Judge Bill Gibron peers into the world of male hustlers, junkies, and faded film stars as Andy Warhol "presents" three fascinating films by director Paul Morrissey.
I need a BAAAAAND-AID!!! The chlorine is seeping into my cigarette burns!!!
To Andy Warhol, everything was art. The label on a soup can or the packaging on a box of Brillo Pads became the basis for full-sized canvas creations; a Xerox copy of a famous face and a collection of poster paints became the elements of a personalized portrait; the typeface from a Chinese newspaper held untold design secrets, and the random electronic noises made by detuned musical instruments were a new symphony to the melodically melancholy. From the Factory, his studio space/hot spot in the heart of Manhattan, he went to work producing his insane inspirations, wanting to create true masterworks for the masses. His populist approach to aesthetism was even given a nifty nomenclature—Pop Art—and suddenly a new medium was born, eventually spreading to other forms of entertainment expression. Warhol not only painted and lithographed and sketched, he produced and he photographed, dabbling in both music (The Velvet Underground, Nico) and film. It was his early movies, pure experiments in visual manipulation, that won him some of his earliest universal acclaim.
But after an assassination attempt in 1968, Warhol radically altered his approach to his craft. He went from Pop Art to personal commissions and abandoned many of his outside concerns. Collaborator and cameraman Paul Morrissey oversaw the transition of the film dynamic, taking sole control of the directing of future Warhol presentations. His first solo feature, 1968's Flesh, announced a new voice in underground independent cinema. Instead of the seemingly incoherent conceits at the center of Warhol's work, Morrissey strove for more realism and authenticity in his artistic endeavors. With his follow-ups, Trash and Heat, the filmmaker proved a solid new sensation in the outsider genre. Now, thanks to Image Entertainment, these controversial films are available on DVD, and fans of the unusual and the avant-garde should definitely check them out. While not as kitschy or crazy as the films that would follow in Morrissey's mannered filmic footsteps, they are still amazing examples of narrative deconstruction and no-wave dynamics.
Facts of the Case
Representing an unofficial "trilogy," Flesh, Trash, and Heat are connected by two threads of commonality. First is the amazing presence of actor/model/stud Joe Dallesandro as the lead. As he plays several variations on the character of "Joe," we get several sides of one man's complex personality, the sexual (Flesh), the sleazy (Trash), and the scandalous (Heat). The other linking element is the use of Warhol regulars as part of the cast. From Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling to the amazing Andrea Feldman, Morrissey managed to make incredibly intricate dramas with some of the worst "found" actors in the decadent New York scene. When the three films are viewed together, we can see the shift from East to West coast cultural prominence, and how seediness spread from the streets of Manhattan to the poolsides of L.A. Individually, the plots are as follows:
Along with the efforts of The Kuchar Brothers (George and Mike) and Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol's name is synonymous with the underground film movement of the '60s. Similar to the pop experimentalism of the British Invasion and the literary innovations of the post-Beat era, the work that Warhol and his ilk attempted to do for cinema was akin to the groundbreaking grandstanding of the Italian Neo-Realists in the '40s and the French New Wavers in the '50s. It was very much akin to the modern DIY motion picture movement of the last few years, where lowering price and increasing technological efficiency have led to a boom in homemade moviemaking. Avant-garde artists of Warhol's time saw the camera as a natural extension of their aesthetic, and strove to use the instrument as effectively and provocatively as they would a paintbrush or a piano.
Warhol began his filmic labors in a typical deconstructionist manner. Initial efforts revolved around single acts (Sleep, Eat) or specific concepts (Empire, one continuous shot of twilight hitting the horizon behind the Empire State Building) and there was no attempt at story or characterization. Eventually, he branched out into experiments in narrative and the thwarting of all cinematic convention. Warhol pushed the boundaries of taste and taboo, showing sex acts and full frontal nudity on screen, along with the exploring of such shocking subject matter as the gay lifestyle and the decadence of the drug scene. Since it was positioned as art, not prurient or pornographic, Warhol's films set new standards inside moviemaking. Though his productions were amateurish, aggravating, and often antithetical to the idea of entertainment, Andy was trying to take the medium to an entirely new level, to reinvent film the same way he saved modern painting or, later, the celebrity/show business magazine (with his superb Interview).
Paul Morrissey's place inside the Warhol canon can be confusing at best. Similar to Saul Bass's claims that he played a far more significant role in the creation of Psycho's shower scene than Hitchcock scholars like to admit (a claim that is rebuked by almost everyone involved in that production), it appears Andy liked to claim the credit for efforts derived almost completely from Morrissey's mind. A cameraman on many of Andy's original efforts (the several Screen Test films), he soon found himself co-directing Warhol's most notorious efforts, including Chelsea Girls and the controversial (and banned) Lonesome Cowboys. Yet it was also abundantly clear that, between the two, Morrissey was the far more interesting filmmaker. He wasn't just intrigued by celluloid as a manner of self-expression. He saw the subject matter inherent in the people around him, and wanted to open a window on that world for mainstream moviegoers to see. He didn't care if it was shocking and it didn't bother him that it was frank and very forward. Morrissey meant to be the documenter of a decade, doing for the far-out and freaked-up '60s what his mentor soon lost interest in.
Flesh, Trash, and Heat are supposedly the cinematic supposition of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Put another way, the trilogy represents the non-music based descent into the most decadent of lifestyle logistics. Prostitutes, junkies, and social leeches have long been fodder for even the most mild studio-driven motion picture, but there is something more pungent, more poetic about Morrissey's approach. These are his films and his films alone—Warhol merely "presents" the pieces (adding name value for potential play dates and future distribution) and offers up his most famous factory faces for Morrissey's lens. The results are slices of life as sips of bourbon, cinematic drinks to get drunk and screw on. Call it pseudo-porno with a purpose or titillation with some substantial mental taxation, but each film is a wonder of wanton, perverted pleasures. Let's start with:
Flesh is a fascinating film, a story of a melancholy male hustler and his outer fringe existence told in stark, scattered snapshots. Morrissey helmed this "happening" as urban melodrama, a chance to comment on the underground existence that Andy and his clan of Factory favorites so readily riffed through on their way to pop-art prominence. Using a haphazard editing dynamic, one so heavy-handed the cuts make a distinct "pop" every time they occur, and keeping his cast within a wide berth of image and improvisation, this is one of the most stylized slices of life you are likely to see. Though it tends to track in vignettes instead of a single sound narrative, and can't quite make up its mind what it wants to say in the end, it is still a remarkable time capsule to an era were free love was no longer a luxury, and getting paid for being laid was a reasonable attempt at carving a niche out of the numbness of metropolitan malaise. Peppered with sequences both sad and scandalous, Morrissey and his actors turn New York into one big smoldering smut pit, a place where the person and the prurient no longer matter.
Arguably one of the best—and the funniest—scenes in the film comes at the halfway point, when Joe goes to visit a few old friends. They include drag queens Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, and a decidedly goofy go-go dancer named Geri. As the completely nonplused stripper services our hero orally, Candy and Jackie camp it up—catcall style—as they read, and remark on, incredibly tacky articles from an old Hollywood glamour magazine (most on the subject of weight and weight loss). Every line reading, every deadpan reaction and overemotional mincing creates classic kitsch comedy. The level of surreality builds and builds until Joe is suddenly part of the conversation. Sure he is still getting a blow job, but the delicious fun in skewing the celebrities of the past is too much to pass up. Eventually, Geri gets into the act as well, and the sequence devolves into a series of sensationally over-the-top lines (Geri remarks that her brain will never grow, having something to do with her being cute, while Jackie conjures up a new and novel name for breasts) and comments on the cruelty of sex for sale.
Indeed, Flesh's entire focus is on the human body as a viable commodity, as something to be celebrated and sold—both in film and in bed. Joe Dallesandro is naked throughout three-quarters and the film never shies away from showing off his well-built body, including generous helpings of genitalia. It is Morrissey's purpose to prove that sex and sexuality are bland and derivative, and by showing some substantial schlong (there is a single shot of breasts, and some naked female butt as well), we will learn to become desensitized to the notion of the nude male as something forbidden. The director wants to wallow in the mentality and mindset that would hire a hustler, and most of the so-called "love scenes" are kept far off-screen. It is the preparations, pre- and post- coital that intrigue this filmmaker. We see sloppy seductions, creative come-ons and "wham bam, thank you man" maneuvers, all meant to show how hung up and hampered we are by our drive for physical desire. Though it can be self-indulgent and meandering at times (the final sequence with Joe trying to find a comfortable place to sleep in a bed filled with his wife and her girlfriend goes on for far too long), Flesh is still a fine example of underground aesthetic. It uses standard cinematics in a way uncommon and unlikely to open doors of possible perception that the mainstream would never think of entering. The result is something titillating and telling, a look inward as a statement outward.
Not really a sequel to Morrissey's previous success, Trash is the down and dirty, patently ugly side of Flesh's fanciful life of the body. In this sleazoid farce where characters cackle like horrific hens in a sexual slaughterhouse, individuals coexist in insular states of self-absorbed eccentricity. Using a junked-up version of Joe as our guide this time around (our previous jock was supposedly an addict as well, but he was played with such a clear and convincing focus that it's hard to see him battling the needle and the damage done) and allowing the ancillary crackpots more room to stand up and shine, Morrissey fashions a comedy of crassness, a squealing satirical look at the end of the '60s and the last sour notes of the so-called love generation. Between Holly Woodlawn as a bucktoothed banshee with an eye for rough trade, a rich newlywed couple who see Joe's heroin habit as a mode of avant-garde living-theater performance art, or a go-go dancer with her own stage smack dab in the middle of her apartment (complete with "body sensitive" light display), this is more of a perverted pilgrim's progress than a true depiction of life on the edge.
Without a doubt, Trash's most terrific—and terrifying—scene plays out between Joe and an oddball LSD freak essayed by that rarest of filmic finds, Andrea Feldman (a true entity of idiosyncratic insanity). With a promise of money, Joe enters this hyperactive harpie's household and is immediately assaulted by a voice and a mannerism so queer that John Waters is probably pissed that Ms. Feldman killed herself before he had a chance to cast her in his films. There is no denying that this brain-dead bimbo's brogue is as unique as her approach to acting. Combining elements of the British, nasal New York-ese, a sprinkling of Sparkle Farkle and the call of a castrated collie dog, Andrea proves that there is nothing more fabulously funny than a ditzy dunderhead spewing random thoughts off the top of her head in crazed cartoon-like convulsions. She attempts to seduce Joe, argues that he shouldn't shoot up drugs, demands that he show her his penis and then politely agrees to be raped. All the while, her voice never varies. It quavers with a kind of indirect diction, as if everything she says is on some manner of internal tape delay. By the time she speaks her words, she's already lost interest in the thought and has moved on to some other aspect of her externalized internal monologue. Even though Woodlawn's drag dementia is amazingly decadent, Feldman simply steals the show.
Frankly, her sequence is so stunning, it is hard for Trash to recover. As the movie meanders from vignette to vignette, we are treated to more healthy portions of Dallesandro's muscled man-batch, except this time the emphasis is skuzzy, not sexy. A young newlywed demands Joe bathe, basically because his B.O. is making her sick. Throughout the film, Morrissey focuses on the hot white zits that cover Joe's face and ass. Close-ups reveal bad make-up, blood-shot eyes, raw razor burn, and feminine five o'clock shadow. Indeed, Morrissey makes his point about life on the other side of the tracks as often and as openly as possible. Joe is even seen shooting up in agonizing sequences where his eyedropper popper is simply swinging away, stuck in his arm and half-filled with opiate infused blood. Naturally, this was shockingly real in the early '70s, but with dozens of drug films pushing the envelope on personal abuse, it just seems sad now. Indeed, almost everything about Trash is humor laced with humiliation and horror. These characters may be easily dismissed as "garbage" (as our local welfare man refers to Joe and Holly), but because of the frankness in Morrissey's moviemaking and his attention to deadpan detail, the film remains with you long after the oddness has worn off.
Heat is hampered by a couple of things that aren't really Paul Morrissey's fault. First and foremost, he is saddled with Sylvia Miles, who turns Sally Todd into a walking, talking testament to prima donna ditziness. She is so strong, such a formidable presence, that the otherwise electric Joe Dallesandro can barely match wits with her. The rest of the cast, including the twisted thespian takes of Andrea Feldman, are left without enough balls or ballast. Ms. Feldman does get the film's single sensationally camp line ("Help! I need a BAAAAAAND-AID. The chlorine is seeping into my cigarette burns!"), but the rest of Heat sits squarely on Ms. Miles ample blousy bosom. Secondly, and far less formidable, is the task of matching the movie's main source of inspiration—Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder's masterpiece of Hollywood in decay is so epic and operatic that nothing Morrissey can do can equal its elegant evil. So, thankfully, the filmmaker doesn't try. Instead, he references a couple of key plot points (including a sensational switch-up on the ending) and tries to drive the narrative in the classic "vignette" style of his previous efforts. It never quite comes together, though, making Heat a far more scattered and random film than its far more potent predecessors.
Like taking a stage play and opening it up, Heat's move from New York to L.A. is a substantial one. Gone are the shadowy streets of Manhattan, skyscrapers blotting out the sun like overseers to the perversion playing out below. In setting the story in Hollywood, Heat loses some of its urban grittiness, and a lot of its character. Indeed, it seems like the stifling solar nature of the outdoor backdrop robs much of the cast of its energy. Dallesandro is never the most dynamic of dialogue delivers, but here he is nearly inert. Feldman, a fascinating freakshow of a performer in Trash is self-conscious and contained here, rarely breaking loose with her unlimited lunacy. As chunky concierge Lydia, Pat Ast looks like she's constantly chafed, while the rest of the ancillary characters are so deadpan as to be ready for a shallow grave. Morrissey sticks with the cinematics that got him the gig in the first place. Individuals are captured in close-ups and medium shots, while framing is indirect and frazzled. There is limited male nudity, lots of sequences with Miles minus a top, and a weird bit where a slightly retarded man walks around the motel pool pulling on himself in masturbatory glee.
Indeed, Heat feels like a vacation in search of a movie, a chance to catch some rays and make a film at the same time. There is none of the depth or delirium of Morrissey's previous exercises in excess, and he never tries to make the characters likeable or real. At least in Flesh and Trash, you felt like you were watching a real slice of life, not some fabricated take on a Tinseltown classic. Still, Morrissey manages some fun out of this inflamed happening. There is a classic sequence between Miles and an ex-husband that is all innuendo and insinuation. As they banter back and forth, Andrea Feldman sits between them, looking properly confused. Andrea totes her baby around in an actual tote bag (raising Joe's ire in the process) and our hero's list of credits (including a one-year stint on something called The Mouseytown Hour) are a real hoot. Had Morrissey increased the camp and decreased the exaggerated ennui, we'd have another winner. But as it stands, Heat feels like a cobbled-together conclusion to this so-called trilogy, a movie that offers little of what made the other offerings in this tainted triptych so terrific in the first place.
When viewed back to back, these movies take on a real creative dynamic. The closest comparison one can draw to these films and the work of other auteurs is the oeuvre of John Cassavetes. Paul Morrissey plays the same kind of cinematic games as the legend of independent film. Highly improvised, filled with the locale of the moment and mired in a complete lack of self-conscious correctness, both directors attempt to catch lightening in a bottle—and then place it on celluloid. And both offer up varying degrees of success. Flesh is kind of like Shadows, while Trash can be viewed as the perverted side of Faces. Heat, on the other hand, wants to be A Woman Under the Influence, but can only manage a Killing of a Chinese Bookie sense of success.
Both Cassavetes and Morrissey tried to trim film down to its basics, to portray reality and realism in ways both authentic and artistic. Each one was guided by muses meant to change the face of filmmaking, and each one in their own way succeeded. Fans of filmmakers like John Waters and Pedro Almodovar will definitely want to check out these long out-of-print titles, but don't expect a kind of artistic revelation. Warhol's productions were very much of their time, forming a foundation for dozens of others to build on and improve upon. Flesh, Trash, and Heat are somber, seedy examples of experimentation as expression and they are a decidedly delicious mixed bag.
From a technical standpoint, Image does a bang-up job with these no-budget titles. Each one is presented in a full-frame 1.33:1 image that looks relatively brand-new. Certainly the original stock elements were problematic; Morrissey was shooting on outdated equipment in natural light under the most extreme of circumstances, but the transfers treat these titles very well. All have wonderfully bright colors, excellent detail, and nice contrasts. There is some grain during Flesh's frequent night scenes, and a sequence of washed-out hues in a Trash trip through the city. There are scratches and dirt everywhere, with Heat being the worst offender in said area. Still, all these facets are unimportant to the overall quality of the prints. It is safe to say that the last time Flesh, Trash, and Heat looked this good, they were playing in some 42nd Street theater.
On the sound side, there is not much to report. The Velvet Underground's John Cale provides some amazing music for Heat (call it "carnival ambient"), yet sadly this is the only film with a score of any sort. The Dolby Digital Mono is clean and bright, lacking the distortion and overmodulation one comes to expect from non-professional productions. The dialogue is usually easy to decipher (unless some ancillary element, like a passing car or a crying baby interferes with the scene) and the hard cuts in Flesh really bop and bounce across the speakers.
While he doesn't provide a full-length commentary for each film, director Morrissey is present on these DVDs, able to offer up his insights and convictions on the accompanying bonus features. Each movie is presented with outtakes/deleted scenes, and the filmmaker speaks over these recently discovered sequences to clarify why they aren't in the film and what he thinks each story represents. He can be a bit baffling in his logic (he argues that the body worship the camera shows Joe Dallesandro is actually a means of reducing the eroticism of the actor…huh?) and his memory is not always reliable. But on the one scene for Flesh, the two for Trash, and the several segments for Heat, this filmmaker does a dynamite job of discussing his vision. Along with slide-show galleries (with commentary as well), we get a great deal of insight into the mind of Paul Morrissey.
Heat also contains the only other substantive extras offered. Morrissey gives us three of his short films—About Face (centering on close-ups of a girl's face), All Aboard the Dreamland Choo-Choo (about passing the time on a boring day), and Like Sleep (depicting a couple shooting up), and they are intriguing, engaging mini-movies. Each one looks like a practice run for the films in the trilogy. About Face has all the intimate focus of Flesh, Trash takes its drug cues from Sleep's heroin hierarchy, and Dreamland hints that boredom can lead to a sort of semi-self destruction, a la Heat.
Aside from the abundant male nudity, it's hard to gauge how Flesh, Trash, and Heat would play in a post-millennial world. John Waters has clearly surpassed anything Morrissey imaged in these surreal, scattered character studies, and other outsider filmmakers have pushed the taboo topics discussed well past their limits here. Indeed, when viewed apart from the history and the era, this trilogy looks more like love letters to Joe Dallesandro and less like provocative takes on urban decay. Still, to see how Morrissey manipulated the medium, how he turned the camera into a voyeur and then a victim, and the permanent mark he left on the world of independent filmmaking, these movies are a must. They represent the awakening of celluloid as a co-conspirator in the uncovering of the underground. They illuminate the darkest corners of the social structure and rat on realities that most people would never expose otherwise. Sexy, scary, and silly, Flesh, Trash, and Heat are not so much time capsules as permanent vestiges of a certain aesthetic temperament, one which believed that everything was art. With Paul Morrissey behind the lens, Andy Warhol just might have been right.
With their 15 minutes still in full effect, these entertaining and intriguing films by Paul Morrissey are found not guilty, and are free to go. Image is also commended for bringing these brazen titles to the digital format.
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Scales of Justice, Flesh
Perp Profile, Flesh
Studio: Image Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Flesh
• Deleted Scene
Scales of Justice, Trash
Perp Profile, Trash
Studio: Image Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Trash
• Deleted Scene
Scales of Justice, Heat (1972)
Perp Profile, Heat (1972)
Studio: Image Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Heat (1972)
• Outtakes/Deleted Scenes
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