Last week’s screening of The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound and The Velvet Underground Tarot Cards at the Egyptian Theatre was my idea of heaven. While Symphony of Sound has long been available (watch it!), so far as I know, Tarot Cards has never escaped into the wild. Screenings of the lone existing print are about as common as showings of Cocksucker Blues, Chelsea Girls, Eat the Document or, for that matter, California Raisins II: Raisins: Sold Out!
Warhol apparently intended to project Tarot Cards behind the VU at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the film has a vérité soundtrack nonetheless—mostly indistinct a-style chatter, no VU music (other than whistling). In it, the VU, Nico, and assorted Warhol superstars gather in an apartment and have a rave-up. Meanwhile, a dispirited Tarot reader is dealing Rider-Waite cards on the sheets of newspaper covering the floor and trying to make the Velvets’ fortunes heard over the din. A new copy of Pet Sounds is sitting out; almost everyone is young and gorgeous. I’ve already forgotten who pours beer on Mo Tucker’s hair by way of greeting. Eric Emerson?
But when I got home, there were no Celtic Crosses on the floor, no cans of Schaefer and Rheingold Extra Dry being passed around, no dancing Susan Bottomly, so I reached for the hypnotic effect of this “Fluxfilm.” John Cale shot Police Car in the middle sixties (the George Maciunas Foundation gives the date as “1966?”) with an 8mm camera he borrowed from Kate Heliczer. Cale describes the film in the biography Sedition and Alchemy (as quoted in Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day):
I was interested in getting dim pictures with flashing lights from a street repair trench near the Chelsea Bridge. The film was left with someone in Fluxus who then included it in a box of Flux-stuff, which I totally forgot about until I got a call from someone saying my “movie” was mentioned in the New York Times review of the box.
‘Fluxfilms’ from ‘Flux Year Box 2’ (via MoMA)
Cale’s referring to Flux Year Box 2 and its mention in “Art Notes” in the June 16, 1968 issue of the Times. After reporting rumors that the Venice Biennale would be postponed or cancelled due to student protests, the Times’ Grace Glueck—who, in ‘66, described the Velvet Underground as “a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Egyptian belly-dance music”—turned to the contents of George Maciunas’ $50 box set:
It contains such playthings as a squeezable rubber pear (anonymous); a “Flux Jewelry Kit” by Alice Hutchins (a spring necklace jumps out when you open it); a “Total Art Matchbox” by Ben Vautier (“Use the matches to destroy all art”); some rather strange card games. There are also 20 8mm film loops, by Stan Van Der Beek, Yoko Ono, John Cale, etc. Seen through a lorgnette-like hand viewer, the films include a run of bare bottoms (Ono); an underexposed sequence of blinking lights on a police car (Cale).
If you like the first part of this very short movie, in which only a single light appears, just wait until you get to the second part, where—but don’t let me spoil it for you. Speaking of John Cale, Sun Blindness Music sounds especially good this time of year, when it is 110º.