There are two films I've seen this year that stand out as arresting for me in the way that they've changed my perception of cinema. One is David Lynch's 'Inland Empire. Lynch uses settings as powerful players, almost like characters. It challenged the way I approached watching film, the visual experience. The other evening I went to a friends house and watched Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls. This is not a film one could call 'polished' in any sense of the word. But it opened up so many ideas in my head that I felt as if I had had a three-hour masterclass in the techniques of film, particularly the ways film is manipulated to alter what goes on in the mind of the viewer.
The film comes as 12 separate reels - it's a sort of soap opera of the lives of some of Warhol's people who lived at the Chelsea Hotel in the Sixties. Although the running order has now become more or less accepted, the original instructions were that the projectionist should choose the sequence and the sound levels for each. Additionally, two projectors are used simultaneously, projecting two of the reels at any one time on opposite sides of the screen (16mm has a square format, so the films fit neatly side-by-side on a standard oblong theatre screen.) The effect is a bit like being at a party where you can choose which conversation to tune in to. But sometimes you are just left with one person for a few minutes. You can almost ignore one section for a bit. But then, when something interesting happens, you already have the background gossip on it that you've followed with one ear. It's very interesting in that sense. There's not much in the way of narrative. But we develop our own kind of narrative as we link up individuals from different reels. Often they are shown in different lights - sometimes literally. Everyone, as in many of Warhol's films, plays themselves - or rather, dramatised personae of themselves. Both reels are in black and white but with different co-actors. When we see them in a third reel, in colour, some of the mystery that black-and-white lent has drained away. They seems more human and less mysterious. We make our internal narrative, choosing which reel is a 'flashback', which is the 'true' person. I think of how the classic vamp is portrayed in movies, the fetishisation of femininity. And how unconscious we are of cinematic technique.The film veers towards the more mainstream approach that Morrissey was to take with Warhol's work as one man assumes the identity of a Pope and hears confessions. The scene is one of the most talked about in the movie as it is not only a great 'performance' but it seems to parody some of the perceived evils of Roman Catholic inquisitorial cruelty. It maybe even calls to mind (both through dialogue and in the chiaroscuro lighting) the thin line between god and the devil.
If you're new to Warhol's art you might want to get hold of a primer first (I recommend ~The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol, it doesn't 'explain' Warhol but it can help you get inside his head.) If you see this film looking for all the things he's refusing to give you then you probably won't get much out of it.
Of course, if this were a real soap opera, scenes of mild bondage, catfights, sexual confessions and so on would be dramatised to make them larger than life. Chelsea Girls doesn't have to go to such lengths. It already is real life. Weird people, druggie drop-outs and the sort of folk who probably 'infested' Times Square before the big clean up. Their interesting essences are distilled by a great artist - yet just not in the way you might expect.
I got the feeling at times that you could have given Andy Warhol a camera that came free with the cornflakes and he would have made great art with it.