A quick internet search of Andy Warhol’s experimental 1966 film reveals its polaric reception, even today. A scathing 50% Rotten Tomatoes score and a slap across the chops one-out-of-four from Roger Ebart only tells part of the story however. Ignoring the dubious credentials of these internet critics (Sharknado got an 82% RT rating), it’s still surprising to see something touched by the Hand of Warhol treated with anything other than quivering reverence, especially one of his most commercially successful films. Something tells me Andy wouldn’t have minded too much.
This extraordinary vision of New York’s exploding underground arts scene in the 1960’s was, in his eyes, a wake up call to the industry and a necessary step in legitimising the authenticity of their work. “Chelsea Girls was the movie that made everyone sit up and notice what we were doing in films (and a lot of times that meant sit up, stand up, and walk out),” said Warhol of the work. “Until then the general attitude toward what we did was that it was ‘artistic’ or ‘camp’ or ‘a put-on’ or just plain ‘boring.’ But after Chelsea Girls, words like degenerate and disturbing and homosexual and druggy and nude and real started being applied to us regularly.” Now, a newly restored version of the film, including never-before-seen footage that sheds light on Warhol’s filming process is on show at MoMA. Half a century on from its first screening, the film remains as powerful and subversive as it was fifty years ago.
Residents of the ‘Chelsea Hotel’ – Manhattan’s infamous dormitory for tortured artists and writers that also provides the film’s setting, include a bevy of Warhol’s Factory muses. From Nico and Brigid Berlin to Ondine and Gerard Malanga, the film, and Nico’s follow up debut album ‘Chelsea Girl’, are as much about the darkness that accompanied the period as they are about creative freedom and sexual liberty. Given the split screen format, with shots that begin in black and white and shift to colour, this three and a half hour piece, that drifts in and out of focus, is only worth seeing when properly projected. For our friends across the pond, it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
The Chelsea Girls Exploded is on view in The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, MoMA from May 4–13, 2018. See below website for full program details and guest appearance dates.