“It’s like she’s in her own little world all by herself.”
Warhol’s former superstar, model and actress Edie Sedgwick is the lead in this restoration of her posthumously released autobiographical-ish role that depicts the life of a former star recalling her glorious past. Moving, provocative film-making, this is part fiction, part archive documentary; a product of its time generated from the culture that preceded it.
Butch (Wesley Hayes) is on a California road trip when he comes across a confused topless hitch-hiker. She is Susan Superstar (Edie Sedgwick). Butch takes her to her mother’s (Isabel Jewell) home, a sumptuous old mansion, although Susan lives in the tented, poster strewn (empty) swimming pool, where she is kept on medication and often taken to a private psychiatric hospital. She is looked after by her mother’s dishonest employee Geoffrey (Jeff Briggs) and soon Butch finds himself involved in the life of the rehabilitating woman, who spends much of her time recalling how fabulous her life was just a few years ago…
Four years in the making, Ciao Manhattan is a unique film in both its subject matter and construction; it segues between colour realist drama and frantic black and white montage which integrates cross-cutting in time-space with the modern day story of the lead protagonist. In many ways this is a post-Woodstock foray that leaps between the psychedelic pop-art world of the 60’s and the rather more troubled and sober early 70’s. Sedgwick was Warhol’s most iconic star, the poor little rich girl (like the Warhol film Poor Little Rich Girl ) turned drug addled symbol of post-modernism, after her Factory days, going through rehab and an attempt to relaunch herself. The focus isn’t just on her reviving her career as model/actress, but more movingly, it’s about her coming to terms with the tribulations of her past –not just the drug-addled New York Pop-Art scene but also her own traumatic childhood growing up in an American bourgeoisie family where she suffered abuse.
The film’s narrative is both engrossing in its voyeurism and distressing in its instigation. It appears that Edie plays herself and is herself, but she does this in the context of a fictional character where she is playing someone who is not her… but it is impossible for the audience to identify the role as fictional. The use of documentary film from her Factory days reinforces that these are genuine recollections of events that really happened. This makes for difficult viewing, especially when she recalls drunken assaults by her father during her childhood and also the social expectations of pretty rich girl in the savage and selfish city. At times it seems that this is the gratuitous exploitation of a former star but paradoxically it also comes across as an art-cinema labour of love made by those who were there, and also had a perspective of events that needed to be depicted as they were and not sugar-coated.
Ciao Manhattan started shooting in 1967, after Edie had left Warhol Superstardom. Recalling her life from the perspective of a fictional character, she was filmed by those who were also part of the community that had rejected her. The film was put on haitus for some years following Sedgwick being admitted to psychiatric clinics, but she rejoined the production in 1971, altering the way the film was made and portrayed. She did not survive to see the final edit, having died from an barbiturate overdose just months before the film’s release. The depiction of her fragile psychology and her addictions is very moving; reflected in her on-screen declarations that mix her glorious superstar past with her current predicament. She was most well known during the Warhol years and her ultimate rejection of it and its rejection of her are evaluated, especially when she declares that, “I haven’t been anywhere where I haven’t been known.” She has to come to terms with aspects of a life defined by Warhol where “The first 15 minutes last a very long time but the second 15 minutes last forever.”
Extras on the disc include a number of interviews that offer the film-makers’ and actors’ recollections of the time and the instigation of the project, notably from Wesley Hayes. Normally the “deleted scenes or out-takes” extras are a vague aside or a mere hint at what a lengthy director’s cut might have looked like, but here they are fascinating. The pretty 35mm helicopter scenes of New York in 1967 to depict a happening on Central Park segues into the happening itself. The pool party scene itself is put into grim perspective: “When they drained the pool they found 100 syringes.”
Ciao Manhattan stands as a compelling film that is not simply a product of its time but a part-factual/part-fictional recollection of the years leading to its completion. This balance between real and imaginary, having the star effectively being the subject, linked with the varied cinematic and editing styles make for fascinating viewing. A peculiar and intriguing non-biographical biographical film about the late 60s/early 70s art scene but it’s the tragedy of the protagonist’s life that lingers with the viewer.
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