Monday, 19 March 2007

Life among the factory hands

It’s not very often you get the privilege of your own private screening of a new film. Particularly when you’re a low-rank no-mark like my nearly good self. It wasn’t meant to be this way of course. I’m sure the financial backers of Factory Girl, the latest depiction of Andy Warhol’s speed-fuelled 60s New York boho set didn’t imagine that their baby would be being watched by just two people in a empty soulless garage of a cinema one cold March Sunday in Old York City. But it was, and we were the two.
Maybe the people who were conspicuous by their absence had read some of the reviews. These were nearly enough to put us off as well, in which case it would have been playing to itself. So expectations on our part were not that high. Broadsheet reviewers by and large wanted to hate the film. Warhol and the Factory set are so much part of the alternative cultural narrative of the last forty years that any attempt to put them on the big screen is going to run up against territorial resistance. Particularly when that film features a Warhol played by a man who used to be in Neighbours and an Edie Sedgwick who is a regular in Heat Magazine. Which may be slightly missing the point. Sedgwick was an IT girl, if she were around today she’d be in Heat Magazine on a weekly basis. I would also lay a bet that Warhol would have quite liked the fact that he was being depicted by a man who used to go out with ‘Plain Jane The Superbrain.’
The story is of course tragic. Sedgwick came from a wealthy family that was dominated by a controlling, obsessive and abusive father. Edie was routinely sexually assaulted by him from the age of 8 onwards. Her gay brother was driven to suicide by their father’s violent disapproval. Sedgwick senior put his kids into a private psychiatric hospital and pumped them full of tranquillisers as almost a rite of passage. Edie was drug dependent at the instigation of her father long before she arrived in New York or met Warhol. The true villain of the piece is primarily not Andy, but Fuzzy, the family’s pet name for their monster of a father. How did he get away with it ? Wealth, status, standing. All those things which still give some men all the permission they feel they need to take exactly what they want and stuff the consequences. People around them turn a blind-eye, just because the Alpha-Male can do what the hell he likes. Complicit in the fact was Edie’s mother who decided that the comforts of a wealthy lifestyle were more important than the well-being of her children .That men like Fuzzy Sedgwick are mourned when they die is the greatest travesty. The demise of a monster should be accompanied by fireworks. It was the conventional world, not the freaks which first fucked with Edie’s head.
Warhol always retained a child-like quality, something which Guy Pearce managed to convey throughout. The sense of emotional retardation, the desire not to get involved, the need to keep himself distant, seeing the world from behind a camera lens was cleverly captured. During a time of civil rights riots, body bags being shipped back from Vietnam and the world on the edge of massive political change, Warhol preferred to watch ‘ I Dream Of Jeannie’ than news reports. He always put pleasure before politics. It’s easy to forget however that Warhol was older than the people with whom he associated. He was a child of the 1920s, not the 40s or early 50s. He was old enough to have experienced the grim atrocities of the second world war. He was defined by a period of massive conflagration. The world he wanted to create was colourful, pleasure-loving and accessible. He had little time for the dour realities of life. In that he was not that different from his contemporaries, many of whom would have looked on the coming generation with horror and disgust. Warhol befriended and encouraged them, always one step removed from the madness which he prompted.
Sienna Miller as Sedgwick was a serendipitous piece of casting. Throughout the movie there is little to suggest that she is really playing outside of herself. The comparisons are there to be made. Beautiful media darling with a troubled and temperamental past, a tendency to put her foot in her mouth and the ever-present suspicion that someone that perfect must surely one day have to painfully pay it all back. The fragility, innocence and accepting nature of Edie is never far away keeping check on any negative feelings you might have towards aspects of her behaviour. That she was used, abused and manipulated goes without saying, but it’s hard to point the finger at any one of the parasitical men who leeched off her beauty. Warhol was certainly culpable. He failed to intervene, failed to step out from behind his sunglasses to see what was happening. He lived up to the myth of the passive voyeur, the idea more important than the person. Edie represented an ideal of beauty that fascinated Warhol, when the sheen fell from that beauty he lost interest.
In the film Hayden Christensen plays ‘Billy Quinn’ a poorly disguised portrayal of Bob Dylan. He is vitriolic in his distaste for the Factory set, seeing himself as the knight on a white charger who will rip the veil from Edie’s eyes and rescue her from herself. He is the polar opposite of Warhol. A fiercely self-possessed and strident man obsessed with ideas of authenticity where Warhol sought out frippery. Edie is torn between the two. Quinn/Dylan hides behind the conceit of the big I am. He doesn’t want to adore Sedgwick, he wants her to adore him, not Warhol. That Dylan’s lawyers sought an injunction on the film speaks volumes of his own feelings towards that period in his life. The Dylan character only enters the narrative towards the end and is shown, like everyone as mixed-bag of motivations. That the gravel-voiced one should attempt to pre-empt the story maybe suggests that his own conscience is not quite as clean as he would wish it to be. Film critics have attacked Hickenlooper for his decision to portray everyone around Sedgwick as being somehow culpable in her eventual demise. You sense they would have liked a neat tidy villain, and a clear missed escape route. That Dylan is still deified and seen as beyond criticism in some quarters doesn’t help matters. At no point does the film suggest that his musical canon is somehow less than what it is, just that maybe he didn’t act entirely in line with his own publicity. Dylan is as much a myth as Warhol and Sedgwick. His later relationship record if anything serves to highlight his own deficiencies in that area of his life.
Sedgwick relentlessly descends into substance abuse and mental illness, a pattern of life that was maybe cast the first time her father climbed into her bed. The emotional and personal failings of successful men is as much a theme of the film as that of female self-destruction. The world still requires its little baby nothings. Edie was just one in a long list stretching right back through history.
The last word should perhaps go to Valerie Solanos, another Factory girl rejected by Warhol who later attempted to claim her revenge by trying to assassinate their master of ceremonies. She famously wrote in her SCUM manifesto that to be male is to be “a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.” Read coldly it is nothing but hate-filled misandry. Set against the backdrop of life amongst the cold, calculating and emotionally crippled men with which she and Sedgwick once mixed, you begin to feel that she might have had a point.


alaska said...

Wow, that's a fantastic review. I've seen the film and I think it's a pretty fair assessment. You've also made me think back and reconsider/rediscover things in it that I'd previously overlooked- thanks! :)

Martyn said...

Glad you enjoyed it !

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