How Did Andy Warhol Change the History of Cinema?

The impulses that made Andy Warhol such a controversial artist in his time have gone on to inspire generations of boundary-pushing filmmakers.

Jun 15, 2024By Danilo Castro, BA Digital Media & Filmmaking

how andy warhol change history cinema


Everybody has an opinion about Andy Warhol. He was one of the most polarizing figures in popular culture during his lifetime, whether it be through his frankness regarding sexual fluidity or his willingness to blur the lines between fine art and commercial products. He was one of the pioneers of an art movement known as Pop Art. Warhol also came up with a new way of interpreting American iconography.


Andy Warhol’s Cinematic Vision

Marilyn Diptych, Andy Warhol, 1962. Source: Smarthistory


There have been numerous op-eds about why Warhol is overrated. There’s even a 1977 comedy titled Andy Warhol’s Bad. Whether the artist born Andrew Warhola, Jr. was bad or not is dependent on the individual who is being asked this question. However, the influence that he had on generations of filmmakers is inarguable.


Warhol burst onto the cultural scene in 1962, when he exhibited Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych. However, Warhol was not limited to working on canvases during this fertile period. He produced and directed a staggering 650 films between 1963 and 1968, many of which were deemed too experimental or avant-garde for a mainstream audience. And it’s easy to see why. Andy Warhol’s paintings and silk printings had a clarity, and a colorful sensibility that could draw the eye of novices and critics alike, but his films were much less inviting. They were unrehearsed, tedious, and purposefully lacking in dynamism.


Short Films and Static Camerawork

Kiss, Andy Warhol, 1963. Source: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Illinois


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Warhol was fascinated by the intimate, fleeting moments that could be preserved on film, which often led to him planting the camera in a static position and letting his actors do whatever seemed natural to them. Warhol thought of scripted narratives as boring. Kiss (1963) and Blow Job (1964) are two early examples of Warhol as a cinematic auteur. The former features three and a half minutes of different couples kissing in a tight close-up, while the latter focuses on the face of actor DeVeren Bookwalter as he receives fellatio. Subsequent releases would get longer, and more narratively focused, but the willingness to linger on moments that other filmmakers would be afraid to capture, remained.


These shorts did not receive much attention outside of Warhol’s inner circle of friends upon release, but they became foundational texts for film students looking for a different way to tell stories. Steve McQueen recalls watching Warhol’s Couch (1964) while he was in college, and the film’s premise (two men looking at each other while sitting on a couch) transfixed him. McQueen would internalize this unspoken tension, and it would resurface, decades later, in the agonizingly patient scenes from his directorial debut, Hunger (2008).


Warhol and Lynch: Kindred Spirits

Eat, Andy Warhol, 1964. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California


David Lynch is another director who was captivated by Warhol’s short films. Lynch was more than a decade younger than the Pop Art savant, but he was emboldened to start making shorts as early as 1967, and the influence is unmistakable. Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967) and The Alphabet (1968) take the intimacy and unpredictability of Warhol’s films and push them to grotesque extremes. They are perhaps the clearest example of a director building upon the foundation that Warhol laid.


Lynch eventually found mainstream success with films like The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986), but his Warholian tendencies have remained intact. The latter is perhaps the definitive exploration of voyeurism onscreen. Lynch also shares Warhol’s fascination with American iconography, and Blue Velvet, through both its technicolor depiction of suburban life and grim exploration of underlying perversion, is a rare film that manages to capture the essence of both Warhol’s paintings and films.


The New Face of Auteur Filmmaking 

Vinyl, Andy Warhol, 1965. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


It’s worth noting that photographs taken by Lynch were featured in a 2014 exhibition alongside photos taken by Warhol. The two had much in common despite rarely crossing paths, and Lynch, in many ways, has modeled his eccentric public persona after Warhol’s. The director is known for his messy white hair and his unwillingness to discuss the meanings behind his films, which are attributes that were established by Warhol at the height of his fame.


Jim Jarmusch is the most obvious Warhol protege on the surface. He makes collages in his spare time and he sports a sunglasses and white hair combo that feels like a punk revision of Warhol’s classic look. A closer inspection, however, reveals that Warhol’s influence can also be seen in Jarmusch’s films. It’s impossible to watch Jarmusch’s films and not be reminded of Warhol’s movies like Vinyl (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966).


Andy Warhol as Indie Film Progenitor

Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol, 1966. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


Warhol’s films predicated the fascination that we have with watching different celebrities interact. They challenge the viewer to extract greater meaning from vignettes that appear random in their assembly. One person’s drivel is another person’s revelation, which is a mindset that Jarmusch shows in dramas like  Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986).


These films conveyed the hipness of earlier Warhol releases through their black-and-white cinematography and fringe characters, but they also communicated a similarly disenfranchised worldview. Stranger Than Paradise, in particular, became the urtext for the indie movement of the 1980s, which means Warhol played a crucial role in an artistic revolution through sheer influence. If you have any doubts as to whether Jarmusch owes a great deal of his style to Warhol, you can just watch Cigarettes and Coffee (2003). By combining aimless conversation with Jarmusch’s famous friends, the film plays like a pointed spiritual sequel to Chelsea Girls.


Blue Movie and the Porno Chic Movement

Blue Movie, Andy Warhol, 1969. Source: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Warhol was obviously keen on exploring sexuality on-screen, but his role in the legitimization of adult films as an art form is not often discussed. Blue Movie (1969) was the first sexually-explicit film to receive a wide theatrical release, and consequently, the first to be taken seriously by critics. It was a surprise box office hit and it effectively kicked off the porno-chic movement of the 1970s and enabled an X-rated film like Midnight Cowboy (1969) to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Midnight Cowboy even has a scene in which its characters attend a party at Warhol’s iconic studio, the Factory. The porno-chic movement was fleeting, but it stands to reason that it may not have happened at all were it not for Warhol’s ability to reach such a wide audience.


Warhol as Godfather of New Queer Cinema

My Hustler, Andy Warhol, 1965. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


Warhol’s films also played a significant role in the development of New Queer Cinema. The 1990s represented a transformative period in which directors like Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant could explore homosexual relationships on-screen. Both directors have cited Warhol as a formative influence. Blow Job was a direct precursor to Araki’s The Living End (1992), while Van Sant opted to pair his directorial debut, Mala Noche (1985), with Warhol’s film My Hustler (1965), during a 2015 retrospective.


Van Sant is an admirer of Warhol who has spent decades trying to get a film about him made. He got close to making it during the early 1990s, but the death of the actor cast as Warhol, River Phoenix, led to the film being scrapped. Van Sant eventually reimagined his Warhol tribute as a stage musical, which he debuted in 2022.


The art critic Barbara Rose once claimed that Warhol was the inventor of the 1960s lifestyle. It’s certainly true that Warhol held sway over the tastemakers of the day, but limiting him to the 1960s does a disservice to the impact he has had on subsequent decades.


Warholian Films in the 21st Century

Lonesome Cowboys, Andy Warhol, 1968. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California


There’s another director who has proven that Warhol’s knack for provocation can elicit strong reactions from audiences decades after the artist’s death. Harmony Korine started by making Warholian films like Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). Gummo is a vignette-driven account of people forced to pass the time after a tornado destroys their homes, and it feels very much indebted to Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968). Both films derive tension and a dark sense of humor from combining twisted behavior with tranquil settings.


Korine’s fascination with Warhol would culminate with Spring Breakers (2012). The film chronicles the adventures of four young women and an eccentric drug dealer. It was marketed as a colorful celebration of vapidness akin to Warhol’s screen printings. The film is much stranger than the marketing suggested, however, as Korine sought to emulate Warhol releases like Tub Girls (1967) and Trash (1970) in the pursuit of a sensory experience that was driven by feeling and emotion rather than logic.


Andy Warhol’s Legacy

Self-Portrait, Andy Warhol, 1966. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


Andy Warhol is best known for his contributions to Pop Art, but he was arguably more daring when it came to his film career. He broke down countless barriers when it came to what and how something could be depicted, and as a result, his influence is enormous. The styles of David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, and Harmony Korine could not be more disparate, and yet, they are unified by a Warholian desire to challenge the status quo.

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By Danilo CastroBA Digital Media & FilmmakingDanilo Castro is an entertainment writer and film critic living in San Diego. He graduated from the Art Institute with a BA in Digital Media and Filmmaking, and is managing editor of Noir City Magazine.