Andy Warhol’s five-hour Sleep (1963) has long been one of the most famous of unseen films. It had relatively few screenings before being withdrawn from distribution in 1972, along with Warhol’s other early films; this Saturday’s single showing at the Film Center is likely the Chicago premiere. It’s been discussed a great deal, along with his slightly later Empire, primarily because by description alone they both sound so outrageous; in fact, Sleep had attained mythic status even before its completion, when Jonas Mekas wrote in the Village Voice in September 1963, “Andy Warhol…is in the process of making the longest and simplest movie ever made: an eight-hour long movie that shows nothing but a man sleeping.” The concept survives in discourse about film even today, as what Callie Angell, adjunct curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art, calls the film’s “conceptual version”–an artwork that can be discussed as an idea alone.

Of course, Warhol was the primary source of his own mythology, saying different things at different times, manufacturing a highly public but ultimately inscrutable persona for himself. Before shooting Sleep, his first film, Warhol had expressed interest in making an eight-hour film of a man sleeping–and an eight-hour film of Brigitte Bardot sleeping. After his films had become unavailable, he said they were more interesting to hear about than to see. He once said that he expected the audience to provide the sound tracks to his early silent films; audience members at early screenings of Sleep felt free to drift in and out, an option the Film Center will provide by keeping the box office open throughout its showing.

One might easily use Warhol’s various aesthetic statements over the years to dismiss his work. “Oh, we’re still figuring out how to make movies,” he once said, and “We only make bad movies” (in fact, a later film that he produced but didn’t direct was titled Andy Warhol’s Bad). As his films grew more commercial he declared, “Making money is art.” He stated that his best actor was someone who blinked only three times in ten minutes. As he turned to mechanical image-making (photo silk-screening in his paintings, then cinema) he expressed a desire to remove himself from the art-making process. All of this contributed to Warhol’s image as art-world manipulator, the consummate faker turned businessman, the cynical poseur. In this view, the experience of looking at his art is almost irrelevant; what counts is his success in putting across his concepts.

A more sophisticated version of Warhol the conceptualist links his early films to the tradition of John Cage, who argued that the unmanipulated sounds of one’s environment can make art; similarly, Warhol tried to replace the compressed dramatic time of film with the more relaxed time of real life. While Warhol was editing Sleep, Cage organized a performance in New York of Erik Satie’s Vexations, a cryptic short piano score that was to be played 840 times. Warhol attended the performance, which lasted 18 hours and 40 minutes, and later discussed Satie’s use of repetition with Cage.

All these factors have fed into a popular image of Sleep as an eight-hour conceptual film of a man sleeping through the night, shot with a static camera from a single perspective, in order to (1) get publicity through the outrageousness of the stunt; (2) irritate audiences–something that “underground” films were supposedly trying to do; and (3) offer some sort of commentary on past cinema, cinema time, and the ways we’re accustomed to looking at film. “Is it cinema?” wrote Mekas after the first public screening of the film. “The slowing down, stretching a detail to its limit, to what maximum effect?…An exercise in hypnosis? Test of patience? A Zen joke?…Searching for art in Sleep, doesn’t it betray our own pompousness?…Doesn’t it remind us that there is not much sense in rushing? Doesn’t it remind us of the secret, almost unnoticeable motions, variations?”

Clearly Warhol was trying to mythologize himself and enjoyed the attention his stunts generated. Indeed, after filmmaker Peter Emmanuel Goldman wrote to the Village Voice to decry films “focusing on Taylor Mead’s ass for two hours,” Mead, an actor in many of Warhol’s early films, responded that he and Warhol had found no such film in “the archives of the Warhol colossus” but were “rectifying this undersight with the unlimited resources at our command.” The film that resulted, Taylor Mead’s Ass, has recently been restored and can now be rented from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The idea that Warhol was inattentive to technique and visual detail has been disproved by every careful investigation into his working methods I’ve read. The many reels of outtakes for Sleep uncovered by Angell show that before settling on his static camera Warhol experimented with other techniques. That is to say, he did what most artists do, especially when starting in a new medium: he tried different things, decided only some were right for him, and discarded the others. Using a static camera was an aesthetic decision guided by his response to his subject matter and the meanings he wished to give it.

When I finally saw Sleep, the first thing I noticed was something that few accounts of the film had prepared me for: the sleeper is nude. His genitals are never clearly visible–if they had been, the film’s January 1964 premiere would likely have led to arrests–but the viewer is nonetheless aware of being in intimate visual contact with a naked man for approximately five hours. Also, Warhol films his sleeper from a number of different angles, and many shots are repeated. The opening shot, a four-minute take, is repeated several times. The next four-minute take consists of seven shots; after we see each of them once, the shots are each repeated a number of times. This is hardly a film in “real time.”

In fact Sleep was shot over many months. Warhol’s camera could shoot only 100-foot rolls, and that length became his basic unit. He shot at 24 frames per second, the normal “sound” speed, but projected the completed film, like most of his early films, at 16 fps, the standard at the time for silent films, at which 100 feet lasts four minutes and ten seconds (the Film Center will be screening it at 18 fps). This shift in speed further slows the mostly motionless “action” and adds a noticeable degree of flicker to the image.

The identity of the sleeping man is seldom mentioned in accounts of the film, but John Giorno, a young poet, had a relationship with Warhol at the time. In his book You Got to Burn to Shine, Giorno recalls, “I never wanted to make it with Andy. He was physically unattractive. But I loved him and he was the most fascinating person in the world in every way.” And: “He took off my shoes and started licking my feet and shrimping my toes, which I love.” And: “Occasionally, I let him suck my cock, out of compassion for his suffering.” And: “Andy had a hard-on….I wanted to finish him off.” A complicated relationship, to be sure, but clearly they were close, they were sometimes lovers, and Warhol had a significant erotic attraction to Giorno.

Giorno describes going to a party with Warhol shortly after Warhol bought his first movie camera. Giorno got drunk, fell asleep, but woke repeatedly to pee, always finding Warhol beside him, watching him sleep. He estimates that Warhol watched him sleep for eight hours, and just after that Warhol asked him to appear in a film. The concept of Sleep may have preceded this incident, but clearly the film, with its distended time, was not some outrageous, publicity-garnering joke but a simple documentary of the way Warhol saw in time. In a way this supposedly radical film is quite traditional: the artist creates a personal image of someone he loves. “I loved to sleep,” Giorno writes of that period. “I slept all the time, twelve hours a day….Everything awake was so horrible.” So Warhol was filming his lover doing what he liked to do best.

Why have these facts been absent from most accounts of the film, when they point to an obvious and very human interpretation of it rather than some complex radical-art reading? Imagine that Warhol was heterosexual. Would the film’s commentators have omitted the fact that the sleeper was his girlfriend–and that she was nude?

Sleep functions on many levels, but the most evident one is also the one hardly anyone mentions: it’s an erotic film. I don’t find it arousing, nor did it make me attracted to John Giorno as a Hollywood film might make me attracted to Maureen O’Hara or Montgomery Clift. Warhol is too much a modernist to let his stars take over, despite all his later “superstar” rhetoric (and despite Giorno’s initial response to Warhol’s request: “I want to be a movie star…like Marilyn Monroe”). Sleep is less about Giorno than about how Warhol sees his occasional and ambivalent lover. The particular qualities of Warhol’s erotic gaze are rendered convincingly, even beautifully. One’s mind may wander during this radical redefinition of a “movie,” but if one chooses to pay close attention, treating it not as a casual piece of neo-Dada theater but as an intentional and calculated expression of attraction, the results are extraordinary.

Because of the film’s slow pace the viewer becomes more aware of and active in the viewing process, the way the eyes’ and mind’s wanderings might alter the object. Sometimes one has to make an effort to maintain one’s attention when there seems to be little action on the screen. But this is what modernist art at its best usually does: it gives the viewer a significant role in a work’s completion. Some works do it by creating puzzles of meaning that have to be unscrambled, others through images whose contradictions can’t be immediately resolved; Warhol does it, in part, by asking us to look at static images for a very long time, longer than most would at a painting, and encouraging us–without manipulation or compulsion–to notice particular things about them.

One of the first things one notices is the texture of Giorno’s skin. Warhol’s high-contrast lighting creates areas of near white and areas that are very dark, but the soft gray band that separates them throws Giorno’s skin into high relief, revealing a mottled texture and tiny mole-like circles that look a bit like craters on the moon. The absence of action and the high-contrast lighting, which creates frames without much detail, force the eye to seek out such textures, to get intimate with Giorno’s flesh–to experience a bit of what Warhol presumably felt. In one image the straight lines of the designer bedsheet contrast with the mottled skin, again focusing one’s attention there. In others the exposure changes during the take, turning some dark areas gray, calling attention to the fact that all of Giorno’s skin is richly textured and to the way artificial choices such as exposure affect the composition. At times his face is rendered far less gently, in a kind of sculptural relief, his nose standing out like a hill and his brightly lit brow seeming like a mountain ridge above his darkened eye sockets.

In many shots, including the opening profile of Giorno’s chest, one can see him breathing. Because there’s no sound or other details, one begins to follow the rhythm, which becomes slower and provides a far gentler rhythm than the flicker. After a while it’s almost like putting one’s head on his chest to feel it rise and fall. Rather than trick the viewer into being attracted to Giorno (as with propaganda or naively realistic cinema), Warhol makes one aware of how his techniques–static images, exposure changes, repeated shots–make visible the particular nature of his attraction.

The repetition of many shots communicates the obsession of someone who would watch a sleeping lover for eight hours, a feeling many of us have experienced. Many have noted that Warhol exercised a kind of passive cruelty toward members of his entourage, filming them with the detachment of a butterfly collector pinning a new specimen to a flat surface as their psyches unraveled in drug-fueled chaos. He certainly preferred a deadpan delivery to emotive acting in his later films, perhaps because he didn’t want his characters to have autonomous emotional lives. The sleeping Giorno is in a way the ultimate voyeuristic object. This makes the moments when Giorno turns in his sleep, sometimes changing expressions, especially startling. Coming mostly late in the film, they remind us that he does have an existence independent of the filmmaker/viewer/voyeur.

Angell has mapped out Sleep shot by shot (her analysis will appear with others in her catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s films), and because the repetitions follow predictable systems, some say that Sleep anticipated the structural film movement that followed. Yet the repetitions seem designed more to keep the object of Warhol’s desire beside him forever by stopping time. In one shot Giorno begins to turn his head, and repeatedly Warhol cuts back to the shot’s static beginning. But we can see the filmmaker monkeying with time; the cuts are artificial interventions. Sleep is at once about desire and its frustration.

In some sections there are “abstract” moments when a solid white frame fades to gray or black, or vice versa. These are probably little accidents of printing made by the lab, but Warhol chose to leave them in. They remind us of the pure shades, the solid whites and blacks and grays, of film itself; they also recall Warhol’s confrontation with emptiness in painted diptychs such as Blue Electric Chair, in which an electric chair in blue on the left is juxtaposed with a field of solid blue on the right. Death is never far away in Warhol, and Sleep is no exception. In many shots Giorno’s face is so sharply contrasted that it looks deathlike. In one long section Warhol focuses on a single shot of his face in profile, changing the exposure during the take or cutting between darker and lighter versions of the same shot. The dark version looks like an exact right profile, while the light one shows a hint of his left eye. In true modernist fashion the film reveals the artificiality of its images, but it also creates an almost morbid emotional tone by vibrating between two fairly abstract images, both relatively lifeless, both partly shrouded in darkness.

Because we aren’t used to watching something as “slow” as a man sleeping, and because of Warhol’s compositions, lighting, and editing, the viewer experiences a powerful mix of intimacy and detachment, of closeness to a living being and a foreboding feeling of distance, darkness, and separation. Sleep addresses the most basic of human themes: the simultaneous desire for and alienation from another’s body, and the inevitable failure of any desire based only on passive observation.