PBS: American Masters: Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Filmmaker Ric Burns says it’s a good thing he really liked artist Andy Warhol, the subject of his Peabody-winning film, “because otherwise I’d be really irritated right now.”
The four-hour profile “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” aired in two parts on PBS’s “American Masters” in September 2006, but Mr. Burns, the film’s director, producer and writer, is still about $150,000 short in raising funds to pay for the work.
Mr. Burns began his involvement in the film sometime around 2000 or even earlier—he can’t remember exactly—when producers Donald Rosenfeld and Daniel Wolf approached him while he was dining at the clubby East Harlem restaurant Rao’s. Now, he says, “I am eternally in their debt,” but at the time, he had to think about the proposition and whether he liked the strange artist enough to spend years with him. “You live with these people fairly intimately,” he said.
He concluded the great thing about Mr. Warhol was that the costume he wore—the sunglasses, the bleached wig, the black leather jacket—”was really such a wonderfully misleading one,” adding, “You wander in to Warhol and discover a person who is not what he appeared to be.” In fact, he said, Mr. Warhol was the opposite of his aloof armature, a remarkably open person.
Faced with a subject who begged to be taken at the face value of his affected hip persona, Mr. Burns, calling himself “the least hip person in the world,” instead deliberately chose “to reinsert Andy into a disarmingly conventional narrative and see what happened.”
He went back to Mr. Warhol’s roots as Andy Warhola, a graphic artist from Pittsburgh. There, he discovered a “tritely Horatio Alger” up-by-the-bootstraps tale, an artist who faced financial, physical and cultural challenges, noting, “There was a profound narrative to the march of time.”
“American Masters,” which typically initiates profiles of its subjects on its own, got involved in this project about halfway through, and pursued it even though the 21-year-old series had already aired “Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol” in 1992, just five years after the artist’s death at age 58. It is the only time the series has featured an artist twice.
The earlier documentary was “a much jazzier take,” said Susan Lacy, the series’ creator and executive producer, and “also a very good film.”
But she said she was “just completely compelled by the seriousness of the approach” that Mr. Burns was taking, and felt there was more to be said about Mr. Warhol. “It’s not all about the jazz and the surface. We’re going to go in with a microscope.”
Mr. Burns may have taken a conventional approach, “but I don’t think it’s a conventional film,” she said.
Mr. Warhol had been regarded as “a cultural icon, a symbol of the time,” she noted. The new work, she felt, would look at him as “a real artist, an important artist. There was something very prophetic and important in the work he was doing.”
Indeed, said Mr. Burns, “Hiding in plain sight with Warhol was his astonishing gifts as an artist. The power of his work is, do you keep coming back to it?”
Where at one time his portraits and colorful Campbell’s Soup cans were thought to be simplistic trash, Mr. Burns said, “Wave by wave, every 10 years go by, or five years, more and more Warhol that was once considered garbage is redeemed and salvaged as great art.”
His conclusion, he said, was that Mr. Warhol was “the Walt Whitman of the 20th century. He was drawn to everything, very much the collector.” His message, he said, was: “Here’s what a mass democratic culture is, and it’s beautiful.”
Despite his importance, Mr. Warhol turned out to be a hard sell to corporate and foundation underwriters when it came time to pay for the film, Mr. Burns said.
For one thing, the artist is “associated with money,” he said, so some potential donors felt the funding wasn’t needed. On the flip side, Mr. Warhol’s association with “the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” didn’t help either. “There’s something about Andy that is still a little shocking, worrisome,” he said.
Some money may be recouped in video sales, Mr. Burns said, who added he’s hopeful the books will be balanced in a couple of years. His attitude toward the debt is: “You just sort of let the red ink wash over you and go to the Peabodys.”
Up next for Mr. Burns is a film about the New York Times, also for PBS, and another project on American Ballet Theater.
“American Masters,” which Ms. Lacy said has some 40 to 50 profiles in one stage or another at any one time, is turning its lens in coming seasons on Carol Burnett, Joan Baez, T.S. Eliot, Tony Bennett, cartoonist Charles Schulz and the Grateful Dead.


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