Life in this society being, at best
, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex."
Mary Harron, the writer-director making her feature debut with "I Shot Andy Warhol," certainly ought to be admired for spotting that opening passage from "The S.C.U.M. Manifesto," the cri de coeur of the outraged feminist loner named Valerie Solanas, and finding within it the kernel of a scrappy, vibrant, unexpectedly touching film with a ragtag heroine no audience will easily forget.
I Shot Andy Warhol," another madeleine of a movie that strongly evokes the Factory days, also shows Ms. Harron's enterprise by taking its catchy title from Ms. Solanas's statement to the police. Ms. Solanas's syntax proclaimed her ultra-outlaw status just as surely as if her victim, instead of the exquisitely bored and jaded Pop Art impresario, had been Jesse James.
This film's extraordinary centerpiece is Lili Taylor, giving a great, funny, furiously alive performance that deserves to put her on the mainstream map. Ms. Taylor, who has often played strange and vehement outsiders in the past (in films including "Household Saint" and "The Addiction"), finds a dream role in this film's tirelessly combative Valerie.
Tough as a teamster yet also oddly, even poignantly naive, she takes no prisoners when it comes to espousing radical theories or cooking
up ways to make a buck. She's equally willing to try prostitution or charge a $6 an hour fee for her conversational skills. "Fifteen cents, any dirty word you want," Valerie announces, pitching herself to passers-by on the street. When she finds a taker who pays her to say something dirty, she's got the word ready: "Men."
As written by Ms. Harron and Daniel Minahan, who originally intended a television docudrama and stick close to that format, "I Shot Andy Warhol" begins with the shooting on June 3, 1968, and then flashes back to find the roots of Valerie's extremism. As a college student in 1957, she is found developing her theory that man is only a biological accident, and that the Y chromosome is merely an imperfect X. There she is in the clean-cut 1950's, brazenly making a pass at the woman trying to take her psychological profile. And there she is a few years later, meeting her match as she tries to understand the mannered, elitist Warhol scene.
The film's greatest directorial success is in finding a thoroughly entertaining way of inviting the audience to share Valerie's point of view. Though it would have been easy to treat her subject as a pariah or freak, Ms. Harron empathizes with Valerie's angry isolation and finds much absurdist humor in the juxtaposition between her no-baloney manner and the Factory's fey ways. There is, for instance, the moment when Valerie's image turns up on a reel of Factory screen tests and shocks a small, studiously effete group of viewers. "What is that horrendous monstrosity?" one exclaims. "Isn't she tragic?" asks another.
Ms. Harron re-creates the usual suspects within the Warhol crowd, but the right mood is difficult to capture. This film's Factory party sequence hits all the required notes without the dizzying sensory overload found in "Midnight Cowboy" or other contemporary accounts of Factory antics. Nor does Ms. Harron quite reach the heady mix of the banal and the exotic found in "Nico Icon." There are good Factory impersonations from Michael Imperioli (Ondine), Craig Chester (Fred Hughes), Reg Rodgers (Paul Morissey) and others. Still, despite Ms. Harron's longtime fascination with her subject matter, these scenes stay tame enough to suggest a visit to the petting zoo.
The film works best
when emphasizing the culture clash between Valerie and her unfriendly new acquaintances. It draws its most trenchant parallel between her and Warhol as twin wallflowers in a weirdly theatrical world. One of the film's best
sequences, after Valerie has come to New York and begun trumpeting her own talents, is about one of her exuberantly obscene plays. While Valerie stages an impassioned reading in a hot dog joint, members of the Warhol coterie sit on the Factory's famous red sofa, reading the same material in a different spirit. Pronounces Brigid Polk, nee Brigid Berlin (Coco McPherson): "It's way too disgusting, even for us."
That nothing is too disgusting for Valerie is also, most ebulliently, part of the film's peculiar charm. It observes the comically unappetizing sexual exploits that provide fuel for the Manifesto, with Ms. Taylor turning up in a man's underwear or dressed as a mannish street urchin to read a few select passages. The film also watches the growing contempt in which Valerie is held by arch-frivolous Factory den