One imagines the artist would approve.
Roger Ebert hated it and suspected that audience members who liked it were just trying to be cool. Even underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas described it as “our godless civilization approaching the zero point.” Andy Warhol’s notorious, nearly four-hour film The Chelsea Girls, with such Factory mainstays as Nico, Brigid Berlin and Mary Woronov captured in various stages of banality and decadence, was at times incomprehensible, even (or especially) in 1966. This deluxe, lavishly illustrated book is an attempt to convey the experience of the film in a static medium. However well designed, a book can’t match the spectacle of two 16mm projectors battling for your attention with twin windows on the New York demimonde, but it does make a fascinating document on its own.
The movie presented a semi-fictional account (the segments were not all filmed there) of life at the Hotel Chelsea, the New York landmark that was long a home for the counterculture. Warhol’s ambitious film was as sprawling and startling as the city, consisting of 12 16mm reels projected on a split screen that showed two reels side by side. Projectionists were at first given only vague directions on how to handle this mass of celluloid, and for the most part you only heard the audio from one reel at a time – and even that was sometimes unintelligible.
The meat of the book is its approximation of The Chelsea Girls, with still images laid out side by side on opposite pages just as they would appear on screen, but with the benefit of transcribed text below the images to help readers navigate the dialogue. Yet this distillation of the movie may be the least interesting aspect of the book. While this critic has never seen the film projected, and has only been able to watch portions of an unauthorized and highly imperfect copy of the film online, it’s clear even from such a compromised viewpoint that the printed page fails to capture the stronger personalities of the Factory. In the film’s first reel-pairing, “Pope” Ondine and Nico, in their respective reels, are on a level playing field as far as the book presents them; but watching these reels in motion, even when the dialogue of the Nico segment is silenced and Ondine is heard ranting, the eye naturally falls on Nico, even though all she’s doing is cutting her bangs. Likewise, the still image doesn’t give you a real sense of Brigid Berlin, who’s a much more magnetic presence than she appears to be in the book.
Such discrepancies aren’t necessarily a bug. The book proves that, for all Warhol’s apparent amateurism as a filmmaker (the book also doesn’t capture the awkward, random zooms he favored), the raw footage assembled for The Chelsea Girls has an undeniable smell of cinema, which can at least be in part due to Nico’s striking Teutonic look but also to the juxtaposition of moving images, which present visual and thematic rhymes: for instance, as Ondine offers himself as kind of a secular confessor in one frame, Nico examines herself in the mirror.
Supplemental material includes articles from contemporary critics, including projectionist Bob Cowan, who describes an initially more interactive film in which, because of limited guidance, no two screenings were the same. Cowan would thus turn up the sound on different reels at different times for each show, highlighting different dialogue to take advantage of chance resonances. He also held filters in front of the projector to distort images. He called what would be the “standard” version – a more specific set of instructions that developed over time, “pedestrian to say the least.”
Curiously, the film’s critical reception, whether from mainstream sources or alt-rags, almost universally described the rooms of the Chelsea as seen on film as various circles of hell. Newsweek called it an “underground in hell,” while the East Village Other said it was “an image of the total degeneration of American Society.” Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls may not make any converts, but it’s essential for anyone interested in Warhol and intrigued by the irony of such an underground landmark being transformed into an expensive coffee table book. One imagines the artist would approve.