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Andy Warhol, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Blue Movie

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Andy Warhol and Viva in a publicity shot for Blue Movie (1969)

Here’s a story from way back in the day; it’s 1969, and I’m covering “underground films” for Life Magazine as a writer, which means I get to go the countless screenings of superb films on a daily basis and write about them – a dream job.

One day, Warhol invited the media to the Factory, then located at 33 Union Square West, to see his latest film, the original title of which is unprintable here. However, suffice it to say that the film was about Warhol “superstars” Viva and Louis Waldon making love in an apartment — owned by art critic David Bourdon — shown in considerable detail. For the time, it was quite a daring project.

In any event, when I showed up at the Factory, we were all ushered into the back, which served as the screening area (the front part of the loft being business offices of a sort, with huge, airy windows – a gorgeous space to work in), and seated in folding chairs, waiting for the film to begin. I look to my right, and who’s sitting next to me but the brilliant Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, and to my left, his leading actress Monica Vitti.

So, pretty daunting company. The film, which runs roughly 105 minutes, starts, in three 1200′ reels; the first reel is more or less conversation between Louis and Viva, shot in the interior of an apartment, using artificial light. But when the second reel comes on, a static shot of Viva and Louis in bed, illuminated only by daylight streaming through a very large bedroom window, the entire image is blue.

Why? Well, Warhol used 16mm reversal film for his movies, and if you were shooting color film in the 1960s and 70s, two of the most popular choices for film stock were Eastman Reversal 7241, balanced for use outdoors; and Eastman Reversal 7242, balanced for tungsten (indoor) lighting. If you shot Eastman 7242 outside without using a Wratten 85B filter, the image would become completely blue; and that’s what was happening here. The only light used was the daylight coming through the window, thus making the final image very, very blue indeed.

Reflexively, I leaned over to Antonioni and said “well, it looks like Andy forgot to put in the 85B filter.” Antonioni looked at the screen, then looked back at me and smiled. “You’re right, of course,” he said, “but Andy doesn’t care about things like that.” I nodded, because Warhol really didn’t care about things like that, and we watched the rest of the film in silence, along with the rest of the audience.

When the film ended — and it’s not one of Warhol’s best, by a long shot — I heard Warhol asking someone plaintively “why is the whole second reel all blue?,” so I told him about 7242, 7241, and the need to use the proper filter to balance the color when you used indoor stock outdoors, or vice versa. “Ohhhhhhh” said Andy.

Long pause. “Well, I guess we should call it Blue Movie.”

True story. Warhol’s genius at “embracing the mistakes” was never more apparent to me than on this occasion, and Antonioni laughed, as well, appreciating the obvious double entendre; a “blue movie” that really was a blue movie. Shortly thereafter, on July 21, 1969, the film opened under that title at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village. In his review of the film in The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that the film was “literally a cool, greenish-blue in color.” Now you know why.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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