The 1973 British television documentary “Warhol,” directed by photographer David Bailey, starts off with the definition of an understatement: According to scrawling text at the beginning, Andy Warhol and his close-knit team of collaborators “do not think and work in a conventional way.” The proceeding two-part, 47-minute production, which was banned by censors in the UK for its allegedly offensive content, emulates the unconventional thinking and working to which it alludes at the beginning. The focus is Warhol, but the program might as well take place inside his head.
Through a collection of interviews with the reluctant subject and his peers, playful interactions between Warhol and Bailey, erratic editing strategies and other experimental narrative techniques, Bailey replicates the irreverence associated with Warhol’s art while digging around for the essence of the man behind it. He only gets so much from the tight-lipped Warhol, who at one point has a friend answer questions for him off-camera while Warhol mouths along in dummy mode.
Still, “if there’s any merit in the film, it’s that I got Andy to speak,” Bailey said during a discussion moderated by critic Thelma Adams following a screening of “Warhol” at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Friday. “You have no idea how hard that was. Andy’s sitting there dazed all the time and you’re just trying to get him to say anything.”
The film ends with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the challenge at hand: Bailey literally goes to bed with his subject–or at least lies down next him–to coax Warhol into talking about his 1968 brush with death when he was shot by Valerie Solanas. And yet, by only capturing bits and pieces of the man behind the myth, Bailey arrives at his greater truth–mainly, as a colleague in the film suggests, that “the technique is the star.”
At the time of its production, “Warhol” was among several documentaries directed by Bailey about famous artists, joining a prestigious crowd that also included Luchino Visconti. However, it was “Warhol” that found the director running into institutional opposition. As Bailey recalled, labor unions in the 1970s required “a directors’ ticket,” which he did not have while making “Warhol.” As a result, he found himself blacklisted when it was discovered that he had made a documentary.
To navigate that problem, Bailey removed his name from the directing credits and replaced it with “William Verity,” the spiritual advisor of a friend. Considering both the logistical challenges of interviewing Warhol and the subsequent barriers he encountered with the production, Bailey said, “Over the years, I’ve done quite a few interviews. I guess Andy was the hardest.”
Which isn’t to say that the two men didn’t get along. Bailey said he met Warhol a decade earlier through the art director of Glamour magazine, and the movie successfully documents their relationship: Rather than deconstructing Warhol’s mystique, the director comes to terms with it. Shot in three weeks in and around New York City, “Warhol” includes behind-the-scenes peeks at productions of Warhol Factory films (including the shot of Warhol yawning as he holds a boom mic). The director also gets in on the fun by mocking the mania surrounding Warhol’s fame. One scene finds him running along the beach with a dog tied to his ankle in a merciless parody of a JFK spread from Life magazine.
When Bailey couldn’t get Warhol himself to speak to the camera, the director hired an actor to read some of the artist’s most famous lines. “Sometimes, I didn’t know where he was,” Bailey explained. “So I said, ‘Screw this, I’ll have a double.'” Bailey made no apologies for avoiding documentary conventions. “I feel like a fraud because I’m not a real filmmaker,” he said, discussing some of the more recent radical art of his own making, including a painting series called “Hitler Killed the Duck.” He also recently participated in a new BBC4 drama called “We’ll Take Manhattan,” which chronicles his love affair with Jean Shrimpton in New York.
Bailey’s creativity, not unlike Warhol’s, met harsh opposition during the production of “Warhol.” The program was censored due to several uses of the word “fuck” and a scene where a member of Warhol’s Factory “painted with her tits,” as Bailey described it.
The offending moments speak to a legacy of Warhol-fueled provocations that–as even Bailey realized–look vastly different by today’s standards. Near the end of his conversation at the Hamptons, Bailey singled out an 11-year-old sitting in the front row of the audience. After confirming that the boy liked the movie, Bailey asked, “Did you know who Andy Warhol was?” When his latest subject shook his head, Bailey smiled. “Weird, isn’t it?”