Andy Warhol’s Silver Screen


AC1The Chelsea Girls1966Pictured Left To Right Nico Ondine;©2019The Andy Warhol Museum,Pittsburgh,PA,A Museum Of Carnegie Institute All Rights Reserved Film Still Courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls.” From left: Nico, OndineFILM STILL COURTESY THE ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM

So much of the creative work that Andy Warhol was associated with in the 1960s has become touchstone reference points of American culture that it’s tempting to call him this country’s one-man Renaissance. This month, there’s a chance to experience one hard-to-see aspect of his artistic prescience — his early movies, especially Chelsea Girls — at Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts.

We’re reminded of his Pop Art’s enduring impact every time we visit a museum. The band he managed, The Velvet Underground, is ground zero for the Indie Rock movement as well as adult lyrics in music. And the strange underground films he directed (sometimes with co-director Paul Morrissey) have become avant-garde cinema landmarks, as well as vivid chronicles of New York’s alternative artistic lifestyle of that fervid time. His actors — often improvising for the camera and seeming to portray themselves rather than characters — were called “superstars.”

This acceptance of his early movies has been a slow process — at the time, they seemed intentionally alienating or confrontational, with their slow pacing, deadpan tone and non-judgmental depictions of drug use and sex.

Of the approximately 60 films that Warhol made between 1963 and 1968, none has turned out to be more influential than 1966’s Chelsea Girls, codirected with Morrissey. Some three-and-a-quarter hours in duration, it featured 12 separate 33-minute reels (or vignettes) that often played more like extended, unedited improv. Chelsea Girls was sometimes slow going yet simultaneously riveting. It was originally presented split-screen style via two side-by-side projectors, each synchronously showing a separate reel, but only one had an accompanying dialogue track.

Watching it was a challenge: Where do you look? The different vignettes could be in grungy black-and-white or splendiferously psychedelic color. And the subject matter could be daunting at the time to a “straight” audience — superstars inject speed, a young man describes his LSD trip as it’s occurring, two men talk in bed.

For all the above reasons, Chelsea Girls has been a hard movie to see, even as its fame has grown. But now, the Wexner Center is presenting not only a new digital transfer of the film, but is also showing it in a series of other, shorter Warhol films.

The overall series is called Chelsea Girls Exploded and gets underway this Friday (Sept. 6) with a screening of Chelsea Girls and continues through Sept. 25. Organized by Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it will also present Afternoon and The Closet on Sept. 11; The Trip [Version 1] and [Unknown Eric Reel] on Sept. 19, and The John and The Pope Ondine Story on Sept. 25. These are important because they were either originally intended for inclusion in Chelsea Girls or are alternate takes from it — Afternoon, with the dynamic Edie Sedgwick, for instance, was removed from the film when she complained.

Additionally, Chuck Smith’s superb new documentary Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground — about a young, rebellious New York filmmaker and creative thinker of the 1960s who befriended and influenced Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, among others — will screen Sept. 18, along with the radically visionary avant-garde film she made from 1963-65, Christmas on Earth.

Part of Chelsea Girls’ ongoing allure comes from the fact it is set in Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea, at the time a bohemian paradise for artists, intellectuals and those who wanted to live near them. One of Warhol’s most famous superstars, the chanteuse Nico, not only is prominently featured in the movie but also subsequently released a tie-in album, Chelsea Girl, featuring a song written by Lou Reed called “Chelsea Girls.”

(While the hotel is one of the film’s locations, only one of its actors — poet René Ricard — lived there at the time. Further, not all the separate vignettes are about women; the movie should be called Chelsea Boys and Girls. Also, two of the vignettes are scripted by Warhol associate Ronald Tavel.)

It begins with “Nico in the Kitchen,” a black-and-white vignette notable mainly for Nico trimming her blonde bangs. I don’t say that sarcastically — her bangs descend like a meticulous waterfall over her lashes and even a bit of her eyes, so there’s real tension to the trimming process. It’s mesmerizing and far more interesting than so many clichéd commercial movies.

Another highlight is the vignette known as “Hanoi Hanna,” which Tavel wrote for Mary Waronov, who went on to make some much higher-profile movies, including playing the stern principal in the cult classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

It appears she is rehearsing the part of a North Vietnamese radio host during the Vietnam War, interrogating (or perhaps brainwashing) an American woman.

Waronov’s face in close-up can move from being warm and teasing to cruel and dominating, and her voice has a chilling calm to it that tries to avoid but also reveals a personality. Her Hanna also announces over the imaginary airwaves a menu for her “listeners” — “Chinese apples with 1,000 seeds of blood, blue strawberries, and may we suggest for dinner squash.”

The vignette known as “Eric’s Trip” or “Eric Says All” is famous in itself — Sonic Youth named a song after it. In the scene, the young, long-haired Eric Emerson narrates us through his LSD trip in real time. Warhol’s photography provides colorful psychedelic effects. I’m not sure if what Emerson is saying is profound, but he’s so involved in self-discovery — describing how a chill going through his body feels good, declaring how he likes to “groove on sex” — that you can’t help but like him.

You certainly like him (and LSD) compared to “Pope Ondine,” who injects himself with speed before beginning his spiel as a priest hearing confession from a young woman, Ronna Page. (There are two separate Ondine vignettes in Chelsea Girls.) When Page questions his wisdom, he violently, brutally attacks her — for real. It’s shockingly upsetting (Page escapes and isn’t seen again), especially because Warhol’s camera never stops running and he seems so non-judgmental about depicting what’s occurring. I would have called the police.

But even here, you have to acknowledge his commitment to Warhol’s vision. Ondine desperately stays with the filming and tries to keep performing. Warhol’s superstars showed an amazing dedication to Chelsea Girls.

For directions to the Wexner Center for the Arts and information about movie times, tickets and fees, visit

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