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Andy Warhol’s Underground Cinema

By: Gabriela Martínez @GabbMartivel

Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas, main promoter of the New American Cinema -capital avant-garde and American underground during the sixties-, helped Andy Warhol film what would be one of his most representative works in 1964: Empire, an eight-hour shot of the Empire State building observed at night. His obsession with filming everything without losing detail turned the documentary work of Andy Warhol into an example of cinéma vérité.

El cinde underground de Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

During the sixties, Andy Warhol adopted Pop Art to respond to the seriousness and non-figuration of Abstract Expressionist art emerged after the Second World War. For Warhol abstract expressionist art no longer reflected the reality he knew, it did not represent the massification and the capitalist system under which American society began to rule. Warhol considered himself the son of capitalist society and mass media, [1] hence his art was based on taking back objects from everyday life to intervene or replicate several times the same image or object in the same work, to represent the overcrowding.

Between 1963 and 1977 Andy Warhol explored his role as a filmmaker and came to shoot more than 140 films including experimental works, documentaries and film essays considered cinéma vérité. His first works are sequences without cuts of people doing everyday activities. Warhol allowed the protagonists to improvise and everything was filmed as it happened, in real time. In his short film Blow Job (1964), for example, the face of the theater actor DeVeren Bookwalter is shown while receiving fellatio. Other similar works are the feature films Sleep (1963) –distinct long shots of John Giorno sleeping for five hours– and Kiss (1963) –five hours of different couples kissing–.

Blow Job (1964, dir. Andy Warhol)

Blow Job (1964, dir. Andy Warhol)

Empire (1964), is the clearest proof of Warhol’s contribution to cinéma vérité. The documentary was filmed in a single shot with a fixed camera and shows eight hours, without cuts, of the Empire State’s lights going on and off.

Warhol’s cinema was also considered experimental, independent and representative of underground culture – a countercultural movement of the sixties sheltering all artistic expressions that spoke against the system or were considered parallel to mainstream culture-, to address issues such as the body, homosexuality and drugs.

Warhol’s interest in making movies came from his love for Hollywood. When he decided to pick up a camera and shoot, however, his intention was not to imitate it. He returned to some elements of the cinema of the thirties and forties, such as dramatic angles and contrasts of lighting, but combined them with elements of DaDa cinema that Marcel Duchamp produced during the 1920s, another great source of inspiration for the artist.

Andy Warhol, along with Jonas Mekas, Adolfas Mekas, Maya Deren and John Cassavetes, among others, established the foundations of the New American Cinema, a film movement that brought a new breath of life to American cinema.

[1] Vicente J. Benet and Eloisa Nots. (1999), Cuerpos en serie, “Andy Warhol: una procaz invitación al cine experimental”, Valencia, España: Universitat Jaume, pp. 207-224.