Crystal Meth(o.d.) Acting

Warhol’s “it girl” Edie Sedgwick sinksCiao Manhattan


Ciao Manhattan sounds like it is going to be an exciting 1970’s “Factory” flashback flick. It is, after all, a highly-styled underground film that parallels the real-life, high-profile demise of a drug addicted model! The model is the stunningly beautiful and permanently topless, Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s first “superstars”.

The film has frequent references to timeless hipster topics: Diana Vreeland, the Chelsea Hotel, all-night discos, and, of course, Andy Warhol. It offers high fashion and a full assortment of high models, high drug dealers, and high ex-Factory personalities.

But what is it, exactly? An indulgent Baby Gia Visits the Factory or an ironic Seventh Avenue Valley of the Dolls? It’s hard to tell, which is the problem with experimental films like this. They sound campy and fun but (even allowing for the requisite terrible acting) they are ultimately incoherent and, well, unfortunately dull. Like the fashion-accessorizing strategies of the period, the oddities keep piling up and soon any chance of a cohesive story is tossed away with the last of Edie’s bras.

Ciao Manhattan is basically a 70’s “boy meets girl/coming of drug-age story.” Susan (Edie Sedgwick) is the addicted ex-supermodel daughter of a California pie mogul. Butch is the innocent young Texan who finds her staggering topless along PCH (Pacific Coast Highway for those who’ve not been to L.A.). Naïve Butch takes Susan back to her mother''s mansion. Since this is his first day in California, he is invited to live at the mansion to care for Susan until he can build the flying saucer he dreams about. Susan’s drug use has caused a medical condition called “PBD” (permanent brain damage). Because of PBD, Susan has left Manhattan (Ciao!) to recover at her mother’s mansion.

Edie Sedgwick was, of course, a genuine underground star in the 70’s. But her character, Susan, actually lives underground: in a tent at the bottom of her mother’s swimming pool.

As Susan shares past life details in flashbacks that switch randomly from color to black and white, the film succumbs to a different medical condition (perhaps also caused by drug abuse): “PFD” (permanent film damage). Like its topless star, the movie becomes an incomprehensible, unpleasant mess.

Edie''s character, Susan, is always high and perhaps because the period pre-dated managed healthcare, methamphetamines were readily available in a variety of brand names in a variety of convenient forms from many an accommodating doctor.

Sadly, considering Ms. Sedgwick’s real history with rehab and her well-documented questionable acting skills—some of those drug scenes are moderately convincing. Whether or not this concerned the cast during filming is questionable because most of the them look high too (even the characters that are not drug users).

Lots of glossy, drooping eyes suggest a 1970’s version of Stanislavsky’s drama philosophy. Could this be “crystal method acting”?

Ciao Manhattan is known as an important experimental film. Sadly, its notoriety comes from its timing and the plot’s unfortunate parallels to Edie Sedgwick real life and death. In fact, she died just three months after it was completed. Her story is more interesting than this movie. Edie Sedgwick was actually Radcliff educated. She was the blue-blooded darling of several Andy Warhol films until she decide to strike out on her own.

Ms. Sedgwick, like her character, lived a (very) high New York life. She then fought drug addiction and questionable career prospects until she died at only 28. If Edie had lived a longer life, we would feel less obliged to see this movie.

Ciao Manhattan does offer a few brief glimpses of guilty cult pleasure. The fashion is fantastic—readily appropriate for Williamsburg circa 2002. The technology will also make you smile: rudimentary split-screen special effects, exciting analog instruments, and Edie''s monstrous stereo headphones.

Edie is always drop-dead beautiful and quite graceful. Similarly, some of the male cast members are quite handsome, particularly another ex-Factory personality, Paul America. Paul America plays a drug dealer provocatively also named Paul America. But without the gratuitous male nudity of Warhol’s films, these lighter moments are very isolated.

If you must see this movie, save it for your VCR and keep the remote within reach. As Susan says about the effects of a vitamin injection: “the first 15 minutes take a long time, the second 15 minutes take forever.”

Unless you are truly devoted to Edie (or your VCR is broken) the last 54 minutes of this film won''t take long at all.