for 22 August 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.

 

 

Wigged Out

 
 
Will the movies ever get Andy Warhol
right? Don't hold your breath - at
least not longer than fourteen
minutes, fifty-nine seconds.
 
Now, only a fool expects to get
turned on to visual art by
Hollywood. But given that painting
only makes Page One when it involves
forgery, defacement, theft,
embezzlement, or a $75 coffee-table
book, the art world could use a
celluloid plug.
 
Of course, Warhol isn't the only dauber
ever to get an unfair screen shake.
The typical movie artist is Nick
Nolte in New York Stories: tortured
by Morrissey-grade angst, drinking
W.C. Fields-worthy thermoses of
Scotch, and tossing enough paint for
two barns on a sail-sized canvas
(all while renting a loft so big
that real estate agents would
require Paul Allen to have Bill
Gates sign on as guarantor.) And
this fall, Anthony Hopkins will bare
his barrel chest and treat his
lovers like dirt in Picasso,
probably the only name as popularly
synonymous with sadism as "Hannibal
Lecter."
 
But Warhol's signature images
(packaging, icons, disasters,
portraits) and signature fashions
(frightwig, sunglasses, leather,
Polaroid) have left him more than
usually open to the cheap camera
shot. It doesn't help that his
compulsive self-styling makes Dan
Rather seem unaffected.
 
Taking it from the bottom: Robert
Zemeckis's 1992 flop Death Becomes
Her.This dismal Hawn/Streep/Willis
vehicle doesn't warrant much
nit-picking, but the film's
pervasive, out-of-left-field Warhol
theme only throws more itching
powder onto the head-scratching
viewer's scalp. Early on, it's
whispered that the promiscuous
Streep "would attend the opening of
an envelope." When that quip was
originally directed at Warhol, it was
"a drawer." Later, a faux Warhol
adorns the wall as an undertaker
strangles his wife. And in the (none
too) climactic scene, Willis
squeezes through a crowd of
champagne-guzzling undead, backing
into Andy - natch - who gulps
befuddledly while Monroe whispers in
his ear.
 
 
To Zemeckis, the very persona of Warhol
is a sight gag. Andy's own presence
in a few TV ads confirms that most
of the time, his image is used as a
comic-book turn on "artist." He also
did a Love Boat episode and surfaces
in Tootsie, where a brief montage
with Andy signifies that
Dustin-in-drag has arrived.
 
Next up: that Oliver Stone guy and
The Doors, a movie even more dated
than its 1991 timestamp would
suggest. Kilmer gets led badly
astray by the "vampires" of The
Factory, improbably dominated by a
giant Roy Lichtenstein image. (This
is about as likely as John McEnroe
mounting a LeRoy Neiman tribute to Jimmy
Connors in his SoHo gallery.)
Wondering aloud whether "Andy
imitates life, or life imitates
Andy," a toadlike Capote leads Jim
through white light/heat to the
inner sanctum. Crispin Glover is
sitting under the obligatory wig,
which seems to hover.
 
Stone could plead ignorance for the
glib characterization of the man the
Velvets dubbed "Drella" (Dracula
plus Cinderella). And the Solanas
sympathizers behind Jared Harris in
I Shot Andy Warhol clearly had some
gunpowder to grind. But mock-heroic
painter Julian Schnabel ought to
know better than casting David Bowie
as the Wigged One in Basquiat.
Bowie, who copped his spacey '70s
interview style directly from Warhol,
can't even shed his British accent.
Schnabel garners some points for
elegiac treatment of Warhol's
senseless death, and shows Andy as
genuinely concerned about Basquiat's
drugged decline. But this seems
mostly a function of Schnabel's
melodramatic streak.
 
Indeed, his self-conscious
stylization makes Warhol a hack
actor's (or director's) dream.
Having tired of the college lecture
circuit, he once sent a double in
his place. Given that the double was
Asian, that the charade took any
time at all to unravel suggests that
the public's depth perception was as
shallow as Andy always gauged it to
be. This writer couldn't act his way
out of a Woody Harrelson movie, but
after watching just a few videos of
Warhol's live interviews, he could do
as good an Andy as Glover or Harris:
"Oh." "Grreeat." "Um, I don't know."
"Rrrreally?" Throw in a few
references to money, Coca-Cola, and
watching a lot of television, and
yours truly has a shot at a part in
an Edie Sedgwick biopic.
 
Or so it would seem. No movie has
conveyed the humor and bite of
Warhol's seemingly dopey routine,
especially when pestered by asinine
questioners eager to read the worst
into his out-of-it facade. Only the
1991 documentary Superstar does
justice to his Czechoslovakian
roots, and gives a sense of his
originality and influence. Dealers,
critics, groupies and Grace Jones
all testify to the Death Star
tractor beam effect of first
exposure to Warhol. The immediate
reaction was invariably a huge grin
and the question, "What is *that*?"
 
Peter Schjeldahl, a lone stylist
among '80s art critics, acknowledged
both the Weighty Import and the pure
fun of Warhol. "In the '60s [he] had a
steamrollering effect on the whole
mental apparatus of Western cultural
tradition," Schjeldahl argues.
"Warhol wasn't ironic... [this was]
as efficient a life-form as a shark,
a cat, or an honest businessman
(which he was)." Explaining the
much-derided work of the '70s, he
concludes: "American culture simply
became so permeated with Warhol's
own influence that his responses to
it picked up something akin to audio
feedback... [He] remains way ahead
of them, as contemporary
civilization's comprehensive
visionary." As Warhol would say:
"Gosh."
 
 
But Schjeldahl doesn't exaggerate;
what punk was to bubblegum pop, Pop
Art was to the '50s splatter
painters. Abstract expressionism was
considered the first wholly American
art form, but once Warhol came along
with his populist pronouncements
("No one can buy a better Coca-Cola
than anyone else") and instant
icons, Jackson Pollock and Willem de
Kooning began to look pretty darned
Parisian. Detractors avoid
mentioning that Warhol could draw like
a dream, receiving numerous awards
for his '50s illustrations. One
young illustrator, Jeff Fulvimari,
has created a high-profile career
for himself by simply duplicating
Warhol's '50s blotted-line style. Andy
would like that.
 
Rather than an all-purpose touchstone
for all things elitist and flimsy,
the man should be a model for
egalitarians and aesthetes alike. If
pop figures can ever be said to be
radical, Warhol is up there with Lenny
Bruce, or John Lennon, who said that
artists "should do things that the
media doesn't understand, because
then they can't tear them down." Not
that they don't try. All these
movies willfully twist Warhol's fresh,
contrarian pronouncements ("I want
the wrong person for the part," "A
computer would make a very qualified
boss") into the pap and pomposity he
was satirizing. His every move was
calculated to undermine notions of
the Master inspired by heavenly
muses.
 
Most of all, know-nothing directors
have sneered that Warhol "stole" his
ideas from other people. Never mind
that this ignores and distorts the
most basic tenets of appropriation
art. Never mind that Warhol made the
Duchampian notion of pure selection
palatable to the mainstream. If, as
they've also suggested, Andy was
awash in a sea of motormouthed
poseurs, he must have been a genius
to have fished so many great ideas
from such bilgy waters.
 
 
He was a media jammer to make Arthur
Kroker green with envy. Wherever he
pointed, everything clicked.
 
 

[Zero Baud Archive]

Courtesy of
Ersatz