When considering the long shadow of Andy Warhol's Empire, we'll start with obvious questions to widen a pathway to somewhere close the sublime.
In this case, the obvious might be in the following: Where does an eight-hour, static-shot film of a stationary object fit into the canon of 20th century cinema? Is it the ultimate expression of the art of pure cinema, or an outlier? How do you experience and process such a thing? What is the filmmaker up to? Who is the intended audience? Or, as a skeptic might see it, is it really a film at all, or just a camera with film running through it?
Well, Tucson cinephiles can formulate their own answers to these and other questions—or sit back and let it ride by on a cloud of filmic bliss—by showing up and taking the plunge. Which, in an incredibly rare opportunity, Tucson cinema lovers can actually do this Saturday, April 29, as Warhol's silent, minimalist epic Empire is screened in its entirety at Tucson's maverick Exploded View. Shot on 16mm in 1964, Empire consists of a single, very long shot (actually several reels of the same shot) of the Empire State Building in New York, as the light changes over the building and the city pulses beneath it. That's it, more or less. And in this case, less might actually equal more, perhaps much more.
Empire could be, among many possibilities, a brilliant and innovative expression of experimental cinema; a provocation, Warhol's ultimate expression of artistic banality, aka Warhol just being Warhol; a bullshit detector litmus test; an iconographic rendering of an iconographic American symbol, doubling as the ultimate phallic symbol; and/or a deeply immersive and meditative experience, unique in the history of filmmaking. Exploded View co-curator (with David Sherman) Rebecca Barten says, '"Empire was one of Warhol's early films, and is a work of cinematic, minimalist, static shot, no plot epic duration."
Needless to say, your appreciation of it likely depends on how willing you are to forgo the traditional movie-going experience— it's unlike any other filmic experience aside from a few like-minded films from the avant garde.
Rarely screened but widely studied, Empire is distinctly Warholian, a film that all but dares you to explain, define or categorize it. But, those instinctive habits we have to define and categorize will fail us when considering Empire—we'll miss the forest for the trees. Writing in the New York Times about a 2014 Empire screening, Blake Gopnik (who gladly watched the entire eight hours) said, "If great works of art can be thought of as machines for thinking, triggering ideas by the dozen, then Empire is a Rolls-Royce: it keeps us thinking about what film is and does, what great buildings are all about and even how and why we look at things."
David Sherman's take: "If there is any drama in Empire, it most certainly rests in the materiality of the film; the flare-outs to white that happen at the end of the reels. After each 45-minute take the film needed to be reloaded into Warhol's camera, and it is in these moments that one can catch glimpses of Andy and friends captured for an instant in the reflection of the window of the 44th floor of the Time-Life building from which the film was shot. Other than that, the swirling grain of the black and white image, the comforting rhythms the projector and the audiences' conflicting internal monologues provide a lush counterpoint to the static image of the Empire State building. The film functions as ecstatic drone music for the eyes—it is nothing and everything simultaneously!"
The Tucson screening of Empire is sponsored in large by the Tucson-based, Swiss-born, internationally renowned painter Olivier Mosset, with an assist by the UA Gender and Women's Studies program. The film—all 10 reels of it—is a rental from Museum of Modern Art in New York. It's never been released on DVD, and likely won't be anytime soon.
Mosset first met Warhol in New York in 1967, and soon after hosted him in Paris, and attended the Paris debut of Warhol's film Chelsea Girls. Mosset saw Warhol off and on over the years, as their circles of affiliation coursed and ebbed. He didn't see Empire until the 1980s, but says that the film is "one of my favorite movies."
He remembers, "The first time I came to New York, I was working as an assistant with Jean Tinguely, who was doing the roof of the French Pavilion at the Expo in Montreal. With the money I made I went to New York. When you're young you do things I would never do now, and I went to see Warhol, at the first Factory on 47th St. I waited there outside, and Andy came by himself, which was strange, and we went up; Billy Name was sleeping somewhere, and they had a Callas record on. I said 'Well, hello Andy' or something and he said 'Let's go have a coffee,' and so we did. And he said, 'You know, my friends are playing tonight at a place called The Gymnasium and you should come,' and of course it was The Velvet Underground.
"Then I saw him in Paris, where I went with him to see the Paris debut of Chelsea Girls at the Cinematheque. And he came to my place, he even signed a Campbell's soup can, but I ate it later. Later, in the '80s, I saw him again at one of my collectors', and they said 'Oh you should collaborate,' and he said 'Oh I can do that right now,' and he signed one my paintings, on the side. Of course the price went up on the painting instantly; it's in a Swiss bank or somewhere now."
Mosset's impressions of Empire? "It's very cool, it's like classical music, you're thinking about something else or whatever as you're looking at it. Things are happening; the light changes, windows open and shut, you can think about whatever you want for eight hours. It's like watching a landscape, which Empire is, but it's also a movie."
He continues, "I was impressed with these kind of movies; Warhol, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, others. They were reinventing cinema somehow ... in a way you had the feeling that cinema was the art of the 20th century. Someone asked me recently who was the greatest painter of the 20th century and I said Jean Luc Godard!"
Rebecca adds, "I could tell you with almost 100-percent certainty that this event isn't going to happen again in this part of the country for a long time; it hasn't before, and won't again. So, people who are curious about seeing this really historical film actually projected in the medium that it was intended and that it was made, well ... my expectation with a night like this is: planting seeds is great, period."