Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls
by Jenna Joost
Re-examining Andy Warhol’s early masterpiece of avant-garde cinema.
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The Museum of the Moving Image in New York City closed out the series Visions of New York: Films from the 1960’s Underground with Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls.
The Chelsea Girls was made at the peak of avant-garde cinema in 1966. It is a 3 ½ hour epic which is comprised of twelve 30-minute films shown double projected side by side. There are no cuts within any sequence. Warhol was using newsreel cameras that could record 30 minutes of film at once; it had the capability of recording the sound directly onto the film, creating an instant optical track. This technique prevented separation from picture and sound, so in order to keep sync, Warhol had to make a film without any cuts for 30 minutes, and that is exactly what he did with The Chelsea Girls.
The Chelsea Girls takes place in the Chelsea Hotel in eight different rooms. The film can be shown in any order, letting the projectionist have a creative role in the film. However, Warhol has conceived of the standard order that we see today. The film stars nearly every “star” to come out of The Factory including, Gerard Malanga, Mary Woronov, Ingrid Superstar, Bob “Ondine” Olivio, International Velvet, Brigid Polk and the ever alluring Nico.
Each actor in the film is compelled to create a spectacle. Ondine plays the role of the pope, and keeps us amused for a full hour with his boisterous persona. Mary Woronov acts as the sadist who has control over the other females in the room with her hostile attitude. Ingrid Superstar shows up in almost all of the segments and is constantly chatting to keep us entertained. The only person in the film who seems real is Nico. Her presence on screen is so captivating; we follow her every move. She is in two segments, one in black and white, the other in color. She is the true “star” of the film; not putting on an act, or trying to entertain us. The dope dealer played by the hilarious Brigid Polk adds some comic relief and a little bit of grit.
The Chelsea Girls is a movie “experience.” Warhol uses the camera as his weapon. The actors before his camera try their hardest to put on a narcissistic show for us and themselves. Warhol pulls out the tragedy, beauty and sadness of the people he films. He creates stars but then tears them apart on screen. He wants to see his stars drop before us.
The Chelsea Girls is a masterpiece of the cinema, which can not be explained, but experienced. It draws you into this new realm and, when you least expect it, you are thrown right back out.
Jenna Joost is a native New Yorker finishing her BFA from the School of Visual Arts. She is an AVID editor, curator, collector and cinephile.
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