Throughout George Hickenlooper’s unconscionably evil Factory Girl, I couldn’t decide whether or not the hive-inducing monstrosity set before me was in fact a portrait of emptiness, or simply an empty portrait. Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), by all accounts (especially this one) a vapid, insipid non-entity of epic proportions, grew up an abused daughter in a wealthy family of noble lineage, attended top schools, and went to New York at the peak of the 60s counterculture, only to accomplish absolutely nothing of importance, save convincing equally drugged-out celebrities into thinking she was a beacon of innocence in a world gone mad. In this way, she is more sinned against than sinning; a tragic victim of reptilian forces — Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce) included — who entered the Big Apple with stars in her eyes, only to end up an exploited addict and gutter whore. The movie shows this descent — every last fucking second, it would seem — but is there a point to the madness? Is this a cautionary tale? A slanted slam against the revered Warhol? A portrait of a wild, hedonistic time, where rules were subverted without regard for consequences? Perhaps, but does the cinema require an additional ninety minutes of monotonous drudgery to better understand that narcotics often leave lives in tatters? Maybe there are still a few among us who think this shit is romantic.
I’m sure there will be those who come to Edie’s defense — she was an icon, the new “It Girl”, a fashionable symbol of self-conscious artistry — but I can only discuss the woman on display here. If her moment in the sun is any indication, she may have indeed set the tone for fame for its own sake; a human being who did nothing anyone should remember, wrote no lasting words that deserve reconsideration, and shifted the broader culture in but one insidious direction: the elevation of banality to high art, or the conscious celebration of an excruciating lack of talent. As a typical hippie-era trust fund baby — with the spoiled rotten sense of entitlement to match — Edie met Warhol, was instantly transfixed by his deadpan, near corpse-like visage, and was quickly swallowed up by the Factory and its production of, if the film is to be believed, utter and complete bullshit. I didn’t see anything I could be bothered to piss on, let alone stand back and revere with contemplative silence. Warhol was equally fascinated by this shallow soul, for in her quiet beauty and utter lack of guile, he saw yet another product to push, pull, and twist into his own creation: a “superstar” for a new world. And yes, she does secure a great deal of fame, but we never have any idea why. Again, I doubt such a reason even exists. One man said she was famous, and so she was, and such fame faded away once that same man moved on to someone else. His unquestioned decree was enough at both ends.
Edie’s primary role in the Factory is as an actress — a term used with a looseness never before conceived — which means she hangs out, talks, shoots up, and responds to off-camera questions (and appears in such classics as Horse and Vinyl). Warhol’s direction, again with quotes, is about nothing more than turning on the camera which, in one scene, he’s even too detached to perform. These early films aren’t much at all, of course, and would be excruciating to endure in their totality, but the film rides along with the idea that they were statements of some kind; you know, the kind that bored, rich folks throw money at when there isn’t anyone courageous enough to call them on the carpet. In this way, the Factory was a depressingly lockstep wasteland of sycophants, where everyone privileged enough to receive an invitation was given a free reign in the act of creation. This absence of restrictions can, of course, be liberating, but just as often churns out mediocrity by the bucketful, as the usual peer review and exchange of ideas becomes an unending orgasm of gutless admiration. If someone can be bothered to remove the syringe, roll off the couch, and throw a bit of paint at a piece of cardboard, wild applause fills the hole where eye-rolling contempt should at least make an appearance.
Edie’s ride appears to be headed for uninterrupted bliss when, suddenly, she attracts the attention of Bob Dylan (Hayden Christensen), here ludicrously renamed Billy Quinn to avoid a lawsuit. No explanation is given for Dylan’s obsession, other than the fact that she was in the papers, and consequently a woman of great intrigue. If anything, Dylan should be blasted to the rafters for spending ten minutes with this nitwit, though the chick was cute in her own waif-like way, but I suppose this whole affair is introduced in order to bring about the big fall (he eventually drops her and marries Sara Lownds). Dylan loathes Warhol, considers Edie’s presence in the Factory an endorsement of his giant fraud, and longs to see her escape for bigger and better things. Surely she wasn’t capable of doing anything except posing for photographs and injecting drugs in her ass, but I’ll take Bob at his word. Christensen’s performance, more accurately labeled a criminally bad imitation, makes Dylan seem as silly and inconsequential as any of the waxworks of the Factory, but he is partially redeemed when he interrogates Edie about her reverence for Warhol. And it is a brave question indeed, given Andy’s near untouchable status in American cultural history: can anything be considered art that completely disengages from the context in which it is created? As Dylan says, while the world is burning, this pasty clown is wrapping shit in aluminum foil. For all of Warhol’s alleged contributions to the world of art and the very notion of how we envision our surroundings, what had he to say about Vietnam? Civil Rights? Gay rights and feminism? That’s right — not a goddamn thing. Sometimes fashionably detached is just simply delusional.
Dylan’s attack, as much as I find it eminently agreeable, is of course debatable, but it speaks to the larger issue of why this movie stinks with such an appalling odor. Here, nothing is in context, and we must assume this woman’s appeal where no evidence is offered. She is trivial, vain, sub-mental, and her one noble act was mercifully dropping dead before she reached her 30s, but we are led to believe that the world would not have been the same without her. Yes, I know she was a popular figure for her time, but why must we remember her now? A film made this long after her death implies that her corpse is worth digging up in the first place, and unless the filmmaker intended to connect this undeserved celebrity with, say, Anna Nicole Smith, another dullard given undue screen time, I see no reason to care. Warhol ensured his eternal fame by asking absurd questions without answers (thereby forcing us to tackle his legacy well past the point when it should matter), but Edie Sedgwick wasn’t nearly so brazen. She didn’t push buttons and manipulate opinion; she simply came aboard, waved her hand, and fell into addiction and death. Does this mean, then, that we must sit through tens of millions of similar stories in the future? Is it enough to have been alive and semi-conscious? Oh yeah, as not all of them had the money and means to shoehorn their way into an icon’s world, it appears we’ll be spared the lion’s share. It’s simply a shame we had to suffer through this particular chapter.