You’ve got three minutes

J. Hoberman

  • Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Vol. I by Callie Angell
    Abrams, 319 pp, £35.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 8109 5539 3

For two years, beginning in January 1964 and ending in late 1966, hundreds of individuals trooped through Andy Warhol’s midtown Manhattan studio (the vast, silver-painted loft known as the Factory), there to sit before a 16mm Bolex camera and have their portraits made on film.

The portraits, each of which used a single 100-foot roll of film, required just under three minutes to make and, as Warhol usually projected them at a slower speed, took slightly longer to watch. At first, these static motion pictures were known around the Factory as ‘stillies’. Eventually, they would be called Screen Tests. In the first instalment of a two-volume catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s cinema, Callie Angell, a film historian, estimates that there were 472 Screen Tests, some 60 per cent of which have been preserved.

I’d hesitate to call Warhol the most important American filmmaker of the 20th century – ‘media artist’ might make more sense – but he is certainly the one with the most philosophical resonance. Marginal though Warhol’s film production may have been, he occupies a central place in motion picture discourse. It’s impossible to consider practitioners of cinéma vérité like Frederick Wiseman or provocateurs like Lars von Trier, the entirety of home video, porn, surveillance, webcams and reality TV, or the nature of camera-induced celebrity, without reference to Warhol’s work. He has had a retroactive effect on film history as well: the Lumière brothers, D.W. Griffith and even Hitchcock may be understood in some sense as Warholian too.

Hardly a theoretician, Warhol reinvented film practice to suit himself. Unlike Hollywood screen tests, his were not made to audition personnel for prospective movies, although those subjects who sat most frequently for their portraits would become ‘superstars’: among them, the solemn chanteuse Nico, the sultry art student Mary Woronov and, most notably, the vivacious and tragic Edie Sedgwick. (The exception was Susan Sontag, intimidating subject of seven Screen Tests, but never cast in a Warhol feature.) A Screen Test was, literally, a test. Warhol documented his subjects simply having what a Hindu might call their being – that is, coping with the odd circumstance of total, indifferent scrutiny.

As cinema, the Screen Tests harked back to the first single-shot, minute-long actualités first made by the Lumière brothers in the mid-1890s. At the same time, they had an obvious relationship to Warhol’s iconic paintings and silk-screens (and even served as the basis for some); they also anticipated the multiple-image photographic portraits that he had begun making in public photo booths in 1963.

It is typical of Warhol’s way of working that the Screen Tests evolved out of another project. According to Angell, they were inspired by criminal mug shots Warhol found in a New York City Police Department brochure entitled The 13 Most Wanted: Warhol conceived a series of short portrait films to be called The 13 Most Beautiful Boys. (The same brochure formed the basis for the commissioned mural that would emblazon the exterior of the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.) Later, Warhol added The 13 Most Beautiful Women. Neither 13 was a ‘finished’ film, but a rubric under which Warhol would from time to time exhibit selected Screen Tests.

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