FILM; A Pioneering Dialogue Between Actress and Image
By J. HOBERMAN
ANDY WARHOL has so become his own trademark — and is so much a one-name synonym for the culture of celebrity — that it can be a shock to realize just how brilliantly original he was as a visual artist. A case in point: The double-screen video-based film installation ”Outer and Inner Space” at the Whitney Museum (through Nov. 30), which places his glamorous, doomed superstar Edie Sedgwick in a dialogue with her own video-taped image.
First shown in 1966 and largely forgotten for some 30 years thereafter, ”Outer and Inner Space” is a historical anomaly — a masterpiece of video art made before the term even existed. The piece meditates on the distinction between film and tape while introducing the issues of real-time recording and simultaneous feedback that would inform much video art from the 1970’s on. For the Whitney adjunct curator, Callie Angell, ” ‘Outer and Inner Space” ”creates this classic background for video art that it didn’t know it had.”
Mid-summer 1965, a few months before the father of video art Nam June Paik got his first Sony PortaPak, a prototype Norelco slant-track video recorder was delivered to the Warhol Factory. (Its arrival, Ms. Angell points out, is an event in the hectic first chapter of Warhol’s ”documentary” novel ”A.”) The Norelco video recorder was expensive, unwieldy and short-lived. There are no extant machines. Warhol, then producing a 16-millimeter feature every other week, played with the video equipment for a month. A documentary of the Factory scene produced by Bruce Torbet that summer shows a surprisingly hands-on artist — Warhol himself wielding the white tubular-shaped Norelco camera as he supervises the lighting of the 22-year-old Sedgwick, perched demurely on a stool.
These tapes, as played back on a large monitor, were the basis for a two-reel, 66-minute movie with Sedgwick positioned before, responding to and illuminated by her video image. (Thanks to this lighting, unconventional then, the film seems less black and white than gorgeously black and silver.) Shot in profile and close-up, the video Sedgwick is uncharacteristically earnest, staring off camera with an almost mystical concentration as she talks on and on about . . . something. A typically laconic Factory description explains that her ”duo dialogue” concerns ”space, mysticism and herself.” Although the tape is manipulated to produce intermittant video distortions and bar rolls, the most subtle effect has the video Edie slightly larger than life. Space is flattened, perspective destroyed. In a further temporal complication, Warhol arranged for the two 16-millmeter reels to be projected simultaneously side by side.
Suggesting both the silkscreened multiples of Marilyn Monroe or Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as Warhol’s vast series of 16-millimeter screen tests, ”Outer and Inner Space” is one of his great portraits. Her lips glossed and eyes shining, a pair of enormous dangling earrings casting a grid of shadows across her graceful neck, the film Sedgwick was never more appealing than here. Poised and elegant, she acts as though it’s tea time on Mars. Sedgwick never stops talking, unless it’s to draw on her cigarette or pull a face, presumably in response to something she hears her video self say. The four layers of Sedgwick discourse become a murmuring burble in which only isolated phrases (”We had better times than anybody else,” ”I don’t believe it”) float to the surface of audibility.
”Outer and Inner Space” had its world premiere at the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque in Manhattan. (An advertisment in the Jan. 27, 1966 issue of The Village Voice drolly promises new work by Andy Warhol and the teen-age underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin as ”double screen experiments by double screen experimentalists.”) Later, it was incorporated into Warhol’s growing multi-media show, the ”Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” which featured not only the rock band the Velvet Underground but also the continuous projection of Warhol movies on the walls and ceiling of the St. Marks Place discotheque known as the Dom.
Although Warhol would only once again work in video, Ms. Angell believes that ”Outer and Inner Space” had a decisive influence on his development. She points out that nearly every film he made afterward was shown in some sort of double screen: ”After a certain point, Warhol thought he could combine any of his films in any way he wanted.” It was during the spring of 1966 that the artist began shooting ”The Chelsea Girls,” the double-screen movie that would be his greatest critical (and commercial) success. Still, there are few Warhol movies as concerned as ”Outer and Inner Space” with their own process.
What ”Outer and Inner Space” shares with much video art is its sense of immediacy. As in many of the early Warhol films, an onscreen performer can be seen interracting with people offscreen. At one point, Sedgwick visibly responds to a direction, presumably from Warhol, to sneeze in tandem with her video image. The most powerful ”off-screen” presence is, however, the taped image, which Sedgwick can hear but not see.
Becoming in a sense her own audience, the ”live” Sedgwick often seems startled, distracted, even sometimes distressed by the effect of having her own voice whispering in her ear. (”It makes me so nervous to listen to it,” she exclaims at one point.) As its title suggests, ”Outer and Inner Space” visualizes a fragmented attention, a schizoid disjunction between public and private selves. Never less than animated, Sedgwick appears to approach hysteria — perhaps annotating her video monologue, perhaps freaked out by it.
The four faces of Edie, ”Outer and Inner Space” is ultimately the poignant spectacle of watching a beautiful wraith reacting to her own past. (Scarcely six years later, Sedgwick was dead of a drug overdose.) In a way, the piece makes literal the celebrity’s dilemma: the superstar is trapped between her own disembodied image and the implacable, voracious eye of Warhol’s camera.
J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for The Village Voice.
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