A Mind-Numbing Empire

On July 25-26, from 8:06 p.m. to 2:42 a.m., an Auricon 16mm  camera  was rolling  steadily and (but for three reel changes) uninterruptedly. Shooting at 24 frames-per-second b/w, the in-progress film’s controversial director along with his crew were situated in the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation on the 41st Floor of the Time-Life Building. Nine blocks to the south, the star of his film towered through his lens: the Empire State Building… never camera shy, even under the most absurd conditions, not even while being made to perform by Pop Art‘s most absurd artist:  Andy Warhol.

When it was screened, EMPIRE ran for a mind-blowing 8 hours and 5 minutes.  “The film begins with a totally white screen and as the sun sets, the image of the Empire State Building emerges. The floodlights on its exterior come on, the building’s lights flicker on and off for the next 6 1/2 hours, then the floodlights go off again in the next to the last reel so that the remainder of the film takes place in nearly total darkness.” (Wikipedia)

Other than that, the film is virtually devoid of any characters or narrative or sound; the lights from the ESB and that of neighboring buildings are the only action in the film.  Conversation (to break the monotony) amongst Warhol’s crew while filming was originally planned as a soundtrack but was wisely excluded; it would’ve made an incomprehensible situation all the more incomprehensible.

Even the most devoted avant-garde loyalists found EMPIRE utterly impossible to watch in its entirety without eventually fidgeting in their seats and urgently disappearing through the nearest exit. This lengthy experiment into subjectivity could never be enjoyed or appreciated by anyone in their right mind, nor endured by anyone hoping to remain in their right mind. Despite this, in  2004, Empire was added to the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in recognition of the cultural, historical and aesthetic importance of this most extraordinary cinematic achievement.

(To think that Orson Welles might have achieved the same artistic  glory by filming a  child’s sled parked outside the New York Stock Exchange for 10 hours and call it CITIZEN KANE is something to consider.)

From the start, Warhol overwhelmed his critics and an oftentimes bewildered public with a dazzling array of works that seemed to emerge at a rate of output  similar to that of  an assembly line.  “I want to be a machine,” Warhol once said, and he sometimes appeared to be one as the broad yet thin line between Fine and Commercial Art became solidly indistinguishable through his creative vision. From the mundane and banal (Campbells Soup, Brillo Boxes, etc.) to the famous and iconic (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, etc.) Warhol’s silkscreen renderings “forced the world to consider a new perspective that it, subconsciously, had already embraced.” He simply gave a monumental importance to obsessions that society was already obsessed with; hence, holding up the mirror, not to Nature, but to ourselves and acquired a fortune and legend for himself off of what we had already seen.

When Warhol moved from silkscreens to the silver screen, the strange and unconventional was already expected of him. The Pop Art movement that he had so uniquely inspired was quickly becoming the norm in America‘s commercial and artistic settings; even more so, the name Andy Warhol became familiar in millions of households across the country, even if they hadn’t the foggiest notion as to what he was all about.  EMPIRE, like nearly all of his films and including its predecessor SLEEP (an excruciating 6 hour ordeal: observing poet  John Giorno sleep!), faded into the intellectual obscurity of such venues as college film classes, bohemian neighborhoods, culturally elite cafes…and NYU.

In the end, however, Andy Warhol himself became the most long-lasting and iconic of his creations: props like Campbell Soup cans and the Empire State Building (like other props in his “Factory“) were only there to assist.

Person John Giorno
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