Sunday, October 14, 2012

Just Like A Ciao Manhattan Woman

After Ciao Manhattan finished, a young woman in attendance declared: “I consider myself a feminist. I consider this a feminist movie. I consider Edie Sedgwick a Feminist..”

She said this at the Jersey City Film Forumwhere we screened Ciao Manhattan. She was about 30 and no real knowledge of Warhol and the whole scene and certainly had not read “Ciao Edie,” which led me to recommend the screening of this film. I agreed with her and found myself liking both the film and respecting this famous tragic muse.

I’m not a Warhol fan, but his insights about celebrity and pop culture, refuse evasion. I’m responsible for the screening, it was my idea. The Film Forum is the local film appreciation society that started up at the Jersey City Art School. I’m an unrepentant film buff. Some of my opinions are itinerant but I am democratic: I see anything and have a compulsive urge to see everything.
 The Jersey City Film Forum is a volunteer organization. I was showing up everyscreening anyway, so now I have a voice in the programming and because I have experience writing press releases, handle the publicity. This being Jersey City Studio Tour week, a hyper-local celebration of the arts and artists, an art themed film seemed appropriate and I suggested Ciao Manhattan, sort of came to me out of the deep recesses of my memory, fitting an important criteria for my recommending a film: I had not seen it.

Unlike, perhaps, music and literature, with film my preference is almost always to what I don’t know.

I’m not sure what I think about Warhol films. I remember liking Andy Warhol’s Bad, it was a very punk movie – cynical, amoral, and nihilistic – but that was back in the day. I did not have the same feelings about the Morrissey films, like Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, which were campy and boring. The other films, like Lonesome Cowboys and Chelsea Girls, which seemed to have a minor revival downthere in the Lower East Side when I lived there, I found compelling and they held my attention, but I felt no urge to see them more than once or actively pursue seeing more of the Warhol oeuvre. What is interesting about them is they have that peculiar, Warhol, stamp. You question if the division between true meaning and the vacuous is just a matter of perception.

Warhol films are as much about the medium as the subject. Unlike other avante garde film whose main subject seems to be a fascination with the moving image, there is little fancy camera work with Warhol – although the photography is rarely less than compelling and watchable – or editing or any thing else that screams: FILMMAKING!, yet the medium is the paramount message. Interesting, thought provoking, but a quick visit every so often in the Warhol tent suffices my curiosity. I am more interested in the rest of the fair.

Then there is the Warhol stamp. Who can love Warhol’s art, it’s not really art and it is anti-intellectual and anti-literature. As Patti Smith says, “never liked the soup, thought less of the can.” It is easy to get what he is doing and once you do what else can you get out of it? As a cultural figure though, he is always fascinating. The art, cultural, social and political movements of the 60s I have long studied and you can’t understand any of them with without knowing something of all of them and Warhol is front and center in that milieu. In fact, his ideas of media, celebrity, the intersection of art and commerce, were not only groundbreaking then but, for better and mostly worse, still with us now.

Warhol was obsessed with fame – not necessarily or perhaps, exclusively his own – but with fame itself. His silk screened portraits, of say Elvis or Marylyn, are de-personalized; they are not about the person but the icon, i.e., the fame of the image not the human projecting that image.


Sedgwick was one of the first celebrities who were famous only for being famous; she was known as being part of the Warhol scene as opposed to her specific work as a model or actress in Warhol’s rarely screened but constant talked about films.

Warhol’s obsession with fame – this touching of a nerve that fame is something to desire and aspire to – seems to touch a deeper fear we all share, that fame gives life meaning because life is meaningless in an of itself. But no, you say, we give life meaning – we certainly give each of our lives meaning – though don’t you see, if life requires the individual to give it meaning, then that meaning is entirely subjective and really not meaning at all.

I happen to believe life has meaning, but my inability to prove that meaning induces anxiety. I don’t have children, but I know a lot of parents who say that their offspring gives their life meaning. I have no doubt of that; sometimes even envy them because of what is undeniably a beautiful experience I will never share. But saying that an offspring is what saves your life from meaninglessness seems to be begging the question. Your life has more purpose, you’re responsible for another life, thus that is meanin; If that is true then it means until they reproduce, the life of the spawn will have no meaning to their life. That meaning seems not inherent, but projected. If life does or does not have inherent meaning is actually besides the point. The fact we are only able to believe it does creates an apprehension. If meaning is something we must bestow, then in fact life actually lacks meaning; thus nothing matters. That idea is frightening.

Our continued fascination with Warhol and perhaps one reason why he still resonates is his subtextural explanation of why our culture is obsessed with fame: fame has an objective meaning – name recognition is a provable fact – where the facts of our individual lives are only subjectively verifiable. Warhol taps into a collective fear, that we have no way to know or prove life has meaning, so at least if we focus on the image and esteem celebrity, we experience at least a semblance of meaning. Fame can matter in ways so much of the rest of life never seems to and Warhol in a way, alleviates an individual apprehension, if only momentarily. Fame is fleeting, artificial and utterly amoral – and once it is done or is no longer of interest, our confrontation with the original apprehension of intrinsic meaninglessness returns.

Warhol may even agree with the wisdom to be in this world but not of this world, but his ultra-glorification of this world is a round-about lesson with often fatal consequences. The problem is that fame, with its glamour and excitement, can be so enticing, and that drugs (and money and media) medicates us into ignoring our fear that life has no intrinsic meaning. Instead we have fame, which truly has no meaning beyond itself. We can die from fame – or by losing it after our 15 minutes are up – before learning the ultimate lesson about where to look for life’s meaning.

That is what happened to Edie Sedgwick, but before her tragically early demise, she was committed to art that is a devestating critique of fame – Ciao Manhattan. Her performance is raw, honest and fearless. I was surprised not only by how much I enjoyed the film, but how much she moved me. I could see why she inspired Bob Dylan to write Just like a Woman and perhaps other songs. She was beautiful, damaged and tragic.

Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein and George Plimpton was an oral biography -- one of the first in that format – that I read when in the 80s that stuck with me and was probably why I thought this movie was worthy of being “Forumed.” But the book, as I recalled it, was heavy on the sangfroid and Edie was a poor little rich girl, vapid, vain and shallow. I only felt empathy and compassion –emotions opposite to sangfroid – for Edie after Ciao Manhattan. The final scenes feature real newspaper obituaries of Edie Sedgwick. Life imitating art is an old cliché, I was just struck with the idea that Edie had devoted herself to art, and that commitment turned a sort sleazy pastiche of footage to a film moving in spite of itself.

In 1967, Edie was the It Girl of the moment – the star of Just like a Woman – and Directors John Palmer and David Weisman, who were on the fringes of Warhol’s Factory, started shooting a documentary about the Warhol Scene that reportedly centered on Edie and Paul America. Filming was halted after Paul America was busted for selling marijuana in upstate New York but the filmmakers had amazing footage, including a fashion shoot at the U.N, various Warhol super-starts like Bridget Berlin and Viva, a party that includes a disturbingly naked Allen Ginsberg (full frontal and as hairy as a Mandrill) and what looks to be the footage from the first Human Be-In in Central Park. Famously, there was no movie or narrative thread, just scenarios.

 In 1970, Edie had broken with Warhol, moved to California, was hospitalized for anorexia and drug addiction. The woman was a mess. The film makers caught up with her in California and resumed filming. The bulk of the film – the most moving part for me at least – is the 1970 footage, mainly of her in an empty swimming pool, a set decorated with a massive, icon-sized poster and such choice, period details as a water bed and a tin wastepaper basket, a consumer product version of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can.

 As a means to add coherence to these two blocks of footage, the filmmakers, using a “character” who is seen in the BW footage, created extra footage of an older man who is sort of a puppet-master figure – there’s surveillance video equipment and some of the minor BW characters appear again, in color three years later, the implication being a vast conspiracy of the mind, something akin to Nova Express era William S. Boroughs. Very dopey and it is excruciatingly obvious only purpose of the the scenes is to link footage together and achieve a semblance of narrative. Paranoia was the currency of the era, so I can’t quite fault the filmmakers for this choice in spite of how creaky and pretentious it now seems. Besides, it was watchable and more rather than less narrative coherence resulted. Nonetheless, when Edie is off the screen, I quickly grew impatience with the attempt at plot business.

 You cannot enjoy Ciao Manhattan as you would a conventional movie. Even if you were not aware of its backstory, it is immediately obvious that the color footage of both the paranoia big brother narrative and of Edie’s monolouges in the empty swimming pool exists as context to present the various Black & White scenarios.

Ciao Manhattan works in a way similar to the multi-level entertainment of a found-footage mockumentary such as Blair Witch Project or Clover Field (or for the genuine cineaste – Charlie Mopic 84) – you are foregoing layers of disbelief as you watch fragments of film arranged in a fictional context. With Ciao Manhattan, you can’t escape Edie; her tragic fate and damaged beauty persona is in your face and irresistible. She has an almost pretenatrual charisma. The viewer is the ball in the Ping-Pong game with multiple players, always aware the movie is a conglomeration of footage, shot and pieced together with one agenda, to make a coherent story out of the original hey-day footage. The “big brother” paranoia footage also seems conceived of and shot post-Edie in the pool, tacked on to enhance coherence. The grim realization is that much of that conception had to be inspired by the grisly fact of her early demise.

The New York Times in its 1972 stated: “At bottom "Ciao! Manhattan" is cruel exploitation—though the film is dedicated to Miss Sedgwick's memory, an ultimate indignity.”

I disagree with the accusation of exploitation, although I understand why that reviewer makes the claim. In the color, swimming pool scenes, Edie is high on speed. Her pupils are saucer-wide. Her skin is sweaty, sometimes grey. She looks emaciated. Even as she enthralls, you still want to feed her lasgna and milk shakes until she comes down enough for you to drive her to rehab.

For most of the color footage, she wears only orange hip-hugger jeans as she bounces around the empty pool outfitted with the era’s accoutrements. She blathers. That blather – it seems entirely unscripted, but I sensed it was improvised in a way likely similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm, where a scenario is outlined and the dialog is improvised within that pretext. Her monologue, a relentless diatribe critical of the whole Warhol and New York scene of fame and glamor, is cross-edited with the Black and White footage, so you hear her ramble on about phoniness and then see Warhol and the pretty people or Allen Ginsberg walking naked in the woods. Then there’s the famous heavy set Warhol star, Bridget Berlin, shooting up speed. Then there’s the young BW Edie and other young people, frolicking naked in the pool – apparently one of the original and failed intentions of the filmmakers was to make a profitable nudie for the pink movie circuit. Edie is critiquing in color the blackand white lifestyle with an amphetamine – fueled discourse that veers into her psychological history, mentioning the suicides of her brothers and accusing her father of sexual abuse. Are the links she believes to exist between Warhol glamor and her personal tragedy valid? They were for her, and that is enough for the film. They become effective components of a haunting stream of conciosuness performance.

She talks about being a famous model, then calls up Diana Vreeland about a photo-shoot in Vogue, and in the film’s cleverest piece of editing – this movie, which combines disparate footage, is a marvel of editing, and the fact much of it seems desperate, throw it on the wall and see what sticks editing, only makes it more of a marvel – has Viva (a Warhol actress who also appeared in Midnight Cowboy and Cisco Pike) playing Vreeland, answering Edie’s call and dismissing her as a has been. Except, the Viva footage is the BW 1967, and the present color footage of Edie is intercut and her dialog formed around the three year old Viva footage. Edie is talking to her past – for the viewer now shrouded in her notorious celebrity and tragic death – it is the height of psychological reality drama. Dare I say, meta meta?

Aside from the big brother plot line, Edie shows up at the home with the swimming pool, escaping the glamor of the 60s Factory scene (the BW footage). It is supposedly the house where she was brought up, her mother still lives there. At one point she is taken to a psychiatric ward where Roger Vadim (!), playing the creepy psychiatrist, administers electro-shock. A chilling scenario, where Edie re-enacts her own electro-shock therapy – her head is wrapped and electrodes applied, a rubber block placed in her mouth to prevent her biting her tongue, then she convulses as the electricity runs through her skull. We are no longer thinking of the shallowness of the Jet-Set, but this woman’s own personal drama. In spite of her family’s wealth and standing – one of her ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence – she had deep psychic wounds the money could never healt – in fact, likely made worse. Her nakedness ceases to be erotic or even shocking; her skinny, mostly bared body just underscores the absoluteness of the honesty of her performance. I’ve never seen anything comparable in terms of keeping it real as this color footage. She is totally committed to this film, completely aware that the honesty of her monologue that covers the entirety of her persona– from the psychological wounds of her family’s dysfunction to the shallowness of the Warhol Factory and Fashion Model celebrity – is potentially as devastating as her untreated drug abuse, speed addiction and eating disorders. That honesty, and that commitment to art as manifested in this fiim, is why she deserves the mantle of feminist.

 I keep thinking about Just Like a Woman, a Bob Dylan song that biographers cite as being inspired by Dylan’s affair with Edie Sedgwick – probably his last lover before marrying Sarah Lowndes – while Dylan has never affirmed the inspiration, he has also never denied it. The woman in the song, with “her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls,” is inspired by the tragic star of Ciao Manhattan. Dylan hung out at the Warhol Factory and Andy even filmed a Dylan Screen Tests, a Warhol signature film study where he just turned the camera on individual without direction and simply filmed. About 500 such “Screen Tests”are said to have made by Warhol.
Unlike some of Dylan’s caustic love songs of this period, like Positively 4th Street or Please Crawl Out Your Window, Just Like A Woman has a notable amount of empathy – especially in the live version on Before the Flood from 1974 or in the cover version by Richie Havens, which was a significant FM hot for that under-rated and near forgotten master (Richie Havens is also featured on the Ciao Manhattan soundtrack!), the woman is tragic. The lilting, country-folk melody has a druggy feel as does the line “standing inside the rain” which certainly seems to exemplify the insularity of drug-induced euphoria. Dylan has recently revealed he had a heroin addiction in the mid-60s, which corresponds, chronologically to his relationship with Edie. She looks like a fun chick to take drugs with. Another line from the song, the narrator asks the woman, not to tell anybody “when I was hungry, and it was your world,”might be interpreted as addict needing a fix when he was with his drug buddy (with benefits).
After seeing Ciao Manhattan, Just Like A Woman seems more of a testament of empathy for the woman – Icame in here/And your long-time curse hurts/But what's worse/Is this pain in here – the narrator acknowledges that the woman is suffering, Some critics see the refrain as being mean – the woman who makes love just like a woman also “breaks like a little girl,” but I think that interpretation is misplaced. Dylan sees past the external facts of this party girl, the “IT” girl of the moment, which is steeped in the milieu of fashion, glamor, drugs and fast life styles – as really just a beautiful, interesting, fun loving woman she is attracted to, while also possessing a inner fragility and some real psychological pain. The narrator seeing the little girl beneath the surface is sympathetic – he recognizes and feels her pain.

 Edie’s pain ‘in here’ is on full display in Ciao Manhattan. The fact she displays it with honesty and fearlessness is why the final act of this Warhol star reveals an authentic feminism. She may not have been strong enough to be a survivor, but lucky for us her final performance survives.


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