Subjects That Won’t Be Covered in PBS’s Warhol Documentary Tonight: The Connection Between Wayne Gretzky and Andy Warhol

by Art Fag City on September 21, 2006 Events

Amongst the more obscure Canadian trivia that circulates outside its borders is the fact that a small independent biography made in 1990 titled Wayne Gretzky: Above and Beyond, is not only imprinted upon the cultural consciousness of the country, but has played an integral part in forming national identity. Ask any Canadian above the age of 26 about this film, and they will immediately recall specific footage. They might begin with the scene in which the athlete's parents talk about how he had learned to skate before he could walk, and almost everyone will mention the sequence where Gretzky describes a typical day in his life as a child. Guess who played more hockey than anyone knew was humanly possible?

Without going into the movie in great depth, the film as a whole served to reinforce Gretzky's status as a national hero and role model that Canadians aspire to today. In the same way that virtually everyone knows who Wayne Gretzky is, most Canadians knowing a good deal more, nearly everyone is familiar with Andy Warhol, countless Americans with deep knowledge, and even personal encounters with the man. His work ethic and innovation is a legacy that the nation proudly claims as their own.

Undoubtedly it is my Canadian upbringing leads me to draw unlikely connections between two child prodigies who grew up to become cultural icons and unify class boundaries. Though these connections are personal, they are made because the films “Above and Beyond”, and “Andy Warhol, A Documentary Film” reveal each star to have from an early age a seemingly unquenchable desire to do what they do. Even more importantly, the films are very specific about what it was that made the icons so extraordinary.

I'll leave it to the sports blogs to explore Gretzky's achievements in greater length since hockey is generally beyond the scope of what we cover here, moving on instead, to the Ric Burns film, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. The PBS special begins with a thread that is spun through out the movie that is is the obsessive work habits of the artist that defined the man, and is bracketed by the assertion that Warhol was a uniquely American artist. Most people seem to have an intuitive idea of what being an American artist means, which may explain why I've never read a definition for it, but it seems to me that it is simply to be inspired by things that are either preexisting or created within this countries borders. That said, the first Warhol reference cited in the movie comes from the Byzantine art Andy would have spent countless hours looking at as a child in church, so clearly the definition does not hold up in every instance.

Providing the most insight for the casual Warhol connoisseur, part one of this two part series, recounts the artists childhood, years in college and his Pre-Pop commercial work. These are possibly the only periods in his life that aren’t also shared by the public, but even this is a questionable assertion, as at this point even Pre-Pop Warhol has made its way into popular contemporary culture.* Critics and curators such as Dave Hickey, Stephen Koch, Bob Colacello, Donna DeSalvo, speak with great eloquence on Warhol throughout the movie, and open the film with various introductory statements about who Warhol was and his importance to the art world. A testement to the power of language, within the first ten minutes of the film Hickey asserts that Warhol literally changed the world, and somehow makes it seem believable. It's possible the artist did, though wisely nobody attempts to prove this statement.

In addition to the already named cast, there is a wealth of artists interviewed in the film, Billy Name, possibly the most notorious of Warhol's assistants among them, Laurie Anderson narrates and Jeff Koons provides the voice of Andy Warhol. Koons doesn't add much other than his name to film, but it's not like reading script is all that hard, so you really can't criticize the man for it.

What all of these people are very specific about in the film, is where the brilliance of Warhol lies. None of us are perfect, and the artist is not depicted as someone who was good at everything. Early on we are shown how he has an extraordinary ability with line, color and composition, but this is contrasted by an agreement that he had no aptitude for narrative. There is some importance to pointing out the skills Warhol had as a draftsman, considering the genius of Warhol was that he created a world of art making that was accessible to everyone. Following this point, the movie also spends a great deal of time discussing the multiple, (something anyone can do in theory) and Warhol's unique capacity to find almost endless variety within it.

Underscoring all of this, a series of Jackie prints are run across the screen, while artists and critics discuss the use of methamphetamines at the factory. The editing in the film is superb. It is never redundant, and always precise. In fact, there are only two small weaknesses in this film, and it would seem I agree with at least one critic on what they are. The first issue is that there is far more footage of Wayne Koestenbaum uttering the profoundly pretentious than there needs to be. It is this man who introduces the second half of the film by saying “Maybe this is really bourgeois of me, but…” and goes on in that same sequence to utter the meaningless “Warhol put meaning back into human experience.” Anything that guy has to say from then on is colored by these pompous and poorly chosen words.

The second point of contention is that because Warhol's life did not actually end when he was shot by Valerie Solanas, the twenty minutes allotted to sum up the last half of his career isn't sufficient. I have to say, I never thought I'd be complaining that a four hour documentary is too short, but I suppose we all have to eat our words from time to time.

Watch the second part of the documentary tonight at 9 on PBS

*The most notable instance of this being his shoe perdu series, which is now reproduced by at least one major greeting card company.

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