Face-off: Andy Warhol's Screen Tests at Newcastle's Star and Shadow Cinema

16 February 2013

A report on a selection of 'Screen Tests', exhibited on 16mm at Newcastle-upon-Tyne's Star and Shadow Cinema on the evening of Friday, 15 February.

On the same date as the UK theatrical release of Side By Side, the new documentary in which a-list filmmakers are interviewed on the film vs. digital debate, Newcastle's Star and Shadow Cinema exhibited twelve of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests on 16mm to a packed house - including folks accommodated on the floor and in the aisles. Ordinarily screened as an installation, these silent moving portraits were shipped directly to Tyneside from New York's Museum of Modern Art for the sole and perhaps experimental purpose of cinema consumption, and were accompanied by a live score by Hapsburg Braganza.

The outcome was something resembling a magical time-warp: with the eventual obsolescence of celluloid a seemingly foregone conclusion - rendering the arguments put forth in Side By Side academic - there was an air of togetherness in the room that I haven't experienced in a cinema for some time. It seemed deeply appropriate, furthermore, that the event coincided with an asteroid's close encounter with earth - an occurrence that went unacknowledged within the confines of the Star and Shadow itself, as if doing so would lend voice to a given truth: that the end, to one degree or another, is ever-nigh.

Warhol shot over 470 of what would become known as Screen Tests over the course of a three-year period, between 1964-1966, in his famous New York studio The Factory. His subjects were those whom the artist considered to have star appeal: Factory regulars, friends and other celebrities to whom he was introduced during his time there. Filmed with a 16mm Bolex camera, at 24 frames per second, they were then projected at 16 frames per second, allowing a slower playback that intensifies the camera's gaze upon its subjects - many of whom were and are facially familiar. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Yoko Ono, Jonas Mekas, Edie Sedgwick, Nico... all of these and many more were filmed by Warhol, whose camera strips away the social sphere upon which these people's celebrity was constructed (just as the darkened auditorium keeps cosmological mishaps at bay). Denied a voice or even editorial manipulation, the minutest suggestion here - a self-conscious blink, a pursed lip - becomes a strangely epic gesture under the unflinching intimacy of light, a dynamic heightened by the fact that these images are also projected as light, onto a big screen, whereby the past is made immortal and the auditorium watches in ineluctable real-time a temporally prolonged and therefore artificial phenomenon unfold.

Notions of projection are doubled, too, by both the performative nature of the gestures themselves and our interpretations of them: Sedgwick's smiles and flirtations with the camera seem barely able to hide some secret deep within, while Ann Buchanan (pictured above) literally drew me to the edge of my seat with a presumably deliberate and amusing drift into a cock-eyed gaze - her tears can be read as genuinely pained or as a consequence of the sustained, inward movement of her eyes. Dylan, meanwhile, whose inclusion here was promised by the promotional campaign for the event, is visibly agitated: at one point he gets up and walks out of frame altogether. In a second take, from a wider vantage point, he wears sunglasses, a veiling prop that accommodates an appreciably more composed posture. Soundtracked by Braganza's electroacoustic chimes, these facial and bodily gestures took on unique characteristics. The interplay between on- and off-screen incident was an excellent and welcome addition.

At once, the Screen Tests add to and undercut their subjects' personae, exploring with a strange intensity the fine line between the public and the private, the authentic and the assumed, the tangible and the hidden. These tensions will continue in The Invisible and the Real, the Star and Shadow's new season of artists' films, of which last night's screening was the first. The season continues each Thursday from 21 February with a double-bill of Richard Billingham's Fishtank (1998) and Duane Hopkins' Sunday (2009); Simon Pummell's Bodysong; a selection of Nicolas Provost shorts; Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread (2005); and, on Sunday 24 March, a double-bill of Clio Barnard's The Arbor (2010) and John Smith's short essay-film The Girl Chewing Gum (1976). Together, these comprise a stimulating effort to showcase material that is now seldom seen in a cinema context.

Though flashier first-run films are still screening on 35mm at the Empire multiplex in Newcastle's city centre (though for how much longer is anyone's guess), the Star and Shadow is less concerned with the perils of profit and so is at some remove from the systemic pressures of the exhibition circuit, whose autonomous pursuit of surplus capital devours all would-be attempts of resistance - technological or otherwise. Taken side by side, film is frankly unmatched by digital at giving life to those apparitions that appear before us; Warhol's subjects appeared like ghosts emerging from a blinding white. To paraphrase the title of one of the Provost shorts screening during The Invisible and the Real season next month - which is itself a reference to Cronenberg's Videodrome, whose images it reconceptualises - long live the old flesh in all its physicality: the textural beauty of those blemishes, the slight shake of the image, the thrust and utter life of it, as well as the pin-drop silence of an enraptured auditorium such as the Star and Shadow's last night... while somewhere over Russia a meteorite flew by.

Ps. For more on meteorites and their necessary coinciding with significant historical occurences, read idFilm's dispatch on Patrick Keiller's Tate Britain exhibit, The Robinson Insitute, from last year.

Pps. I'm told that Side By Side is coming (on digital) to Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema mid-March.

That's the calendar month of March, with nothing to do with today's anti-cuts march through the city centre, which opposes the continued austerity measures that are making this region a culturally barren wasteland.

Visual coincidences: this image of last night's meteor brought to mind an image from my own film, Play History, of the River Tyne...