I had been a devotee of Jonas Mekas's peripatetic "Filmmaker's Cinematheque" for several years when, one night in 1963, I saw a film that went to the heart of my obsession with avant-garde cinema and, for that matter, with cinema in general. On the screen was the image of a woman and a man sucking face. They were framed in tight close-up and photographed on high-contrast black-and-white 16mm reversal stock, which was projected in slow motion (i.e., at silent speed). The film lasted only four minutes, but the activity of the couple was so primal and the image so archaic that it seemed as if they could have been nuzzling and licking, tonguing and tasting, merging and devouring, since the birth of the movies. In the weeks that followed, there were other kisses: some hetero, some homo, some erotic, some camp, and all oddly abstract--less the osculation of orifices than the play of light and shadow. Eventually, all these 100-foot rolls, which were referred to by Mekas as installments of The Andy Warhol Serial, were spliced together in a film of some 50-odd minutes called Kiss.
Since the early 1970s, when Warhol withdrew the films he made hands-on, leaving in circulation only those directed by his associate Paul Morrissey, I have often been asked what it was like to see Warhol films when they first appeared, and I always respond by describing what anthropologists term "the first encounter" in words more or less like those above. I myself am curious about what viewers who come to the films today--carrying all kinds of expectations (about hipness and explicit sex) and without the investment in the mysterious allure of the projected image that was central to avant-garde film in the 1960s--will make of these strange, brutally beautiful objects. (Walker Art Center will be screening seven of them over the course of a week.)
Warhol's films are part of a moment in art history dominated by pop art--which is central to what is termed postmodernism--and minimalism, which, in hindsight, was modernism in its elegant last throes. It was Warhol's genius not to reject one or the other, but to bring them together in the films, paintings, and photographic works he made between 1962 and 1965. Like the best of his still image work (the Disaster series and the big Marilyn and Elvis paintings), Warhol's silent films and some of his early "talkies" exist in the tension between presence and absence, assertion and denial. Fetishistic in the extreme, they allow the receptive viewer access to the fundamentals of cinematic pleasure. Their surfaces open onto the depths of your psyche.
It was shortly after I saw Haircut #1 (January 26 at 7:30 p.m.), which remains for me the most disturbing and dangerous film in Warhol's oeuvre, that I accompanied a friend, who was a regular visitor, to Warhol's Silver Factory. Like all newcomers, I was "screen tested." Warhol positioned me on a stool in a makeshift alcove, adjusted the height of the 16mm Bolex and the single light (he had an extraordinary talent for immediately spotting your most flattering angle), and told me to sit as still as I could, look into the lens, and try not to blink. Then he turned on the camera and walked away.
I was also enlisted as a performer in the ongoing "Banana" series, which later was incorporated into Couch (January 20 at 7:30 p.m.). Contrary to the well-circulated description, Couch is not pornographic in its entirety. I merely sat on the already legendary Factory couch with two early female superstars, Baby Jane Holzer and Naomi Levine, while Warhol's assistant Gerard Malanga lounged behind us. We were each given a banana, which Warhol instructed us to eat very slowly while looking at the camera. I was fascinated by Warhol's work process--how he made himself a still point in the midst of a chaos that fed him even as he kept himself apart from it--but I found the Factory scene as clique-ridden and unpleasant as high school. Although I visited only two or three more times, I followed the films religiously as silence gave way to sound and single-screen projection to the enveloping multi-screen environment of the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable," which derived much of its power from the music of the Velvet Underground.
Each of Warhol's silent films is a document of the single, perfectly ordinary activity from which it takes its title: Kiss, Sleep, Eat, Haircut. Filmed in real time--at 24 frames per second, like sound pictures--they were shown at the 16 or 18 frames per second speed at which silent films were both shot and projected. (That's why silent films look herky-jerky when they're shown on modern projectors, which only run at 24 frames.) The slow motion that so fascinated Warhol (and which is lost when the films are projected incorrectly or transferred to video) in part accounts for the viewer's sense of being an outsider--a voyeur to a world she or he can never be part of. The disjunction between the body clock of the viewer and that of the person onscreen heightens the viewer's awareness of the screen persona as "other" and therefore mysterious and unknowable. (I'm happy to report that the Walker will show the films at the correct speed.)
Warhol employed bananas the way other directors do ice-cream cones. It's not only that they are, transparently, visual metaphors for cocks, but that the performer, who can't help being aware of the implicit sight gag, inevitably becomes self-conscious, imagining that she or he will be judged on the fervor and technique of licking and eating. It is therefore not surprising that Warhol, moving from the Baudelarian lyricism of the silent films to the more camp realm of the talkies, should make a banana his transitional object. In Harlot (January 22 at 3:00 p.m.), the touching transvestite superstar Mario Montez sits on a couch, plays with his Trash and Vaudeville blond wig, and eats banana after banana, while offscreen, Ronald Tavel, the Factory's reigning literary figure, converses with his friends. It is a taste of things to come.