Warhol's Screen Tests
For the past several years, I have asked the students in my seminar on stardom to watch a series of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (from the DVD 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests) and then to create their own. This project provides the basis for a short essay reflecting on their experiences both as a spectator and as a “sitter.” We turn to art historian Hal Foster’s essay “Test Subjects” as a critical framework for analyzing Warhol’s Screen Tests. He writes, “[I]n Warholian cinema at large, to film a person often meant to provoke and/or to expose him or her, and to be filmed meant to parry this probing or to be laid bare by it. As a result, the viewer cannot idealize the filmed person, as is usually the case with Hollywood cinema. One can only empathize, intermittently, with his or her travails before the relentless camera, that is, again, to empathize with the vicissitudes of the subject becoming an image – with wanting this condition too much, resisting it too much, or otherwise failing at it” (41-42). As students watch Warhol’s screen tests and plan and record their own, they consider the relevance and resonance of Foster’s description of the “relentless camera.”
I recently added Glyn Davis’s Writing About Screen Media chapter, “Writing about experimental cinema: Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964),” to this unit. Davis addresses the multiple forms of difficulty associated with watching and writing about Empireand other experimental films (including short films such as the Screen Tests), noting the logistical difficulty of accessing the films and the experiential difficulty of watching them. None of the students in my class had seen Empire, but after reading the short description of the film that Davis offers they all understood the challenges that spending eight hours watching a film of the Empire State Building would entail: “Very little happens in the film. The camera stares, without moving, at the building. The sky slowly darkens. Floodlights come on, illuminating the building; towards the end of the film, they are switched off again” (84).
For our seminar, Warhol’s Screen Tests afford us an opportunity to consider the challenges of watching experimental cinema while contemplating the presentation of both famous and obscure figures in films where, similar to Empire, “very little happens.” As Davis observes, “When you sit through a long film with very little change in content, for instance, your understanding of what amounts to ‘action’ shifts, and minor incidents become of interest” (86). We watch Warhol’s Screen Tests multiple times in order to identify these “minor incidents” and compare the emergence of “action” across the films. These observations then serve as models for the students as they plan their own screen tests; they may imitate Ann Buchanan’s unblinking stare as tears stream down her face in one of the most rigorous screen test performances or adopt a more resistant and playful approach as seen in Lou Reed’s screen test when he refuses to take off his sunglasses and drinks ostentatiously from a bottle of Coke.
Davis concludes his chapter by explaining that writing on experimental cinema “often needs to incorporate stretches or instances of experimental and poetic text” (87). This short film and essay assignment, assigned strategically at the beginning of the semester, allows everyone in the seminar to learn about experimental cinema, to make an experimental film, and to experiment with their writing.
1. Watch the following Screen Tests: Edie Sedgwick, Ann Buchanan, Lou Reed, and Mary Woronov.
2. Record your own screen test. You should replicate as many of the formal conditions of Warhol’s Screen Tests as possible, but you are also welcome to innovate or violate the form. While you may decide to change some of the protocols associated with Warhol’s filming set-up, your screen test must:
-be a single shot with a running time of approximately 3-4 minutes;
-include you in close-up or medium close-up in the frame – facing forward – for the entire running time;
-involve no post-production image editing.
3. After you have completed your screen test, please write a short essay reflecting on your experience. Your essay should address the following questions:
-What formal choices did you make when you designed your screen test (for example, location, framing, costuming, lighting, camera angles, etc.)?
-Which of Warhol’s Screen Tests most directly informed the design of your screen test? How?
-Does Hal Foster’s description of the “relentless camera” accurately describe your experience? Why or why not?
-To what extent did your experience of filming and watching your screen test conform to Glyn Davis’s account of watching Warhol’s film Empire?
-How does the experience of creating a cinematic self-portrait compare to the more common contemporary experience of taking “selfies”?
Foster, Hal. “Test Subjects.” October, no. 132, Spring 2010, pp.30-42.