Pop Art & Underground Film

The early sixties marked the dawn of a new movement in the art world known as Pop Art.  Pieces such as Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II, Lichtenstein’s I Know How You Must Feel Brad and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes clearly define the interests and sensibilities of the movement.  The idea was to subvert commercial images with darker political and sociological commentaries.  The movement quickly became the dominant force in the American art scene, eventually seeping over into the American avant-garde cinema.

As Warhol began his transition into film with 16mm portraits and a documentary/narrative style akin to the earliest days of the cinema, other filmmakers more successfully adapted the form of Pop Art into their films. Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising is the first seminal work of this kind.  Anger distills celebrities, icons, and popular music of their “ready-made” meanings, rearranging them in his film to create a tableau of sado-masochistic sexuality and biker culture.  As the sixties progressed, other filmmakers would implement this technique, notably Jack Smith and Ron Rice.

By the mid-sixties, narratives were formed around the style Kenneth Anger originated.  These films not only used established cultural figures, but also the narrative threads that in many cases accompany them, for instance, Warhol’s unfinished film Batman/Dracula.  This love for “camp” seemed contagious.  In almost all of the significant films of the New York Underground at the time adhere to these sensibilities; sensibilities derived from the influence of Pop Art.  Even in Paul Morrissey’s first three features Flesh, Trash and Women In Revolt all of the secondary characters are built around these conventions.  They are caricatures, which rather than feel trapped or isolated by these circumstances, embrace them enthusiastically, playing the conventions of archetypal characters to campy excess.

However, as the New Hollywood regime took the nation’s cinemas by storm, the need for campy excess dissipated.  The kind of realism that defined Underground narrative filmmaking in the fifties had finally become mainstream, if not acceptable.  Slowly, the avant-garde filmmakers in New York and San Francisco began pursuing film with a more formalist approach.  In the seventies, filmmakers like Michael Snow, Chantal Ackerman, and Hollis Frampton thrived whilst other filmmakers withdrew from the medium, such as Andy Warhol, Ron Rice, Jack Smith, etc.  Or, the filmmaker was lucky enough to find brief success in low budget and indie productions like Paul Morrissey did with Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula, then later with Mixed Blood and Beethoven’s Nephew.

But by the late seventies, all of that changed.  Mark Rappaport began making his campy little dramas, often tinged with formalist reflexivity, in his apartment on shoestring budgets much in the same way Jack Smith had a decade before.  Then, in the eighties, Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch and Richard Kern stormed the Big Apple with their transgressive cinema.  Now the camp of the sixties was resurrected, re-fashioned in punk garb, and thrust into an unholy blend of pornography and exploitation.  The cinema of transgression was reactionary to the mediocrity of films in America, and the vast waste and self-indulgence America was experiencing at the time.  Transgressive cinema was designed to shock and attack the morals and the images of the popular American psyche.  In this, transgressive cinema is perhaps the most heavily indebted of Underground movements to the camp and Pop Art films of the sixties.

What Pop Art has given us is a legacy of filmic language.  To create self-awareness in a film that is simultaneously reflexive of the medium and critical of the culture.  These basic tools or principles are evident in Underground and mainstream films today (Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee and Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies are but two examples).  This kind of filmmaking will always be a necessity in America.

-Robert Curry

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