Posted by morlockjeff on October 2, 2011
“I gave up weightlifting because I hate repeating everything.” – Taylor Mead
The idea of a nude restaurant where the clientele and wait staff are composed of various members of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd such as Taylor Mead and Viva wearing little more than skimpy black briefs may not sound like the most appetizing destination for dining but as a film, THE NUDE RESTAURANT (1967) is a lively, frequently hilarious and occasionally despairing communiqué from the underground for those who have always avoided or dismissed the experimental cinema of Andy Warhol as something boring and interminable based on seeing snippets of 1963’s Sleep (a 321 minute static camera study of John Giorno asleep in bed) or 1964’s Empire (a 485 minute single shot portrait of the Empire State Building from dusk until approximately 3 am) or just reading about them.
In its own way, THE NUDE RESTAURANT is just as stripped down and minimalistic as Sleep or Empire but is animated by the eccentric personalities of Viva and her “straight” man, Taylor Mead, the Beat Generation darling of such underground classics as The Flower Thief (1960) and Hallelujah the Hills (1963). There is no plot, the dialogue is improvised, and the entire film takes place on one set – in this case, The Mad Hatter restaurant at 360 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. People step on each other’s lines or constantly interrupt each other with overlapping dialogue that prefigures the movies of Robert Altman. While Andy Warhol takes screen credit as the director of THE NUDE RESTAURANT, his function as such is merely to turn the camera on and off, stopping only to load a new film magazine into it. But if Warhol seemed to have no interest in directing in the traditional sense, he always had a keen eye for objects, faces or personalities that would make fascinating cinematic subjects when the camera was running. And in Viva and Taylor Mead, he found the perfect stars for this 95 minute snapshot of the New York counterculture art scene in 1967.
In typical Warhol fashion, the film consists of a series of static camera set-ups in long takes. The first thirty minutes consist of a running monologue by Viva with occasional interruptions or asides by Mead as she talks about a variety of subjects from her hair to her dysfunctional upbringing to her sexual escapades. It’s a brilliantly sustained stand-up comedy routine. I’ve always thought Viva’s blasé manner and droll sense of humor were ideally suited to parodying and commenting on modern culture and she lays waste to everything here with a non-stop motormouth that switches gears in lightning speed from the mundane to the inspired to the outrageous and back again (I’ve often wondered if she was an inspiration for Sandra Bernhard’s stage persona). Her voice can be shrill and strident or affect the pretentiousness of a high society snob or someone vaguely European yet it’s the unpredictable rhythm of Viva’s voice that holds me as well as her raconteur’s gift for extemporaneous speaking. Some of her uninhibited stream of consciousness ramblings have been compared by some critics to Molly’s obscene soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Occasionally the “performance” is interrupted by Viva pausing to ask the cameraman, “Is it still running?” and almost instantaneously returning to her outlandish tales which could be autobiographical for all we know. At one point, she glances at Mead and asks, “Getting bored?” to which he provides the deflating response, “No, I like to listen to just parts of conversations. Sometimes I follow the story. Sometimes somebody mumbling you get almost as much.” Viva also constantly interrupts herself with satiric observations such as “Can you believe it? In 1967 we are still talking about European women vs. American women. “ Or “Why are we always talking about the hippies? Isn’t there anything more interesting? We’re beginning to sound like Newsweek. Hippiedom. Trouble in Hippiedom.” Or on a particularly painful S&M encounter: “He gave me two whacks with this whip that were enough. Well, Christ wouldn’t have been able to stand it on the cross.” And since this is 1967, the specter of the Vietnam War and the protest movement hangs heavy over THE NUDE RESTAURANT and constantly surfaces in the conversations as a running motif like the opening of the film where Viva discusses a recent beauty parlor mishap – “You know the scorched earth policy in Vietnam? Well, that was my hair – scorched hair policy.” If Viva has a philosophy, it might be this sentiment that emerges in one of her rants, “Whoever is over thirty years old remains imprisoned in this baggage of Freudian, European, American, feminist, heterosexual, very heterosexual culture. And as far as I’m concerned, super-heterosexuals are simply sadomasochists.”
The fact that Viva manages to appear unself-conscious and at ease as she delivers her monologues in the nude is another amusing aspect of her performance and proves why she was one of the few Warhol superstars who made an effortless transition to Hollywood films, making a memorable impression in small roles in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Cisco Pike (1972) and Play It Again, Sam (1972), to name a few. Still, she remains an acquired taste and either you bolt at the sight and sound of her or you dig her slightly mad, eternally perturbed screen persona. Luckily, THE NUDE RESTAURANT switches gears at around the thirty minute mark – before Viva’s colorful shtick loses its edge – and introduces some other players into the mix, transitioning into a dance scene with gyrating bodies in the buff and then a very funny conversation about sex between Ingrid Superstar, Mead and Viva that begins with Mead noticing lipstick on Ingrid’s nipples.
Could there be a more peculiar and unlikely screen actor than Taylor Mead? Impish, childlike and guileless, Mead is often referred to as “the first underground movie star” and is certainly the antithesis of a Hollywood celebrity…but then, all of the Warhol superstars could fit the latter description. In THE NUDE RESTAURANT, Mead gets to cavort in a black bikini bottom, proudly displaying his scrawny, white, semi-hairy body topped by a slightly tanned face and head that looks as if it belongs on a different body. He enjoys a much more playful, physical on-screen relationship with Ingrid Superstar here – we see them tickling and pinching each other – than he does with the more aloof Viva who warns Ingrid, “Don’t touch him. He might get violent and hit you in the….”
Ingrid: No, he’s so shy he couldn’t.
Viva: Shy? You think he’s shy?
Ingrid: He’s so shy he’s afraid to be touched.
Taylor: See, she knows.
Ingrid: I think he’s a virgin. Are you a virgin?
Viva:: Like Ingrid.
Ingrid (makes the sign of someone playing the violin) Sure.
Taylor: Well, I have possibilities.
Ingrid: Of what?
Taylor: Of being a….um….non-virgin.
Ingrid: Well, who’s gonna break you in?
Taylor: Many have tried, few have succeeded.
Viva: Didn’t you say I turned you on the other day?
Taylor: I said you had possibilities. That’s what I say to them all….I think a woman’s body is very lovely.
Ingrid: Who do you like better, a man’s body or a woman’s body?
Taylor: Really, I don’t know. I’ve been digging the loneliness scene.
Taylor: What’s that?
Ingrid: That you don’t indulge. (she imitates his voice) What’s that? Just for that you get another pat.
Taylor: (he fights off her groping hands) This is getting more like a cocktail lounge than a Greenwich Village scene.
Viva: Listen, you’ve heard of pansexuality. Like TransAmerican – stops at every port.
Mead brings the topic to a screening halt after glancing down at Viva’s crotch area and says, “You’ve got straw coming out of your thing.”
As unstructured, aimless and infantile as they seem, these dialogue exchanges offer a great deal of comic relief but also a window into the sixties counterculture as it was in New York City at that period of time. In this way, THE NUDE RESTAURANT also serves as an anthropology study in which the behavior, ideas and appearance of a certain tribe of people is recorded and preserved for posterity. There’s a wonderful, spontanteous moment when Ingrid gushes enthusiastically about Warren Beatty, saying “I like Warren Beatty because he is so young and rich and handsome and debonair and suave and a fine actor.” Suddenly aware of what she’s just said on camera, she quickly interjects, “And I hope he never sees this picture.” She needn’t be embarrassed. After all, Beatty has had his share of screen embarrassments such as his unconvincing Italian gigolo named Paolo di Leo in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961).
There is an amusing sequence where Viva as the café’s waitress, tries to interest a restaurant patron, played by Allen Midgette, in ordering something. Her own delivery is oozing with sexual innuendo but Midgette remains mostly mute and almost comatose, prompting Viva to say, “Don’t fall asleep. We’re still ordering.” Nothing seems to tempt him though, even when she volunteers, “How about some Sanka? I know how to make that.” The scene reminds me of that inspired moment in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive ((2001) when Naomi Watts generates some real sexual heat with Chad Everett as they run film script lines together in character for a director. The difference here is that Viva does all the emoting with the blank faced Midgette serving as little more than a boy toy prop. Midgette had previously appeared in two Bernardo Bertolucci films, The Grim Reaper (1962) and Before the Revolution (1964) but he’s not required to act here and Viva easily steals their scenes together. Midgette’s main claim to fame was impersonating Andy Warhol (with the artist’s complete complicity) on a lecture tour of several colleges before the ruse was discovered.
Louis Waldon (aka Jim Chisholm), the bar patron with the body painting in THE NUDE RESTAURANT, had previously appeared in Adolfas Mekas’ underground indie, The Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1965) and Joseph W. Sarno’s soft core sex drama The Love Merchant (1966). Though his role here is minor, he would become part of the Warhol entourage, winning larger parts in such films as Flesh (1968), Lonesome Cowboys (1968) and Blue Movie (1969).
Another Factory discovery is Julian Burroughs, who plays the drafter dodger in THE NUDE RESTAURANT and who closes the film out on a political note which is a rarity for a Warhol film (There are two entries for Burroughs on IMDB, one which spells his name with no S on the end and the above spelling which also credits him with appearances in the New Zealand productions Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) and the TV series The Harp in the South (1987) – I think this is erroneous). According to Steven Watson in Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, “Andrew Dungan was his real name, but he adopted the pseudonym Julian Burroughs and pretended he was William Burroughs’s son. This was not a matter of superstar renaming but one of necessity. Julian Burroughs was on the lam. Descended from a wealthy Sacramento family, he had attended Stanford as an undergraduate, been drafted and spent nine months in military training. In June 1967 he went on leave and never returned. He connected with David Harris at Sanford who was leading the war resisters’ movement. Julian Burroughs realized that he had to forge an underground identity and knew enough of William Burrough’s biography to fake it as Burroughs’s son. He came east for the March on Washington on October 21 and 22 and directly after this he hopped a ride to New York…” It was at this point that he met Warhol and Paul Morrissey walking down the street and was invited to show up at the filming of THE NUDE RESTAURANT. His part was a last minute addition but it provided another showcase opportunity for Mead’s oddball brand of comedy.
In the final scenes of the film, Mead displays a feigned interest in the handsome, young draft dodger’s cause for obvious reasons but the conversation turns comical as Mead’s political apathy is unmasked.
Julian: Would you take a deserter into your house and hide him from the law?
Taylor: Yes, I’d do anything.
Viva (in the background, yelling): Revolution is in my blood!
Julian: If I get your address I’ll tell draft dodgers and other groups that you’ll give them hospitality.
Taylor: Oh, I wouldn’t give it to just anybody.
Julian: We need people who care Taylor. We don’t want dropouts. We need people who take any interest in this society and want to change it.
Taylor: Yes, but I want someone beautiful to live with.
Julian: Well, anyone who doesn’t like war must be beautiful.
Taylor: Not necessarily.
There is something wacky and compelling about the earnestness of the young radical juxtaposed against the nervous nelly paranoia of Taylor and his refusal to give his home address because he’s convinced some people are out to get him.
Julian: The FBI’s after me but…
Taylor: Like 15 corner boys are after me.
Julian: Corner boys?
Taylor: Yeah, a guy that gets you in a corner and beats the sh*t out of you.
Julian: You have to be beaten up once of twice before you understand what it means to fight in this…
Taylor: I’ve been in the hospital a couple of times. I’ve been in the jail nine times.
Julian: Civil rights activity?
Taylor: No, personal rights activity.
In an interview with Taylor Mead on his 80th birthday for PlanetGroupEntertainment, he recalled the making of THE NUDE RESTAURANT, calling it, “One of my favorite films. That was immediately after Mickey Ruskin and Andy persuaded me to come back to New York after three years in Paris and Italy. God, when I got off the plane from Paris, we did Nude Restaurant. Andy had already shot Nude Restaurant, but he wasn’t happy with it. So he had me and Viva, and I was still on my drugs from Europe…In America it’s called Quaalude…I was on it for ten, many years. And I’m still on drugs…We shot Nude Restaurant, we shot it as we shot it, because we were stoned. Unfortunately I knew Viva’s private life. Her family life. So I think she wanted to be glamorous, and her childhood, but I made her stick to the story, she was magnificent.”
Besides the rich vein of anti-establishment humor that runs through the entirety of THE NUDE RESTAURANT is the film’s refreshingly frank and unapologetic attitude toward sexual preference and identity, regardless of whether the person on screen is gay, bisexual or straight. Warhol, of course, capitalized on this, targeting his films at both sexploitation and gay cinemas as well as to art houses and museums. But for those men and women still living closeted lives, Warhol actors like Taylor Mead, Ondine, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and Andy Darling were revelations. And the same was true for women as most of Warhol’s female superstars like Viva, Brigid Polk and Mary Woronov were usually strong, outspoken and dominant characters unlike Warhol’s male superstars who tended to be passive. To say that the films of Warhol were empowering in this respect is an understatement.
Most mainstream critics, of course, trashed THE NUDE RESTAURANT as they did most of Warhol’s experimental film work, labeling them boring, empty and repetitive. I’m firmly convinced that a lot of these reviewers never bothered to actually sit through the films they were critiquing and were instead reacting negatively to Warhol’s popularity and fame.
Take, for example, this review by critic/author Stephen Koch who writes, “People talk. One can hardly listen. Other nudes are present. Some leave. Others arrive. They talk. Watching and attending is laborious. One tries to pay attention. There are numerous shrieking in-camera jump cuts called ‘strobe cuts’…More people arrive. Others go. It is absolutely impossible to imagine how anyone could conceivably give a damn…I cannot think of a single inch of footage in NUDE RESTAURANT that seems to me worth looking at. Watching it is rather like being present at the most boring party of one’s entire life…Oh yes, the superstars. They get on one’s nerves.” Koch’s dismissal is all attitude and no insight and makes me wonder if he was having an off day since he took the trouble to write an entire book devoted to Warhol’s cinema – Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol.
Then there is this review in the New York Times by A.H. Weiler, that makes me wonder if he even saw the same movie: “The first of Restaurant was filmed (in fairly good Eastmancolor) in a bathroom used by Viva, the waitress-diseuse of this study. She is a lanky, dreaming, extremely loquacious type who is quite nude throughout the formless proceedings. ‘You know, she casually remarks as a young man joins her in the tub, ‘Churchill spent eight hours a day in his bath?” Eventually, Viva goes to work in the boite of the title…a place where nudity appears to be a must.” Either Weiler is getting Bike Boy (which also starred Viva) confused with THE NUDE RESTAURANT or he is reporting on a version that doesn’t currently exist because THE NUDE RESTAURANT I watched was not filmed in a bathroom, nor is there any scene where Viva and another man share a bath.
I can understand that there may be some confusion about what happens in THE NUDE RESTAURANT because Warhol released another film called Restaurant in 1965 that took place entirely in the title location (L’Avventura) and featured Edie Sedgwick. It is also true that Warhol shot two versions of THE NUDE RESTAURANT and the original version featured an all-male cast. He shelved this all-male version (although footage from it was allegedly used in his 25 hour epic, **** (Four Stars). The running time for THE NUDE RESTAURANT is listed as 100 minutes on IMDB but on the all region DVD copy of the film I have from Raro Video (it is now out of print), the length is listed as 90 minutes forty seconds. I suspect from the below review in Variety that the version of THE NUDE RESTAURANT that was reviewed by critics in 1967 was later reedited: “….Warhol has a habit of adding new material to his films and subtracting some other footage while they are in the midst of their runs. He always makes sure that the running time remains the same. At show caught there was a second bathtub scene featuring a different boy as well as two other girls. This has since been replaced by an extension of the restaurant scene in which Viva describes her adventures with a most uncelibate priest.” The scene with the priest, is indeed in the copy of THE NUDE RESTAURANT I watched and probably the high point of Viva’s many ribald confessions.
Despite the unfavorable and confusing reviews of THE NUDE RESTAURANT recounted above, there are others besides me who find the film a good argument against the usual clichéd criticisms of Warhol’s movies such as Tim Hunter of The Harvard Crimson who ranked it as one of the best ten films of 1967 along with Joseph Losey’s Accident and Alain Resnais’s La Guerre Est Finie: “In Warhol’s films, people talk at one another, strive for self-definition and expression, and are either too emotionally bombed-out to succeed or else posses too weak a vocabulary. In his dealings with language breakdown, as well as in being prolific, Warhol is our Godard. But where Godard treats subjects with increasingly pedantic seriousness, Warhol still makes grimly hilarious comedies. It is fashionable to accuse Warhol of making identical films for fun and profit, but intelligent artists do not exist in a state of perpetual atrophy, and Warhol is no exception. Though his current style is simple, it is not simplistic, and I have yet to lose interest in a Warhol composition for as long a time as he chooses to leave it on the screen. His recent experiment with color and editing have proved his interest in his won artistic development, and his choice of actors and material proves that he even directs on occasion, turning out some of the more exciting film in recent years.”
But probably my favorite assessment of THE NUDE RESTAURANT and Warhol’s early films before Paul Morrissey became his go-to director is this tribute from Gary Indiana in the book Andy Warhol: Film Factory, “ It’s bizarre that Warhol’s films have been out of circulation for so long. Or perhaps not so bizarre. When Warhol said, in his last interview, that the films ‘are better talked about than seen,’ it occurred to me that a certain crust of the haute monde might have been less welcoming to Andy if it had been exposed to his movies. Which, I believe, compose his richest body of work. Who will ever forget Ondine, with his face buried in Joe Dallesandro’s underpants in Loves of Ondine? Or Ingrid Superstar’s recipe recitation in Bike Boy? The draft-dodger’s soliloquy, or Viva’s epic monologue in NUDE RESTAURANT?…I haven’t seen these films in 20 years, and I remember every frame. I’ve already forgotten E.T. Warhol’s films are gloriously erotic, as sculpture is erotic. They’re honest. Pornography…is dishonest. Perfect faces on perfect bodies do not blissfully couple without any problems, in real life; they only do that in California….Sexual pleasure is immanent in the Warhol movies, a possibility; but pornographic fulfillment is always shown as a deluded ambition. Real people are too complicated. We should be wary about praise and damnation of Andy. He helped open thousands of closet doors. If the things he lent himself to in recent years fill me with distaste, I still admire the frosty slap he gave America before he became America’s favorite vanity mirror.”
Amen to that.
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