August 2, 2006

Screen Test: Helmut.

What follows is my entry in today's Avant-Garde blog-a-thon; check in with Girish to follow all the avant action.

A couple of years ago, recommending the work of Zbig Rybczynski to GreenCiners, I wrote, "I think that some artists occasionally hit on an idea that resonates so deep and so far and in so many different directions they themselves don't bother chasing all those reverberations down and thinking each of them through to the end.... They must know intuitively that they've hit on something - better just to up and do it." Surely this goes double or more for the case of Andy Warhol.

Screen Test: Helmut

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure Warhol knew very well what he was doing, but at the same time, he couldn't have known everything there was to know about what he was doing. We see in his writings (though not very often in interviews, which he usually turned into performances), in prose following, consciously or not (and probably not), the great American tradition of Gertrude Stein (picked up again, for example, in the late 70s and early 80s by David Byrne, who, once, when asked which literary character he'd like to be, answered, "Gertrude Stein"), a willful innocence and simplicity that, propelled by playful invention, actually hits on rather jolting insights more often than many new to his writing - and he was a great writer - would expect.

When Warhol turned to filmmaking - quite officially, in 1965 - he knew what he was doing. Besides the medium's status in both the art and popular entertainment worlds and all that. He knew what he was doing - and at the same time, probably didn't, fully - as he made the perhaps thousands of films he made.

Watching Screen Test: Helmut, which you can do, as it's available on the excellent collection of American Short Films from Cinema16, whose compilations I'll be writing more about later, you might find yourself thinking the sort of thoughts I had:

  • First, the trivialities. This Helmut person, whoever he is, seems a very straight-laced sort of fellow and he's doing exactly what Warhol asked him to do: look into the camera and remain as still as possible. Nearly a minute goes by before he even blinks.

  • And yet there are these ever-so-slight movements, slowed by the fact that the film, shot at 24 frames per second, is projected at 16 fps and, combined with the fact that Helmut's staring right at you, they're almost eerie. We're in some netherworld between the still and the film (more on that in a moment).

  • As time goes by - and you have time, about five minutes from the beginning to the end of the roll of film - you might start thinking, these Screen Tests, some shot with famous people, many not, are fascinating, but why did Warhol make more than 500 of them?

  • And then you might start thinking about portraits. Why, for hundreds of years, have painters had their subjects look at us? It's disconcerting, isn't it. You remember that the most famous painting in the world, Da Vinci's La Joconde, better known by the name of its subject, Mona Lisa, is a portrait. There's something about the gentle stare, and of course, that smile, that brings out the aggressive side in some people.

  • The classic horror movie cliché: you know there's something different about this house when a character passes a portrait... and the eyes in the painting follow! JK Rowling turns the cliché on its ear by making the subjects of portraits in her Harry Potter series lively and often comically mischievous.

  • Is there a more succinct summation of the magic of cinema than the moment in Chris Marker's La Jetée when, after several minutes of still images, a face suddenly and unexpectedly breathes to life?

Even silkscreening, producing a series of paintings takes time and effort, and for all the other - many no doubt better - reasons Warhol turned to filmmaking, he must have delighted in the knowledge that he could produce 24 stills in a single second, each still, just like each silkscreen, very similar to the others yet slightly different.

I don't want to make too much of this intersection of two media, painting and film, in Warhol's work, and I certainly don't want to reduce his films to the "paintings that move" notion (though I remain convinced that not all of his films were necessarily meant to be watched, at least not from beginning to end). But for all the other things he went about in his films, exploring that intersection was at least, I'd imagine, part of the impetus to make them. And I'd also imagine he knew that, too.

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Posted by dwhudson at August 2, 2006 12:51 PM


Stunningly informative, David, thank you!

Posted by: Michael Guillen at August 2, 2006 10:56 AM

Good stuff. Warhol is like potato chips. And yes, he was great writer/transcriber/dictator/recorder.

Posted by: at August 2, 2006 11:54 AM

Very thought provoking, D. Warhol is the mysterious one. For some reason, thinking of those screen tests, made me think of the book, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," and how we might be projecting so much of ourselves onto those limitless portraits? Just a thought . . .

Posted by: jmac at August 2, 2006 12:31 PM

Fine write up for the Blog-A-Thon. I find Screen Test: Helmut to be a little freaky. It's some stranger staring at you for five minutes. Does that trigger curiosity, aggression, fear, or boredom? Try to stare Helmut down sometime.

Posted by: Thom at August 2, 2006 10:22 PM

Great post, David!

Helmut looks familiar. I wonder if his was one of the Screen Tests shown at MOMA Queens the last time I was visiting New York?

Posted by: Brian at August 3, 2006 2:09 AM

Could well be, Brian; wish I knew and wish even more I'd been able to catch those.

Meantime, thanks everyone and I just had to pass along this online viewing tip: Rocketboom talks with David Cronenberg about curating Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962 - 1964 for the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Posted by: David Hudson at August 3, 2006 12:08 PM

Wonderful post, David. Thanks for joining us; this blog-a-thon feels special because of your presence.

I treasure your writing and only wish I could have more of it; but I realize how busy you are in doing all the invaluable things you do here. But that doesn't stop me from wishing...

Brian, I saw those screen tests at MoMA Queens as well, three years ago. I can't remember now if Helmut was among them.

Posted by: girish at August 3, 2006 7:30 PM

Yours is the only comment that's ever made me blush, Girish. Thank you.

Posted by: David Hudson at August 4, 2006 5:49 AM