Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film(Paramount Home Entertainment, 11.21.2006)
Best known for predicting that we're all destined for "fifteen minutes of fame," Andy Warhol and his legacy have been unfairly simplified by a similarly compact, insufficient overview. When most people think of Warhol, they remember silk-screened images of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Campbell's Soup cans. They think of The Velvet Underground, Nico, and the banana on the cover of the one album they made together. If they're movie fans, they may think of Warhol's relationships with Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol), Edie Sedgwick (Factory Girl) or Jean-Michel Basquiat (Basquiat). But few films have ever attempted to really investigate Warhol himself. While Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film touches upon many of the sensationalistic events and celebrities that Warhol came into contact with, it also spends four hours investigating his life and work with unprecedented thoroughness and clarity.
Nicely crafted by Ric Burns (Ken's brother), this mammoth documentary offers endless insight into Warhol's mystifying psychology. For one, we learn that the young Warhol was plagued by feelings of insecurity (about his bad skin, thinning hair, etc.) and sexual discomfort. He was also rejected by several like-minded artists, namely Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Having emerged from a career in commercial art, he felt that "serious artists" looked down on him and this may have ultimately lead him to embrace the disreputable icons of consumerism that made him famous.
Neither a puff piece nor a hatchet job, the film features both sympathetic and unsympathetic voices. While Warhol was famously inexpressive and even heartless at times -- when one of his friends jumped out a window to his death, Warhol complained that it wasn't caught on film -- he was also a privately vulnerable and reflective.
Although the film's biographical sequences are fascinating, it really shines in its dissection of Warhol's art. Numerous art historians weigh in with lengthy, insightful observations about Warhol's work, including some of his lesser known pieces. While they're a little too generous in their praise of Warhol's cinematic output -- which is conceptually interesting, but consistently marred by the kind of one-idea-only minimalism that works best in art galleries -- it's great to see clips (some of which are quite lengthy) from many of Warhol's notoriously epic films (ie. Empire, Sleep, Chelsea Girls). Having seen some of Warhol's films in their entirety, I can safely say that these reduced doses are sufficient in most cases (unless you're a sucker for outlandish acts of fruitless time consumption).
The film's only real shortcoming is its unnecessarily serious and mournful tone. Burns seem unreasonably committed to portraying Warhol as a tragic figure, in spite of evidence to the contrary. This is not a dry or boring documentary by any means -- I made it through all four hours in one sitting -- but its uniformity of mood grows tiresome after two or three hours. Even as Warhol's life and career reach their triumphant peak, there's a consistent sense of sadness, as if the filmmakers are looking back, rather than capturing the creative vitality that characterized these periods in Warhol's career. In essence, they're only playing the subtext of Warhol's art and life, not the shallow, exuberant surface. While this strategy is problematic, the score itself is quite strong and the movie has a poignance that few previous Warhol docs have attempted.
Although there are no features on this disc -- there probably wasn't room -- the anamorphic transfer is excellent. Needless to say, if you're a Warhol fan, this is four hours well spent. -- Jonathan Doyle