Those present at the Ford Amphitheatre last night for one of the LA Film Festival‘s special event screenings, 13 Most Beautiful, were lucky enough to be treated to an introduction to by none other than Factory Superstar Mary Woronov. The programme is made up of 13 of Warhol’s 500+ screen tests (shot between ’64 and ’66, with subjects ranging from random passers-by to Dali and Dylan), accompanied by live music from Dean & Britta. The story Mary told of her own test was apparently typical: she was sat on a stool at one end of the factory while Warhol and coterie retreated to the other, talking amongst themselves, leaving her unsure of what to do faced with the staring camera for an interminable five minutes.
So we’re presented with head and shoulders portraits of, amongst others, the defiant Woronov, blank-faced Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, his eyes closed for much of the test over an occasional wry smile, slyly mugging Ingrid Superstar and shade-wearing Billy Name who lived in the Factory closet and did most of the attractively stark but varied lighting for the tests. Warhol made these films like living portraits; he was fascinated with simply looking (as in his long, incident-less movies) and wanted to look at people without the uncomfortable distraction of their seeing him look. Woronov related that it was only Warhol who watched all the films; the rest of the gang would look at them from time to time for the amusement of spotting when the subject cracked, unable to keep up their pose or poise in front of the implacable camera for the hyper-extended duration. And that’s why the screen tests work so well: after a length of time almost anyone is going to break down and show something truthful of themselves, whatever that may be (unless, like the haughty but tolerant Nico, you just don’t care from the off).
Accompanying this, the music has moments of greatness. After an electro-soundscape opening (for Richard Rheem) the band creep on below proud Anne Buchanan and build up a wordless number that wonderfully recaptures the yearning melancholy of Dean (Wareham)’s Galaxie 500, so simple yet imbued with that ineffable something, while tears start to roll down Buchanan’s immobile face. It’s a mighty impressive start, but then, for grinning, gum-chewing Paul America, the songs begin. Wareham has never matched his first band, and with Luna he started to overstretch his song-writing skills further than an excuse for a three-chord jam, and his weak lyrical skills further than they could bear; none of the original songs here is worth its place, particularly beside a cover of the lovely “I’ll Keep It With Mine” for Nico’s test (it was written for her by Dylan). A little obviousness in the marrying of sound and image is no bad thing, and approaching the halfway point we get what we’ve been waiting for as the band break into a chugging Velvety workout for Dennis Hopper. A little later they’re just getting into a nice Galaxie-esque wig-out below chiseled Freddie Hirko when the flashing dots of the reel-end pull them up short; all the tests chosen are of roughly the same five-minute duration (though some approached up to an hour) which never allows the band to stretch out and develop a groove to match the mounting tension of watching the pinned-down subjects. And that tension in itself is dissipated by the overlit stage, which unfailingly draws the eye even when clumsy lyrics are not jarring the aesthetic mood.
But the show builds to a great climax: Lou Reed’s (penultimate) test takes the musical honours – there he is, in Raybans of course, fuck-you swigging on a coke bottle while the band launches into a raucous (if rickety) cover of the great “lost” Velvets blues “I’m Not A Young Man Any More”. And then finally we get Baby Jane Holzer, all hair and eye make-up, brushing her teeth. The slightly lame accompaniment becomes irrelevant; she’s the only one to rivet the camera rather than the other way round, vivacious without being salacious (quite a feat, as the toothpaste oozes from her mouth) and glorious proof that a screen test can indeed find you a star.
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