I’m at Barnes & Noble, engaged in my favorite leisure activity of getting a cup of coffee and wandering among the books and maybe blogging a bit. And moments ago I got a text from my wife. She is out of town, has been for several days. She’s somewhere in the Ozarks having a reunion with her high school friends from St. Agnes Academy in Memphis (37 in the graduating class, all girls). Here’s what she texted:
Who directed & starred in easy rider & supported andy warhol?
This is my function in the world. Perhaps it is why she married me. Anyway, I quickly responded, “Dennis Hopper. Why?” That was an easy one. We just saw him in that Warhol thing last week.
It was at Spoleto. There was this show that was very, um, Warhol. It was called, “13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.” We went with my artist daughter and a friend of hers. It was enjoyable, even artistically impressive. But if you thought about it too much, it was disturbing. And I tend to do that. That’s the other thing I do. I keep trivia in my head, and I think about stuff until I ruin it.
Warhol did these things he called “screen tests” in which he had various people in his orbit sit in front of a camera loaded with a short piece of film — I want to say about 100 feet; in any case, it would last exactly four minutes. In this way, the artist fulfilled his own prophecy to a certain extent — immortalizing these people for at least four minutes of their allotted 15. He shot people he thought were beautiful in one way or another. Some were quite conventionally beautiful the way I would use the word, such as this one (who bizarrely kept her eyes open the whole time, causing tears to flow). But all were interesting.
You had Dennis Hopper doing his thing. Jane Holzer brushing her teeth. Lou Reed drinking a Coke. Edie Sedgwick being big-eyed and lovely. The live, original music performed on the stage below the screen was very engaging. The hall was pretty full, and the crowd seemed engrossed. On the row in front of me I thought I recognized Allison Skipper from the Ports Authority. And sure enough, after we exchanged Tweets about it, she was to share this account with me:
13 MOST BEAUTIFUL…SONGS FOR ANDY WARHOL’S SCREEN TESTS
Call Andy Warhol what you will – genius, whack job, or some combination of the two – the man certainly had an eye for pretty people.
In 13 Most Beautiful, indie rock/pop musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips pair hypnotic musical compositions against a backdrop of black and white projections of some of Warhol’s famous (or infamous) screen subjects. The footage itself is grainy and subjects range from the familiar (Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, Nico) to the obscure. You can imagine Warhol himself off-screen, directing the subject to spontaneously cry, drink a Coca-Cola, look melancholy, or choreographing a slow curl of cigarette smoke or light reflected from the lens of sunglasses. Wareham and Phillips give an understated performance, demonstrating a conscious effort to take a backseat to the screen stars. The music serves to connect the audience with the subjects, in doing so achieving what they wanted all along. We love them, we adore them, we are fascinated by them. They are all famous, for at least 13 songs.
Our arty barometer says: It’s Warhol. It’s weird. Embrace it – with or without some mind-altering substance.
While the screen is dark for the show’s run at Spoleto, a recorded version is available to Watch Instantly on Netflix. Happy viewing.
I pretty much agree with that. But at first, I didn’t think I would be able to sit through it. The very first “test” consisted of the totally impassive, androgynous Richard Rheem doing nothing but staring at the camera for the full four minutes. The band had not yet come out, so I didn’t have them to watch (of course, when they did come out, the stage was dark enough that all you could see really clearly was the whiteness of Britta Phillips’ shapely legs below her very short black dress as she played guitar and sang, but that was quite enough to make up for anything lacking on the screen), and this period was extremely tedious.
But it got better. Lots better. We weren’t bored again. And the experience was greatly enhanced by Dean Wareham’s narration, telling us a bit about the subject we were to see or had just seen.
And we watched, and were fascinated, as master showman Warhol had intended us to be.
But as for the disturbing part… well, look no further than “Ingrid Superstar’s” obsessive fingering of her face (and giving us the finger, but we don’t mind, the poor girl) throughout the four minutes, in which we see her with her hair cut to look like Edie Sedgwick. Right after we were told she was a junkie. And a sometime prostitute and temp (I liked the way he added “temp” anticlimactically). She was to go out for cigarettes years later and not come back — presumed dead, but her body never found. Her dysfunction is on display on the screen, we stare at it almost as unblinking as Ann Sheridan. Her being so obviously f___ed up is a source of entertainment for us, or of aesthetic edification if we choose to dignify it that way.
Then there was the guy who that same summer, deep in his own problems, was taking a bath at a friend’s house when he heard his favorite piece of music playing in the next room, upon which he leapt from the bath, ran into the room and danced about naked to the music, then jumped out a window to his death.
And here we were, staring at him making self-conscious faces for the camera. And I thought about this. Eventually, I was struck that what we were doing, sitting there so patiently, was a form of worship. Modern-day secular worship of celebrity, of hipness, of the various forms physical beauty can take, and of tragedy and dysfunction. I got to thinking of the Catholic practice of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. This is a practice I’ve never been able to get into — not that I’ve ever tried. As a post Vatican II convert, it is alien to me, and smacks of idolatry. I recently heard that Pope Benedict wants it to make a comeback, which does not surprise me. But hey, I didn’t vote for him.
But while Perpetual Adoration to me seems strange and even vaguely wrong, here we were staring, for a period lasting longer than a Mass, at all these seriously messed up, self-involved people. And I found it fascinating, even enjoyable. What does that say about me, about us? I decry Reality TV, but I got into this.
It suggests that my priorities are seriously out of whack.
But at least it helps me keep the part of my brain devoted to cultural trivia sharp and active. My wife relies on me for that.