Sluts, stoners, and screeching drag queens decorate Morrissey’s curdled campfests
Gerri Miller: “You used to be dynamite, Joe. Don’t you miss it?”
Joe Dallesandro: “Uh … yeah.” – Trash
It’s a happy irony that four of the cornerstones of cinematic camp are making their appearance on DVD. Like John Waters, director Paul Morrissey isn’t known for his careful cinematography, or meticulous lighting, or even audible sound — in other words, all those things that DVD showcases to such great effect. Nonetheless, Flesh, Trash, Heat, and the previously unavailable Women in Revolt are among the most welcome of recent DVDs (they can also be had on VHS at sell-through prices) for their rarity, fetish interest, and sheer entertainment value. Self-absorbed drag queens, has-been B-movie actresses, churlish fag hags, fetching hustlers, effeminate vampires, and delusional junkies are Morrissey’s gallery, and nobody does it better. Flesh, Trash, and Heat were “written, photographed, and directed” by Morrissey, while Women in Revolt gives him only the “written and directed” credits.
Image Entertainment appears to have cleaned up the color and sound on these transfers just to the extent permissible without compromising Morrissey’s intentionally seedy production values, which act as a constant reminder of the seediness of his characters’ lives and their rather pathetic aspirations. While none of the discs exploit the full potential of the medium — there’s no director or actor commentary and little in the way of add-ons — there are chapter breakdowns and a few appropriately campy fabricated clips (an ad for the fake TV show in Heat, “Joey Davis in The Big Ranch!“). For the army of devotees of Joe Dallesandro, DVD’s flawless freeze frame will provide ample opportunity to inspect every pimple on Little Joe’s legendary muscular butt.
The chronological first of the films is Flesh (1968); true to its title, it explores the famous flesh of Joe Dallesandro, how he uses it to get what he wants without ever himself being quite comfortable in it. The film’s opening seems to be a recapitulation and a farewell to the Warhol aesthetic of interminable shots of passive people, but for Joe-watchers, it’s reward enough to see him for what feels like ten minutes just sleeping naked on a bed, occasionally moving a little or brushing back his hair. From this point, there’s a decipherable narrative that sets Morrissey apart from the story-free structures of his mentor. A typically picaresque tale, Flesh is a day in the life of a New York hustler. We see in detail his meetings with various clients, male and female, and with the glittering, damaged denizens of this world — unnamed novice hustlers eager for Joe’s insights; drag queens Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, who are oblivious to his fleshly charms; Louis Waldron as a Korean war vet whose pathetic interest in Joe is always secondary to the economics; and Gerri Miller as a go-go dancer whose attempts to get Joe off are met with indifference. As always in Morrissey’s films, it’s the human personality with all its weaknesses and deviations that’s most important, and Flesh is a fascinating showcase for them.
Morrissey’s next film, the classic Trash (1970), put him on the map, garnering positive reviews from most quarters for its pitiless portrayal of a particular segment of New York street life, and doing it with humor and heart. In spite of Warhol’s imprimatur above the title (Andy Warhol Presents Trash), it’s Morrissey’s movie all the way. (The Warhol-Morrissey collaboration is mostly a myth; Warhol had nothing to do with these films.) Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro play a welfare couple — she a trash collector, he a heroin-addicted hustler who can barely get it up — trying to survive in an indifferent world. As with Flesh, the title has multiple meanings: trash is Holly’s, and Joe’s, living; and it’s Holly’s fate, the label pinned on her by society. In a series of unforgettable tableaux, Joe attempts to rob a rich New York couple, who end up playing mind games with him, asking him to rape the wife, and finally tossing him out; Holly masturbates with a beer bottle and catches Joe in bed with her sister (“Fuck you and your dog!” she screams in a fury worthy of Greek tragedy); and, best of all, Holly and Joe apply for welfare with a social worker who will only get them on the program if she sells him her shoes, which he wants to make into a lamp. The dialogue, typical of Morrissey’s work, is a mix of planned and improvised, but inevitably it has the hard ring of reality; Holly’s intensity and Joe’s gorgeous passivity make us willingly, happily suspend disbelief.
Women in Revolt (1973) has a special place in the Morrissey camp canon. A staple of early ’70s hip cinema, the film virtually disappeared after its initial run and was rarely revived, for reasons never quite clear. Women in Revolt is a hilarious satire of 1970s feminism that reeks of its era, with its trio of “women” (actually drag queens) mindlessly grappling with “women’s rights” while in fact spending most of their energy selling out the movement in favor of their own selfish desires. Legendary camp divas Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, and Candy Darling play the three “revolting” women. They form a group called P.I.G.S. (Politically Involved Girls) and spend half their time fleecing their relatives and various old queens for The Cause and the other half brawling, bitching, and secretly compromising their politics by carrying on with musclebound macho pigs and casting couch directors. In a Valley of the Dolls twist, Jackie ends up a mad housewife, Holly becomes a Bowery drunk, and rich girl Candy descends into B movies and slutdom. Morrissey plays it all for low-down laughs, brilliantly skewering what today is known as political correctness. Several long scenes of full-frontal male and female nudity add to the entrancingly vulgar goings-on.
Heat (1973), released the same year, is an ambitious, still enormously funny sendup of Sunset Boulevard, with Sylvia Miles dominating as the Gloria Swanson stand-in Sally Todd. Poor Sally is stuck with an insane lesbian daughter, a “movie career” now restricted to TV game shows, and one of the most disengaged, desultory studs ever: Joe Dallesandro as hunky, navel-gazing Joey Davis, a former child star in a western TV show. It’s hard to know what to point out as most worthy in the film, but definitely at the top is Miles’s stunningly over-the-top presence and performance (she claims she improvised all her dialogue, and having interviewed her, I don’t doubt it). Andrea “Whipps” Feldman and Pat Ast also excel as, respectively, Sally’s cackling, demented daughter and the manager of the sleazy Hollywood motel where everybody (except Sally) lives. Morrissey fleshes out the scene with an enchantingly strange array of Hollywood rejects, including Eric Emerson as a drug burnout who wanders around the patio masturbating in a white frock; and yet another former child star, the decrepit “Aunt Harold”, who gives Joe a blow job while Joe’s much-abused paramour, Sally, is negotiating with her ex-husband in the next room. Morrissey’s view of the twilight of Hollywood and its numerous casualties is, like all the films in this group, both mocking and, surprisingly, affecting.