Age of Empire

As this eight-hour Warhol video prepares for its homage at the Tribeca Film Fest, our Art editor remembers the original.

Tribeca Film Festival movie reviews

There’s not a whole lot going on in Empire, Andy Warhol’s anticinematic classic from 1964: just a stationary camera fixated on the Empire State Building for eight uneventful hours. The silent black-and-white film was shot on July 25–26 from 8:06pm Saturday evening until 2:42am Sunday morning in the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation on the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street. The side of the ESB shown is the north face of the building.

Not a whole lot going on, however, doesn’t mean nothing happens in Empire; dedicated viewers see it start as a totally white screen, until the sun sets and the floodlights on the exterior of the Empire State Building come on. Lights within the building turn on and off over the six hours or so, until the floodlights shut off. The rest of the film, over an hour, takes place in near darkness, with the building a black silhouette against a hazy night sky

Warhol directed, with legendary experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas as cinematographer. Factory regular Gerard Malanga was also present, and in interviews, he recalls that the first part starts the way it does because the film was overexposed; Warhol hadn’t compensated for the fact that it was still light outside when he and Mekas started shooting. There are moments in the film when the lights come on in the room where the camera is set up, and Warhol’s reflection can be seen in the window (this was a result of him and Mekas changing magazines and forgetting to turn off the lights before starting up the camera again).

Warhol never really expected anyone to sit through all of Empire, of course; the film was of a piece with other endeavors like Sleep, for instance, or even his “Screen Tests,” in which all semblance of narrative is tossed out in favor of the raw play of time across a given subject. With Empire, however, Warhol found his perfect star.

Empire II, an homage to the original, screens at Tribeca on May 2 & 3.