YOU MIGHT think camp parodies are reaching new extremes when Andy Wahl makes a Western with Taylor Mead and Viva. Yet the films of improvisational. irreverent treatment of typical Western dialogues and situations keeps faith with the genre's deepest designs in its sympathy for its isolated characters.
Lonesome Cowboy's extempore playing and occasional dramatic structure come right out of normal Westerns. Warhol just makes the themes more explicit. Viva plays a lone woman whose encounters with cowboys repeatedly threaten rape; her wish to be raped is more obvious than in the average heroine. The homosexual bonds within Warhol's band of cowboys are overt, but almost every Western implies them. Here Warhol is applying his approach to film-making-vulgarized mad Hollywood. His earlier films are vehicles for Ingrid Superstar or Edie Sedgwick, counterparts of Hollywood's mere stars. His plots are collections of inter-personal situations as opposed to the New Wave's tight plotting, which patterns relations between characters to a fault.
As in his earlier films, his approach works, and not just because his talkative superstars sustain one's interest without a dramatic plan. Warhol's first films were long static takes of nearly motionless objects- the Empire State Building, a man sleeping. Despite their notoriety for selecting events and objects at random, and thus trying to destroy designed art, these films pushed cinema to its fundamentals and were Warhol's purest formal works. A subsequent series of sharply lit deep-focus features sustained interest through one's shifting attention within the static frame. One continually rediscovered the composition's different elements as the people in the shot moved and talked. Finally, Warhol began to zoom and pan, giving people an appearance entirely different from the hard-edged definition of the preceding films. The collapsing of background and foreground typical of telephoto shots gives his latest films a different kind of unity, based on skin textures and whole-frame tonal consistency.
Starting with extremely formal attempts to discover basic cinema, Warhol has found a more extensive natural order in events, people, and settings informally composed. His new shooting style directs one's attention to his characters' behavior. Warhol, like Hawks, builds characters in their mannerisms, the way they deliver lines, and in their relations with others- their constant bluffing to preserve their dignity or identity. Their physical appearances are important to our perception of them, but looks are secondary to the way they carry themselves.
THE WAY characters behave together in Lonesome Cowboys is more simply sympathetic than in Warhol's earlier movies. It perceives them in a sustained erotic way: in two scenes the camera zooms in and out on skin and underlying ground while a cowboy makes love to Viva. Hawks's existential bitterness disappears, leaving Warhol looking sentimental. He is sympathetic to the isolated woman, to the boys wandering around looking for security in others' love, toward the cowboys' leader who, older than the rest, sees the band breaking up and the boys abandoning him.
In taking these themes seriously, Lonesome Cowboys becomes a real Western. It's designed to be one: its brown-red-yellow tones, its surface-emphasizing grain, its often intensive cutting evoke the mood of the non-epic Western more successfully than any recent film. And like true Westerns, Lonesome Cowboys knows its themes and situations are myths about modern experience.
It's this knowledge that ties Warhol's film to the others playing with it. In each the well-made formula film breaks down under the changed situation of individuals in modern society. Each film builds from a different genre and testifies to a different sort of personal change.
Weekend's antecedents in American gangster and romance pictures depended on their characters' moral sensitivity; reaching to the films' violent events, the characters made sense out of them by judging them. The complete breakdown of moral perception in Weekend's characters destroys the continuity and moral progress of the narrative. Godard leaves his characters and story, and so his audience, adrift in a world bursting into flames and rubbish for want of moral individuals to control them. Mickey One expresses the disintegration of individual personality. Penn's post-Wellesian conception of an isolated character becomes quite paranoid.
The overt existential anguish of these films is at odds with Warhol's low-key "documentary" of behavior. But Lonesome Cowboys , coming out of and replacing Hawks's adventure dramas, has its own brand of despair. If Hawks's characters approached neurosis in their rivalry and their avoidance of domination by women, their constant games of bluff at least gave them a personal style which could become heroic. Warhol's treatment of his characters goes to bedrock; they have nothing but their bodies to back up their actions. They and their world are completely anti-general and anti-ideal. They are physical entities before Warhol's lens.