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Sick of Hollywood Action Movies? Warhol’s Epic Is an 8-Hour Shot of the Empire State Building

A scene from Andy Warhol’s film ‘Empire,’ the only scene.
A scene from Andy Warhol’s film ‘Empire,’ the only scene. Photo: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute

Thomas Kiedrowski plans to bring a pillow to Saturday’s screening of Andy Warhol’s silent movie “Empire” in New York City.

Sick of Hollywood Action Movies? Warhol’s Epic Is an 8-Hour Shot of the Empire State Building

While most agree the Warhol epic is a real snoozer, Mr. Kiedrowski is seeing it for the second time. The film runs eight hours, five minutes and consists of a single black-and-white shot of the Empire State Building.

Spoiler alert: Not much happens beyond two things. Read on to find out.

“If it wasn’t for the pillow, I don’t know if I would be able to do it,” said Mr. Kiedrowski, a 44-year-old librarian. He also plans to bring the same snacks that carried him through a 2010 showing—two yogurt smoothies and graham crackers to share with other die-hard fans of the late New York artist.

Mr. Kiedrowski, who wrote the guide “Andy Warhol’s New York City,” might catch another “Empire” screening in March.

Thomas Kiedrowski at the recent opening of the Andy Warhol retrospective In New York.
Thomas Kiedrowski at the recent opening of the Andy Warhol retrospective In New York. Photo: Ernie Garcia

Since the film’s 1965 debut, nearly all of the action has been off-screen.

Jonas Mekas, who made the movie with Warhol, said a melee erupted about 10 minutes into the world premiere in New York City. Dozens of outraged viewers began shouting, “The movie doesn’t move!” They stormed the City Hall Cinema box office, demanding refunds of their $2 tickets.

A few threatened to wreck the theater, said Mr. Mekas, 96. As the night wore on, the audience dwindled to about 100, he said: “Some fell asleep.”

When the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed “Empire” at the nearby Varsity Theatre in 2010, the audience heard curses from the rear of the darkened cinema, said Allison Portnow Lathrop, public programs manager at the Ackland.

The projectionist was losing a bout with the two antiquated projectors used to show the film’s 10 full reels. Later, a fire almost broke out.

Ms. Lathrop had hired eight musical groups, booking each to play during an hour of the film. Near the end of the final reel, a local noise band, Y Fuego Mod, set off sparks during a set that mixed tools, scrap metal and amplifiers.

“I really thought, ‘My job is over here. I’m going to be fired—if we all make it out alive,’ ” Ms. Lathrop said. No one was hurt, and the projector kept rolling, after emergency exits were opened to air out the fumes.

Andy Warhol behind the camera in 1969.
Andy Warhol behind the camera in 1969. Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images

Saturday’s showing is part of the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and organizers expect a more subtle experience.

“It’s a completely silent film,” said Claire Henry, assistant curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project. “You hear your own breathing. If you’re chewing gum or gritting your teeth or swallowing—all of those bodily sounds, both yours and others—you do hear.”

At a 2010 Anthology Film Archives screening in New York, “nobody was saying anything,” said Adam Baran, who was among several dozen spectators. He and others came and went throughout the film.

“I mean—what are you going to miss? I took a nap at some point. I went out and got a lottery ticket. I got a snack,” said Mr. Baran, who will skip Saturday’s screening. “Once was more than enough for me.”

While nothing much happens, fans say “Empire” screenings can feel at various points like performance art, a meditative exercise and an endurance challenge.

“I really took it as a psychological, philosophical experience,” said Pau Guinart, who was a film student when he saw the movie in 2010. “I would do it again.”

Ben House, 59, has seen “Empire” before and plans to attend the March 9 screening at the Whitney because it was so relaxing.

“I might have noticed that the Empire State Building hasn’t moved in several hours,” said Mr. House, who works in advertising. “But I don’t notice that I haven’t moved in several hours. You really can get into a total zone.”

Andy Warhol in 1968.
Andy Warhol in 1968. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Noah Boulton was a seventh-grader when he sat through “Empire” in 2014 at the James Fuentes Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side. He went with his parents, who “left after maybe half an hour,” he said.

Mr. Boulton, now an 18-year-old freshman studying art at Purchase College at the State University of New York, recalled abandoning the gallery’s wooden bench after a few hours to stand and watch.

“I sat on it for so long, it ended up hurting,” he said. His father finally returned for him, he said, bringing “a whole thing of McDonald’s.”

“Empire” has two notable moments, for those who might skip the movie but still want to talk about it: The building’s floodlights turn on after sunset and, hours later, they go off.

During the film’s climactic moments, “sometimes you’ll actually hear gasps…or at least not full-on audible gasps, but maybe small intakes of breath,” Ms. Henry said. “These are the big events, right? Instead of it being Godzilla storming a town, it’s the lights turning on or off.”

Warhol warmed up to the long-form genre with “Sleep,” a 1963 silent black-and-white film that shows a man sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes. The artist wanted both “Sleep” and “Empire” to be projected at a slower-than-usual 16 frames per second.

Andy Warhol’s 1963 film ‘Sleep.’
Andy Warhol’s 1963 film ‘Sleep.’ Photo: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute

Douglas Crimp, who has sat through many Warhol movies, including “Sleep” and “Empire,” says the cinematic marathons are the opposite of Hollywood, “which is trying to move you forward all the time and keep you captivated.”

Mr. Crimp, a professor at the University of Rochester and the author of “‘Our Kind of Movie’: The Films of Andy Warhol,” said, “Everything that ‘happens’ in ‘Empire,’ if you want to put it that way, happens in the first reel—because the lights go on.”

Write to Brenda Cronin at brenda.cronin@wsj.com

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