Movie Review
Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film
Director: Ric Burns
Cast: Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Edie Sedgwick

this week’s national prime-time PBS broadcast of Ric Burns’ four-hour Andy Warhol doc follows the film’s exclusive two-week theatrical engagement earlier this month at Film Forum in New York City. As hometown try-outs go—both Burns and his production company, Steeplechase Films, make Manhattan their home—the run was an undiluted triumph. Other movies on might score a 100% rating, but I don’t remember them.

The Film Forum gig is part of a trend toward more varied distribution formats—either stand-alone theatrical releases or limited theater engagements combined with televised broadcast—that is one outcome of the recent surge in popularity and production of documentary films. Similarly, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Stanley Nelson has reliably been stocking PBS’ American Experience series with a feature-length doc every year or so. Now, after enthusiastic festival receptions since last spring, Jonestown, his film about the 1978 Peoples Temple incident, opens October 20th at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, before its national PBS broadcast.

Andy Warhol also extends Ric Burns’ own recent turn toward using the lives of artists to discuss American life. We know Burns for broad-canvas projects designed for multiple evening viewing on PBS—docs on New York City, the massive Civil War series with his brother Ken, and the six-part The Way West. After tightening his focus with the Donner Party film, Burns turned for subjects to photographer Ansel Adams and playwright Eugene O’Neill. Now Warhol, an artist Burns admits he actually knew little about before this project.

Andy Warhol is so appealing partially because Burns shares with the rest of us that sense of suddenly noticing what’s been in our midst. The film opens with a long montage of talking heads, who reappear throughout to serve as a commentary that complements the narration by composer-performance artist Laurie Anderson. Among them, art critic David Hickey says that Warhol, founder of the 1960’s Pop Art movement, was “so American that he was virtually invisible to us.” One of the great pleasures of this film are the successive moments of illumination about Warhol’s life and work, not only the unknown nuggets—even some vast tracts—but the focus Burns brings to what had previously subsided to background buzz by its very familiarity.

Also early on, writer Stephen Kock commenting that Warhol’s “great gift was immediacy. This is it. This is it. Nothing more. Right now.” Right from the start, Burns addresses the dilemma of making a narrative film about an artist who was short on narrative, even in his own extensive filmmaking projects. Burns includes a great deal of forage, some of it speeded up, of Warhol in the midst of that present, doing his work. And Burns allows Kock to place Warhol in the Romantic tradition, saying that “we are always on the edge of death, because we are always losing the moment.” Over four hours, while juggling an abundance of topics, Burns returns to the themes of Warhol’s invisibility and how his art expressed and addressed immediacy repeatedly and in many ways. He manages not to dwell on the sensational in Warhol’s career—a minefield in itself, given the sometimes clashing mix of Warhol’s personal infatuation with celebrity and his work’s comments upon it. Instead, Burns picks and enlarges key components.

Burns’ treatment of Warhol’s early years in a middle European slum in Pittsburgh, his mother’s life-long encouragement of his art, and how he moved from art lessons at Carnegie Tech to 1950’s Madison Avenue together comprise a model of the documentary’s multipurpose exposition and editing. We see what art rescued Warhol from, as well as how it fueled both his drive for celebrity and his later art. The comparison between the Eastern Orthodox church icons of Warhol’s boyhood and his later Marilyn Monroe portraits is one of the many small lightening bolts in this film. Although Warhol’s real heyday was the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Burns spends considerable time on the ‘50’s. This rescues a whole body of Warhol’s work that is largely unknown nowadays—especially since he later insisted he couldn’t draw, his exceedingly fine and prolific draughtsmanship, not just the blotted-line technique that advertising clients loved, but, for example, his stunning nude studies testify to the contrary.

Warhol erased the line between commercial art and fine art; we usually think about subject matter: soup cans and multiple silk screens, flamboyantly colored portraits based on photos. As an employee of Bonwit Teller, Warhol was able to take advantage of the department store’s annual staff perk of exhibiting their “off-hours” art work in the store’s display windows. But including crowds of people in your studio was a part of how you created the art itself, not something incidental.

Movie people can’t help but revel in the sections about Warhol’s extensive film experiments, both for the chance to see rare clips from them and watch their production and for the discussions of what Warhol was doing. You can dip in anywhere here. Warhol’s early movies were silent and often addressed time, such as the tantalizing tension present in his early Sleep. Here, the camera rests on Warhol’s sometime-lover John Giorno’s sleeping face in real time—the voice-over points out that painting doesn’t offer real time, even as literal time disappears for the sleeper himself. You might know about Warhol’s later split-screen, 3 1/2-hour long Chelsea Girls, but Burns bothering to include the earlier work pays off.

Along with Warhol’s movies came his “superstars.” Burns wisely chooses to highlight one from this period, which again has multiple uses. The Velvet Underground and Nico are there, and Ondine and Candy Darling and the rest, but the young, troubled blue-blood Edie Sedgwick embodies Warhol’s indie film period and her demise from drugs, while Warhol looked on and largely did nothing, illustrates yet another side of the artist. Burns’ mastery at juggling such an enormous career is surely a result of past work on grand scales. But I am struck at something else that emerges here. At one point, when covering the 1964-68 period of the Factory, Warhol’s vast, silver-painted East 47th Street studio, Burns quotes Warhol on the motley crew of hangers-on he invited in, from drag queens to Harvard flower-children to other artists and intellectuals: “I don’t feel all these people are hanging around me. I’m more hanging around them.”

Crucially, the talking heads that Burns includes are as integral to a film about Warhol’s art as they were to the art itself. Warhol’s rise was rapid—both as a commercial artist and as a “serious” artist. This occurred at a time when people could articulate what he was doing, a moment when critical voices mattered much more than today. In some ways, we’re in a similar, sympathetic period now—attention is increasing toward “public art” projects that put art back in everyday life and seek to erase aesthetic distance. Paradoxically, Warhol’s influence may also be part of today’s bad press and general disregard of critics. Already an incredibly rich window into Warhol’s life, work, and times, Burns’ film opens another on our own. I can hardly wait for his next project.

Andy Warhol: A Documentary is currently playing on PBS as part of the American Experience series.

By: Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Published on: 2006-09-21
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