Yesterday we posted John Belushi’s screen test for Saturday Night Live. Today we feature an altogether different kind of “screen test”: Andy Warhol’s unblinking film portrait of an irritated-looking Bob Dylan.
Between 1964 and 1966 Warhol and his assistant, Gerard Malanga, used a 16mm Bolex camera to make 472 short films of people, both famous and obscure, who came to visit his “Factory” on East 47th Street in New York. The idea of calling them “Screen Tests” was something of a joke, according to Malanga. “None of these screen tests amounted to giving those people the opportunity to go on in the underground film world,” Malanga said in a 2009 interview. “It was kind of a parody of Hollywood.”
To Warhol biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton, the Screen Tests are serious works of art, the product of Warhol’s “ingenious conception of a mid-twentieth century portrait.” In Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, they write:
When movies were invented, their critics claimed there was one thing they couldn’t do: capture the soul, the distillation of personality. Ironically, this turned out to be one of film’s greatest capacities. Operated close up, the movie camera lets us read, perhaps more clearly than any other instrument, a subject’s emotions. As his hundreds of sixties, seventies, and eighties photo-silk-screen portraits attest, Warhol was compelled to portray the human face. The Bolex let him home in on flickering expressions and shifting nods, a near-instant raising and lowering of eyebrows, a quick sidelong glance, pensive and thoughtful slow noods, or a three-minute slide from composure into self-concious giddiness–fleeting emotions that neither paint nor a still camera could capture. Andy’s ambition for the Screen Tests, as for film in general, was to register personality.
Warhol’s method was to load 100 feet of film into the camera, place it on a tripod, press the button, and leave it running–sometimes even walking away–until the film was gone. It was like a staring contest he couldn’t lose. Each roll took almost three minutes. In Dylan’s case two rolls were exposed: one for a wide view, the other a close-up. The short clip above includes footage from both rolls.
The exact date of the session is unknown. Scherman and Dalton write that it most likely occurred in January of 1966, just before Dylan’s world tour. Some witnesses say it happened in late July of 1965, around the time of Dylan’s historic “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Whatever the date, by all accounts it was an awkward, chilly encounter.
Dylan pulled up at the Factory in a station wagon with his friend, Bob Neuwirth. From the beginning, according to Scherman and Dalton, it was clear that Dylan was determined to demonstrate his superior cool. “As for Andy’s motives,” they write, “he was clearly star-struck, in awe of Dylan’s sudden, vast celebrity. He had a more practical agenda, too: to get Dylan to appear in a Warhol movie.”
But Dylan wasn’t having it. After the sullen Screen Test, he walked over to a large painting of Elvis Presley that Warhol had already set aside for him as a gift and, by one account, said “I think I’ll just take this for payment, man.” He and Neuwirth then lifted the painting, which was nearly seven feet tall, carried it out of the studio, down the freight elevator and into the street, where they strapped it–with no protection whatsoever–onto the roof of the station wagon and drove away.
Postscript: Dylan never liked the painting, Double Elvis, so he traded it with his manager, Albert Grossman, for a sofa. It’s now in the Museum of Modern Art. (The painting, that is. Not the sofa.)