BEYOND THE ABSURD: Roland Tavel and Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol’s Vinyl
(1965, 66 minutes, 16mm)
Anthology Film Archives, Dec 10-17
Andy Warhol’s 1965 film Vinyl is the lesser-known adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange. It lacks the aggression of Kubrick’s interpretation, which came out in 1971. Rather, it is a meditation on pure sensation, infused with raw, homoerotic, borderline pornographic images. These early, sexually fetishistic films fell out of circulation following the attempt made on his life in 1968 by Valerie Salonas, but Vinyl is proof of Warhol’s role as a pioneer in queer cinema.
The 66-minute film is comprised of one shot, commencing with an extreme close up of Victor (Gerard Malanga) as his face moves mechanically from side to side. The only sound is his breath as it grows heavier and heavier. Slowly, the shot pulls back to reveal his golden, cherubic curls as they glisten in the light. A cigarette lingers between his full lips, and he is encased within fragments of denim and glistening leather.
The claustrophobia is infectious, and relief comes as the camera pulls back to a medium shot of Victor lifting weights in the center of the frame. The foreground is blasted with light; a man in a suit sits in the bottom left corner of the screen and watches Victor silently. Vinyl marks the first significant appearance in a Warhol film by Edie Sedgwick, who remains perched on a trunk in the bottom right corner of the screen. Luminous in a black mini dress and leather thigh-high boots, Edie chain-smokes in a slight stupor.
The background is cloaked in shadow, save for a lone disco ball that catches a sliver of light every so often, sparkling like a diamond. Two men stand behind Victor, heads out of shot, their movements slow and mechanical. Scripts lie messily about the set; the actors begin to recite their lines like a first reading, or a porno, or a first reading of a porno, and even so their sedated, hypnotic tones underscore the sexually charged energy that builds with every passing cell.
Sedgwick exists in another universe entirely; she observes, her glassy doe eyes drooping at half-mast as she ashes her cigarette on Victor’s jeans.
The dialogue is recognizable from Kubrick’s version, though Ronald Tavel’s screenplay is its own creature entirely. Kubrick’s version bounces from one cataclysmic occurrence to the next while Vinyl is a steady, consistent dream world, a meditation that is more visual than verbal or propelled by brute narrative. Victor repeats “scum baby” over and over with the energy of a junkie. There is no malice in these incanations, but instead a sort of leisurely eroticism. The dialogue is like a wave in the background, cars on a far-off expressway.
A leather-clad boy wanders onscreen carrying a stack of newspapers in his arms. The gang binds the boy’s hands and knocks his papers to the ground without any apparent struggle. It would be rather cliché to point out the clear-as-day sado-masochism occurring in Vinyl, but what’s missing is the violence. The sadists and masochists are all clearly on the same shit, their energy fuses evenly, even Edie’s curious, innocent gaze mirrors Victor’s as he meekly snaps a chain and utters his lines while a dark figure behind him undresses. Just as I am about to nod off in sympathy to the pervasive heroin vibe, Aretha Franklin’s “Nowhere to Run” pours from the screen and Victor does the Monkey. The leather-clad boy is fastened to a chair in the background and covered in saran wrap; Sedgewick barely lifts her right arm and wiggles it around. Victor utters, “I do what I like because I like it,” and somebody laughs like Count Chocula. I’m back in the game.
Because of the unblinking gaze of the single shot, one is able to jump around to different scenes while absorbing the entirety of what’s there. Sedgwick is lit the brightest, her curious, girlish demeanor juxtaposed against the fragmented, decapitated bodies in the background as they drip wax on the captured boy whose head rears back, mouth agape in pleasure. Masculinity ebbs and flows around Sedgwick; she gratefully accepts a bump as it finds its way around, then watches innocently as one of the men peels back the saran wrap and shoves his fist into the boy’s mouth. Edie flutters her colossal lashes, unmoved by the spectacle. One 2009 review states that Sedgwick steals the show. Of that I am unsure, though Vinyl would surely not function as it does without her. The film’s explicit images are softened by her juvenile, impish beauty.
The dialogue continues, the lethargic aura permeates a visual orgy of sound and image. Accidental details emerge; the boy in the background remains almost entirely enveloped in darkness, yet a small strip of light illuminates his open mouth. The men spit beer on him, they draw on his alabaster skin with a magic marker; Edie holds a candle and stares at the flame, purifying paraphernalia. The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting” plays as Victor is tied up by his gang, his stark white tee cut off and electrical tape fashioned over his abdominals in the shape of a cross. The suited man says, “We’re doing this for your own good.” Victor replies, “I trust you doctor.” His head falls back out of shot as he is covered in wax. He screams and a black leather mask is fastened over his face, studs glistening.
The dreamlike pace and subdued energy of Vinyl is suffused with febrile, sadistic pleasure; it is pure vouyerism, most certainly Warholian as the faces of the cast shine, dazed, lacking any traces of inhibition. Now 40 years past the Stonewall riots, it is remarkable to watch Warhol and his entourage so at home in their sexuality.
It is a privilege to glimpse into this moment in time so rarely seen on film. Vinyl is an artifact of a progressive, avant-garde movement that needs to be seen.
Also screening in December are Horse (1965), Harlot (1964), Space (1965), Chelsea Girls (1966), White Savage (1943), Screen Test #2 (1965), Hedy (1966), Kitchen (1965), and The Life of Juanita Castro (1965). For a full schedule, contact Anthology Film Archives.