Last week, I contributed a piece to Architectural Record on the making of Andy Warhol’s Empire, the eight-hour masterpiece of anti-cinema that celebrated the 50th anniversary of its shoot on July 25. (For the uninitiated: The film is a single take of a static skyscraper, shot over a period of six hours, from dusk to twilight, from the 41st floor of the Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan.) For the story, I spoke with iconoclastic filmmaker/critic/organizer/flaneur/patron saint of underground cinema Jonas Mekas, who documented the Empire shoot in his “Movie Journal” column for the Village Voice as well as participated in its. (He also helped organize the first screening of Empire in New York in 1965.)
As on most topics, the 91-year-old Mekas was a font of knowledge, opinions, and anecdotes about the film and how it was (and continues to be) received. His collected criticism, Movie Journal, is a wealth of valuable information about Empire (fun fact: Andy Warhol’s famous quip, “The Empire State Building is a star!” originates from Mekas’ writing) — but the writing pales in comparison to hearing from Mekas directly about his experience with the film and its legacy.
I met him at his Brooklyn loft/studio on July 29, where we sat at a table surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of work, books, and mementos. And then there are the works in progress. Despite his age, Mekas is a dynamo of creativity. In the hopper are film projects, book projects, and visual arts projects, and he routinely travels the globe to present his work. (A couple days before we spoke, he had returned from Germany where his 365 Films project had just opened at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe.) Yet with all his myriad endeavors, he spoke to me for nearly an hour, not only about Empire and Warhol but also topics ranging from art in time to MoMA’s gross mishandling of Warhol’s cinematic work.
Of course, I couldn’t possibly pack everything into the Arch Record piece. So I’m sharing the (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation. I hope some of the energy of the thing comes through the text.
When did the idea to shoot the Empire State Building come to Warhol, to you...?
The culprit is the Empire State Building itself. It has a post office on the ground floor -- I don't know if it's still there. There used to be a United States Post Office, one of the branches. And at that point, I lived on 4-1-4 Park Avenue South, which is Park Avenue South and 29th Street. So the closest post office was at the Empire State Building. At that point, I was publishing Film Culture magazine, and in my place, 4-1-4 Park Avenue South, my loft, had also become the headquarters and the office of Film-Makers' Cooperative, besides being also headquarters of Film Culture and many other things. But I lived there, it was my place. And it had become sort of a busy place because of the Co-Op. We had screenings and that's where, actually, Andy Warhol sat on the floor and watched all the films when I did not even know him. That was his film school, there, and that's where he met Jack Smith and Taylor Meade and many of the people that later became his Stars, at 4-1-4 Park Avenue South.
A young guy, maybe he's 18, 19, John Palmer, came from, I think, Boston, and he, as many other young people did, used to drop in and some wanted to help me, others just were curious. But he wanted to help me and stuck around during the day. He used to come in and help on answering phones and one day, I said, "Can you help me to take Film Culture magazine to the post office? There are bags with the new issue." So we picked up a bag each and we walked to towards the Empire State Building. And there, at some point, there it was in its glory, just in front of us as we were walking.
So we stopped and admired it and I think I said, "Oh, this is really a subject for Warhol." And John agreed and said, "Sure, this is a Warhol movie." Because it's so iconic. So I said, "Why don't you, when you" -- he was also occasionally going to the Factory, I took him and introduced him to the Factory crowd -- I said "Why don't you tell this to Andy the next time you see him?" So, the same day, I think, he went to the Factory and said, "Oh, we were walking to the post office and we saw Empire and Jonas said you should really film it." So, Andy said, "Yes! Let's do it!" Of course, Andy immediately saw it, that's really his kind of image.
Since nobody was there who knew... They were using... I don't know what he was using to shoot Sleep, that was what kind of camera... I think it was just a... I don't know, really, because they were shooting in longer... He had a motorized Bolex, you see, motorized Bolex, which, of course, that means 3 minutes of film. But... So he asked me to arrange the camera and the film. It was Romney who was friends... Henry Romney, I think. He was part of the Rockefeller Foundation, which had an office on one of the floors there. Andy arranged to, in the evening, go into that room, when the offices are closed already. I don't think Romney even told the Foundation because he was big enough there to sort of take responsibility by himself.
So I got the camera that took 30-minute rolls because Andy's idea was to shoot it all evening, all night. I don't know at what point the decision to... The length was left to, the decision was made right there on the spot. When we began filming, really, there was no definite idea of how long it would be. But I had film for, like, 8 hours. I bought enough film for at least 8 hours. And so we came in at some point, early evening, and I set up the camera, I framed more or less the way I thought Andy would like. So I called Andy to take a look. And there was no change, it's OK, go ahead, that's it. So there was Romney, Gerard Melanga, John, Andy, myself, and my girlfriend at the time, Marie was her name. And there it was. Since it was every 30 minutes, I had a changing bag, and I kept changing and replacing the magazine when it ran out. The camera was locked firmly because it had to be. So I just replaced the magazine. One ended, I replaced it with another one, and so it went all night long. We ate, we had some sandwiches. It was pretty, you know, boring. Nothing much. Normal. Around the corner, further, there was a Time magazine office where Marie Menken, the filmmaker, worked as one of the secretaries. But she was not there that night, that evening. Actually, she was dead by that time. Yeah. Yes.
And that's it. At some point. I don't know, again, how Andy decided, "Oh, we have enough," and we just stopped. And that's it. Nothing extraordinary there. (laughs)
When he said, OK, that's enough, and you were done, did everyone just leave? Did you do anything after?
No, no. We just went home. And I took the film... Actually, no, maybe Gerard took the film. That I don't remember. But I think maybe Gerard took it because they paid for the development. My job ended with buying the film and renting a camera, making all the arrangements. That was my job. But from there on, when it was finished, I had nothing much to do with it. And then later, I don't know how much time in between, I would have to check the dates, it was so long ago, between the filming and the premiere at the City Hall Cinema. City Hall Cinema was an old movie house where Pace University is now, by City Hall. But there was a real, commercial movie house, which I rented for, like, a year, in '62, went into I think '63, by which time I moved to the Gramercy Arts Theater on 27th or 28th Street and Park. So that's where the premiere took place. And since the first advertisement, actually carried John Powell's name in it, because... Since it was John who presented the idea to Andy, Andy gave credit... I don't remember how's he credited, but John also has... Doesn't say idea or whatever. But I have to look up... I have the ad. Have you seen it?
I don't think so.
<goes to another room, gets a bound Xeroxed copy of the first volume of his collected "Movie Journal" columns> This is the first... This ends in 1970. The date of screening was when?
August '64 I think... <flips through Movie Journal> '65. March '65. March 11th.
<flips to that date> You see? That's the Voice. "By Andy Warhol and John Palmer." That's how he put it there. City Hall Cinema. That was at 170 Nassau Street, officially. And of course, the date is March 6, Saturday, at 8:30 p.m. And the price is $2. "How to get there see The Brig..." (laughs) "World premiere." So that was in the Voice issue of March 4th, '65.
So what was the response? You write a little bit about it in Movie Journal.
There were about 200 people that came with sandwiches, some with mats. (laughs) And maybe at least 100 or so, or around maybe 75 or more, almost half of them stayed to the... They walked out, came back. But almost half of them stayed, a good number, to the end.
I should tell you one funny story about it. It's about my screening in Vienna, that was around, maybe, the year 2000. There was a big event for Andy Warhol, exhibition, they also wanted to screen Empire. So I was there... Actually I was there to introduce both, the exhibition and the film. So I came to the screening of the film and I said, "Hm. When we had it in New York" -- and it was an auditorium of like some 80 people, and I said "Oh, when we had it in New York we had about 200, and at least half of them stayed. So I hope that some of you will stay also to the end! Be patient!" So I introduce it, then I go out for some wine, then about two hours before the end, I come back, I see everybody's still there. So I watch a little bit and then I go out. And then I come back, like, five minutes or 10 minutes before the end. I see everybody is still there! The film ends. Nobody left. Everybody was there. All 80 people. So I come in front of them and I say, "You are amazing! You people are amazing. You really are amazing. You stayed. I admire you." And as I'm speaking to them, a woman comes, and she places herself beside me and she begins to talk, almost at the same time as I'm talking. "Oh, now, now, since all of you stayed, we have no choice but to have a lottery. We'll have to have a lottery for these tickets." (laughs) In my amazement, I understood what was happening. Later, I was informed about it: the newspapers in Vienna read about the screening, they thought it was a joke. "Eight-hour film! Empire!" So one of the newspapers wrote, "We don't believe anybody will stay to the end. But if anybody will stay to the end, we are offering a ticket, a flight, a round trip to New York!" (laughs) So they stayed because they all wanted that ticket! (laughs) What a joke! And so, of course, there was a lottery and one of the young filmmakers got the ticket. I met him later, I've forgotten his name. (laughs) That was the Vienna screening.
That's really funny to hear because people still do that. I think somewhere in New York last year had a screening... Maybe it was when MoMA had their show in 2011, they had some Warhol screen tests, but they had Empire in there, and I think they said if anybody could stay the whole time they'd give them something.
And I think there were, like, a dozen people who went and they started right before it opened, like 8 o'clock in the morning, and then it ended in the afternoon or evening, and they stayed, I guess. But the trip they got, I think, was a free walking tour around the Lower East Side, not a trip to someplace else.
Yeah, they still... But, you see, I do not know myself what will happen, but I have seen the film at least three times, and it really gets a little bit boring at the beginning. But then, when after a certain time... Have you seen the film?
I've seen it in parts. I've never been able to see it as a whole.
It's worth sitting through it once. After some point, you give up, sort of. And you begin to sort of relax and it becomes a little hypnotic, all those dots, a little change of the lights... And then suddenly, after two hours, at some point, the lights go on! And then everybody applauds becomes this is a huge event! This is like I don't know what! There were a couple such events that took place during the film. And it becomes like a meditation, and one has to sometimes walk out for a few minutes, relax, give a rest to the eyes, so you just don't sit for seven hours or whatever the real time is. And it's like all of Andy's films: It has to be projected at 16 frames per second.
Now, what happens is that it... OK, I will tell you another anecdote about that has to do with 16 and 24. Now 24, you must know enough about cinema, that that's the normal, realistic, naturalistic movement speed. And 16 slows it down by one third. So after the premiere of Sleep, which took place at the Gramercy Arts Theater that Film-Makers' Co-Op was running, Stan Brakhage came to New York and he had already read all my excitement about the film in the Voice. And he said, "Oh, really, is it that good? How could it be good? What is it?" He was very, very skeptical. So I said, "But you should see it." "OK, I'll go see it." So we locked him in the Filmmakers' Co-Operative and we came back, later, after five, six hours, and he's mad! "It was just like I said. How can you really praise and like this? This is just nothing!" So I said, "At what speed did you project the film?" He said, "24 frames per second." I said, "No. That's not the way Andy makes his films. That's the naturalistic sort of... That's not how the film should be projected. You didn't see the film. You have to project it and see it in 16 frames per second where you're completely taken out of naturalism because of what happens to the grain and the movement on that screen. You have to see it again." Now, Stan being who he is, he said, "OK, I will do it, as a friend." So, again, we lock him up, and after the film, he said, "Yes, it's a masterpiece." It changed, completely... The film changes. The speed, that little trick, and that was in many cases the genius of Andy. With one little trick, he could transport from... Just like with his boxes. He takes out the naturalism and the realism of the situation just by making it bigger and it becomes something else. So, the same with Empire. Something else happens to the surface on the screen to how the grain on the screen acts and affects you. It has to be 16.
Yeah. It feels like a dream, when you watch it.
Yes, yes. Yes. So these are the basics, to speak... Yeah, it's shown here and there. And I'm amazed, though, that... It cannot work, it will never work on video! It cannot be! They do that with the screen tests, which I consider also criminal. Yeah, OK, in some small town, some country where nothing is available. But MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, to present, that was some five years ago, the screen tests on video! That's criminal. That's really....
There was something really antiseptic about it. Everything was separated out, embedded in the walls...
That's not how they're made. I mean, you don't do that to paintings! You try to present as close — framed, not framed — to the way they were made. You don't fool around with trying to put some special lights on them or I don't know what. Keeping as to try to get to the essence of it. But they think they can fool and do whatever they want with Andy's films and those portraits. The screen tests are like portraits and have to be presented exactly as they were made. And if anybody, MoMA can afford it. They can do it. Because there must be a place where things can be seen the way they were made. It's OK to reproduce art in books, but sometimes you have to go to Venice, to Florence, to Assisi and see them as originals.
Yeah. The power of the art gets lost.
It's not the same. Not the same. Film reflects from the screen. Light comes through. Video is dead, inert, dead on the surface. That's why it's so criminal to transfer film to video, videos to film. It's OK as information. I don't object to that at all. But somewhere, there must be places where you can see them as originals.
Is it getting harder to show a movie like Empire that need to be projected at 16 where there aren't as many...
There are already very few places that have 16mm projectors. When James Fuentes did it [January 2014], that was a very unique screening when he screened Empire. OK, take Russia. There is only one, as far as it's known, 16mm projector in Russia, and it's in St. Petersburg and it belongs to Masha Godovannaya, a young filmmaker who worked at Anthology for some time. Came here as an intern, and before she went back said, "I would really like to take back one 16mm projector." So we got one for her, and she took it back with her. So now when they have films in 16mm in Moscow, she has to go, they bring her to Moscow, because it's the only... She had to rewire the whole projector, adopt the Russian electricity system... But there is one in St. Petersburg! So if you want to project anything in 16... And that's why they have no independent filmmaking, because 35 is a different thing. The same in South America. It's all 35. And now across the country, 16 and 35, hundreds, thousands of theaters, they are just eliminating, destroying — destroying! — projectors. If the films were made on digital and projected digitally, it's OK. But if it's a classic transferred, Hitchcock, transferred to digital, that's absurd.
You said that you've seen Empire three times, more or less. You wrote about your first impressions of it. Did your impressions of it change after seeing it again?
You see more. It's a slightly different experience each time. But, you know, it doesn't change the fact that it's a monumental, unique document and film. It's like nothing else. What can you say?
How long was it between the time you and John said, "Oh, we should share this with Andy..."
Not long. I think it was within a week, within days. Within days. Right there. We had the idea, and it was... So long as he said yes. And me being me, I don't delay. If I get excited about something, I do it one-two-three. So it was within days.
Did the film have an impact on other filmmakers in your group?
OK, that's something else... I don't think... OK. Impact. I don't think any important... OK, I'll say it differently. Any filmmaker that will say, "Yeah, it was great, it has contributed something unique to cinema," usually its so unique nobody can imitate... Nobody can imitate Dreyer or Eisenstein or D.W. Griffith or Godard or... They come with very unique... And the same with Andy. Everybody thought that everybody will now be able to make movies like Andy. No. Nobody can make movies like Andy because they come with their own world, the way they see and the way they do and record what they see, so that nobody can really imitate or really influence... The only influence is like some kind of solidarity that, "Oh, he did what he wanted to do. So I can do, also, what I want to do." He set an example.
But I wanted to add to this is, we are talking here about Sleep, Empire, art that is in time, time is stretched. But, you see, Andy did not invent this. In all of the other arts, that was already... The time. The time came that this was in the air. In music, La Monte Young did that already, five years, six years before, and I took... In '62, La Monte Young had a concert on 2nd Avenue, around 6th Street, somewhere there, on 2nd Avenue, I don't know how it happened, but Andy was there, and Andy said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm going to La Monte Young's concert." He said, "I will go also." So we went to La Monte Young's concert. And he was playing one of his pieces. This was before Sleep. So Andy was very familiar with what was going on. He was not an amateur artist. He was very familiar with what was going on in the arts. And then, of course, you can go to the '20s when Fernand Leger said, "I want to make a 24-hours-long film about just an average family's life, non-stop, 24-hours-long film." Leger. In the '20s, late '20s. And then in the '50s, mid-'50s, the poet Jackson Mac Low wrote, made a note, to film at 3 for I don't remember how many hours. This was published, his note, letter, about it in Film Culture. It was around maybe '55 or '56.
That was in the air, you see. It was not when Andy made Sleep or Empire, it was not something that he invented. Art in time stretched. But in cinema, that was the first time, that it actually was done, not just written on paper as an idea. And things like that, events, effect psychologically how people see the length in film, not necessarily just 75 minutes or 90 minutes, but it was in the '60s when films began to go into 3 hours and 5, 4. That contributed, I think, to it.
And, also, you see, when art films and videos began going into galleries, that changed also the time, the thinking about how long things can be because in a gallery you can leave it, it can run the whole day in a gallery situation and usually it effects, of course, the content of what you show in the gallery situation and the theater. What you make for people when they have to sit from the beginning to the end and otherwise they will miss, if you go out for one minute you may not understand what happens next. But in a gallery, works made for the gallery situation usually, it doesn't matter. It's sort of horizontal, like some Indian ragas or Indian music. Western music have climaxes and dramatic twists; the Oriental art is more horizontal and goes and goes and goes with many climaxes, mini-climaxes. It's a different thing. So that's already Empire.
Empire is interesting. I've seen images from the film, stills, on the backs of phones, you can buy prints. People have taken bits of it out of the whole to sell it. Is that sort of contrary to the spirit of what the movie is, to have these images out of context?
You know that some people, I have received some emails, they have done that in other countries, filmed some monument for hours, and somebody also said, "Oh, I just did my own version of 8 hours of Empire." (laughs) On video. That's done with so many. But, of course, the Warhol name attached to it is again something else. If it were done by somebody else, they wouldn't light it up on the 50th anniversary or whatever.
What is it about this film, do you think, that makes people come back to it, that makes people want to go shoot their own eight-hour version?
There is something about it that is outrageous. It's like manifest of some kind. Usually people don't do that. It challenges the tenacity, the patience, the expected of what we're accustomed to, how much time we give to anything. It's a little bit outrageous to do that. And that, I think, provokes some other people to do something outrageous in an imitative way. Of course, you cannot repeat things like that.
The screening in Vienna where everyone stayed to get the plane ticket, when you would pop back in, were people... Usually when you think of movie theaters, people sit there...
I don't know. I did not see their faces. Maybe some of them were sleeping. (laughs) I don't know.
Were people talking? Or were they just sitting there in reverence, I guess, as you do at a movie?
Yeah, during this film, always there are some moments when somebody makes some joke or some talking. But then there are long stretches of silence because usually those who stay... I did not stay too long with the Austrian crowd, during the projection, but those in the New York screenings, those who stay usually they're sort of devoted to the new experience. They like to go to something. So they abandon themselves to the situation. They don't disturb others. Austrians do that from conservative politeness. So they don't disturb, either.
How about that first audience? You said people brought food and mats.
During the first, like, hour, there was a lot of talking and jokes. And then slowly it slowed down and, yeah, there was some, "Oh! Look! The dots!" But, again, my memories fade into the mist of the past.
Well, you remembered a lot. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about it.