Andy Warhol, silver screen

SEPTEMBER 21ST, 2016 — POST 261

The Hollywood Reporter yesterday ran a story about the upcoming Andy Warhol biopic. What is clearly the biggest question with any biopic yesterday was answered. Playing the pop artist and cultural icon will be Jared Leto in the biopic expected to be entitled simply Warhol. On board to write is Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street fame, to produce is Michael De Luca who’s credits include Captain Phillips, Moneyball, and The Social Network. On paper, there are few other teams out there that could be as trusted as this to deliver a period biopic.

Portrayals of Andy Warhol have graced small and large screens for years, however. Most recently in Winter’s Vinyl, Warhol is emblematic of nihilistic post-Vietnam America. Cultivating an artistic tribe out of The Factory in New York, Warhol managed The Velvet Underground, folded the art and business worlds onto each other, and had a David Bowie song written about him (Bowie even played Warhol in Basquiat). 2006’s Factory Girl saw Guy Pearce in the role of Warhol, the main force of influence on the movie’s protagonist Edie Sedgwick, played by Sienna Miller. Given Warhol’s centrality to the trajectory of pop art and punk, as well as his notoriously distinct personality and aesthetic, his on-screen portrayals often tip into iconic caricature. Warhol is even depicted in a brief sequence of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, complete with clear plastic glasses and Campbell’s soup can in hand (in case you couldn’t work out who he was).

But caricature is one of the less egregious trappings of any Warhol portrayal. Far more corruptive is a sense of what can only be described as baked-in historical significance. This impulse when handling anything historically high-profile was one that was succumb to too readily by Vinyl. When we get snippets of The Velvet Underground playing in The Factory, characters quip “These guys are really good!” or words to equally vacuous effect. They aren’t hearing The Velvet Underground in the early-1970s but are instead playing from the place they know they’ll get to. The first Velvet’s record is infamous for not selling very well. But the cliché is that everyone who bought it started a band. That sort of long-term influence — an influence that still rears its head today in records like 2016’s Thao and The Get Down Stay Down’s A Man Alive — can’t conceivably be understood by any character hearing a rendition of I’m Waiting For The Man performed at a Factory synecdoche on a movie set. So instead of actually engaging with the context that produces greatness, we get watery engagement with a taken-for-granted fact of greatness’s later existence.

Warhol is a particularly tricky proposition in large part because of this. How can one begin to approach simply the man as he was, divorced from the legacy that he is destined to leave? I don’t know if it’s impossible, but it’s yet to be convincingly achieved. Instead we get approximations that play up Warhol’s distinct eccentricities — wigs, artificially pale skin, the prototypical “art queer” means of carrying himself — instead of a legitimate interrogation of a man. When so much of his persona has ascended to cliché and parody, what, if anything, is left of the real man to portray?

The truth is that the real man today doesn’t evoke the same cringe-inducing response those that portray him in all his aesthetic ornamentations do. I urge you to watch this 5-minute video by Danish experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth. Despite appearing as one of 66 Scenes from America, this excerpt has been immortalised because of its subject: Andy Warhol eating a burger (note Warhol doesn’t have a soda — part of Leth’s desire to build tension into the scene). This is a Warhol that just doesn’t exist in any of his portrayals, it’s the real man after all. Whilst it’s important to note I’m not advocating for imitation of Warhol similar to how he appears here, the truth of Warhol in this is undeniable.

That truth — hidden behind a particularly seductive façade — is what is yet to be tapped by any Warhol portrayal. And with a façade so thick, tapping anything like this truth just might be impossible.

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