BOOTLEG FILES 470: “Empire” (1964 experimental film by Andy Warhol).
LAST SEEN: The entire eight-hour film was projected on a side of Chicago’s Aon Center in December 2011.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive commodity from an iconic creative artist.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not very likely.
On July 25, 1964, the New York office of Henry Romney, vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, was abuzz with activity. Andy Warhol, the reigning king of the pop art movement, and filmmaker Jonas Mekas arrived to shoot a movie; they were accompanied that night by Gerard Malanga, Marie Desert and John Palmer. The office’s location – the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building – was of prime importance because it offered an unobstructed view of the Empire State Building.
Warhol and Mekas pointed an Auricon 16mm sound camera through an office window at the Empire State Building. Beginning at 8:06 pm and lasting until 2:42 am, the duo filmed the celebrated skyscraper. Their Auricon camera held 1,200 feet of film in a single magazine, which required 14 reel changes during the shoot.
The resulting film, “Empire,” became one of the most curious and controversial productions in the history of underground cinema. Although the film was shot with a sound camera at the normal 24fps speed, Warhol decided against using any soundtrack and insisted that “Empire” be shown at the silent film projection speed of 16fps. As a result, “Empire” wound up with a ghastly running time of eight hours and five minutes. And while that length might be suitable for a sprawling epic, it didn’t seem to fit a production consisting of an unbroken gaze at an office building.
“Empire” opens with a white screen that quickly absorbs the image of the Empire State Building. During the film’s first reel, the sun’s light vanishes and the building’s floodlights are turned on. For the rest of the film, the Empire State Building remains at the center of the screen – and that’s pretty much all that happens. The only movement in the film comes from the occasional blinking of a tower light atop the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building, which is seen behind the Empire State Building. In the film’s final reel, the Empire State Building’s floodlights go off and the only illumination comes from the lights atop the skyscraper’s television broadcasting antenna.
For many years “Empire” was famous by reputation only. Warhol presented a single exhibition of the film after its completion, but no theater or gallery would commit to playing it. Warhol refused to edit the film down and ordered that it would never be shown in a truncated format. (In the past few years, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with the permission of the Warhol estate, occasionally showed a two-hour excerpt of the film.)
In the 1960s, many people dismissed “Empire” as a boring stunt. But time was ultimately Warhol’s ally. In 2004, the Library of Congress caught many people off-guard by including “Empire” in the National Film Registry. Since then, a number of venues have dared to present the film in a single, intermission-free engagement. A few of these engagements have taken place in a traditional auditorium, most notably a highly publicized (though barely attended) 2011 screening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. The film has also been projected on the exterior walls of the Royal National Theatre in London in 2005 and Chicago’s Aon Center in 2011.
During the past decade, “Empire” has generated speculation from film critics seeking to make sense of the work.
“Viewers quickly exhaust the visual information in the ‘Empire’ frame; after a few minutes they have nothing left to ‘read’ or interpret,” writes film historian Daniel Eagan. “They can concentrate on the changes in the frame – building lights blink on and off, the flash frames caught on reel changes, the streaks made during film processing – but inevitably will find their minds wandering, unable to concentrate fully on an image that doesn’t merit full attention. The building may start to lose in iconic power, to become a backdrop, a scenic element, something seen but not noticed outside a window.”
“If, as has been argued, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can paintings and Brillo box sculptures transformed art-making from a physical into a philosophical act, then ‘Empire’ could be said to do the same for filmmaking,” writes Tom Vick of AllMovie.com. “With their long, fixed-perspective shots of mundane activities, Warhol’s early ’60s films constantly remind viewers that the camera is a machine capable of paying attention to anything for any length of time. ‘Empire’ takes this idea to its absurd but logical extreme by asking its audience to commit this nearly impossible act of attention themselves. Warhol’s abandonment of silent filmmaking soon after it was completed suggests that he too believed that ‘Empire’ completed this stage of his filmmaking career.”
My own view is not as eloquent or intensive. To be frank, I’ve never seen the entire “Empire.” But the eight-minute segment I saw in an unauthorized YouTube posting seemed like the full eight-hour endeavor. It was impossible to watch without yawning or getting agitated – and, at the same time, it was also impossible to ignore. For its sheer strangeness as a near-motionless motion picture, “Empire” is exasperating and amusing. And I suspect that is what Warhol was trying to achieve. When he was asked why he made such a bizarre work, Warhol claimed, “To see time go by.”
In 2005, the Italian Raro Video label included a one-hour version of “Empire” in an anthology of Warhol films. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh claimed that Raro Video was not authorized to present “Empire” for home release, though the label insisted that it was. The film, either in its full length or an edited version, has never been made available for U.S. home entertainment release.
Also in 2005, Callie Angell, director of the Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum, gave an interview to New York magazine that included a funny bit of trivia that was never previously noted: Warhol and Mekas made accidental appearances in the film. When reloading their camera, the men turned on the lights in Romney’s office in order to properly set up their takes. But three times during the shoot, they began filming before turning the office lights off. As a result, their reflections can be glimpsed a few times in the office window.
“No one had ever mentioned that before,” Angell said. “Probably no one ever had sat through the whole thing.”
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