STILLNESS AND SPEED IN ANDY WARHOL’S WORK
Andy Warhol produced more than seventy films during his life, later often in collaboration with other producers. His early films were made while his studio, the Factory, was being created, and were experiments in silent film. His silent early films are: Sleep, Empire, Eat, Haircut (N.1), all produced in 1963, Kiss (1963-1964), Blow-Job (1964), and Henry Geldzahler (1964), and some Screen Tests. In those silent movies, the camera is still, with occasional slight zoom. Warhol achieved this effect of stillness through the resource of silent speed.
Sleep (1963) was Andy Warhol’s first long film, in which he used his first camera, a 16mm Bolex. It starred Warhol’s then boyfriend John Giorno sleeping for five hours 21 minutes. The film is made up of a complex editing, and it was shot in different sessions over a few days.
Sleep begins with the image of Giorno’s breathing abdominal movements and face in an uncommon take. Due to the complex editing process, the slow repetition split into reels, the lack of sound and the lack of linear narrative, this film is a strange experience to watch. Long periods of the same image are followed by jumpy changes to different close-ups of Giorno’s body: his head, his knee, his chest, the lower buttocks, and the upper part of his legs. There is an element of homoeroticism, but in some moments where Giorno’s body is still, the film seems to progress to a kind of evocation of death. Critic Henry Geldzahler perceived in Sleep an intimate understanding of John Cage’s work, especially in the repetitive aspects.
John Giorno commented in an interview that Warhol had chosen to film him because he slept too much. Andy Warhol, by the other hand, reveals his own motivations in the books he wrote about the sixties and about his philosophy: people around him (and he himself) were too high on amphetamines (speed) to sleep, and everybody was continuously sleep deprived. In the Philosophy of Andy Warhol he comments:
Another thing I couldn’t understand was all those people who never slept who were always announcing: “Oh I am hitting my ninth day and it’s glorious!” So I thought, “Maybe it’s time to do a movie about somebody who sleeps all night. But I only had a camera that had three minutes on it, so I had to change the camera every three minutes to shoot three minutes. I slowed down the movie to make up for all the three minutes I lost changing the film, and we ran it at a slower speed to make up for the film I didn’t shoot.
The fact coincides with the first epidemics of amphetamines in the U.S.(Rasmussen, 2008). Warhol started to use amphetamine in early 60’s to control his weight. His favorite speed was a powerful tablet named Obetrol (containing up to 10mg of methamphetamine, 5mg of original Benzedrine-style amphetamine, adding subjective ‘buzz’). He reportedly enjoyed Dexamyl as well.
In Popism, he mentions his sleep deprivation:
I could never finally figure out if more things happened in the sixties because there was more awake time for them to happen in (since so many people were on amphetamine), or if people started taking amphetamine because there were so many things to do that they needed to have more awake time to do them in. It was probably both…I only slept two or three hours a night from ’65 through ’67.
The morning one of his crazed former actress Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968, he was filling his Obetrol prescription, and he continued taking amphetamines until he died in 1987 (Collacelo, 1990).
Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1980), p. 33.
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and back again, (London: Pan Books, 1975), p. 14.
Colacello, Bob, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).
Rasmussen, Nicholas, On Speed: the Many Lives of Amphetamine (New York, London: New York University Press, 2008).