This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine I Shot Andy Warhol, directed by Mary Harron (1996):
After the shooting, the psychiatrist recaps Valerie Solanis’s troubled life. There is her dry, passionless, clinical commentary, set to grainy home movie clips of Solanis’s childhood. Just before and leading up to this frame, the psychiatrist says “For many years the patient has been developing an interest in the natural superiority of women over men. Within the past 3-4 years she decided to put her thoughts on paper.” This actress is Lola Pashalinski—a Greenwich Village legend in theater and one of the founding members of the experimental Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In film, however, she has had roles with names like “Pharmacist” (Godzilla, 1998), “Cleaning Lady” (in an episode of 30 Rock, “Retreat to Move Forward,” 2009), and “Fat Woman with Turkey” in Ironweed (1987). With cinematography by the great Ellen Kuras, I Shot Andy Warhol achieves a sort of sunset-on-yellow-fields grandeur in frames like this, with their soft light. The tone of the scene is scrambled: while it seems to be mocking the straight authority that would artificially capture the complex motives for Solanis’s actions, the scene is photographed with such quiet force and beauty—and Pashalinski portrays the psychiatrist with such sincerity—that you almost feel that, for these moments at least, the ideological force of the film tilts towards the Establishment.
In his great essay “The Third Meaning” (1970), which inspired the 10/40/70 concept, Roland Barthes distinguished between three ways of reading an image. In the case of his essay, the images were stills from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible (1944). The first level conveys sheer information (setting, costumes, etc.), while the second level conveys symbolic information (what does the image signify or mean)? The third meaning, however, is more elusive, radical, irrational, escaping the forces of interpretation. It is, Barthes wrote, “erratic, obstinate,” full of “signifying accidents” that possess a “theoretical individuality.”
In terms of the third meaning, the psychiatrist’s circular gold watch and the presumed seal on her diploma framed on the wall over her shoulder create a weird circuit. They convey information to each other—two basic symbols in communication—but not to us. Stilling the frame invites both over-reading and under-reading, and yet at this moment the invisible line that runs eternally back-and-forth between both circles (knowledge and time)? The secret communication between the circles nearly escapes our attention. But even now that we’ve noticed, what next?
We are at the Factory, right before Valerie Solanis appears in her screen test. Those gathered have just watched Candy Darling and said this: “She is so real. / Oh she gets realer, and realer, and realer.” The fact is she is fake, and Solanis is real, and they object to the intrusion of the real, because the real destroys. The real will destroy, almost, Andy Warhol. In between Candy and Solanis are frames of film leader, purple swaths like finger paint on the frames, the in-between moments of analog, escaping the totalitarianism of interpretation, and if I Shot Andy Warhol achieves greatness it is in these transitions, these pause modes that are really not evident except through the sort of isolation that is the 40-minute frame. The kindness of the world, which you have grown unaccustomed to, leaks into your heart despite the Adams County Serpent Mound barriers, as if the movie-within-the-movie of this frame could shake you out of the relentless “meta” of your life. Which is to say: if only I Shot Andy Warhol had been shot in black and white, on 16mm film!
Valerie gets her advance from Maurice Girodias (played by Lothaire Bluteau, who steals his scenes with his Nick Cave I- am-a-snake-in-a-suit-who-smokes-like-a-Giorgio Armani-Lucifer performance) and the failures of the movie—that it makes Valerie too literal—are evident here. She gets her money. She is temporarily perfumed by wealth and jittery fame. She pays the price by punishing Warhol. Freud really wrecked a lot about the movies. Warhol was not Solanis’s molesting father (she is sort of an anti-Dora) but she shoots him nonetheless. In this frame, she wears make-up, a nice dress, and has her hair done up. Solanis was about ten years younger than Warhol, and ten years older than Patti Smith. She is not of the Pop or the Blank Generation, and at this moment, momentarily seduced by Girodias’s oily contract, she hearkens back to the glamour of 1940s Hollywood.
At no point is she fearful in the usual sense of the word. Not fear but something else, something worse than fear. A kind of slowly percolating dread, dread of the very nothingness that was no threat but just was, like some great void, a blankness that has no name.
After a while—hours (days?) of dreaming about it in the dark—Valerie begins to wonder if she’s making any progress at all. Is she even moving in a straight line? Of course she’s not moving at all, except through her thoughts. In the dark, everything’s the same, and although the tunnel in her mind shrinks and expands, who’s to say she’s not traveling in a circle, going round and round? Perhaps this is an endless loop, she begins to think, a loop with no beginning and no end, a loop that—once you start—you can’t exit, like some abandoned carnival ride stuck on “fast.” Or a nightmare within a nightmare that grips you each time you sleep, again and again, like something that’s made a nest in your head. Each night before sleep you vow to drive it out, and each night you’re vanquished, until the beast becomes a permanent part of who you are.
In her sleep, the tunnels become more of an idea of a place than a place.
There is a table.
There is a gun.
There is an old elevator with greasy black doors. There are no patterns to these objects. In the dark, the tunnels are real because she makes them so; there is nothing about them other than layers and layers of obscuring black, like folds of night. She is very, very far away from anything. She is in an idea that also happens to be a place.
There is Andy, so pale he is already a ghost.
There is the gun, warm as if already fired, in her small hand.
The hole it will make in Andy’s body will appear the size of a round gold watch.
Valerie enters the elevator. The buttons appear as small, black, objects with hundreds of tiny passages coursing through them, like a honeycomb made by a million period-sized bees. In the elevator she senses there’s all sorts of activity, but she can’t see it or hear it. It’s a closed off world, too small to understand, too large to ignore.
The elevator door opens and suddenly everything expands, in the blink of an eye, and it’s all around her, and she’s inside one of the passageways. All her so-called friends are gone. In the distance she hears a slow, deep, methodical churning, Something doing whatever It does, calling her. She tries to follow the sound through the dark, but can’t because there’s nothing to follow. The sound comes from everywhere–behind her and in front of her, near and far, up and down. She walks and walks, her hand sweating around the gun, but the sound grows no louder or fainter, no clearer or duller.
And then she realizes: she is in the machine and it is inside her. Valerie. Like her very own heart. When she fires the gun the sound comes from inside her, not the gun. Her hand bleeds out of sympathy.
The sound is always the same because she carries it with her.
She always has.