Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ciao! Manhattan (Palmer. Weisman. 1972)

"They serve like a mockery in way of reality because they think everything is smiles and sweetness and flowers, when there is something bitter to taste. And to pretend there isn't is foolish"

Technically, Ciao! Manhattan is the second movie from the 1001 starring Edie Sedgwick to be reviewed in my blog. The first is the superfluously bad Warhol interpretation of “A Clockwork Orange”, Vinyl. In that movie, Sedgwick is billed as a star, but serves more as a set-piece for Andy’s cinematic display of artistic ineptitude. In fact, Warhol pretty much delegated Edie to eye-candy duty more often than not. Though under his tutelage she did eventually become a fashion icon and worldwide “It girl”, very few people had any idea whether or not the gorgeous glamourpuss actually had talent. 

Honestly, I don’t think she does have very strong talents as an actress, but that does not make her or Ciao! Manhattan any less enthralling. The entire thing started in 1967 as a project for several of Warhol’s “Superstars” as a way to capitalize on Edie’s fame. The original idea was to film a movie about her and another factory-man, Paul America. It was meant to be shot as cinema vérité and the cameras were asked to just…follow them around and document their adventures. Budget problems and excessive drug use by the “writers” forced production to halt after only a few scenes had been shot. Rather than let this undeniably interesting footage go to waste, Jim Palmer and David Weisman decided to write a completely separate, fictional movie and then use the old footage for flashback sequences. 

Rather than an actual documentary, the movie became more of a realistic avant-fiction that juxtaposed Edie Sedgwick’s real struggles with that of the fictional Susan Superstar (played by Sedgwick). Superstar is a former model and “It girl” who has been eaten up and spat out by the fame monster. She is introduced to the audience as a drunk, high and sleep deprived former scenester who is now feeling the repercussions of her once loved attention. The fictional parts of the movie were shot in 1970 (3 years after original production stopped), so Edie is noticeably drugged out. Playing Susan Superstar could not have been very difficult for the beauty. She was practically playing herself. I have found some reviews online that suggest Edie was only told to get really high and “talk about the past” during filming. I wouldn’t be shocked if these claims are true. 

The fiction in Ciao! Manhattan is haunting and sad when it isn’t mind-numbingly confusing. A man arrives at a large estate to find Superstar living in an empty swimming pool surrounded by posters of her own former glory. Her mother does not much care for her and she does not seem to have any support system to fall on. Obviously drugged out of her mind, Superstar dances around topless, waxes about the past and then sleeps with the aforementioned man. That’s pretty much it. If the story stood alone there would be no significance to it at all. The acting isn’t great and the story is obtuse. 

What makes this movie work is that it contains the old footage shot in 1967 of Edie and America. Actual, sometimes candid-seeming, images and footage of Edie’s life is superimposed over Superstar’s stories of former glory and pain. The audience is immediately saddened by the differing states of the leading lady. In the real footage she seems to have a metropolitan glamour about her that “radiates sunshine”. As Superstar, there is no sunshine. The lifetime of extravagance has taken everything from her. She is no longer an icon; she is toeing the line between cautionary tale and obscure pop-culture reference. The film famously and successfully blurs the line between fiction and reality. We all know that, even during filming, Edie is no longer a superstar. She’s a drugged out, psychologically damaged blip on the radar. 

Perhaps the most lingering memory of the film happens when the directors play actual, drug-induced factory interview audio over the documentary footage. Edie can be heard explaining her love of certain drugs and even confesses to not fully knowing that she was born extremely attractive. 

And if this isn’t sad enough, the film will unexpectedly go back to reality where the current day Edie Sedgwick has been reduced to dancing around topless without any tangible control of her own actions. Though she was knowingly involved in the film, it is hard to describe Ciao! Manhattan as anything less than extreme exploitation. The men who wrote and directed this film were supposed to be Edie’s friends. She spent the years before the film’s shooting living in and out of psychiatric wards and was even arrested on drug charges. Even the audience can tell that she has no business being in this movie. She wasn’t healthy. And then…

After only a month of shooting the film was completed and sent into post-production. Shortly after, Edie Sedgwick died of a drug overdose at the age of 28. The filmmakers took little time to capitalize on her publicity and even added an ending to the film that features an actual newspaper headline announcing Edie’s death. It has been said that she desperately wanted to see Ciao! Manhattan finished because she wanted her story to be told. She did not want anybody else to go through what she did during her few adult years on the planet. If anything, the film stands as a haunting and belligerent depiction of a decade that has been retroactively remembered as loving and “far out”. It is hard to watch a woman as young and beautiful as Edie Sedgwick crumble the way she does. The film might not be great, but I believe it to be must-see material. 

Ciao! Manhattan: B-

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