Callie Angell (1948–2010)

A tribute to the late curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project
by David Schwartz  posted May 14, 2010
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A month before she committed suicide this May, Callie Angell did something she had done frequently since becoming curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project in 1991. She was introducing a program of recently restored Warhol-related films; this time, at NYU’s Orphan Film Symposium, the program including footage of Warhol and his entourage photographed by Danny Williams and Barbara Rubin.

Angell was particularly delighted about one small discovery. In Rubin’s footage, there was a brief shot of Warhol on a bus, reading a tabloid newspaper. A close-up revealed the item that piqued his interest: the arrest of 52-year-old actress Hedy Lamarr, who had been caught shoplifting at a Los Angeles department store.

With her encyclopedic knowledge of Warhol’s life, Angell instantly knew the significance of this shot, for Rubin had captured on film the spark of artistic creation. Warhol must have decided almost immediately to make a movie about the shoplifting. Within the next two weeks, Ronald Tavel had written a screenplay, and Warhol shot his hour-long feature Hedy, starring drag queen Mario Montez as Hedy and Mary Woronov as the arresting officer.

Angell was a consummate curator, scholar, and critic. Her task, which she described as “one of the most interesting jobs in the world,” was to make order out of the celluloid mountain that was Warhol’s cinematic output. Cinema was Warhol’s ideal medium; it combined mechanical distance and deceptive simplicity with unflinching intimacy. In the mid-1960s, he produced hundreds of hours of film, a body of work much more varied and rewarding than the caricature inspired by his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building.

Warhol’s output included more than 350 “screen tests”—astonishingly revealing, short, silent portraits of Factory visitors, and nearly 100 feature-length films, valuable both as artistic experiments and cultural documents. Yet unlike the paintings, silk-screens, sculptures, and photographs, the films had no commercial value, and in 1970, Warhol pulled them from distribution.

After he died in 1987, thousands of reels of film were found, many stashed in closets in unmarked reels, cans, and boxes. At the Orphan event, Angell wryly praised filmmaker Danny Williams, Warhol’s onetime lover, and another suicide victim, as “the only person who ever wrote useful information on the film cans.”

In her nearly 20-year stint running the Warhol film project, Angell was a master cataloguer, researcher, and archivist. But she was much more than that. She was a gifted curator who helped organize many Warhol screenings and retrospectives around the world. With deadpan wit, acuity, and authority, she lectured and appeared on panels frequently; in March, she gave a wonderfully illustrated talk about one of Warhol’s great superstars, Mario Montez, at a day-long conference at Columbia. She was scheduled to speak later this month at Light Industry in Brooklyn, about Warhol’s unfinished Jack Smith film Batman Dracula.

Aside from Angell’s work, most writing about Warhol’s films has tended to be imprecise, biased, gossip-filled, and ego-driven, often based on faulty memory or secondhand reports of films unseen by the writer. Angell was the antidote. She was levelheaded and she knew everything. There was great comfort knowing that all this information was stored in her head.

Now that she is abruptly gone, a major part of her legacy is to be found in her writing, and it is here that Angell deserves overdue recognition. Daughter of Roger Angell, and granddaugher of E.B. White, she was a gifted writer who found in Warhol the ideal outlet for her skills. The key to understanding Warhol lies in the ability to see the big picture and the small detail simultaneously, and that is precisely what she did in her writing.

Her book, Andy Warhol Screen Tests, is a masterpiece, the best book by far about Warhol’s films, and possibly the best about him and his world in the 1960s. Yet for devoted Warholians, Screen Tests was an enticing appetizer to what was surely to be Angell’s crowning achievement, the catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s films. The fate of that project is a question mark now; some of Angell’s closest friends don’t know whether she was close to completing the manuscript.

Alas, Angell’s published writing is now left to speak for itself. Here are some samples, starting with her distilled, and yes, poetic, description of poet John Ashbery’s screen test:

Formally dressed in suit and tie, Ashbery gives a formidable performance, meeting the camera’s stare with a fiercely critical scowl. His suspicious expression does relax somewhat in the course of the film; toward the end, he appears momentarily lost in his own thoughts.

In her introduction to Andy Warhol Screen Tests, she articulates the significance of these quickly shot film portraits, arguing that they:

must now be seen through added layers of cultural and art historical significance—as one of Warhol’s earliest and most ambitious investigations into the art of portraiture, as his largest and most complex film series and a major achievement of his minimalist cinema, and as a detailed record of a specific period in the history of avant-garde art, a complex group portrait of an intricately related art world of multiple disciplines and enormous creativity.

A typical example of her method is this excerpt from her entry for the screen tests 34 and 35, of Ann Buchanan, that starts with fascinating biographical detail shedding new light on the 1960s scene, and ends with a lucid description of one of Warhol’s favorite screen tests:

In the 1960s, Ann Buchanan was a young bohemian with connections to Beat writers and poets on both coasts; she lived with and then married the Kansas-born poet and writer Charles Plymell in 1963. That summer, as Plymell recalled in his memoir, The Frisco Kid, 1963, the couple shared an apartment in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, who had been the model for Dean Moriarty, the main character in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road. In early 1964, Buchanan and Plymell stayed in Wichita, Kansas, for a few months and eventually moved on to New York; as Plymell later recalled, “I drove to New York with my girlfriend Ann. She ran off to Andy’s factory and later took up with [Barry] Miles (the official Ginsberg biographer)…"

The Screen Tests of Ann Buchanan are among the best-known images from Warhol’s elusive compilation, The Thirteen Most Beautiful.…A double-frame image of Buchanan appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on January 10, 1965, in an article describing a screening of The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women. Warhol told the reporter that Buchanan’s Screen Test was “his favorite performance: ‘She did something wonderful marvelous,’ he said in his pale voice. ‘She cried.’"

In Buchanan’s first Screen Test, labeled Girl Who Cries a Tear," she does indeed weep. Seated under bright lights and apparently under instructions not to blink, she heroically holds her eyes wide open while they slowly well up with glittering tears. Halfway through the film, the first tear falls from her right eye and rolls down her cheek. By the end of the roll, teardrops are dripping from her jaw and her face is quite wet, but she has still not blinked even once. The performance is uncanny to watch, like staring at a religious icon that has miraculously begun to weep.

Finally, to give a sense of what the catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s films held in store, look at the wealth of information and insight in this one paragraph from Angell’s entry on epic-length Sleep, one of his first films, from the booklet published by the Whitney Museum of American Art with a 1994 showing of his films. With details culled from personal conversations and interviews, Angell offers tremendous insight into Warhol’s creative process, and into the radical shift in direction that his filmmaking would take after Sleep. (For those who only know it by reputation, Sleep is a direct eight-hour recording of a man sleeping. In fact, Sleep is 5 ½ hours long, and was made with three-minute rolls of film, filmed with a Bolex camera and cut together in a complex montage including frequent repetition of reels.)

Warhol’s use of repetition in the editing of Sleep was probably influenced by the September 1963 performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations (1893-95), which he attended at a time when he had shot most of the footage for his film but had not yet begun to edit it. In this 18-hour, 40-minute concert, an 80-second piece of music was repeated 840 times by a changing roster of pianists; after the performance, Warhol discussed Satie’s use of repetition with John Cage, who was the organizer of the event. Except for one version of Haircut made at the end of the year, Warhol did not pursue repetition in his filmmaking after Sleep, nor did he ever again edit his films as heavily. In fact, his experience with the editing of Sleep in the fall of 1963 was probably at least partly responsible for his later, well-known avoidance of any kind of editing. “I find editing too tiring,” Warhol remarked, clearly speaking from experience. Following Sleep, the full-length camera roll would become the basic building block for all his filmmaking. For the shooting of Empire in July 1964, Warhol rented an Auricon movie camera that would hold 50-minute lengths of film and was thus able to realize the 9-hour movie he had failed to complete in Sleep.

Anyone who has had the great pleasure of knowing Callie Angell or her work will miss both fiercely. But as the Ann Buchanan screen test shows, even the most unflinching gaze must end in tears. 

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THE AUTHOR

David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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