Andy Warhol, the fey, charismatic, bewigged avatar of Pop Art, must be some kind of genius, because even 20 years after his death, any commentary on or exploration of his life and artistic legacy creates controversy. Factory Girl, the provocative new biopic about former Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, has already thrown people from Village Voice film critic Nathan Lee to New York rocker Lou Reed into spasms of frustration and outrage. Their howls are totally justified, not because the movie is bad -- it isn't -- but because it dares to explore the toxic social consequences of superficiality, sarcasm, and artifice, a subject that survivors of the 1960s New York art scene apparently wish to suppress.
The relationship between working-class bohemian Warhol (Guy Pearce) and high-society wanderer Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) forms the core of the film, and Pearce's and Miller's mesmerizing performances make clear that Warhol and Sedgwick fulfilled each other's depthless needs for love, affection, and approval. For a while, this glamorous couple lives the typically fantastic life that gay men and their pretty but damaged straight "girlfriends" are supposed to lead. She brings him clientele and publicity, he reaffirms her beauty and stylishness, and together they get into all sorts of life-affirming trouble as they storm Paris and Manhattan. Edie's descent from superstardom begins when she starts to dabble in drugs, but the rift between Sedgwick and Warhol widens when Sedgwick becomes enamored of a Bob Dylan-like singer-songwriter (Hayden Christiansen) who tries to get her to look closely at her surroundings and realize that, in the women's-lib '60s, she's being crassly exploited.
At first, Christiansen's clenched-larynx portrayal of Dylan is so ridiculous and wrong that it nearly defies description. But by turning "Dylan" into a "musician" (and thus a metaphor for art with both image and substance), the film's compelling set piece is established, a re-imagining of one of the famous "screen tests" that took place in Warhol's Factory. According to Callie Angell's superb new book, Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol, Dylan sat for two such tests, and while both men respected each other's work, a certain "competitive scorn" for Dylan emerged in the Factory after he encouraged Sedgwick's split from Warhol. In contrast, the "musician's" scorn is the focus of the scene, as he questions Warhol's intentions, filmmaking skills, and the rationale behind his coy, disaffected poses. The musician correctly sees the real damage that stems from the way the hip artist and his gang worship the surface of emotions, conventions, and images while retreating from the messy complications of everyday human interaction. The damage wrought by Warhol and others consumes the rest of the film, just as Sedgwick's desperation, psychological trauma, and addictions consume her.
Factory Girl's fact-fudging and flights of fancy are totally fine with me for two reasons. First, they generate genuine curiosity about Warhol's cinema. (I'd love to find some copies of his movies.) Second, they dare to question the irony and aversion to sloppy but sincere emotion that mark much of the cynical popular art that's churned out for public consumption these days.
Studio on the Square, Ridgeway Four