Rocking to Warhol films

Andy Warhol’s films raise the question of what exactly you’re supposed to do with them. Are they regular “films” meant to be seen in a movie theater? Or some other sort of art? In today’s art world, they’d probably be seen more in line with the video art that you see in galleries or posted on the Web than anything you would sit down to watch with a bucket of popcorn.

It seemed especially apt when the “screen tests” Warhol filmed showing the members of the Velvet Underground staring at the camera were displayed in the 2007 exhibit “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Walking through the galleries, you saw these faces looking out at you from the wall, not still enough to be paintings, not quite animated enough to be movies. They were the living equivalent of a two-dimensional photographic portrait.

More of those screen tests — a sample of the 300 four-minute films Warhol made of various people looking into the camera — were back at the MCA Saturday night (March 7). This time, they were on a big screen in the theater, a bit more like a trip to the cinema. But this was a concert, not a movie. Or maybe it was both. Dean & Britta were playing thirteen songs to accompany those black-and-white faces, in a project commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum called 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Warhol used to show some of these movies at performances by the Velvet Underground and Nico, so it seems like the late pop artist would probably approve of this latest use for his footage.

And Dean & Britta are a good choice to carry it out. It’s been obvious ever since Dean Wareham was in Galaxie 500 — and all throughout his recordings with Luna and Dean & Britta — that the Velvet Underground are his major musical influence. At last night’s show, Dean & Britta sounded more like the V.U. than ever. Other than a few loud moments, they stayed on the more delicate end of the V.U. groove, with that trademark sound of tamped-down urgency pulsing underneath the chords. While Wareham and Britta Phillips don’t sound precisely like Lou Reed and Nico when they sing, their languid vocals were a close-enough approximation to set the right mood for the screen tests. Some of the songs (including originals as well as covers) were instrumental; in some, the vocals were almost incidental. Wareham’s guitar was the musical star of the night.

But the real stars were those faces — Richard Rheem, Ann Buchanan, Paul America, Edie Sedgwick, Billy Name, Susan Bottomly, Dennis Hopper, Mary Woronow, Nico, Freddy Herko, Ingrid Superstar, Lou Reed and Jane Holzer. As the films flared in and out of view, the faces stared out at us, like people looking at themselves in the mirror. Some of them did little more than stare, and one’s attention wandered away from the screen. Then the eyes would blink and you would remember that that wasn’t just a still photo projected behind the band. Some of the subjects were more lively. Reed, wearing cool shades, slurped at a Coke bottle. (For that film, Dean & Britta played “Not a Young Man Anymore,” an old V.U. song that surfaced in bootleg concert recordings.) Hopper kept glancing down and then back up, seemingly fighting off an urge to laugh or reveal some other emotion, his eyes fluttering.

Nico acted as if it wasn’t a screen test at all, but rather a casual moment captured by a surreptitious camera. But then she made it clear that she really was playing for the camera when she rolled up a magazine and held it to her eye like a telescope. (For that film, Dean & Britta played “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which Bob Dylan wrote with Nico in mind.) In the final film of the show, Jane Holzer brushed her teeth for all of us to see.

13 Most Beautiful… is coming out on DVD from Plexifilm, and Wareham suggested the video musical tracks would be perfect to watch on an iPod or cell phone. That does seem like the sort of art-dissemination system Warhol would have liked. You can watch the trailer here on youtube.

Photos of Dean & Britta performing at the MCA.