Western Film WTF: Lonesome Cowboys (1968)
Andy Warhol's sole Western, "Lonesome Cowboys," is a slow-moving and nearly incomprehensible film that was the product of a frantic and chaotic process. It's almost impossible to determine its paternity in reading about it, as both Warhol and frequent collaborator Paul Morrissey claim authorship; as best as I can determine, Morrissey scripted it and tried to direct it, but Warhol and his cast grew quickly irritated with both the script and direction and mostly ignored them.
The whole of it was shot over the course of a few days or a few weeks on a Western resort and movie set called Rancho Linda Vista Dude Ranch in Oracle, Arizona, and it sounds like the cast was in constant conflict with the locals (one called the FBI on them) and each other (star Viva reportedly claimed to have been repeatedly molested by cast members, and one account of the shooting claims there was a suicide attempt during the shooting.)
And I wish I didn't know any of this, and could just respond to the film as a pure piece of art, without knowing the awful details of its production. Because there is a lot to like about the film. For those familiar with Warhol's other movies, it has the meandering, improvisational looseness he liked, where he put beautiful men, outre personalities, and his self-declared superstars in front of the camera and had them improvise. Whatever influence Morrissey had on the film is mostly lost, but for a whisper of a plot: Horsemen come to town, rape the woman who runs the local brothel, who falls in love with one of them and the two commit suicide together, and then the horsemen leave town.
The plot was loosely based on "Romeo and Juliet," but you wouldn't know it, except that characters are named Ramona and Julian and they take poison together; additionally, Ramona has a nurse. Instead, the film is episodic, mostly consisting of the almost-entirely male cast dressed as cowboys having bickering discussions with each other, sometimes about the near-familial unit they have formed, sometimes about hair products. They also wrestle each other for quite a long time in front of some cacti. Viva a shrieks at them, has her clothes torn off by them (they mostly just make fun of what she's wearing), and, at one point, sings Catholic hymns while complaining that modern Catholicism has degraded the religion. She, Morrissey, and Warhol were all Catholic, so any one of them might be responsible for making what is ostensibly a gay Western into the most Catholic cowboy film ever made.
The film can be a bit of a chore, as all of Warhol's films could be, thanks to his total disinterest in niceties like plot and pacing. But the film is frequently hilarious, as are all of Warhol's films, thanks to the assembled talent. The cast includes: Joe Dallesandro, a former beefcake model who proved to be an unexpectedly magnetic screen performer; Taylor Mead, a poet (his first collection was called "Taylor Mead on Amphetamines and in Europe") who also had a druggy, puckish camp sensibility; classically trained ballerino Eric Emerson, who later founded the glam punk group the Magic Tramps; and Louis Waldon, an actor with a rough, fascinating naturalism. And, of course, there was Viva, who came from a wealthy, conservative New York family and acted like it, even when she was inaugurating a genre of explicit semi-mainstream films that were called "porno chic"; she and Waldon starred together in Warhol's "Blue Movie," which contained unsimulated coitus between the two.
It was impossible for this group to be onscreen and not be interesting, even if it sounds like they were behaving like criminals to each other offscreen. Emerson constantly does ballet moves, Viva bullies everyone, and Mead wanders through the whole movie with a stones grin, sometimes just dancing in the background. Because Warhol had an artist's eye and spent the money to rent cowboy costumes, much of the film genuinely looks like a cowboy movie, but, then, nobody is acting like a cowboy, or, at least, not how we conventionally think cowboys act.
There is an aspect of the camp aesthetic that Susan Sontag failed to note in her famous essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" and that's camp's willingness to be comically irritating. This as something Warhol excelled at, and so he lets his cast sometimes just screech at each other. If you don't share this sensibility, his movies can be exceptionally irritating. If you do, they end up being quite funny. When Warhiol wasn't casting dim-seeming beefcake (and Dallesandro plays his role as entertainingly dim in this movie, squinting at everything like he doesn't comprehend it), he cast hysterics. Mead and Viva, in particular, go through almost every scene as loudly as they can, alternating wildly between a burlesque of seduction and just being bitchy, sometimes flipping back and forth between the two emotions like someone is flipping a light switch on and off.
Whatever the merits of the film, it has had a noticeable affect on me, a dramatic shift in the way I view cowboy movies that I expect will long stay with me. This is one of the things art does well — force you to revisit and re-contextualize things that had become perfectly quotidian.
Now, when I watch a cowboy movie, it will seem entirely possible to me that they might discuss hair products at some point, or launch into balletic plies, or just wrestle by the cacti.
And, honestly, if they don't, I will find it a duller cowboy movie.