Warhol’s 8-Hour Movie of the Empire State Building

Hello, faithful reader. How was your weekend? Did you see any good movies? Let us tell you about the movie we watched. We’ll try not to give away any spoilers.

Admittedly, the dialogue was not the most compelling, and the plot was a little slow in developing. On the other hand, compared to The Curse of Bigfoot, it had us on the edge of our seats, chewing our fingernails in anticipation.

The film’s star is getting up in years, but the decades have been kind. Any defects in appearance can be attributed more to the grainy cinematography, rather than signs of aging.

Oh, and there’s one other thing… The movie is 8 hours long. That’s a long time to sit, but not nearly as painful as trying to endure one hour and fifty minutes of Cats.

What was this compelling cinematic epic that consumed one-third of an entire day? If you have to ask, then you’re obviously unfamiliar with Andy Warhol’s magnum opus, Empire.

Andy Warhol was a genius, evidently. Apparently, he was also an artist. We know he is both because almost every internet article proclaims “Andy Warhol was a genius” and “Andy Warhol was an artist.” We qualify the terms with “evidently” and “apparently,” because the Great Unwashed (a term lovingly applied to the Commonplace Fun Facts Arts and Culture staff) can’t quite figure out what the big deal is.

Having been duly designated as an artistic genius, however, it would seem that Warhol could spit into a glass of seltzer water and cause art critics to swoon with an acute affliction of Stendhal’s Syndrome. If you want evidence to support the proposition, you have to look no further than Empire.

Empire was filmed in one continuous shot. Warhol began the recording on July 25, 1964, at 8:10 p.m. and filmed until 2:30 a.m. the following morning. The subject of the film was New York City’s Empire State Building. He set up his camera on the 41st floor of the Time & Life Building at 50th Street and Avenue of the Americas. There, with a rented 16-millimeter Arriflex camera, he captured what was then the world’s tallest building, 16 blocks away.

Although the shooting lasted six hours and twenty minutes and showed no significant activity throughout that time, this was not mind-numbingly boring enough nearly artistic enough for Warhol’s tastes. He edited the final production by slowing the film down by 25%. This he did because, “He wanted that touch of unreality, to take it out of naturalism,” according to Jonas Mekas, a film critic for the Village Voice.

For the Great Unwashed, a film of any length of time that consists of a single camera angle of an unchanging building would be about as painful as watching Nick Nolte star in The Sound of Music. For the cultured and sophisticated societal elites, however, Empire was life-altering. The aforementioned Mekas, with hands still trembling from being transported to the realm of ecstasy, wrote a review of Empire less than a month after it was filmed:

“Last Saturday I was present at a historical occasion. From 8 P.M. until dawn the camera was pointed at the Empire State Building, from the 41st floor of the Time­ Life Building. The camera never moved once.” He summed up the experience by gushing, “Andy Warhol is the most revolutionary of all filmmakers working today.”

Watch a 1-hour excerpt from “Empire”

Those who only have time to have their lives changed by one-eighth of the film’s potential can watch the adjacent one-hour excerpt from Empire. We would show you more, but we don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

Empire premiered on March 6, 1965, at the City Hall Cinema in Manhattan. There is no record of how many of the 576 seats were occupied. Mekas reported, however, that after the film had been running for ten minutes, 30 or 40 people demanded their money back, “threatening to solve the question of the new vision and the new cinema by breaking chairs on our heads.”

Despite the audience’s dissatisfaction, Empire still managed to generate more ticket sales than Zyzzyx Road.

Although we cannot condone acts of violence or vandalism, we applaud the ingenuity of those unsatisfied moviegoers. After ten minutes of Empire, most of the Commonplace Fun Facts staff in attendance had slipped into a catatonic state. Of those who remained conscious, one reported experiencing internal bleeding, and another remained awake only by gnawing his arm off.

It may be difficult to find a theater in your neighborhood that offers Empire. Don’t despair. All you need to do is pay a visit to the Library of Congress. In 2004, Empire was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Of course it did.

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