Chelsea Girls

Chelsea Girls

****1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

There are two films I've seen this year that stand out as arresting for me in the way that they've changed my perception of cinema. One is Bela Tarr's masterwork The Man From London. Tarr uses settings as powerful players, almost like characters. It challenged the way I approached watching film, the visual experience. The other evening I went to a special showing of Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls. This is not a film one could call 'polished' in any sense of the word. But it opened up so many ideas in my head that I felt as if I had had a three-hour masterclass in the techniques of film, particularly the ways film is manipulated to alter what goes on in the mind of the viewer.

Much of the literature on this well known work falls into two camps. The critics who take great delight in calling it worthless, and the Warhol aficionados who speak of it in holy terms as if Warhol were some teen-idol rock star. I don't want to debate either of these views. And I'm no art expert. But I'll try to tell you why I found it so mesmerising. Then you can decide for yourself whether or not to watch it.

Copy picture

The screening was sold out. I should explain that the cinema had borrowed the rare print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They installed two 16mm projectors side by side. The film comes as 12 separate reels - it's a sort of soap opera of the lives of some of Warhol's people who lived at the Chelsea Hotel in the Sixties. Although the running order has now become more or less accepted, the original instructions were that the projectionist should choose the sequence and the sound levels for each. Additionally, two projectors are used simultaneously, projecting two of the reels at any one time on opposite sides of the screen (16mm has a square format, so the films fit neatly side-by-side on a standard oblong theatre screen.) There are breaks of a few minutes between each film, but they are run overlapping. So that, as the film on one half of the screen ends, our concentration is focussed on the remaining film that is still running.

The effect is a bit like being at a party where you can choose which conversation to tune in to. But sometimes you are just left with one person for a few minutes. You can almost ignore one section for a bit. But then, when something interesting happens, you already have the background gossip on it that you've followed with one ear. Your tangential interest has been aroused. When people hear the film described, they think 'how can you follow two things at once?' But this is what we do all the time. Every minute of our lives. We just alter the emphasis.

There's not much in the way of narrative. But we develop our own kind of narrative as we link up individuals from different reels. Often they are shown in different lights - sometimes literally. Everyone, as in many of Warhol's films, plays themselves - or rather, dramatised personae of themselves. An attractive vamp from one black-and-white reel turns out to be a quick-witted transgendered woman when we hear her with the sound turned up in another. Both reels are in black and white but with different co-actors. When we see her in a third reel, in colour, some of the mystery that black-and-white lent has drained away. She seems more human and less mysterious. We make our internal narrative, choosing which reel is a 'flashback', which is the 'true' person. I think of how the classic vamp is portrayed in movies, the fetishisation of femininity. And how unconscious we are of cinematic technique.

I stop for a minute and wonder why Ingrid spends so much time under a dressing table. Things occasionally sag, and unexpected humour cuts across our serious art-house attentiveness. Ambient sound gives 'meaning' or dignifies a rant from an old woman brandishing a whip. A barely noticed remark or expression cuts in hilariously. Sometimes the camera lingers long enough that it pointedly assumes a significance. The artist manipulates, then leaves us to decide how we choose to be manipulated.

Frequently camera also makes self-conscious zooms. Almost as if the cameraman had noticed something interesting. Was it interesting before, or is it interesting because we have seen it through the eyes of someone who sees what is fascinating about it? They are insignificant details. Yet, when we focus on them, they seem to encapsulate the mood of the scene, or reveal something new about what is happening. At other times, the camera just seems to fidget. We become aware of it as a 'character' (a bit like Bela Tarr's cityscapes).

This probably makes more sense if you can see why (Warhol's) screenprints and sculptures are interesting, have endured, and have been so influential. Anyone can call a painting of a soup-can trite. Fewer can explain why Warhol's 'soup cans' sold for so much money - or are still taken very seriously by art establishments. It's about finding the essence of something that everyone likes but takes for granted. We look at things without seeing them. So if you can make people stop. And really look. Really see. Suddenly you've shown them something about themselves. It wasn't really anything about soup or depicting Marilyn Monroe's head in garish colours. "They see all of me but they don't see anything," intones a drug-crazed young man into a flexible mirror. His self-absorption reminds me of how I am compositing each character from their different reels.

The film veers towards the more mainstream approach that Morrissey was to take with Warhol's work as one man assumes the identity of a Pope and hears confessions. The scene is one of the most talked about in the movie as it is not only a great 'performance' but it seems to parody some of the perceived evils of Roman Catholic inquisitorial cruelty. It maybe even calls to mind (both through dialogue and in the chiaroscuro lighting) the thin line between god and the devil.

Of course, we also know this movie was banned. That will tempt some people to see it for the wrong reasons. I don't mean you shouldn't see something shocking - or even pornographic - if you want to. But this film was made in a time of protest against everything. Not just wars and Lyndon Johnson. About censorship. About stuck-up artists and the pretentiousness of much so-called art. By today's standards it isn't even titillating. You have real homosexuals playing homosexuals and real drug users playing drug users. Is that shocking enough to keep you in your seat for three hours? Without graphic violence, graphic sex or the usual commercial chicanery? Probably not. If you're new to Warhol's art you might want to get hold of a primer first (I recommend ~The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol, available in Penguin: it doesn't 'explain' Warhol but it can help you get inside his head.) If you see this film looking for all the things he's refusing to give you then you probably won't get much out of it.

Another thing I found interesting was watching my own reactions. With two screens, it is easy to 'pretend' not to be looking at something without being aware of doing so. When there were two options, I suddenly became aware of how I would give precedence to scenes that seemed to me heterosexual or vanilla over homosexual ones. But you can play on someone's curiosity by not pushing too hard. Chelsea Girls doesn't push anything too hard. It joins you in letting your fascination flow in different directions and then lets you see what is happening. In one of the most surreal reels, some of the characters are displayed almost as if they are a cinema audience. Different lighting effects play over the faces. Blue and red produce different reactions in us. Or do we see beyond to the real people?

And which 'light' are we in?

Of course, if this were a real soap opera, scenes of mild bondage, catfights, sexual confessions and so on would be dramatised to make them larger than life. Chelsea Girls doesn't have to go to such lengths. It already is real life. Weird people, druggie drop-outs and the sort of folk who probably 'infested' Times Square before the big clean up. Their interesting essences are distilled by a great artist - yet just not in the way you might expect.

I got the feeling at times that you could have given Andy Warhol a camera that came free with the cornflakes and he would have made great art with it.

Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2007
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