The act of sleeping may be universal, but the movie Sleep isn’t for everyone. Andy Warhol’s 1963 foray into “duration film” lasts five hours and twenty-one minutes, and consists entirely of static, grainy shots of a man sleeping. The man is John Giorno, the artist and one-time lover of Warhol, and the footage barely contains movement, save for the occasional eye twitch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, moviegoers felt the cinematic slog through rest was boring — at the movie's New York premier, two of the nine audience members left within the first hour. At the LA premier, disappointed attendees even demanded their money back.
“Sleep is one of the most boring movies Warhol made — and he made a lot of boring movies,” said Jonathan David Katz, an art historian and queer studies scholar who founded the Harvey Milk Institute. “What’s ironic though is that it wasn’t boring for Warhol to make because he was deeply attracted to the sleeper, and so for him there was this extraordinary pleasure in watching...and an eroticization of sleeping that initially compelled the project in the first place.”
Throughout his career, Warhol, who died 29 years ago on February 22, 1987, created nearly 650 experimental films, ranging from the playful to the pornographic. But most clocked in at under four minutes. Sleep was among Warhol’s earliest films and his first full-length project. Why did Warhol begin with Sleep, other than because he — as a famous and beloved artist — could? Experts have quibbled over this question since the film debuted. Like much of Warhol’s work, Sleep left a legacy that remains visible today, both in art and in our growing compulsion to document ourselves navigating the mundane.
John Giorno has said Warhol asked him to star in Sleep over Memorial Day Weekend in 1963, when the two retreated to the countryside and Warhol spent the night watching Giorno sleep. “I looked over and there was Andy in the bed next to me, his head propped up on his arm, wide-eyed from speed, looking at me,” Giorno later relayed.
Sleep opens with a close-up shot of Giorno’s stomach, though the angle and shadows make it hard to identify the body part. This first image remains on screen for about 20 minutes, but actually consists of six, repeated one-hundred-foot- rolls of film, layered and spliced, as Branden W. Joseph, an art historian at Columbia University, explained in his 2005 essay, “The Play of Repetition: Andy Warhol’s Sleep.” Some strip of Giorno’s naked body fills every frame of Sleep, but the nudity is far from explicit. The “most overtly homoerotic imagery,” are the three shots showing Giorno’s buttocks. The full film, Joseph wrote, “is made up of twenty-two separate close-ups of Giorno’s body, multiply printed and then spliced together into variously repeating sequences.”
While Giorno was active in the ‘60s avant-garde art scene, he wasn’t a household name or face in any respect. But, in Sleep, he — not the uber-famous off-screen observer — was the star.
“I made my earliest films using, for several hours, just one actor on the screen doing the same thing: eating or sleeping or smoking,” Warhol once said. “I did this because people usually just go to the movies to see only the star, to eat him up, so here at last is a chance to look only at the star for as long as you like, no matter what he does and to eat him up all you want to.”
Sleep premiered in January 1964 at the Gramercy Arts Theater in Manhattan. The Film-Makers’ Cooperative, an artist-run organization for independent film, screened the project. Jonas Mekas, who founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962, first met Warhol at Mekas’ loft on Central Park South, which also served as an office space for the Film-Makers' Co-op and for Film Culture Magazine, which Mekas edited.
“That’s where Andy used to come and where he met some of his early superstars,” Mekas recalled. “That was his film school, my loft. He used to come to see films, and then when he began making films, he needed space to show them, and he needed me. I did not need him. He needed me. Same as with [Warhol’s second duration film, Empire], he needed me as a cameraman.”
Mekas screened Sleep because he didn’t see another option. “Sleep is a monumental work in the art of cinema,” Mekas said, “so I couldn’t ignore it. It’s a meditative kind of cinema. If you are relaxed and open yourself to it, you enjoy it and have an experience. Of course, it’s not a daily banal kind of experience. It’s much deeper, in that tradition of zen.”
Still, Mekas didn’t expect attendees at Sleep screenings to embrace the six-hour viewing experience.
“It’s not entertainment kind of cinema, that tells stories and adventures. The adventure in Sleep and Empire is inner adventure. I was not surprised that most of the people who saw it by chance walked out. But those who were more interested in the art experience — they stayed and they profited from it.”
Warhol, Mekas said, attended at least one of the screenings, and didn’t bristle at the negative reactions.
“Andy was there, in and out,” Mekas said. “He was not a talkative person. He listened to what people had to say, and kept saying yes, yes, yes. He was never affected by what people said about his work. He was just very sure about what he was doing.”
In the early-to-mid ‘60s, the act of sleeping — and dreaming in particular — played a prominent role in psychological traditions of the era. To Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and thousands of psychoanalysts trained in their methods of psyche excavation, the sleeping mind demanded scrutiny. Given that Warhol would later include Freud in his 1980 series “Ten Portraits of Jews in the Twentieth Century,” it’s not unthinkable that Freud’s investment in sleep and dreams would have informed Warhol’s decision to kick off his film career with five hours of footage of a sleeping man as an exploration of quiescence. But those who’ve known and studied Warhol don’t think cultural or intellectual discussions about sleep motivated the film.
‘“I’ve read his account of filming John Giorno in the 1960s,” said Katz, “and he basically says, you know, ‘John was hot and I wanted to watch him sleep. I liked watching him sleep, so I filmed him sleeping.’ And John, for his part, was able to sleep through anything, so that seems to have been at least a lot of what animated [the creation of Sleep].”’
Mekas suspects even less forethought went into making the film.
“Why not film someone sleeping?” Mekas said. “Artists do not know why they do what they do. They just do it. They have a need to do it and they do it. When you begin to ask why you do it, they may give you some answer, but next time they will give you a different answer, because there is no answer. You invent and when people ask you for a reason, you try to give a reason, but you don’t know the real reason.”
Then again, others dispute the notion of Sleep as an unplanned passion project. “The common wisdom about Warhol's early films (to which Warhol himself mischievously contributed),” said Reva Wolf, an art historian at SUNY New Paltz, “is that he turned on the camera and walked away, with no aim at any particular meaning or effect. This interpretation could not be further from the truth. Warhol's films are filled with layers of intention.”
Whether or not Warhol had any concrete mission in creating the film, Katz insists he had no plans to control the viewing experience for other people. “He framed the experience as the experience you’re going to have. He wasn’t going to construct it. He wasn’t going to author it, and that radical democratizaton of the sort of authorial job was (emphasis mine) Warhol. He knew that he found [watching Giorno] hot, and probably that other people would too.”
Debate over Warhol’s intent doesn’t change the fact that he transformed sleep into the type of performance art we still see today. Consider the popularity of art exhibits that showcase people sleeping. In 2013, for example, Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box at the MoMa, to plenty of fanfare.
But Swinton’s performance is distinct from Sleep in at least one major way — Swinton made herself the subject. It’s unlikely, according to Katz, that Warhol would have put himself in the spotlight. “The thing that Warhol was always famous for,” said Katz, “was casting a refractive light, so he bounces your gaze back and he actually quite explicitly stated this: When a mirror looks in a mirror, he famously said, what is there to see?”
But today, the author doubles as the subject inside and outside of the art realm. Showcasing one’s own sleeping self feels like a natural re-boot of Sleep for the social media era. So natural, in fact, that it’s a behavior too normal to parody. In 2011, the fake-news site ExaminerNews.net published an article called “Lena Dunham to Remake Andy Warhol’s Sleep.”
“Dunham announced her plan to shoot a digital remake of Warhol’s 1963 film, casting herself in the role of the sleeper….“Same run time, static framing, all done in one day of shooting…but give it a more modern twist, you know? Something that really speaks to what sleeping is like in the 21st century.”
It's easy to believe. These days, when most everyone expects more than 15 minutes of fame, the sleeper has become the subject.