- Girl Interrupted:The Queer Time of Warhol's Cinema
Warhol made hundreds of Screen Test films between 1964 and 1966.1 The Screen Tests comprise a series of four-minute, silent, black and white portraits, usually shot in head-on close-up, and depict subjects of varying degrees of fame and anonymity, who usually return the camera's gaze with a relatively expressionless fixed stare. Aside from small permutations, the element of greatest variability from test to test is the lighting, which ranges from high-contrast silhouette to washed-out over-exposure.2 Curiously, Warhol does not seem to evaluate the silent, immobile subjects for any of the abilities or traits that a screen test would normally measure. His subjects barely move or speak. Most of them are posed at a consistent, fixed angle, and the majority of them do not appear in any of his other films. The Screen Tests, it would seem, are "just tests": experiments without results, trial runs that yield no data. The test form has been de-teleologized; these films are neither preparatory nor subordinate to a final work. Warhol allows the trial-and-error aesthetic a cinematic life of its own, and the series of Screen Tests remains perpetually open-ended.
Like the Screen Tests, Warhol's Kiss films (1963) are a series of portrait-like shorts. Each Kiss depicts a different couple engaged in an embrace, in various combinations of gender and ethnicity. The [End Page 98] films are silent and of a uniform, four-minute duration, with all but one filmed in static close-up and demonstrating only slight variations in angle and distance. The fact that the Kisses were at one time exhibited as individual shorts prior to feature presentations at the Film-makers Co-op in New York, as if they were trailers, aligns them yet further with the Screen Tests.3 This mode of exhibition suggests that, like the Screen Tests, the Kiss films engage in something like cinematic foreplay. Both the Screen Tests and the Kisses offer situations where what is normally considered preliminary, anterior to, and outside the real work becomes the main attraction. Precursory activities become feature events; the "test" and the "trailer" are elevated to the status of complete projects. These films practice an introductory, anticipatory form of cinema in which a simulation or rehearsal is taken just as seriously as the final result.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
The Kisses and Screen Tests are but preliminary examples (both in Warhol's filmic oeuvre and in this essay) of what I will describe as the queer temporality of Warhol's cinema. Douglas Crimp, Thomas Waugh and others have noted that scholars of the American 1960s avant-garde have frequently, in certain instances deliberately, overlooked the queer aspects of Warhol's oeuvre.4 What Waugh calls "formalist disavowals of the primacy of sexual representation," [End Page 99] offered by "critics of the modernist, postmodernist, or heterosexist persuasion," as Waugh describes them, "routinely fail to mention that the male in Sleep is nude, and somehow forget that Haircut and Horse include a slow male striptease and a cowboy strip poker game, respectively."5 Recent scholarship has contributed much to the deconstruction of this binary opposition between the "formalist Warhol" and the "queer Warhol," and has revealed that the formally attentive reading need not be made at the expense of the culturally or historically attentive one and vice versa.6 One could also note that this division is one that postdates the era of Warhol's own productivity: early scholarship on Warhol's films by critics such as Parker Tyler and Gregory Battcock remains among the most formally rigorous, while offering some of the most sophisticated readings of the films' sexual politics. Still, this binarism persists, particularly in the way his films are often divided up between those considered landmarks of conceptual innovation (Empire) and those that are implicitly taken to be of lesser artistic quality (My Hustler).
This essay aims further to bridge the divide between formalist and queer readings of Warhol's films, not through recourse to biography...