Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Heroics of a Madwoman

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)
dir: Mary Harron

Mary Harron got her start in the New Queer Cinema movement with her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol. It's a semi-fictionalized biopic about radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who actually did shoot Andy Warhol in real life.

Mary Harron became fascinated with the figure of Valerie Solanas in the '90s, working on a PBS documentary series titled "Edge." Since she had some foundational roots in the punk scene, I'm sure that Solanas' radical feminism and her need to make her views explicit appealed to Harron. From her film career, Harron has always been fascinated with women who are unconventional and strong-willed, but ultimately with some deference to the needs of men. She also likes playing with lesbianism in her films, and discovering what that means in a world surrounded by men.

Valerie Solanas is the root of all of Harron's eventual obsessions. Solanas is a lesbian and a feminist who wrote the now famous SCUM Manifesto. In Harron's version of Solanas' life, SCUM stands for Society for Cutting Up Men, but in the Manifesto itself, SCUM is a name for strong rebellious women who are defeating the status quo.

The SCUM Manifesto itself is a semi-satirical cry for women to buck the patriarchal society that had been developed (and was surrounding the 1960s, when the Manifesto was written), and to develop their own society which was reflective of the women's role for love and grooviness.  In the Manifesto, men were responsible for all of the negative violence and aggression in the world, and the women were responsible for making everything even keel and happy. Solanas argues that by eliminating men from society, women can make a cleaner society that won't be as crazy and violent as the one in which she lived.  Which is ironic because she also shot Andy Warhol, and some of the feminist movement took that as a clarion call for violent radical uprising in the US.

In the realm of the New Queer Cinema movement, I Shot Andy Warhol behaves in a manner similar to Swoon, but also keeps things on a more rational narrative.  It starts out with the shooting of Andy Warhol, and then recounts Solanas' story from her abusive childhood (including molestation by her father) through to the shooting, with the majority of the film taking place in New York between 1966 and 1968.

Solanas was a lesbian, hustler, and writer who stumbled into Warhol on accident, in part by way of Candy Darling, She wrote a play titled Up Your Ass, which would probably have worked in the Caffe Cino/Andy Milligan scene, if she hadn't had arrived on it just as the first Caffe Cino burnt down, and she had started to associate with the Warhol crowd, which was also the Cino's undoing. But, according to Harron's film, she wrote it and was dependent on Warhol for producing it. Of course, Warhol was uninterested in the play deeming it "too dirty" and lost his version of the script.

In I Shot Andy Warhol, Solanas became irate that Warhol wouldn't produce the script, and also wouldn't return it, and also wouldn't give her any money for it. Which is all very weird considering she had another copy to peddle, and she could just go get it mimeographed.  But, Harron isn't one for logic in this movie, and instead moves the pawns into a war over this script and money.

Solanas was treated badly by the Warhol "superstars" as she started to become unglued. Now, mind you, even outside I Shot Andy Warhol, the superstars were generally portrayed as selfish drug-addled followers who hated anybody who wasn't in the group...so, it rings of truth. At one point, a follower tells Solanas that she has been "excommunicated." And, she eventually starts writing the SCUM Manifesto, with which she gets a novel deal through Olympia Press.

But, money woes still happen, and Solanas keeps becoming increasingly unglued. She buys a gun, and intends to shoot her publisher. But, instead ends up shooting Warhol. Supposedly over money and/or the script.

The way Harron posed everything, Solanas was a lesbian lost in a man's world where she was rejected by everything for being a hard-edged dyke that rebelled against society. Warhol was modestly accepting, even putting her in a movie of his, but ultimately his rejection of her crazy leads her to shoot him in a statement against the male domination of the society. Or, something. Harron also poses the possibility that the paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis Solanas received after the shooting could have been real, as she started seeing every man as being an obstacle in her path to success.

Harron's view of the Factory scene was that you had to go with its flow, and not rebel. Solanas was an example of that, but Harron also displays this through one brief scene where some gay dude is ranting about the need for gay bars (which is a weirdly modern touch) and is isolated as a result.  Not all of this, however, can be pointed at Harron.  She co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Minahan, who later would go on to write and direct the indie reality-show spoof movie Series 7: The Contenders. And, indeed, that rant may have been based on a modern complaint, but the scene informs fairly simply that outsider viewpoints are discouraged and shockingly segregated.

I Shot Andy Warhol is a mixed bag. It starts with such interesting avant garde techniques, but it slowly becomes normalized. The first few minutes are a wild compendium of the finale, voice overs, family home videos, and flash backs.  At another point, the SCUM Manifesto is read aloud between scenes. But, all of this fades away as the movie becomes more focused on the narrative of Solanas losing her mind, and finally shooting Andy Warhol.

In the end, it's a fairly solid movie. As with most biopics, take the reality with a grain of salt. There is enough fictionalization to make this a pretty crappy beginner's movie to knowing the life of Valerie Solanas. In 2013, Sara Warner published Acts of Gaiety through the U-Mich press, which dedicates its first chapter to Solanas, Up Your Ass, and the Scum Manifesto. It's a damned good read that discusses Warhol, the off-off Broadway theater (including Caffe Cino post-fire), and Solanas' participation in it.

But, if you're just looking to see how Mary Harron and Daniel Minahan interpreted Solanas' life (probably primarily through interviews with the Warhol "superstars"), then this is an interesting movie for you.

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