Flickhead
Ruminations
By Irene Dobson

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ISAW3.jpg
Lili Taylor, I Shot Andy Warhol

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I Vote Valerie Solanas

By Irene Dobson

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    Seeing I Shot Andy Warhol again after umpteen years, I am struck by its pitiful story of outsider-hood. I don’t think the film makes a very successful case for reading the writings of Valerie Solanas, but it does reflect very wisely on the nature of being outside, whether that means that you are also one of the ‘in-crowd,’ or not.
    The most powerful moment in the film is that in which Andy Warhol arrives at a gallery opening or somesuch in 1978 and we see him from behind as a car backfires in the street. He turns suddenly, horrified by the sense reminder of his shooting by Solanas, and sees her standing with a baleful expression partly obscured by a car on the other side of the street. A bus passes and she is gone. It is an eerie moment in a film with little in the way of metaphysics about it. On the thematic level it illustrates just how much Solanas and Warhol are a part of each other. Being a hallucination, she is a figment of his psyche, literally in him as much as she ever was another person. And his state of ‘containing’ her reflects her condition in which he is the significant other to her angry marginalized soul. When she finds that she has been cheated by Girodias, the shady French publisher, she rails at Warhol for betraying her. Instead of being played out at Girodias’s office, her social polemic against the world becomes played out at Warhol’s Factory. She threatens to kill Girodias but in the end shoots Andy Warhol. There is also a rather sad moment at a party in which Andy and Valerie are left sitting alone together in which he, having some tape left on his cassette recorder, invites her to sound off with “something dirty,” or say a monologue. Flattered, she says she cannot be inspired unless she is inspired by talking to him. On several occasions Warhol seems to be, like Valerie, on the fringes of the action. While Valerie kicks up a fuss in the background, Andy is seen cowering at the phone, as if ashamed that he is even in the room. Jared Leto’s performance is almost miraculously understated. He scarcely says anything whereas Valerie seems to be a fountain of vitriolic and expletive energy.
    Now I think the point of the film is not the validity of what Valerie has to say, which if the film is anything to go by seems shambolic bordering on psychotic — compare her diatribes to camera with more coherent ‘lectures’ in Godard’s agitprop work appearing at the time when I Shot Andy Warhol is set, the late-60s — but the point is the nature of being outside; on the street, beyond the pale, even out in the ‘in’ crowd. I Shot Andy Warhol successfully casts Warhol’s Factory and its assorted trendies as a tediously conventional bunch with ideas and hang-ups with almost prosaic currency amongst their generation. Yet you get the impression that Andy and Valerie are truly ‘far out’: he for instigating the whole ethos and practice of Pop Art and its performative attitudes, she for taking feminist discourse to a place it had yet to visit, and for being especially rowdy and polemical in the way she carries on.
    I think this relates to the film’s status. It is an American independent made outside the Hollywood industry and designed to broadcast the talents of new actors, like Lili Taylor, Jared Leto, Michael Imperioli. The paradox of those funny little films becomes increasingly apparent with the passing years. They were at the time intended as ‘adverts’ for new talent, and so many dramatize the trials of those trying to break into another world: Amateur, Walking and Talking, Reservoir Dogs, Grace of my Heart, To Die For. On the other hand, memories of these films have congealed into the recollection of an era, a passing mood in American cinema with its own rhythms and attitudes. Goodness, enough books have been written on the subject!
    This yearning to be part of something, the desire to be part of another world, translates into something odd or stilted in the look of the ‘indie’ films. I Shot Andy Warhol is a very theatrical film. It was made partly by the BBC and its focus tends to be boxed in like television programs are. You get the impression that everything has been staged in a room, as if the New York counterculture of that era took place in a few rooms only. It is as though the ‘Sixties’ was being played out with dolls in the corner of a child’s nursery. This is of course borne out by some of the characters. Despite his efforts, Candy Darling cannot be a woman, just a plastic dolly, a parody of womanhood. Even the scenes of Valerie soliciting men on the street have that posed air that you found in Hal Hartley’s films. In a diminished space with Valerie photographed in the middle foreground, a character approaches her and they have a pithy and interesting verbal exchange — think of the scene from Amateur when Sophia Ludens approaches the door man outside the night club. It has a curiously enclosed atmosphere, as if the only reason for this camera set-up, for these actors to be there, for this film to be before us, is so that this exchange can take place. The rest of New York is elsewhere. If this were a Hollywood thriller set in New York, we would be regaled with aerial helicopter shots, expressways from the air (by way of a break from the wordy account of municipal corruption), skylines till their oozing off the screen. It is precisely its brevity which makes I Shot Andy Warhol so watchable. It is like an anecdote told in a bar. And its sweetest effects are sweeter for being so economical. With its combination of gun-shot simulation, backwards look, and distant specter, that scene of Valerie’s ‘appearance’ to Andy turns I Shot Andy Warhol briefly into a horror film in the Val Lewton mould. (Lewton also had a soft spot for the outsider).
    But I Shot Andy Warhol is an independent child of the ‘90s, a piece of street theatre which tells of the unutterable frustration and pain of being on the outside looking in, of being shut out of your rightful place, of your sense of yourself, forced to look on as others perform the folly of their bloated delusions. Valerie Solanas may have been a genius, or she may have been a fraud. I don’t know because I have never read her SCUM Manifesto. Almost twenty years after he died, Andy Warhol is conventionally touted as something of a genius. But I don’t think that I Shot Andy Warhol is nearly as interested in these speculations as it is in examining the psychology of being the lonely one, being on the outside looking on, inhabiting the rainswept night. And as scintillating as it may have been when she was hacking away at her manifesto, being an experiment waiting to happen is not a happy place to be.

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Irene Dobson would like to thank Richard Armstrong for getting her mentioned twice on the Letters page of Sight and Sound.