If the conceptual weirdness of Sleep, the experimental film by Andy Warhol that marks the 50th anniversary of its premiere this year, can still launch a conversation or two, one can imagine the response when it appeared a half century ago. The reception at the time was less than rousing; reports were that of the nine people who attended the debut screening, two left within the first hour.
You couldn’t really blame them. It takes some endurance to sit through a nearly six-hour depiction of a man (John Giorno, Warhol’s then partner) in various stages of slumber, in a mind-numbing and intentionally soporific display that played off the artist’s fascination with the theme of monotony. (“I like boring things,” Warhol once commented.)
But in retrospect, Sleep’s avant-garde contribution to the annals of film, and art in general, gets back to his idea that “we spend much of our lives seeing but not observing.” The element of repetition in Warhol’s work, with the Campbell’s soup cans, the Coca-Cola bottles, the Eight Elvises as examples, is almost his way of saying, “Hey, I don’t think you’re gonna get it on one try. I’m going to have to hit you over the head with this.”
Undeterred, and probably spurred on by the enraged critical reaction to Sleep, Warhol later followed it up with an even longer slow-motion opus, Empire, eight hours of static footage of the Empire State Building taken over an evening in July 1964. Vindication came with the addition of Empire to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress 40 years later.
Leave it to Warhol to discover the art behind the tedium.