MD: You write about that in the essay “Getting the Warhol We Deserve: Cultural Studies and Queer Culture” (1999), where you discuss different understandings of visual and cultural studies, especially in relation to Krauss and Foster’s reactionary critique of it.
DC: I wrote that essay initially as a response to the October issue on visual culture, as a defense of cultural studies. The essay went through a lot of different versions before I published it, but by the time I published it I had began thinking about a project on Warhol. Shortly thereafter I wrote an essay on Blow Job (1964) – the first of my essays on Warhol’s films. In “Getting the Warhol We Deserve”, I was considering a project more about New York queer culture in the ’60s that would include Warhol among a wide number of artists. But Warhol’s films were being brought back into circulation at that moment through the Warhol Film Project, and I thought, there’s plenty of Warhol: More than a hundred films, nearly 500 portrait films – the Screen Tests – and that’s plenty of material. Now I have actually reduced the project. I’ve written a few essays, and I’ll write a few more.
I’m doing close formal readings of some of Warhol’s films, but I do so in order to think about “queer” as it existed before Stonewall. Initially I had the idea of calling the project “Queer Before Gay”, though at this point I’ve changed the title to “Our Kind of Movie,” based on something Warhol says: “We didn’t think of our movies as underground or commercial or art or porn; they were a little of all of those, but ultimately they were just ’our kind of movie’.” In any case, I’m trying to reclaim a polymorphous sexuality before the kind of fixed gay identity that came in the wake of Stonewall, not immediately with the radical gay liberation movement, but soon afterward as the movement became not a liberation movement but a rights movement, beginning with the Gay Activist Alliance. But I’m not really writing about that, but rather the culture that you can see in Warhol’s works – the kind of sexual world at that time. And I’m trying to draw meanings from the films that are relevant to thinking about queerness now.
I have written an essay on Blow Job, one on Screen Test #2 (1965), and another on Warhol’s collaboration with Ronald Tavel – one of the founders of the Theatre of the Ridiculous – who wrote screenplays for Warhol’s films in 1965-’66, including a number of well-known ones like Vinyl (1965) and Kitchen (1965). I’ve written one on a group of films about seductions and refusals in confined spaces, and I’m completing one on The Chelsea Girls (1966). I’ll write a few of other essays on the films that I am particularly attracted by, or that concern issues that would be interesting in the context of this project.
MD: Warhol’s films have received a lot of attention lately, but they’ve been suppressed for quite a while. Why is that?
DC: Warhol took his films out of circulation in 1972 on Paul Morrissey’s advice. Morrissey thought they were pretentious and boring, and I think he wanted the attention for his own films. You know, Warhol was probably just canny enough to know that taking them out of circulation would make everyone want to know about them. But it did mean that for quite a long time the scholarship on Warhol neglected what was the major mode of Warhol’s production in the ’60s. From 1963-1968 he made a hundred films – that’s a lot of work! In Warhol studies in general, there’s a lot of focus on the short period of the “real” Pop paintings. After that Warhol is seen as going astray – becoming decadent, getting too commercial – which I find ridiculous. In any case, shortly before he died, Warhol was convinced by John Hanhardt, then a curator of film at the Whitney Museum, to allow the films back into circulation. It’s a very complicated project. About 45 of the films have been restored; a lot of the screen tests have been restored. Callie Angell, a very fine scholar, is the curator of the Warhol Film Project and author of the Catalogue Raisonné of the films. The first volume on his screen tests is out now. It’s really beautiful.
MD: Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to see many of Warhol’s films. I’m presuming that’s – at least partially – the result of archival and distribution issues?
DC: Most people haven’t. And even now that they are available, and any institution can rent the restored films from Museum of Modern Art, the opportunities to see them are rare. They’re not available on DVD, except for some pirated ones. They don’t circulate that much, although one is more likely to have the chance to see Warhol’s films than, say, Hollis Frampton’s or Michael Snow’s films.
This year I was teaching a course on queer film and performance around 1970, and I showed some of the queer films from around the time that Warhol was working. Some of these filmmakers’ work is totally out of circulation. There’s a wonderful Puerto Rican filmmaker, José Rodríguez Soltero, who made a legendary film called Lupe (1967) with Mario Montez. I got José to bring the film to Rochester to show it at the Eastman House. He brought his sole print. He doesn’t even have a negative of it! The underground was truly queer at that moment – they were making this stuff for their own pleasure, and not troubling too much to take care of it. Think of Jack Smith! Warhol is different. Warhol took very good care of his films
MD: Your two book projects then engage with the New York art world in the ’60s and ’70s. Yet they seem to be conceived quite differently?
DC: Yes, the Warhol one is autobiographical only in the sense that I am interested in his films in part because they show something of the world in which I found myself when I came to New York in 1967.
MD: Did you know Warhol?
DC: No, I knew people from the Factory. I met them – at Max’s – after Warhol had been shot, so he was not so easy to get access to. Warhol was not particularly well thought of by many of the people around him. The Superstars that I knew all felt used by him, but of course they still gravitated towards him and wanted to work with him because he made them famous. It’s a weird phenomenon. Almost all the people who worked with Warhol will live their entire lives in the shadow of Andy Warhol. Their only fame is the fact that they worked with him. So the level of resentment on the part of many of them is enormous.
Holly Woodlawn lived with me briefly during the time she was making Trash (1970), so I knew the experience from the other side, the side of a drag queen who was being exploited by the Factory. I didn’t want to be part of that. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to meet Warhol. I never had that desire. I’m interested in interpreting Andy Warhol’s films. And I’m also fascinated by Warhol’s interviews, by what he says. But I’m fascinated with them in such a way that I’d never want to be one of the interviewers. Read the interview with Warhol by Benjamin Buchloh – they don’t speak the same language at all! It’s really hilarious. Of course, Warhol is a genius at evading questions and appearing to have no ideas of his own. Talking to him would not have been something I would have wanted to do, and I’m also extremely shy, so I wouldn’t have been able to say anything. (laughter)
MD: I would like to return to your writing on AIDS, and your relationship to this work in the present. Yesterday [March 13th 2007] Larry Kramer held a commemoration talk on the 20th anniversary of ACT UP at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center here in New York. It was held in the same room as he held his famous speech twenty years ago – the speech that’s always said to have “founded” ACT UP. Were you there yesterday?
DC: No, I didn’t know about it, but I’ve heard enough of Larry Kramer’s talks to last a lifetime. I’m always made furious by the completely ahistorical statement that Larry Kramer founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. It’s true that he was instrumental in both, but I don’t think a person founds an activist organization – a community founds an activist organization. The fact that he gets the credit for ACT UP more than any other person is simply wrong. There were so many people who put so much more work and thought and energy into ACT UP than Larry Kramer, but it’s his name that gets associated with it. This is mythology, not history.