They'll Be Our Mirror 

More than three decades before "reality" TV, Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls got there first

More than three decades before "reality" TV, Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls got there first

Double the bargain of your normal flick, Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls gives you two screens to choose from, each as chock full of S&M attitude and degraded glamour as the next. Comprised of 12 unedited reels of film shot in the late summer of 1966, the film is presented as a diptych of decadence, its side-by-side images giving the viewer the chance to imbibe whichever piques most interest. Its screening Tuesday at Vanderbilt's Fine Arts Gallery, in Room 206, offers a rare chance to see the film in its intended dual-projector format—as well as a perfect introduction to an often misunderstood body of work.

Chelsea Girls focuses (or in some cases unfocuses) on the crop of downtown superstars who inhabited Warhol's brilliantly orchestrated and conceived social space, the Factory. The stars simultaneously compete and jostle, each wanting the ever-observant camera's affection and the audience's attention. Warhol's generosity was such that he never wanted to give too little, and thus viewers of Chelsea Girls are faced with numerous viewing options: color or black-and-white, male or female, straight or gay.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to a choice between right or left, and the choice is all yours. Straddling various impulses in Warhol's cinematic aesthetic, Chelsea Girls is an ideal entry point for the uninitiated. It contains scripted segments, improvisatory sketches and portraits that recall the infamous Warholian screen tests. Theater of the Ridiculous scribe Ronald Tavel provided a script for parts of the film, just as he had done for previous Warhol productions such as Vinyl, Horse and More Milk Yvette. Relative newcomer Paul Morrissey was there overseeing the proceedings; he would soon usher in a new editorial consistency to Warhol's films.

Tavel and Morrissey stand outside the film like guiding spirits, moving things along for Warhol's delight. But it is the personalities onscreen who represent the soul of the film. Their outsized egos, competing for Andy's approval and yearning to entertain, are what keep you watching.

The stars occupy the threshold between self and character; they are playing themselves yet not themselves. It seems that eventually every player in the Factory scene gets his or her own documentary (Pie in the Sky, Superstar in a Housedress). Yet taking a step back to observe these folks as they "really are/were" somehow misses the point: never were they more purely themselves than when performing for Warhol's camera. Chelsea Girls trots out the best and the brightest of 1966: Ondine, Nico, Mario Montez, Gerard Malanga, Eric Emerson, Ingrid Superstar, new discovery Mary Woronov and Brigid Polk. All shine their amphetamine-fueled light, bringing the straight world a glimpse of the underground. To step into a Warhol film is to at once present oneself onstage and keep it real.

Never is this made clearer than in Ondine's legendary turn here as Pope Ondine. Taking confessions, Ondine's pope is full of queries and bon mots until late in the film, when an unfortunate young lady takes it upon herself to call him a "phony" and refuses to confess. "I'm not trying to be anyone," she chides, and that blows it: Coca Cola is thrown in her face, and Ondine delivers a literal smackdown. The outburst of physical contact scares the poor dear to death. Obviously she hadn't a clue what she was getting into. Stephen Koch writes that "she failed to understand that in front of [the camera] she had to live within its irony, and that she was among people for whom that irony is life."

Warhol's cinema exists in a state of observed fictional reality in which the put-on is for real and the for real is a put-on. And it is all fabulous. The world of Chelsea Girls isn't the real world and it isn't the fake world, but watching it gives some clues on how to live in our era of post-simulacrum overload. Ours is an age of the image, and Warhol was one of the first to explore what that does to notions of identity and reality. His legacy in this realm is nowhere more present than VH1's The Surreal Life, in which C-list celebrities are forced to live together in a house containing giant Warhol-esque portraits of them at their peak.

The difficulty those people have performing the most basic acts (shopping! doing dishes!) evinces the same sort of tragically funny quality that Chelsea Girls evokes throughout. Whether it is Gerard Malanga being berated by his "mother," or Mary Woronov's Hanoi Hannah making the little girls cry with her iron fist and quick tongue, or the wondrous Mario Montez belting out show tunes with a show-must-go-on fervor while being rejected for younger pieces of man-meat, Chelsea Girls offers portraits of slightly damaged folks who were never more authentic than when the camera was rolling.

—By Jeff Lambert

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