Director: Andy Warhol
Production: Andy Warhol Films; black and white and Eastmancolor, 16mm; running time: 195 minutes, other versions are 210 and 205 minutes. Released 15 September 1966; uncut reels were projected side by side; in the general release version, the 1st reel appeared screen right, and a few minutes later, the second appeared screen left. Filmed 1966 in the Chelsea Hotel, New York City; other parts of New York City; and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Producer: Andy Warhol; photographer: Andy Warhol; screenplay: Andy Warhol and Ronald Tavel; music: The Velvet Underground; production assistant: Paul Morrissey.
Cast: "The Pope Ondine Story"—Ondine (Pope); Angelina Davis (Pepper); Ingrid Superstar; Albert René Ricard; Mary Might; International Velvet; Ronna. "The Duchess"—Brigid Polk. "The John"— Ed Hood (Ed); Patrick Flemming (Patrick); Mario Montez (Transvestite); Angelina "Pepper" Davis; International Velvet; Mary Might; Gerard Malanga; Albert René Ricard; Ingrid Superstar. "Hanoi Hanna (Queen of China)"—Mary Might (Hanoi Hanna); International Velvet; Ingrid Superstar; Angelina "Pepper" Davis. "The Gerard Malanga Story"—Marie Menken (Mother); Gerard Malanga (Son); Mary Might (Girlfriend). "The Trip" and "Their Town (Toby Short)"—Eric Emerson. "Afternoon"—Edie Sedgwick (Edie); Ondine; Arthur Loeb; Donald Lyons; Dorothy Dean. "The Closet"— Nico; Randy Borscheidt. "Reel 1"—Eric Emerson; Ari.
Tyler, Parker, Underground Film: A Critical History, New York, 1969.
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Suárez, Juan Antonio, Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars:Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960sUnderground Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996.
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A bona fide milestone of the American underground film, Chelsea Girls marks the apogee of the film career of pop artist Andy Warhol. Consisting of twelve 35-minute reels, each representing the activities in one room of New York's Chelsea Hotel, the film is projected two reels at a time, side by side, bringing its seven hours of footage to a running time of three hours—as fans have noted, the same length asGone with the Wind. The comparison is facetious, but apt, for Chelsea Girls not only represents one of the most significant cultural/aesthetic touchstones for the 1960s underground, but also its first "blockbuster," drawing audiences large enough for Variety to begin listing its grosses.
Each of the film's 12 reels consists of a single, unedited shot in which various personalities from the Warhol factory (junkies, rock singers, camp homosexuals, professional poseurs) talk and/or act out sketchy vignettes. The cinema-verité aimlessness of the recorded performances is set in contrast to the strict, though seemingly arbitrary, structure of the film. While the length and continuity of each scene are identical (with actors instructed only to remain within the frame and to occupy the allotted time), the framing and camera movement vary between them, from the perfectly static to the eternally zooming. In a similar spirit of randomness, eight of the reels are in black-and-white, while four are in colour. The dual projection, suggesting the simultaneity of action in two rooms at once, represents Warhol's final renunciation of the cinema of montage, by making cross-cutting superfluous.
Apparently, the decision to show Chelsea Girls two reels at a time was made only after the footage was shot; and Warhol provided no clue as to their order or as to which of the competing soundtracks should receive precedence. Thus, the projectionist took an active part in the creative process; as does the audience, which never fails to detect correspondence and contrasts between the randomly juxtaposed images. More recently, the film's projection has become conventionalized, based on the instructions of its sole distributor Ondine, star of one of the film's "climactic" scenes. The beginning of the first two reels is staggered by about five minutes, with the reel change on the first projector taking place while the second image continues, and vice versa. As currently presented, the order of the reels is structured along a line of increasingly dramatic (though basically non-narrative) scenes, and from black-and-white toward colour. The first of the film's six coupled reels features Velvet Underground cohort Nico meticulously cutting her hair on the left screen, and superstar Ondine on the right. The last two reels mirror the first, with Nico on the right (in colour) and Ondine on the left playing out the film's most emotional scene, wherein the fiction of Ondine as "Pope," taking confessions from various Factory types, flares into a genuine confrontation with one woman, followed first by a refusal to complete the scene and then by a sequence in which Ondine makes use of the camera as confessor. The episodes in between include scenes of Factory regulars Ed Hood, Mario Montez, Ingrid Superstar, and International Velvet lolling on a bed; of Brigid Polk shooting up speed through her jeans; of later exploitation queen Mary Woronov playing Hanoi Hannah, haranguing several women from a revolutionary tract; of avant-garde filmmaker Marie Mencken verbally abusing factory pretty-boy Gerard Malanga; and of young Eric Emerson doing a sort of slow striptase under psychedelic lights as he delivers an LSD-induced rap to the camera.
Seen outside the context of New York 1960s underground chic, Chelsea Girls still seems more than deserving of its reputation, not only as a document of a period, or even as the apotheosis of a certain influential part of the counterculture, but moreso as the epitome of Warhol's democratic notion of stardom for everyone placed in brashly contradictory juxtaposition to a passively mechanical aesthetic structured to the specifications of the culture of mass production and consumption.