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Speed Freaks

"Everybody's in showbiz, everybody is a star," sang the Kinks back in the day. One of the key fantasies of the past 150 years has been the ongoing, technologically driven democratization of celebrity. The bard of this epic narrative—and the likely inspiration for the Kinks' lyric—was, of course, Andy Warhol.

Pioneers of life-acting and performance art, staking their claim to a global village homestead somewhere between the MGM backlot and JenniCam's dorm room, the Warhol Factory divas were Camera Age heroes—a clique inflated to mythic proportions, "ordinary" people who lived their lives in the glare of total, if homemade, media publicity. The party's long over, but thanks to the miracle of mechanical reproduction, the guests are still hanging around. Some have even been accorded a second 15 minutes of fame as the subjects of Edie, Nico Icon, I Shot Andy Warhol, and this week, Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story.

Brigid Berlin, a/k/a Brigid Polk, is best known to Factory fans as the oversize, baleful speed freak whose bold performances in the movies Chelsea Girls and **** led critic Manny Farber to dub her the "hippopotamus of sin." The 250-pound Berlin was tough enough to shoot amphetamine through the seat of her extra-large dungarees and sufficiently brazen or blasted to rip off her sweatshirt and spend the rest of the reel topless. Berlin showed "great confidence for a fat girl," her devotee John Waters puts it in the documentary by Shelly Dunn Fremont and Vincent Fremont (himself a former Warhol associate).

A pure amphetamine glare straight into the camera: Berlin in Pie in the Sky
photo: Digne Meller Marcovicz
A pure amphetamine glare straight into the camera: Berlin in Pie in the Sky

Details

Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story
Directed by Vincent Fremont and Shelly Dunn Fremont
Film Forum
Through May 8

Once Upon a Time in China
Directed by Tsui Hark
Written by Tsui, Yuen Kai-Chi, Edward Leung, and Elsa Tang
TriStar and Sony Pictures Repertory
Film Forum
April 27 through May 3

Once Upon a Time in China II
Directed by Tsui Hark
Written by Tsui, Hanson Chan, and Cheung Tan
TriStar and Sony Pictures Repertory
Film Forum
May 4 through 10

Compact and entertaining, Pie in the Sky opens with a vintage recording of Berlin chatting with Warhol, a daily ritual that both evidently taped for years. "I was a nonstop talk machine," she recalls today. But to term Berlin an extrovert would be to downplay her aura of menace. Raging put-downs were only part of her oral aggression. The film repeatedly incorporates an early-'70s video of maxed-out Berlin waddling around Gramercy Park scarfing down hot dogs almost as fast as an amazed vendor hands them to her.

The colorful crew of Factory survivors the Fremonts interview are apt to describe the old Brigid as "scary." She was billed as "Her Satanic Majesty" when, 20 years before Sandra Bernhard, she gave a one-woman show in a Bowery theater during which she placed live phone calls, mainly asking for money, to unwitting relatives whose replies were amplified back to the audience. The "sheer, aimless, frustrated hostility" of the event was sulfurous enough to send the Voice reviewer running for the exit, but Berlin was an equal-opportunity offender. Warhol's POPism includes a vivid account of her 1967 appearance on The Merv Griffin Show: "Merv began to get nervous that Brigid wasn't going to be so nice. He was right. Her attitude towards him was like he was a stranger annoying her in a bus depot—she was really giving him hostile looks. . . . Once she even threw a pure amphetamine glare straight into the camera."

If Berlin's hauteur was unrivaled, she was to the manner born. (Then as now, her breeding shows in her perfect enunciation.) Pie in the Sky includes a scene from **** in which she administers her trademark hypodermic "poke" and drawls, "I should be giving dinner parties." A debutante gone wrong, eldest daughter of the man who managed the Hearst corporation and was a pal to General MacArthur and J. Edgar Hoover, young Brigid migrated, as someone interviewed says, "from one evil empire to another." Her media life did not begin with Warhol. The filmmakers include a montage of 16mm home movies in which baby Brigid eats and scowls, growing ever chubbier and less compliant. (In one prescient bit of business, the poor little rich girl shrinks visibly from a friendly priest.) Nor did the Factory turn her on to speed. A weight-conscious mother had already placed her on a regimen of diet pills.

For Berlin, the Factory scene was the Bizarro World version of the New York society life for which she was groomed. ("Her only cause," one intimate explains, "was upsetting her mother.") As trim and (relatively) mellow as she is today—half her Factory weight and installed in the small midtown apartment she keeps compulsively ordered—Berlin could be a somewhat ravaged Park Avenue matron. She strikingly resembles her mother, whom she channels at will. An obsessive personality, Berlin has seemingly total recall but nevertheless records every aspect of her life—she keeps to her diet by tallying up the weight of her daily intake of food.

As Berlin remains hung up on her family, so she was faithful to Warhol longer than any of his other superstars. The film makes a good argument that she was something of an aesthetic influence as well, thanks to her tape recordings, Polaroid self-portraits, and collective projects like the notorious "cock book," in which various Factory hands and visiting celebs scrawled their impression of male genitalia. For Warhol, Berlin was in every sense larger than life. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (which contains an entire chapter devoted to Berlin's rant on cleaning), the artist notes approvingly that "she's the kind of person who always has the same problem as you do, only a million times more."

Brightly shot and densely edited, Pie in the Sky is itself a manic meth rap. Berlin's current preoccupation with key lime pie may be less interesting than the scurvy gossip she retailed in her Factory days, but the movie manages to have its cake and eat it too—debunking the Berlin image even while reveling in it. Pie in the Sky inspires less surprise that Berlin lived to tell the tale of her dissolute youth than amazement that she lived at all.


Speaking of second chances, it's no wonder that the American success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would revive interest in Tsui Hark, the great genre resuscitator of post-1980 Hong Kong cinema. Tsui's latest movie, Time and Tide, opens next month (his first north-of-Chinatown premiere), as does Subway Cinema's seven-film, two-venue Tsui retro (at Anthology Film Archives and the Plaza Twin in Brooklyn). This Friday, Film Forum premieres a new 35mm print of the uncut Once Upon a Time in China, to be followed next week by its first and best sequel.

The movie that revived the period kung fu film and recharged the career of action star Jet Li by casting him as the legendary 19th-century martial artist Master Wong Fei-Hong, Once Upon a Time in China (1991) features a big set (amply stocked with breakaway chairs, tables, and buildings), a large cast (including a sizable Western minority), numerous choreographed brawls, and plenty of slapstick (not to mention low comedy). New titles make the movie much easier to follow, up to a point. For all the complicated intrigue, Once Upon a Time in China is essentially spectacle—its escalating action is bathed in a nostalgic golden light, when there's no nocturnal monsoon.

Li, an athletic performer with more technique than personality, opens up by performing a one-man Dragon Dance on a ship's rigging. Master of the backward somersault and the corkscrew leap—stunts accentuated by Tsui's whirling camera—he holds off an entire army with an umbrella. As far as I can tell, the acrobatics are authentic. The movie's set piece—a miraculous balancing act involving a fight to the death in a warehouse filled with ladders—took two weeks to shoot. Now a leisurely 134 minutes, Once Upon a Time gets better as it goes along, building up to a prolonged shipboard finale. Throughout, Master Wong deploys his "shadowless kick" and "10-form fist" against gwei lo bullets; if he needs a gun, he can flick a musket ball with fatal results.

Set in the period following the Opium Wars, the movie has a new topical relevance in its expression of aggrieved nationalism and contempt for the invasive foreigners who employ "swords and daggers" to eat their gross food, annoy the marketplace with strident renditions of the "Hallelujah Chorus," and generally terrorize the Chinese population with unprovoked and indiscriminate attacks. Americans are particularly egregious in cheating Chinese immigrants and kidnapping women to serve as prostitutes.

Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), which opens at Film Forum next week, tones down the rhetoric. Set 20 years later (although the actors show no signs of aging), it triangulates a bit in pitting Master Wong and his new friend Dr. Sun Yat-Sen against a fanatic, as well as antic, antiforeign sect. More concentrated and svelte than its precursor, Once Upon a Time II also has the benefit of fights staged by Master Yuen Wo-Ping that show Jet Li—another camera-age hero—to even greater advantage.


Related article:

Chuck Stephens's profile of Tsui Hark.

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