Warhol’s ‘Girls’ Reward the Patient

‘When it came out in 1966, Newsweek called it ‘The Iliad of the Underground’ and Rex Reed called it ‘a three-and-a-half-hour cesspool of vulgarity and talentless confusion which is about as interesting as the inside of a toilet bowl,” said Karen Moss from the floor of HIB 100 as she introduced the Andy Warhol film about to begin. ‘So that tells you something about this movie. You decide what is true.’
The film in question is Andy Warhol’s ‘Chelsea Girls,’ screened Thursday, Jan. 18 as part of the Film and Video Center’s ongoing Thursday film series. Warhol was best known for his colorful representations of common objects, such as his portrait of a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. When he first emerged from the underground in the turbulent adolescence of modern American culture, Warhol was considered significantly more shocking than he is now.
Though still regarded as a great creative force, Warhol’s art has lost its punch. Many of us have grown up with the knowledge of his existence, accepting his works as classics not unlike the Mona Lisa or a Picasso sketch.
Still, Warhol and those like him are experiencing a bit of a renaissance as different forms of his expression come to light, shocking and entertaining a generation that is realizing there is more than tomato soup out there.
‘Chelsea Girls’ is a compilation of 30- to 35-minute shorts that Warhol filmed in the 1960s as odes to the lives of his people: street urchins, druggies, artists, perverts, extroverts, introverts, walking dolls and walking disasters. Warholian legends appearing on screen include Nico, a lanky blonde who destroys anyone’s interest in her by meticulously grooming her hair for the first 30 minutes of the movie. Warhol’s other muses, Brigid Berlin, Susan Bottomly (‘International Velvet’), Ingrid Von Scheven (‘Superstar’) and Mary Woronov make appearances, along with countless other men and women who, although not actors, bring their little stories to life.
There are 12 shorts in all, and the final project takes a whopping 6 hours to watch. To cut it down while preserving its integrity, Warhol plays half the films on the left side of the screen and half on the right side, making for a split-scene extravaganza celebrating the everyday of the ‘Chelsea Girls.’
Plot is minimal, as is direction and editing. Warhol’s method of creating this film was to place actors in front of a rolling camera for half an hour. Though this does slow the pace of the movie, it remains interesting because of the far-from-mundane activities of the group. Candid talks, drug abuse, sex and raving narcissism are the themes, and they make for a gritty, dirty look inside one of the precursors to reality TV.
Karen Moss, curator of the Orange County Museum of Art and presenter of the movie, made her own excitement known when she talked about the creative impact of the movie. She said of Warhol, ‘He gave his actors minimal direction and allowed the creative process to occur.