❉ Emerging onto Blu Ray for the very first time David Weisman and John Palmer’s Ciao! Manhattan is an odd, fragmentary, fitfully impressive patchwork quilt of a movie.
“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” ― Edgar Allan Poe
“Emerson wrote once that even a corpse is beautiful if you shine enough light on it. But that is horseshit” – Charles Willeford
There is a beautiful and strange mirror universe somewhere in which all the alternative casting decisions and intriguing unfinished film projects that never made it to the screen have actually happened and become cultural fixtures. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hallucinatory, disorientating version of Dune starring Mick Jagger with a score by Pink Floyd…Harvey Keitel grimacing and yowling his way through Apocalypse Now’s Cambodia, in search of Robert Redford’s Colonel Kurtz… Jack Nicholson conquering and losing Europe in a series of endless symmetrical tracking shots in Kubrick’s Napoleon.
One that very nearly came to pass could have been the most intriguing of them all: At some point in the ‘90s Gus Van Sant clocked River Phoenix’s resemblance to Andy Warhol and a plot was hatched to film a scene or two of a Warhol bio-pic every year until Phoenix was in his fifties (roughly the age Warhol was when he died). The idea was to make a film in which all the characters aged in real time, where flashbacks to their past would really be footage of them from years earlier, where you could map and marvel at the entropy of the real human face on a big screen.
Phoenix’s shocking death at the age of 23 outside LA’s Viper Room closed that particular door forever, of course. But there does exist an odd, virtually-unseen cinematic dry run for this very idea, and given that it emerged directly from the silver spray-paint and amyl nitrate aroma that drifted down the lift shaft onto East 47th Street from Warhol’s original Factory, and given that it too was curtailed by the disturbing drug death of an adored, angelic waif it’s likely Van Sant found some inspiration from it.
Emerging onto Blu Ray for the very first time David Weisman and John Palmer’s Ciao! Manhattan is an odd, fragmentary, fitfully impressive patchwork quilt of a movie. Shot and edited in fits and starts between 1967 and 1972 on black and white and colour it straddles documentary and fiction awkwardly, but not unattractively: like its central subject, the epically doomed Warhol starlet Edie Sedgwick, it possesses a certain bedraggled charm, but seems constantly on the verge of falling apart. On the disc’s commentary veteran Warhol acolyte Weisman refers to it as being less of a movie and more of a lifestyle, and this immersion in the codes and behaviours of late 60s Bohemia lends it a compelling authenticity that later recreations of that singularly addictive/repulsive, inclusive/elitist scene (like the execrable, hopelessly clunky and naive Factory Girl, mainstream Hollywood’s attempt to paint a portrait of Edie) could never hope to possess.
Weisman and Palmer’s initial plan was to document the buzz around Sedgwick and her beautiful, vacant, eccentric Factory pals like Paul America, Viva, Brigid Polk/Berlin and Baby Jane Holzer, all the while concocting a very loose narrative about money, power, voyeurism, stardom and hedonism as a sort of sculptural form to pour the raw footage into when things got too loose. Funding came and went, but they eventually managed to start shooting in colour and hire a genuine character actress of Old Hollywood (the pleasingly frazzled Isabel Jewell as Edie’s exasperated mother) to lend the dying months of the shoot something like legitimacy. The fictional narrative is slight, unpolished and sort of askew: proto-slacker dropout Wesley Hayes, in his only film role to date, drives his weathered Mercedes through a picturesque California haze in search of adventure. Happening upon the lurching, uncoordinated (and very topless) Sedgewick on the late-night highway he gallantly takes her home to an an honest-to-goodness Decaying Hollywood Mansion where Edie’s mother makes her live in the drained swimming pool, surrounded by massive blown-up photos of her life as the darling of the Manhattan arts scene a few years before.
These colour sequences form the framing device for a series of extended monochrome flashbacks to Edie’s glamorous (and surprisingly brief) life as the ‘It’ girl of the New York art and fashion scene.
Visual and narrative allusions to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (a fading starlet clings to and dissects her old life to impress a male interloper as a cynical butler figure gazes at them with undisguised contempt) abound, as does the ghost of Citizen Kane (Skip Battin’s song of the same name crops up a few times on the soundtrack). Contemporary tapes of interviews with Sedgwick guide us through the luminous wash of vintage black and silver as she poses for a fashion shoot outside the United Nations, gets shot up with vitamins and speed by one ‘Dr Robert’ (not the one from The Blow Monkeys, but definitely the one from Revolver) or is driven at high speed through the neon night by the chiselled Adonis Paul America. Woven through these abstractions another more science fictional sub-plot about surveillance culture emerges as a shadowy, vaguely Mafioso figure gathers audio-visual intelligence on Edie and her friends for reasons which are never properly articulated.
What immediately strikes you right off the bat is just how openly and upsettingly fucked-up the film’s star is from the get-go. On their commentary track Weisman and Palmer defend their decision to film her in her many, many scenes of apparent intoxication and vulnerability and make sure that her contribution as a full, engaged and willing collaborator is acknowledged: but then Palmer will mention that she was ‘dancing on the wheel of Samsara’ throughout the shoot, which sounds like hippie slang for ‘fatally self-destructive in a way we could exploit”. This could be an unfair assessment, but the spectacle of a still-pretty young woman stripping her clothes off while twitching (dancing?) to a record, seemingly under the influence of something powerfully mind-altering is a weird, uncomfortable, anti-erotic sight under the best of circumstances: but when you know she died a matter of months later from a barbiturate overdose it leaves a somewhat foul taste in the mouth.
To describe the rest of the ‘plot’ such as it is is futile. People show up, talk bollocks for a while, argue, dance, disappear, get thrown in jail, get gang-raped by a couple of mods, you know the drill. If you’ve ever wanted to see Allen Ginsberg walk down a leafy hillside completely starkers at his own leisurely pace then this is the film for you, friend. No judgements here.
There are occasional moments of startling beauty and jarring tonal shifts: Edie snaps into lucidity for a detailed (and apparently improvised) account of her father’s physical abuse of her, and you want all the silly sub-plots about Dr Pepper-guzzling hippie drifters and sinister, corporate Big Brother types to give it a rest so that this big-eyed extra-terrestrial of a woman can just talk and tell her story. Little darts of real humanity like that which cut through the cynical drugs-and-sequins veneer and leave little puncture-wounds in your heart are few and far between but suggest that Weisman and Palmer should have stripped out the (barely penetrable) fictional narrative entirely and just let her talk over the footage they shot.
The film ends on a note of genuine cinematic poetry worthy of Bergman: gazing at a newspaper through a car’s window Wesley Hayes reads a headline informing him that Edie has died (a real headline from a real-world newspaper no less) and when we cut back to him in long shot he, the car and the landscape are suddenly covered in snow where there was none before. It’s a lovely, sad, moment apparently inspired by happenstance (the snow just fell overnight as they were shooting in that location and the film-makers utilised it) and transmits an artful but uncynical beauty and sense of regret which the film could have used more of.
That’s the film as it stands. It’s pretty much a mess, but not a total failure: that Weisman, Palmer and their production partners and collaborators managed to get it released at all is a minor miracle. On the commentary track Weisman, Palmer and Hayes recount the Everest of problems and total lack of encouragement they faced: it’s clearly a labour of love, but it’s a strange, creepy, even unwholesome love. There’s the sense that Sedgwick checking out at the age of 28 just before the film was finished is the best thing that could have happened for it, and that sensation coats its every moment with a kind of sticky, itchy guilt. As essentially a glorified home movie (only the names have been changed to protect the exploited: we know who you REALLY are ’Susan Superstar’) its shortcomings as a drama can perhaps be forgiven. Although at the same time Warhol and Paul Morrissey were producing stuff like Flesh For Frankenstein, Blood For Dracula and Heat ostensibly their bids for mainstream cinematic acceptance. Heat would actually make a fairly decent companion piece to Ciao! Manhattan as it goes: shameless and seedy sexual intrigue around a Hollywood swimming pool being the very tiny sub-genre both films occupy.
The difference is Paul Morrissey WANTS his actors to be bad: he WANTS his dialogue corny: he’s deliberately setting out to use his nonexistant budget to aggravate and scandalise. The frequent woodenness of Ciao! Manhattan’s cast isn’t an intentional alienation technique, it’s the best they could do under the circumstances.
The extras on the Blu Ray are crucial to contextualise the film and give a frustrating sense of what the film could have been. There’s almost half an hour of unused outtakes included and they open the film out in exactly the way that their excision narrows it down and cuts out a lot of its sense of life, its liveliness. Among them is a beautiful pan through the legendary Max’s Kansas City which Weisman claims (possibly erroneously) to be the only known film footage of the place. The more they talk about and justify the film’s underwhelming plot, the more you wish someone had shook them years earlier into making a narrative documentary about Sedgwick instead.
There are a handful of interviews included too, most notably with the late George Plimpton (Sedgwick’s biographer) who seems to be one of the few people acting genuinely disturbed by the cult of early death that surrounds her I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from Edie Sedgwick, model-actress-junkie on the silver screen: one day there might be a great film or a great documentary about the way she burned through her short life like flame engulfs paper. But it ain’t this one, babe.
See it for some of its imagery and some of its moments. Have it on your shelf as a curio or a research tool. Wallow in the way it captures the texture of its era. Try not to gag at the camera’s unflinching gaze at a disintegrating psyche. But be warned: it might not make you feel any better about the world of people and the deals they make with themselves to get things finished.
❉ ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ Blu-ray was released 20 August 2018 by Second Sight (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4087), complete with special features:
❉ The lost Ciao! Manhattan reels
❉ Feature commentary by co-directors John Palmer and David Weisman and actor Wesley Hayes
❉ Video interviews with George Plimton, costume designer Betsey Johnson, David Weisman and Wesley Hayes
❉ Original trailer
❉ New English subtitles for the hearing impaired
RRP: £19.99. Cert: 15 Running Time: 84 mins approx.