by Will Sloan
It’s cliché to observe that Andy Warhol’s filmography resembles the evolution of cinema itself. Warhol begins, as did Edison and Lumière, with silent films that invite us to wonder at a single visual idea (Sleep, Kiss, Eat). Quickly he introduced sound, color, movie stars, and more conventional visual grammar until finally arriving at Andy Warhol’s Bad (1976), which is so close to a “real movie” that Warhol himself had barely anything to do with it. Warhol made Vinyl (1965) at around the midpoint of his stylistic evolution, after his incorporation of sound but before Paul Morrissey’s domesticating influence. I like much of Warhol’s cinema on both sides of this dividing line, but Vinyl for me represents a beautiful moment when the evolution broke down. What if, after cinema’s birth, the medium had developed an entirely different visual language?
This is a barer-than-bare-bones adaptation of A Clockwork Orange that, for its first 49 minutes (punctuated by a reel change at minute 32) unfolds within one dense, inky-black frame. The film begins with a tight close-up of Gerard Malanga’s face before the camera pulls back to reveal him lifting weights at the center of a crowded composition. Malanga is “Victor” (the Alex character), who exclaims that he is a juvenile delinquent and dances to the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run.” Seated on the right of the frame is Edie Sedgwick, who does very little except smoke, drink, and occasionally bob to the music. Seated on the left is J.D. McDermott as a mysterious figure who turns out to be a cop. Behind them, a shifting group of people mill about, occasionally becoming involved in the action. Behind those people is darkness. Vinyl was filmed at Warhol’s Factory, but looks like it’s taking place in a void.
A skeletal version of Burgess’s story unfolds, during which sections of the small frame become distinct geographical spaces. In the center, Malanga gets in a scrap with Ondine, who alerts McDermott, who grabs Malanga and throws him into his chair on the extreme left. We accept that a body moving from one part of the frame to another can represent an enormous shift in time and space. McDermott scolds and tortures Malanga, and when his chair shifts, the left side merges with the background, and the background players join the torture. All the while, Edie sits on the extreme right, sometimes observing intently, sometimes not. Who is she? Where does she exist in relation to the story unfolding on the other side of the screen? Is she merely Edie Sedgwick watching the filming of a movie?
At the 49-minute mark, Warhol finally cuts to another close-up, and frankly, this intrusion is disappointing. Finally, the film ends with a hazy dance party, in which the characters become the actors playing them, or maybe not. In the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers learned slowly, through trial and error, how to delineate time and space in their new medium. Vinyl does away with all these rules. It also doesn’t fall back on the rules of theater, and instead dismantles the wall between “onstage” and “offstage.” Despite following no rules, we follow the story, come to know the characters, and use our imaginations to construct their world. Warhol has given us a completely original way to show a story on film. How many other filmmakers have done this?