Watching (and Tweeting) Andy Warhol's 'Empire'
The artist's marathon eight-hour film of the Empire State Building has long been talked about, but rarely seen. On Friday, WNYC Culture goes to the movies.
Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 12:00 AM
Boring. Unwatchable. Eight. Hours. Long. The critics haven't always been kind to Andy Warhol's "Empire," his epically long 1964 film of the famed Manhattan skyscraper at night. But the fact is that for all of the talk that this legendary piece of art cinema has generated, it is rarely screened—much less watched—in its entirety. Which is where WNYC comes in...
As part of the exhibit Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures, the Museum of Modern Art will be hosting a total of half a dozen screenings of this day-long magnum opus. On Friday, in the company of WNYC's Liz Arnold (the voice behind @WNYCculture), I plan to watch "Empire"—all of it—and live Tweet the whole schmegagie in the process. (Joining us will be a panel of experts who will pop in to discuss Warhol, his legacy and the history of New York and the Empire State Building. Get the background on that here.)
Why do this? Well, the film has interested me for years for a variety of reasons. For one, "Empire" is downright preposterous: an eight-hour motion picture in which nothing—neither the subject nor the camera—ever moves. But things do happen: lights flash, the exposure of the film changes, and nearly five hours in, it is reportedly possible to see Warhol's reflection in the window of the room where he is filming. (Whether this is a fleeting subliminal moment or something more pronounced remains to be seen. Needless to say, I'll report back.) The fact that the film was inaccessible for so long also makes it a draw. The master negative for "Empire" languished in storage for two decades. One reel was lost. Screenings which showcase the whole thing have been a rarity. The fact that so few people have actually seen it doesn't mean that it has stopped anyone from talking or writing about it. I'd like to think that the next time I discuss "Empire," it'll be with plenty of first-hand knowledge.
The other factor that is driving me to see "Empire" is its subject matter. The movie is a filmic portrait of the Empire State Building, a structure whose profile is synonymous with the city we live in. The building is significant as a skyscraper, but also as a Modernist and commercial icon. It is a tourist trap, a backdrop to nightly light shows and a prop for oversized Hollywood gorillas. Above all, it is a testament to a brash hopefulness that makes up the more likable aspects of our national character. The Empire State threw open its doors at the dawn of the 20th century's worst recession. (This May, it will be exactly 80 years since the building first opened.) And, in the wake of 9/11 and the loss of the Twin Towers, its presence is not only significant (it is New York's tallest building), it is also downright comforting. The Empire State is our compass, a structure which we rarely consciously acknowledge, but from which we take daily direction. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the '80s, Warhol's last Factory resided just one block away.
All of it—the personality that was Warhol, the magnitude of the building, the film's inherent absurdity—form a somewhat irresistible package. Which is why I think that this film deserves our attention.
We'll be at the museum all day Friday—starting at 10:30 AM—watching and Tweeting. You can follow the conversation below, or on Twitter, or, better yet, live at the museum. (We'll be on the 6th floor!) You can find a list of WNYC's invited participants in my earlier post or on Twitter. If you're Tweeting, please use the hashtag #empirefilm to be included in the debate. And if for some reason you have problems viewing the Tweets below, you can catch the discussion here.
Plus, listen to a discussion I had with WNYC host Richard Hake by clicking on the audio above.