As far as films go, it’s one of those that everyone talks about, but few get around to actually seeing. I’m talking about Andy Warhol’s Empire, his infamous 1964 film that consists of a single, stationary eight-hour view of the Empire State Building at night. Better yet: the film was shot at 24 frames per second and is projected at 16—which means that this epically-long stationary shot of the Empire State is actually seen in slow motion. Though heralded conceptually, it has been repeatedly described as unwatchable. Which is exactly why I wanted to see it. All eight hours of it.
And see it we did. On Friday, February 18—in a collaboration between WNYC public radio and The Museum of Modern Art—a group of cultural reporters and writers (including myself) holed up in MoMA’s sixth floor galleries not only to watch the film, but to simultaneously dissect it on Twitter. Joining me for the whole eight-hour enchilada was Liz Arnold, WNYC’s social media guru (who recently interviewed the film’s cameraman, Jonas Mekas). Popping in and out of the gallery at various intervals were arts scribes Robin Cembalest of ARTnews Magazine and Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic, as well as architecture writer Mark Lamster and New York University literature professor Bryan Waterman. MoMA’s venerable Tweeters Daniela Stigh and Victor Samra also chimed in. Visitors to the Museum and Twitter users all over the world could join the discussion by using the hashtag #empirefilm. The whole point was not only to watch the film—but to explore all of its related tangents, from the literary to the architectural to King Kong. It ended up being one of the most social and educational movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.
Perhaps the most entertaining facet of sitting before a work of art for so long is watching other museum-goers interact with it. In the morning, we were entertained by a European teenager who did a performative robot walk in front of the screen. When the Empire State Building’s lights flicked on, there was a collective gasp. A palpable excitement was felt any time the reflection of the filmmakers was briefly revealed against the glass windows they were shooting through. After the four-hour mark, you can even see Warhol himself (a moment of high drama I missed due to a much-needed restroom break).
By the time we reached the last hour, when the lights on the building go out and the screen is consumed by darkness, our area in the gallery had transformed into an impromptu, somewhat rowdy salon. We chatted—with museum-goers in real-life and digital contacts online—about Warhol-inspired sonnets, the building’s architectural scheme and whether Warhol himself urinated on his infamous Oxidation paintings. (According to ARTnews’s Cembalest, who spoke to him in the ‘80s, he claimed he did.)
Certainly, there were skeptics. Throughout the day, the phrase “this is it?” was uttered on numerous occasions. This grew most pronounced towards the end, when folks would wander in, quickly ogle the dark screen, and ask when the movie was going to start. We would explain that it was already rolling. This was generally greeted with puzzled stares of incredulity. One lady looked at us and our tangled array of laptop computers and simply said, “locos”—the Spanish word for “crazy.”
Throughout all of this, Empire stood quietly on the screen. For most of its running time, it consists of little more than a quivering outline of a building that serves as a stand-in for so many ideals: New York, industrial might, the Great Depression, 9/11, American Modernism, crass commercialism—not to mention, in Warhol’s hands, pop art. It is a Rorschach test of sorts, a form that Warhol would also experiment with. Stare at it long enough and it appears to seamlessly take on an endless number of guises and meanings.
The eight hours went by infinitely quicker than I could have ever expected. And, yes, I would do it all over again.