“The Empire State Building is a star!”
— Andy Warhol, reportedly on the night of filming Empire (1964)
On the night of July 24th, 1964, Andy Warhol, John Palmer, Jonas Mekas, Gerald Malanga, Marie Desert, and Henry Romeny gathered in an office on the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building in New York City.
As the sun went down, they pointed a camera out a window and at the Empire State Building, which was the tallest building in the world at that time. As they filmed, the upper 30 floors of the building were lit up in honor of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair. Behind the Empire State Building, the beacon atop the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower blinked on and off. Otherwise, the entire skyline was invisible in the night.
They started filming at 8:06 pm and stopped at 2:42 am. Projected in slow motion (which was either per Warhol’s specifications or the result of an error on the part of the projectionist, depending on which source you read), the final film — entitled Empire — lasted for 8 hours and five minutes. Originally, Warhol planned to have voices in the background but ultimately, Empire would be a silent film. Three times you can very briefly spot the faces of Warhol and the crew reflected in the window of the office. When the tower’s skylights were eventually switched off, Warhol filmed darkness.
Believe it or not, Empire is available, in its entirety, on YouTube. I watched about two and a half uninterrupted hours of it, along with skipping to the brief glimpses of Warhol and to the film’s end. Believe it or not, Empire does have a definite hypnotic power. When you spend hours staring at the same image, you do start to become fascinated by things like a blinking beacon or the occasional bird flying by the Empire State Building. (The film was so grainy that I assumed it was a bird. It could have just as easily been a speck of dust.) You find yourself thinking about what it would have been like to be in New York in 1964 and to see that one brilliantly lit tower rising high above the city. The tower does take on a life of its own.
On that night in 1964, there was no bigger star in New York City than the Empire State Building.