In dreams: Warhol's "Screen Tests" get a second life with live sounds from Dean & Britta at the Palace of Fine Arts Tues/3.

Warhol's Screen Tests Get Dean & Britta Treatment

Dennis Harvey February 2, 2009

We live in Andy Warhol’s world now. His pronouncement that, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," was catchy and outrageous in 1968. Now, we’ve evolved into a culture in which Brangelina or Paris routinely knock Iraq or White House criminality way off the front page of public caring, while a sizable population joneses for that dazzling hit of total media exposure—even if it’s humiliating. The desire to be known, to be seen, overwhelms the specificities of "good" or "bad."

Andy would have loved reality TV as ultimate (so far) proof of his notion that everybody is a star. All is takes to make one is the camera’s intoxicating gaze.

One of the purest expressions of Warhol’s aesthetic and (if such a lofty term applies) philosophy are his early Screen Tests. Shot between 1964 and 1966 on silent B&W 16mm stock by Bolex camera on 100-foot rolls of film, they record various acquaintances—drag queens, hustlers, celebutantes, international art stars—in two-and-a-half minutes of stock-still, close-up scrutiny each. They weren’t really "tests" so much as an invasive, admiring, exposing end in themselves.

Five hundred or more were shot. Not all survive. But some have, and are revived only as much as the notoriously protective Warhol estate (which shies from releasing to DVD any films not already granted wide theatrical and video exposure—meaning those later Warhol-presented, Paul Morrissey-directed features starring Joe Dallesandro) allows.

San Francisco Film Society’s Palace of Fine Arts screening of 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests offers a cherry-picking of these reels. It’s accompanied by live original-soundtracking from indie "languid dream pop" pair Dean & Britta, veterans of late jangly indie-pop outfits Galaxie 500 and Luna.

The Screen Tests weren’t Andy’s first filmic efforts, but almost. (He made some movies in 1963, most notoriously Sleep, which recorded poet John Giorno inert in bed for five hours.) Still, they personified the incubational heyday of his Factory, before faddish national attention and a near-fatal 1968 shooting by Factory fringe-dweller Valerie Solanas had the result of severely restricting his hands-on involvement in any cinematic exercises bearing his name.

Thereafter at a comfortable distance, he allowed his scandalous air of avant-garde queer licentiousness to drive marketing for a Morrissey-directed trilogy of campy "dramas" (Flesh, Trash, Heat), then a diptych of gory, stylishly parodic European "horror films" (Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula). All starred stunned muscle stud Dallesandro, a Brooklyn Adonis too benumbed to be more than spectator to his own exploitation.

While these eternal midnight movie faves seemed more than strange enough to the uninitiated, they completed a gradual evolution away from the extreme minimalism of his earliest film works—the Screen Tests being perhaps its ultimate expression—to increasingly conventional narratives and polished technique. The desire to mix variably professional actors and sheer gaudy "personalities" remained, leading many square critics to decry these efforts’ "amateurism," while their tongue-in-cheek shock value provided grounds for moral objections.

Seen by drastically fewer people than these later commercial releases, or such earlier, more
"underground" features as Chelsea Girls (1966) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968), the Screen Tests are about as stark an exercise as filmmaking can get. Their stationary-camera portraits of individuals can be as ennobling as a Botticelli or as brutally revealing as a mug shot. Called to stand still and stare back at the one-eyed soul bandit for about 200 unblinking seconds, some subjects radiated self-assurance or presented a practiced persona; others squirmed, discomfited by the uncertainty of what (if anything) was expected from them.

They included Factory regulars, of course, as well as NYC art scenesters and intellectuals, socialites, fellow filmmakers, pop stars, foreign luminaries, and street trade—seemingly anyone who walked into the Factory loft, although no doubt it was (as with everything there) a matter of some competitive zeal just who got one. Among the outsiders granted this moment in the Warhol spotlight were art legends Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali; avant-garde filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Marie Menken; musicians Bob Dylan, Donovan and "Mama" Cass Elliott; writers Allen Ginsberg and Susan Sontag.

The "3 Most Beautiful" program—which is also being released on DVD, a first for the Warhol estate—sticks closer to "superstar" personalities already closely linked to Andy and the peak Factory period. Thus there’s the stony ethereal beauty of German model-chanteuse Nico; Lou Reed, then leading the Velvet Underground in Warhol’s touring multimedia "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" spectacular; in-house photographer Billy Name; fierce young Mary Woronov, perhaps the only Factory member who eventually really succeeded in Hollywood (Andy’s alleged dream); over-the-top, drag queen-like biological females Ingrid Superstar (who simply disappeared in 1986), Susan Bottomly a.k.a. International Velvet, and "Baby" Jane Holzer.

There are tragic figures like Freddy Herko, an experimental dancer-choreographer who’d be a strung-out suicide at age 29 not long after shooting his 1964 "test." And of course Edie Sedgwick, the debutante beauty who’d meet her own premature overdose demise a few years after being ejected from ever-fickle Warhol’s circle, as well as her lover, LSD-addled bisexual hunk Paul America. The one mere Factory guest included here is someone who, rather amazingly, did not become another drug casualty: Pre- Easy Rider actor and art aficionado Dennis Hopper, who would survive an even more tripped-out Me Decade to turn respected Hollywood veteran and (gasp!) active Republican.

The 8 p.m. Palace of Fine Arts event will be followed by a VIP reception for those who want to mingle with the musicians. Just think: In the very immediate future, you can be a VIP for 15 minutes. Maybe even an hour….

More information on the show and tickets at SFFS.