Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

She Even Breaks: Edie Sedgwick in CIAO! MANHATTAN

It's probably a sign of your mental health whether you find Warhol superstar /debauched debutante extraordinaire Edie Sedgwick's continued toplessness in Ciao! Manhattan (1972) sexy or just tragic. If sexy then you're either a swine or just so enamored of the Edie mythos that you'd follow her off a cliff. And I who have followed three different gorgeous drug-damaged [anorexic] rich New England free spirits off cliffs know what I'm talking about. But if you've taken those cliff falls and they have made you sore, damaged, and wise in ways you wish you weren't, then you might see Ciao! Manhattan and wonder if her destruction is somehow your fault, a side-effect of your rubbernecking hot mess lemming diving icon-worship. If that's true, then the film may do nothing for you at all, except encourage you to pray for the still sick and suffering outside the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But Edie, princess long dead, cannot hear those prayers. We can only save ourselves... the trouble... of enduring Ciao! Manhattan.

But we can't avoid it, can we? So come back with me then... a ways. Know that I too, like Edie, am a descendant of a daughter of the American Revolution, the Puritan stock. Though not as land-rich (1), we are perhaps just as insane and prone to addiction and depression. I came to the Edie myth via the Velvet Underground, which I came to via Lou Reed, who--alone on MTV (with his video "I Love You Suzanne")--which I vainly scoured for songs I might get 'into' and thus form a personality (this being my sophomore or junior year of high school, the time when kids should have already picked their MTV-sanctioned musical identity)--seemed cool. Like me, he seemed too cool for it all, yet willing to dance like a maniac, all while never losing his deadpan facade--a mix of Zoot from the Muppets and Harpo Marx, that was me too--I was home! In college (I only later learned Reed and I had the same birthday, March 2nd, and I was going to his same school, Syracuse), I quickly found psychedelics, crazy shiksas with Ritalin prescriptions, alcohol, and anorexic lost girls whose hot mess sadness I swayed before like a hypnotized cobra. I was in with the in-crowd because my Velvet Underground and Nico expertise (and Lou Reed T-shirt) made me 'Factory-ready', though in truth I knew nothing about Edie, so needed to get busy on that. That picture on the cover of the Plimpton book (below left) intrigued me as a kid, but I thought she was an androgynous boy in military school watching a Fourth of July fireworks display.

And these sad girls I followed off cliffs eventually dropped me cold for any boy with cocaine, no matter the brutalizing they received when the powder ran out. And I didn't go in for brutalizing or cocaine. But every last one of those coke-crazy girls had a thing for Edie Sedgwick, so I picked up on that druggy tragedy. These girls all had Edie books, that black and white striped shirt (below) and shared her and my enthusiasm for getting loaded. There was yet no internet so any scrap of information about her had to come through print. And there just wasn't anything except used paperback copies of Plimpton's book, if you could find it, which was less a glorification of druggie artsy excess and more a Grey Gardens monument to fallen pilgrim aristocracy. As someone from her old pre-decadent circle, Plimpton's book had the same kind of higher ground shock many of us have when watching someone we knew as relatively normal disappear down the druggie rabbit hole... in other words, not the roundhouse kick of advocative justification found in Burroughs, Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

Alas, only one semi-mainstream movie exists starring Edie, a botched mess to run alongside the book with the same name, a dreary, ennui-soaked mix of old bedraggled footage from some 1967 unfinished black and white film without any synced sound, coupled to a foggy color framing of a dumb long-haired cut hick named Butch (Wesley Hayes) taking a job as Edie's keeper (at this point she's perma-zonked and babbling while living in an Arabian tent in the bottom of an empty swimming pool). And it's Butch's dopey narration of genuinely intelligent observances that try to structure the film.

Behold, Butch
You might wish, like he does, that you could do something genuine to help our shattered hot mess Edie, but she doesn't even seem to notice whether or not you're even in the room. She only notices the camera, which she instinctively models for without looking directly into it too much, and in the past footage--the black and white stuff--she only notices drugs, stealing a cocaine stash before getting lost in a speed freak robot-mechanized version of NYC, palling around with one-time Hendrix flame Pat Hartley while trying to find Dr. Robert for B-12 shots all while some mysterious David Lynch-ish millionaire named Mr. Verdecchio tries to find her through the long arm of post-modern 'later filmed' foggy drab color stutter stock and shrill phone calls. It's like we in the audience aren't there at all, and the feeling is, well, demoralizing. Maybe she gets a Strickfadden sparkle-circumscribed glimmer of us, gawking at her from a future vantage point window opening in the space-time continuum during electroshock, but then we're just static... again, and she's back in her room full of (cracked) vanity mirrors.

It would all still be art by virtue of its Warholian association, and all the songs written about her (Dylan's "Just like a Woman," "Like a Rolling Stone," VU's "Femme Fatale" and more later by artists who didn't know her personally). But Butch's cornfed voiceover and big curly shock of hair, pale skin and slack jaw makes one think he snuck across the broken down Isle of White festival fences, one too many times. Know what I mean, Mr. Verdecchio? At least he's got respect for leather interiors, unlike most kids todayzz.z.

Case you can't tell, that Butch gets my goat. A fine, sophisticated, pathologically narcissistic, pilgrim stock royalty, speed freak burnout ex-model like Edie is too good for him. Of course that's my opinion, for we straight sophistos loathe these cornfed hunks with their dopey lack of depth and stripper shorts. Butch's burly hunk status --though he's pale as the moon--is clearly a signifier that this film, for all its female toplessness, is skewed for an older gay male audience. The cut rentboy rube from the sticks--as naive and dopey as traffic will allow--is a gay staple, a favorite recurring subject the way, say, a blonde girl leaning on a Corvette is "ours." Butch-types traipsing around in their towels after a long day indulging in Fire Island volleyball or soaking up the sun; It's a very reciprocal relationship, even if you're straight, as my old-roommate can tell you. Said filmmaker (or designer) shoots sly glances while hunched over their brunch table Hamptons Weekly and you get a free place to crash, right on the beach, not to mention free... everything. I hope that's why we're subjected to Wesley Hayes' super pale naked chest and dopey voice as he walks around in tight shorts his dazed hick expression so charismatically challenged from a straight perspective he makes you wonder why Joe Dellesandro wasn't playing the part. Was Joe so unreliable by then? Or could he just not, by then, play a rube, having shot too much, in both senses of the word? In the words of Marlene Dietrich, "Joe.... where are you, Joe?"

As an Edieophile (Edie-ott?) by association, and (no matter how trunkenshtoned I got) relentless in my gallantry when it came to protecting incapacitated hotties from leering gropers, watching Butch take charge of Little Miss Can't Be Right in these color pool scenes makes me feel like I was leaving my Rolls with Jethro Bodine for the summer. No offense against Wesley Hayes, the actor who played Butch - I'm sure he's smarter than his character and that's part of the problem - if he was a lot smarter he could have brought some crafty Jeeter Lester savvy, like robbing Edie on the side, just as she robbed Paul America in the earlier footage. And if Butch was dumber, then his scenes would feel more natural. A good actor would play the hick as trying to come off more sophisticated than he is, instead of vice versa. Instead Butch is right in-between... The only long hair with any smarts is the previous Edie-wrangler, who steers Butch to the job on his way out of town, smart enough, perhaps, to get out before a certain someone gives him hep C, unless she already has, or worse, he winds up buried in a chimp coffin.

Butch occasionally manages some sharp shirtless jean short observations as he tries to appease Edie's mom Isabel Jewell (who sharp-eyed viewers may remember from Lewton's Seventh Victim) but he does nothing to help his charge, who natters on and on down the druggie narcissistic tangent trail while lurching around topless in her emptied swimming pool terrarium, making some gesture with her hand to emphasize a point, noticing her hand there, pausing to stress the next words in her sentence, then blanking out. The only time she gets out of the pool is when Butch drives her to the doctor, played by Roger Vadim like a vulture hoping to nab another hottie-in-distress for his trophy case before giving her some much needed electroshock...

In short, Edie's like the sad ghost of her former self, a self of course we don't know outside of Warhol's home movies. Knowing what we know about eating disorders (and knowing she was kicked out of two boarding schools for being anorexic) makes it hard to revel in her alien beauty in the Alphaville-esque city wandering scenes, and/or the Warhol factory and YMCA pool party footage. She died mere weeks after her color footage was shot, and you can feel it. Hers is not the knowing sadness, the glimmer of a gorgeous new type of maturer beauty that we find in Marilyn's footage in the unfinished Something's Got to Give. Edie doesn't even to fathom where she is, and watching her is like watching a psychic interacting with ghosts, half in this world and half in the past, but was there... ever even another half? Andy Warhol supplied some of that other half, but he supplied it with a vacuum. And who knows how many times the Andy she interacted with was only Andy's double, and Andy's relationship with Edie itself a double, a bizarro mirror to the gay artist-female muse/proxy/twins bond between Waldo Lydecker and Laura... or Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond, by which I mean, their relationship was composed of celluloid, light, and shadow... and without a projector, it was just a spool. Swoop swoop, oh baby rock rock.

In the end, maybe, we all get the Joe Gillis we deserve, some half-in-the-pool-face-down floater of a biographer who only in death finds his poetic voice, and then uses it only to describe us, who killed him, like a hack Baudrillard drowning in a nepenthe stamen.

1. Two drunk brothers in the 1700s took care of that, they sold everything to spend on whiskey and women; if women could have owned property then, maybe I would be rich as she was.


  1. Anonymous23 May, 2017

    Sedgwick did not die just weeks after filming it was closer to a year - filming was like in January 1971, in the middle of an unusually cold California winter, and she died on November 15, 1971.

  2. Wow,that was a really well written description of the film. I think i will check out what else Erich has done. When i read about Edie i thought it was fake and wish it was, i thought of a family member who died. I remember this type of bird quite well. Seems they all were equestrians for some reason.


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