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Andy Warhol’s Dream Factory

In 1963, Pop artist Andy Warhol, then the reigning enfant terrible of the avant-garde, got a movie camera and began turning out films at a furious pace.

Shot largely at his studio known as the Factory, an avant-garde petri dish where the grooviest people on Earth gathered to take drugs, party and keep the wheels of Warhol’s art mill running, these wildly unfettered films broke the boundaries of conventional cinema in every way imaginable.

Life at the Factory changed dramatically, however, in June, 1968, when Warhol was shot in the stomach by a deranged woman named Valerie Solanas. No longer a free zone where weirdos of every stripe could wander in and out at their leisure, the Factory took on the aura of a fortress, and other things changed as well. Warhol took all his existing films out of circulation, believing that their unavailability would increase their value. After completing “Blue Movie” (a film that was withdrawn from theaters the following year when it was declared obscene by New York’s Criminal Court), he handed the directorial duties on all future films over to one of his assistants, Paul Morrissey. Warhol settled into the producer’s chair at this point and began creating such movies as “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein"--films widely seen as Warhol’s attempt to go Hollywood.

“Andy had this dream he was really gonna end up in Hollywood--they say it’s the only dream he could never fulfill,” says Ronald Tavel, who scripted a dozen of Warhol’s films in the ‘60s and appeared in several more.

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The hundreds of films Warhol shot between 1963-68 have been largely unseen for decades. Now, through the combined efforts of the Warhol Foundation and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum, they’re being restored and released at a rate of approximately six per year (24 films have been released so far).

Los Angeles will get its first look at films whose years of absence have bathed them in a mythical glow Thursday through Sunday when “Warhol Weekend: The Films of Andy Warhol” comes to the Pacific Design Center. A benefit for the local film collective Filmforum, the program includes a dozen films, among them “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “The Chelsea Girls” and four films featuring the ill-fated debutante Edie Sedgwick.

Curated by critic David Ehrenstein, the benefit includes an opening-night party, appearances by Tavel and actress Susan Bottomly, and the projection of “Empire"--Warhol’s eight-hour film of the Empire State Building--on the exterior of the Pacific Design Center.

Often described as the first Deconstructivist director, Warhol breaks film down into four rudimentary components: fixed images, movement, sound and behavior (one is reluctant to use words like plot or story in regards to his rigorously Minimal films). Drawing freely from both Hollywood and the avant-garde, Warhol dreamed of a never-ending, all-inclusive movie, and saw film as a medium that could ultimately reveal everything about its subject. Toward those ends he completed everything from a film that ran for 25 hours (“Four Star”) to hundreds of “screen tests” that were nothing more than Warhol’s training his camera on people who struck his fancy.

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Needless to say, mainstream moviegoing audiences of the ‘60s found Warhol’s early films taxing at best, but chances are good that ‘90s film historians are going to find much that’s worthwhile in this long-lost body of work.

“The most widely held misconception about Andy’s films is that they’re purely conceptual, and that if somebody describes them to you, you don’t have to see them,” says Tavel, who met Warhol when he was a young poet reading in New York cafes in the early ‘60s. “The other big misconception is that any mistakes that occurred were fine with him--his films were much more thought through and calculated than people realize.”

In addition to the contribution Warhol’s movies made to the lexicon of film, they provide a fascinating record of the social phenomena of the ‘60s, when the nuclear family began to disintegrate, the sexual revolution erupted and drug use was rampant. Looked at today, when we know the wages of drugs and casual sex far too well, those idyllic Factory days seem a million light years ago; oddly, Warhol’s people seem almost innocent in their decadence.

Even more fascinating is the alchemy of personality that occurred under the watchful gaze of Warhol, who had an intuitive feeling for combustive combinations of people. One could make the case that human behavior is the only subject of his films, and he shows it with an unflinching candor that verges on cruelty.

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Obsessed with the cultural virus known as fame, Warhol redefined the concept of movie star, creating his own category of performer that he dubbed “superstar"--anyone who could carry a film on the strength of personality alone. In fact, many of Warhol’s performers do nothing more than turn up the volume on their own personalities; several of his films amount to little more than very long shots of one of his superstars killing time in some hotel room or apartment.

“Andy didn’t actually direct anybody in his films, and words like auteur and director don’t really apply to him,” says Tavel, who wrote “Vinyl” and “The Life of Juanita Castro,” which are included in the Filmforum program. “He was more an entrepreneur whose aesthetic controlled the films. In fact, he didn’t like to work directly on most of the films--all the art he made revolved to a degree around the act of removing himself.”

“Andy didn’t actually do anything--that was the essence of his talent,” observes actress Mary Woronov, who met Warhol when she was a 20-year-old art student at Cornell and appeared in seven of his films made between 1964-68.

“I remember a scene in one film where I was on a bed with (poet) Ed Hood and Andy kept saying ‘Do something, Mary, do something.’ He couldn’t think of anything for me to do, so he just kept saying ‘Do something.’ My most vivid memory of Andy is of him standing there with his white, white skin complaining bitterly in this little whine.”

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In reading the history of Warhol’s activities as a filmmaker, one is struck by the fact that his collaborators tended to come and go rather quickly. Described by some as a psychic vampire--someone who drained the vital juices of whoever crossed his path, then moved on to new talent--Warhol seemed to attract self-destructive people, and a surprising percentage of the ‘60s Factory people are now dead. Sedgwick, a lovely young woman who died of an overdose less than 10 years after meeting Warhol, is the best known of the Factory fatalities, but there were many more like her.

“Andy had lots of different interests and didn’t care to repeat himself--those people weren’t professional actors anyway,” says rock singer Lou Reed of the rapid overturn of personnel at the Factory. “Andy didn’t have a destructive influence on those people--he gave people great opportunities--he certainly gave me one (Warhol sponsored the Velvet Underground), and I always found him to be incredibly fair, generous and brilliant.”

Counters poet Gerard Malanga, who met Warhol when he was a 20-year-old student at Cornell and was hired by the artist as an assistant silk-screener: “Andy had a destructive effect on people in that he created a dream world some people bought into, and that dream was never fulfilled. Some of those people thought they had a legitimate career in the movies working with Andy--which was a very naive thing to think.

“I never considered myself an actor, and appeared in the films as a way of drawing attention to my work as a poet,” adds Malanga, who will publish a book of poems, “Mythologies of the Heart,” next year, and who can be seen this weekend in “Vinyl” and “The Chelsea Girls,” a 3 1/2-hour split-screen opus considered by many to be Warhol’s greatest film.

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“The people in Andy’s world were self-destructive to begin with, and the case can be made that the creativity he allowed those doomed people was the happiest time of their life,” says Ronald Tavel, who presently lives in Taiwan where he teaches screenwriting. “But did he care about people? I don’t think he did, nor did he expect people to stay a long time.”

“Warhol was always looking for the new thing, and many of those people went crazy because they took lots of drugs and were heavily into amphetamines--everything was fast with them,” adds Woronov, who continues to act and also has a career as a painter. “Working with Andy was the high point in many of their lives.

“Those people are dead for the simple reason that you can’t live like that--it’s too close to the sun,” she concludes. “Andy took risks and he put the people around him at risk, and there was a direct relationship between how destructively they were living and their brilliance. When you take risks like that with your body and your mind you get someplace, but eventually you go over the top.”

For program information, call Filmforum at (213) 466-4143 .

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