Film Studies: Toxic lollipops and lonesome cowboys

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The Independent Culture

In all the fresh attention that slips off the non-grip, non-responding surface called Andy Warhol (as in black hole), don't forget Andy and the movies. Above all, don't forget how, in the olden, golden days, movie moguls were guys from eastern Europe who had been raised in the garment business, selling gloves, furs or lingerie, before they got to that ultimate fantasy adornment – the movies. So even though Andy came out of Pittsburgh, his family line was as Polish as that of Samuel Goldwyn, who had been Schmuel Gelbfisz once. And if you're that sort of Polack once, you can paint yourself like a barber's pole but you never lose it.

Andy, too, was into adornment, though he never bothered with clothes. He preferred acrylic, poster paint, photographic light and even skin itself. In his deadpan gaze they were all layers that could be peeled off. He was crazy about skin, and the way it knew its own past and future – call them loveliness and putrefaction. Here he is in 1980 gaping at Ann Miller (and he collected movie stars not just for their autographs but to examine their skin): "Her face is flawless. Not a wrinkle, not even a smile line, and she said, 'One of these days I'm going to have to get a facelift'; I don't think she has, really, because her skin isn't pulled at all – her face is fat but it's unlined and not pulled. And she has tiny petite hands with long fingers. She's been married two and a half times – one was annulled." That's Andy the stoned film fan, somewhere between a surgeon and a cannibal, writing down everything everyone says and believing nothing, knowing that celebrity and "personality" have vanquished value or character.

His is a world where essence gathers at the surface like poison, and where everyone is a star. And so he painted people as toxic lollipops.

But the people in his movies are much more interesting. That's why I stress Andy the movie mogul, the kid who had his own Factory on Union Square West, New York City, a place where, more or less, there were always movies going on, always cameras turning over (he was lullabied by the thought of the endlessly tranquil unspooling of film – itself a great, serene metaphor for factory work).

Andy didn't like to direct the films. He was so far ahead of his time that, even in the Sixties, which was – after all – the great age of auteur hauteur, he merely devised the practice of filming and sort of chose the people. So he put the camera in a corner, got the longest running film magazines possible and just let the machine turn over while people did next to nothing in front of it. He could have called for "anti-action" – it's the black hole again. The people were the freaks, the junkies, the transvestites, those as addicted to celebrity and behaving like a great but hopeless lost movie star as he was.

Of course, in those golden olden days, at the real Californian factories called Warner Bros, Twentieth Century Fox or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, there had been so much purpose and planning. There had been scripts and dialogue. There were stories in the films. They played all over the world and everyone was paid a lot of money. They were done in shots – lots of different shots cleverly edited together. Andy simplified that: no scripts, just one long shot, no story. And he took all the money. Why not? It was his camera and he paid for the developing.

He had seen through everything. He felt that censorship was slipping away. He knew you could do anything on film, and that style, purpose and intent were all shams. So he just recorded things. Very simple things like someone sleeping, or the Empire State Building as day and night slowly circled it. In time, especially with Paul Morrissey, who did the "directing" as Andy dozed, the pictures acquired marginal content – not really story-lines so much as talking points: The Chelsea Girls, Heat, Trash, Flesh, Lonesome Cowboys, Blue Movie. They were called underground movies, but then the underground broke through into the daylight and college kids everywhere were watching Viva and all his other superstars and watching time glide over their skins.

Sometimes the movies are as unaffectedly beautiful as great Bonnards; sometimes they are just blissfully boring. But movies have never been the same again. Andy was the Last Tycoon (and the lost), as well as the effortless pioneer in the slack art of this new century – surveillance, the miles and miles of coverage of potential trouble spots that keeps us secure, yet insecure. Because what guardian could ever stay awake watching the stuff? In the age of somnambulism, Andy knew that the cinema was the last possible place for peaceful sleep.

Warhol film season: Tate Modern, London SW1 (020 7887 8888), to 24 March