Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Andy Warhol (with Ronald Tavel) | The Life of Juanita Castro

goodbye dear brando! goodbye jimmy dean!
by Douglas Messerli

Ronald Tavel (writer and on-stage director), Andy Warhol (director) The Life of Juanita Castro / 1965

Andy Warhol’s 1965 film, The Life of Juanita Castro should really be described as Ronald Tavel’s film, since not only did he write it, but directed it live on camera—although not the camera the actors thought they was capturing their performances—and generally—with the exception of Marie Menken (playing Juanita), who was a last moment choice of Warhol’s—cast its characters.
     Tavel was clearly the best of Warhol’s several collaborators, writing most of the early, arguably better of Warhol’s films (also performed later as plays) and single-handedly created The Theatre of the Ridiculous. a sly reference to Martin Esslin’s concept of The Theatre of the Absurd. Its short manifesto, written by Tavel stated : "We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous.”
      Even Warhol recognized Tavel’s brilliance, suggesting that all he needed to do was to toss out an idea and Ronnie would whip up into a play in a few hours.
      Ultimately, they split when Warhol, seeking to make better use of his discovery, Edie Sedgewick, began to actually believe he could make a commercial film, which left the purposely outsider playwright without a venue.
      The 1965 film came about after Fidel Castro’s sister Juanita fled Cuba for Mexico in 1964, emphatically expressing her intense differences with her own brothers’ communist and generally oppressive leadership. From Mexico she fled to Miami, eventually becoming an CIA informant while helping other Cubans to flee their island homes.
      After a Life magazine article titled “My Brother Is a Tyrant and He Must Go,” and word got out that Castro was seeking to be the subject of a movie in which Marlon Brando would play him and for which Fidel’s brother Raúl wanted actor Frank Sinatra, Warhol and Tavel knew, as the latter tells it, that the Juanita Castro story was now their “property.”
      Using a cast primarily made up of women which involved several scenes of intense kissing between Juanita and Raúl (Elektrah)—as well as Raúl and Che (Aniram Anipso), etc.—Tavel whipped up a meringue of a messy family feud full of campy talk with a speech of endless sloganeering that Fidel (Mercedes Ospina) had made famous in the past.
      To make the audience and actors even more uncomfortable, Tavel, sitting with the Castro family members and their hangers-on who included Harvey Tavel, Waldo Diaz-Balart, Ultra Violet, Jinny Bern, Amanda Sherrill, Bonny Gaer, Isadora Rose, Elizabeth Staal, and Carol Lobravico, shouted out the directions and words which cast members repeated, sometimes parroting Tavel’s own speech rhythms and at other times widely varying the language and behavior he had assigned them.
     Menken, in particular, described by one commentator as “a volatile, unpredictable performer,” sometimes refused to even make an effort to repeat her lines and at other times argued with Tavel as playwright, insisting that the words he had given her to speak made no sense.
     That tension, in turn, was reinforced by the fact that the performers were often told to speak directly in a camera that, without their knowledge, was not operating, so that we observe their efforts from the side instead of head-on.
     Put together, the often ridiculous words they were asked to repeat, the continued and sometimes intense lesbian-like kissing sessions, and the general sense of argumentation turned this version of the Castro family and their entourage into something akin to the Warhol “family” itself, seemingly speaking improvisationally while on drugs—even though we know that Tavel has intentionally written what they speak— while taking every opportunity to make out and whisper jealous threats to one another.
      Juanita is clearly the only one who “means business,” not at all liking the company with whom she is surrounded, including probably the Warhol group itself.
       If like all Warhol works this often becomes more than a little boring, it also was so amazingly ridiculous that, as then Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris wrote:

 “The whole thing is outrageous…making a comment on a revolution that has long since been consigned to camp. …They have made the only valid statement I have seen on the subject in the past several years.”

    Finally, if there was ever a film that outdid even the Brechtian ideal of alienating the audience, it was this Tavel and Warhol production. The actors, dressed in street clothes, and packed into the tiny space with which the creators had provided them were allowed very little “identity” or, in this case, even the logic of credible beings, creating an audience that either loves the insanity of the pretense or who immediately flee the theater for the lack of any attempt to present the real.
     Goodbye dear Brando! Goodbye Jimmy Dean! There’s no room at this inn for anyone who has studied with The Actors Studio. In this room there is no reason for males to even exist.

Los Angeles, September 2, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and Queer Cinema Blog (September 2020).

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