-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2006 VideoVista
Flesh / Trash / Heat|
casts: : Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Holly Woodlawn, and Sylvia Miles
writer and director: Paul Morrissey
287 minutes (18) 1968/ 70/ 72
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail
reviewed by Andrew Darlington
First thing to understand is that Andy Warhol is no more in control of these movies
than he is 'producer' of that first Velvet Underground and Nico album. Despite his
name being frequently appendaged to the otherwise single key-word titles - as Andy
Warhol's Flesh (1968), Andy Warhol's Trash (1970) or Andy
Warhol's Heat (1972), he is no more than the cipher, the ghost presence
around which the disparate circus of deviants, disreputables and self-proclaimed 'superstars'
gather to shoot their aimless home movies. Everyone does video now. Every holiday, wedding
and new toddler gets remorselessly digitally documented. But then it was a big deal,
and ineptly shoestring auteurs with more ambition than ability - such as Ed Wood, Russ
Meyer and Dorothy Wishman, achieve notoriety not so much for the quality - or lack of
it, of the movies they churn out, but for the very fact that they manage to produce
them at all. Paul Morrissey's output falls pretty much into the same bag. He's credited
as screenwriter, but that's in much the same non-way that Warhol is producer. He may
contrive the tawdry situations and string together what passes for plotlines, but essentially
this is car crash reality TV, tracking bruised shapeless lives. Its legitimising excuse
is its docu-authenticity; an art antidote to glossy Hollywood fabrication. These people
aren't playing parts, rather - it's the lives they're living that are the act, they first
fabricate themselves, and are then colluded into these on-screen character portrayals.
And Warhol's factory is the convenient nexus where they gather to be seen - to flounce
and pout their damaged personas, and compete for the attention of the sleazy and prurient
eye of the lens. These are the same real people and situations that Lou Reed sings about
in Walk On The Wild Side. He knew them, and their stories. He knows what he's
writing about. All of which makes these three movies sound more interesting than they
really are. Not so. The concept might be mildly intriguing; the product that results
is barely watchable. Warhol's earlier forays into celluloid were essentially static,
animated paintings to hang on the wall. Sleep (1963), is a virtually motionless
six-hour close-up of a sleeping John Giorno, Empire (1964), his eight-hour silent
still life of the Empire State Building, and Blow-Job, a 30-minute focus on an
anonymous young man's facial expressions as he's being invisibly fellated by Brooklyn
Heights' filmmaker Willard Maas.
Then Flesh comes along to ratchet the ambition a notch higher. Paul Morrissey
had managed to blag a small role as the 'underground movie director' in John Schlesinger's
highly regarded Midnight Cowboy. And a jealous Warhol resents what he sees as
Schlesinger trespassing on, and prettifying, his own lowlife Chelsea Girls and
The Hustler territory. Compounding the slight by scoring more commercial success
with it than Warhol had. So this is the Factory's retaliation. It's August 1968, Warhol
himself is out of action, still hospitalised in Columbus recuperating from the Valerie
Solanis shooting, with the press holding over obituary space for his anticipated death.
So instead, Warhol's cash finances the movie ($1,500), while his celebrity lubricates
its piecing-together. Morrissey and Warhol believe clean-skinned Joe Dallesandro can be
massaged into major stardom. So Dallesandro takes the Jon Voight 'Joe Buck' role, the
camera tracking lovingly over his face and body as, in tight jeans and red bandana, he
assumes the part of the rent-boy on the New York meat-rack. Joe is Lou Reed's 'Little
Joe' who "never once gave it away, everybody had to pay and pay." He's working
to raise $200 for his wife's girlfriend's abortion, "a hustle here and a hustle
there." It opens with an overlong nude-asleep sequence, recalling Sleep. A
blurry TV flickers in the background as his sexually ambiguous wife ties a ribbon around
his cock, "wait until my girlfriend sees this, she'll go wild! It's so much prettier
The 16mm continuity is fragmented, jerky, unfocused, with odd silences, ambient hiss
and much twitchy tedium. There are meandering stupid-dumb conversations that go nowhere.
Joe gives tips and hints to two new hustlers who are "looking for those dirty old
men as they walk by." They ask, "Does your wife resent what you're doing?"
... "No, she knows where I'm at, man. It's feeding her isn't it? Why should she get
uptight?" And where to go for the best pick-ups? - "The 3rd Avenue 55th Street
corner newsstand, down there's good." Frail art-poser Maurice Braddell twirls his
walking stick; sketches Joe posed as a nude discus thrower, and talks trash about "the
world of the imagination," body-worship and muscle-development. Then Teri gives
Joe head (recalling Blow-Job) - "I've got a frog in my throat!" she
giggles mischievously, as in-house trannies Candy and Jackie pretend to ignore what
she's doing. Instead, they sit bitching over items in an antique Hollywood magazine
- reading out quotes about "when is a tampon right for you?" With real movie
star Deanna Durbin gracing the cover. Candy - in an orange feather-boa, is the Candy
who "came from out on the island,/ in the backroom she was everybody's darling,/
but she never lost her head, even when she was giving head." Warhol claimed she
"looked more like a girl than any girl," and around this time she's living
as a woman because it's easier "to be a weird girl than a weird guy." When
she eventually dies of cancer brought on by her hormone injections, she's buried in
full drag. And 'Jackie' with the five-o'clock shadow? - Yes, "just speeding away,
thought she was James Dean for a day,/ then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have
helped..." Meanwhile, there are some nicely framed New York street shots. David,
the gymnast, squeezes Joe's pimple, actually and metaphorically. And eventually Joe
returns home where wife and her new girlfriend cavort. They all go to sleep. That's
pretty much it.
The second what could loosely-be-termed movie in this what could loosely-be-termed trilogy
- Trash, is probably the inspiration for the New York Dolls' high-camp high-energy
same-name song. But in the film itself, Joe is still just flesh - gratuitous
eye-candy, a passive object of desire good only for getting his kit off - which he does
at every possible opportunity. He's... kind-of, married to Holly. That is, the same
'Holly' Woodlawn - born Harold, who "came from Miami FLA, hitch-hiked her way
across the USA/ plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her leg and then he was a she."
But they all want Joe, even Holly's panhandling pregnant sister. The comedy element here,
if comedy is what it aspires to, or it could be satire - or even pathos, is that he's
now so strung-out on skag he's no longer able to 'rise to the occasion' ("you used
to be dynamite, Joe," pouts Geri after attempting a failed blow-job). He has longer
hair now, and sat cold and hunched on the Lower East Side kerb he looks convincingly
junk-sick and lethargic, he's even got spots on his arse. If possible, the milieu has
also down-shifted further, opening in the basement of Morrissey's 6th Street brownstone
which stands in for the odd pair's pad. And they're all users - using each other, raiding
trashcans for dregs of wine, trawling garbage skips for salvage. "Maybe we can rob
the church poor-box?" suggests screwed-up Holly.
She rolls a rich high school kid who's out for 'stuff' to get high on for a Fillmore
rock concert. While Joe tries a spot of inept burglary to fund his habit, only to be
disturbed by goofy rich-bitch Deborah, who naturally invites him to rape her, then watches
as he shoots up instead. The best bit occurs when the disreputable duo try to scam for
welfare - "I need welfare, I deserve welfare," with a creepy shoe-fetishist
inspector wearing a CND badge. He negotiates to buy Holly's silver 'Joan Crawford' shoes,
and turns nasty when she refuses. Then Holly masturbates unconvincingly with a beer-bottle,
as Joe prefer to crash-out, comatose. Shot shapelessly by a two-man crew of Morrissey
and 'gofer' Jed Johnson over a two-week schedule through October 1969, with minimal editing,
Holly gets paid Warhol's regular $25-a-day expenses. And allegedly blows her final payment
on a $25 heroin fix.
Then Heat gets to be Warhol's slickest, most financially visible movie. But that's
only in relative terms. This time it does boast Sylvia Miles - a proper Oscar-nominated
star who you could also glimpse in Midnight Cowboy, and it even has the tenuous
vestige of a plot. With an original movie score, provided by the Velvet's John Cale,
and a west coast location-switch to Los Angeles, the results are even hyped by a Cannes
screening. Filmed over the 4th July weekend at the real-life Tropicana Motel, Heat
strives to be a parody of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, but Morrissey also
thieves from Marlene Dietrich's
The Blue Angel,
yet it wallows instead into what critic Jon Fortgang terms "a Carry On film conceived
by Fassbinder." This time Joe is Joey Davis, a washed-up former child-star of TV
western 'The Big Ranch' - a kind of High Chaparral clone, or a Little House
On The Prairie. He has a long ponytail, sits photogenically by the pool reading
Life magazine, and survives by having unattractive gigolo-sex with older women.
First with his monstrously frumpish landlady, in return for a discount on his rent, and
then with fading star 'Sally Todd' in her decaying Hollywood mansion, although Sylvia
Miles' gravitas manages to inject a dose of tragic pathos into this tragic scenario.
There are complications involving her screwball daughter Jessica, a good-girl slumming
part-time dyke. Bratty Jessica has a baby in tow, and cigarette-burns on her body inflicted
by her sadistic girlfriend Bonnie (the real-life Jessica eventually kills herself by
jumping from her 14th floor apartment). Another plot-strand tracks Miles' failed attempts
at re-launching Joe's career. Until, in a live re-run of the Warhol/ Solanis shooting,
when Joe finally walks out on her, Miles pulls a revolver on him. It fails to go off.
She says 'shit', and throws it into the pool, where it shimmers as the credits roll.
Joe's face registering only the faintest shock: "it is very hard for any emotion
to come into that kept-boy face," snipes Warhol's biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles.
Some accuse there's misogyny lurking beneath Morrissey's gay subtext. To me it's more
satirically amused misanthropy. No one, male or female, is in control. Joe's character
in Heat might be more proactive than he was in its two aimless predecessors, but
that only means he's as much a sadly inept user and abuser as the rest. Unusually for
Warhol's underground celluloid ventures Sylvia Miles bags a 'decent fee' for her contribution.
Joe only ever pulls a modest salary, and great - if unrealised, expectations. Everyone
else does it for expenses. Luridly kitsch, with a veneer of absurdly camp excess, at
best the trilogy sometimes captures something of its confused and dysfunctionally fragmented
times. Although arguably Lou Reed's song catches this sub-world of junkies, rent-boys
and gender-benders in three vinyl minutes where it takes Morrissey three low-life movies.
And Tom Wilson is the real producer of the classic Velvet Underground & Nico album...
not Andy Warhol.