Andy Warhol's Blow Job
Rarely did I see Roy Grundmann, a Contributing Editor of New York's Cineaste magazine, in the first years he moved here to become an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Boston University. When we did meet, he'd apologize for his unavailability, but he remained buried deep in toil writing his book. That book has finally been published, and, as I imagined, it's an obsessed, brilliantly ambitious tome, offering more ways - personal, analytic, formal, theoretical, historical, cultural, sexual, ethnographic - than anyone might imagine to skin one movie.
But that movie isn't a world classic like Citizen Kane or Grand Illusion, or something comparable: showy and formidable in its density and complexity. No. Grundmann is discussing a little-seen underground picture, silent and black & white, in which a guy in a leather jacket (he's the whole cast) leans against a wall; and, for the duration of the film, we watch that guy from the waist up, as he writhes about. And we ponder what is happening below the frame, which seemingly is causing him to writhe. For either 36 minutes or 41 minutes, depending on projection speed.
It's a 1963 pop tease of cheeky minimalism. The book is Andy Warhol's Blow Job (Temple University Press). Grundmann loves this movie in which, far, far more than Seinfeld can imagine, nothing happens. Certainly nothing X-rated. There's no cock to see, and no bobbing head revealed. There's an orgasmic face at one point, but is the below-camera spillage real or gloriously faked, like Meg Ryan's Sally? Is it a man down there, or a woman? Or a transvestite? Or a giraffe? Or nothing? Who knows? Grundmann (self-described as "a gay white male") offers a series of readings which see the text as a refracted, reflexive, expression of Warhol's homosexuality. But the viewer can choose. Grundmann admits in his introduction that the only reading which he can't fathom in when someone tells him that Blow Job is "simply boring and tedious." How can that be?
A warning: Andy Warhol's Blow Job is an academic work, difficult to maneuver at times. But there's a telling overview of Warhol's cinema and a fascinating chapter about James Dean's iconic meaning to gay culture, and to Warhol, and how that guy posing against brick relates to a 1950s Warhol drawing mourning Dean's automobile-crash death.
One caveat: Grundmann talks about Vic Morrow's juvenile delinquent, Arnie West, in Blackboard Jungle (1955) as a "psychotic double" of James Dean. What about the obvious: that the fellow getting (probably) sucked off in Blow Job looks far more like leather-jacketed Morrow than Dean?
(Boston Phoenix - August, 2003)