Empire



“The subject of this film is not the Empire State Building,” I wrote in my notebook some ways into the third hour of Andy Warhol’s famous and rarely screened masterpiece, Empire.  Or at least I think this is what I wrote.  My notes are barely intelligible even to me––written in the film’s own darkness, my lines began to twist around one another with surprising abandon.  The screening of Empire in Atlanta was the vision of the artist and scholar Andy Ditzler, for many years the curator and host of Film Love, an occasional series devoted to experimental and avant-garde cinemas.  Ditzler is, I think, one of the true pearls of the Atlanta artworld.  Only he would organize a presentation of Empire in its strangely plain and baroque entirety, in 16mm prints on a double projection system using vintage equipment.  

“Entirety” is something the film contests from the beginning, and its own entirety can be counted in at least three different ways.  First, all films can, of course, be called hyperphotographs, or a condition of hyperdisciplined hyperphotography, a state of extreme photographic abundance submitted to high-speed projection machines, precisely to fool the eye (turned obediently toward the site of projection) into losing track of individual frames, for the sake of an illusion of motion.  A typical hundred minute film consists physically of around 150,000 individual photographs.   Empire’s physical entirety consists of ten 16mm reels, each holding some 46,000 frames, for a total of almost half a million photographs, a state of superhyperabundance which is part of its conceptual work.

Second, Empire's entirety can be described temporally, as its running time.  The film's projection time is from its outset an artistic conceit, the performance of a one-to-one correspondence between cinematic time and cinematized time, a watching time which is exactly a shooting time, in this case about six and half hours on a single summer night in Manhattan in 1964.  I use the word “conceit” because the film was never meant to be projected at exactly the same speed it was shot, 24 frames per second.  Warhol himself projected it much more slowly, at 16 frames per second (the standard projection rate of the earliest silent films), for a projection time of eight hours and five minutes in total.  Ditzler’s projectors operated at 18 frames per second, for a total running time of seven hours and eleven minutes.  And I use the word “conceit” because Empire is a deep interrogation into the nature and experience of time.  On one hand, the film performs a kind of vigil, a keeping-watch that recreates a duration of attentiveness from the moment the cameras began to act, approximately 8:10 pm on July 25, 1964, to the moment they ceased to act, about 2:25 am on July 26th.  On the other hand, Empire induces an experience of losing track of time, a feeling of being unable to count time, a sense that numerizing time as seconds or minutes or hours is an exercise in arbitrariness.  In Empire, time in precise measurement becomes a perpetuity, seemingly without measure, to the point of hypnotic.

Third, to counterbalance––or to revolt against––the physical and temporal expansiveness of the film's concept of entirety, Empire’s iconography consists of a single image hovering in the near-center of the frame.  A single image:  the floodlit crown of the Empire State Building at night, unmoving, inert, static.  In effect, Warhol implodes cinema, flattens the grand illusion of pictures moving, returns the cinematic image to the condition of a photograph, namely a transcriptive account of the world severed from the world itself, severed from origin, derivation and destiny––all of which are left to become exercises in imagination and research––severed from stories of cause and effect, significance and impact, reason and unreason for being.  The single and singular image that comprises Empire is, like any photograph, a denatured object, an unexplained explanandum.  For Warhol to torque cinema so abruptly toward photography, to merge them into a hybrid image form without clear name, is at once to acknowledge the triumph of lens-based media in twentieth-century mass culture, and to deconstruct both media in an anti-triumphalist spectacle.  

The simple and immoderate and dichotomous character of Empire registers differently for each viewer, and it seems fair to say that the film’s deep subject is each viewer’s experience, which is to say in turn that without quite functioning as a mirror, the film reflects the mind of the viewer beholding it.  My notebook roughly tracks the range of my responses.  Certain passages are given to reading the film as a political allegory (“this is the american tower of babel,” I wrote, “with its head bright and decapitated…a bodiless godhead of the american empire, lit up in hollow majesty and abstract grandeur, a not-funny parody of the imperial might…”).  Other passages contemplate the image’s descent into strangeness and distance, the effect of continuous looking, analogous to the loss of a word’s sense when you repeat it enough times (“a lens peers through space and all it can resolve does not amount to a name,” i wrote, “rather it reduces a monolith to a mere set of marks”). Still other passages from my notebook offer metaphors for describing parts of the image––a candle at the top, or barbed wire fencing at the bottom––and several pages contain blind contour drawings I made while staring at the screen, not looking at the page, which anyway was too dark to see.  

And then there is the film’s own wandering from its narrow path, its accidents and eccentricities.  There is the light on the top of a building just to the left of the Empire State Building and also at the bottom of the frame, which blinks once every fifteen minutes, and blinks the exact time every hour on the hour.  Warhol and his assistant, the artist Jonas Mekas, appear at the beginning of certain reels, reflected briefly in the window through which they shot, dematerialized almost as much as the building itself.  And there are the skips and flashes natural to the film process, and the dust flinging through the projector’s gears, clinging to the film by a static electricity stronger than the gusts in the machine.  For those who begin at the beginning and end at the end, the film departs from itself in other ways:  the first reel begins with the building non-illuminated, contending with the fading light of day, and midway through the ninth reel, the lights are suddenly cut off, pitching the frame to near blackness––and prompting Warhol to film a tenth reel of the unseeable building, shown in a fully-concealed form of presence.  Empire’s irregularities make its stasis dance.

A minimalist extravagance, a purification ritual that makes everything more complicated, an insistent declaration of simplicity that keeps issuing its own caveats, a heaving unity almost made effortless––all of this hangs in the balance as long as the image lasts.  And how long it lasts, once it has lasted, is Empire’s ongoing inner situation, and yours.

Atlanta, October 2019

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Andy Warhol’s Empire was presented by Film Love, in collaboration with the Hambidge Center and The Works Upper Westside, on October 12, 2019, curated and hosted by Andy Ditzler.  Thanks to Andy Ditzler, who appears in the first photograph above, and the last one below, for his valuable notes and commentary on the film.  And thanks to Asya Gefter for encouraging me to write this piece.