Film Scouts Reviews

"I Shot Andy Warhol"

by Lisa Nesselson

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May 10, 1996

Valerie Solanas is one historical figure that mothers are unlikely to go naming their babies after. In her now legendary "S.C.U.M. Manifesto" -- a mimeographed treatise that she literally had trouble giving away on the streets of New York in the 1960s -- Solanas posited among other observations that "The male is a biological accident", "Sex is the refuge of the mindless," and "The female function is to groove." And after a stunning quantity of interstitial venom, Solanas concluded, "Why should there be future generations?"

To classify Solanas as a pistol-wielding man-hater is to shortchange a quirkily creative, brazen proto-feminist who was convinced that the average male would "swim a river of snot" and "wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit" if he thought a moist portion of the female anatomy would oblige him at the end of the journey. Thus, the manifesto of S.C.U.M., the Society for Cutting Up Men.

In Mary Harron's debut feature, "I Shot Andy Warhol," Lili Taylor gives a dynamically spot-on, suitably annoying, never-less-than-fascinating performance as the progressively demented woman who shot the silver-wigged artist. Ahead of her time yet behind the eight-ball, she pulled the trigger during a disharmonic convergence in American history when shooting seminal figures was all the rage. On a scale of one to 15, Valerie only netted about eight minutes of fame; although the film studiously avoids any mention of it, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy within a day of Solanas' attack, bumped her off the front page.

Valerie was a splendid blend of American eccentricity and American entrepreneurship - a square peg who, by the time she was driven to the title act, couldn't even get directions to a round hole. Spawned by a family that managed to be dysfunctional before the word entered the pop lexicon, she was a barkeep's daughter and excellent student who worked her way through the psychology department of the University of Maryland. How? By toiling as a prostitute while, as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital later explains, "pursuing lesbian sex for pleasure."

Not that she was a subtle seductress: Playing footsy with the anklet-clad ankles of a strait-laced fellow co-ed, Valerie is rebuked. Never one to keep a low profile, she hurls a rack of glass bottles at the object of her affections and bellows "You led me on!" This was probably not standard lesbian dating procedure in 1957. (Then again, recycling was not yet a civic duty, so broken glass may have been an innovative alternative to candy and flowers.)

On graduating, Valerie headed for New York, where she turned tricks and slept on rooftops with her trusty typewriter at her side.

Eager for financial independence, abrasive Valerie entreated rising superstar Andy Warhol to produce her play, which boasted the crack title "Up Your Ass." The contrast between Factory trendoids draped over a couch doing a line-reading in barbituate monotones and Valerie's subsistence-level crowd on stage in their neighborhood Nedick's pouring their dyke/cross-dressing/pan-handling selves into every demented word, is a portrait of the haves and have nots that belongs in a time capsule (preferably one with Brillo and Campbell's Soup labels silk-screened on its durable casing).

Solanas started out as the founder and only member of SCUM and ended up as floor manager at Paranoid Delusions R Us. Stephen Dorff milks breathy cadences to superb effect as pouty transvestite Candy Darling. Martha Plimpton, looking like Sandra Bernhard's spiky younger sis, commands the screen as one of Valerie's industrious dyke cronies.

Okay, so Solanas wanted to kill all men. We can't all be Marie Curie.

It was a time when, given the right drugs, the whole world could be seen in the surface of a mylar pillow. And unlike nowadays, it was a time when basic secretarial skills could get a girl noticed by a budding international art icon. When Valerie accosts Warhol and company in a restaurant, pleading for an advance on the following day's film work in "I, A Man", Andy looks at her manuscript and says, "Did you type this yourself? I'm so impressed. You should come and type for us."

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the bohemian lifestyle precludes good complexions. Striking a welcome note of authenticity, in "I Shot Andy Warhol," bad skin is practically a prerequisite to creativity.

These were deeply unpleasant people who wouldn't have stopped their compulsive navel-gazing even if their navel lint broadcast test patterns. But Harron's film is a delightful excavation of the long-forgotten S.C.U.M. If only Valerie were here to see Harron's handiwork, no doubt she'd tell ya straight out: Some C**ts Understand Movies.

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