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‘Superstar’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 16, 1991

Andy Warhol, the pop avatar and subject of the Chuck Workman documentary "Superstar," was the darkest of the art stars of the last 30 years -- a black hole of cynicism dressed in a clown's bright disguise. He was a one-idea artist, and the essence of his message was that everything was of equal value, that everything could be appropriated -- the Mona Lisa, death, Elvis, soup cans, dollar bills -- turned into an assembly line item, and that everything was equally disposable, equally worthless. He was a celebrator of commercial emptiness and fraud in all its forms, especially the fraud of his own vampire talent, but his celebrations were hollow and soulless, parties without mirth or hope of enduring value.

Shining a flashlight into this abyss is Workman's job, and it's an impossible one. A black hole swallows up all light, and on film, every question asked directly of Warhol is transmuted into nothingness. Inquiries about his art are turned aside monosyllabically or with feigned incomprehension. The responses he does give are delivered without conviction; if he answers "yes," it's clear that he could just as easily have answered "no." Mostly he plays the Sphinx, saying nothing, insisting that there is no message in his art, that probing beneath the surface is futile because there's nothing there. Asked to defend himself against his critics, he says bluntly, "Oh, I can't. They're right."

As the biographical center of "Superstar," Warhol remains as enigmatic a presence as he was in real life -- it's the portrait of a ghost. Workman travels around gathering testimony about his subject from Warhol's friends and relatives, including his brother and his cousins back in Pittsburgh, all of whom knew him in the same shallow way that everyone seems to have known him. And what's striking about these exchanges is the odd resemblance they bear to those interviews with neighbors of mass murderers who always say that the subject was "nice, and quiet, and kept to himself."

The testimony from the Warhol inner circle -- from the Factory habitues, the stars of his films, his co-workers at Interview magazine -- reveals more about the climate of the times, about the drug use, the music and the night scene, than about Warhol himself. Warhol is their Rorschach; what they see in him reveals more about them than about him, and even that isn't terribly significant, since for the most part they're disco burnouts, has-been celebs and hangers-on, whose only claim to fame was to have been close to the artist.

Being close to the artist doesn't sound like all that much fun. About all we glean from this data is that he was tirelessly ambitious and acquisitive, loved money and famous people. Was he close to anyone? Did anyone really know him? If so, they're absent from this lineup. Workman shuffles through all this material without ever really finding his themes or developing much of a point of view. At times the film hints at wanting to become an essay on modern-style fame. The only good quote, the only real insight, comes from Fran Lebowitz, who says Warhol's one genuine contribution was that he "made fame more famous."

But Workman is too discursive and unfocused to work out this or any other idea. Instead, he provides a facile ironic commentary by traveling to the Campbell's Soup factory to interview company executives and show us shots of soup cans by the hundreds snaking down the assembly line, as if we really needed to have this aspect of Warhol's aesthetic underlined. Workman wanders down a lot of back roads, some of them bizarrely picturesque, but the final destination always remains obscure. Perhaps that's as it has to be with Warhol as your North Star. At his memorial service, a friend read Warhol's statement that he thought it would be "glamorous to be reincarnated as a big ring on Liz Taylor's finger." What can you say about a man whose lifelong dream was to be inanimate?

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