One day at Max’s Kansas City, his favored watering hole, Andy Warhol grabbed a cocktail napkin, drew a line down its middle, and said that he’d like to make a movie with two images projected side by side, “black on one side, white on the other.” With the help of Paul Morrissey, he then made Chelsea Girls (1966), over three hours of Warhol superstars shooting up, nattering on and making a spectacle of themselves. It was a financial success and quickly became a kind of legend, and this status has been spurred on by its continuing unavailability: I can remember when the now-defunct Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks Place procured a copy, which I was eager to see. Kim’s had a bootleg of nearly everything, including most of Warhol’s early films, but Chelsea Girls was almost immediately confiscated by his estate. On August 1 and 2nd, Anthology Film Archives will be hosting screenings of this elusive beast; when I previewed a DVD of it, Chelsea Girls proved to be both more and less than I had hoped.
Warhol’s simple ideas always had enormously suggestive and sophisticated implications; his infamous Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964) both stretched our attention to the breaking point, remorselessly looking for hours and hours at a man sleeping (John Giorno, a Warhol boyfriend) and the campy edifice that helped to kill King Kong. Chelsea Girls is a different kind of movie, on the surface; his earlier films deprived you of standard film-going pleasures, while this one practically bombards you with aesthetic goodies. But for every charming, even elating connection made on the two screens between color and black and white, light and dark, butch women and femme men, there’s a perverse shift of focus, so that we usually want to hear what’s being said on the silent side of the screen and get immediately tired of the superstar over on the talking side (projectionists in theaters are supposedly given some freedom as to the sound and even the order of the reels, so that no two screenings are ever alike). And there are several superstars who really try your patience, especially whiny-voiced Ondine, who ends the film with a nasty physical assault on a quiet girl while on the left side of the screen the camera zoom-fucks the inscrutable face of pop star Nico. Quieting down, Ondine drinks some Coke and wonders if he should jerk off later or just watch the Lucille Ball show, a line that snaps a vice on queer mid-sixties sexuality.
The dueling image visual feast is endlessly stimulating, even if you don’t take the requisite drugs beforehand, but the muffled superstar talk is never as provocative as it needs to be. “They can’t tell me what to do!” howls scary rich girl Brigid Berlin, who pokes boys and girls in the ass with her drug-filled needles and talks about wanting to go on Johnny Carson. To the left of Brigid are “boys in bed,” and its easy to lose the thread of her talk as we watch a girl enter the frame and tie up a pretty boy; the camera keeps zooming into the boy’s lower body, which feels disconcertingly juvenile. There are sexy moments here and juicy underclass energy, but the whole of the film is chilled by Warhol’s passive aggressive control of the camera and the insistent religious guilt that keeps cropping up in all the outcast bohemian chatter (courtesy of co-director Morrissey?). Mary Woronov’s segment as Hanoi Hannah, a radio broadcaster, was written by playwright Ronald Tavel, so it feels less like the other, more spontaneous scenes and more like the agit-prop theater of the time, and that’s not entirely to the good. Inevitably, Chelsea Girls has a kind of period charm; some of these people are dead, and a lot of the young complainers are now old complainers, still searching for meaning, still bewildered and angry about their association with Warhol, who continues to play silent, camera-like God with them long after his death.