6:20 am Jul. 26, 20102
Serenity isn't what you look for in the East Village on a Saturday afternoon, with its outdoor brunching and drinking, shabby condos, and hardware stores that sell 95-cent water. But on Saturday, Anthology Film Archives on Second Street at Second Avenue was, improbably, the quietest place in the city, if not the world.
About 25 brave, possibly foolish people had gathered there to watch Empire, Andy Warhol's rarely shown, stubbornly meditative mindfuck: a single, silent shot of the Empire State Building, filmed in black and white almost exactly 46 years ago and lasting—well, we'll get to that, but, several hours at least. (Here is a trailer, of sorts.) The screening kicked off Anthology artistic director Jonas Mekas' new series, "Boring Masterpieces," which continues in August with The Human Condition, the nearly 10-hour Japanese epic, and what Mekas refers to as Robert Kramer's "hypnotically boring" Ice in September.
Mekas isn't exactly a detached curator—he was the madman whose newsreel camera shot Empire—but Anthology's programming notes preempted any claims about conflict of interest: "Who could argue that it doesn't belong here?"
He's quite right, though there wasn't much chance of someone arguing with him. This was never going to be a combative audience: it's tough to imagine anyone walking into Anthology's churchlike lobby on a whim, buying a ticket to a day-long movie and then, four hours in, complaining that he didn't get his money's worth.
No, this was a receptive group, the kind of audience that would have stayed for the whole movie even if special prizes hadn't been offered. (More on that later.) The kind of audience that discussed the film in terms of reels, rather than hours. The kind of audience that stuck around after the epic for a bonus screening of a 23-minute-long video of Mekas eating apples and cheese, drinking wine, playing some Rachmaninoff, and discussing Warhol with an unnamed interviewer over the phone.
Just before 1:35 p.m., genial theater manager Bradley Eros (who describes himself as an "artist, experimental filmmaker, media mystic, poet, curator, collagist, soundtrack creator, private investigator") announced that the movie would be shorter than the official running time of eight hours and five minutes because, he said, Anthology couldn't project at the original speed.
This was funny, because Warhol and Mekas had actually filmed at 24 frames per second and projected it at 16 to further lengthen their monster. (Filming took six hours and 36 minutes.) So we would be watching an accelerated variant of a slowed-down version of real time.
This all seemed just about right to me and the other viewers, many of whom had bicycle helmets, some of whom were sweaty, most of whom were male, and one of whom had a Ronnybrook Farm drinkable yogurt that I instantly coveted. (I had chosen an austere single bottle of water as my accompaniment.)
After Eros finished speaking, all we heard was the rumble and clank of the air conditioner. The film's first image is of total whiteness, tattered with intermittent grain. In a film like this, the condition of the film stock is like a major character, or an important setting, so I focused on the tears and punctures. As the Empire State Building's definition slowly starts to take shape, it is somehow deeply comforting to know that what we are watching won't lead to anything—the film's plot is decided about 1/23rd of the way in.
For a few minutes, the building is at once its familiar art deco self and a total abstraction, and as it advances toward solidity, I had my own thought: this is a hell of a deal! Where else could I pay $1.25 per movie hour? "Boring Masterpieces" is, indeed, the thrifty New York moviegoer's best option.
At 2:00, I thought I witnessed the first of the day's bathroom breaks. This one, though, turned out to be a walkout. Incredibly, I counted only five more permanent escapes during the screening, and though I shouldn't speculate about other people's intentions, it seems like everyone who left did so grudgingly, out of necessity rather than boredom. This, in any case, is what I'd like to think.
Three minutes later, the top of the Met Life tower lit up. This is one of the four most notable events in the film, three of which happen to be light-related. The Met Life nightlight proves, in fact, to be one of Empire's few constants: every half hour or so, it flickers on and off and dims for a few seconds, but then, reliably, reemerges, seemingly brighter than ever.
(Lest you think I'm devoting too much time to a light at the top of a building that isn't even the focus of this movie, I urge you to bear in mind that Empire can be summarized as follows: Floodlights are turned on. Floodlights are turned off. So one takes what one can get in terms of plot.)
At 2:14, two minutes after I discovered a particularly painful pimple on my left cheek, the Empire State Building's floodlights went on—gradually and softly, first on the spire, then up from the lower setback. Something about the slowness of this shift is reminiscent of an illuminated movie-theater marquee, patiently announcing itself to passersby. It is a lovely, unexpected moment, which (along with half of the film's plot) was over in about a second and a half. A man with glasses clapped, and everyone chuckled.
A few minutes later, a new reel! Beside the Met Life tower's trusty beacon, reel changes are the only other constant in Empire. Every 40 minutes or so, the grain on an otherwise clean print accumulates until the shot begins to resemble a black, starry sky (or, more accurately, the Windows 95 screen saver rendition thereof). Then the end of the reel, darkness, and the gradual reappearance of Empire's real star (an "eight-hour hard-on," in Warhol's words). It's an unabashedly structuralist work, wherein the length of a reel (which is to say, a technical limitation) becomes the film's main event.
At 2:48, I took my first sip of water, and I dozed, off and on, until about 3:20. (About seven years ago, I fell asleep during Pedro Almodovar's wonderful and not at all boring Talk to Her. I know, at least, that it's never about the movie, just my own tiredness.)
At 3:33, there was a small bathroom stampede, but I resisted.
I couldn't help but wonder what we would have heard if there were an audio track. In Mekas's short film, he says "we got enough sandwiches to last us most of the night." So maybe they talked about sandwiches. There is a marvelous little excerpt of the conversation here, and it's just the right mix of the banal and the portentous.
But there's enough on the screen to keep one thinking. Before us is the nation's most popular building, grandiosely named after its home state. But Empire's titular, literal subject is somehow more than that: it's an oblique, ever-shifting symbol. For one thing, this most proletarian thing is suddenly the face of the avant-garde. It belongs to everyone, but I'll never be able to look at it without thinking of Mekas and Warhol. And all they did was film the thing!
Fortunately, these portentous thoughts of my own were interrupted by someone's text message ring at 4:22. It was amazing that it hadn't happened earlier, and it didn't happen again, though when I looked back at one point, I saw a young man on his MacBook in the last row. This had to be cheating, but he wasn't hurting anyone.
Just as I started to wonder when the current reel would end, there was an uptick in grain and then—What? A real-life person! It's Mekas (or Warhol?) fiddling with the camera, reflected in the window pane through which the film was shot. And look! The window frame is visible, too! This happens, by my count, twice more. At least once, it's definitely Warhol, and all three appearances, especially the third, were met with good cheer and chuckles by the audience.
I'll spare you my reflection on the shock and wonder of the surprising (unintentional!) appearance of our film's creators onscreen, and I'll keep to myself my thoughts about the significance of literally watching a movie through the artist's reflection. I'll only direct you to critic J. Hoberman's moving tribute to Warhol historian and archivist Callie Angell (who died earlier this year), who first discovered the shots of Mekas and Warhol. It's an extraordinary moment, like seeing Robert Frank's last photo in The Americans, except that—again—unintentional!
On IMDb, Empire's plot keywords are pretty accurate, but if I still remembered the login I created in seventh grade, I'd add "film noir" to the list. Has there ever been a more mysterious, evocative film about New York City? One that conceals so much more than it reveals? Empire is an inversion of those cartoons from the 1930s, whose painted backdrops of a moody nighttime New York skyline framed the action on the dark city streets. Here, the streets are unknown, and so is everything else. The building's brightly lit upper setbacks shimmer in the skyline's sea of complete inscrutability. (It's striking, too, that the city is entirely dark less than an hour into the film, as if the sunset were just an obstacle to overcome before getting to the real action.)
And, as abstract as the film is, the film stock, the dearth of other lights, the very nature of this darkness—all of it can't help but evoke a specific time and place, a long-vanished New York. (When I heard sirens in the distance during the screening, somewhere out on 2nd Avenue, it seemed to be the only soundtrack this film could ever need.)
At 4:58, I heard very light snoring behind me, in the fifth row. It's comforting to wake up and confront the very same image that lulled you to sleep. In this sense, Empire is the opposite of real life. Also unlike real life: during a screening of Empire, one can spend half an hour thinking only about whether to go to the bathroom and risk missing something. I decided to venture out a few minutes after a wave of shuffling, bag crunching, and loud chewing overtook the theater. No one seemed to mind the noise. That's another thing that's unlike real life.
When I came out of the bathroom, shocked less by the late-afternoon light in the lobby than the low, quotidian sounds of a ticket-booth ("One for The Sun, please"), it was reassuring to confront the stillness and permanence of the Empire State Building as I turned the corner into the screening room. We may not know what color its floodlights are, but we know that it's there. Hardly a deep thought, but I can't but help think about how Warhol couldn't have made this film about any other structure: Empire depends on its subject's eminence, its height, its history. This great skyscraper is one of the very few buildings that isn't bested by such a treatment—it fights back.
At 7:41, the floodlights went off. Aside from a few lights near the top of the building and at the bottom of the screen, the Met Life building was the only thing keeping us from total darkness. For the last hour of the film, we were left only with the echo of the Empire State Building—the memory of what we've watched all afternoon competing with the evening's sudden void. (It's hard, too, not to think of a certain New Yorker cover by Art Spiegelman.) The narrative is over, the plot resolved, but this last sequence, perhaps the film's most ambitious, is a story of loss.
(And of hunger! I spent this last hour at once blissed out and desperate—desperate!—for a Twix bar.)
Seven hours and nine minutes after the film began, we encountered a black screen with the Andy Warhol Museum's copyright information. And just like that, sooner than expected, it was over. Bradley Eros seemed pleased by how many of us had stayed for the whole movie—at least two brave-bladdered people never left the theater at all. Most of us stayed for the silly Mekas quasi-interview—not, I think, because it might prove to be informative (it sort of was), but because it's hard to leave a movie theater just like that, after such a commitment: over seven hours without Twitter or Tumblr, without iPhones or sound or, for that matter, color. (Incidentally, Empire is one of film's greatest arguments for black and white.)
We slowly walked out into the lobby, dazed but happy. Bradley Eros asked us to leave our names and e-mail addresses so that we could receive our promised gifts: a free ticket to the Andy Warhol sites tour, and either a T-shirt or a nightgown (?!). We left our clothing sizes. The specific article of clothing we would be receiving was, we were told, still to be determined, but we were told that it would feature a still from the wondrous, stimulating, life-affirming film we'd just seen.