[Content warning for the film: transphobia, violence, misogyny, drug use]
The art scene of 1960s New York City and the struggles of living on the street merge in Mary Haron’s cult classic I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). The film revolves around radical feminist Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) who is trying to publish her SCUM (The Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto. The film’s narrative carries a humorous and absurd tone, but traces Valerie’s life in a semi-autobiographical manner. Having stumbled upon one of Andy Warhol’s (Jared Harris) film sets, Valerie is filled with determination as she decides that she must get into Warhol’s favour and have him publish SCUM. Andy Warhol and his crew of mismatched artists and muses – known as the Warhol superstars – come together in one of his studios, an artistic hub called The Factory. Candy (Stephen Dorff), an aspiring transgender muse, is Valerie’s key into the artistic community. Having been rejected by both the reluctant Warhol and played by a cunning French publisher, Valerie’s mental state deteriorates, and she blames Warhol for the damage inflicted on her.
The scene depicting Andy Warhol’s party is reminiscent of the absurd party scenes often associated with New York, such as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Brief shots of celebrators engaged in strange activities enhance the film’s depiction of the enchanting disarray of the artistic community; a woman hypnotised by a pinwheel, a man dancing with flashlights, another woman embracing a reflective helium balloon and a group of Warhol superstars organising pills into clusters of shapes. While the minds of those around her drift, Valerie is focused solely on promoting her manifesto and wanders around the dancers, trying to sell it. The film begins and ends with the shooting of Andy Warhol, but predominantly focuses on the development of their relationship and Valerie’s concurrent struggles on the streets of New York, where she makes money by prostitution and begging. Combining the two seemingly separate but surprisingly interconnected worlds, the film explores how Valerie moves between the realms, never truly belonging to the artistic community.
Valerie Solanas was, and to this day continues, to be a very controversial figure, and some of the events in the film can come across as more problematic and disturbing to a socially aware modern-day viewer. Valerie’s feminism does not extend to intersectionalism, as she both physically and verbally assaults Candy and tells her that she isn’t a woman but a man. Yet the film frames Valerie as a sympathetic character, and her behaviour is justified by her personal struggles. Similarly, while the nonchalance of Warhol and his superstars contributes to the artistic ambience of the film, they see Valerie’s struggles as pitiful and, instead of helping her, exploit her ragged demeanour for monetary benefit by featuring her in a film. Thus the film raises issues such as disregard towards social inequality and misgendering, which are still recurring problems in the current political and social climate. In this way, I Shot Andy Warhol remains relevant to this day.
[Kristiina Kangasluoma – she/her – @overthefrogwall]