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Lacking a formal narrative, Warhol's art house classic follows various residents of the Chelsea Hotel in 1966 New York City, presented in a split screen with a single audio track in conjunction with one side of screen.
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Family Melodrama / Comedy Characterised By Drug-Addled Rambling
Imitation of Christ feels a bit abject and perfunctory, like the beginning of the end of the line for Andy Warhol as filmmaker. Warhol himself would direct only a few more films and increasingly Paul Morrissey would take over behind the camera.
Patrick Tilden stars as an inarticulate young hippie. His "parents" (played by Ondine and Brigid Berlin, who are probably no more than ten years older than Tilden) are worried about him. The family maid (Nico) tries to seduce him. His abrasive girlfriend (Andrea Feldman) argues with him.
The perverse, elfin Taylor Mead shows up with no explanation; he and Tilden wander together through San Francisco. (In some synopses of the film Mead's character is described as a hobo or homeless man). So does Tom Baker from the earlier Warhol film I, A Man for a brief scene charged with strange homo-eroticism. Baker and Tilden sit on the floor and Tilden describes a motorcycle crash he recently had, and shows him the scar on his scalp where the hair won't grow.
The main drawback is the deeply un-charismatic leading man Tilden, a former child actor who was apparently romantically involved with Edie Sedgwick. His character in Imitation is usually described as "a strange but beautiful boy." The viewer's response to his physical appeal is inevitably entirely subjective but the drug-addled Tilden -- who looks like a gaunt-featured scarecrow-- doesn't compare favourably with other Warhol heartthrobs like Paul America, Joe Dallesandro or Gerard Malanga. Presumably meant to be enigmatic, on screen he is more of a blank. The very long opening shot is nothing but Tilden's pensive face resting on his folded arms, looking around while we hear Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain" being played at the wrong speed on a record player somewhere in the room. The heart sinks. Certainly Tilden would not go on to become a Warhol Superstar, which says it all.
Visually, Imitation is characterised by a tactile grunge-y feel: the "action" is filmed in cluttered, derelict rooms. In one brief sequence showing Tilden having a bath, the bathtub is visibly filthy. When we see Andrea Feldman barefoot in bed, the soles of her feet are black with dirt.
There are some sensational, shock value bits of drug use and nudity intended to freak out the squares and give proceedings a jolt: Lying in bed, Ondine shoots up his "wife" Berlin in the ass with a syringe full of speed; Taylor Mead yanks out his penis on a San Francisco street (the most un-erotic spectacle imaginable).
To speculate on the potential drawbacks of Imitation of Christ: The change in the drug subculture from speed earlier in the 1960s to acid in the later 60s was ruinous for Warhol films. Only have to contrast the performing styles of older Warhol Superstars, known speed freaks Brigid Berlin and Ondine (witty, bitchy, mercurial, loquacious, funny) to LSD casualty Tilden's virtually incomprehensible, often worryingly, schizophrenic rambling. Warhol's editing (often impatiently cutting of Tilden mid-sentence) seems to even acknowledge this.
Also: most of Warhol's films were shot in the gritty, urban bohemian realm of New York, within locations like the Factory or The Chelsea Hotel; Imitation was filmed in the sun kissed flower power-era San Francisco. Uptight East Coast versus laidback West Coast. Perhaps it was just the wrong atmosphere to create inspiration.
Similarly, you get the impression that Andrea Feldman is so impatient with Tilden in her scene with him because she is on amphetamines and Tilden on LSD. Both of them are so genuinely disturbed it is uncomfortable viewing, like watching two unsupervised mental hospital patients interacting. Feldman -- who would commit suicide in 1972 aged 24 -- seethes with an anger that is entirely unscripted and has nothing to do with acting. She looks starkly unglamourous here (hair divided into two little girl pigtails, no make-up and blotchy complexion), and would be much better served by Paul Morrissey in the later films Flesh and especially Heat, where she is a very funny actress with a unique, flat-voiced, hostile comedic persona. The way Feldman repeatedly snarls at Tilden, "Come here, bitch!" is probably the funniest moment in Imitation of Christ.
The veteran Superstars rescue the film. Self-mocking and perhaps a bit stoned, Nico is a better comedienne than you might expect given the gloomy artistic image she would later cultivate. Here she is alluring and funny as the predatory, horny German maid who spoon feeds Tilden Corn Flakes and fusses over his hair. When Tilden tells her a long story about fending off a male admirer in prison, she deadpans, "That's a nice story." Later she reads aloud from a medieval religious text Imitation of Christ (from which the film swipes its title) through long false eyelashes while reclining on a couch. She even strips off her blouse while talking to Tilden, trying to get a reaction, and reveals her sleek, sinewy fashion model torso (her very long hair hides any glimpse of her breasts and she keeps her back to the camera anyway). Finally she teasingly asks him, "What would you do if I asked you to take off your shirt and your trousers and your boots?" With their boiling intelligence and rapid-fire mood changes Ondine and Berlin are also magnetic presences as the parents. They keep slipping out of character and admitting they are both sexually attracted to Tilden (ostensibly their "son"). After a typically meandering conversation with Tilden, Berlin is shown flopped out in bed saying how exasperated she is by her "son" and concludes, "I don't even know what a "hippie" is. I just know I hate them!" By the end of Imitation of Christ, you're inclined to agree.
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