Between 1964 and 1966, anyone who visited the Factory would be made to sit for a three-minute silent film portrait. Andy Warhol made nearly 500 of these Screen Tests and as part of their current retrospective of his work, the BFI Southbank are showing a staggering 279 of them.
The Screen Tests feature all degrees of celebrities rubbing shoulders on the celluloid: real stars (Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan), Warhol’s ‘superstars’ (Edie Sedgwick, Ondine), underground personalities (Jack Smith, Taylor Mead), artists and cultural figures (James Rosenquist, Henry Geldzahler), and at the bottom of the celebrity scale, Factory wannabes. Under instruction to sit still for three minutes, some of the subjects calmly comply, some fidget uncomfortably while others defiantly disobey (Geldzahler undoes his tie, Rosenquist swivels on his chair).
It has to be said, sitting in a dark room watching more or less famous people stare at the screen for three minutes does not constitute the most exciting cinematic experience. In fact, like much of Warhol’s work, the Screen Tests are facile and hollow, and yet it is impossible to deny their perverse appeal. And although they are not as notorious as Sleep, Blow Job or Chelsea Girls, the Screen Tests do offer a striking insight into the slippery, ambiguous nature of Warhol’s art.
As the portraits succeed one another on the screen, watching them feels just like turning the pages of an autograph book. But while there is something of the star-struck fan collecting pictures of his idols here, these film portraits also show Warhol the star-maker at work, fabricating icons by removing what makes them human. By making his subjects sit completely still and remain quiet, Warhol freezes them in a state where they are reduced to pure image. Voiceless, motionless and expressionless, they are the perfect flat surface on which viewers can project their desires.
But through this star-making process Warhol is also constructing his own myth, engaged in a mutually dependent, self-serving relationship with his models: he gives them edgy, artistically-endorsed fame; they make him the ultimate pop guru. The Screen Tests show Warhol creating a world in which he reigns all powerful, the master who can make or break a star, the high priest of cool who decides who’s in and who’s out. Did anyone ever refuse to pose, I wonder? Did anyone, famous or not, risk being left out of Warholian history?
It is a measure of Warhol’s talent as a salesman, as a charlatan even, that no one could ignore him, not even the serious film critics and theorists. Even though he was one of the least inventive filmmakers of the period, his work has been much pondered over. Warhol shot the Screen Tests at 24 frames per second but had them projected at 16 FPS, elongating the viewing time to 4 í‚Â½ minutes. Just as in the eight-hour-long Empire, there isn’t much of an idea there. Yet, what would have been slated as shallow and slight in anyone else’s work was interpreted as a radically minimalist statement on duration in Warhol’s films.
A much better adman than he was an artist, Warhol somehow managed to sell his literal reproductions of celebrities as an ironic comment on our culture. Yet his very success, if not his work, exposes that culture for what it is. It is these contradictions that shine through in the Screen Tests. But that’s not reason enough to sit through 279 of them.