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Women in Revolt (1971)

Today’s cinema adventure: Women in Revolt, the 1971 Andy Warhol-produced film satirizing the Women’s Liberation Movement and starring a trio of transgendered “superstars.” Notably, it was the last film to be produced by Warhol on which he actually stood behind the camera, though it was directed by longtime associate Paul Morrissey; it enjoyed more attention and mainstream notoriety than many of the infamous artist’s earlier films, largely on the basis of its controversial approach to the subject matter, drawing the wrath of feminists who felt it was a slap in the face to have their cause savagely lampooned and to be represented onscreen by “female impersonators” instead of biological women.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three women who become involved in the Women’s Lib movement for their own reasons: Jackie is a militant intellectual schoolteacher who believes men are inferior to women and should be relegated to their naturally subservient place in society; her friend Holly is a model who hates being treated as a sex object, although she herself has a ravenous libido; and Candy is a society heiress who longs to break free of the stiflingly traditional role she is expected by her family to play, wishing instead to build a career for herself as a glamorous movie star. When Jackie and Holly decide to form their own protest group- called Politically Involved Girls, or “P.I.G.” for short- they hit upon the idea of enlisting Candy, hoping to capitalize on her high-profile society position to generate publicity for their cause, and more importantly, to gain access to the financial support of her family and the wealthy circle in which they move. A series of misadventures follows in which each of the three activists are revealed to be more motivated by self-interest than by real passion for their cause. Jackie, despite being a self-proclaimed lesbian, spends the organization’s money on a bodybuilding male hustler and becomes the unwed mother of his baby; Holly succumbs to her penchant for drinking and sex, becoming a derelict living in the street; and Candy abandons her friends, her family, and the movement to realize her dream of stardom.

The scenario for Women in Revolt– it would be inaccurate to call it a script- is not so much a storyline as it is an excuse for extended on-camera improvisation and trashy bad behavior. This, of course, is the real purpose here, far more than any deliberate social or political commentary. Still, it’s easy to see why genuine feminists would find Morrissey’s movie insulting and offensive; their arguments are put into the mouths of enfants terribles whose grotesquely exaggerated behavior and plainly self-absorbed motives render them meaningless and laughable. Given Morrissey’s right-wing political bent, it’s possible, if not probable, that this was at least part of his intention here; but in truth, the whole affair is so patently ridiculous that it is impossible to take seriously. The political satire is merely a vehicle in which the film’s three stars can indulge in their individual excesses, gleefully breaking taboos and acting out with histrionic abandon. Much of the dialogue is devoted to the kind of verbal bitch-slapping that has fueled drag shows for decades, and for the most part, whoever shares the screen with each of the three central characters is merely there to provide a foil- and the occasional straight line- for their onslaught of caustic camp.

Though this formula, admittedly, provides numerous amusing moments throughout the film, it is also the main downfall of Women in Revolt. The pervading atmosphere of uncontrolled, undisciplined expression hardly makes for concise, coherent filmmaking; the improvisational approach works for fleeting moments, but those are islands in a sea of self-indulgent chatter- often spoken simultaneously, in a seeming battle for dominance, rendering much of its content incomprehensible and more than a little grating. This, of course, is inherent in improv, which is why it is most effective when used as a basis for developing more polished material or edited into a cohesive form by a savvy director; it also helps when the performers have been given clear guidance and, ideally, have received some formal training. In the absence of these elements, the end result usually ends up looking and feeling like a free-for-all, reminiscent of rambunctious children play-acting in a schoolyard game of make believe- which can be effective in short doses, but is perhaps not the best way to sustain the length of an entire feature film. It creates, in fact, the sense that we are watching a movie made by amateurs, and such is the case here; the low budget production values, the clumsy lighting, the choppy editing, and the generally insipid nature of most of the dramatic conceits all contribute to this feeling. As a result, instead of being provocative or outrageous, the proceedings quickly become simply tiresome, with a juvenile sensibility that makes the archness of the film’s tone come off more like shallow snarkiness. In addition, despite a considerable amount of gratuitous nudity- mostly male- and sexual content, the handling of these scenes strips them of eroticism; indeed, sex as portrayed here is a repugnant, degrading act, devoid of charm or subtlety, and thoroughly shocking for reasons that have nothing to do with morality or social acceptability. Like everything else in the world as seen by Warhol, Morrissey and company, it’s just another boring convention to be disdained and ridiculed.

These criticisms, valid though they may be, might be immaterial if one considers that film for Warhol- originally, anyway- was just another decorative medium, a way to produce ever-changing pop art images to be projected on a wall at a party, perhaps- a means to provide atmosphere in the background of a real-life “happening.” The rules of good cinema do not apply when a film is more of a statement in itself than a legitimate exploration of the art form. However, by the time of Women in Revolt, the enigmatic Warhol had stepped away from participation in his film productions, handing over the reigns to Morrissey, who had taken things in a more (or, arguably, less) ambitious direction, focusing on a narrative-driven, mainstream approach. It would be a mistake to classify these later Warhol movies as art for art’s sake, as they clearly aspire towards providing a more medium-specific experience; therefore, it seems fair to say that by any reasonable cinematic standards, Women in Revolt is a terrible film. One might argue that the film eschews traditionally accepted style and polish as a rejection of conventional cultural values, but pretensions of artistic purpose are no excuse for sloppy movie-making, and even if one generously classifies Morrissey’s style as cinema verité, it’s hard to think of a less professional, more careless example of cinematic hack-work. What makes this film so appallingly bad is not its nasty attitude or its banality, but the fact that it is, in the end, a poorly executed, badly assembled mess- and despite the fact that Warhol himself operated the camera for several botched scenes (at the insistence of star Jackie Curtis, who refused to perform without his participation), the fault for this lies solely at the feet of its director. Morrissey’s apparent lack of skill in the creation of his product may have been intentional, a deliberate effort to make a statement about the subjectivity of artistic values or to prove the point that arbitrary notions of bad or good are irrelevant to an audience simply seeking to be distracted; but his work here smacks of fraud, the attempts of a would-be artist to discount the importance of techniques he hasn’t the patience or understanding to master. Whereas Warhol’s genius was in simply setting up the camera and letting it capture what it would, the same approach is Morrissey’s crutch. In other words, Women in Revolt seems the work of a lazy director who wants glory without having to work too hard.

Despite this harsh assessment of Morrissey and his work, Women in Revolt is not devoid of value. For better or for worse, in fact, it is probably a more significant film today than it was when it was originally released, due largely to the window it provides into the miliieu of the Warhol factory and- more importantly- the all-too-rare opportunity it gives us to see the work of its three leading players: Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them were members of Warhol’s famous coterie at the “Factory,” known for their work in previous of his films, and as such were popular- and notorious- fixtures of New York’s avant-garde arts scene. Curtis, unlike his two co-stars, was a female impersonator, who appeared both as a man and a woman in his work, and was successful independently of his projects with Warhol; he was an actor and playwright whose edgy, campy plays were a fixture of New York’s experimental theatre scene, as well as a singer and poet whose work garnered considerable praise and attention from critics of the era. His screen persona- abrasive, outspoken, sarcastic, and sporting a frizzy red wig with glittery make-up- provides many of the best one-liners in Women in Revolt, and whenever he is on the screen he is in absolute command. This is not always to the benefit of the film; many of the shrillest and most confused scenes are the result of Curtis’ aggressive improvisation, in which other performers are drowned out and cut off at every turn in favor of his unscripted outbursts. Nevertheless, it’s a smart performance, giving a glimpse at the potential for brilliance which might have been more fully realized with a little rehearsal and direction. Likewise, Candy Darling, a true transgendered performer, who had worked extensively with Curtis in his plays as well as in previous Warhol outings, reveals the ethereal, double-edged sincerity that allows her, somehow, to rise relatively unscathed above the messy chaos of Women in Revolt; she contrasts Curtis’ brash bullying with her own form of dominance, the cool superiority of a sophisticated and intelligent woman with nothing to prove. She is elegant and truly beautiful, and Women in Revolt is at its best- and most watchable- when she is onscreen, working her magic with the curious blend of earnestness and irony that made her one of the most charismatic of the “superstars.” Rounding out the trio is Woodlawn, also a true transgender, whose fiery Puerto Rican energy bursts from the screen, representing the raw energy of the body (as opposed to that of the mind and spirit, personified by Curtis and Darling, respectively) as she gropes and gyrates her way through the film. Truly sinking her teeth into her role as a nymphomaniac who hates men, she gives a manic, conflicted performance which displays a remarkable gift for comedy and hints- as does the work of her co-stars- at a considerable talent, making us wish all the more for a surer hand behind the camera. The fact that all three of these stars are so obviously gifted is yet another indictment against Morrissey’s infuriating mediocrity as a director; their work continually gives us glimmers of what Women in Revolt might have been. Still, they provide plenty of reasons to sit through the movie- though it requires considerable patience and might be best accomplished in short installments- and even manage to create several moments which could be called classic. Besides these three heavyweights, the film offers brief appearances by other counter-cultural icons of the era, including Penny Arcade and Betty Blue, and Brigid Berlin in a wordless cameo as a decidedly butch bar owner.

The fact that Women in Revolt is an atrocious movie, oddly enough, does not alter the fact that it is a classic, of sorts. Clearly, there are many stalwart supporters of Warhol and his crew that would defend the film staunchly and embrace its many flaws proudly, claiming them as victories in a cultural war and viewing them as medals of honor. There is certainly a weird power to this curiosity of its time, and despite its lack of real ambition it manages to offer up some interesting observations about the power struggle between the sexes- particularly through its reversal of roles in which liberated women treat their men with the same disrespect and contempt they deplore when they are the recipients, and the use of sex as both a bargaining tool and a means of gaining power. It can be argued that the movie was a success in terms of what it set out to accomplish. Warhol neither knew nor cared about the aesthetics of film; he wanted only to present his branded material for the sake of building his cult-of-personality-based empire, and notions of good or bad were of little interest to him. With this in mind, Women in Revolt is exactly what he wanted it to be- a source of controversy and buzz, and another brick in the continually growing monument to his so-called genius. Indeed, given his particular, nose-thumbing stance at conventional society, it is probably preferable that it should be bad; the exaltation of the banal was a major part of what he was all about, after all. Therefore, I find myself in the curious position (which Warhol would have loved) of recommending a movie that I found to be abysmal. I would stress, however, that my endorsement is based not on any sort of respect for the artists behind the scenes, but on my admiration for the ones on the screen. It is beyond tragic that these three were given the treatment they were- exploited by Warhol for their “freak” appeal, they were given just enough cultivation to reveal the brilliance of their underlying talent, then abandoned because the impresario had lost interest. Perhaps the real reason for his fickleness can be surmised by viewing Women in Revolt; it is the talent of Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn that redeems the experience, and without them it would truly be unwatchable.  Could it be that Warhol feared they might outshine him on their own merits, and take away some of the credit for their own success? It’s a question, sadly, that must be asked, but can never be answered. Darling would pass away of cancer within two years of the film’s release, and Curtis would die of a heroin overdose a decade later; Woodlawn returned to her native Puerto Rico and worked as a busboy until, years later, a resurgence of interest in her former persona allowed her to return to the limelight. Women in Revolt, wretched as it is, is a snapshot of a moment in time, when all three were poised on the brink of success, and maybe, just maybe, could have broken through the barriers of social prejudice to achieve mainstream success. It was not to be, but they paved the way for future generations who continue the struggle for transgender acceptance. That in itself makes this movie worthy of respect- not for the posers behind the camera, but for the real people in front of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0129631/

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