Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 24, 2008

13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

13 Most Beautiful...

13 Most Beautiful...

 

 

 

Ann Buchanan is crying. She’s always crying, and always will be crying, and it’s likely that no one can ever – ever – tell you why. Watching her plainly beautiful face, framed by raven hair, with Dean Wareham’s emotionally evocative guitar song accompanying her, becomes an exercise. Confusion: Why am I watching? Quickly, the staring contest turns to embarrassment: The glancing blow of Anglo prudishness against your eyes and cheek. By the time those tears subtly roll, it’s adoration: I hope that, somewhere, as Buchanan’s permanently filmed tears roll, the real woman is laughing in sunshine.

The concept of 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, as seen in dress rehearsal last night, is as simple as can be. First, commission Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, indie-rock icons of Luna fame, chock-full of Velvet Underground-esque Lower East Side hip. Place them and their band in front of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests – four-minute long film portraits of Warhol’s Factory pals, famous (Dennis Hopper) lesser known (Warhol beau Richard Rheem), and infamous (the other ten), filmed from a single steady camera, and slowed down to give a molasses-like appearance. Give Dean and Britta free reign to write or arrange songs particular to each film, within that brief time frame.

That’s what The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and The Andy Warhol Museum have done over the past year of working with the New York duo. Tonight, the performance makes its live debut, to be followed in early 2009 by a DVD release and tour.

The resultant songs, taken separately from their filmic foundation, might prove album-worthy – dreamy, melancholy guitar-based songs worthy of a long indie-pop half-life. But as was their brief, Dean and Britta’s compositions shouldn’t stand alone. Like “Teenage Lightning,” a rock tune performed for Warhol superstar Paul America – whose shifting discomfort seems, after Buchanan, like a child at the department store portrait sitting. Or Dennis Hopper’s dark instrumental, “The Enabler,” which builds reservedly until – Wareham watching for some nearly invisible visual cue – releasing into its bridge, just as Hopper’s tight features relax into a rare smile.

The sweeping beauty of 13 Most Beautiful… is in the Dean and Britta songs’ ability to transform these famously action-free portraits into four-minute narratives; to lend dramatic arc and an emotional tension to inaction. (Serious exception: Baby Jane Holzer brushing her teeth with what one can only dream was her ‘usual panache.’)

There’s a general rule applicable to several of these films – one that might allude to other Festival of Firsts work, particularly Kassys’ performance Liga – which follows a pattern just like Ann Buchanan’s viewer. At first, Warhol sitters tend to express an attitude of their choosing: Cool, calm, star-like. But your average 1960s party-type can’t sit still very long, and a minute or so in, they’re squirming uncomfortably: What am I doing? This is embarrassing? Who am I looking at? And it’s after that point that the real portraiture – the mask-less face of the primitive, less learned, sitter is revealed.

On the huge screen, and in the gorgeous setting, of the Byham Theater – and accompanied by the live, emotionally evocative soundtrack of new music – these films become not just “new” Warhol works, but a new means of thinking about portraiture.

13 Most Beautiful… has set itself the unspoken task of reimagining Warhol’s work in a new performance setting. But rather than close the books on this idea, its success only raises new questions: What ideas, tears, joys and sorrows might other musicians see in these films? Does 13 become 26? Opening the possibilities is a pandora’s box – Dean and Britta’s can’t be the definitive musical narratives for Warhol’s Tests. But for now, they’ll do just fine.

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  1. […] a review of sorts of 13 Most Beautiful…, although the fact that it was on the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts blog means it […]


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