Friday, April 30, 2004


Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, by Steven Watson
Pantheon, 512 pp.

In 1964, Andy Warhol told friends, critics and reporters that he had given up on painting. In only five years, Warhol had made the transition from magazine illustrations and advertising to chic galleries and become the art world’s latest thing. Pop Art was big and Warhol its king, yet the paintings that had generated so much gossip, the soup cans and celebrities and grainy news photos, remained largely unsold. He had actually been making more money when as a commercial artist, and for Warhol, whom we now know was something of a businessman-savant, the irony of that point couldn’t have set well.
A compulsive collector (at the time of his death, his home was stuffed with boxes of things, worthless as well as expenses, which he purchased solely to store away), Warhol’s work as a painter stemmed less from a particular aesthetic theory than from his ability to take pleasure in all kinds of images, from movie-star publicity photos to mug shots, from comic strips to Coke bottles. Warhol’s paintings, generated from existing images and produced in multiple sets, were one way of collecting images. Making movies (and later, tape recordings) was even better, because the images were alive. And best of all, the movies were a will way of collecting people.
Warhol had always enjoyed the company of flamboyant outsiders, but the art world and the gay community of the 1950s were too marginalized, too eccentric for the rest of the world to take much notice. Suddenly, as the country woke up from the gray Eisenhower era, that all changed. Everyone was flamboyant and no one had to be left outside. Perhaps it was all an illusion, but if that was the case, Warhol made sure that he was the man behind the curtain.
A postmodernist before there was such a word, and in a time when even modernism was suspect, Warhol remains as crucial a guide to the culture of the last fifty years as ever, and even fifteen years after his death an endless stream of documents, artifacts, films, biographies, memoirs and miscellany keep his work at the center of attention. He’s been outed, denounced, imitated and turned into a cultural institution (and on a postage stamp!) We’ve had Queer Andy, gossip Andy, Republican Andy, even Andy as the hero of a children’s book. An Andy for every occasion, every argument. As long as people keep chasing after their fifteen minutes of fame, Warhol will be the man holding the stopwatch.
A painter may get by with a simple studio, but Warhol needed an environment. He found it in a large industrial loft on East 47th Street. The Factory, as it became known, was office, theatre and playground, its walls lined with aluminum foil (to amuse the speed freaks) and its most conspicuous item of furniture a beat-up couch, rescued from the street. (It even became the star of a Warhol film.) Playing on the themes of mass produced art and Hollywood “studios”, the Factory, -the people it attracted and the stories it generated - became one of Andy’s most enduring works. It was easy; Andy kept the doors open and the room filled with all the most interesting people in New York.

There were the handful of writers and artist who wrote the scripts and helped make the paintings and documented the entire scene, like Billy Name, who gave the Factory its foil-lined design, then spent more than a year without leaving his small darkroom or Gerard Malanga, dancer/poet/whip artiste who worked as Warhol’s assistant, then resentfully took off for Europe forging Warhol works for quick cash. There was Ondine, an opera-loving postal worker whose caustic, amphetamine-fueled raps placed him high on the Warholian pecking order. In “The Chelsea Girls”, he holds court as “the Pope.” In 1966, Warhol spent 24 hours with Ondine tape-recording every minute. The transcription of those tapes was released in 1968 as ”a”, Warhol’s first (and only) “novel”, the closest thing we have for experiencing the Factory in all its glamour and ennui.
There was a long string of beautiful women, from exotic models like Nico and Ultra Violet to more modest beauties like Viva, Edie and Mary Woronov. Some understodd that they were only playing at being movie stars; other started to believe the game and were abandoned as quickly as they were discovered.
These stories have been told many times before, on film, in books, even in song. Some of their accounts are bitter (Mary Woronov’s “Swimming Underground”), some powerfully emotional (Lou Reed and John Cale’s “Songs for Drella”), some gossipy and worthless (Ultra Violet’s ghost-written memoir), some gossipy yet fascinating (Warhol’s own “Popism”) but rarely as well or as inclusively as in Steven Watson’s “Factory Made”, the first book on the Warhol sixties to remove the cast of characters from the glare of the Pop Art King. It’s Warhol’s story too, of course, but he’s there less as a Great Artist than as a host, providing a setting where dozens of other lives, from street hustlers and art collectors to black-sheep heiresses and self-proclaimed underground legends.
And finally there was Valerie Solanas, a more disturbed than talented writer who became fixated on both Warhol and Maurice Girodias, the semi-legendary owner of The Olympia Press. Unfortunately for Warhol, Girodias was out of town when Solanas’ paranoia/resentment bubbled over one day in June, 1968, so she wandered up to the Factory and pumped a few bullets into the artist. Feminists like Ti-Grace Atkinson were rooting for her 15 minutes, but she was upstaged by Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Robert Kennedy a few hours later.
Warhol nearly died, but managed to pull through. The Factory scene wasn’t so lucky. A frightened Andy withdrew, no longer to accept the speed-soaked craziness. He moved uptown, where the people weren’t as interesting or as unpredictable. He disassociated himself from the past by removing his films from circulation. His former court moved on, few of them able to shake the label “former member of Andy Warhol’s Factory” from their name. (A few unlucky ones didn’t even make it to the end). Watson’s book is the first to attach real lives to the make-believe names and glamorous pictures, the first to catch the foil-lined, strobe-lit Factory of myth as it really was, the chance meeting of fad and fashion at a time when definitions of art had dissolved and exotic figures like these became their own best creations.

This review originally appeared online at in December 2003

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy by Colin MacCabe, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp., $25.00

There is a story that Jean-Luc Godard, whose first film “Breathless” made Jean-Paul Belmondo an international superstar in 1959, approached the actor sometime in the 1970s to propose a new collaboration. Belmondo is said to have asked “Do you still know how to direct?”
As Colin MacCabe notes in his new book, many people in the post-Spielberg/Lucas era know Godard only by reputation as a name from the past, barely noticing that his innovations in film language have become commonplace. His great deluge of films in the 1960s – “Contempt”, “Alphaville”, “Vivre sa Vie” and “Weekend” among them - paved the way for the first generation of movie-conscious American filmmakers like Scorsese and DePalma (who paid homage in early films like “Mean Streets” and “Greetings”) and continue to shape new cinematic voices – even when they don’t recognize the source. Godard’s jump cuts, genre-breaking narratives, collage-like forms of address and dismantling of the traditional illusionist boundaries of film have influenced filmmakers from Richard Lester to Tarantino (whose production company A Band Apart is a pun based on a Godard title.)
But despite major award-winning films like “Nouvelle Vague” and “Passion”, dozens of film and video projects, numerous “comebacks” and enough recognition to be imitated in mainstream television commercials (when the French version of the employment website “Monster” was launched, their tv campaign involved a check-out clerk– obviously recognizable as a young version of Godard- find his cinematic calling via an on-line ad) the idea that the New Wave maverick has spent most of the last three decades living a hermit-like existence, awash in incomprehensible theory and up to his ears in unfinished and unwatchable political ravings – an image that Godard himself has used as self-parody - has become an easy way for an increasingly trivial film culture to dismiss his work. That’s one of the myths that MacCabe sets out to debunk in his book, the first biography in English of the man whom many would argue was not just a major voice in film, but one of the most significant intellectual figures of the last century.
As MacCabe shows, Godard’s prolific output (the useful filmography fills forty pages) has brought him into contact with a wide range of cultural and social figures, from philosophers to pop stars, from Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance and the Rolling Stones to Jean-Paul Sartre and Charles Bukowski. Accordingly, a biographer must have an equally comprehensive grasp of the influences that helped shape such work, and MacCabe adeptly juggles the full range of Godard’s background – from the Lutheran Church and the Resistance through auteurism, Maoism and MacMahonism. Brechtian theatrical theory, a major factor in understanding Godard’s work, is given a full accounting, as is the inestimable (and no less significant) charm of Anna Karina, Godard’s first wife and muse for seven films. There is, somewhat surprisingly, only limited critical discussion of Godard’s actual films, and the few that receive lengthy analysis seem to have been selected simply on the basis of the author’s preference.
The result is sometimes more of an encyclopedic, digressive cultural history than a conventional biography, tracking down dozens of intellectual currents and chance encounters, frequently slipping from the analytical to the anecdotal, yet remaining curiously distant from its real subject. Despite a long acquaintanceship with Godard, there is no indication that the filmmaker aided or in any way endorsed the book, so like many unauthorized biographies, friendly or otherwise, the subject remains awkwardly remote. Would it necessarily have been any different with Godard’s cooperation? He is, MacCabe reports, notoriously taciturn and averse to small talk. His own comments on his earlier work are frequently cryptic and rarely favorable. By the time one follows MacCabe’s account of his life from a comfortable childhood in Switzerland, through the heady rush of the “Cahiers du Cinema” and nouvelle vague days, over the obstacle course of radical politics and on to his self-imposed exile near the town where he grew up, Godard’s continued questioning of the moral dimension behind the use of words and images and his obsessive video projects (like the four-hour “Histoire de cinema”, a free-associating summing-up of the medium so rich in associations and loose in its appropriation of film clips that it will probably never see a U.S. release) begin to merge slightly with the slapstick self-caricature in “First Name: Carmen” and other films. “Uncle Jean” (the label he gave himself in “Carmen”, now adopted as a term of endearment among Godardians) is still engaging in an intense dialogue about the nature of cinema and the power of images, but in the degraded state of contemporary film, he may appear like a solitary and somewhat comical old man talking only to himself. MacCabe’s necessarily incomplete biography is a useful guide to anyone hoping to join in on the discussion.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of "Playback"

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