Books

Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” Inspire an Investigation into Criticism, Failure, and Time

Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests show us that all good criticism is about what it means to look, slowly and closely.

Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno (image courtesy of HarperCollins)

Kate Zambreno, author of several books of fiction, criticism, and lectures, notes of her own writing once wrote, “My essay drifted too much and was too much about me.” This offhand remark — which she wrote in an essay that compares her own writing to that of another author, and is meant as self-reproach — captures what is both interesting and frustrating about Zambreno’s essay collection Screen Tests: her tendency to drift back to herself. The title refers to Andy Warhol’s series of black-and-white portrait films made in the mid-1960s. “The Screen Tests each took three minutes to shoot but then Warhol slowed them to four minutes. The subject was asked to be still for the duration of the reel, but it wasn’t possible, to just be their own image,” Zambreno explains in the titular essay. The “Screen Tests” serve as an apt framing device for the collection. Her essays — some of which are only a sentence, and many other (save four long essays) only a few pages — take an aspect of cultural production, be it a film, a movie star, or a photographer, and slow it down for close study. Zambreno shows all the ways it can’t be fully pinned down, the ways it won’t sit still.

A keen sense of self-awareness, almost to a fault, permeates each essay. For example, her piece on the Warhol Screen Tests opens with Zambreno relating her experience watching brief films of other writers discussing publishing their first books. She guides the reader through the ebbs and flows of associations, as she writes with the natural cadence of speech. Her vignettes lead from one to the next in a way that recalls descending into a Wikipedia rabbit hole — a source she often references, along with YouTube. Following the essay “Screen Tests” are “Edie Film,” “Nico in the Kitchen Cutting Her Bangs,” “Meg Ryan Vehicle,” and “Andy Warhol Self-Portrait,” each of which, in some way, manages to touch on Warhol. The Meg Ryan essay, for example, recounts how pictures Zambreno took with her phone of Ryan’s various looks in the film Addicted to Love “remind me of Edie Sedgwick’s Screen Test,” adding, “but the film is not boring in an interesting way like an Andy Warhol movie.”

Susan Sontag, like Warhol, recurs throughout the book. “I wonder what it would have been like to be Susan Sontag. To exist, in so strong and intense of a mind, the solid outlines of her body. To photograph so definitively, as if there was such a thing as a self.” Under her microscope, Zambreno shows the lines between self and public persona to be thin and easily permeable. Again and again her essays come back to central questions of personhood, especially in the public eye. In an essay on Anne Collier — which also touches on Warhol, Joseph Cornell, the nature of collecting, and Sontag — she asks, “What does it mean to never escape one’s image or mythic status, while still struggling with personhood?” As a writer, Zambreno struggles with the lines between her personal sense of self and her art. An essay about Kathy Acker includes a series of notes addressed directly to the punk luminary:

DEAR KATHY—

Who wants to be famous? Not me. But that is what is expected here. Visibility, brand, platform (gross, gross, gross).

And:

DEAR KATHY—

But how to avoid feeling sold? Because I want to be successful, I want to be a success. What I would do sometimes for success, not to feel like a failure all the time, but success, I think, comes at a price, perhaps one’s integrity.

These questions of art and self are harder for women, who (even when not famous) are scrutinized for how we look, talk, and present ourselves at all times.

DEAR KATHY—

Why can’t I just be a boy genius?

Zambreno returns to her own status, as an aging woman, as a professional while pregnant. She writes in an essay on Amal Clooney, who is two weeks younger than Zambreno: “I have no doubt my male nemeses spend very little time thinking about this, how they are no longer considered young once they turn forty, and what that means in terms of how they are perceived as writers and as people, and this is one of the reasons why they stay my nemeses.” As a woman, a critic, and a woman critic myself, Zambreno’s questions haunt me too.

Zambreno’s writing raises questions about criticism (particularly by women), the gaze, failure, and the persistence of time. She shows us that all good criticism is about what it means to look, slowly and closely. She proves that criticism is an art of navel-gazing in the best and worst ways. Art asks questions about the larger world, but also about itself, and about what it costs to make art in the world. And, of course, about the critic. Zambreno offers a way to examine oneself in one’s writing; she gives license to both her reader and herself to not sit still.

Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno (2019) is published by Harper Collins and is on sale July 23 from Amazon and other online retailers.

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