By MATT R. LOHR, November 2020
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic first flung its pressing shroud over the human landscape, cultural arbiters have debated what will emerge as the definitive cinematic representation of this unenviable experience. In those early, now heartbreakingly naïve this-will-be-over-in-a-few-weeks days, the iTunes and HBO NOW services reported a surge in viewings for Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 outbreak drama, as a sheltered-in-place populace scrambled to latch on to a relatively legible fictionalized evocation of a situation that seemed to bring terrifying new shifts virtually by the hour. Others sought to escape the times, and in the process perhaps inadvertently epitomized them, via immersion in the lethal / lurid bread and circuses of the Netflix documentary miniseries Tiger King. Meanwhile, the cinematic intelligentsia anointed Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action blockbuster Tenet as the film that was going to ride to the economic rescue of the American movie theater…until it didn’t. And then there’s Songbird, the forthcoming Michael Bay-produced romantic thriller that, based on its trailer alone, has already drawn sharp criticism for ostensibly turning a disease still killing thousands a week into just one more obstacle for a star-crossed screen couple to defeat.
All these films engage, in both diegetic and extratextual ways, with how the pandemic has reshaped the world around us. But while the great cinematic text on the COVID crisis may yet remain to be committed to film, in my estimation, there is an already extant work that, more than any endeavor thus far in all creative media, harnesses how the daily ordeal of life under COVID feels as it is lived, moment to fraught, tenuous moment. This is not a swiftly produced picture that weaves the actual COVID virus into its narrative, nor is it a film that, like Contagion, explicitly depicts the fallout of a global outbreak.
It is a film, in fact, that has nothing to offer, at least on its surface, except for a long, long look at a tall, tall building.
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Starting in the mid-1960s, Pop art progenitor turned avant-garde filmmaker Andy Warhol would quickly consolidate a reputation as the signal auteur of sheer cinematic stasis, with a series of works in which, sometimes for literal hours on end, nothing really happens. Eat (1964) offers the near-45-minute spectacle of artist Robert Indiana sitting in a chair, in a softly lit room, eating a mushroom. At one point, his cat shows up. And that’s about it. The same year’s Blow Job certainly promises thrills and titillation with its blunt instrument of a title. But the film itself is nothing but a static shot of the face of a young man in a leather jacket, twisting and contorting in front of a bare brick wall as he’s maybe, possibly, but just as easily not, being fellated below the line of the never-wavering camera. At least Warhol’s first film, 1963’s Sleep, offers multiple angles from which to view its recumbent subject, poet John Giorno, as he enjoys his nightly repose, and likewise deigns to deliver on a modicum of Blow Job’s thwarted promise via an extended gaze at Giorno’s bare derriere. But that doesn’t change the fact that Sleep is a filmed record of Giorno sleeping, just sleeping, and nothing else…for five hours and twenty-one minutes.
Warhol was not oblivious to the potentially stultifying effects of these minimalist films. In fact, he was actively courting precisely this sort of soporific aesthetic result. In his 1980 book POPism: The Warhol Sixties (written with longtime associate Pat Hackett), Warhol challenged the notion of cinematic action as a superior alternative to the anti-stimulant properties of an average uneventful day:
…that had always fascinated me, the way people could sit by a window
or on a porch all day and look out and never be bored, but then if they went
to a movie or a play, they suddenly objected to being bored. I always felt
that a very slow film could be just as interesting as a porch-sit if you thought
about it the same way.
In 1964, the same year Warhol made Eat and Blow Job, he would also commit his seminal assault on the limits of sustained inertia, with a film whose central artistic project, he said, was simply “to see time go by”: Empire, a 485-minute-long experimental epic filmed on the night of July 25-26 from the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York’s Time-Life Building. The black-and-white silent film, shot on a 16 mm Auricon camera (a popular choice of contemporary newsreel lensmen), offers a fixed perspective on the nearby tower of the Empire State Building, then in the midst of its four-decade-long tenure as the world’s tallest skyscraper. As the sun goes down, about forty-one minutes into the film, floodlights ignite upon the tower’s upper levels; this display was part of the city’s then-ongoing World’s Fair festivities, and made the Empire State the only structure in the nighttime skyline graced at that time with such illumination.
Once the sun is gone, apart from a few dim lights adorning the surrounding structures (including an intermittently blinking beacon crowning the nearby MetLife Building), those Empire State floodlights are all there is to see amidst a field of punishing darkness. As each hour trudges inexorably into the next, Warhol gives the viewer as near as possible to none of the typical devices with which a conventional film occupies audience attention. There is no music. There is no dialogue. There is no sound of any kind. Apart from an occasional unplanned window reflection of Warhol and his small crew (which included fellow underground filmmaking legend Jonas Mekas), there is no human presence on screen whatsoever. The camera never moves. Aside from reel breaks, there are no deliberately chosen edits.
Then, with approximately an hour and thirteen minutes of Empire’s eight-hours-and-change remaining, the floodlights go out, the film taking away from the viewer even the meager visual scraps they had thus far been forced to sustain their interest upon. A few bare pinpricks of light intermingled into unbroken blackness: That is the “climax” of Empire, and that is all Warhol gives you to work with until the final reel runs out and the film is, to some viewers no doubt mercifully, over.
It was naturally not by design, but in creating Empire, Warhol had conjured a cinematic tutorial in dealing with life under COVID.
When the pandemic truly began to exert its grip in mid-March, and worldwide business shutdowns and domestic self-isolation began in earnest, hundreds of millions found themselves plunged into an unplanned-for existence suddenly stripped of the lion’s share of its critical signifiers of meaning. For many, the attenuated structural comfort of the work week was eliminated entirely; for others, it existed only as a truncated, Zoom-abetted simulacrum. Children likewise lost the time-demarcating substructure of the school day. Agendas and Google calendars languished un-updated, as there were no lunch dates to keep, no concerts to attend. Not when even a casual get-together with family or friends could prove fatal. Network television schedules likewise became nebulous markers of time’s passage, as weekly programs went into production hiatus, organized sports ceased altogether, and those remaining broadcasts were subject to moment’s-notice disruption for special reports of the latest pandemic-related crisis (not to mention that brief-but-endless-feeling run of daily press conferences from the Trump White House).
Thus, millions of people found themselves faced with an expanse of time with no fixed endpoint, minutes stretching onward like hours, the very notion of days of the week, or weeks of the month, threatened with incipient irrelevance. Virtually all of the temporally circumscribed devices by which the average individual organizes their lives had been abruptly removed, leaving people bereft astride a darkling plain that it was now solely up to them to fill with activity, with incident, with the best possible semblance of order, indeed of any sense of forward progress. It is this precise scenario that a viewer, acclimated to traditional notions of cinematic structure and narrative, confronts when undertaking to view the extreme entirety of Andy Warhol’s Empire.
The resident of Earth-COVID, like the audience of Warhol’s film, finds oneself faced with a scenario of potentially intolerable duration in which the only points of energy and excitement must be wrested into being through sheer force of will. Those voluntary inmates making their seventh pass at an acceptable loaf of homemade sourdough bread, just to stave off the boredom crazies, are like a viewer unexpectedly enraptured by the play of grain and chemical processing wash over the otherwise dormant monochromia of Empire’s frames. Those using their pandemic-enforced alone time to finally take up yoga or journaling or meditation practice evoke the same flights of metaphysical searching common to those whose minds wander the wilderness of Empire, grasping to pull significance from the emptiness around them, fighting to make an almost unreasonably extended, stimulus-free situation mean something.
Empire likewise carries metaphorical weight redolent of our current predicament here in America, circumstances that extend beyond COVID itself. As is obvious in its name, the Empire State Building represents more than just the city or state of New York. It is a bulwark of America’s imperialistic birth, origins predicated on the sort of Anglo-Saxon supremacist assumptions that led, this summer, to massive anti-police-brutality protests across the nation (protests that were met, with tragic inevitability, by more violence perpetrated by law enforcement officials). It is a monument to the U.S.’s rapaciously acquisitive spirit, the capitalistic drive casting an ever-increasingly gangsterish pall over national politics and our very way of life. Those floodlights that cut through the unrelenting nullity of the formidable central section of Empire seem to suggest the optimism and passion that still burn for the idealistic American mindset, values beset both by the darkness surrounding it on all sides, and by the cruelty and greed embodied in the tower that have undergirded that heartening glow since the inception. In Warhol’s film, that light ultimately surrenders to the darkness, with only a few feeble flashes of barely-there illumination to remind us of the seemingly implacable brilliance that had once been.
We are now barely past the climax of an extraordinary mid-pandemic presidential election, the resolution of which, to a majority of voters, represents a reversal of Empire’s conclusion, a triumphant reassertion of the light, while making manifest, to many millions of others, the surge of emptiness that constitutes the last 73 minutes of Warhol’s film. Whether clarity or confusion, the floodlights or the void, will greet us in the still-unsettled days ahead remains to be seen. And we wait for it, like Empire audience members holding their breaths in anticipation for a reflection of Andy, for a flash of a beacon light, for anything that feels like a change.
* * * * * * *
Andy Warhol would have had no way of knowing that a film he made fifty-six years ago would find itself, thirty-three years beyond his death, so peculiarly suited to speak to these current days (weeks? months? years?) of temporal displacement, perpetual psychic irresolution, and still more death.
Yet ultimately, the COVID shutdown and the Empire viewing experience are twinned meditations on the same provocative query:
When you take away, from a work of creative art, or from a life itself, all those elements that give it shape, render it recognizable and comprehensible, and imbue it with whatever we have collectively chosen to define as concrete meaning…
When you find yourself adrift amidst a purpose-defying expanse of nothing much, really…
…what, then, do you do with what’s left?
Does your mind and spirit light out for the territory in search of new iterations of the possible?
Or do you surrender to that which threatens to swallow you whole…or at least put you into a fitful, rest-resistant slumber?
The Hour of COVID, and the eight hours and five minutes of Empire, both fight these questions to what seems, at present, very much like a draw.
But with one critical point of separation:
Warhol’s film only feels, at times, like it’s never going to end.
And at least with Empire, one always has the option of fleeing the screening room. WM
Matt R. Lohr is the co-author of Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure. His writing on cinema, music, and the film industry has appeared in the magazines JazzTimes, Living Blues, and Produced By; in the book A Companion to Martin Scorsese; and on the official website of the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. After over a decade in Los Angeles and a brief sojourn in Dublin, Ireland, Matt currently resides in his (and Andy Warhol's hometown) of Pittsburgh, PA. When he took the Andy Warhol Museum's "Which Warhol Superstar Are You?" quiz, his match was Ondine. Follow him on Instagram at @mattrlohrview all articles from this author