Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground at the National Gallery of Art

On the final day of 2011 I was able to attend a screening of an Andy Warhol film titled The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966) at the Auditorium of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. In conjunction with a Warhol exhibit there named “Headlines,” the National Gallery was also screening a number of old Warhol films in their original 16mm format. The schedule for the Auditorium’s schedule can be found here and is quite a fascinating line-up for anyone interested in art of all forms.

As a side note, I find it is a testament to the foresight of our forefathers that venues such as the National Gallery exist and that admission is free. Indeed, admission to all of the museums on the Mall in Washington D.C. is free, and it is my sincere hope that in the coming years for our country (which are sure to be taxing for us all) that we do not forget the importance of supporting and archiving our national culture.

In any case, back to the film. The film itself can be viewed here, but keep in mind it is Andy Warhol; you are sure not to get what you expect. As I approached the auditorium I was met with what was a fairly substantial line into the theater. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that it was the last Warhol film being shown.

As we walked into the theater behind me, a fellow with very long hair and a baseball cap on said to some others, “it was not this crowded last time [they showed this film].” The crowd was full of friendly, conversational people. Had I not been busy scribbling notes into a notebook I am certain someone would have engaged me in conversation.

To my right a larger man asked the fellow with long hair and the hat who was now three rows in front of us if he had seen it before.

“Yes” he replied.

“What did you think?” the larger man pressed.

The fellow with the long hair and the glasses hedged a bit and gave some sort of platitude.

“So, not a good film then?” said the larger man.

The content of the film is exactly what the title says. It is The Velvet Underground and their lead singer Nico. It is over 60 minutes of them in a basement holding a jam session, very monotonous and hypnotizing at the same time. It is black and white and very grainy, as was expected.

The only interesting thing to watch is Nico, who apparently arrived there with her son. She is not singing, but playing the tambourine with a maraca. Her interactions with her son are mildly interesting, though you cannot hear any words being spoken. Meanwhile, the rest of the band sits there almost motionless in their sunglasses and leather jackets playing their instruments with the nonchalant boredom that only rock stars can pull off.

Eventually the police arrive and tell them they are being too loud (dialogue is still not heard). The entire time the cameraman (presumably Warhol himself, who managed the band in its early years) is fussing with all of the elements. Zooming in and out in rhythm, adjusting sound levels, playing with the exposure and the focus and refusing to focus on what is interesting to watch. While the interesting thing is Nico and her child, we are shown this only out of the corner of the camera lens. The same goes for the police at the end.

As a fellow artist, I tried so very hard on the train ride back to fish some meaning out of this film. Surely Warhol had something in mind when filming it. The best I could come up with was that it was an experiment in the versatility of film and how, much like photography (and the news, which Warhol was famous for incorporating into his art), whoever is holding the camera can greatly influence how you view something.

However, Paul Morissey at the Nico Tribute Website states “It was meant as an item of wallpaper made for use behind the musical group as they set up and tuned their instruments.” This led me to another question, however. Who would want to preserve this? Why is it important enough to be shown in the large auditorium at the National Gallery of Art?

While “there won’t be much of interest here to a non-fan,” according to Paul Schrodt at Slant Magazine, “it offers genuine insight into one of the most groundbreaking bands of its time.” The Velvet Underground, while not immensely popular, was immensely influential, especially in the underground indie rock movement, and there is not much footage of them together that exists. So, as a video archive for fans of Warhol and The Velvet Underground, I suppose this is a worthwhile piece of footage.

However, in the words of one of my fellows patrons, not a good film.

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