By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce in “Factory Girl,” Weinstein Company, 2006]
There’s a certain kind of human being who, however ordinary or perhaps merely beautiful in real life, acquires the halo of mesmerizing superhumanity when seen on celluloid we cannot takes our eyes off them, even if we know in our forebrains that there’s really not much there to see. It’s one of cinema’s unquantifiable mysteries, and Edie Sedgwick, short-lived queen of Andy Warhol’s mid-60s Factory, personified it she never did anything, couldn’t act or even tell a story well. But everyone, Warhol in particular, had to watch. This is just one of the bizarre, extra-textual things about George Hickenlooper’s biopic “Factory Girl” Sienna Miller, playing Edie, is a solid, sympathetic actress, but does she have that same unworldly magnetism on film? How could she? If she doesn’t, how does that make sense of why Edie, within the movie’s world, got famous in the first place?
The fact that Sedgwick only occupied the underground art-scene spotlight for a little over a year before getting lost on dope and falling out of Warhol’s favor makes her an even more unlikely biopic topic but there’s no denying that she has, somehow, proven to be a deathless, Marilyn-style icon of counterculture cool, a reputation built by word of mouth, not by exposure to her nearly impossible to see films. So, Hickenlooper’s film was inevitable, and inevitably devoted to the biopic template. The film does, in any event, a smash-up job freezing a retro-goofy sense of the New York ’60s in amber, and it gives us the most interesting on-screen Andy Warhol yet personified by Guy Pearce, Warhol is a grandly passive-aggressive faerie queen with a penchant for deflective press-interview ironies and inappropriate confessional booth announcements (“Why do you come here?” the priest asks; “Because it’s a sin not to,” Andy innocently answers).
He’s not just a wig-&-whimper joke here; we get a vivid sense of how his Factory worked, how he retained power over it, how he used people like Edie by simply, martial artist-like, bending with the breeze and letting things spiral out of control away from him. Expect not a grimly realistic portrait of the Warhol scene (much less an analysis of the man’s aesthetics and motivations), and get past the foolishly tall and hunky Bob Dylan simulacrum (Hayden Christensen), and the film does a smooth and sympathetic job at memorializing one of the 20th century’s oddest cultural totems, the only nobody that Warhol did in fact manage to turn into an authentic “superstar,” her cult of vacuity growing larger and more worshipful as the decades pass, while the other Factory workers vanish from memory.
Another nostalgic couch-idyll: Nathan Juran and Ray Harryhausen’s “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957), not an auteurist relic full of rich subtextual ore, God knows, but best remembered by an entire generation of postwar psychotronic-movie geeks (like me, and like Tim Burton, here gushingly interviewing stop-motion pope Harryhausen in a DVD supp) as one of the preeminent moments in American pop culture when frame-by-frame F/X so simple and manual in process, so damnably magical in the viewing rejiggered one’s burgeoning view of the world. Harryhausen’s reptilian-humanoid creature rampaging around Rome still glues your eyeballs; the fantastic tangibility of his creations (from, also notably, “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” “Mysterious Island” and “It Came from Beneath the Sea”) is their lynchpin unlike CG images, Harryhausen’s homely behemoths obey the same laws of movement that constrain the actors, and inhabit the same space, turf, gravity and sunlight. Their three-dimensionality is not illusory, and their hesitant, unblurred motions remain strangely poignant. But for a certain age of cinephile, this lavish DVD package 50th anniversaried up, with a second disc of interviews and memories and storyboards is also a ticket to the B-movie gray heaven of the ’50s, down to the way suited men sit on desks, and the stolid hero (William Hopper) lights up after electrocuting the alien from Venus. (Warhol could’ve air-written the moments when an American says “Venus!” and an Italian peasant replies, “Venice?”) You also have the opportunity to toggle between the original b/w and a moldy-beige Colorized version, but who among us would do such a thing?
“Factory Girl” (Weinstein Company) is now available on DVD; “20 Million Miles to Earth” (Sony Pictures) will be available on DVD on July 31st.