"Scorpio Rising" & "Chelsea Girls"

The 1960s were a time of drastic change in American film. Established studios and their structures were breaking down, and with films like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch (quite a time, wasn’t it?) the ratings system was faltering and both the look and subject matter of American cinema was undergoing a total overhaul. But this was just in the arena of mainstream narrative cinema. What was happening underground, in the avant-garde, on the more explicitly experimental filmmaking scene?

Two of my favorite films of the era that would fall into this latter category were Scorpio Rising (1964), a 28-minute short directed by Kenneth Anger, and Andy Warhol’s 210-minute Chelsea Girls (1966), made in collaboration with Paul Morrissey. There were many other great experimental works during this period (Michael Snow’s 45-minute Wavelength (1967), which is basically, though not only, a slow zoom within a room as various incidents occur, would be another top contender), but these two have always stood out. 

Anger’s short is a tour-de-force of image and sound. It’s one of the first films ever to incorporate a predominantly rock and roll soundtrack: "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," "My Boyfriend's Back," "(You're the) Devil in Disguise," and "Leader of the Pack" are just a sampling of the tracks included. These selections give the film a unique musical quality, as opposed to a more typical all instrumental score, and they also create a keen sense of time, a time associated with this type of music. Scorpio Rising’s imaginatively edited construction combines one striking image after another, building to a frenzy. Color, light, camera placement, montage, it leaves no stylistic stone unturned. And in terms of what is actually shown, Scorpio Rising is also remarkably revolutionary. The film follows a group of bikers, all filmed in lingering homoerotic detail, as they prep themselves and assemble. Nazi and religious imagery abounds, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about this juxtaposition. It’s certainly an examination of the fetishized male body (Anger himself was gay, at a time when such openness was unquestionably more taboo than it is now). It’s also an examination of iconographic idolatry – the comparison between Nazism and Christianity is and was notoriously provocative. Since Scorpio Rising, like nearly all of these types of films, is loose on narrative, one can extrapolate more and more from the picture with each viewing, without the constraints of overt formal guidance. It’s a rapidly paced film, full of ambiguity and astonishing imagery, so you’re left coming away with multiple questions regarding potential meaning, which is, of course, a sign of any great experimental work.  

While Scorpio Rising is comprised of aural/visual bombardment, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls is a more subdued, though nonetheless challenging, film. It records a group of people in New York City as they basically just hang out, talk, drink, ramble, do drugs, etc. While the film was initially around six hours long, Warhol decided to combine certain segments into a continuous split-screen. So now we have, for the entirety of the film, one image, one “story,” next to another, the audio track going back and forth, the segments visually and thematically contrasting against each other (some are in color, some black and white; some seem uncomfortably volatile, some simplistically innocent). It’s a brilliant experiment in film form, film spectatorship, and film exhibition. In these last two categories, the innovation comes from the fact that when theatrically shown the vignettes were projected separately, even randomly; thus they oftentimes didn’t synch up perfectly and the screenings would subsequently vary from theater to theater, from showing to showing. Like Scorpio Rising, the people and the places here also serve a sort of ethnographic function. We are bearing witness to an essentially authentic assemblage of people during a very precise time and place. It’s little surprise that of all people it would be Andy Warhol who would craft such a culture-specific masterpiece of cinema.

Taken together, Scorpio Rising and Chelsea Girls are two markedly dissimilar experimental films, in terms of tone, form and content, but they’re both perfectly representative of the best of what avant-garde American cinema had to offer in the 1960s. While this type of filmic experimentation may seem somewhat unappealing to a moviegoer not accustomed to such unorthodox methods, these two are well worth a shot. They’re comparatively more digestible than other experimental titles out there (no less dazzling and remarkable, but perhaps more off-putting, would be the work of Stan Brakhage from the same period). For those interested in this epoch of American society, these two films are also worthwhile simply as cultural artifacts. And for those who simply want to see something new, something that will challenge preconceived stale notions of cinema and standard film convention, they are not to be missed.

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