In the early 1980s, Danish experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth came to America intent on capturing it live as it was actually lived across that vast, still-new, and often strange country. The result, 66 Scenes from America, offers images of roadside motels and diners, desert landscapes, the Manhattan skyline, miles of lonely highway, and stars and stripes aplenty. Halfway through it all comes the longest, and perhaps most American, scene of all: Andy Warhol eating a fast-food hamburger. A few moments after he accomplishes that task, he delivers the film's most memorable line by far: "My name is Andy Warhol, and I just finished eating a hamburger."
"Leth did not know Warhol, but he was a bit obsessed with him so he definitely wanted to have him in his movie," writes DailyArt's Zuzanna Stanska. And so when Leth came to New York, he simply showed up at Warhol's Factory and pitched him the idea of consuming a "symbolic" burger on film. "Warhol immediately liked the idea and agreed to the scene – he liked it because it was such a real scene, something he would like to do."
When Warhol showed up at the photo studio Leth had set up to shoot the scene, complete with a variety of fast-food hamburgers from which he could choose, he had only one question: "Where is the McDonald's?" Leth hadn't thought to pick one up from the Golden Arches as well, not knowing that Warhol considered McDonald's packaging "the most beautiful."
Warhol had a deep interest in American brands. "What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest," he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. "You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." Surely the same could be said of any particular fast-food burger, even if Warhol couldn't have his preferred brand on that particular day in New York in 1981. In the event, he chose a Whopper from Burger King, still a well-known brand if hardly as iconic as McDonald's — or, for that matter, as iconic as Warhol himself.
Above, you can see Leth talking years later about his experience filming Warhol.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.