The Chelsea Girls has a classical grandeur about it, something from Victor Hugo. Its grandeur is the grandeur of its subject, the human scope of its subject. And it is a tragic film. The lives that we see in this film are full of desperation, hardness, and terror. It's there for everybody to see and to think about. Every work of art helps us to understand ourselves by describing to us those aspects of our lives, which we either know little of or fear. It's there in black on white before our eyes, this collection of desperate creatures, the desperate part of our being, the avant-garde of our being. And one of the amazing things about this film is that the people in it are not really actors; or if they are acting, their acting becomes unimportant. It becomes part of their personalities, and there they are, totally real, with their transformed, intensified selves. The screen acting is expanded by an ambiguity between real and unreal. This is part of Warhol's filming technique, and very often it is a painful technique. There is the girl who walks from scene to scene crying, real tears, really hurt; a girl, under LSD probably, who isn't even aware, or only half aware, that she is being filmed; the "priest" who gives into a fit of rage (a real rage) and the slaps the girl right and left (a real slap, not the actors slap) when she begins to talk about God-in probably the most dramatic religious sequence ever filmed. Toward the end, the film bursts into color-not the usual color-movie color but a dramatized exalted, screaming red color of terror.
15 minutes of fame
- The Chelsea Girls review by Count Otto Black
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Don't be fooled by the ludicrous hyperbole of the synopsis on the previous page (presumably copied directly from the packaging) - this is boring, ineptly filmed, pretentious garbage. Though to be fair, I didn't see all of the thrilling dramatic spectacles promised by that summary, because this film is over three hours long, and no way was I going to sit through the whole lot!
For starters, Paul Morrisey's qualifications as a director were that Andy Warhol fancied him (Warhol himself, though listed as co-director, famously had absolutely nothing to do with any of the films he supposedly made other than sticking his name on the product so that people would think it was Art). As directors go, Paul Morrissey makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles, and Yoko Ono look like Ed Wood. He really is that bad. His idea of making a long, totally static shot of somebody sitting in a chair talking seem interesting is to zoom in on random parts of their body, something which requires a bit of skill if the film isn't going to go out of focus. Alas, this is not a skill that Paul Morrissey possessed. Another skill he did not possess was the ability to record sound in such a way that it was clearly audible, and the entire film sounds as though it was recorded on a cheap cassette player by somebody standing too far away. Very likely it was. Mind you, on the plus side, the whole thing is shot in split-screen, so it must be Art.
The subject-matter consists of trendy sixties chicks, plus a few "girls" who nowadays we'd probably have to call "transgender women" (though they don't seem to be making much effort to appear feminine other than putting a dress on and being so camp they sound like self-parodies) talking about whatever they feel like talking about, mostly themselves. I suppose it was once genuinely shocking to see gay people, promiscuous women, and druggies discussing such matters on a cinema screen, but except from an anthropological point of view, this is simply tedious. Self-centered people who happen to have unconventional lifestyles drone on about sex and drugs and such, but it's hard to care about any of them, let alone like them. Nico's in it for a while, but she's no more interesting (or well recorded, or in focus) than anybody else.
If these basic themes appeal to you, John Waters took similar ideas much, much further, in films which had a plot, and which were directed by a real director and filmed by cameramen who knew how to operate a camera. And he didn't delegate sound recording duties to the cat. Seriously, if your movie consists almost entirely of people talking to each other and the camera for three hours, it helps if you can be bothered to point the microphone in the right direction at least some of the time.
I would strongly recommend this film to anyone writing a PhD thesis on the movies of Andy Warhol and/or Paul Morrissey. If this is not a description of you, I would strongly recommend almost any other film that isn't actually evil.