I sympathize with "Suan" — Edie Sedgewick — asking this simple question about the running dialogue in part of Ciao! Manhattan, a film at the Academy Theater, because I wondered, in a larger way, to what extent the "actors" were acting, how much of the film was shot with a whole film in mind, and to what purpose the movie exists. These questions imply that Ciao! Manhattan is sufficiently interesting to evoke them, and it is, although I'm not exactly sure why.
The late Edie Sedgwick, ex-Warhol "superstar," in a role modelled on her own life. The film was shot, off and on, over five years (before completion, the leading lady died), and it looks that way, as if the idea of what the film was about changed several times, and as if the varied footage was ultimately arranged inside a large cocktail shaker. Some of the manufactured glamour of Underground Chic is manifested in Sedgwick's empty-swimming-pool home and her scrapbook collection of news clippings and fashion photos, and in brief appearances by other Warhol satellites like Viva, Brigid Polk, Paul America, and Baby Jane Holzer. Their mystique is somewhat tarnished, though, by shaping the film around a fatuous Southern-bumpkin character with a Casey Jones cap and a grating voice that stands out even amid a large assemblage of voices that croak, squawk, and yawp, unbearably. Directed by John Palmer and David Weisman.
The film opens in a tolerable slick manner with shots of an incredibly stupid, nice hick hippie ("dumb cracker" he gets called later) driving an old Mercedes in Beautiful California. And the titles haven't come on yet, so one hopes this opening sequence is a parody. It is too badly lyrical for anything else, a kind of Easy Rider - Endless Summer — naive American hero hybrid, very funny because Cracker's voice is so unpleasant and dumb and oddly strident over the soft blunt color. But if it is parodic it never quite lets the audience know it because the color remains soft and slick after the titles, and Cracker soon becomes a necessary part of the framework of a story which asks to be taken seriously, but can't be because it's so very lame. The plot of Ciao! Manhattan works — or fails to work — just like the plot of the Hellstrom Chronicle: it's a late excuse to tie together a lot of conceptually unconnectedand unseuable — footage. Unfortunately, much too much of the film is spent elaborating and excusing this large mistake.
Cracker "Butch" picks up Stoned-Out-Of-Her-Mind "Susan" on the road, truly scary in her naked stupor (the first hint of seriousness, and this, you think, is either fabulous acting, or very real, or ... ) and takes her to her home, an unkempt estate (you've seen it before) with its resident crazy faded mother and wise-guy cute kid who is supposed to take care of both "Susan" and the house. The stereotypes here serve no purpose, for they're neither good enough to be really funny, nor are they used with any insight. "Susan", whose mind is burnt out from too much speed (this is Edie Sedgwick of course, but this is fiction, remember") tells "Butch", who is barely listening, the story of her New York life as a Warhol Factory machine and Famous Model. Most of Susan's flashbacks or scenes of imagination are in black and white, obviously shot years before. The day passes in snippets of story, past and present; Butch takes Susan for her shock treatment in the morning (fake or "real"?) and then leaves the place to hitchike to N .Y.C. This is the framework, with the little additions of a deus ex machina named Mr. Verdecchio, a lot of T.V. equipment, and Butch's idiotic fantasy about how the whole scene is audited by flying saucer people (how ironic — we ALL have our own insightful fantasies, if we only knew what they meant ... ) I make no effort to clarify this mess, but as it sets itself up, a distinct nonparody, the story is a cheap and insultingly thoughtless commentary on Modern Life: a young California girl, pretty, fresh, speeds herself to madness and death in an atmosphere of drugs, bad business, and voyeuristic sterility. Something must change. A better family life perhaps, a little more love, some self-control. or a self-controlling society would have made ALL the difference. Pathetique.
But, within the plot's framework, and especially in the flashbacks, there are images of real interest: for the "real" Edie Sedgwick, and her whole menage, is remarkably photogenic to a voyeuristic camera, and there is a life here that deserves some sort of analysis. Why are we so drawn to Edie Sedgwick's nervous self-indulgent posing, or to Viva in any form, or to the sort of pressRomance that the Warhol figures — and their audience — thrive on?
Some of the black and white footage is very good, jerkily but intelligently edited to create the phenomenon of speed-in-NYC: a series of helicopter shots of the tops of skyscrapers is particularly wonderful: the Chrysler Building in all its silver unexpected glory, and masses of little people on the terraces of the Empire State. Another sequence is frighteningly and terribly funny: a woman ("Brigid Polk") sitting in a sort of bathroom stall at a speed health spa in Manhattan trying to convince herself she is a Beautiful People, poking speed as she does, and convincing me at least that she is worth looking at and listening to because she, acting more to herself than to the camera, has the dramatic nerve to be overheard telling some very uncomfortable truths.
For even if she is talking self-consciously before a camera and perhaps aware of a vague script, "Brigid Polk" is not "acting." And, to my horror, neither is "Susan" or "Butch". These are people caught in a film. Ciao! Manhattan would be truly dead if it were entirely "fictional" and the actors had no relation at all to the roles they would be therefore professionally "playing". It is the unclear interplay of that newspaper concept "real life" - glamour, death, PR - with the trappings of story and fantasy that make the Warhol scene, and its offshoots, so vicariously exciting even now. And so, with a gasp, you can see the person Edie Sedgwick acting as "herself,' and when she dies, her death is tacked on to the end of "her" story. The corny plot demands a corny ending. But the film itself does not use this interrelationship of life to "fiction" - it doesn't even seem aware of it - and it is doubly embarrasing to see Edie Sedgwick so really spaced and sick in front of the camera because it is to no intelligent purpose and little effect. It might even be immoral. There are hints of a sharp film in Ciao! Manhattan, but John Palmer, David Weisman and others who pushed this effort for five years have produced a package job. There might be many reasons for that — financial limitations, artistic limitations — but there is so much talen and time time involved in this film it's a shame it's a disappointment.