watching these in their entirety in one sitting. I don’t even think Warhol expected viewers to watch these in real time but to wander in and out of the screenings like you would at a video installation. But even at revivals of the most popular and infamous Warhol titles such as The Chelsea Girls (1966) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968), you can bet on numerous walkouts during the screenings, not from outrage but boredom or disinterest. At the other end of the scale, however, are the short, silent black and white films he made when he was first experimenting with the medium and his Screen Test series shows a brilliance of concept and execution that could easily turn naysayers into converts.
Screen Test #1 (1965) featuring Ronald Tavel was the first initial foray into this series and it set the template for what followed, resulting in approximately 500 short films of famous celebrities, Warhol associates and strangers who floated in and out of the sixties art scene in New York City at the time. Warhol would place a stationary 16mm Bolex camera in front of his subject, turn it on and often leave it running while he attended to other things in his studio or had an assistant monitor it. The instructions were simple; the subject was to remain as still as possible (some refused this simple command) while the 100-foot roll of film completed its run through the projector. These four-minute portraits were filmed at 24 frames per second and later projected at 16 frames per second, just like films of the silent era.
Thanks to the efforts of the Andy Warhol Museum and the DVD distributor Plexifilm, a small but stunning selection of Warhol’s screen tests were featured in 13 Most Beautiful…Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009) in which musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, formerly of the group Luna, provide a soundtrack for the silent screen tests and it proves to be a mesmerizing experience. While the disc offers up the original silent versions of 13 screen tests, the same 13 create a much stronger emotional impact with the perfectly realized mood music created for each individual on display and that includes Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, Mary Woronov, Ingrid Superstar, Billy Name, Lou Reed, and Baby Jane Holzer (brushing her teeth) among others.
Wareham and Phillips are the ideal collaborators for this project as their music has always had a dreamy, drug-induced quality, even in their new incarnation as Dean & Britta. In their previous group Luna, you can hear the ghosts of the Velvet Underground haunting the hallways of songs like “Tiger Lily,” “Chinatown” and “Drunken Whistler.” The duo has also become accomplished in film scoring (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Mistress America) in the past few years so their instincts about setting the proper mood for the screen test at hand is often impeccable, though I prefer the instrumentals over the few vocal performances they provide here.
The two musicians have also popped up in bit parts and cameos in films over the years with Wareham appearing in the films of his friend director Noah Baumbach such as Mr. Jealousy, Highball, While We’re Young and Marriage Story while Phillips can be seen in the Justine Bateman musical comedy Satisfaction, Michael Walker’s Price Check, Frances Ha and Jem and the Holograms.
For all those who reject Warhol’s filmmaking aesthetics (or lack of them), you might want to reassess his cinematic legacy based on 13 Most Beautiful… The selected screen tests featured are fascinating, sad, funny, moody, narcissistic, arrogant and beautiful – just like the faces staring back at you from the screen.
Mostly unseen for years since their initial showings in multi-media happenings in 1966 and 1967, the screen tests in 13 Most Beautiful present an anti-glamor approach to portrait photography where attitude is more visually striking and revealing than conventional beauty and high style. Despite what seems like a restrictive formula, there are countless variations and surprises that occur from one four-minute session to the next. For example, Ann Buchanan, the first in the presentation and one of the most astonishing, stares without blinking into the camera until we begin to see the glimmer of a tear in one eye and then the other that eventually spill down her cheek just as the film runs out.
Paul America, on the other hand, exudes supreme self-confidence, looking self-amused as he chews gum nonchalantly and offers the camera alternate profile views. As stated earlier, the rules for the sitting are often broken such as Nico’s screen test – she seems to look almost everywhere except directly into the camera lens, occasionally bending completely out of the frame, preoccupied with something off camera.
The true fascination of all this lies in the simple fact that Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests capture a unique personality or persona at that person’s “moment” in time as a shooting star across New York’s underground film, music, art or party scene. Their images taunt us with their youth and iconic hipness, preserved forever on celluloid, yet we hold the trump card. We know what the future holds for all of them.
Some of them simply grew old, vanished from the scene and are practically forgotten now. Where are you Susan Bottomly and Richard Rheem? A few like Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper and Mary Woronov maintained and managed their cult status quite well. And others came to a bad, early end such as Edie Sedgwick (look at those incredible eyes!) and Amphetamine addict Freddy Herko, who danced out a window naked and fell to his death. Warhol would later comment, “He said he had a new ballet to do and he needed to be alone. He herded the people there out of the room. As the record got to the “Sanctus,” he danced out the open window with a leap so huge he was carried halfway down the block onto Cornelia Street five stories below.”
Viewing 13 Most Beautiful…Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests makes you wonder what would be revealed if you were the camera subject. Would you play the poseur, try to present what you thought you were to the world for your four minutes? As Mary Woronov later noted in her autobiography, Swimming Underground, “you would see the person (subject) fighting with his image – trying to protect it. You can project your image for a few seconds, but after that it slips and your real self starts to show through. That’s why it was so great – you saw the person and the image.”
All I can say is I want more. Bring ’em on. How about 13 More Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests and get Dean and Britta to return with a batch of new music? Unfortunately, Plexifilm no longer appears to exist as an indie label.
13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests was first released on DVD by Plexifilm in April 2009. You can also still purchase the soundtrack album separately on CD or vinyl. There is no indication that a Blu-ray upgrade is coming any time soon.
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