Tuesday Editor’s Pick: An Evening with Paul Morrissey

by on August 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Tue Sept 6  at 6:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


The director Paul Morrissey began his career as the reliable journeyman to Andy Warhol’s marquee-name mogul, re-packaging the Factory’s Superstar ensemble and artfully artless aesthetic into commercially viable feature-length releases. Though he’s spent much of his career trying to get out from under the silkscreen shadow cast by his iconic collaborator, Morrisey is billing his latest film, News From Nowhere, as a return to the style that made him famous.


Tonight at Film Society, Morrisey will present News on a double-bill with his 1970 classic Trash, and, at some point in the evening, he’ll appear on-stage to chat with fellow filmmaker James Toback.


Gary Morris on this “Slapstick Realist” for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Much of the myth, if we can call it that, surrounding Paul Morrissey comes out of his early relationship with Andy Warhol’s Factory and its glittering, damaged denizens. In a world of stylized weirdos, Morrissey was the straight businessman, always looking for the commercial possibilities inherent in a scene where few believed any existed. Viva called him “a real nine-to-fiver” and Warhol biographer Stephen Koch said he was “an anomaly at the Factory.” Morrissey’s drive and ambition made it possible for him to rework the Warhol aesthetic evident in conceptually rich but unbearably dull experiments like Sleep and Empire into more accessible, coherent, and committed works like Trash, Heat, Mixed Blood, Blood for Dracula, and Women in Revolt. The “great film achievements” of Warhol belong, for the most part, to Morrissey, who wrote, produced, and directed them while Warhol contributed no more than his name above the title.


The loose, often episodic dramas these characters find themselves in often have obvious roots in the actors’ own lives. In Trash (1970) “Holly” (transvestite Holly Woodlawn) is as tough and resourceful and smashed down as she was in real life. Like many of Morrissey’s characters, these actors use their real names, or a close variant, pushing realism into the fictional frame. Morrissey’s absurdist bent is sometimes tempered with a surprising poignancy, as in Trash, in Holly’s beer-bottle masturbation scene.


Paul Morrissey with Andy Warhol and entourage.


Slant magazine’s Eric Henderson on Trash:

Of the films Paul Morrissey directed for Andy Warhol […] Trash is undoubtedly the most effective. There’s no doubt that Trash is a rude-tempered, wickedly funny comedy. (Feldman’s response to Joe’s attempt at raping her: “I don’t want to be fucked… byyy a juuunkie! Don’t rip mah eight-hundred dollar coat!”) But spiking the humor are a lot of ugly realisms and performances that walk the line between fiction and verisimilitude. Not just Joe’s unsimulated shoot-ups, but also the sticky scene in which Holly drugs and ravages a 16-year-old Johnny Putnam, a scene that only becomes more creepy when one learns that, at the time, the two really were a couple, and the scene is something of a replay of Holly’s aggressive real-life seduction. It’s not pretty, but the film’s unapologetic mockery of the hedonism behind the counterculture’s lip service to changing the world certainly lines up with the man who, on the very first page of Maurice Yacowar’s book-length study The Films of Paul Morrissey, is quoted as saying, “Without institutionalized religion as the basis, a society can’t exist. In my lifetime, I’ve seen this terrible eradication of what makes sense and its replacement by absolute horror. All the sensible values of a solid education and a moral foundation have been flushed down the liberal toilet in order to sell sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”


Still, on the second page he claims, “I’m not a ‘religious Catholic.'” Morrissey’s social criticism is hardly as one-note and dour as it’s made out to be by those who’d like to cast him as a closet freak/Jansenist smuggling the Good Word into the most prominent non-denominational church of the late-’60s NY art world. (That he was, at heart, a morally upstanding, Catholic schoolboy is indisputable, but try picturing a nun sitting through midnight screenings of his films.) Or that he envisioned the entirety of the counterculture (represented by Warhol’s superstars) as vacuous, indolent lost souls. Not even a decade after Morrissey’s Joe trilogy, Chris Marker documented the premature death of the ’60s revolution with A Grin Without a Cat, but because his tone resembled an incantatory lament, it doesn’t provide as many problems for its primarily left-of-center audience as, for instance, Women in Revolt‘s downright acidic portrayal of a feminist strategy meeting (to say nothing of the acronym for Politically Involved Girls). If Joe, Holly, Andrea, and company are “lost souls,” it’s only in the sense that they fell for the eschatology of a young, vibrant collective, the notion that the era’s “happening” would ultimately lead somewhere else than “what happened?”


More from Maurice Yacowar, author of the monograph The Films of Paul Morrissey:

If the film was conceived as an expose drug trash, it became the touching story of a woman striving to salvage ruined lives. Perhaps Morrissey framed the film with music from von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel to point up a curious plot reversal: Holly replaces the elderly professor who wastes his life in devotion to a worthless icon (Dallesandro standing in for Marlene Dietrich). Alternatively the allusion implies the Trash trilogy’s common “affirmation of the beauty and pathos of human degradation.” More obviously than Flesh, Trash is a black comedy. Despite the absurdity of the conversation and the grotesqueness of the characters, Morrissey is still playing variations on his basic form, situation comedy. His characters are locked into demented parodies of family life. More to the point, the supposedly straight world is kinkier because it is less feeling than that of the social underlings. Overall, Morrissey’s target is the illusion of freedom and fulfillment in a world where “You really shouldn’t worry. Nowadays anything goes.”


Technically, Trash represents a major advance for Morrissey. Individual shots are more carefully conceived, as we saw in the bedroom geography. The documentary inserts of street life, which root the narrative in the real world, are more carefully pointed to the characters’ involvement. Morrissey’s static tripod camera suggests a cool, detached eye. He depends solely on the zoom to move in or away from the characters in the room. Even then, Morrissey was criticized because (as Greg Ford put it) “his style misses the virtual autism of some of Warhol’s finest images, their near-complete lack of stylistic effect. But fortunately, few of Morrissey’s cuts have any real emotional connotation… Trash‘s forced primitivity, its calculated rawness, its deliberate anti-artiness frees numerous fragments of crude reality, vivid memorable.” Without selling out, Morrissey drew closer to the conventional narrative (not necessarily commerical) devices, where establishing shots set up shrewdly chosen pans or cut-in close-ups.



Derek Malcolm for The Guardian:

There are two views of this seminal film from the early 70s. One is that Morrissey, who came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory, is to be praised for imposing vaguely coherent story and fleshed-out character onto this Warholian epic. And that it’s liberating frankness,which so worried the censor, actually masked an almost puritan and certainly rightwing morality. The other is that Morrissey should be censured, if not censored, for ruining the formal integrity of something like Chelsea Girls with conventionally authored and plotted films that were a mixture of prurience and condescension. In fact, Morrissey certainly took a strict attitude towards drug-taking. He considered his characters worse than the Bowery winos and the film a counter attack against the romanticising of drug use in Easy Rider. “The basic idea is that drug people are trash. There’s no difference between a person using drugs and a piece of refuse.”


The film itself, however, was more compassionate, suggesting that its two lead characters were capable of salvaging something of their ruined lives through tenderness and loyalty. Although it is clear that most of the women, and some of the men, including probably the director, want Joe’s body – and the film is in a sense a kind of paean to this – it is Woodlawn who dominates Trash, with Morrissey accepting totally that he/she is a woman. She has said that she wanted to seem ridiculous and make people laugh. But also that the watcher should feel something for a woman who craves some sort of normalcy in her life.It is a performance that manages both, even in the notorious sequence where she masturbates with a beer bottle, gripping the impotent Joe’s hand as she does so.


Whether you think Morrissey betrayed Warhol or not, Morrissey’s view of his mentor was probably right. As he said: “Andy wasn’t capable of any complicated thoughts or ideas. Ideas need a verb and a noun, a subject. Andy spoke in a kind of stumbling staccato. You had to finish sentences for him. So Andy operated through people who could do things for him. He wished things into happening, things he himself couldn’t do. In that respect he was like Louis B Mayer at MGM.


Rich Cline at Shadows on the Wall:

The film consists of a series of outrageously gripping set-piece sequences, often involving three characters. It’s impossible to choose the most striking one; all of them are simply jaw-dropping in their combination of arch comedy, razor-sharp satire and low-life drama. The most unforgettable scenes involve Woodlawn, who gives a full-on performance that simply defies description! And Dallesandro is transparently real as the young man whose focus is so singularly on drugs, even though he remains a nice, easy-going guy who’s happy to please the people he meets in any way possible. Usually they still want him naked.


Morrissey obviously has a bigger budget here than he did on Flesh. The production design is much more polished, and his editing style takes on a professional quality that’s even more effective. The story is much stronger, and he coaxes more expressive performances from his improvisational ensemble. As they examine issues of sex and drugs, the welfare state, the fact that society is full of bad news for poor people. And through the scene structure, he creates astonishing dynamics between his characters on screen. Much of the film is blackly hysterical. And for a film about life on the sleazy edge of society, the film looks gorgeous, crabs and all.



WarholSuperstars.org reports a few interesting anecdotes:

Although Holly had visited the Factory with Jackie Curtis prior to being cast in Trash, Paul Morrissey first noticed her in an underground newspaper. In September 1969 she was appearing in Jackie Curtis’s play, Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, and she gave an interview where she purported to be a Warhol superstar. When Paul Morrissey saw the interview, he was intrigued.


Paul Morrissey: “When I cast Holly in the film Trash, I had never met him. Someone had brought to my attention an article in some throwaway underground newspaper that discussed in great detail Holly’s success as a major star of Andy Warhol productions. Since Holly had never been in any of the films and I had never even met him, this brazen lie must have appealed to my comic sense. I simply had a hunch that here was some kind of “character” or personality. Although Andy pointed out that Holly was someone who had tried to rob him by charging an expensive camera to his account, the combination of lying and larceny only increased my curiosity. When I asked Holly on the phone to show up at the location of the film I was starting that weekend, I purposely decided to forego any meeting or interview beforehand, something unusual even for me.”


The “expensive camera” incident that Paul refers to took place earlier in the year. Holly had met somebody named Jeff who had worked at the Factory as a “go-fer” but had been fired. He ran into Holly on the street and asked if she would go with him to pick up a camera.


Holly Woodlawn: “We entered a camera shop and the next thing I know, he’s charging a two-thousand-dollar camera to Warhol and telling the clerks that I’m Viva! I looked at him and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry. I do this all the time.’ Yeah, right. He was so nervous he was quivering! The store clerk looked at us and said that he would have to verify the charge to Andy’s account. There I was, not knowing what to do, thinking, ‘Oh my God. What have I gotten myself into now?’ when Jeff bolted out of the store and fled. Well, I ran out of the store as fast as I could… I felt used and betrayed. I couldn’t believe this little punk made me his moll, and then ran out on me when the heat was on. The nerve!”


Although Warhol was apprehensive about Paul casting Holly because of the camera incident, Paul followed his “hunch” and hired Holly. He wasn’t disappointed. When the film opened the following year, the audience loved Holly’s performance. George Cukor started a campaign in Hollywood to get her nominated for an Academy Award.


Holly Woodlawn: During the winter of 1970, I got a telegram at Max’s from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… George Cukor, smitten with my performance and touched by my persona, had launched a campaign to prompt the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to nominate me for an Academy Award. Soon orange buttons regarding HOLLY WOODLAWN FOR BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS were being distributed all over the place and a petition supporting the nomination was also circulating, boasting the signatures of such luminaries as Ben Gazarra, Joanne Woodward , and Cukor himself…”


Holly never got her nomination. The Academy had already chosen the nominations and Academy rules prevented any changes. Holly also missed the opening night of Trash in New York. She was in jail at the time – for grand larceny while impersonating a French diplomat’s wife.



News from Nowhere, making its U.S. Premiere, had a quiet unveiling at the Venice Film Festival. There’s very little in the way of internet reportage, so, dutiful cine’filers, see it tonight and blog away.


The synopsis from Morrissey’s website:

“News From Nowhere” follows the encounters of an enigmatic stranger with the residents of an Atlantic seaport town and is intentionally meant to return to the style not just of the director’s earlier work but to the type of films made in Europe in the 1960s and 70s, a style of filmmaking that has practically gone away. In this film, the main character’s nature and appearance set him apart from the natives who attempt to connect with him and he has no intention of explaining or dramatizing himself, retaining only his surface identity. Whatever reason he has, he keeps to himself.


Original personalities, as in the Hollywood Studios star system, are an unwanted element in today’s films which are now dominated mostly by video game style non-stop action performed by highly emotional, psychological character actors.
This director always preferred the Hollywood Studio version of reality to the N.Y. Acting Class version and he continues to do it this way.


And a few images to wet your appetite:




Is this the face of the new Joe Dallesandro?

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