Empire (1964 film)

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Empire
Empire Screenshot Warhol.jpg
Screenshot from the film
Directed byAndy Warhol
John Palmer
Produced byAndy Warhol
CinematographyJonas Mekas
Distributed byWarhol Films
Release date
  • 1964 (1964)
Running time
485 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent

Empire is a 1964 black-and-white silent film by Andy Warhol. When projected according to Warhol's specifications, it consists of eight hours and five minutes of slow motion footage of an unchanging view of the Empire State Building. The film does not have conventional narrative or characters, and largely reduces the experience of cinema to the passing of time.[1] Warhol stated that the purpose of the film was "to see time go by."[2] One week after the film was shot, experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas (who was cinematographer for Empire) speculated in the Village Voice that Warhol's movie would have a profound influence on avant-garde cinema.[3] The Museum of Modern Art describes Empire as "perhaps [Warhol's] most famous and influential cinematic work."[4] The film is included in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry of culturally significant American movies.[5]

Synopsis[edit]

Empire was filmed at 24 frames per second and is meant to be seen in slow motion at 16 frames per second, extending the 6 1/2 hour length of the film to 8 hours and 5 minutes.[6] It consists of a stationary view toward the Empire State Building lasting the entirety of the running time. The film begins with a blank white screen. As the sun sets almost imperceptibly, the figure of the building emerges and its details become clearer. As the sun sets further, the building is enveloped in darkness. Floodlights on the upper part of the building snap on. Lights in other structures go on and off. In the background, a beacon atop the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower flashes at intervals corresponding to every 15 minutes in real time (it flashes a single time every 15 minutes, and at hour it flashes the time of day).[6] Eventually, the floodlights shut off and the remainder of the film shows nearly total darkness. At three points in the film, reflections of the film crew (including Warhol) can be seen on the windows of the office where filming took place, as the office lights were not turned off before shooting began following a change of film magazines.[7]

Production[edit]

The initial idea for Empire came from John Palmer, a young filmmaker affiliated with Jonas Mekas. Palmer had been staying on the roof of Mekas's Film Maker's Cooperative and had an impressive nighttime view of the tower, which was only a few blocks away. He told Mekas that he thought an image of the building at night would make a good Warhol film, and Mekas passed the idea to Warhol.[8][9] Around the time Warhol considered the idea, he had completed (in late 1963) his first extended-length film, the 5-hour Sleep, which shows multiple views of a man sleeping; Empire was his second long film.

In April, 1964, the upper 30 floors of the Empire State Building were floodlit for the first time in connection with the opening of the 1964 New York World's Fair in Queens. As the only floodlit skyscraper in New York City,[6] the impact of the lighting was dramatic, with one person calling it "a chandelier suspended in the sky."[10] On the night of the filming, Warhol exclaimed "The Empire State Building is a star!"[3] The floodlights were essential to Warhol's concept for the film, since without them, there would be almost nothing to see.[6]

For a shooting venue, Warhol made arrangements to use an office belonging to the Rockefeller Foundation, on the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building at 51st Street and 6th Avenue.[3] Cinematography took place overnight on July 24–25, 1964. Present for filming were Mekas, Warhol, Palmer, Gerard Malanga, Marie Desert (Mekas's girlfriend) and Henry Romney (of the Rockefeller Foundation).[8] From the window at the northeast corner of 51st Street and 6th Avenue, the camera was pointed southeast toward the Empire State Building at 34th Street and 5th Avenue, taking in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower, with its blinking beacon, at the corner of Madison Avenue and 24th Street, and the bulkier New York Life Insurance Company building at Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

In contrast to Warhol's earlier films, which had been shot with a Bolex camera limited to 3 minutes of shooting time Empire was filmed on an Auricon camera that allowed for takes of around 33 minutes.[11] In the Rockefeller Foundation office, Mekas framed the shot for Warhol's approval, and filming commenced at 8:06 pm, about ten minutes before sunset. Mekas's article about the shooting printed in the Village Voice the next week describes a lighthearted night of film making, with Warhol discoursing on the Empire State Building as the most prominent site in New York, visited by celebrities and tourists alike, and various people in the room imploring Warhol to pan the camera.[3] Shooting wrapped at 2:42 am the next morning, with 654 feet of film exposed.[8]

Empire was shot on ASA 400 Tri-X stock, push-processed to ASA 1000 to compensate for the dark conditions of filming.[7] The push-processing gives the film a graininess that calls attention to the medium of the film stock itself during projection in a manner that Douglas Crimp compares to the way that ink in Warhol's silkscreen paintings is present as both blobs of ink and as part of the image.[12] Each reel of the film contains a segment of film that was exposed to incidental light during processing, which may be evidence that the final work is unedited.[13] The complete film consists of ten reels, each lasting approximately 48 minutes when projected in slow motion at 16 frames per second as specified by Warhol.[14]

After the film had been developed and printed, Warhol did not have funds to pay the processor, and Palmer arranged with his mother to make the payment. In recognition of his role in conceiving, assisting with and paying for the film, Warhol listed Palmer as co-director.[9]

Release[edit]

Empire premiered on Saturday, March 6, 1965 at the City Hall Cinema, 170 Nassau Street, in Manhattan,[15] the site of Mekas's Film-Makers' Cinematheque at the time. Reporting on the premiere in his Village Voice, column, Mekas did not state how many people were in the 576-seat theater,[16] but claimed that after the film had been running for ten minutes, 30 or 40 people surrounded him and another staff member demanding their money back, "threatening to solve the question of the new vision and the new cinema by breaking chairs on our heads.".[17]

Apart from Mekas's articles in The Village Voice, the only other extended discussion of the film around the time of its release appears to be two articles in Film Culture, a journal of experimental cinema that Mekas and his brother produced. Gregory Battcock (a critic who was part of Warhol's circle and appears in several of his films),[18] connected the film with other works by Warhol in terms of its focus on a subject the viewer already generally knows. He argued this left space to emphasize other issues, particularly the physical medium of film, and the artistic use of long duration as a way of concentrating attention on these qualities. Battcock also observed that Empire had quickly become a classic of the avant garde and promised to have great, if unpredictable influence on the development of film.[19] In a later issue of Film Culture, John Bernard Myers, the director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and a notable New York City cultural figure,[20] responded to Battcock's article, dismissing the "simplistic concept" of the idea of time as a subject of film, observing, "If I were the camera, I would faint with boredom, staring that long at one thing...."[21]

Empire does not appear to have been screened often in New York City cinemas after its premiere.[22] In 1966, Warhol and his colleagues began producing multimedia events featuring The Velvet Underground. These went by several names, ultimately becoming best known as the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable." In addition to the Velvet Underground, the Exploding Plastic Inevitables featured simultaneous mixes of strobe lights, dancers, colored slides and film projections. Advertisements for the events held in the spring of 1966 in New York's East Village mention Empire among other Warhol films to be screened.[23]

Legacy[edit]

Warhol withdrew most of his film catalog, including Empire, from circulation in 1972. Film historian Callie Angell has observed that the inaccessibility of the film from 1972 until after Warhol's death, and the assumption that a film such as Empire must be unwatchable, gave Empire a life mainly as an idea about a film that expressed Warhol's outrageousness as an artist, with some accounts lengthening it to 10 or 24 hours.[24] The film began to be screened again in 1988 as part of the cataloguing and restoration of Warhol's films undertaken by several institutions.[25] In 1992, the original negative was rediscovered and used to make new prints of the film.[7]

Mechanical projectors capable of showing the film at 16 frames per second have become rarer since the 1970s, with most current machines capable of a minimum speed of 18 frames per second; viewed at this rate, the film is about 7 hours and 10 minutes long.[13] Empire is distributed by the Museum of Modern Art's Circulating Film and Video Library in its full length and as a two-hour edit.[26]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Crimp (2012), p. 142.
  2. ^ Bourdon (1989), p. 188.
  3. ^ a b c d Mekas, Jonas (30 July 1964). "Movie Journal". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  4. ^ "Andy Warhol. Empire. 1964". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  5. ^ "Film Registry-National Film Preservation Board". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d Angell (1994), p. 16.
  7. ^ a b c Angell (1994) p. 17.
  8. ^ a b c Watson (2003), pp. 160-61.
  9. ^ a b Angell (2006), p. 153.
  10. ^ Lelyveld, Joseph (February 23, 1964). "The Empire State to Glow at Night". New York Times. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  11. ^ Ciampaglia, Dante (August 5, 2014). "Andy Warhol's Empire Turns 50". Architectural Record.(registration required)
  12. ^ Crimp (2012), p. 141.
  13. ^ a b Crimp (2012), p. 160.
  14. ^ Angell (1994), p. 18.
  15. ^ "Empire flyer by Andy Warhol". Harper's Books. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  16. ^ "Tribune Theater 170 Nassau Street". Cinema Treasures. Archived from the original on 10 November 2017.
  17. ^ Mekas, Jonas (March 11, 1965). "Movie Journal". The Village Voice.
  18. ^ Angell (2006), p. 34.
  19. ^ Battcock, Gregory. "Notes on Empire: A Film by Andy Warhol". Film Culture. 40 (Spring 1966): 39–40.
  20. ^ Glueck, Grace (July 28, 1987). "John Bernard Myers, Dealer In Artworks and Literature". The New York Times.
  21. ^ Myers, John Bernard. "A Letter to Gregory Battcock". Film Culture. 45 (Summer 1967): 61.
  22. ^ "1965". Andy Warhol Films: Newspaper Adverts 1964-1974.
  23. ^ Angell (2006), p. 265.
  24. ^ Angell (1994), p. 15.
  25. ^ Angell (2006) p. 299.
  26. ^ "Museum of Modern Art Circulating Film & Video Library". The Museum of Modern Art.

Sources cited[edit]

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