The Discreet Charm of the Profane Genius

The Films The People vs. Larry Flynt and I Shot Andy Warhol

By Caroline Langston

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 8 (Summer 1997): 143-149.

A man's "center," states the perennialist religious philosopher Frithjof Schuon, is his "sense of the Absolute or the love of God." In traditional, premodern societies, Schuon argues, man understood himself as part of a transcendent, meaningful order that was both social and religious, which thereby enabled him to concentrate his energies on the development of that essential center. One need not agree with Schuon's universalist conclusions to find such a unified world compelling; as Christians we often find ourselves longing for the milieu we envision of fourteenth-century Siena or Puritan New England.

By contrast, it seems almost unnecessary to argue the completely disunified, fragmentary character of contemporary life. Such a world, according to Schuon, "tends to deprive m[an] of [his] center," diminishing his capacity to focus his being toward the love of God in any integral sense. Furthermore, having denied man thus, the modern world "on the other hand offers [him]-in place of the saint and the hero-the cult of the 'genius.'"

For Schuon, the genius is "all too often a man without a center." Therefore, in such a person "this lack is replaced by a creative hypertrophy." Schuon's essay "To Have a Center" refers, in particular, to such titans of Modernity as Beethoven and Nietzsche, whose voluminous creative output was overshadowed by their mythic reputations as passionate artists. Despite the fact that such geniuses "have often been unfortunate and desperate persons who have ended in disaster," as writers such as Paul Johnson, in Intellectuals, have detailed, the figure of the impassioned, self-destructive genius maintains a continuing popularity in the public imagination. Instead, the very fact of the genius' abnormal or disordered spirit seems to cause people to find him "all the more interesting and 'authentic.'" As a result, they are then "attracted by the seduction, indeed the fascination, which emanates from [his] siren songs and tragic destinies."

Their disordered souls aside, Beethoven and Nietzsche at least produced works of artistic and intellectual content, in which one might recognize elements of truth or beauty even while finding the author's worldview unsatisfying. In these final years of the twentieth century, however, the figure of the genius seems to have extended far beyond its original boundaries of artist or intellectual to include anyone with a passionate spirit and an individualistic stance against the imagined complacent conformity of society. In his Pushcart prize-winning essay "Dark Age: Why Johnny Can't Dissent," Tom Frank has written persuasively about how popular culture caters to this tendency, down to such small instances as the Burger King slogan, "Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules." In the hyperegalitarian democracy in which we conceive we live, the volcanic, rebellious stance of a Beethoven or Nietzsche becomes instantly available to everyone.

Clearly, however, some so-called geniuses are more successful at obtaining their requisite fifteen minutes of fame than others. Furthermore, we have the added phenomenon of an entertainment culture that, having seized upon such a self-proclaimed figure, actively promotes him, using all the attendant mythic conventions. Two films of 1996 are particularly acute examples of this tendency, the Oliver Stone-produced The People vs. Larry Flynt and the independently released I Shot Andy Warhol. The eponymous Larry Flynt is, of course, the publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler, while the subject of the second film is the life of Valerie Solanas, the radical-feminist lesbian who, guess what, shot pop-artist Andy Warhol (though not fatally) in 1968. The general presentation and atmosphere of each film is wildly different from the other: Flynt is characterized by the high Sturm und Drang drama one has come to expect of a Stone production, while Warhol presents Solanas's story in the unaesthetic, even ugly, manner of independent films and feminist film conventions. In the end, however, the films' similarities outweigh their differences: In seeking to present an apologia for Flynt's and Solanas's transgressive behavior, each film actually becomes a hagiography rendering the two figures as tragically misunderstood, prescient geniuses.

Replete with repeated obscenities and graphic sexual discussion (if not display), the two films are hard to recommend to a spiritually minded viewer. Nevertheless, there is something sympathetic in the figures of Flynt and Solanas that persists-something true, which keeps the films, in the end, compelling, despite their other problems. And at the last, even though it only has an impoverished spiritual vocabulary with which to speak, each film in its own way betrays a poignant longing for spiritual transcendence.

However, the notion of any spiritual longing is not the most immediately obvious aspect of The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film's initial purpose seems to be to establish Flynt's character along a couple of standard axes, the first being that classic American type, the enterpreneur. The film opens with a vignette of Flynt's poor childhood in Kentucky, in which the future pornographer is nearly shot by his drunkard father for selling moonshine, to which young Larry replies, "I'm just trying to make an honest buck." Set against a backdrop of tangled, leaf-strewn southern woods that have a primeval quality to them, the vignette serves as a "myth of origin" for our incipient genius, who rapidly rises above it. The other initial aspect of Flynt's character is that of a vivid, larger-than-life physicality. Flash forward to 1972: Flynt, played by Woody Harrelson, is the proprietor of a topless bar in Cincinnati. Already a connoisseur of his female dancers, Flynt hits upon the notion of publishing Hustler, which will extend those same visceral possibilities to the average guy, without the upper-class, martini-drinking affectations of Playboy. Around the same time, he meets and becomes enamored of Althea Leasure, a new (and underaged) dancer in his club.

Here the cinematography becomes visually arresting, clearly encoding Flynt as an ur-human genius. Whereas the palette of the opening vignette was a range of muted greens and grays, suddenly the screen floods with vivid, jewel-toned color. Flynt is shown wearing a bright blue polyester suit, moving amidst an atmosphere of shining gold and red. As well, when we first encounter Leasure, as Flynt does, performing a striptease on stage, she is astonishingly beautiful, all porcelain-white skin and masses of pre-Raphaelite hair. And as expected, they fall into bed and love, rising together on the crest of the Hustler publishing venture.

At the same time as the film wishes to encode Flynt as a physical demigod, however, Flynt also has the seemingly contradictory purpose of wanting to make him appear as sympathetic as possible. Soliciting a sceptical photographer for a more explicit pose from a model, Flynt argues, roughly, that if God created a woman, he certainly created her genitalia as well. Was the photographer, then, going to argue with God? Flynt therefore is ingeniously presented as both a sexual adventurer and a feminist.

Still further, he is patriotic. All Flynt's varied facets come together during a hilarious Bicentennial celebration at his mansion. Wearing a Revolutionary War costume (of burgundy velvet) and a tri-cornered hat, Flynt celebrates freedom with orgiastic abandon, welcoming his clueless parents to his new twenty-four-room Tudor, then slipping into his cavernous bathtub for an encounter not only with Leasure, but two other women (one African-American) as well. Very early in the film, then, Flynt is the supercharged embodiment of prized traits-sexy, rich, and multicultural.

The onslaught of Flynt's legal problems represents the culmination of his genius status, as First Amendment defender. First he goes to jail on obscenity charges, gets out, and appears at a benefit for "Americans United for a Free Press." Against a montage of film clips depicting Holocaust imagery, Nazi parades, and mushroom clouds, Flynt poses that great Sixties question: "What is more obscene, sex or war?" The film also jutxaposes Flynt's vaunted "integrity" against the implied hypocrisy of his detractor, Senator Charles Keating, later of the Keating Five, and John Delorean, the video of whose cocaine deal Flynt acquires and sells, championing the public's "right to know." Throughout, the pious rhetoric of the film veers rather close to civil-religion sentimentality, a category that Milan Kundera terms "political kitsch" in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and which undercuts the film's authenticity.

This notion of Flynt, as protector of your freedom, has dominated national media discussion and promotion of the film, including John Simon's fine piece in the February 24, 1997 National Review. Flynt's shining moment in this regard comes when he is sued by the Reverend Jerry Falwell for libel and "Intentional Affliction of Emotional Distress" on account of a fake Campari ad in Hustler regarding Falwell's "first time."

Ultimately, the case reaches even the Supreme Court, but on the day the verdict is handed down in Flynt's favor, he's not even there to hear it. A sniper's bullet has left him paralyzed and impotent, he has lost his beloved Althea to AIDS, and has become a virtual prisoner in his Italianate Hollywood mansion, his lucidity eroded by melancholy and paranoia. Flynt's decline dominates the last half of the film, which itself doesn't quite appear to know how to juxtapose the patriot it's constructed with the tiresome boor shouting obscenities in courtrooms. Flynt's madness, it seems subtly concluded, is the sad price of his achievement-cinematographically, this is underlined in shots of him lying helplessly on his enormous Baroque bed, which in framing appears almost a direct quotation from the end of Citizen Kane (causing this viewer to wonder, What here is Rosebud?). Flynt's self-destructive apotheosis has been reached.

Yet there is something in the portrayal of Flynt that is still compelling, aside from all the film's attempts at packaging and manipulation, and that is his love for Althea. Courtney Love's brilliant performance remains convincing throughout, both when Althea is young and beautiful, and when she is a ghostly, prematurely aged addict, and Flynt continues to be touchingly loyal to her. The authenticity of their bond is underscored by the repeated setting of their most poignant scenes-Larry's proposal, several arguments, even Althea's death-in the bathtub, clustered about with flickering candles, and the sheen of transparent, flowing water. Water, light: the use of these universal spiritual symbols serves to elevate Flynt's merely personal pathos to a universal level. It works, despite his squalid materialism, and Hustler's degeneracy, which Frederica Matthewes-Greene has rightly detailed elsewhere. In the final scene, Flynt lies on his bed, watching a video of a breathtakingly beautiful young Althea simultaneously played on three televisions lined side-by-side. The woman, the framing, the light-you have seen all these elements before: on triptychs in European cathedrals.

There are no such aesthetic distractions in I Shot Andy Warhol. In fact, the construction of the film seems to have been focused on making it as unvarnished a viewing experience as possible. In the film's establishing shot, the camera plays across Warhol's body sprawled across a hardwood floor, then to Valerie Solanas's pale-faced, squinting expression as she holds out a 33-caliber Berretta and one of Warhol's young male assistants hisses, "You can leave now, Valerie. Just get in the elevator and go." Almost immediately arrested, Solanas openly confesses to the crime, inviting reporters to read the "manifesto" of her own self-created organization, "SCUM," or the "Society for Cutting Up Men." Through the rather artificial device of a police interrogation, the narrative then flashes back to explain the circumstances that have led Solanas to this point, shifting at first into the style of a documentary (with the voiceover, presumably, of a court-appointed psychologist) and then into straight narrative.

The ground for Solanas's genius is initially constructed along the axis of her societal marginality, both in her origins, and in her life right up until she pulls the trigger. We are told that she was sexually abused as a child, then see vignettes (nonexplicit) of her first attempts at a lesbian encounter as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, then her foulmouthed frustration at a world that doesn't understand her. Given this background, when Solanas observes, "It is not possible to reproduce without the aid of males," her conclusion, "We must immediately begin to do so," doesn't seem as outrageous as it otherwise might.

Her odd credibility is only reinforced as the story moves forward: In New York after college, Solanas supports herself as a heterosexual prostitute, while sleeping on rooftops and hanging around on the off time with street pals of various genders. Again, what would on the face of it seem a bleak, nihilistic lifestyle becomes in the hands of the film a kind of feminist picaresque. Attired in a man's shirt and baggy pants with a cap perched on the side of her head, Solanas ambles about the streets of Manhattan like an existential Spanky from the Little Rascals, soliciting passersby of nickels with the promise that she'll tell them a dirty word. The dirty word, of course, happens to be "men."

"What is it you lesbians do?" a repellently salacious heterosexual businessman asks of her, and for the right price, Solanas is willing, with a friend, to show him. And though Solanas profits from servicing his voyeuristic desire, it is he who is depicted as a prurient beast, while Solanas is just a resourceful working girl getting by.

Throughout, the film never pities Solanas, or terms her an oddity-both her feminist cogitations, included as interspersed monologues on black and white stock, and her dubious creative works (such as a play entitled "Up Your Ass") are presented as being on an equal level, thus completing the entire picture of her as genius: outside of society, self-destructive, but justified and enlightened.

Solanas's philosophical counterpoint, and the most memorable character of the film, is the transvestite who calls himself "Candy Darling," in real life an acquaintance of Solanas and a Warhol associate. Solanas meets him near the beginning of the film, when he still dresses as a very effeminate, brunette female. In this subculture, the notion of gender is fluid, and introduced to him as "Jimmy," Solanas admits that she first thought he was a lesbian. The two end up sharing an apartment together, and as Solanas continues to write and argue for female resistance to male oppression, Jimmy/Candy steadily transforms his exterior to that of the Fifties feminine ideal so esteemed in male homosexual mythology.

One scene in particular emphasizes the contrast. As Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By" plays in the background, Candy Darling sprawls across a bed in full makeup, dress, and high heels writing a letter, the content of which is voiced over as the camera caresses "her" delicate features, which are bathed in warm, yellow light. A feminist point is being made here: the seductive framing, one realizes, is the same mechanism used, in standard Hollywood movies, to frame all desirable women. In the eyes of the film, the viewer thus becomes complicit in the oppression. Then the camera cuts to another bedroom, to Solanas curled up fetally on an unmade bed, her plainness illumined by stark light from a window, narrating her " . . .Young Girl's Primer: Or, How to Attain the Leisure Class."

Seeking an audience for her work, Solanas is told by Candy Darling that "If anyone can make you a star, Andy [Warhol] can," and together the two friends seek entrée into his circle. At the same time, Solanas meets by chance a mysterious foreigner named Bruce Gerudias, who introduces himself as a publisher of subversive erotica and, after conversation, indicates his interest in representing her work. Solanas signs a contract with Gerudias, but finds out too late that she has also signed away any rights to what she has written, the ultimate form of subjection for someone who prizes her artistic freedom.

Furthermore, although Solanas and Candy Darling are successfully taken in by Warhol's coterie, unlike Candy Darling, brash Valerie doesn't fit in with their affectations and mannered decadence. For a while she intrigues Warhol, and he invites her into the Factory circle, gives her a screen test, and agrees to read her play, which he does later, mockingly, sitting on a sofa surrounded by his admirers. There's a wonderfully ethereal sequence depicting one of the famous Factory parties, in which Solanas wanders among the drug-addled bohemians, again the lost Little Rascal, as a Hugh Maskela song plays in the background. She finally falls asleep on a sofa.

Warhol's crowd soon tires of her, but Solanas doesn't recognize it until one of his young associates makes the sign of the cross over her face and states, "Don't you get it? You've been excommunicated, my dear." At the height of her disappointment, she accidentally meets a member of an armed, revolutionary underground group, a Mephistophelean figure who informs Solanas that "We're against everything that's good in America." In a speeded-up sequence of quick cuts, we see him take Solanas in, seduce her, and outfit her in an ammunition belt. "You don't begin to be free," he tells her, "unless your own blood is being shed," then gives her the Berretta.

Warhol already established as the locus of her frustration, it's clear that shooting him is, to her mind, the only way she can receive attention to the SCUM manifesto, and to the film's, to ensure her destructive-genius status. On June 3, 1968 she proceeds to Warhol's "new" Factory, and we are returned, full circle, to the opening scene of the film. "I shot Andy Warhol," she discloses immediately. "He had too much control over my life." And to the end (the film's closing credits reveal details of the rest of her life and death), she never lies about her story, or her motivation. When the closing titles proclaim that the SCUM manifesto is now a "feminist classic," we know that her profane genius is complete. And yet, as with Flynt, something true has been said. To return to Solanas's own words: "I shot Andy Warhol. He had too much control over my life." The meaning of this statement can be understood in taking a look at the figure of Candy Darling. Whereas Solanas stalks about frumpily, Candy Darling becomes ever more the stylized female, receiving approval from Warhol for her ersatz transformation. "Oh look at Candy, Valerie," Warhol tells her at one point, "isn't she fabulous? You ought to get Candy to do your makeup." The cruelty of this kind of artificial femininity becomes painfully obvious: "You know, you should wear makeup," Warhol even tells her later, "'cause you're kind of pale."

I Shot Andy Warhol is thus a direct critique of transvestism, and of aestheticized male homosexuality in general, astonishingly bold given the tenor of current popular culture, and probably countenanced only on account of the film's feminist credentials. Solanas's objections to the Warhol group's manipulations seem entirely justified, the very heart of the redemptive spark one can see in her character, in which Lili Taylor gives an energetic performance. When Solanas finally upbraids Candy Darling, saying, significantly, "Jimmy, you're not a woman. You're not even a man. You're pathetic," it is an act of truth the spectator applauds.

Even more generally than with respect to gender, the whole world that Warhol represents is a collection of indeterminate surfaces. In the Factory party scene mentioned before, the interior spaces are luminous with reflective foil, creating nothing more than a hall of mirrors. Party goers gaze at their own reflections in Mylar balloons, and babble nonsense to themselves while strung out on concoctions of pharmaceutical roulette. By contrast, identified with natural light and physical earthiness, Solanas appears as a kind of pilgrim in search of authenticity, and her quest is touching. Profane genius aside, her desire for a more "natural" world without men, in her experience the engines of artifice and oppression, begins to look a lot like a terribly distorted longing for-what else? Eden.