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Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls
Andy Warhol, The Chelsea Girls, 1966. Pictured: Nico© 2018 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum

Sex, drugs, & subversion: the story behind Warhol’s Chelsea Girls

A Warhol expert spills on the sexy, subversive, experimental film, Chelsea Girls

During the summer of 1966, while hanging out in the famed backroom of Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol took a napkin and began to draw a line down the middle. On one side, he wrote “B,” and on the other “W.” From this simple sketch, the concept of a split screen film, which would become Chelsea Girls, was born.

“I want to make a movie that is a long movie, that is all black one side and white the other,” scriptwriter Ronald Tavel recounts Warhol explaining, in Ric Burns’ documentary film Andy Warhol.

A true radical in the avant-garde cinema community, Warhol’s first major film was Sleep (1963): a five-hour, 20-minute silent film of John Giorno, his boyfriend at the time. It could be described as an endurance test, for nothing much happened. Warhol took this idea of the still camera and the unedited reel of film, combined it with the faux-documentary sensibility of cinéma vérité, added his Superstars into the mix, set them in a simple scenario, and let them do their thing.

The result was Chelsea Girls was born: a split-screen film featuring 22 different 33-minute reels featuring appearances by Nico, International Velvet, Eric Emerson, Brigid Berlin, Mario Montez, Ondine, Gerard Malanga, Susan Bottomly, and Ingrid Superstar that became Warhol’s first commercially successful film – due in no small part to the classic cocktail of sex, drugs, and drama.

“Before, people fell asleep during my films. When they didn’t walk out,” Warhol observes in the new book, Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (D.A.P./The Andy Warhol Museum, May 24). “But Chelsea Girls is packing them in. Why? Because it’s dirty.”

In Chelsea Girls, Warhol cast the perfect spell, spinning mesmerising moments of tension and anticipation as the split-screen projection creates sensory overload. Here, scenes of sadism and masochism, prostitutes and johns, drug pushers and users, and beautiful girls and boys who come alive on camera.

“These personalities were the ones that didn’t necessarily stop when they were off camera. Then – BAM! You have something to film, listen to, who looks good on film, and could watch if nothing else was happening,” explains Greg Pierce, the Associate Curator of Film and Video at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

“Warhol was always drawn to those types of people and they gravitated toward him. He gathered the personalities who would be visually and verbally charismatic on camera and would let them go, sometimes within a fictional construct. A lot of times they were themselves but they were kind of acting or put into situations where they were not fond of the person on screen with them.”

The film was largely shot during the summer and early fall of 1966, giving the audience a look inside the notorious rooms at the Chelsea Hotel where poet and participant René Ricard lived. While some scenes were filmed at the hotel, others were not, but artistic license allows the Chelsea to become the point of connection between otherwise disparate moments of life.

“Before, people fell asleep during my films. When they didn’t walk out. But Chelsea Girls is packing them in. Why? Because it’s dirty” – Andy Warhol

The concept for each scene was basic enough to allow the Superstars the freedom to perform for the camera. In one reel, Nico and Randy Bourcheidt sit inside a closet at Panna Grady’s apartment at the Dakota, pretending to be two children living in this intimate space. In another Brigid Berlin takes on the role of “The Dutchess,” a real-life dope dealer and speed freak; she describes her appearance succinctly: “I looked like a 700-pound canary.”

A crowd fave features two reels of Eric Emerson shown side by side for “The Trip.” In one, Emerson is painting his nails red, drinking Sealtest milk from a glass bottle, and talking nonstop about his philosophies of life, love, and work. In the other, he has taken acid while Billy Name’s “strobe light works” play across his face and bare body. “(Eric Emerson’s) 25-minute soliloquy on sweat is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Warhol decrees.

This magical moment stands in sharp contrast to the most infamous scene in the film, which is taken from The Pope Ondine Story. “The last reel of the film, Ondine shoots up with speed, becomes violently angry, and ends up slapping Ronna Page. She basically called him a phony within this phony construct. It might have brought out the worst in Ondine,” Pierce reveals.

“That happened in the first ten minutes of the reel and he stays there because he feels obligated to remain because the camera is running. That wrecked his high, and Ondine has another 20 minutes to vent, come down, and almost resign himself to waiting out the last ten minutes of the film. He talks about it as the reel is progressing, like ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ almost whining. He’s very docile at the end of the reel. You know that something has broken here.”

Warhol himself struggled with this scene. “It got so real that I got upset and had to leave the room – but I made sure to leave the camera running,” Warhol is quoted as saying in the book. “This was something new. Up until this, when people got violent during any of the filmings, I always turned the camera off and told them to stop, because physical violence is something I just hate to see happening, unless, of course, both people like it that way. But now I decided to get it all down on film, even if I had to leave the room.”

This new approach perfectly describes Warhol’s way of making art: he embraced the phoney facades people adopted to impress the world, then, knowing that such pretences would eventually fade away, he allowed his Superstars to expose themselves for who they truly were, for better or for worse.

“Warhol took something from the cinéma vérité movement: real people inside a fictional contest where fact and fiction were blurred in a lot of ways. In the reviews from the time, which appear at the end of the book, the critics thought that Chelsea Girls was a real document of drug pushers, homosexuals, and lesbians,” Pierce reveals.

“They are in performing and although it has the feeling of reality, it is not. I don’t know if any of the reels have a cut in them; I don’t think they do. So you have 12 half-hour reels going from start to finish in 33 minutes. It is ‘reality’ and you do get that linear story but they are put into a contrived situation.”

“It got so real that I got upset and had to leave the room – but I made sure to leave the camera running” – Andy Warhol

The single take aired in split screen brilliantly offset the fact that there is effectively no narrative in Chelsea Girls. Within each of the reels, there is a character and a situation, but no beginning, middle, or end to any of it. The absence of storyline becomes even more evident in the “Unheard Transcripts” section of the book, which details all the dialogue that is spoken yet largely lost when screened. The Superstars’ chatter is filled with amphetamine logic that whirls in circles then fades like wisps of smoke.

“I’m already permanently lame,” Arthur Loeb tells Ondine in “Afternoon,” a reel made in 1965 that had initially been included but was later removed at Edie’s Sedgwick’s request after she left the Factory to cavort with Bob Dylan. Loeb continues, “If you wanted to do something to me, you could maim me, disfigure me, or fuck me, but you don’t have to make me permanently lame.”

Ondine, who had hurled slurs at Loeb, backtracks in response, saying, “No, I meant by that that you could be cured if you believe.” They ramble incessantly until the reel ends, invoking the kind of dialogue that people feel enlightened by in the moment – then immediately forget. The fact that their thoughts and words can’t really be discerned further enhances the truth of discourse between fake and real that Warhol had mastered.

When Warhol first released Chelsea Girls, he asked the projectionists to pair and sequence the reels however they wished, giving them creative control over how the film was experienced. “This may have been one of the first times that a projectionist had the ability to create a new ‘vision’ every time the film was presented in the theatre,” Pierce notes,

“What Warhol did in those initial screenings was radical, but it couldn’t continue that way and it had to become standardised. One of the first projectionists for the film wrote his notes after seeing the film in the early 70s and talked about how the standardised version was not the same film. It had no life and felt dead to him.”

For those who never saw the early screenings, Chelsea Girls still holds up as one of the most creative, innovative, and prescient films of its time. Prefiguring the current era of reality TV, internet celebrities, and provocateur culture by more than half a century, Warhol intuitively understood what people wanted from film: a complex combination of beauty, drama, sex, subversion, and youth.

“Warhol had the money to make movies about a scene that he was right in the centre of. Any of us in a creative scene, it’s the same – it’s decadence. Sometimes Warhol documented sex at a time when homosexuality was illegal, which was a radical thing to do at that time,” Pierce observes.

“This film is over 50 years old and it’s still contemporary. There might be a point where it looks dated but I don’t think it’s reached that point yet. It resonates with so many people. Warhol was 32, and these were people in their teens and 20s. They are hanging out and doing what the do when you are part of a scene and you burn bright. In this case, the spotlight was on them in a way that’s different from other scenes. They were international. They went to Cannes, England, and Germany. They were in the New York Times and Time magazine. They were Superstars.”

Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls – published by D.A.P./The Andy Warhol Museum – is available now