Few filmmakers try the patience of the viewer more than Andy Warhol. And few filmmakers, it seems, had as much patience as the former Andrew Warhola Jr. This is evident right from his first movie, 1963's Sleep. Reportedly shot over several nights, Warhol then edited the accumulated footage into a tight final cut running five hours and 20 minutes. The deadpan title of the film is entirely true to its content – a silent black-and-white portrayal, in 16 mm, of a nude male (one-time Warhol beau John Giorno) asleep in bed.
Sleep isn't among the 18 or so films that Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox is presenting over the next three months, beginning Friday, as part of an extravagant celebration of Warhol the cinéaste titled Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen. Yet it's certainly there in spirit in that Sleep is at once template for and foreshadow of the literally hundreds of films Warhol went on to direct or supervise in the next 10 or so years.
Today we know Warhol, who died at 58 in 1987, primarily as a painter, printmaker and sculptor. But in mid-1965 he came close – some might say perilously close – to staking the silver screen rather than the silkscreen as his claim to fame when he announced he was forsaking painting entirely to become a moviemaker. A large part of this renunciation had to do with the entry a few months earlier of 21-year-old Edith Minturn Sedgwick into his stable of friends, wannabes, minions and hangers-on. Known as Edie, she was a singular beauty, with a radiant smile, a short shock of silver-dyed hair, gams for the miniskirt made, huge eyes and Old Money pedigree. Warhol was besotted. Here was his muse, his superstar, Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg.
Could she act? Did it matter? The Warhol aesthetic was all about stretching, inverting and recontextualizing the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking, walking that wobby line between the mesmeric and the boring. Like long takes? Well, how about one lasting 66 minutes where the camera never moves? Want passionate kisses? Here's 54 minutes of nothing but lip-locking – man-to-man, woman-to-woman and, oh yeah, man-to-woman.
In short order, Warhol was casting Edie in one movie after another. Indeed, in the next one and one-half years she appeared in almost 10 films with the Warhol imprimatur, a handful of which are being screened as part of TIFF's Warhol jamboree.
One is Kitchen, from May, 1965. As with many Warhol films, very little happens in its 60-plus minutes. And what does transpires entirely within the confines of a funky, decidedly tiny New York kitchen, lensed as a medium shot by a stationary, impassive 16-mm camera. Sedgwick plays Jo, the lover (wife? mother figure?) of Mickey (Roger Trudeau). She's wearing nylons, black panties, heels, dangly earrings and a striped sailor pullover; he's bare-chested and dressed in white jeans. Surfing a script by long-time Warhol scenarist Ronald Tavel, the duo smokes, moves things around, exchanges banalities, sneezes, gets on each other's nerves (Mickey: "Why did you throw my undergarments in the litter basket?" Jo: "They were mildewed, dear.").
In the meantime, a "bus boy" (René Ricard) busies himself silently in the background. Occasionally a photographer (David McCabe) appears to photograph decisively indecisive moments. A milkshake-maker is turned on. Near film's end, another couple, also named Mickey (played by Electrah) and Jo[e] (a very campy Donald Lyons), shows up to drink coffee and eat layer cake. At one point, a frustrated Sedgwick, most of whose lines are being whispered to her by an off-screen presence or read by her from scripts strategically placed on the "set," cries: "I can't find what my part is in this movie!" Trudeau observes: "When I buy hand-me-downs, I wonder who the previous owner was and if his personality was the same as mine." Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good question.
Kitchen looks and sounds terrible, as if Warhol ordered someone to unspool the master print and drag it down Broadway from the rear fender of a car. But it's also compulsively watchable. Bereft of most of the tricks of the cinematic trade (like a meaty narrative, tracking shots, cutaways, musical cues, whiplash editing), the audience is forced to watch Kitchen as a sort of (barely) moving black-and-white (still) photograph. It's vigilante cinema, in other words, requiring the vigilant viewer to ceaselessly scan all parts of the picture frame for meaning and nothingness. Me, I'm still obsessing over two cardboard boxes I spotted in the Kitchen kitchen, one labelled TREND, the other WISE. Did they actually have cereals with those names a half-century ago? And are they still making them? Or was this just Warhol riffing on the now-famous Brillo box sculptures he'd completed only the year before?
Another presentation in TIFF's Warhol program, which is being done in collaboration with Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, is Screen Test No. 2, again from 1965. Warhol's interest in Hollywood film-making seems to have extended to pretty much all of its genres, tropes, iconography, protocols and behaviours, from reel life to real. Among his favourite idioms was the screen test which, between 1964 and 1966, he made in the hundreds by posing visitors to his studio before a 16-mm camera running a silent three-minute reel. Among the testees: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Lou Reed, Susan Sontag.
Screen Test No. 2 is much more creepy, discomfiting and wildly satirical than any of those. Essentially a 66-minute close-up, it features one of Warhol's favourite drag artists, Mario Montez, ostensibly auditioning for the role of Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Off-screen, a casting director (played by Tavel, who also wrote the script) commands the would-be ingenue to perform one test after another, all of them humiliating: "Now, Miss Montez, I want to see you do a Mona Lisa smile in profile, half-mother, half-whore." "Now then, Miss Montez, can you salivate?" "Now, Miss Montez, would you lift up your skirt and unzipper your fly?" It's eye-gripping stuff, blackly humorous. With a frisson informed by Warhol's deployment of cinéma vérité conceits, the viewer feels like he or she is watching a bootleg or something otherwise not meant for public consumption and, by not averting one's gaze, therefore complicit in Miss Montez's casting-couch compliance.
Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen runs Oct. 30 through Jan. 24 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Kitchen plays Nov. 19; Screen Test No. 2 appears Nov. 14 (tiff.net/warhol).