Pop Goes the Weasel

Chuck Workman's Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol goes heavy on the times and light on the life. Warhol, the celebrated pop artist who died unexpectedly in 1987 after minor gallbladder surgery, was a bizarre character. Sickly despite the vigor of his art, seemingly anesthetized despite the sensual company he kept, Warhol always seemed like a visitor on Earth. Unfortunately, this brightly lit, name-dropping biopic brings him no closer to resident status.

The interviews, culled from new sessions and archival footage from the pop heyday, range from figures who have retained their fame (Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, author Tom Wolfe, painter Roy Lichtenstein) to others who have been all but erased from history (Taylor Mead, Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling). As he rushes through the debris of the Sixties, Workman finds no shortage of wonderful stories that attest to what a strange bird Warhol was. A former West Coast editor for Interview relates how Andy would take her on New York jewelry shopping trips and then walk up and down 47th Street, waiting for diamonds to fall from the beards of Chassidic Jews. Numerous associates wonder aloud at his peculiar sexuality. And then there's the hilarious Howdy Doody incident, in which Warhol, in the midst of an "American Myths" series, borrowed the famous TV puppet from a broadcasting museum and then refused to return it until his curiosity regarding its anatomical correctness was satisfied. The "How Hung Is Howdy" anecdote - slightly hung, in case you're wondering, with a pelvis-mounted dowel rod - is characteristic of the weakness of Superstar - though it's entertaining, it's low-calorie and pointless, and does nothing to explain Warhol's importance as an artist.

Both a naive child with an unequivocal trust in material security and a master adman whose product was Art itself, Warhol's whole enterprise was founded in appropriating pop-culture images - Brillo boxes, Campbell's Soup cans, Elvis Presley movie stills. However, unlike other artists who ironized or perverted that culture for political ends, Warhol seemed content merely to become part of the process of production and consumption. Problematic? Sure. Ripe for discussion? Unquestionably. But Workman's vaguely insulting infotainment format gives distressingly short shrift to much of the artwork and devotes inordinate time to the personality that Warhol voluntarily vacated. With the exception of a host of museum and gallery types poring through their memories and lauding Andy for his Sixties galvanism, critical insight is nowhere in sight. Speeches are pared down to a line or two; entire schools of thought about leisure art and culture are sound bitten.

And while some reductions are amusing (such as critic Hilton Kramer's avowal that "The statement Warhol was trying to make goes something like this: "Ha, ha, ha"), it's distressing that a superficial, mock-the-stuffed-shirt session with a Campbell's executive offers equal entree into the motivations and effects of Warhol's art as any of Superstar's interviews. Unwilling to pause for reflection over the troubling mix of fine art and intentionally ephemeral culture, Workman has instead sold out in an oral history that's giddy and short of breath, reliant on glib snippets that are too conspicuously clever.

Following his June 1968 shooting by Valerie Solanis, Warhol's output diminished, and he replaced his artistic innovations with a desire to become the kind of pop deity he had once observed. It is in the later stages of Warhol's life, the "Bianca and I bumped into Liza in Studio 54" period, that Workman has better luck; the stutter-step cuts and hardly discernible narrative sense enhance the proud superficiality. In one very telling montage, Workman splices together examples of Warhol's media ubiquity while Donna Summer's "Last Dance" plays in the background. It's almost a parody of the time-tried comedy technique in which the dopey hero gets so famous that he finds himself splashed all over magazine covers and toasted by soft-news television (the opening of Rocky III, for example, or the closing of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey). But this is no parody. Andy Warhol, collected by the Met and the Whitney, one of twentieth-century America's foremost artists, really did appear in a Cars video and guest star in The Love Boat and Tootsie.

The ways in which Warhol changed the meaning of fame, altered the course of art, redirected the ongoing wrestling match between high and low culture, these are topics of endless speculation at which Superstar only hints. In the end, with Workman refusing to push the envelope, all that stands out from the succession of quips and blips is Warhol himself, the blithe vampire staring blank-faced into the camera, deepening his own enigma, refusing to bring his image into focus.

Written and directed by Chuck Workman; with Andy Warhol and others. Unrated. Screens at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. Friday through Tuesday and August 9-13, with special midnight showings Fridays and Saturdays, at the Alliance Film & Video Project, 927 Lincoln Rd, Ste 113, Miami Beach. Tickets are $6, $4 for Alliance members. Call 531-8504.


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