Yes, I’m back. It feels strange, it feels silly, it feels wonderful. After thirty-plus years of filing weekly theater reviews for the Village Voice and a startling but brief hiatus (a mere two and a half years) amid decimating rounds of layoffs under the previous ownership, here I am again, now writing a twice-monthly arts column. You can’t go home again, and there are no second acts in American life, but — here I am again. Good to be home. Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?
Everything has changed while I was off-site, of course: the Voice, the city, our culture, our politics, the world. Even I — the change-resistant yutz who still has Windows XP on his desktop — have changed. These days, high-speed, incessant change is the human condition. Instant results, instantly commented on, then instantly archived and forgotten, now constitute the basic product that people demand from what used to be called journalism. The age when knowledge, experience, and deep reflection were key implements in a reporter’s or a critic’s toolkit has passed, people say.
And yet, I’m back.
I was asked to return because the new management believes that the old spirit of the Village Voice — where writers of knowledge, experience, and deep reflection flourished — might be worth preserving. I like that idea, and not just because it has landed me a new paying gig. I like it because it’s “conservative,” a word that’s misused too often nowadays. The outlook that weighs whether or not old traditions merit retaining always tends to conserve, while the Republican pols who usually get “conservative” attached to their names are mostly radical reactionaries who want to destroy everything good we have and drive us all back to serfdom in their neo-medieval theocratic oligarchy.
Apologies for letting politics slip in there so abruptly. Art and politics have always intertwined in our lives. You can’t discuss one without the other. So politics will ooze in from time to time, however much I struggle to keep it out.
What else will this column contain? Well, discussions of recent phenomena in the arts, particularly the performing arts. I won’t regularly be reviewing new plays — sorry, if that’s what you came for — but I’ll surely find reason to comment on them at times. I’ll have things to say about music, especially the kinds that receive less media attention these days — classical, opera, new music, cabaret, show music. I like many different kinds of music, so I cling to the notion that the good stuff in any field should be widely shared, not kept secret among specialists. I’ll probably talk some about books, the visual arts, and film — in that last area mostly about old or newly rediscovered works. New films already get heavy coverage. Rescuing the neglected is a critic’s joyous obligation.
Like politics, the past may sometimes commandeer this column, another impulse I struggle to curb. I set great store by the past — I said “conservative,” didn’t I? — not because I want to lock us into it but because it’s our principal tool for learning how we got to the place we’re at. I worry that Americans in general tend to ignore the past; the latest thing they’ve heard, plus a few ancient pop icons, apparently suffice for them. But the past always comes back, and it’s a protean creature, invariably returning in unexpected forms. Oversimplifications about it don’t hold water. And with our planet running short of drinkable water, we need to face reality and stop oversimplifying.
A chunk of Off-Off-Broadway’s past, and the Voice‘s, fell into my hands last month, just in time for this column: One of this paper’s earliest drama critics, Michael Smith, has lately started a publishing house, Fast Books Press, and among his newest titles is Andy Warhol’s Ridiculous Screenplays, by Ronald Tavel. How fitting to start my second Voice go-round with a study of the man who said everybody would now be famous for fifteen minutes.
The title is a deep-meaning joke, a sort of metaphysical bait-and-switch. Tavel wrote the screenplays for most of the important movies that Warhol made from 1964 through 1966, but the volume doesn’t contain them, possibly owing to issues of copyright and ownership. Instead it contains a sequence of essays, written by Tavel (1936–2009) decades later, describing how they came to be created, the circumstances that surrounded their filming, their comparative significance, and the role each played in the evolution of both Warhol’s aesthetic and Tavel’s discovery of his own literary vocation. Recruited by Andy at a poetry reading, Tavel became, out of his experiences at the Factory, one of the formative playwrights of the early Off-Off-Broadway movement.
Tavel’s share in the moviemaking process was significant. He not only wrote the screenplays but often also staged what went on in them, serving as an offscreen narrator or interrogator and occasionally appearing onscreen as well. He rarely got sufficient credit for these activities at the time, Andy being the marketable celebrity involved, and the moments when his contributions did attract praise (as in Andrew Sarris’s notice for this paper of The Life of Juanita Castro) did not make the King of Pop a happy camper.
The struggle to secure Tavel his rightful place in this odd but substantial corner of late-twentieth-century film history has been a prolonged one; he devised these essays partly as a way to claim it. Writing long after Warhol’s death and in response to extensive commentary by art historians and film students, Tavel maps the trajectory of his interactions with Warhol and the Factory crew from his personal perspective, correcting scholars’ misunderstandings and legend-peddlers’ misstatements of fact as he goes. Veering from philosophy to aesthetic analysis to sharp, sardonically recounted anecdotes of Warhol and his chaotic world, Tavel’s chronicle becomes the dazzlingly variegated prose equivalent of a Keystone Kops two-reeler co-directed by Fellini and Carl Dreyer, with interventions by Busby Berkeley.
Though Tavel clearly bore Warhol a somewhat justifiable grudge for arrogating all the creative credit when he rarely did more than set up the camera and start it rolling, the book is neither an anti-Andy tirade nor a self-pity party. On the contrary, Tavel understands and occasionally even marvels at the artistic astuteness that invented the films as an aesthetic challenge equivalent to the one posed by Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes. If cinema equaled whatever the camera recorded, all Andy had to do was turn on the camera; others could be counted on to fill the empty screen with action and its soundtrack with words.
Tavel was well aware that Warhol had chosen him for the latter function, and equally of the extent to which Andy’s small maneuvers or mumbled suggestions were attempts to dislocate or disrupt any prospect of the results becoming so sequential a narrative or so complete a performance that it would resemble a “real” movie instead of the affectless, confrontational object Warhol envisioned — a thing that constituted a film because it was projected as a film, and thus existed primarily to ask what a film is.
The question was central to Warhol’s entire career. He was less an artist in the creative sense than an aesthetic theorist questioning art’s very existence. As a result, he will be remembered permanently as a major influence on the art of the past half-century, but his works, paradoxically, will probably become less and less interesting to look at. (Other pop artists, like Lichtenstein and Hockney, who granted their creative impulses fuller play while posing similar aesthetic challenges, may loom less large theoretically but will probably be cherished longer.)
Tavel’s eerie symbiosis-cum-dialectic with Warhol, though brief, was a watershed for both. While the twelve films and three unproduced screenplays it gave rise to established Warhol as an important film-world phenomenon, they transformed Tavel from a poet and novelist into a major playwright, fascinated by the complex interaction of text and live performance. By the time others began maneuvering to supplant him as wordmeister and quasi-ringmaster of Andy’s cinema show, Tavel was ready to leave for the living stage. Four of his Warhol screenplays, starting with Shower, wound up in the theater, to be followed by the bigger plays — Gorilla Queen, Bigfoot, Boy on the Straight-Back Chair, Success and Succession — that to me make him one of our time’s necessary playwrights.
Others might agree, if the scripts were readily available. You can read or download some of them at ronaldtavel.com. But a handy volume of Tavel’s collected plays might make an elegant encore to this collection.