Finding Warhol: Resurrecting a Lost Film
On a Tuesday evening in March 1964, two New York police detectives stormed into the New Bowery Theater in the city’s Lower East Side and seized a number of items, including reels of an avant-garde film, Flaming Creatures. Produced the previous year by experimental film pioneer Jack Smith, the forty-minute effort included nudity, transsexuality, and sexual situations. Just two months earlier, the edgy content moved organizers of the Knokke Experimental Film Festival (Knokke, Belgium) to block inclusion of Flaming Creatures in the lineup when they deemed it too obscene to screen under Belgian law. One of the jurists from America, Jonas Mekas, quit the proceedings over the decision.
Back in the States, Flaming Creatures had a few showings before coppers shut it down on that fateful March night and arrested a handful of organizers, including Mekas. (His sixty-day sentence was suspended, and the district attorney apologized for the whole incident some fifty years later.) While the authorities seized that copy of Flaming Creatures, the footage survived and the film is available online.
Officials also confiscated some projection equipment and another reel of film, a short titled Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love. It was just a few minutes long and featured—wait for it—Warhol filming Smith while he was at work on yet another of his most famous efforts, Normal Love, a 200-minute film that’s considered to be unfinished.
But that bit of Warhol footage, which its maker dubbed a “newsreel,” was the only known copy. Hence, when you dig into online writings about it, the short film is consistently labeled as lost.
Enter Bruce Checefsky.
“I called the New York police,” says the Cleveland-based artist about trying to unearth Warhol’s original footage seized more than sixty years ago. “They were like: ‘You gotta be kidding me! Get outta here!’ They just basically laughed and hung up.” So the film was gone, but that only fired up the unique filmmaker.
“I had been thinking of Warhol for years. I love his films,” says Checefsky. And when he discovered there was a missing newsreel amid his body of work, “that piqued my curiosity,” he recalls. “So then I just dug in.”
Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love centers around a scene near the end of Normal Love in which scantily-clad cast members dance on a giant birthday cake (designed by Claes Oldenburg of Cleveland’s Free Stamp fame), while a furtive mummy lurks. Smith filmed it in a wooded area in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in August 1963.
“I believe Warhol got one box of film, loaded it in the [Bolex] camera and, shot,” says Checefsky. “That 100 feet is equal to three minutes. He didn’t edit it. He didn’t splice another piece together. It was a one-time thing for him.”
Checefsky continues: “I’d also speculate that, like in the rest of his films, he probably set it on a tripod or held the camera and he didn’t move. He just let whatever was going to happen in front of him happen, and he watched Jack Smith film this dance scene on top of a birthday cake.”
The challenge before Checefsky was crystal clear: It was time to resurrect this bit of art history with a remake.
He’d need a location, one with plenty of trees and seclusion, so he contacted old friends Wes and Missy Cochran, who are also enthusiastic collectors of American art, including an impressive Warhol collection that has been featured in the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Reinberger Galleries. The Cochrans live on a 400-acre pine tree farm in LaGrange, Georgia, where the October weather would look a lot like the summer in Connecticut.
“We were running out of time,” notes Checefsky, adding he wanted to wrap filming before 2022 came to an end.
While there were worries about properly casting the film, on the day of the shoot plenty of participants bellied up. Cast members included two grooms who had married just the day before, a handful of their wedding guests, a local physician, his wife, and a merry assortment of others.
“There were about forty people,” recalls Wes Cochran. “A lot of them were friends of ours.”
One cast member, however, deserves special note. Sean Watterson (one of the film’s executive producers and proprietor of Happy Dog) flew down for the filming at Checefsky’s urging. “He said, ‘you should come on down,’” recalls Watterson. “I kicked it around for a while and I said, ‘I’ll come down as long as I’m not in [the film]. I’ll do anything to help you out as long as I’m not in it.’”
Famous last words.
Watterson ended up playing the mummy, which, however fittingly, had originally been played by Velvet Underground drummer Angus MacLise.
“That was quite a chore wrapping him up,” recalls Wes.
Indeed. “I’ve got a lot of surface area,” noted Watterson during costuming.
Getting wrapped was just the beginning. Whenever he moved, the strips would loosen. “There’s a reason mummies are not the fastest monsters in the monsterverse,” notes Watterson, adding he was glad to be slowly prowling instead of dancing on a giant cake all day. “Thank god I’m the mummy,” he recalls thinking on the set. “Everybody up there must be dead tired.”
Perhaps, but in a good way. “When I was told I was going to dress in drag and dance on a birthday cake, I just went with it,” reported cast member Dr. C.J. Tumambing. “It was actually quite fun.”
“People started showing up and they were really into it,” notes Checefsky. “That was a great surprise. They were just stoked for it.”
And hungry. “We had a big pot of chili,” says Cochran, adding that potato soup and sliders rounded out the menu. “By the time filming was over, all that food disappeared. I was amazed.” The weather cooperated as well, and the resulting footage shimmers with its own ebullience.
“It was just like magic,” says Cochran.
The effort is at once a stark artistic departure for Checefsky and a completely fitting endeavor.
His work includes photography, writing, and a filmmaking career that launched in 2001 with the remake of a 1930 experimental film, Pharmacy. Originally produced by the Warsaw-based husband-wife team Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, the film had gained notoriety by 1932, but was lost during World War II.
“The whole Nazi thing was just to destroy culture, just to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth,” says Checefsky. “There’s no footage left,” he adds of the original Pharmacy film, “but there were stills.”
Checefsky travelled to Budapest to remake the film and worked with two “very talented women from Amsterdam” as they labored and smoked cigars. The resulting film garnered international attention, with screenings as recent as last May at the Cinemateque Vancouver and last October at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. “It’s been a great run,” notes Checefsky of Pharmacy‘s success.
For the next twenty years, Checefsky focused on works from the 1920s through ’40s that had been lost, destroyed, or conceived/scripted, but never made. “A lot of these films are very dark, and have kind of a surrealist dreamlike quality,” he says.
That’s an apt description of A Woman and Circles, which was based on a script by Polish poet Jan Brzękowski and published in 1930 but never committed to film. Checefsky’s 2004 interpretation immerses the viewer in a black-and-white dream where a woman waxes raven-like and human heads serve as planets. In Witch’s Cradle, a children’s rope-trick game turns dangerous, then a mysterious woman ponders a never-ending question that circles a pentagram. Checefsky’s 2015 film is an interpretation of a 1943 effort by filmmaker Maya Deren and painter Marcel Duchamp. The original is considered unfinished/lost.
Surreal dreaminess notwithstanding, the backstories to his films can be deeply challenging. Case in point, Franco-Serbian writer and poet Salomon Monny de Boully never produced Doctor Hypnison, or the Technique of Living, but Checefsky’s 2021 version includes cameos by a Cleveland Guardian and the Goodyear blimp. Fun local details, sure, but they don’t erase the trials of de Boully’s life, which include the death of his parents in a Nazi concentration camp. After the film screened online at the Walker amid the pandemic, Checefsky was ready for a change of course.
“I just needed something a little lighter,” he recalls, and so he immersed himself in the Warhol project.
“Warhol was all about appropriation; appropriation is the ultimate form of flattery,” says arts advocate Mark Smith. “I think Warhol would approve.”
Smith should know. He’s been a Cleveland Institute of Art board member for more than five years and his involvement with the Cleveland International Film Festival spans twenty years, including stints as board president and trustee (current). Along with wife Janet, he’s also an executive producer of Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love, as well as a supporter of Checefsky’s work from the beginning—he was in Budapest with the filmmaker during the making of Pharmacy, for which he was also a producer.
“When I got there, my job was mostly to keep the crew and filmmakers stocked with coffee and cigars,” recalls Smith. “It was a very important job,” he says, laughing, then notes the film’s enduring international success. “It’s a pretty significant little piece of art.” He has high hopes for the Warhol remake as well. “I’d love to see this film take off with a life of its own.”
Based on the raucous backstory, Checefsky’s interpretation of Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love is already brimming with life. It’s also full of something we cannot get enough of these days.
“I wanted to make a film that was fun,” says Checefsky. “I’ve wanted to make a comedy for years. This isn’t exactly a comedy, but it’s light. I feel like it’s what I need, and what other people need as well. It’s fun. It’s joy,” he says.
“That’s kind of what Warhol was about, a celebration of life in a lot of ways.”
As of press time, Checefsky was working on scheduling screenings of Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love at Cleveland Cinematheque, the Wexner Center in Columbus, and in La Grange, Georgia. He’s also submitted the film to the Cleveland International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
The Unexpected Collectors
Wes and Missy Cochran are anything but your run-of-the-mill art advocates. Both retired, Wes was a stone mason and Missy was a school teacher. In more than thirty years of collecting, they’ve amassed a staggering body of more than 400 prints featuring Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Christo, Chagall and too many others to list. The couple’s African American collection, which will be featured in a show at the Akron Museum of Art in November 2023, includes work by iconic artists such as Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, and Cleveland’s own Reverend Albert Wagner among others.
Credits: Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love
Executive Producers: Mark K. and Janet Rosel Smith, Sean A. Watterson
Producers: Wesley and Missy Cochran, Tina Cassara, Bruce Checefsky
Associate Producers: Lizabeth and Chloe Greer, Paul Perrotti
Cast: Veronica Anderson, Anna Byrd, Ashley Desensi, Rachel Farren, Robin Jacobs, Henry Jacobs, Zoe Potts, Genasis Jeziorski, Rebecca McBride, Dalton Newbend, Joshua Newbend, Pamela Rawden, Joyce Han Soto, Amber Stidham, Jessie Thompson, Lacy Tumambing, C.J. Tumambing, and Sean Watterson
Cinematography and Editing: Hal Jacobs, HJacobsCreative; Joe Boris, Boris Photography
Music: Lashawn “Jayy Hopp” Hopson, guitar; Nick Mayfield, bass; Henry Jacobs, drums
Set Design: Gus Morgan, Jerry Bartlett, Tommy Freeman
Special Thanks: Terry Oliver, Three Points Paint; Maggie McDonald, Pure Life House of Music