Ciao Manhattan Review
Ciao Manhattan (often listed as Ciao! Manhattan, but no exclamation mark on screen) begins with a caption stating that its leading actor and subject, Edie Sedgwick, died of a probably accidental barbiturate overdose. She was twenty-eight years old. Ciao Manhattan is in some ways a variation on the Icarus story: she flew too close to the sun and crashed to the Earth.
The film is nominally fiction, with Sedgwick playing “Susan Superstar”, but it's clear that the line between fact and fiction is very thin. Susan is found wandering the highways of California by Texan drifter Butch (Wesley Hayes). Butch takes her home to her mother (Isabel Jewell). Butch stays around to keep Susan company as she is clearly suffering the effects of long-term drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues, and is living in a drained swimming pool outside the house. She tells him of her past in New York in 1965, where she was a model, one of the Faces of that scene in that time, and also came into the orbit of Andy Warhol and his associates, known as “The Factory”.
Ciao Manhattan began life in 1967, with its two directors John Palmer and David Weisman, both members of The Factory. While still intended as an “underground” film, it was intended to reach a wider audience than the films Warhol himself was making – scripted rather than improvised and shot on 35mm (black and white) instead of 16mm. This was to centre around Sedgwick and her sometime lover Paul America (real name Paul Johnson), with other Warhol Superstars like Baby Jane Holzer, Brigid Polk and Viva making appearances. However, the production collapsed due to an unfinished script, actors proving unreliable, and both Sedgwick and America going missing for a while (he was later found in prison) and the backers eventually withdrawing the funding. Production began again in 1970, this time in colour, with the new material acting as a frame story to the earlier footage, presented as flashbacks. Isabel Jewell was the only professional actor in the cast: she died in April 1972, before the film's premiere. Also making appearances in the film were the French directors Christian Marquand and Roger Vadim. In the 1967-shot material, as well as the Warhol crowd you can see beat poet Allen Ginsberg (stark naked at a party), DJ Emperor Rosko (as a locker room attendant) and both of Uma Thurman's parents. The film was in post-production when Sedgwick died, on 16 November 1971: a genuine newspaper article announcing her death can be seen in the film.
The film may look at times almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a clearly by now very damaged young woman. The film was scripted, but one key scene wasn't: Sedgwick carries on from her one written line to mention that one of her brothers was the only one of the men in her then home life who had no sexual interest in her – and that included her other brothers (she was the seventh of eight children) and the ranch hands where she grew up...and her father who, she claims, tried to have sex with her from the age of nine. With a history of eating disorders as well as the substance abuse prevalent in the New York circles she moved in, it's clear that the damage ran very deep and a desire for love and to be loved can be hand in hand with self-loathing. There's no doubt that Warhol's Factory was a creatively stimulating environment at a time of change in American society. Some of the crowd survive to this day, but there was a lot of collateral damage. Edie Sedgwick was among it.
Ciao Manhattan was released in 1972 and quickly gained a cult following. In the UK, the BBFC passed it, with a X certificate, unsurprising considering the film's the strong language, drug usage and nudity (Sedgwick mostly topless in the colour scenes, apparently because she wanted to show off the breast implants she'd recently had). It's now rated 15. After a while, the film dropped out of sight until a reissue in 1982 in the wake of George Plimpton and Jean Stein's book Edie: An American Biography. In 2002 it had a DVD release for its thirtieth anniversary.
Second Sight's Blu-ray is in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1 for this 35mm-originated film. The film was clearly done on a very small budget, with a short shooting schedule, so this will never look as slick as a more expensive production. The black-and-white flashback material is considerably grainier, but I don't doubt that's not so much intentional as a necessity of the film's production, often using available light.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and generally clear and well balanced. Due to budget restraints, the film was shot with an unblimped camera so the soundtrack was entirely post-dubbed. Some of Edie/Susan's voiceovers do sound a little rough, but as they clearly originate from tape recordings that's also to be expected. Some of the voiceovers were actually provided by Brigid Polk, filling in after Sedgwick's death: Polk had a talent for mimicry. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing. They're accurate, though rather oddly anglicised in places: “arse” for what is clearly “ass”, for example.
The extras on this disc derive from the thirtieth-anniversary DVD. They begin with a commentary by both directors and Wesley Hayes. There is a lot of information here on the inception and the very troubled production of the film, not to mention its star's very troubled life.
Next up are “The Lost Ciao! Manhattan Reels” (27:16), or outtakes in other words, discovered by Weisman in 1998. Almost all of this is black and white as the colour shoot had a very low shooting ratio – 1.6 feet of film shot for every foot that ended up in the finished film. As well as helicopter shots of New York City in 1967, we see more of some of the events seen in the film: an Easter Sunday “Be-In” in Central Park and the Memorial Day party featuring the Thurmans and Ginsberg. We also see what is claimed to be the only 35mm footage of the inside of the legendary New York nightclub and live music venue Max's Kansas City.
Video interviews follow. Edie's biographer George Plimpton (7:30) knew her in the 1960s and talks about his encounters with her and her circle. (Plimpton died in 2003.) The film's costume designer Betsey Johnson (7:59) describes her involvement in the film – both in 1967 and 1971 – and Edie's role as one of the faces of the fashion industry of the time. David Weisman (10:25) and Wesley Hayes (4:35) are also interviewed, though inevitably much of what they say overlaps with the commentary. Finally, there is the film's theatrical trailer (3:48).