Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 1:11 am | Fair 65º


Jeff Moehlis: Impressions of Warhol’s ‘13 Most Beautiful’

The Screen Tests, accompanied by the music of Dean & Britta, provide a look and listen into the lives of Warhol and his subjects

Andy Warhol is now best known for his mass production of images of mass-produced objects, such as Campbell’s soup cans and celebrities, but he also was responsible for an impressive number of experimental films shot during the 1960s.

Those included nearly 500 silent, black-and-white film portraits of associates and visitors called Screen Tests, for which the subjects were given instructions to sit still without blinking while being filmed for about two minutes and 45 seconds. The Screen Tests were projected at a slower speed, each lasting about four minutes.

Saturday night, 13 of Warhol’s Screen Tests were shown as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series at Campbell Hall, with musical accompaniment by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, now of Dean & Britta. Wareham and Phillips’ musical pedigree includes Luna and Galaxie 500, and their songs have a healthy dose of inspiration from The Velvet Underground, whose Warhol connections are well-documented.

The most poignant of the Screen Tests, and one of Warhol’s favorites, was that of Ann Buchanan, a Bohemian with associations to several Beat writers and poets. She made it through the whole shot without blinking, but in the process had several tears streak down her face and drip off her chin. One wonders — did she let the tears flow out of resolve or stubbornness, or was she baring a troubled soul? The hypnotic two-chord accompaniment enhanced the mystery.

Also memorable were the doe eyes of Santa Barbara native actress and it-girl Edie Sedgwick. Her Screen Test was accompanied by a cover of a song written by friends (formerly of the band The Tadpoles) of Wareham and Phillips called “It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills.” The lyrics fittingly include “Oh my God, you’re so beautiful” and “It don’t rain in Beverly Hills / No matter what they say / The pain never washes away,” the latter seemingly reflecting Sedgwick’s life that spiraled out of control and ended in an overdose at age 28.

Another cover, sung effectively by Phillips during Nico’s Screen Test, was “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” written by Bob Dylan for Nico and included on her 1967 album “Chelsea Girl.” Nico spends her Screen Test reading a magazine and looking off into the distance, only a few times giving a piercing gaze to the camera. During her lifetime, Nico was involved romantically with various musicians, reportedly including Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne and others. From her Screen Test, one senses how she attracted these lovers through a combination of aloof beauty and mystery.

(Speaking of Dylan, Wareham told the crowd that Dylan also had been the subject for two Screen Tests, neither of which was included in the program. Somewhat amusingly, Dylan took one of Warhol’s paintings of Elvis when he left after the filming, later trading the now super-valuable artwork to his manager, Albert Grossman, for a used sofa.)

Other Screen Test subjects are notable for their untimely demises or disappearances, Wareham and Phillips explained between songs.

For example, Freddy Herko was a dancer/choreographer and amphetamine addict who wore a black cape around town. In 1964, he emerged from a bath at a friend’s house to dance to his favorite music, Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C, ultimately dancing out the fourth-story window. In his Screen Test, shot about a month before his death and accompanied by dirge-like music, Herko can hardly sit still, even temporarily popping off frame.

Another example was Ingrid Von Scheven, from a working-class background in New Jersey and rechristened Ingrid Superstar by Warhol who replaced Sedgwick as the go-to actress for Warhol’s movies. She was a dancer for The Velvet Underground’s performances when they toured in Warhol’s multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. She later suffered a serious drug problem. In the 1980s, she went out for cigarettes, leaving her fur coat in the closet and false teeth in the sink; she never came back. In her Screen Test, she starts off by playfully touching her fingers to her face; by the end, she seems quite serious, often turned in profile.

Then there was Paul America, who was discovered in a disco, was briefly Sedgwick’s boyfriend and appeared in several Warhol movies. He also was in the semi-biographical Sedgwick film Ciao! Manhattan, and just kept driving after dropping off Jane Holzer in one scene, eventually getting busted for drugs in Michigan and ending up in jail. He chewed gum and smiled infectiously during his Screen Test as Wareham sang lyrics such as “I have pills that make me happy.” His death was relatively mundane: He was hit by a car in 1982 while walking home from a dentist appointment.

Performance highlights included the Screen Tests for a Coke-drinking, shades-wearing badass-boy Lou Reed accompanied by a cover of the recently discovered bootleg Velvet Underground song “I’m Not A Young Man Anymore”; the immaculately coiffed Holzer, who brushed her teeth for the duration of her Screen Test, accompanied by what could best be described as an American musical cousin of “Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot (which was covered by Luna); and actor Dennis Hopper, who at one point smirks and nods just as the music, which was reminiscent of the instrumental side of the Velvet Underground’s song “The Gift,” picks up.

The performance showed a surprising richness in the Screen Tests, which superficially seemed to be a very limited art form, a richness nicely enhanced by the music. Overall, it was a fascinating look and listen into the wonderfully weird and wild world of Warhol.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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