Culture Rover

#37 - Reel Life

Boring films, captivating portraits.

The key with Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, a number of which I had a lucky chance to watch in Pittsburgh last week at the Andy Warhol Museum, is that they are portraits not films.

An exhibition of the Screen Tests should not be in a theater but in a hybrid museum-cinema filled with projectors against walls, a few seats in front of each screen, a darkened ambiance, hushed audience moving from portrait to portrait.

Each Screen Test is like a mini-biography, a life condensed into ten minutes. We are each one of us a reel of film.

Susan Sontag appears, camp's most famous commentator. She can't make eye contact with the camera. She looks this way and that. She puts on her tinted glasses with thick black frames. She doesn't like how they look. She takes them off. She smiles. She frowns.

She says something to someone off camera. She wipes back a few strands of hair. She chews on the nub of her glasses. She tries again to look at the camera, looks away. Her smile straightens into a taut grimace. Her eyebrows hunch up for a moment, transforming her face.

She passes through a number of moods, thoughts, discomfort, release, tension, pleasure. She shows her profile for a moment. The stark black and white light illuminates her, casting different shadows and shapes across her cheekbones or and chin, her nose and eyebrows.

We can see the grain of the film passing across her face: luminescent, capturing time on celluloid.

Then a flash of warm white light blanks out her face for a moment. We are coming to the end of the reel. It appears again, this time for a bit longer.

Then, in the quiet, it floods the frame again, and I realize: we sit, we pose, we look into the camera lens and out of it again, within it and beyond it. We move through moods and reactions and attempts to reshape ourselves.

At the end, we go up in a flash of warm light, the reel unspools, a bit of writing passes across the final frames, a label marks our coiled image in its box, and we are gone, waiting for the projector, vanished into memory.

15 December 2004

Addendum: Written a week before Susan Sontag died, 28 December 2004.

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