Nov 19, 2012

Ciao! Manhattan

During German auteuress Ulrike Ottinger’s Sapphic dystopian sci-fi epic Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (1984) aka Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press – a wonderful otherworldly cinematic work where an intensely intrusive international media empire creates, shapes, manipulates, and destroys a star celebrity – the lead protagonist learns via newspaper that “he” (a pomo Dorian Gray played by German model-turned-actress Veruschka von Lehndorff) has died despite that the decidedly dandy fellow is still living. Although a work of absurdist and surrealist science fiction, Ottinger’s film proves that sometimes fantastic fiction is grounded in scandalous truths, especially when one considers a foreboding flick like Ciao! Manhattan (1972) directed by John Palmer (husband of Warhol superstar Ivy Nicholson) and David Weisman (Edie: Girl on Fire) and starring youthquaker princess Edie Sedgwick in a pseudo-documentary work that inevitably acts as a virtual cinematic epigraph for the tragic socialite’s short, somber life in the fast-lane. Comprised of authentic audio recordings of Sedgwick's memories of the Warhol Factory and NYC and contrived clips from the original aborted script that was started in 1967, Ciao! Manhattan is essentially an interblended, bastardized cinematic work assembled from various ingredients that ultimately is more potent and penetrating than what was originally intended for the film; a discombobulated piece of drug-addled debauchery that is seemingly in stark contrast to what the perturbing project eventually evolved into. Beginning with the posthumous tribute, “Three months after the completion of filming, Edie Sedgwick, who portrays herself in the role of Susan, suddenly died at the age of 28. We dedicate this motion picture to her memory,” it is apparent right from the inception of Ciao! Manhattan that the film is not about a fictional character named “Susan” but a real-life sad little rich girl whose starvation for attention caused her to develop a marvelous persona that would eventually overwhelm and eclipse her true self, thereupon resulting in the most direful of consequences. Incessantly flaunting her unflattering breast implants (which in the movie she ascribes to “eating better” and doing her “exercises”), slurring every single sentence, and looking and ‘acting’ rather sickly for a bodacious blue-blooded 28-year-old, so much so that Edie barely resembles the charming cutesy girl in the Warhol Factory footage that is scattered throughout Ciao! Manhattan. Like a deranged and decisively doomful Russ Meyer film, minus big bona fide boobies, and with aesthetic and structural nods to Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966) and the French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard, Ciao! Manhattan is undeniably – for better or worse – a work that is rather reflective of its zeitgeist and the ill-starred superstar it portrays. 

 Strung-out on speed, stardom, and self-glorification, Susan (Edie Sedgwick) is one sufficiently sad ex-superstar, not least of all due to the fact she needs to use her itty bitty teats as a means to hitch a ride back to her flaky mother’s mansion. Although she barely remembers it, Susan is picked up by a Texan hippie-poser-without-pretensions named Butch (played by Wesley Hayes in his first and only film role) – a friendly yet feeble-minded fellow who delights in “drives around looking at things,” has big plans of riding shotgun in a flying-saucer, and is quite suspicious of colorful Californians due to their seemingly shifty and snide ways – while flashing her bogus bosoms late one night while hitchhiking in a most pathetic way to get back to her eccentric yet concerned mother’s mansion where she literally ‘camps’ out in a carefully contrived and conspicuously childish world of dual self-worship and self-negating neuroticism. Of course, as a spoiled yet routinely abused little rich girl whose father and brothers couldn’t keep their hands off her, aside from the one homosexual brother she absolutely adored who committed suicide in her room as she mentions in Ciao! Manhattan, Susan/Edie is not exactly the most stable of pretty people as proven by her routine stays in mental institutions, addiction to speed and barbiturates, and electroshock therapy sessions. In fact, despite the fact that she is topless and free as a bird or whatever, friendly philistine Butch has a hard time figuring out why he – a rampantly heterosexual and horny hippie of the virile Southwestern stripe – has no desire to bugger the former "it girl"; the gal that every American lass wanted to be and every young American male wanted to be with during the mid-1960s. Of course, Susan/Edie is the not same babe she was during her Factory days as she is clearly out of her mind and positively physically disheveled, sort of like a pretty flower that was run over by a lawnmower, which boy genius Butch even recognizes as proven by his insulting question to her, “Did you really use to look like this?,” in regard to pictures from her photo-shoots with weirdo Warhol. As Susan/Edie explains quite matter-of-factly during Ciao! Manhattan, the media made a big deal when she dyed her hair blonde and got a short chic haircut, as if she was trying to be Warhol’s doppelganger, which she adamantly denied. As for men in her life, Susan/Edie explains that “It’s taken me a longtime to realize it but Paul is the only person I truly ever loved,” even if their mutually destructive relationship revolved around riding around Joe DiMaggio Highway on ample amounts of amphetamine. Paul being Paul America – the star of the early Factory feature-length film My Hustler (1965) – who like Edie, was used, abused, and ultimately disposed of after queen Warhol and his cronies got bored with them. Also like Edie, Paul was considered a fine-looking fool by Warhol, but being the petty and shallow opportunist that he was, used the handsome hunk for his body yet laughed at his brains behind his back in a most catty way. Braindead Butch – a childish fellow who has dreams of flying in a flying-saucer – may not be a trained psychologist, but he has enough empathy to say to himself, “poor chic, she’s really wasted,” and indeed Edie is, as anyone watching Ciao! Manhattan can tell that her end is near.

Featuring an unintentionally comical collage of Edie/Susan enduring shock-treatment juxtaposed with footage of her ill-fated wedding near the conclusion of the film, one would be generous to describe Ciao! Manhattan as an ‘art-xploitation’ flick of the most low-down and degrading kind, thereupon making Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl (1965) and Outer and Inner Space (1966) seem like fun flattery pieces by way of comparison. Of course, Ciao! Manhattan is not a total trash piece as it does reveal some of Sedgwick’s post-Factory insights, especially in regard to counter-culture movements, of which she states regarding a group of peaceful hippies and the ‘revolution of the youth,’ that, “They serve like a mockery in way of reality because they think everything is smiles and sweetness and flowers, when there is something bitter to taste. And to pretend there isn't is foolish..” Too bad Edie did not realize this until it was too late. During one of the final scenes of Ciao! Manhattan, the character Butch notices a newspaper with the headline, “Andy’s Star of ’65, Is Dead at 28,” and merely says to himself, “how about that,” in a vapid yet reasonably unsurprised manner. Needless to say, Ciao! Manhattan would have been better titled Ciao! Edie as that is what the film is essentially about, but – of course – the directors/producers obviously did not want to make the uniquely underhanded film a total bummer so as to crush a potential at an ample monetary return.  Admittedly, you would probably learn more about the laconic life and tumultuous times of  Edie Sedgwick by seeing Ciao! Manhattan than by watching George Hickenlooper's somewhat recent biopic Factory Girl (2006) starring Sienna Miller, but you will probably need to take a long shower after watching Palmer and Weisman's dastardly and distinctively disturbing work of self-prophesied-death-by-way-of-celluloid.

-Ty E

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