I feel like this week could not have been more perfect, in a kind of sad but still simply right way. On Sunday night, I dreamt that I went to a free Lou Reed concert in New York. It was, as only imaginable, wonderful. Monday morning I, like so many others in my hemisphere, awoke to the news of his death. A very sad morning, which bled into an upsetting few days, but I manage to find some pleasure or at least fulfilment in the passing of my great idols and champions because it breeds a collective remembering of their contributions. Online, and indeed with those close to us in immediate life, we are given as much space as we need to acknowledge the influence of someone who has passed away.
Come Thursday evening, I got a chance to see something I’ve waited years for, this time not in a dream but in a cinema, as part of ACMI’s Shirley Clarke season. I first got a taste of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey’s Chelsea Girls back in my undergrad years, when a favourite lecturer tried to screen it for us in a wonderful, rich subject on cinematic affect. The 16mm projectors set up for us (the only pair at the university) was broken, screening image but no sound, which of course is imperative. So we all cried, then we went to the pub.
Then I watched Blow Job a lot.
That was years ago. I’ve been yearning for Chelsea Girls ever since. Finally, I got my chance. The print came from the National Film & Sound Archive in Canberra (who also provided the 16mm print of The Connection that screened a few nights ago). I knew they had the print, and I’m very excited it was screened again — curator Kristy Matheson mentioned before the screening that it last showed in 2007, probably around the time of that fateful evening’s failure.
And what a glorious time it was. More than three hours, something like eight reels (I lost track?!), all perfectly paced, composed, and intertwined. Nico trims her fringe for thirty minutes, and probably that activity combined with it being the first reel, and I was yet to settle in to the Chelsea, made it the hardest to bear. But then I loved it all. I loved watching and hearing Hanoi Hannah speak and shout at friends on the right screen, but sit and speak mildly, and in silence, on the left. All women wearing the same outfits in both scenes, but the camera tracing different paths around them, recording different moment, different faces, different movements of their bodies, and delivering a different relationship with them. Through this, Warhol exposes the limits of film, by exposing its sole eye and frame as limited, as not enough for us. Because while Warhol records more, he also, by stretching out the duration of the film’s development, records less, and for this to be rectified, we end up wanting even more. It’s clever, because his film does what we’re perhaps not used to, twice over. There is no perfect, ideal creation.
But there seemed to be a lot of perfection there. Hanoi Hannah, as I’ve mentioned, is beautiful, gorgeous, her sharp features and confident hair demanding her time and attention on screen. When Mary Woronov finally appears in colour, the deep orange tinge of her hair and her lips is entrancing. The telephones, particularly in this modern day where mobile phones are the norm but when corded desk phones are still a tangible memory, The girls play with the spiralling cord, move the large receiver around their faces, treat and caress it like another object, a pathway to someone else, rather than an extension of their own body. The tripped-out soliloquy of the man who undresses on camera is the most engaging reel in the entirety of Chelsea Girls. He just talks, and he’s happy to talk, and everything he says, although he repeats himself, doesn’t remember and backflips, and is super trusting of his audience, is absolutely hypnotising. What captured my love for this man first was his comment that adding salt to a juicy apple made it taste like sweat. He wanted to be licking a bead of sweat with his tongue right that moment. The bead of sweat would get inside him, and that person would become a part of him, wholly. Beautiful, right?
And the final reels really did seem to reach perfection. Ondine’s face enters the right frame, bringing with it grating memories of his primed arrogance from reel number one. But he’s softer this time, at least for a while, and then the frame on the left lights up, with Nico’s tears. It’s a close up of her morose face, fallen, eyes heavily glancing down, and tears glisten to the side of her nose. And then, as Ondine speaks, and begins to whine with boredom, as he reaches the end of his filmed reel, Nico’s face passes through the many fazes of sombre beauty, wracked with pain and sometimes emptiness, sometimes made unkempt by the sadness it expresses. The colour of the lighting changes, but mostly remains in the warmer hues of pink, purple, and soft white. Shadows curl and spot on her face, slowly, like a disco ball or a romantic drape in a bedroom. She doesn’t speak, but she held my attention so firmly. It was as though I was concerned for her, but really, I think, I just loved the play of light and shadows on her face. And I love the spectacle of sadness. The thing is, I did’t want to tear my eyes away from Ondine in this case either, as he was voicing interesting thoughts, and the heavy shadow fallen on his monochrome face was beautiful, richly textured in a way that the light around Nico’s face was not. My eyes kept shifting back and forth, left and right, tiring themselves out. I didn’t want to look away from either of them. And that is the Factory magic.