Screen Tests

Warhol Screen Test of Edie Sedgwick is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

A screen test of the Factory Superstar tests her patience – and ours.

Another Warhol “Screen Test”, this time shot in early 1965, and putting a static Edie Sedgwick on screen for four minutes. (This week’s Pics will be entirely devoted to the “Tests”, since I recently got to see 20 in one go, at the RISD museum.)

The “Screen Tests” are much more varied than even their fans recognize, but this is the classic version, starring the classic Factory Superstar: The camera never moves or zooms or changes focus, and the sitter seems to be trying to look impassively into the lens. (YouTube has a bunch of lousy copies of the film.) This piece comes across at first as a standard fashion-world cover shot, as we’d expect from a former commercial artist like Warhol. Sedgwick seems to have been chosen, like a model, for her charisma and presence on camera, and the aim could be to document this, using a flattering on-camera light. But, as usual with Warhol, what starts off seeming straightforward soon reveals itself as weird: Though we are all used to presenting ourselves for the instant snap of a camera – or even for the frozen moment in an oil painting – we have no idea what it means to present ourselves over time, as unmoving human beings, and Sedgwick doesn’t, either. We viewers can feel the strain as Sedgwick tries to figure out what to do and how to be, and we feel for her, too. We might just stare into a lover’s eyes for this long, but probably not – and Sedgwick of course has nothing to stare at other than the cyclopean, unblinking, unfeeling, pupil-less eye of Warhol’s camera, and by implication at our absent eyes as we watch the footage. She seems pinned down like a bug, not just unmoving but frozen, or helpless, or under some Svengali’s control. (Why else, in the normal course of things, would anyone sit so still? The shadow lurking at left seems almost vampiric.) Thanks to the artifice of Andy’s steady gaze, Edie seems as vulnerable as she’s always been made out to have been in real life.

But the stress in this piece, or in any “Screen Test”, isn’t only on the sitter; we watchers are also stressed out by the task Warhol sets us. Before the “Screen Tests”, I wonder if any movie had ever asked an audience to suffer such an uninterrupted, stationary view of any star or subject? Four minutes is simply a very long time to stare at any image: Even the greatest Cezanne rarely gets that kind of unwavering attention. But that’s the kind of attention that Warhol’s “Screen Tests” demand of us. Since “nothing” happens in them – since there’s no larger plot or configuration to cling to – we can’t afford to look away, for fear of missing some telling detail. (Cezanne is full of details, too, of course, but we know that they will endure a lapse in our attention.) When every detail gets equal weighting, that is, none can be safely skipped. Trying to take notes on these pieces is murder, since you can’t afford to look down as you write. Warhol, supposedly a master of the superficial, as usual gives us works that demand the most profound thought and attention.