Warhol: Blow Jobs and Factory Hipsters

Photo of Andy Warhol (1986) by/© Robert Mapplethorpe.
Photo of Andy Warhol (1986) by/© Robert Mapplethorpe.

Andy Warhol encapsulated the mass culture and kitschy pop art movement of the 50s and 60s with his infamous prints of Coca Cola bottles and Campbell soup cans. The man behind the art remains a great enigma though. It’s ironic that Warhol went to such great lengths to emphasize the shallowness of his own work, but when it came to his own personality, he was a deeply fascinating and complex human being.

He was more myth than man, heightened by the grungy glamour of The Factory scene in New York City alongside muses Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling.

Edie Seddwick in Kitchen
Roger Trudeau and Edie Sedgwick in “Kitchen” (1965). Photo © Warhol.

Everybody knows the screen prints, but not everyone is familiar with Warhol’s work as a film director. Picking up the camera in the early 60s, Warhol would go on to inspire a generation of experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage with his minimalist black and white works of film art. Warhol’s early experiments were basic screen tests of his factory hipsters kissing and sleeping. Like his paintings and prints were meant to be taken at surface value, even the titles offer no artistic indulgences but simply reflect the mundane acts that are being performed: “Sleep” (1963) and “Kitchen” (1965), for example. His films strip away the layers of conventional narrative, like flakes of peeled white paint reflect a decade drowning in the mundane activities of TV and consumerism.

Actor DeVeren Bookwalter in "Blow Job" (1964). Film still © Warhol.
Actor DeVeren Bookwalter in “Blow Job” (1964). Film still © Warhol.

One of Warhol’s most influential underground movies is his short film “Blow Job” (1964). With a running time of about 40 minutes, it takes the form of a single shot for its entire duration. The camera stays on the face of DeVeren Bookwalter as he receives the sexual act in question. Bookwalter was an accomplished theatre actor and director in his day, and “Blow Job” remains one of his few screen credits. During the film his face changes from angelic tones with white light moving across the surface to demented pools of black shadow taking over his eyes and cheekbones, as this New York hustler looks up to God and beyond. The best word to describe it is hypnotic. Warhol draws us in to his microscopic world by freeing the audience from the rules of traditional cinema. Bookwalter’s head bobs in and out of frame but Warhol doesn’t re-adjust, it’s like a piece of performance art where mistakes are to be expected. The viewer becomes the voyeur in the Hitchcock fashion, as there’s no music or camera movement to cushion the blow, we’re invited to do nothing else but to gaze upon the erotic display. The fact that we never actually see the person delivering the blow job, only adds to the film’s mesmerizing power.

One of the many smooching scenes in "Kiss" (1963). Photo © Warhol.
One of the many smooching scenes in “Kiss” (1963). Photo © Warhol.

In “Kiss,” the camera is given more to do as a string of images of young naked couples pecking each other’s faces, which are edited together in a 35 minute block. It’s got a definite air of an art installation that pervades a lot of Warhol’s early work. It’s a raw and unflinching piece that once again breaks the rules of mainstream cinema through its lack of narrative, music and dialogue. A mixture of long shots, close-ups, low and high angle frames provide some uncharacteristic variety to Warhol’s cinematic repertoire. In 1964, he made the infamous “Empire,” a highly experimental work lasting for over 8 hours and consisting of nothing more than a static shot of the Empire State Building at night. The captured footage is grainy, full of scratches and flickers of reflected light. It’s an important piece of modern art and underground cinema, if you can stomach the full-length running time. It’s so sparse and minimalist that the fact that it’s supposed to alienate the audience is a given, a film that’s all about form, where the structure of cinema takes precedent over content. There’s an objectivity to Warhol’s style and it’s particularly in evidence in “Empire.” Where the majority of auteur directors put so much of themselves into their films, Warhol takes a step back and watches from afar.

Christopher Smail

Posted by

Christopher is assistant editor of Scene 360 (Illusion) and also founding editor of White Coffee Magazine. As an arts journalist and film critic, he’s been published in a number of online publications including Gorilla Film Magazine, Hi! Magazine, The Flaneur, subtitledonline.com, and Trisickle Magazine.