The Chelsea Girls (1967)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Trash Film  |   Run Time - 210 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Viewed in the cold light of the 21st century, The Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol's epic exploration of the many sordid eccentricities of his circle of "superstar" acquaintances, now seems like some sort of anthropological document, albeit one with its own odd charm, in which the Manhattan Hipster Speed Freak is observed in its natural environment. Shot in 1966, The Chelsea Girls was filmed in a manner befitting a documentary. Warhol sets up his camera, turns it on, and lets it roll for about 35 minutes until he literally runs out of film while his subjects either prattle on about whatever crosses their drug-ravaged imaginations (several characters shoot up speed on camera, while Eric Emerson was supposedly tripping on acid when he filmed his long monologue) or enact free-form psychodramas replete with lots of shouting and bitter accusations. While there's plenty of restless panning and zooming, there are no cuts until the camera simply goes to leader and the next roll appears. The Chelsea Girls is also screened with two separate images running side by side for its three-and-a-half hour duration. Only one is audible, which sometimes makes for an interesting juxtaposition of active and passive images, though it just as often means the image we see (but can't hear) seems more compelling than the one to which we're allowed to listen. While The Chelsea Girls is often witty, it's more frequently cruel, and the bitchy venom that pours out of many of the protagonists -- most notably "Pope" Ondine, Brigid Polk, and Mary Woronov (here posing as "Hanoi Hannah") -- becomes a bit hard to take by the time the film finally draws to a close. This seems less like "The Iliad of the Underground" (as Newsweek famously called it in 1967) than a very long look at people you wouldn't want to encounter in the real world. (It's also significant that, in a film that was praised for its "realism," nearly everyone is overacting at the height of their powers, even if they are "playing themselves.") But of the films Warhol himself directed (before he essentially became a producer for Paul Morrissey), The Chelsea Girls has stood the test of time far better than most, and if it's as much a freak show as cinema, the freaks in question are compelling enough that you're willing to go the distance with them at least once, though how often you'll want to visit this establishment is very much a matter of taste.