Apr 18, 2013

Chelsea Girls

Sometime at the end of my junior year of high school, I first heard junky kraut diva Nico’s 1967 bohemian ballad “Chelsea Girls” – a song I would later learn was referential to a 1966 Andy Warhol film of the same name which also starred the singer in what was a mostly silent and somber performance that captured the melancholy essence of the beatnik Brynhildr. While Nico previously made a cameo appearance in Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita (1960) as a smiling statuesque Nordic beauty who seemed like she was on her way to the top of the world, her appearance in Chelsea Girls (1966) was of a strikingly sullen nature as the seemingly apathetic and negligent mother of a young son, thus illustrating the ‘sweet life’ was not so sweet after all, at least for one of the most beauteous blonde beastesses in the world. An ‘experimental epic’ at 3 hours and 15 minutes of the innately improvised, ploddingly plot-less, passively nihilistic, emotionally and aesthetically erratic and seemingly pointless, Chelsea Girls would ultimately prove to be Andy Warhol’s first big success as a sometimes-filmmaker as the first ostensibly ‘underground’ film in American history to be played in a mainstream movie theater, yet the work indubitably owes most of its ‘cult status’ and ‘artistic integrity’ to its co-director Paul Morrissey (Blood for Dracula, Madame Wang’s), who many believe to be the real ‘auteur’ of the film. While Warhol came up with the general aesthetic concept for the film, writing to Chelsea Girls co-scripter Ronald Tavel (who scripted a mere two segments of the film), “I want to make a movie that is a long movie, that is all black on one side and all white on the other,” Morrissey was essentially responsible for everything else, once stating, “Andy was an entrepreneur who wanted to produce something. I was the experimenter who created the experiments for him and then learned from the films that were made. I learned that really interesting personalities were out there and the trick is to let those personalities come out in front of the camera,” and, indeed, one of the greatest aspects of the films is its naturalistic, albeit sometimes nauseatingly so, tone of a hotel of burnouts and bummed out beatnik bastards drowning in their own humiliating, and sometimes hysterical, humdrum lives. Warhol himself once stated of Chelsea Girls, “The lighting is bad, the camera work is bad, the sound is bad, but the people are beautiful,” thus proving his own superficial reading of his ‘own’ film, but radical right-winger Morrissey managed to pack the film with enough quasi-mundane melodramatic meat to do the seemingly heretical (at least where hippie types were concerned) by unflatteringly demystifying the young, cool, and artistic by portraying them (with seemingly no effort on his part as they 'hang themselves' quite naturally) as the pretty, vacant people that most of them actually were. Featuring an iconic split-screen technique throughout combining both black-and-white and color segments of seemingly unrelated scenes and alternating soundtracks in what is an accidental post-structuralist celluloid hippie nightmare where a deep, dark abyss exists where the soul is supposed to be, Chelsea Girls features the unhappening happenings of a generation too impotent and idiotic to leave anything of value to subsequent generations, aside from posturing poses and the sometimes hypnotic hysteria of half-men with imbalanced estrogen levels. 

 Regarding Chelsea Girls, Warhol once remarked, “I use superstars in my movies so they can be superstars, portray their spontaneous—uh—talents on the screen,” yet the only flair the pretty people of the film have is moody broody complaining and the occasional hysterical freak-out, especially when it comes to hyper homos like early and rather odious Factory Superstar Ondine (Vinyl, Silent Night, Bloody Night) – a man so innately impotent and mentally unsound that he feels the need to physically and verbally assault women and even has the audacity to try (and fail miserably) and pseudo-philosophize his actions later. Other Warhol Superstars featured in Chelsea Girls include Nico, Brigid Berlin, Gerard Malanga, Mary Woronov (playing ‘Hanoi Hannah’ in one of the two segments of the film scripted by Tavel), Ingrid Superstar, International Velvet and Eric Emerson, as well as a symbolic appearance by experimental filmmaker Marie Menken – who not only influenced Andy Warhol's banal brand of filmmaking, but also Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage – as a motherly figure. Whether one wants to acknowledge it or not, one becomes a voyeur-by-default when watching a film and one becomes especially conscious of their pathological scopophiliac tendencies while viewing Chelsea Girls – a film where nothing and everything happens in a quaint hotel from hippie Hades where everyone is unhappy, except when sadistically molesting someone or procuring and abusing mind-altering substances so as to dull their lack of personal substance. Needless and heedless narcissism is the name of the game in the Hotel Chelsea, a spiritually and emotionally vapid lunatic asylum of the lethargic libertine sort where fags attack fag hags, bitchy blonde bull-dykes bargain large quantities of dope over the phone, wealthy queens manhandle young twinks, sexual experiences and religious beliefs are inanely touched on, and where no one can seem to bother to give a shit about anything but themselves, even if everyone there seems to destroy their minds and bodies with a sad cocktail of sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Assuredly, If someone overdosed on heroin and laid sprawled out with the needle still in their diseased genitals in the Hotel Chelsea, the other tenants of the overly blasé building would be too immersed in an unrelenting anti-nostalgic rant about their sexual awakening to bother to notice. Indeed, if the Chelsea Hotel featured in Chelsea Girls burned down with all of its occupants inside, I doubt the viewers or even the occupants would care because at least then they could feel something aside from feeling dead inside and would at least be put out of their misery.  Surely, it is no coincidence that junky punk icon Sid Vicious would stab his Jewish prostitute girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death at the Hotel Chelsea twelve years after the release of Chelsea Girls.  As the film demonstrates in a slightly less violent fashion, somehow when drug-addled rockers and 'artistes' lock themselves in dark rooms, things get a bit ugly and rather retarded.

 In a December 1978 interview with Chelsea Girl star Ondine, who gives a performance that earned him “cult ctatus” as a belligerent bitch boi who feels the need to assault women to assert his broken manhood and even proudly states to the camera “I am a violent person,” he described the importance of the film and Warhol’s influence as follows, “And in that film, not only in my segment—the culmination of my career at that point. But, quite honestly, he (Warhol) got from everybody involved in the film—everything that they could do. There are people running around wasted on the street now because they did it in that film. They should be, but they’re probably dead. [laughing] There’s no way out of that film. That film is a living torture test.” Of course, Paul Morrissey’s more imperative influence as a crypto-director is apparent in the film itself in a scene of Ondine as the prissy “Pope” during one of his real mental breakdowns when he states to the camera/director, “I’m ready to get any kind of confession, Paul. Anyone who wants to confess may confess,” as the flamboyant flamer finally becomes clearly conscious of the fact that his less than prudent performance is incriminating and quite embarrassing due to his mindless megalomania and unwarranted assault against an equally mindless young woman. While not as blatant in his later films, Chelsea Girls would also be arguably the first film where Paul Morrissey exposed the sexual revolution and the counter-culture as deleterious abject failures that created a spiritual void in those individuals who fell for such self-gratifying degeneracy, yet, quite paradoxically, queer Jewish feminist Kathy Acker believed that his films, “made the art world, then the United States generally, accept, even admire those whom they had formerly condemned: drag queens, strippers, young homeless kids, not hippy pot smokers but actual heroin addicts and welfare victims,” so one could argue that the auteur filmmaker’s ‘political objective’ backfired, at least to some degree.  Luckily, most kids today lack the attention span to even get through the first 5 minutes of Chelsea Girls, so they are going to have to develop their artificial angst and bitter romance for drugs and 'free sex' from illiterate rappers and the latest scatological Hollywood kosher comedy instead as the film has aged quite ungracefully.

 After years of procrastination, I finally managed to get through the grueling 3+ hour entirety of Chelsea Girls the other day and I can safely say that I doubt I will ever re-watch the film ever again, but if I did, it would be while reading a book and listening to music because, in terms of actual worthwhile content and provocative ideas, the film has a tad bit more depth than vintage wallpaper. In fact, I would go as far as saying that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film, where he gave one out of four stars for the work, writing, “...what we have here is 3½ hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them.” Of course, Paul Morrissey never made a lie about the fact that Chelsea Girls was a cinematic “experiment” and nothing more and nothing less. Morrissey would later put the split-screen technique to better use in his seedy hustler flick Forty Deuce (1982) starring a very young and greasy bisexual, heroin-addicted Kevin Bacon in a sardonically sick scenario of a dead child in a bed on one screen and two degenerate dick-peddlers (Bacon being one of them) blackmailing a middle-aged bourgeois John regarding the dead kid in the other screen. More importantly, Chelsea Girls would inspire at least two of the greatest directors of German New Cinema, including dandy auteur Werner Schroeter, who utilized the split-screen technique and kaleidoscopic colors (featured prominently at the end of Chelsea Girls) in his excellent 35-minute short Argila (1969), as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who adopted the posturing ‘beatnik’ attitude (both on and off film) and plodding plot to his semi-autobiographical work Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). Although once described by Newsweek as, "the Iliad of the Underground," Chelsea Girls is best seen today as an inane yet semi-important artifact of arthouse film history and as one of the least autistic and most 'coherent' films Warhol ever produced, but not as an unparalleled masterpiece of film history.  Personally, I still prefer the Nico song.

-Ty E


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Mary Woronov (as the bird was in 1961 when the bird was 18, not as the hideous old hag is now obviously). By the way Ty E, its scary to realise that when "Chelsea Girls" was made in 1966 Mary was 23 and therefore ALREADY 5 years past her prime ! ! !.

eddie lydecker said...

Ty E, why have you never reveiwed that other notorious cult item starring the lushious Mary Woronov, namely, "DEATH RACE 2000" (1975) " ! ?.