Sabzian

On Sleep

25/01/2017
Sabzian
PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION

 

 

Sleep (Andy Warhol, 1964) 

16 mm, 285’ at 18 fps

 

For the past two years Sabzian has been a partner of Subbacultcha, contributing to the film pages of the magazine. At the occasion of their fifth birthday celebration, Sabzian was invited to organize a screening. But which film could we possibly screen with a party going on in another part of the building?

As an anti-film, Andy Warhol’s Sleep seemed like a counterpoint able to endure an atmosphere otherwise hostile to experiencing cinema: people coming and going, party-induced chatter or sounds coming from elsewhere in the building. Sleep will be screened on 16 mm film. The reels being changed throughout the night and the soothing murmur of the projector will make for an enthralling convergence with the blowout going on outside.

We present three texts to accompany the film. The first two texts were written by Jonas Mekas and include a letter of the theatre manager of the cinema where Sleep premiered in 1964. The third text is a fragment of Thom Andersen’s experience of the same screening, as he recalled it, slightly differently, in 2005.

 

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Andy Warhol is taking cinema back to its origins, to the days of Lumière, for a rejuvenation and a cleansing. In his work, he has abandoned all the ‘cinematic’ form and subject adornments that cinema had gathered around itself until now. He has focused his lens on the plainest images possible in the plainest manner possible. With his artist’s intuition as his only guide, he records, almost obsessively, man’s daily activities, the things he sees around him.

A strange thing occurs. The world becomes transposed, intensified, electrified. We see it sharper than before. Not in dramatic, rearranged contexts and meanings, not in the service of something else (even cinéma vérité did not escape this subjection of the objective reality to ideas) but as pure as it is in itself: eating as eating, sleeping as sleeping, haircut as haircut.

We watch a Warhol movie with no hurry. The first thing he does is that he stops us from running. His camera rarely moves. It stays fixed on the subject like there was nothing more beautiful and nothing more important than that subject. It stays there longer than we are used to. Long enough for us to begin to free ourselves from all that we thought about haircutting or eating or the Empire State Building; or, for that matter, about cinema. We begin to realize that we have never, really, seen haircutting, or eating. We have cut our hair, we have eaten, but we have never really seen those actions. The whole reality around us becomes differently interesting, and we feel like we have to begin filming everything anew. A new way of looking at things and the screen is given through the personal vision of Andy Warhol; a new angle, a new insight – a shift necessitated, no doubt, by the inner changes that are taking place in man.

As a result of Andy Warhol’s work, we are going to see soon these simple phenomena, like Eating, or Trees, or Sunrise filmed by a number of different artists, each time differently, each time a new Tree, a new Eating, a new Sunrise. Some of them will be bad, some good, some mediocre, like any other movie – and somebody will make a masterpiece. In any case, it will be a new adventure; the world seen through a consciousness that is not running after big dramatic events but is focused on more subtle changes and nuances. Andy Warhol’s cinema is a meditation on the objective world; in a sense, it is a cinema of happiness.

Jonas Mekas in Film Culture, Summer 1964

 

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I received a letter from Mike Getz, manager of the Cinema Theatre in Los Angeles, reporting on the screening of Andy Warhol’s movie Sleep:

“Amazing turnout, 500 people. Sleep started at 6.45. First shot, which lasts about 45 minutes, is a close-up of man’s abdomen. You can see him breathing. People start to walk out, some complaining. People getting more and more restless. Shot finally changes to close-up of man’s head. Someone runs up to the screen and shouts in sleeping man’s ear, ‘WAKE UP!!’. Audience getting bitter, strained. Movie is silent, runs at silent speed. A few people ask for money back. Sign on box office says no refunds.”

‘Lynch Riot’

“7.45. One man pulls me out into outer lobby, says he doesn’t want to make a scene but asks for money back. He says, ‘Be a gentleman.’ I say, ‘Look, you know you were going to see some­thing strange, unusual, daring, that lasted six hours.’ I turn to walk back to lobby. Lobby full, one red-faced guy, very agitated, says I have 30 seconds to give him his money back or he’ll run into theatre and start a ‘lynch riot.’, ‘We’ll all come out here and lynch you, buddy!!’ Nobody stopped him when 30 seconds were up; he ran back toward screen. In fact, the guy who had said he didn’t want to make a scene now said, ‘Come on, I’ll go with you!!’”

“I finally yelled at him to wait a minute. Mario Casetta told crowd to give us a chance to discuss it. Mario and I moved into outer lobby. Thoughts of recent football riot in South America. People angry as hell, a mob on the verge of violence. Red-faced guy stomps toward me: ‘Well, what are you going to do?’

‘I’ll give out passes for another show.’ Over 200 passes given out.”

“Decide to make an announcement. ‘Ladies and gentlemen. I believe that Sleep was properly advertised. I said in my ads that it was an unusual six-hour movie. You came here knowing that you were going to see something unusual about Sleep and I think you are. I don’t know what else I could have said. However... (shout from audience: ‘Don’t cop out! Don’t cop out!!’), however…’”

Sleep continued. Projectionist kept falling asleep. People are not able to take the consequences of their own curiosity. Woman calls at 11. ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Sure, why?’ ‘I was there earlier. Heard people in back of me saying this theatre’s not going to have a screen very much longer so I left.’ Fifty were left at the end. Some people really digging the movie.” 

Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journal in The Village Voice, July 2, 1964

 

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The ’60s Without Compromise: Watching Warhol’s Films

The first Andy Warhol movie I saw was Sleep. It was June 1964 at the Cinema Theatre on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the birthplace of Midnight Movies. Sleep didn’t begin at midnight, it began around 6.45pm. It’s a long movie, as I recall, it ended around 12.30am. There were about five hundred people in the theatre when the film began; there were about ten left when the movie ended. I was one of them, although I didn’t watch the whole movie: after four hours or so, I slipped out for a snack at the coffee shop around the corner.

Mike Getz, the theatre manager and programmer, sent a slightly misleading account of the screening to Jonas Mekas, who printed it in his ‘Movie Journal’ column in the Village Voice. Getz described something close to a riot in the lobby of the theatre that began only a few minutes after the start of the film. I had noticed that most of the audience had left during the first half-hour, and I could hear from inside the quiet auditorium that something was going on in the lobby. So I got up and checked it out. The lobby was jammed with people, almost all of them screaming at Mike Getz. They all wanted their money back, and he was resisting. There was a sign on the box office window announcing there would be no refunds, and, according to Getz in his letter to Mekas, he told people:

“... you knew you were going to see something strange, unusual, daring, that lasted six hours ... I believe that Sleep was properly advertised. I said in my ads that it was an unusual six-hour movie. You came here knowing that you were going to see something unusual about sleep and I think you are.” [1]

What his account left out is the ad line that brought five hundred people to watch Sleep: ‘A film so unusual it may never be shown again.’

The scene in the lobby was a lot more exciting than the movie being projected inside, but soon enough Getz gave in, at least partly, by offering free passes for another show at the cinema to anyone who wanted one. He claimed that he gave out two hundred passes (he also gave out passes to everyone who was there at the end, which we accepted as though they were boy scout merit badges).

I don’t think I stuck around long enough to see the matter resolved. A riot or a near-riot can be monotonous, too. So I walked back into the auditorium and watched the movie. For me it created a profound happiness. A lazy person’s meditation? Maybe. Or was it just being able to watch a movie that allowed the play of my voluntary attention, to put it in Hugo Münsterberg’s terms? That is, here was a movie that was self-sufficient, like a tree or a stone or a building. It didn’t need me, and I didn’t need it. ‘Minimal’ wasn’t and isn’t the right term for it, but I think you could call it ‘reductionist’.

Or you could call it ‘Pop art.’ The impulse behind the movement was to paint something so obvious no one had noticed it, something that therefore demanded acknowledgment. As Warhol would write, ‘The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognise in a split second ... all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.’ [2] The first paintings he exhibited (in Los Angeles, as it happened) depicted the labels of soup cans. So, when he came to making movies, what could be more obvious than to film a man sleeping? We spend a great part of our lives sleeping, but we never see sleeping represented in moving pictures. Pop art wasn’t so much about turning low culture into high culture as it was about turning the mundane into the representable, and sleeping is even more mundane than a can of soup.

The mundane becomes representable, at least in Warhol’s work, through a process of reduction. The most beautiful and obvious example I ever saw was not officially part of his artistic production, and so it has not been noted by critics or biographers. It was his contribution to a collection of celebrity Christmas trees exhibited at the Hallmark Gallery in New York City in December 1964. The trees must have been twenty feet tall, and they were ornately, even baroquely overdecorated. In this celebration of conspicuous wealth and excess, Warhol’s tree stood out because it was bare. No bulbs, no strings of lights or tinsel, no stars, no décor at all, just a magnificent fir tree. It was as if he set out to prove that ornament is crime and he did it, in a way I’ll never forget. 

In Sleep, the reduction is achieved simply by framing and duration. I didn’t demand my money back because I had known what to expect, more or less. Actually I had read that it was a single shot of a man sleeping that lasted eight hours, with no sound. Apparently that was the concept. It was silent, but it didn’t run eight hours (the official running time at sixteen frames per second is five hours, twenty-one minutes), and there were a number of shots taken from different angles. I don’t really remember the shots, but I remember the cuts, or at least I remember the effect they had. The first visible cut was a surprise, but I anticipated the rest and so I watched the film in a mood of mounting suspense. When would the cut come? What new aspect of the sleeper would it reveal? 

The idea of suspense is often misunderstood, both in its application to conventional dramatic narrative films and in its application to more unconventional films. I have called suspense ‘just another alienation effect’, and I ascribed this conception of it to Alfred Hitchcock as well. That is, it is not an end in itself. Creating suspense alienates the familiar, makes it strange, so that our appreciation of it is heightened.

However, as Eugene Vale has pointed out in his classic manual on screenplay writing, suspense is a secondary effect. It depends on anticipation, which depends on intention. Someone must intend to do something, and there must be something in the way that makes us uncertain about the success of the intention. According to Vale, this ‘something’ may be an obstacle, a complication or, best of all, a counter-intention. Rocky will win the fight or he will lose the fight (his opponent supplies the counter-intention). [3]

Suspense in this account depends on a set of simple binary alternatives (although in an actual movie, it is enriched by the establishment of a series of sub-intentions, each of which confronts its own opposition). In Sleep, it is more complex, closer to the kind of suspense we feel watching a horror film. The monster is lurking about and can strike at any moment. When will the attack come? Will the intended victim be able to ward it off? The cuts in Sleep are like the sudden appearances of the monster in horror movies, inevitable in the long run but unexpected in their actual manifestation. They are startling, if not scary. We have been given time to settle into one field of vision, and without warning it is instantaneously replaced by another. 

It is a kind of formal suspense, analogous to the suspense that sustains sonata form in music. It doesn’t depend on creating identification with a character. Anticipation is created by establishing a set of rules, which will be maintained throughout the film. Warhol would prove adept at establishing these rules quite early in his films and maintaining some basic rules from one film to another (shot durations determined by standard lengths of sixteen millimeter film; a ‘stock company’ of performers reappearing in a number of films).

To put it another way, the intentions of the filmmaker replace the intentions of the protagonist. What, then, is the obstacle? It is simply the resistance of the material. It may be the length of a film roll, or the character of an actor, or the limitations of the reproductive apparatus. As we watch Poor Little Rich Girl, we wonder if the off-screen voice reciting the credits will get through them all before the film runs out. He doesn’t: the movie ends as he says, ‘photographed by Andy...’ In Vinyl, on the other hand, the dialogue scripted by Ronald Tavel runs out long before the roll of film has run through the camera. How will the actors respond? They are unable or unwilling to stay in character, and they begin to party, that is, to dance and make inconsequential talk, providing an unexpectedly festive ending to a movie that is composed mostly of simulated torture.

To continue reading Thom Andersen’s text on Warhol, visit Rouge.

 

[1] Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971 (New York: Collier, 1972), pp. 146-147. 

[2] Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 3. 

[3] Eugene Vale, The Technique of Screenplay Writing: An Analysis of the Dramatic Structure of Motion Pictures (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1972). 

 

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Texts selected by Hannes Verhoustraete