Film/Art | Manhattan Style: Andy Warhol’s Empire

By Phil Coldiron

From A to B and Back Again. Given that “A” is “Andy,” what might count as a suitable “B”? In the context of the book of Warhol’s “philosophy” bearing that subtitle, it was literal: the Factory superstar Brigid Berlin and Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello, the other halves of the conversations which provided much of the book’s raw material. In the context of the Whitney’s large-scale retrospective of Warhol’s work, which borrows that title, it might be understood as something like “whatever Andy liked”: the constant relay between Andy and the individuals and objects he gave the peculiar glamour called “Warhol” to and which in turn sustained his outrageous productivity, a tight cycle which spun until his body broke down, as all machines do, on February 22, 1987. But here, in what follows, I should like to read “B,” perhaps perversely, as “belief.” Because “belief”—as both a problem and a kind of pleasure—is what is tested by our present topic, at once the most singular and most typical object of Andy’s massive body of work, the eight-hour film Empire (1965).

Bill Graham: “I can’t pay you much money, but I believe in the same beautiful things that you do.”
Paul Morrissey, some minutes later: “Was he serious? Does he think we actually believe in this? What ‘beautiful things’?

Andy’s comment in Popism, his retrospective account of the Pop ’60s, on the above—the legendary promoter of the Grateful Dead attempting to lure the Factory crew, and their house band The Velvet Underground, north from Los Angeles to San Francisco—acutely summarizes his sensibility: “That’s what so many people never understood about us. They expected us to take the things we believed in seriously, which we never did—we weren’t intellectuals.” (One might also note that his subtle disagreement with Morrissey’s response, the distance between not believing and unseriously believing, gets at why the latter’s films under the Warhol imprint are, almost without exception, failures.) What the Factory sensibility shows is that unserious or, to use the more conventional word, ironic belief might still be ardent, and might even, in modern times and in strange ways, have the capacity to be more ardent, and thus more pleasurable, than its earnest counterparts. This is not simply to say that Warhol’s belief was a typical fondness for camp—indeed, Douglas Crimp, in the brief chapter on Warhol and Jack Smith in Our Kind of Movie, has thoroughly mapped the complicated connections, and considerable distance, between Warhol and camp—but rather that, as opposed to the contemporary understanding of ironic appreciation as marked by an aloofness steeped in condescension, Andy’s unserious “liking” collapses the most sophisticated taste into the least, until the two become indistinguishable. This may be both cynical and politically irresponsible. It is why attempts to read Warhol’s work as critiques of mid-century consumer capitalism are, at best, fanciful. And it is why his work so often short-circuits attempts to read it through the moralizing lens of much criticism from the Left. It is also why writers of as markedly different sensibilities as Thierry de Duve and Steven Shaviro can reach for the same curious word to describe what it is that the best of Andy’s work does: it “testifies.”

Before getting to what Empire attests to, and how it goes about doing this, I must attempt to describe what exactly it is, since writing on this simplest of films, from the earliest criticism to the most recent, has tended to traffic in misrepresentations or worse. It is, by this point, widely known that it is a very long shot of the Empire State Building; more accurately, it consists of ten shots of equal duration and identical framing, each running the full length of a 1,000-foot roll of 16mm film. Its duration is somewhat regularly extended, or shifted to account for more of the day than is there. Parker Tyler, for example, writes that “the sun is allowed to take all of eight hours to go down and come up” when, in fact, the film covers a period from roughly 8pm to 1am: the additional hours which stretch its running time past eight hours exist only when it is shown at its intended rate of 16 frames per second, as is the case with all of Warhol’s early silent films from 1963-65. In any event, there is decidedly not a sunrise. Also typical is some variation of the claim, as one recent academic text has it, that the film consists of “the incessant repetition of what is essentially the same photogram”—put more plainly, that it consists of eight hours in which “nothing happens.” This latter is, to my mind, the most odd and troubling of the inaccuracies circling Empire. For while it’s true that the longest passage, running for slightly less than six of the film’s eight hours, consists of frames close enough that it would be impossible to say, if presented with two chosen at random, whether they had come from the 2nd hour or the 6th—though this ignores the effect produced by the mechanics of 16mm projection, which refines the minimal rhythms of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings to an exquisite level of subtlety—the flattening of the entire film into this visual drone obscures not only its humour and its graphic connection with Warhol’s paintings of the same era, but also its most surprising qualities, its early psychedelic grandeur and its singular mixture of melancholy and joy.

Empire in fact consists of three distinct movements. The first roughly three-quarters of an hour might be called the “sunset” movement: the film begins, as all of Warhol’s films before 1966 do, with untrimmed ends, the fluttering, abstract play of light which results from both loading the camera and exposure during processing, which leads into a brief passage of absolute overexposure as the wide-open aperture and pushed processing lead to a nearly white frame. As the sun begins to set, the exposure settles into a conventional range, and for some 30 minutes a foggy, somewhat gothic view of the Empire State Building as seen at a slightly canted angle from the 46th floor of the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center (i.e., facing south, so that the Empire State Building’s north face is seen nearly flush while its west face is seen in heavily distorted perspective) gradually dims until a light pops on atop the Metropolitan Life building, immediately to the viewer’s left (i.e., the east) of the Empire State Building. The Met Life building is in fact something of a co-star, with its light blinking off every quarter-hour of real time and visually “chiming” the time at each hour. A dozen minutes later, the first of the film’s two major dramatic events occurs, as the floodlights illuminating the upper third of the Empire State Building burst on; this event, strictly speaking, does not end the “sunset” passage, since the lights arrive before night has fully fallen. But once this has occurred, perhaps 20 minutes after the lights have been turned on, the film enters its long “floodlights” movement, where it holds on a framing which rhymes almost directly with Warhol’s famous Gold Marilyn Monroe of two years prior: all that is visible is the “disembodied” upper third of the Empire State Building, floating amidst the night’s flattened space. The still images which circulate of the film—indeed, one of them is attached to this article—give no sense of the strangeness of this composition, which as it goes on begins to attack one’s perceptual sureness: I see the Empire State Building nearly every day, and after a certain point, I could no longer remember what it looked like. On this point, Douglas Crimp’s description in Our Kind of Movie of his experience mirrors my own almost exactly, and so I quote it entirely:

What I found happened most was that the perspective of the building kept reversing itself, so that instead of a solid contour I seemed to be looking at a hollowed-out volume, as if I were seeing a cutaway of interior space. When that happened, I would try in vain to turn concave back to convex, to get the building to become a solid exterior again. I’d stare at the lights on the right side of the image, the ones whose bottom edge, in correct perspective, should be moving away from me, into space, to delineate the west side of the tower. But when that edge appeared to move toward me, making me look into the shape, I couldn’t trick my eye into correcting the image to get it to read again as the solid form of the familiar building.

This flickering between the illusionist presence which photography takes for granted—that a photograph of a building will look like that building—and a quality which passes through the flattened charm of Warhol’s early blotted drawings to arrive at something else entirely, a groundless indeterminacy which is, so far as I know, singular within the whole of Warhol’s output (the Shadow paintings, if looked at just so, might approach it), draws Empire towards an unexpected point: the early days of Cubism, of the “reversible cubes” painted by Braque at Estaque in 1908 and Picasso at Horta in 1909. Though a full reckoning with the implications of this connection is beyond the scope of the present essay, I offer it briefly as a rejoinder to a point which is implicit in the conventional wisdom which takes Empire as inevitably an object of boredom: I mean the assumption that its composition could not possibly sustain a viewer’s interest for eight hours, an assumption with which I simply cannot agree. I found its visual activity, the slipperiness with which it continued to elude my setting the composition into place, only grew as the hours went on. The attempts at describing the work done by its composition included in this paragraph do not begin to scratch the surface of all that it does as a picture, at once in stillness and in motion.

And then, suddenly, the lights go off. That the final 70 minutes of Empire transpire in almost total darkness—a near-black field punctuated by the metronomic tip of the Met Life building and the ember-glow of the floodlights, plus a handful of stray dots of lights scattered throughout the “background” (given the absolute flatness of the image during this “darkness” movement, this seems the wrong word, though it remains possible to conceive the depth of urban space)—is hardly remarked upon in nearly all writing on the film. But it is finally here, in both the room for thought it clears and in its particular visual events, that Empire most convincingly offers itself as a film which equally demands and rewards viewing it attentively, ardently, but remember, not seriously, from start to finish.

If this final movement seems likely to bring forth an unavoidable worry for even the ludicrously committed viewer—I can’t believe I’m still watching this, a thought which, I admit, must have occurred considerably earlier to many—it makes similarly plain the constellation of points alluded to throughout this essay which mark it, as I said, as at once the most singular and most typical of all works signed with the name “Andy Warhol.” An incomplete enumeration of these points:

1. Several years before Warhol (and later Paul Morrissey) began producing outright parodies of Hollywood “types”—the Western (Lonesome Cowboys, 1968), the Surf Movie (San Diego Surf, 1968), the Romance (Blue Movie, 1969), etc.—this dramatic plunge into darkness gives Empire a cleanly drawn three-act structure, as the anticipation of the night gives way first to the weirdness of perception within it and finally to the unnerving sense that something has gone on well past its end, that some exit has been terminally missed, which makes the narrative innovations of the New Hollywood seem tame in comparison.

2. It is here that the importance of the material, the “incessant repetition of what is essentially the same photogram,” becomes most readily apparent: left with only the minor variations of near-black which cheaply processed 16mm film draws out of the night, the proximity of Empire to the screenprinted paintings flooding out of the Factory during this period clicks into perfect focus. I am inclined to say that this passage of Empire marks the horizon to which the endlessly iterated Elvises and Marilyns, the piled-up Disasters, the overstocked Cokes and Campbells, were all directed toward, a horizon which Ad Reinhardt—an artist Warhol confessed his considerable affection for—sought too over the last 14 years of his life. In the absence of any figure to hold one’s attention, as in Reinhardt’s Black Paintings, there is only the pleasure of believing that one can sense the finest of differences, a pleasure which one has nearly 70,000 opportunities to experience during these 70 minutes.

3. The emptiness which this sense of impossibly fine-grained difference opens onto is what I take Andy to have had in mind when he said, “Then I realized that existence itself is nothing and I felt better,” or, more elaborately, “Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I’m just the opposite: if I’m going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don’t want it to be essentially the same—I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Though the Factory crew’s taste ran to uppers rather than hallucinogens, the interest in stripping away meaning which Andy, in his typically diffident way, gets at here is, to my mind, an expression of the psychedelic ’60s which has aged more compellingly than much of what was produced by his LSD-gobbling counterparts on the West Coast. To sit and watch nothing change for 70 minutes is, even more than the shrill terror of the enormous Orange Car Crash or the glib acceptance of the Skulls of the mid-’70s, the perfection of the memento mori à la Andy. It is, perhaps, worth remembering that “death,” along with “the diminishing returns on underwear” and “that people are still pregnant,” was one of the few things he averred in the Philosophy that he simply couldn’t believe.

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