Directed by Andy Warhol

With Edie Sedgwick and the voice of Chuck Wein.

In 1965 some friends and I started a film society at MIT. We showed many “underground” or “experimental” movies by filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol, who were just starting to attract public attention. Often some first-time viewer, baffled by a film that was out of focus, moving very rapidly or too slowly, or lacking any conventional plot, would leave his seat a few minutes after it began, approach one of us, and ask, “Is the rest of it going to be like this?” The answer was always affirmative, and most often the questioner would then make a quick exit.

Even viewers open to all cinema’s varieties might find themselves asking the same question after the first few minutes of Andy Warhol’s 1965 film Poor Little Rich Girl. (In 1972 Warhol withdrew from circulation the films he’d directed, in the interest of promoting the more commercial films he’d produced, which were directed by Paul Morrissey. Warhol’s films have only recently become available again, and the Film Center is screening Poor Little Rich Girl on Friday, July 22.) The film opens with almost no sound, Edie Sedgwick’s head in an awkward and very out-of-focus close-up. Her eyes are closed; she appears to be sleeping; nothing is happening. And while there is sound after a few minutes, the black-and-white film remains resolutely out of focus for the entire first half of its 66 minutes.

An unscripted “portrait” of Sedgwick, the beautiful young heiress who left her family and joined Warhol’s entourage, the film is by turns provocative, boring, erotic, unpleasant, passively voyeuristic, and aggressively manipulative. It is also a profound meditation on issues Warhol is known for dealing with–surface appearances, fetishism–and issues he is less often associated with: loneliness, emptiness, vanity.

While the Warhol myth, to some extent self-perpetuated, was of an artist who barely cared about his art and preferred to let other people or machines make it for him, Warhol was in fact much more in control than is generally supposed. Just as he is reputed to have spent hours mixing particular shades of paint, he was behind the camera on many of his films–the credits of Poor Little Rich Girl, spoken on the sound track instead of being printed on the screen, end with “camera by Andy.” When the first version of the film proved out of focus due to a lens defect, he decided to reshoot all of it; later he decided to use the first reel of the first version and the second reel of the second for the final film.

Each of the film’s two parts is a 33-minute take uninterrupted by cuts, observing Sedgwick in her apartment. She wakes up, applies makeup, orders coffee, chats on the phone, smokes, tries on clothes. Mostly she is clad only in black panties and bra. The camera focuses (whether in focus or not) on her; this is a highly voyeuristic film. Not only is the camera voyeuristic–pointing at a nearly nude Sedgwick, seemingly caged in her small room–but so is the temporality; the film unspools in real time (a fairly radical idea in 1965), so that the viewer is continually forced to wait, like a voyeur, for something to happen.

Sedgwick’s chatter is relentlessly superficial–her wants, her needs, her clothes; for a time she and Andy, who was known to have a superficial interest or two, acted as alter egos, appearing in public dressed and made up alike. When we finally see her face in focus, her eyes are painted with a few more thin black lines than is customary. Later, when she sits at her makeup table, we get the film’s most formally precise composition, Sedgwick’s presence in the center almost classically balanced with a TV on the left and a chair on the right. The whole frame is an architectural arrangement of vertical lines and shadows, recalling the blacks and whites of her face.

Yet the kind of voyeuristic possessiveness encouraged by both porno and mainstream cinema is frustrated at every turn. First of all there’s the fact that Sedgwick, tantalizingly near-nude most of the time, never fully disrobes. But the film’s two-part structure frustrates more complexly. During the first half Sedgwick is alone in her room and the viewer is free to look on her without competition, the only problem being that she’s almost always out of focus. A few brief moments in which some part of her steps momentarily into sharp clarity only heighten the tension that the general lack of clarity creates. But when she suddenly snaps into focus at the start of the second half (the film’s only cut), there’s a new element: an offscreen man awakens, and for the rest of the film Sedgwick is interacting with him. We hear his voice; he throws her a dress from offscreen to try on; she looks at him out of the frame to the left. She is now more “his” than ours, and her offscreen looks deflect the viewer’s head-on gaze; this drama of looking is now triangular.

Further, Warhol rarely frames Sedgwick as directly as a naive voyeur would. Rather than losing one’s awareness of the composition’s borders in order to concentrate solely on the subject within, the viewer is constantly reminded of the image’s rectangle. Even the mostly static opening shot of Sedgwick sleeping is a little off-center, just enough to seem strange: the lower part of her chin is cut off. More often, the film’s improvisational nature means that when Sedgwick moves, the camera only follows belatedly and imperfectly. When she moves her head up a little her eyes are suddenly cut off, or her whole face disappears from view as she turns her head, or she suddenly walks completely out of the frame. If the preplanned camera angles of a studio production are generally chosen to foster in the viewer the illusion of a continuous intimacy with the characters, Warhol emphasizes the opposite: the unpredictable randomness of life, the empty boredom of real time, the denial of desire. The artist so notorious for his worship of money, parties, stars, and fame has here made a film as profoundly anti-Hollywood as any in the avant-garde, one that seems to be arguing that to fulfill the voyeuristic longings that cinema so often encourages would be false both to its own nature, in which out-of-focus is as “true” as in-focus, and to the emptiness of real life.

Often when Sedgwick leaves the frame the camera lingers for a while on the empty space she has left behind, sometimes a space of near-total darkness. These moments, though brief and infrequent, are oddly powerful and incredibly important. They appear almost as wounds in the film’s otherwise nearly continuous surface, as metaphoric exaggerations of the smaller imperfections of framing. Here the pleasure of looking finds its opposite: the terror that comes when the voyeur suddenly finds himself with nothing to look at, face to face with a void.

Near the end of the film comes a sequence in which Sedgwick tries on clothes. At one point she pulls from her closet a garment that she describes as “the most beautiful coat in the world,” and its leopard-skin spots make a curious visual rhyme with the spotted garments she has just put on over her panties and bra. Here, as elsewhere in his art, Warhol uses visual repetition to suggest that all appearances are merely versions of each other. And indeed, as Sedgwick alters her visible persona with different attire, she seems utterly unchanged.

Sedgwick’s performance, too, has an odd homogeneity. Her eyes dart nervously about, she gets annoyed or angry, and yet this woman whom Warhol called “incredible on camera . . . all energy” seems dogged by an inner emptiness. She seems to be all masquerade, with nothing inside–perhaps it has something to do with the pills we see her wolf down right out of the bottle.

But then this emptiness would make her the perfect superstar for Warhol, the artist with the self-professed interest in “surfaces.” While writer Callie Angell found “visual suspense and resolution” in Poor Little Rich Girl’s two-part form, what surprised me about the juxtaposition is how little seems to change when the film is in focus. It’s true that the viewer is both excited and relieved when the mysterious and sensuous surfaces of the out-of-focus reel are suddenly revealed as the specifics of Sedgwick’s body and room. But once the eye has grasped the basics, the offhand formalism of Warhol’s compositions creates an almost lush intensity out of the imagery’s blacks and whites, making the second reel seem not unlike the first. Every area of the frame is a potential object of fetishistic attraction. Is it Sedgwick’s body that is beautiful, or the contrasts that her black bra and panties make with her creamy skin?

The idea that every area of the frame can be an object of visual desire is underlined by Warhol’s use of the zoom. While most of his zooms in or out can be justified by his interest in focusing on one area of action, the zooms themselves are odd. Frequently the center point shifts during the zooms; they are irregular and jerky and seem somewhat unsure of when to begin and end. To cynics who might attribute this to Warhol’s early unfamiliarity with the zoom lens, I’d point out that the zooms in his masterpiece The Chelsea Girls, made a year later, are even more random, often zeroing in on empty spaces between characters.

The one thing the zooms in Poor Little Rich Girl are not is phallic; unlike most of the zooms in rock videos, for instance, they avoid suggesting a directed desire. Instead they make clear that composition–what portion of “reality” is included within the frame–is as arbitrary as, say, focus. All are illusions of cinema, to be used as the filmmaker wishes–and in this film Warhol wishes to use them to emphasize his star, Sedgwick, only some of the time. He also uses them to deflect our gazes away from her and toward everything else in the frame. This is a generalized, polymorphous fetishism, in which a blank wall can be as sensuous as the star’s body. At one point Warhol zooms in on Sedgwick’s belly button, but in an instant she has left the frame and we are left with several seconds of darkness–more time than we had to look at her belly.

Here, as elsewhere in his art, Warhol argues that all things are equally beautiful, every surface a potential object of desire, and that therefore the distinctions between things dissolve into nothingness. The viewer of Poor Little Rich Girl sees not only a self-destructive young woman but a more generalized vision of beauty so nonspecific that it’s poised at the brink of its own annihilation.

The self-denying voyeurism and self-obliterating beauty of Poor Little Rich Girl are not merely cinematic reflections of the personality limitations of some kinky fetishist–though by all indications Warhol was that too. But by pushing voyeurism and an obsession with surfaces to an extreme, he expresses a deep truth about the nature of consciousness–that any experience will, if pushed to its limits, bring one to the edge of the void. In this he speaks to all of us: who has never felt an emptiness at the heart of reality, or within his own soul?