#515) Empire (1964)
OR “485 Minutes of Fame”
Directed by Andy Warhol and John Palmer
Class of 2004
There’s no way I can cover everything about Andy Warhol and pop art in this post, but Warhol’s work is fascinating and definitely worth a look. A good place to start is the official website for the Andy Warhol Museum in his home town of Pittsburgh.
The Plot: The Empire State Building.
That’s it. That’s the whole movie. It’s one static shot of the Empire State Building from late evening to early morning. That’s your movie. But why look at the Empire State Building for a few moments when you can watch it for 485 minutes (a little over 8 hours)?
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[p]erhaps Warhol’s most famous and influential cinematic work”, and stating that the film “redefines concepts of perception, action and cinematic time.” The write-up also includes a photo of the Empire State Building…in 1937. Interesting choice.
But Does It Really?: I will never scale Everest, nor will I see many of the Earth’s natural wonders, but today I watched Andy Warhol’s “Empire” from start to finish. Andy Warhol is the definitive pop artist of the 20th century, and his work should be preserved wherever it can. Having one of Warhol’s films on the NFR is a natural choice, and “Empire” stands out for its innovation and continued polarizing reception (“Nothing happens!”). A yes for “Empire” and its NFR inclusion, but please, you don’t need to spend eight hours watching this. Let that be my cross to bear.
Everybody Gets One: Andy Warhol spent most of the ’50s as an advertising illustrator in New York, doing his own work on the side and gaining interest in the rising pop art movement. His success as a pop art painter led to his expansion to other artforms, including music, and of course movies. Warhol attended the premiere of the 1962 static musical composition “Trio for Strings” and was inspired to create the first “static film”. His first such film was 1963’s “Sleep”, 321 minutes of Warhol’s then-partner John Giorno sleeping.
Seriously, Oscars?: Oh how I wish “Empire” (or any of Warhol’s films) had gotten some Oscar attention. Imagine how long the acceptance speech would have been…
- In 1930, construction began on a new office building that would replace the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Financed by Empire State Inc., the building was originally to be 50 stories tall, but the “race to the sky” skyscraper competition of the late 1920s led to the plans being revised. The Empire State Building was completed in 1931, coming in at 102 stories and 1,454 feet tall, a world record at the time.
- The idea for “Empire” came when filmmaker John Palmer was working for Jonas Mekas’ Film Maker’s Cooperative and took naps on the roof, which offered an impressive view of the Empire State Building. In 1964, the Empire State received floodlights so that the top of the landmark could be seen from that summer’s World’s Fair. Palmer thought the image of the building in floodlights would make a good Warhol film, and Mekas sold Warhol on the idea. Warhol repeatedly stated that the purpose of the film is “to see time go by”.
- “Empire” was shot on the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building, about a mile away from the Empire State Building. Filming commenced at 8:06pm on Friday, July 24th, 1964, ending at 2:42am on Saturday, July 25th. Warhol, Palmer, Mekas, and a few others were at the shoot, and I wish that they had recorded the sound. To be a fly on that wall.
- While “Empire” was shot at the standard framerate of 24 frames per second, Warhol had the filmed screened at 16 fps, extending the runtime by about 20%.
- Warhol initially didn’t have any money to pay the film processor, so John Palmer agreed to co-finance, on the condition he receive co-director credit on the final film.
- Watch closely during the reel changes; Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas had to turn on the lights during the reel changes, and you can occasionally see their reflections at the beginning of a few reels.
- Having now sat through this film, I’ll say that the first hour and a half is the best chunk. You watch as the sky changes from day to night, as one by one the city lights turn on, and the architectural details of the Empire State appear. It’s natural light giving way to artificial light.
- I was not expecting so many planes in this film. It seems like every 30 seconds a flight is zipping across the screen (no doubt from LaGuardia or the recently renamed JFK). Most suprising was how many of these flights can be seen even late into the film’s shoot. How many redeyes were there in 1964? Also, this technically counts as the “Everybody Gets One” for all the passengers and crews.
- Last summer I visited the Andy Warhol exhibit at the SFMoMA, going in with only the CliffsNotes version of Warhol (“the Campbell’s Soup guy with the hair”). While I’m sure there’s plenty of layers and commentary I didn’t get from viewing his art, they all had the same message for me: Look closer. You see this soup can every day, but have you ever really looked at? What about Marilyn Monroe’s face or the dollar bill? What do you notice when you really look at them? In “Empire”, we get that same idea in film: What if you just stared at a national landmark for 8 hours? What would you see? Personally I saw an iconic building that maintains its uniqueness amidst a sea of other well-known skyscrapers. A landmark’s landmark, if you will.
- I was not expecting this film to have a twist ending! About 7 1/2 hours into the movie, the Empire State floodlights are turned off. You spend the last half hour of the movie in almost total darkness, proof at how important the footlights were in the presentation of “Empire”.
- “Empire” premiered in March 1965 at the City Hall Cinema in Manhattan, and according to the Village Voice, a large amount of the opening night audience walked out after 10 minutes demanding their money back.
- In a span of 14 years, Andy Warhol made 60 films and hundreds of shorts, though became more removed from the process following being shot at in 1968.
- In the early 1970s, Warhol removed his films – including “Empire” – from circulation. After Warhol’s death in 1987, his films were revived and re-evaluated. In the interim, “Empire” had received a reputation of being “unwatchable”, which led to its notoriety. The film has since been screened in countless museums in exhibitions.
- I guess Jared Leto is playing Andy Warhol in a new movie? I don’t know…maybe Leto will put his Method Acting to good use and become a pop artist.
- Although it lost its standing as the New York’s tallest building in 1970 to the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building is still a New York landmark, and is visited by over four million tourists a year (Except maybe this year).
Further Viewing: I will take this opportunity to remind everyone that Andy Warhol appeared as himself in a 1985 episode of “The Love Boat”, in which he reunites with a former “Warhol Superstar” played by Marion Ross. It’s…something.