Bailey On


Reviewed by: Themroc

Bailey On Beaton
"A rather dated, confused and inoffensive attempt to unravel the carefully constructed enigma of its subject."

The interview with Warhol (the first on the disc, although it was actually the last to be shot) became something of a cause célèbre when it was pulled from the TV schedule hours before broadcast following a complaint from Record Breakers host Ross McWhirter. The grounds for the resulting court injunction - that the programme was considered “offensive and indecent”- speak volumes about how times have changed since 1973. Watching it today, the offending scene (in which Factory artist Brigid Polk paints with her breasts) seems - like the documentary as a whole - only rather quaint. As Bailey himself admits, the controversy also had the unintended effect of saddling his film with notoriety it didn’t deserve as well as an unnecessary disclaimer warning “some people” that they may find Warhol’s work and lifestyle “unsympathetic or offensive”.

In fact, the documentary is a rather dated, confused and inoffensive attempt to unravel the carefully constructed enigma of its subject. Predictably, like all other similar attempts, it gets nowhere. As one contributor points out, “ I think Andy’s greatest work is the myth that he’s perpetrated about himself”. The odd interesting or revealing anecdote gets through but, since it’s impossible to know how much of what is being said (particularly by Warhol) is either distorted or just bullshit, none of it really adds up to a satisfying investigation into either the artist or his work.

Bailey unwisely announces at the start of the film that he has attempted to “capture the spirit of Warhol using some of the techniques which he has pioneered”. This approach yields predictably mixed results and is, to a degree, a self-defeating way of exploring art revered for its idiosyncrasies. Some of the decisions, such as to have an actor deliver Warhol’s more celebrated quotes to camera under flashing coloured lights, may have seemed avant-garde at the time, but today just look ridiculous.

However, the access Bailey is granted to his subject and to various artists, scenesters, acolytes and hangers-on makes for a fascinating if ultimately frustrating portrait of the surreal environment in which they all operated. Aside from the tit-painting, a demonstration of “flush-art” and a bizarre interview conducted by Bailey with Warhol as they lie in bed together, the interviews allow Bailey to sketch a crude portrait of a community (or, perhaps more accurately, of a cult) living inside their own bubble, either deeply suspicious of, or simply oblivious to, the world outside. Although (disappointingly) there are no contributions from any of the Velvet Underground, others such as Paul Morrissey, Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling and Warhol himself all give us their two cents about their working methods, their thoughts on the Pop Art movement and what they make of Warhol’s art and ideas.

The upshot is that the film emerges not as an exploration of the myth of Andy Warhol, but rather a perpetuation of it – a portrait of a time and place in which film, music, sex and drugs all combined to create conceptual art as shallow and ephemeral as the culture it reflected and satirised. Or as the actor-Warhol says at the end of the film, “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of the paintings and me and that’s it. There’s nothing behind it”.

The second film about photographer Cecil Beaton is slightly more personal, partly because the subject is so much more approachable and co-operative. However, it is scarcely more revealing for it. Beaton describes himself as “uneducated and distinguished-looking” and by others variously as “an aesthete” and (by Rudolph Nureyev) as “the epitome of an English gentleman”. In fact, Beaton comes across rather as the epitome of a particular kind of English gentleman – dapper, elegant, dryly observant, well-spoken and with a streak of slightly thoughtless snobbery betrayed by his treatment of a waiter in a café.

Interviewees called upon to talk about Beaton’s talent and personality include Twiggy, a slightly catty Truman Capote (who says fondly, “(Cecil) can be the rudest person I’ve ever known – he gathers enemies the way other people gather roses”), Diana Vreeland (then editor of Vogue), David Hockney, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree and Mick Jagger (who contributes nothing worth repeating). There are some examples of his celebrated fashion photography as well as some of his stunning wartime shots, but surprisingly for a film made by a photographer about a photographer, there is precious little insight into his work and what made it so distinctive and so admired in the context of the rest of the fashion scene. Like the Warhol documentary, its superficiality is partly a product of the environment in which its subject lives and works (the fashion industry isn’t renowned for its depth), yet as a character-study the result is, if anything, even more exasperating.

The final film about Italian film director Luchino Visconti (responsible for films such as Death In Venice, The Damned and The Leopard) is in many ways the most satisfying. Unfortunately it is also the shortest. Shot in Bavaria whilst Visconti was on location making Ludwig, Bailey interviews Helmut Berger, Romy Schneider and a refreshingly straightforward and matter-of-fact Visconti. Bailey confesses elsewhere that it was the most difficult segment to shoot, in part because Berger was reluctant to co-operate (the interviews with him are like pulling teeth), but also because Visconti was not well at the time.

Nevertheless, the questions Bailey asks concerning Visconti’s influence upon Italian neo-realist cinema and the prevalence of homosexuality in his work are interesting and answered without obfuscation. Apart from the chaotic interview with Schneider, the film also approaches its subject for the most part without resorting to the camp stylistic tricks of the previous two. However, due to his ill-health, the interviews with Visconti aren’t nearly as comprehensive as they should be and give only a vague idea of the savage beauty and artistic worth of Visconti’s films.

Taken by themselves and on their own terms, Bailey’s three films are muddled and incoherent. At times, it feels as though Bailey has squandered the privileged access he enjoyed by not thinking properly about either structure or format. As a triptych they don’t hang together because the three subjects are such completely different artists and personalities (Bailey jokes in his own interview contained on the disc that the only thing the three of them had in common was their homosexuality). Yet, viewed in 2006, they all work as a strangely compelling time capsule. On these terms, the loose semi-improvisational structure, the sense of disorganisation and even the misconceived experimentation become part of what make the films strangely charming as artefacts. In the end, they tell us more about the era and Bailey’s approach to his art than they do about his ostensible subjects.

Reviewed on: 15 May 2006
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Bailey On packshot
A collection of three documentaries, commissioned for television and directed by photographer David Bailey.
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Director: David Bailey

Writer: David Bailey

Starring: David Bailey, Andy Warhol, Cecil Beaton, Luchino Visconti

Year: 1968

Runtime: 150 minutes

Country: UK


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