ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILMNR
Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Ric Burns ("The Way West," "The Civil War," "New York," etc.) and PBS' American Masters series again deliver a big, rich blast of non-fiction quality entertainment with the four-hour Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, which premieres on PBS stations September 20 following theatre dates in about 20 cities across the country.
Just by virtue of its subject and his importance in the visual world, the documentary belongs on the big screen. Its broad canvas--including rarely seen stills and archival footage--stretches from Warhol's poor, lonely childhood in a Pittsburgh slum to his unlikely triumph in New York (where he arrived in the '50s with $200 and an art degree from Carnegie Mellon).
The film follows the shy and unattractive Warhol, who begins his ascent as a graphic artist drawing shoes for the likes of I. Miller and dressing windows for Bonwit Teller before establishing himself as the city's top commercial artist. But Burns and company make it clear that from the beginning, Warhol--who worshipped during his early years celebrities as diverse as Shirley Temple and Truman Capote--wanted a lot, lot more. He lusted for fame, and hard work, sheer nerve and intuition brought him the notoriety he craved.
Stuck as a graphic artist unable to cross over to fine arts (even the better-known early pop artists rejected him), Warhol persisted until, finally, in the early '60s he created his career-making silk screens of celebrities like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor and his renditions of Campbell Soup cans and sculpted Brillo Soap boxes.
It was Irving Blum's 1962 L.A. gallery show of Warhol's art, and support from loyal friends like Ivan Karp, Emile De Antonio and Henry Geldzahler, that put him on the map and sent him on his way. That path led to the establishment of the various Warhol Factories that served as his workspace and a kind of raucous, sex and drugs-filled flophouse for the troubled losers-usually upper or working-class-who suspected (often correctly) that Warhol's fame was contagious. These hungry exhibitionists (like Viva, Brigid Polk and Edie Sedgwick) became the speeded-up (via amphetamines) "superstars" of the Warhol movies of the '60s that followed his earlier cinematic foray with silent, stationary, long "sleepers" like Sleep or Kiss.
Warhol's still art flourished: He pocketed a tidy amount of change doing commissioned portraits of the rich that originated as humble Polaroids. He also launched the iconic Velvet Underground, multimedia happenings like the drug and music blowout at the Dom ballroom, and Interview magazine.
Beyond all the archival material, the film benefits mightily from the many eloquent talking heads--critics, curators and former associates dead and alive--whose words, incredibly, are always electrifying and revealing. These include art dealer Blum, curator owner Donna De Salvo, colleagues Billy Name (Linich) and Vincent Fremont, culture arbiter and personality George Plimpton, writers Stephen Koch and Wayne Kostenbaum, and art historians and critics Neil Printz, John Richardson and Dave Hickey.
Over and over, they make a compelling case for Warhol's "genius" and his status as the greatest artist of the last half of the 20th century. (Picasso occupied the first half.) Hickey goes so far as to say that Warhol "literally changed the world." The experts also cite Warhol's incredible drive and work ethic, his need to maintain total objectivity, his complete distaste for intimacy and physicality (in spite of his homosexuality) and his obsession with beauty.
And there was Warhol's embrace of the ironic and our consumerist culture, of which the film itself is symbolic. (Consider the relationship between the executive producers and Warhol art.) And didn't all that Warhol embody foreshadow reality TV?
For balance, some of the talking heads rightfully cite Warhol's darker side, including his emotional dead zone and exploitation of his followers and the horrific ends some (Sedgwick and others) met.
A pernicious, pivotal event impacted Warhol's life in 1967, when demented wannabe writer Valerie Solanas, spurned by the artist, took her man-hating and unfathomable frustration to the extreme by shooting him point-blank at the Factory. The film covers this episode in detail, noting that Solanas' bullet hit six vital organs. Warhol was not expected to survive. But he did and it changed his life radically and for the better. He cleaned up his act, disposed of the less desirable Factory hangers-on, and surrounded himself with a more middle-class, level-headed coterie that included Fred Hughes, Bob Colacello, and Paul Morrissey.
The documentary unaccountably doesn't bother much with the Warhol of the '70s and '80s, a period when he turned his art and celebrity into real money and when he became a fabled collector of objets d'art and truly fashionable people. These final decades were also the years that Warhol as producer was the force behind filmmaker Paul Morrissey, whose features like Heat attracted considerable notoriety and revenue.
Such relative stability in Warhol's life isn't the stuff of exciting narrative, but a closer look at these final years (Warhol died in 1987, the result of negligent hospital care relating to gall bladder surgery) might have thrown light on his mystery. Surely beneath so much genius, drive and obsession, there was also a human like the rest of us. Wasn't there?