Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Review of Chelsea Girls

Living in St. Louis doesn’t often mean that I’m presented with unique film opportunities, but every once in a while something truly special comes along. Early this week, one such lucky occurrence came my way: a chance to see Andy Warhol’s and Paul Morrissey’s “Chelsea Girls” (1966) presented in its original intended form (projecting different material on two screens simultaneously). Even better, my friend Brett Smith was in charge of projecting the event for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and invited to me to serve as his assistant running the tricky tandem 16mm projectors. Being largely untrained, I mostly admired Brett’s impressive reel changing prowess and helped with sound and backup. Six 35-minute reels run on each projector (~210 minutes total), offset by about five minutes. If the window is missed there’ll be dead-time where both projectors are not running, an eventuality that never occurred for us.

“Chelsea Girls” is not just a technical feat, but an important experimental film and a prime cultural artifact that says much about the time period, the art movement and the New York scene. While not quite as inaccessible as Warhol’s “Empire” (1964), an 8-hour long take of the Empire State Building, “Chelsea Girls” is certainly not easy viewing. Warhol’s titanic name recognition and a strong local buzz had earned the screening a nearly packed house despite the rain (the show was supposed to take place outside), but much of the audience seemed pretty unprepared for the experience.

Cliff Froehlich of “Cinema St Louis” provided an excellent introduction that included one of the longest, funniest disclaimers I’ve ever heard. He did his best to warn the audience about the long running length, historical context, crude sound, poor lighting and lack of story, but about two-thirds of the audience still walked out early. All the complaints are probably fair, but even Warhol never intended for audience members to try and catch every line of dialogue (much can’t be heard over the room noise and poor recording material) and absorb every detail with rapt attention. Trying to can be exhausting and even frustrating, and Warhol encouraged viewers to talk, read, eat and drift in and out of the screenings.

So what exactly is “Chelsea Girls” about? Mostly it’s about Warhol’s cadre of friends, artists and eccentrics that hung out at the Chelsea Hotel and The Factory. The twelve vignettes are single continuous 35-minute takes that take place in single rooms and usually feature only a handful of characters. The material straddles the line between scripted events and real-life personalities and it’s never clear which parts of the content are intentional.

The two projectors occasionally share the sound, but more often one has full volume while the other is silent. The conflict between silence and sound, color and B/W and the content of each screen creates a variety of contrasts, connections and possible interpretation. Since each screening relies heavily on the speed and timing of the projectionist (following a loose script for how to handle the volume and reel changes), no two showings are ever exactly alike.


Reel #1 (“Nico in the Kitchen”) gets off to a slow start, with the musician slowly preening her hair in a hand mirror. The first reel runs alone for five minutes before the second reel comes on, and is not given much volume or action. Others enter the kitchen, including two young children, whose antics are generally ignored by Nico.

Reel #2 (“Father Ondine and Ingrid”) features Robert Olivo, easily the most entertaining and articulate actor in the film. As “Father Ondine,” he hears Ingrid Superstar’s sexual confessions and goes on wild tangential rants about philosophy, lifestyles, psychology and more. As he conducts his fairly one-sided chat from across the backs of two rear-facing hotel couches, it is clear that he is naturally capable of harnessing his wit and tone for the camera.

Reel #3 (“Brigid Holds Court”) inherits the sound from #2, in addition to maintaining the tone. Brigid Berlin addresses the camera directly, talking casually as she takes drugs in both needle and pill forms. She answers calls from clients and mentions her regular bike trips to meet with drug users and perform deliveries. She’s loud, boisterous and self-confident; nearly as mesmerizing to watch as Ondine. At one point she demands that a nearby homosexual restyle her hair and continues her rambling spiel as she lounges against her bed and has her hairstyle changed.

Reel #4 (“Boys in Bed”) is one of the most boring, a silent B/W scene with several men in bed and a roster of nameless male and female visitors who enter and leave the room.

Reel #5 (“Hanoi Hannah”) and #6 (“Hanoi Hannah and Guests”) are fairly similar to each other, mostly concentrating on the interplay between Mary Woronov (later seen as Calamity Jane in the cult classic “Death Race 2000”) and International Velvet (Susan Bottomly). Woronov’s harsh features, deep voice and cynical personality contrasts nicely with Velvet’s ditzy, lackadaisical manner. Both segments are too long to keep up the interest, but have a catty realism and unhurried feel that captures the real-life tension not too hidden under the script.

Reel #7 (“Mario Sings Two Songs”) returns to the “boys in the bed” with equally boring results despite the addition of a singing female impersonator. The sound stays with this segment long enough to catch the poor vocals and then switches after ten-minutes to reel #8 (“Maria Mencken”). The latter is the first segment in color but has nearly no movement. It consists almost exclusively of a craggy Mencken criticizing her son, a tirade both funny and depressing. With her face hidden under a feathery black hat, the camera’s attention tends to wander across the strange wall-art and to Woronov, listening and observing without comment from a nearby bed. For no apparent reason, the camera starts to zoom in and out wildly for the last ten minutes or so.

Reel #9 (“Eric Says All”) gets full sound, despite the rather ironic silence, as a stoned Eric Emerson attempts to grasp hold of reality long enough to deliver an almost indecipherable hippy monologue. On the adjacent screen, the aptly named reel #10 (“Color Lights on Cast”) plays, which doesn’t really have any plot to summarize. The combination was a little to arch-60’s for me and I left to wander around the Cindy Sherman museum exhibit during the second half of this segment.

The film ends with the return of Robert Olivo in reel #11 (“Pope Ondine”) and Nico in reel #12 (“Nico Crying”). Ondine, in B/W, grants an interview with the cameraman in which he claims that he doesn’t want to talk about his recent election as pope. He’d rather talk about himself as a person, not as a religious celebrity. After his expressive monologue has worked him into a mild rage, he demands to hear a confession and ends up angrily chasing down and slapping the young woman who confides in him.

The second reel remains silent throughout, with a static camera shot of Nico crying as Day-Glo colors and kitschy patterns (courtesy of some crazy lighting equipment) play across her vacant countenance. Reel #11 ends first, and as the volume rises for reel #12, we realize that she’s been listening to music. The sudden context for her tears (previously a total mystery) comes as a pleasant shock. The music continues as the light is faded off and the audience leaves.


For a film that seems highly improvised and a concept that many contend was accidentally (one story claims that Warhol came up with the dual projector idea purely to get a theatrical release, since the original 6 hour cut was too long), the film has a structural soundness that shows thought and effort. There’s a strong level of symmetry:

1 Nico
2 Father Ondine
4 Boys in the bed
5 Woronov and International Velvet
6 Woronov and International Velvet
7 Boys in the bed
11 Father Ondine
12 Nico

There are also some clever contrasts in the way the two screens work. Most of these are loose (there could be up to ten minutes of variation between where the reels are at during any given screening), but clearly planned. For instance: Maria Mencken needling her son about his misbehaviors, irresponsibility and sexual decadence as the boys wrestle around in bed on the other screen, eating breakfast in their underwear and hiring a female impersonator to sing for them.

Naturally, the screen with the volume tends to attract our attention the most. However, Warhol’s arrangement sometimes blindsides us, and attracts our gaze suddenly back to the silent screen. Two occasions are when Nico (in reel #1) accidentally turns her mirror to shine blinding light into the camera lens and later in #4 when we are caught off guard by brief male nudity. During the final pairing, I found myself listening to Ondine’s inspired audio while staring, mystified, at Nico’s unreadable expression and light-distorted face.

As an interesting and influential experiment, “Chelsea Girls” has to be considered a success. It did much historically to advance the idea of cult and underground cinema. As a narrative, or as a fun night out with your friends, the film is less likely to score many points. I have to admit that “Chelsea Girls” may be one of the few films that is more fun to project than to watch. I took Warhol’s advice (also encouraged by Brett and Cliff) and allowed my attention to tune in and out. I would recommend the film to those interesting in early avant-garde cinema or the works of Warhol, but hold out for a revival screening and bring food, a friend and maybe even a book.

Walrus Rating: 5


Patti said...

Cool. So I recently bought a compilation of Nico's second and third albums, but I'm still yet to get her debut ("Chelsea Girl"). I also just bought John Cale's new live album, and one of the songs was from an album he made with Lou Reed around 1990 dedicated to Warhol after his death. Which leads me to my next point: I'm considering a music review blog...

FilmWalrus said...

My input: Do it.

Mad Dog said...

A really cool opportunity, it sounds like! I kinda wish I'd been there to witness the artsy fartsy-ness.