The San Francisco Film Society recently offered a rare glance at some of iconic pop artist Andy Warhol’s less famous work in a performance entitled “13 Most Beautiful.” A collection of the artist’s fabled screen tests were presented in a unique context, screened in the theater space at the Palace of Fine Arts and accompanied by the shimmering melodies of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. Viewed in this rather surreal environment, the mysterious charm of Warhol’s slow-motion portraits proved inescapable.
The 13 screen tests were chosen from hundreds that Warhol shot of visitors to The Factory in the mid-sixties and subsequently used for a variety of purposes, most notably as video accompaniment for acts such as the Velvet Underground in his multimedia sensation The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Although the tests were all shot with the same formula (four minutes, still camera and faces only), Warhol’s lighting manipulations and his subjects’ antics provide an intriguing variety of emotions. The curator’s selections demonstrated the remarkable array of character captured in this narrow medium, with some figures beaming full of gregarious glamour and others brooding, forlorn.
Richard Reem, presented first, remained still, as though frozen in a photograph, a marked contrast to the closing screen test of Jan Holzer, who made a show of vigorously brushing her teeth while staring intently into the camera. The subjects between them filled in the spectrum, as Paul America chewed gum and laughed, a glowering Dennis Hopper refused eye contact, and Nico playfully ducked in and out of the frame. Although the manner and behavior of the subjects varied, their glowing images each demanded the same lingering attention.
Beneath the hypnotic gazes, Wareham provided texture-laden guitar work and traded haunting vocal melodies with Phillips. Wareham has been making atmospheric pop since the late ‘80s, originally with Galaxie 500, then Luna, and now with his wife (also formerly of Luna) under the name Dean & Britta. The pair, who have previously worked on the score for films such as Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” proved an ideal choice for the Warhol project. Joined by Matt Sumrow playing keyboards and guitars and Anthony LaMarca on drums, their pieces (a few older originals, a couple of covers and the rest composed for the event) served not only to draw out the personalities of the faces on the screen, but also to evoke the spirit of the period from which they came.
The influence of Lou Reed was appropriately quite apparent throughout the performance. Reed’s own “Not a Young Man Anymore” was played during his screen test, while Dean & Britta’s “Singer Sing,” which was played for Ann Buchanan’s test, gave an emphatic nod to “Street Hassle,” Reed’s epic anthem of underground life. During Nico’s screen test, Britta sang an ethereal version of “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” a song written by Factory visitor Bob Dylan and recorded by Nico herself.
The images of those two artists, Reed and Nico, perhaps best represent the essence of the collection as whole. Reed, cool and removed behind dark glasses, suggestively sipping a bottle of Coca-Cola and Nico, gazing wistfully at the camera, turning away and glancing back again, embody a lost and impossible charm made all the more enticing by time and distance.
The striking images of “13 Most Beautiful” illustrate Warhol’s remarkable skill in exposing the extraordinary in those around him. Transfixing and beautiful, the screen tests prove to possess an enduring appeal – they simultaneously capture the allure of a bygone time and evince the continued relevance of one of that era’s great artists.