The underground movie came to Boston with some respectability last week when Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls inaugurated the Boston branch of the Film-makers Cinematheque. The 3 1/2-hour movie was prefaced by two brief introductions, the second emphasizing the relevance of underground films to modern life: the underground people depict what is evil and corrupt in man; we must turn and look at our own worst sides before we can guide ourselves well in the future.
It is important to examine evil, and sometimes Warhol tries, but The Chelsea Girls is a very silly movie. Warhol runs it on two projectors, playing different scenes simultaneously on two adjacent screens. Warhol has filmed a series of scenes supposedly set in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. There is usually only one audible sound track, corresponding to only one of the screens, but the lessening of confusion doesn't help, since it usually sounds as though Warhol has placed his one microphone in the nearest toilet. That's all right, though, because the dialogue is not essential.
The Chelsea Girls opens silently on the right screen with a blonde cutting her bangs. Five minutes later, the scene on the left screen begins--in the room of a homosexual posturing as a Catholic priest, hearing the confession of some girl. When the reel on one screen runs out, there is silence for a while until the sound-track for the other is tuned up, and some time after that a new scene begins on the first screen. And so it moves through lesbians and junkies and homosexuals lolling on their beds. About halfway through, Warhol switches to color; he blasts the face of a blond boy with orange light. For a half-hour we watch him under various lights while he slithers out of his pants, culminating in a view of his bare flank. When the films runs out, the movie ends.
The Chelsea Girls didn't have to be a movie; it only crudely makes use of the possibilities of the medium. A newsletter would have served as well Warhol sets up his camers before a wall, puts an actor between the wall and the camera, and turns out a slice of life. He is aware that cameras can go in and out of focus, can move right and left and up and down, and can zoom in on their subjects. Although he uses these devices all the time, Warhol believes his material is so powerful that he need only be a chronicler of it.
The premise behind The Chelsea Girls is that underground life can teach its own lessons if it is carefully enough examined.
3 1/2 hours is probably a compromise between care and the exigencies of ordinary life, but the people and events in the movie are the proper kind: they are evil. By looking at depraved people we are supposed to learn of the dark cavities of the human soul. The wisdom that Andy Warhol has gleaned from the gutters, rooms, and public lavatories of New York is delivered over to us in the movie.
These assumptions are faulty; sadomasochism and homosexuality are not tickets to wisdom. Nor are they always as directly evil as Warhol pretends. The high school thugs who went to the park on Friday nights to lure homosexuals and then beat them and steal their money effected more evil than these victims could.
The Chelsea Girls is really the result of Andy Warhol's belief in the brilliance of his own mode of life. He is on to something so good, good enough to film, that he and his friends get together some Saturday afternoon and let the cameras roll. If the actor moves and the camera catches only a bit of his head and lots of the bathroom behind him, it's all right: it's all good stuff. A director can afford a certain nonchalance when he's working in the unexplored regions of the soul.
The important point is that Warhol is on top of everything he films.
Warhol's ironic attitude conveys to us that he is above the level of everything he films. In The Chelsea Girls, Warhol shows a condescending attitude todard his characters, illustrated by his willingness to let them overplay and caricature themselves. That is why the camera repeatedly zooms in on the jiggling breasts of the fat lesbian while she phones-in her order for 300 caps of acid. In her way, she's very funny. Warhol lets you enjoy her as long as you give him the credit for seeing her first.
The characters in The Chelsea Girls are also frightening, of course, because they are bizarre and sometimes depraved. But they don't scare Warhol, because he has passed through and beyond the level of their trapped existence. By imposing no order of his material, Warhol appears sure of himself and indifferent to his audience. The Chelsea Girls is therefore too much a self-celebration, and not really relevant to modern life.