Beautiful Experience: Chelsea Girls

I went to see Chelsea Girls at the Harvard Film Archive last night. It’s Andy Warhol’s cinematic masterpiece, and a film that should be as widely available and well known as Casablanca, The Godfather, or The Lord of The Rings trilogy.

I had projected the film when I was a TA for a class on Warhol’s films at BU five years ago. But with dual projection, twelve 16mm reels, and a complicated list of instructions, what I saw of the film was limited as I frantically threaded projectors, rewound reels, and kept close track of their order.

I don’t believe the film has been screened in the Boston area since I moved here (I could be wrong), and sure enough, the HFA sold out last night. I arrived twenty five minutes early to encouragingly find the theater already more than half-full.

Chelsea Girls may be a masterpiece due to its sheer scope, length (210 minutes!) and ambition. It consists of 16mm reels shown two at a time, side by side. It kicks off with black and white footage of blonde European songstress/elusive ice princess Nico on the right side of the screen. She sits at table, studiously cutting her bangs while glancing into a compact mirror while an androgynous blond man (Billy Name?) washes dishes as her young child cavorts about. Superficially, it resembles a nuclear family going about their daily routine, although whether this is fiction or fact (a question in nearly all of Warhol’s films) is debatable.

Within minutes, the left side projector starts up with footage of Ondine, in his favored papal guise, speaking to Ingrid Superstar in his makeshift confessional (consisting of just two couches!). The sound is obliterated from the Nico footage as rapport develops between Ondine and Ingrid, and the two scenarios play out until the Nico reel ends. The right half of the screen goes blank until the projectionist puts on the next reel, which in this case consists of zaftig, bitchy Brigid Berlin. The Ondine/Ingrid reel goes silent, ends within a few minutes, the left side of the screen goes blank until a new reel starts, and on and on until black and white eventually gets consumed by vibrant color reels until we finally see Ondine in his confessional on the right side, and silent footage of Nico (near tears as Warhol’s camera and lighting scrutinizes her) on the left.

Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Chelsea Girls would never work in the same way if seen on video or DVD. Warhol always noted that it was all about the viewing experience more than the content. Depending on the speed in which a particular projectionist changes the reels, the film plays out slightly differently each time it’s screened. This time, during the final two reels, a brief, synchronous moment came into view when both Nico on the left and Ondine on the right sat with their arms raised, hands resting on their foreheads as if they were symmetrical opposites.

Throughout, Warhol parades what may be his most diverse array of “Superstars” ever. Gerard Malanga lounges on his bed with his hideous whip-lashing “mother” at his side while a silent, red-haired, slightly bewildered Mary Woronov (dressed in shirt and tie!) looks on. Ed Hood lies in his bed with an unidentified male hustler as drag queen Mario Montez (and other assorted queens and actual women) drop by to tie up, blindfold and debauch the hustler.

On two occasions, the same figures appear on both sides of the screen. First, on the right, tall, blond, violent Hanoi Hanna sits with three other women, shouting at and bossing them around. Then, eventually on the left, footage appears of the same four women in the same room, only silent and much more subdued. We’re left to ponder whether the footage on the left occurred before or after the confrontations on the right.

Later, lanky, blond-haired Eric Emerson appears on the right, delivering a hilarious, drug-addled monologue as Warhol bathes his increasingly naked body in light, color, and an assortment of trippy effects. Eventually, a scene of Eric and friends at a club appears on the left, and at times, they cast their glances to the right, as if they’re watching the other footage of Eric.

With Warhol, it’s always hard to tell whether he constructed his films to experiment with time, or to enable two films to comment on each other while being shown simultaneously, or if he just thought it was cool that anyone could do all these things with a movie camera. You get the sense it was the last reason, and his writings and demeanor were always so cryptic and impenetrable that debate on the purpose and merit of his films will never cease. But like Empire, Blow Job, Lonesome Cowboys, and even the Paul Morrissey-directed Trash, Chelsea Girls is like nothing else, and I doubt anything will ever capture its spirit, style, or vibe.

All through the film, I kept thinking of this Warhol quote:

“The lighting is bad, the camera work is bad, the sound is bad, but the people are beautiful.”