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Andy Warhol: Alive & Well

“I Thought Everyone Was Kidding”

Andy Warhol is alive and well. Last Thursday, accompanied by the inevitable coterie of business associates and superstars, Warhol went out on the town. It was the underground film-maker’s first public appearance since last June, when, as everyone knows, he was shot down by Valerie Solanas, a writer who had played in his film, “I, a Man.”

We were sitting around a table at Casey’s Restaurant. Viva, reigning superstar, and Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s producer and technical director, were regaling their chief with tales of recent assaults upon their persons.

“We are constantly under attack,” claimed Viva. Very charming she is, and plenty paranoid: “Andy’s shooting was part of a conspiracy against the cultural revolution. Recently a man leapt over three empty rows in a cinema and punched me as hard as he could.” Viva’s vexed, misunderstood expression made everyone laugh. “It was during the greenhouse scene of ‘Amities Particulieres’ and I giggled and said, ‘Gay among the gladioli or faggot among the ferns.’ It was supposedly a sensitive homosexual film — so tacky.

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“I was also attacked in my apartment the other night” — she went on in a Holly Golightly monologue — “by someone whom I had never before seen. It turns out he’s a professional attacker. All he does is beat up people. I really did a job on him. I think I fractured his skull. I’ve never seen so much blood…”

“Well, it’s our year for crazy people. It really is,” observed Warhol, wincing as though in pain.

“Feel all right?” asked the reporter.

The silver haired Warhol hesitated. “Uh mmm — sort of; I can’t really tell,” he said softly.

“Have you rethought your lifestyle since the shooting?” asked the reporter.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” conceded Warhol. “I’m trying to decide whether I should pretend to be real or fake it. I had always thought everyone was kidding. But now I know they’re not.” He looked worried. “I’m not sure if I should pretend that things are real or that they’re fake. You see,” said Warhol, craning his head absently, “to pretend something’s real, I’d have to fake it. Then people would think I’m doing it real.”

“Do you think you had any complicity in the shooting,” persisted the reporter, “in the sense of encouraging those around you to act out their fantasies?”

“I don’t know,” Warhol replied, denying that he had ever encouraged anyone to act out his fantasies. His voice trailed off. “I guess I really don’t know what people do. I just always think they’re kidding.”

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Were his stars actually shooting dope in “Chelsea Girls”?

“I never really knew,” he insisted. “I suppose they must have been. I thought they were kidding.”

Did he think Valerie Solanas was kidding when she shot him?

Warhol shrugged and said his back was turned at the time. He had known Valerie Solanas four years. At first, when she showed him her manuscript “Up Your Ass,” he had thought she was a lady cop. Later, he had come to regard her as a serious writer, but he had sensed that she was disturbed so he avoided her. Sometimes she would telephone him late at night. Her nocturnal nagging was in the nature of crank calls. Once, when she needed money, Warhol had used her in a film. She never complained that she was ill-used.

Valerie Solanas’s grievance, Warhol learned too late, was that she imagined he had conspired with publisher Maurice Girodias to defraud her of her works. Girodias had in fact given her an advance to write a book, but the publisher barely knew Warhol and had no business dealings with him. Now Valerie Solanas is in a mental institution.

“It happened so quickly,” Warhol recalled. “She met me downstairs and we rode up in the elevator together. I turned around and it sort of happened…”

“So it was a surprise?”

“Oh, it was a surprise,” Warhol said, “but the bigger surprise was that she had dressed up for the occasion. She wore lipstick, eye makeup, her hair was combed. And she looked so pretty in a dress…”

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Warhol still likes Valerie Solanas: “I’ve never really disliked anyone. And I don’t think she was responsible for what she did. It was just one of those things.”

Wasn’t that the same as his thinking that everyone was kidding? Shouldn’t he be more angry and compassionate? After all, he had been badly hurt.

“Uh mmm,” Warhol hesitated. His dark blue eyes burned straight ahead. He spoke quietly as if his voice box were soundproofed. “I can’t feel anything against Valerie Solanas,” he said. “When you hurt another person, you never know how much it pains.”

Was he in pain?

“Uh mmm, the whole idea of the shooting was painful,” Warhol nodded. “It slows you up some. I can’t do the things I want to do, and I am so scarred I look like a Dior dress. I’m afraid to take a shower.” He giggled weakly. “It’s sort of awful, looking in the mirror and seeing all the scars. It’s scary. I close my eyes. But it doesn’t look that bad. The scars are really very beautiful; they look pretty in a funny way. It’s just that they are a reminder that I’m still sick and I don’t know if I will ever be well again.” Warhol fell silent. The clatter of silver and china filled Casey’s. So did small talk.

“Since I was shot,” Warhol went on, hypnotized by the central idea of his own resurrection, “everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know what anything is about. Like I don’t even know whether or not I’m really alive or — whether I died. It’s sad. Like I can’t say hello or goodbye to people. Life is like a dream. What would you call that?”

“Are you afraid?” asked the reporter.

“That’s so funny.” Warhol laughed as if to diminish his dread. “I wasn’t afraid before. And having been dead once, I shouldn’t feel fear. But I am afraid. I don’t understand why. I am afraid of God alone, and I wasn’t before. I am afraid to go to the Factory.”

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Having spoken his fear, Warhol seemed relieved. He pulled a false mustache from his pocket and offered it to Viva who pasted it above her thin-lipped mouth. It was no good, he decided, and took it back.

“What now?” asked the reporter.

“I’m thinking about getting busy again — if I can do it,” said Warhol.

“With the same philosophical slant?”

“Well, I guess people thought we were so silly and we weren’t. Now maybe we’ll have to fake a little and be serious. But then,” Warhol said, going on like a litany, “that would be faking seriousness which is sort of faking. But we were serious before so now we might have to fake a little just to make ourselves look serious.”

“Do you laugh all the way to the bank?” asked the reporter, grasping at a realistic straw.

“For the first time we would have made some money this year,” Warhol said, “but my hospital bills took all of that. Our grosses are very big, but the net is practically nil. And we plow what we net back into our experimental films. But the Beatles have a lot of money and we’re trying to talk them into setting up a non-acting foundation for us.”

“For your non-films?”

“Yes.”

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Then Andy Warhol and company walked to a party celebrating the completion of a Hollywood movie, “Midnight Cowboy,” where Warhol, insulated by two superstars, Nico and Ultra Violet, sat on a verandah and chatted with British screen director John Schlesinger. He talked about how quickly Hollywood films had caught up with underground films. He found himself beset with admirers. He seemed glad to be alive. ❖

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Notebook for Night Owls: The Velvet Underground

Nineveh

Andy Warhol’s new discotheque seems to be an attempt to instill permanence into a private joke. Presided over by the Velvet Underground, and decorated with colored lights, slides and films, it occupies a long mirrored room atop the Polski Dom on St. Mark’s Place, and has the air of a dancing party out of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Most discotheques seem to have been constructed around Sartre’s famous principle that hell is other people, but Warhol, being an innovator, has gone further than other entrepreneurs. He has so arranged his discotheque that his patrons tend to feel, after five minutes in the place, that they have wandered into some evangelist’s vision of Nineveh and that perhaps it is time to mend their ways.

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The room is, of course, very dark, and it is streaked with reddish light. The Velvet Underground, consisting of three guitarists, two dancers, and a pretty girl named Nico who sings a little, disport themselves for most of the evening on a raised stage against a back projection of films and slides. Since the musicians in the group, although loud, are comparatively unskilled, the patron’s attention is mainly focused on Gerard Malanga, who dances continuously, in a style which combines feverishness and languor, in front of the band. He wears leather pants and a tee-shirt imprinted with a picture of Marlon Brando, and he is occasionally partnered by a girl named Ingrid Superstar. But the real star of the show is a strobe beamed upon the audience but usually kept focused on Malanga. When he dances inside the strobe beam Malanga shimmers as if he were in a St. Vitus attack.

Halfway through their set Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar pick up a couple of coiled leather whips and, while the musicians play a song of which the only distinguishable line is “Whip your mistress till you reach his heart,” they do a sadomasochistic ballet which ends with Malanga kneeling with his head against Ingrid Superstar’s thighs while she pantomimes whipping him. This piece seems to impress the audience profoundly. All the dancers on the floor stop to watch (all except one couple who appear to be part of the show and who continue all night to dance a sort of ritualistic Watusi), and a few people whisper to their partners that poor Malanga needs a rest. Then the group swings into a fast number, complete with whistles and sirens, the lights begin to flicker wildly, half the audience covers its ears, and Malanga dances off the stage to recover from his exertions.

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It was at this point, on the night I was there, that a thin dark girl in a blue pants suit seized her escort and announced to him that she was going immediately to church. Her partner, who was dressed like Lord Byron in a flowing ruffled shirt, pointed out quite sensibly that since it was past midnight she might be better off going to bed, but the girl said that the weight of her sins had grown so heavy upon her that she could not rest another minute without confessing them. Several people in her vicinity nodded approvingly. ♦

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When the Voice Reviewed an Album for the Ages

In June 1967, culture critic Richard Goldstein panned the Beatles’ new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in the pages of the New York Times: “The sound is a pastiche of dissonance and lushness…the over-all effect is busy, hip and cluttered.… Like an over-attended child ‘Sergeant Pepper’ is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra.… There is nothing beautiful on ‘Sergeant Pepper.’… For the first time, the Beatles have given us an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent.”

Perhaps Goldstein had already seen the light, because a few months earlier he’d glimpsed a future with all manner of the punk and alt-rock that would expand on the Beatles’ majestic pop. In April of 1967, he gave — with a few insightful caveats — a rave to the first album by the Velvet Underground.

Founded by John Cale and Lou Reed, the Velvets were already known as the house band for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable — which, we discovered in an ad in the March 31, 1966, issue of the Voice, was originally termed the Erupting Plastic Inevitable — and its multimedia extravaganzas. For performances at the Dom on St. Marks Place, Warhol projected still images and movies upon the band and on various “silver dream factory” denizens who gyrated under cracking whips. A cross section of downtown culture is presented in this full page of ads, featuring the first iteration of the E.P.I. You could amble around and see Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, check out Sunset Boulevard at a rep house, or, if you preferred your entertainment more subterranean, there was Warhol’s My Hustler — “See sea, sand and sin” — or live shows from Dr. Lattah and His Feelies, presenting “Color Suck: An evening of oral and nasal dreams including notes by an assassinated preacher on the Ten Commandments.” ­In this boho milieu, the raucous reverb and seizure-inducing strobes of the E.P.I. were just another night on the town.

In promotional ads, impresario Warhol gave the German chanteuse Nico equal billing with the Velvets. His instincts from a decade of crafting high-fashion advertising graphics taught him that soaring cheekbones and blonde tresses could never hurt. Reed, who wrote the bulk of the band’s songs and switched off on lead vocal duties with the Teutonic femme fatale, was always skeptical, and would shortly maneuver both the pop artist and the statuesque model out of the group.

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In the ad for that first album, the tagline didn’t quite track — “So far underground, you get the bends!” — but Warhol always counted on a bit of misdirection in his work. “What happens when the daddy of Pop Art goes Pop Music? This does!” the ad copy continues. “It’s Andy Warhol’s very first, very far-out album — featuring the unbelievable Nico. See the Andy Warhol Show, starring Nico, now appearing nightly, out-of-sightly at the DOM, 23 St. Marks Place, New York.”

There are so many sins against Lou Reed’s ego in those three sentences that a breakup was inevitable. But who knows how much that tension contributed to the startling originality of the Velvets’ sound, a mix of the droning minimalism Cale learned from composer La Monte Young and the Top 40 knockoffs Reed had crafted for the down-market Pickwick Records label. This was music greater than the sum of its parts on steroids.

Reviewer Goldstein obviously appreciated that the zeitgeist was crackling below 14th Street, and that keyboardist–string player Cale, guitarist Reed, bassist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and yes, vocalist Nico were distilling it into something elementally potent. (Unfortunately, Goldstein has no comment on the transcendent melancholia of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which Reed later revealed was Andy’s favorite Velvet Underground song.)

Below are the pages with the original review, in all their brittle, yellowed glory. Following them is the text, for your copy and pasting pleasure.

The Velvet Underground is not an easy group to like. Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones “Hitchhike” in “There She Goes Again.” The lead vocal on other songs sound distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the mterial [sic] is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” are pretentious to the point of misery.

But the Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is an impressively understated vignette about scoring in Harlem. “Venus in Furs” is fine electronic mood-manifesting. “Femme Fatale” is an unearthly ballad subtly fuzzed-up to drive you mad fiddling with bass and treble switches. Nico’s voice is harrowing in its pallor, but chic, very chic.

Most important is the recorded version of “Heroin,” which is more compressed, more restrained than live performances I have seen. But it’s also more a realized work. The tempo fluctuates wildly and finally breaks into a series of utterly terrifying squeals, like the death rattle of a suffocating violin. “Heroin” is seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock ’n’ roll.

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Must-Watch (and Maybe-Watch) Movies This Week

Each week, the Village Voice reviews the dozen or so films that open in theaters both locally and nationwide. Because we understand that you probably won’t read every single one of these reviews (although we think you should give it a try), here’s the definitive guide to what you should watch.

You Should Definitely Watch

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

“Directed by Desiree Akhavan, and written by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, the film takes a grown-up approach to its young-adult material; this is a somewhat somber YA adaptation, with teenage subjects who are fully formed and all too human.” — Lara Zarum (full review)

THE LAST MOVIE

“Now restored and back on the big screen where it belongs, The Last Movie benefits from multiple viewings the way 2001: A Space Odyssey or Eraserhead or The New World do; you catch through-lines and details you’d missed earlier, while also developing new mini-fascinations and obsessions. It’s the rare film that seems both clearer and completely different with each viewing.” — Bilge Ebiri (full review)

MILLA

“Most of Valérie Massadian’s shots are full single-take, static-camera scenes. Amid the post-industrial beauty and waste of coastal northern France, these teen lovers — the bottle-blonde Milla (Severine Jonckeere) and lanky, long-haired Leo (Luc Chessel) — move into a bare house, scrounge for food, make an exhilarating game out of stealing local produce. Their love thrives in the ruins, on a pile of blankets and sleeping bags on a tiled floor, and they treat each other with a winning tenderness.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

THE ATOMIC CAFÉ

“Both bitterly funny and heart-stoppingly upsetting, Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty’s assemblage peered into America’s nuclear soul from the dawn of the Reagan Era. The materials the filmmakers used may have come from the period between 1945 and 1955: footage of bomb tests, clips of presidents and military officials making solemn announcements, helpful public advisories about how to protect yourself from blast radiuses. But they spoke also to the twin poles of American public spirit in the early 1980s — a renewed, turbo-loaded fusion of warlike aggression and paranoia, crossed with aw-shucks nostalgia and hazy idealism.” — Bilge Ebiri (full review)

Worth Watching

NICO, 1988

“Like much of Nico’s music, Susanna Nicchiarelli’s film is a funeral march, trudging toward the oblivion hinted at by the title.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD

“Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood follows Scotty Bowers, a World War II veteran (now 95) who, after he was discharged, became a sex worker and pimp. Cary Grant, Walter Pidgeon, Randolph Scott, and Tom Ewell were among the famous clients Scotty calls ‘tricks’ in the same charmingly anachronistic way he calls everyone ‘baby.’ ” — Ren Jender (full review)

The Rest

CALLING ALL EARTHLINGS: “Calling All Earthlings invites us to gawk at the crackpots in George Van Tassel’s wake, but delights in adding fuel to their conspiratorial fire.” — Rob Staeger (full review)

NIGHT COMES ON: “Director and co-writer Jordana Spiro creates an earnestly cynical world for our two heroines, a place where the men are either unresponsive or sleazy and the women are around to help a sister in distress. As much as Spiro and co-writer Angelica Nwandu want to hit audiences with the Real Shit, the movie is predictably dour.” — Craig D. Lindsey (full review)

40 YEARS IN THE MAKING: THE MAGIC MUSIC MOVIE: “From a certain perspective, 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie is a commentary on how far money can go to recapture the spirit of one’s youth.” — Jordan Hoffman (full review)

NEVER GOIN’ BACK: “Writer-director Augustine Frizzell, making her feature directorial debut, is attuned to the giddy intimacies of female friendship, and Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone are a charismatic pair. Watching them interact, whether in an embrace or with punches to the face (long story), it feels like you’re watching real friends, like these girls have known each other for years.” — Abbey Bender (full review)

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME: “Here, rather than some singular comic creation animated by its own daft impulses, Kate McKinnon plays the Best Friend, someone who cares deeply about the specifics of the plot and offers words of encouragement that motivate her co-lead, Mila Kunis’s Audrey. These are marks any performer in Hollywood could hit, and giving them to McKinnon is extravagantly wasteful, like hiring Mary Halvorson, the brilliantly eccentric jazz guitarist and composer, to play straight leads over karaoke pop tracks. Why bother?” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE: “No Date, No Signature stirs up a lot of emotions, but it mostly puts you in the shoes of two men who each had a chance to make the correct choice — and who fail miserably, and pay dearly. Ultimately, after causing much damage to others either physically or mentally, they both come to the realization that they must take responsibility for their actions.” — Craig D. Lindsey (full review)

KING COHEN: “Steve Mitchell’s documentary style isn’t flashy or refined, but it is economical. The director does his homework and almost cross-examines the film’s subjects. If Cohen tells a story about his collaborator Fred Williamson rolling out of a moving car on the set of Black Caesar (1973), Mitchell then puts the same questions to Williamson to get his side of of it — and, of course, both accounts are different. But that’s half the fun of a doc like this.” — April Wolfe (full review)

GAVAGAI: “Yes, the subtitles have been omitted by choice, so as not to distract from the performances. The scenes without them communicate as clearly as the others, perhaps even more so.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

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“Nico, 1988” Demands the World Look More Closely at the One-Time Chelsea Girl

The music made by the songwriter and composer Nico in the two decades after her brief association with the Velvet Underground tended toward drone and plod, toward a Teutonic bluntness and a gothic mournfulness, its beat as flat as her bleat. On occasion, her work echoed the lullaby delicacy of the songs Lou Reed wrote for her, among them “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” But Nico’s work, as Nico would be the first to tell you, was not for everyone — which, of course, makes it mean all the more to those of us who love it.

“I’m very selective of my audience,” Trine Dyrholm’s Nico declares to an interviewer late in Nico, 1988, writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s precise, piercing study of the star’s last years. The statement is half put-on justification, something like what the teenage Nico fans I knew during the years the film is set might say to explain the tininess of our groups of friends. But there’s truth in it, too: Nico wouldn’t and couldn’t change her art, her sound, herself even if she had wanted to. Reed wrote for her the question “And what costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow’s parties?” Nicchiarelli’s film, the rare biographical picture to advance a critical argument, insists that Nico, born Christa Päffgen, wore no costume: By the 1980s, a lifetime removed from her modeling career and the Factory scene, Nico and her art had become one. Nico, 1988 shows us the star pouring all her pain and exuberance into music that she doesn’t care whether you take or leave. She even wants to leave it herself, toward the end, when the idea comes to her that she might work in a flower shop instead — that she might spend her days around life. But she can’t. She might insist that some acquaintances call her Christa, but she’s too Nico not to be Nico.

Like much of Nico’s music, Nicchiarelli’s film is a funeral march, trudging toward the oblivion hinted at by the title. Most of Nico, 1988 takes place two years before its subject’s death, in 1986, when a now raven-haired Nico (played with an inquisitive weariness by the excellent Dyrholm) tours Europe with a band of amateur musicians desperate for gigs. Some also are desperate for their next fix. We first see their leader shoot up in Manchester, England, while being shown a one-bedroom flat she’ll be renting. Nico asks to use the restroom, and then, alone, pulls out the microphone of the tape recorder she carries everywhere and studies the room’s ambiance. Apparently satisfied, she pulls a needle from her pack, taps it, then jabs it into her ankle.

At its best, Nicchiarelli’s film, which is based on accounts from people who knew Nico, summons up the presence of its subject, studying her behavior, allowing her her mysteries. What is she listening for on that recorder? When she nods off, heroin pulsing through her, what does she dream of? What does she make of the scraggly crowds of leathered outcasts who attend her shows? Nicchiarelli does offer some explanations, through flashbacks often less convincing than the film’s 1980s present. As the smack hits, we see a baby crying in a hospital, then a vision of Nico’s golden 1960s self, the woman thought of as the femme fatale and the Chelsea girl. Later, crashing in the home of a booking agent who wouldn’t spring for a hotel for the band, Nico declares that she misses her son, the boy she had too young, before she’d had a chance to invent herself — before she had become Nico.

That’s blunt, but so is a parent’s pain. Nicchiarelli doesn’t belabor her subject’s regrets, and she never suggests that there’s one key to understanding Nico’s heart. And instead of setting up a sentimental reunion, Nico’s regrets push the film toward tragedy. We meet the handsome young son (Sandor Funtek) in a French rehab hospital. And we wince when Nico suggests that when he’s released, they might make up for lost time by him coming on tour with her — the last thing a recovering addict should do. He joins her on the next tour, in 1987.

Much of the film covers life on the road in the days before the collapse of the Soviet empire. It’s a blur of cramped cars, school dormitories, small crowds, and even smaller triumphs and humiliations. The show must go on, which means heroin must be secured and border guards must be satisfied. Sometimes the show seems meaningless, and she yells at the band and storms offstage; sometimes, like in an underground club in a school in Prague, the show seems like an urgent cry of freedom itself. (Dyrholm’s furious power in the best concert sequences have more fire than I’ve ever heard from the real Nico.) She’s persistently interviewed by clueless journalists who only know her VU work; she pretends not to notice that the manager (John Gordon Sinclair) with whom she occasionally sleeps is desperately in love with her.

Curiously, movingly, in the final scenes, the sense that we’re treading grimly toward her death lightens, just a bit. Having cleaned herself up, Nico at times seems to enjoy being Nico, and Dyrholm even dares a smile. Her performance works both as impersonation — her amused utterances sound a lot like the real Nico’s announcement, after an exquisite 1983 performance of “Orly Flight,” that “I’m not a very good piano player” — but succeeds most as an investigation, even a summation. Nico, 1988 offers all I want from this kind of movie: a sense of what time with someone unknowable might have been like.

Nico, 1988
Written and directed by 
Susanna Nicchiarelli
Magnolia Pictures
Opens August 1, Film Forum