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ronald nameth

Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable
1966.16mm. Color, black and white. 30 min.

To some extent the so-called psychedelic discotheque was to the cinema of the sixties what the Busby Berkeley ballroom was to the thirties. In a larger sense, however, they are by no means in the same class either socially or aesthetically. The Berkeley extravaganzas, like Hollywood, were not places but states of mind. They generated their own ethos, their own aesthetic. They answered an obvious need for escape from the dreary hardships of the times. Life imitated art. But thirty years later Hollywood had degenerated to the point that it was, at best, an imitation of an imitation. The spate of "hip" Hollywood films, which began to appear after 1966, was about as socially significant as the various Kennedy assassination "souvenirs," and was proffered with the same exploitive streetvending zeal. Like all commercial entertainment, these films were about something rather than being something, and so were the discotheques they imitated.

Andy Warhol's hellish sensorium, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, was, while it lasted, the most unique and effective discotheque environment prior to the Fillmore/Electric Circus era, and it is safe to say that the EPI has never been equaled. Similarly, Ronald Nameth's cinematic homage to the EPI stands as a paragon of excellence in the kinetic rock-show genre. Nameth, a colleague of John Cage in several mixed-media environments at the University of Illinois, managed to transform his film into something far more than a mere record of an event. Like Warhol's show, Nameth's EPI is an experience, not an idea.

In fact, the ethos of the entire pop life-style seems to be synthesized in Nameth's dazzling kinaesthetic masterpiece. Here, form and content are virtually synonymous, and there is no misunderstanding what we see. It's as though the film itself has exploded and reassembled in a jumble of shards and prisms. Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar dance frenetically to the music of the Velvet Underground (Heroin, European Son, and a quasi-East Indian composition), while their ghost images writhe in Warhol's Vinyl projected on a screen behind. There's a spectacular sense of frantic uncontrollable energy, communicated almost entirely by Nameth's exquisite manipulation of the medium.

EPI was photographed on color and black-and-white stock during one week of performances by Warhol's troupe. Because the environment was dark, and because of the flash-cycle of the strobe lights, Nameth shot at eight frames per second and printed the footage at the regular twenty-four fps. In addition he developed a mathematical curve for repeated frames and superimpositions, so that the result is an eerie world of semi-slow motion against an aural background of incredible frenzy. Colors were superimposed over black-and-white negatives, and vice-versa. An extraordinary off-color grainy effect resulted from pushing the ASA rating of his color stock; thus the images often seem to lose their cohesiveness as though wrenched apart by the sheer force of the environment.

Watching the film is like dancing in a strobe room: time stops, motion retards, the body seems separate from the mind. The screen bleeds onto the walls, the seats. Flak bursts of fiery color explode with slow fury. Staccato strobe guns stitch galaxies of silverfish over slow-motion, stop-motion close-ups of the dancers' dazed ecstatic faces. Nameth does with cinema what the Beatles do with music: his film is dense, compact, yet somehow fluid and light. It is extremely heavy, extremely fast, yet airy and poetic, a mosaic, a tapestry, a mandala that sucks you into its whirling maelstrom.

The most striking aspect of Nameth's work is his use of the freezeframe to generate a sense of timelessness. Stop-motion is literally the death of the image: we are instantly cut off from the illusion of cinematic life – the immediacy of motion – and the image suddenly is relegated to the motionless past, leaving in its place a pervading aura of melancholy. Chris Marker's La Jetée, Peter Goldman's Echoes of Silence, and Truffaut's 400 Blows are memorable for the kind of stop-frame work that Nameth raises to quintessential beauty. The final shots of Gerard Malanga tossing his head in slow motion and freezing in several positions create a ghostlike atmosphere, a timeless and ethereal mood that lingers and haunts long after the images fade. Using essentially graphic materials, Nameth rises above a mere graphic exercise: he makes kinetic empathy a new kind of poetry.

-- Gene Youngblood: EXPANDED CINEMA, 1970, [PDF /4.6 Mb]

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