Sunday, 27 June 2010

Some thoughts on the original Morrissey

There's nothing I like better than working my way through the wilder reaches of a filmmaker's oeuvre, especially if their work gets more obscure and more unpopular as their career - well, you can't say progresses, I suppose carries on regardless is the best option. I've an idea that an artist produces their best work when they fall out of public favour, or at least their most uncompromising and honest (which, for me, are synonyms of 'best'). In the past few weeks, I've been looking at some of the later films of Paul Morrissey. Morrissey rose to prominence as the filmmaking crony of Andy Warhol, and it is generally considered that the majority if not all of the filmmaking on such groundbreaking classics as Chelsea Girls and Lonesome Cowboys is Morrissey's. His best known films as credited director are the late 60s/early 70s trilogy Flesh, Trash, Heat, which all feature the awesome Joe Dallasandro (a hustler and porn performer elevated by Morrissey's camera and his own extraordinary cinematic presence to international stardom). These films remain a high-benchmark of American independent cinema, of gay cinema and of cinema realism – but this latter is highly deceptive, as although the films appear on the surface as rather haphazard and improvised things, they are meticulously constructed and artificial works (Flesh, for example, is a series of variations on the theme of human flesh as a commodity).

Morrissey is a strange bird, as although his whole career has been devoted to the "alternative" and the "underground", he himself is a political conservative. Here he is talking about Flesh on the DVD commentary:

“A day in the life of somebody living a silly, absurd life. The simple story is of someone who is living some sort of family life in an age where they are no more rules which apply to anything at all, let alone family life. At the time, it was a story which seemed unusual but that kind of story has become the only kind of story left for filmmakers to tell. I can understand why so many of them want to avoid it. Life today is pretty pointless and has little if any meaning. Unless someone sees the humour and comedy in it,  it's better to avoid the subject altogether and go into violence or special effects or gangsters screaming and making faces at one another. But modern life is a little too depressing and can only be treated well with humour."

Morrissey is an avowed authoritarian Republican and, although no longer a practising Catholic, the religion of his childhood seems to haunt him. He's a contrary figure, because although in his interviews and DVD commentaries he affects to despise his characters and their lifestyles, his films have a celebratory mood and certainly his camera adores to the point of sacred love his performers, so despite the scabrous and critical stance he ostensibly takes, one comes away from most of his films feeling that life has been affirmed. He is a peculiarly American filmmaker and it is hard to imagine anyone in Europe matching his style; in Europe, we've a tendency to become unloving when our critical hat is on.

That said, the film Morrissey made around the same time as the Flesh trilogy is perhaps his least likeable – Women in Revolt is a mean-spirited and scabrous piss-take of the women's liberation movement, acted by a lead trio of transvestites – Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them try to break free from the patriarchal chains that bind only to find themselves worse of as a result; as the DVD jacket says, they end up "exploited, derelict or abandoned." There's an extraordinary scene where Darling goes to audition for an agent with whom she impersonates Hollywood starlets, gets on the casting couch and gets cast in cheap pornography – Morrissey's wry comment on career advancement for women in the entertainment industry at the time. Structurally, the film has something in common with the multi-strand women's pictures of the 1930s, most obviously George Cukor's The Women. Cukor became quite a fan of Morrissey's films, campaigning to get Woodlawn an Oscar nomination for Trash and inviting Morrissey himself to appear in the final Cukor film, Rich and Famous. It is in the way in which the two directors film their performers that the link between the two is most obvious, the performers are caressed and adored  in such a way that when the films are projected, they become icons. However, Woodlawn's contribution to Women in Revolt is really repellent, playing a nymphomaniac whose violent and humiliating sexual encounters threaten to burst a number of scenes into anarchy and who ends up a homeless alcoholic urinating in doorways. The sheer virulence of the film's attack on contemporary feminism probably has much to do with Valerie Solanas' shooting of Andy Warhol after the publication of her SCUM manifesto. The attempted assassination (which probably did contribute to Warhol's eventual, relatively early, demise) had a traumatic effect on the Factory crowd, and Women in Revolt as well as Lou Reed's much later Songs for Drella number I Believe are a testament to this unhappy event and the rancour it caused; the whole thing feels rather sad and tawdry to me, at this remove.

Morrissey's later films split into two types: historical/literary aberrations (Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula, an unusual and much derided collaboration with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on The Hound of the Baskervilles, a piece of eurotrash depicting Beethoven's Nephew) and contemporary satirical melodramas which continue the themes and feel of the Flesh trilogy but with somewhat better production values.

There has been a noticeable cross-fertilisation between Morrissey and another of my other favourite film-makers, John Waters, who surely wouldn't have made his films with Divine without the influence of Morrissey's earlier transvestite romps; but Waters' influence on Morrissey is evident in 1981's Madame Wang's. In this rather prophetic work, an east German spy attempts to infiltrate Californian culture and inspire a revolution in the USA. He decamps with a group of talentless, fat transvestites living in a pretend family relationship in an abandoned Masonic Temple in LA, a metaphorical image of America if there ever was one. The transvestites dream of stardom at the title character's punk rock club but their hippy/showtune/disco hybrid act is behind the times; the spy himself has more of an opportunity for success when his penchant for masochistic self-harm goes down a treat with the denizens of Madame Wang's, yet our 'spy who stayed in the cold' Soviet is having none of the lures of the American dream; he retreats back to the GDR despondent of America ever becoming a communist state. I've read that Morrissey admires the Soviet bloc "for suppressing liberalism, rock and roll and other modish fatuousness" [1] making it is possible to read the German hero of this film as Morrissey's self-portrait; certainly the scenes of Patrick Schoene's Lutz looking around Wang's club appalled and bored at the antics of the punk crowd are staged to encourage the viewer to be equally judgemental at the silliness and human waste of what is going on, yet the film also allows the girl who lives with the transvestites to counter-accuse Lutz of not being able to let his hair down and enjoy himself. Morrissey is a sophisticated enough artist to allow the viewer to mull over both points of view.  Madame Wang's is often very funny; its portrait of absolute no-talents insisting on their chance at stardom looks forward to the American Idol/Big Brother society of our own time; that they are mostly morbidly obese makes the film even more prescient. One scene, in which the German drives a fat tranny to MacDonald's as she eulogizes Hamburgers is as funny and grotesque as anything in Waters' oeuvre, if less inclined than the Baltimore genius to admire the dysfunctional lifestyle of the character.

1984's Mixed Blood is probably Morrissey's finest post-Warhol achievement. I can remember its release being greeted by a bemused review on the BBC by Michael Parkinson, whose bovine reactionary brainlessness was filling in for Barry Norman's affable banality on Film '84. Parkinson was particularly appalled by lead actor Richard Ulacia's line delivery, which on viewing the film all these years later certainly is unusual. Ulacia honks out every line like a vicious goose, without a single variation of intonation or level; in his defence, he is playing a character who is clearly remedial but I can see why connoisseurs of fine acting might be offended. Yet Parkinson's aggressively performed heterosexuality prevented him from seeing the main merit of Ulacia's screen presence – he is probably the best-looking man to ever grace a cinema screen, with a raw sexual energy to go with the looks. Morrissey's camera stares at Ulacia as if it were caught in the headlights, amazed, appalled and intolerably attracted to what it sees. Perhaps Morrissey's cinema is really only appreciable by women and gay men? Most of his films are transfixed by the beauty of their male protagonists and, loathe their actions as Morrissey and his target audience might, neither he nor they can help but be seduced by their physical perfection. This is certainly challenging and does something intriguing to Morrissey's moralistic stance, making it amoral despite itself.

Mixed Blood is another film highly relevant to contemporary viewers: in it, gangs of ethnically-defined teenage drug dealers shoot and kill each other as the stooges of adults who make a profit from their trade; the kids are quite without moral compasses and their cold-bloodedness is chilling. The film is set in Alphabet City before its regeneration and the gangs live and deal in a maze of derelict buildings. In the DVD commentary, Morrissey reads from contemporary newspaper reports of the drug dealing and crime in that neighbourhood; he took most of his incidents from journalistic reports (kids throwing each other from buildings, too young to be tried for murder, drugs dealt as if they were candy). Morrissey gives a valuable insight into his creative process and aesthetic tastes, saying that journalism translated directly onto film would be boring, so he combined it with classic Hollywood storytelling, the plot of Mixed Blood being somewhat derived from the Pepe Le Moko film Algiers. There's also elements of White Heat about Mixed Blood, as Ulacia's gang leader is under the thumb of his possessive mother, played for all she is worth by the legendary Marília Pêra from Pixote. Morrissey emphasises why he tells his shocking tale with a comic tone – "no modern story is worth taking seriously" – and then elucidates why: America is a wealthy and developed country, and if it wanted to do something about a social situation like Alphabet City, it could; it doesn't, so it becomes funny. This rather reminds me of Orton stating that "I developed a mocking, cynical way of treating events because it prevented them from being too painful…" [2] This seems to be a prevalent tactic for a number of intelligent gay 20th century artists and the really telling thing is that, as opposed to sentimental mainstream artists who might pretend to "care" whilst never really mentioning the horrible truths about society, the likes of Morrissey, Orton or Albee (another similar case) pretend not to care whilst never failing to mention the terrible truths…

Mixed Blood, like most of Morrissey's films, is acted by a cast mixing amateur with professional performers. In the case of Mixed Blood, the non-acting of many of the youths playing the gangsters becomes a statement in itself, as in reality on the streets of the world's cities, children and youths play out versions of gangster films, so the ostensible amateurishness of the acting in the film is actually closer to realism than many mainstream films with professional actors on the same subject. It is again intriguing how many gay filmmakers – Pasolini, Waters, Jarman as well as Morrissey – use non-actors in their works, as if to emphasise the very queer idea that everything in reality is a series of acts, and poorly performed acts at that…

Lastly, I watched Morrissey's most recent fiction film, Spike of Bensonhurst, released in 1988. This has the feel of the same period Waters films, with the filmmakers working on a higher budget with more professional actors in the cast, some of them well-known names. The eye-candy at the centre of Spike of Bensonhurst is Sasha Mitchell, ex-Dallas regular who went on to star in the Kickboxer sequels, and he is supported by Ernest Borgnine as a mafia kingpin. The plot is a kind of amoral Rocky combined with Married to the Mob. Spike is a gorgeous, affable idiot who wants to be a boxing champ but doesn't want to get his face damaged, so he hopes that a local mobster will take him under his wings and fix fights for him; things becomes complicated when Spike falls in love with the mobster's (Borgnine's) daughter. This mobster is a morally confused gentleman who gives money to (corrupt) liberal politicians but savours the idea that the local ethnic populations spend all their welfare on the drugs his minions deal; he wants his daughter to marry a WASP lawyer but likes Spike's threats to beat her up if she gets out of line. The film revels in the moral idiocy of its characters; Spike encourages the local Puerto Rican community to clear out the drug dealers but doesn't understand that these dealers are working for the mob he valorises. Morrissey's film understands only too well the way in which legitimate politicians, drug dealing gangsters, very poor ethnic communities and the fools of faux-individualist ideologies are meshed together in contemporary Capitalist societies; he may be a Republican but his films are socially cannier than all of the liberal Hollywood social-conscience filmmakers put together, as well as being a thousand times more entertaining. Spike of Bensonhurst is, despite its perhaps unpromising subject matter, a gloriously feel-good film, almost as joyous an experience as Waters' contemporaneous Hairspray. Spike's fabulous Coati Mundi soundtrack helps keep things buoyant. A shrewd Broadway team might manage to make as successful a musical from Spike as Shaiman et al did from Hairspray (although perhaps they'd have to fillet the film of its soul, as happened with Waters' paean to miscegenation and dance crazes).

Some of Morrissey's films are still not available on DVD, which is particularly saddening for me in the case of Forty Deuce, which imdb gives perhaps the most promising plotline I've ever seen for a film – " A young hustler tries to get drug money by selling a boy to a middle-aged man; his plans are disrupted when the kid dies." No doubt Morrissey and his star, Kevin Bacon, make this as rib-tickling as it sounds…

Since Spike, Morrissey has only co-directed one documentary, released in 2005. A sad note at the end of his imdb biography reads

"He was always responsible for his films in their entirety, working consistently with mostly young unknown actors, writing and directing with no outside interference of any kind. Once financing from "independent" sources no longer allowed him the freedom from interference that he previously enjoyed, he stopped making films."

I fear that we're unlikely to see many films of the likes of Morrissey's again, as although the ready availability of digital technology makes possible, the difficulties of distribution make it extremely difficult for completely independent filmmakers to get their films shown to wide audiences.  Thus are genuine, unmediated voices of truth denied a place in the mainstream in advanced Capitalism; at least, if we search them out, the films of Morrissey and those like him can show us that once such truths were possible to be told.

[1] Yacowar, Maurice The Films of Paul Morrissey (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14

[2] Orton, Joe quoted in Lahr, John Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (Allen Lane, 1978), p. 153

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