December 20, 2012

Mixed Blood (1985)

This article on Mixed Blood (1985) originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

" must always do what your mother tells you, you hear? Always." - Rita (Marília Pêra) to her son, Thiago (Richard Ulacia).

Director Paul Morrissey returns to the same territory he chronicled in his earlier films Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970) - the squalid existence of criminals, drug users and various low-lifes living in New York City. Mixed Blood (1985) is a new chapter focusing on the drug dealers and subsequent drug war between two rival gangs in NYC's Alphabet City (the Lower East Side); The "Master Dancers" led by Juan the "Bullet" and the "Maceteros" led by the indomitable and feisty Rita La Punta.

The character driven film centers primarily on Rita's "family", one which consists of her beautiful and devoted son, Thiago, and a large group of underage boys that she recruits to do her criminal bidding. She enlists her boys young so that they can kill without the worry of them serving jail time. The character of Rita is endlessly fascinating and Brazilian actress Marília Pêra is an absolute marvel in the role. She alternates between loving mother figure to her "boys" (in one amusing scene, the idea of motherhood is spoofed when Rita tells one of her boys to take out the trash – "Do it now or no television!") and executing her ruthless duties as the reigning drug queen. This role is so perfect, so unique and complex on so many levels that one is reminded of some elaborate Shakespearean female character along the lines of Lady Macbeth mixed with the violent criminal streak found in Ma Barker complete with the blind devotion of her son and surrogate "children". It's a fantastic character and one that absolutely holds the film together

Similarly, the film, like Rita's character, changes tone and mood from scene to scene. One minute it's jet black comedy, the next, followed by shocking violence. For example, the film's best and most joyous sequence is the scene at Rita's grandchild's christening, where she sings and dances around to a rendition of Carmen Miranda's "Tico Tico". It's lively! Vivacious! Only to be followed a couple of minutes later by a violent infiltration and shootout between the "Dancers" and the "Maceteros." It's on this unpredictable balance that the film succeeds. Even the mix of acting styles, amateur alongside professional, adds to this uneasy mix.

Also of note is the palpable atmosphere of the film. The viewer can almost feel the grime and smell the dank living conditions that lay amongst the maze-like back alleys and graffiti-covered, abandoned tenements of Alphabet City. The flavorful Latin soundtrack also adds a distinctive touch to the film. With all of these elements "mixed" together, flaws and all, we come away with a film that can definitely be considered one of Paul Morrissey's best films.

The DVD from Image Entertainment provides no supplemental materials save for a brief commentary track by director Paul Morrissey that plays over an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs of the film. Morrissey mentions that this is his favorite film and goes into great detail in describing the casting for the film as well as his inspiration for the story, one which was lifted directly from the headlines of NYC newspapers at the time.

December 3, 2012

Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970)

This article on Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970) originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Between 1968 and 1972 director Paul Morrissey wrote, shot and directed three influential films that were later to become known as the "Flesh" trilogy.

The first, Flesh, in 1968 was an early attempt of Morrissey to break away from his previous experimental film work with Andy Warhol during the heyday of the "Factory" years. Though his name is often credited in the titles, such as Andy Warhol's Flesh or Andy Warhol's Trash, Warhol merely financed the films and had little or no actual creative development with them.

Flesh was a film that, compared to the other Warhol films of the time, actually followed some sort of a plot, albeit a very loose one. Prior to the "Flesh" trilogy, the majority of the films being released were experimental, with titles like Sleep (1963) (six hours of footage of a man sleeping) and The Chelsea Girls (1966) - two simultaneously screened films that depicted scenes of various Factory regulars improvising in several rooms of the notorious Chelsea Hotel in New York City.

Flesh follows Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro through a series of misadventures in seedy NYC and his interactions with a variety of friends, family and customers all of who discuss, partake, ogle and dismiss Joe as simply, a piece of flesh. The "plot" here is that he is selling his body to others in order to raise money for his wife's girlfriend's abortion.

The film is shot in a grainy, static way - jarring jump cuts and dialogue that is low and natural and is often cut off mid-sentence. One can even hear the camera whirring in the background! The film comes across as if you are watching someone's crude home movies. There is no real style and certainly no special effects or soundscapes; it's 100% natural - natural sound, improvised performances - certainly this type of documentary style film making was a major influence on the whole Dogma film making practice of recent independent filmmakers such as Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier and others. The actors all exude a complete lack of self-consciousness particularly with Dallesandro who spends a large portion of the film in various degrees of undress.

Whether you find Flesh entertaining or not depends on the level of patience that the viewer possesses. The long takes, the amateurish acting, lack of soundtrack, etc. could make for an irritating viewing for the average moviegoer. However, the film does contain some very funny and often touching scenes, particularly the scenes with female impersonators, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, and the completely silent sequence of Joe spending time with his infant child. Though the film contains a lot of nudity and sexual content, the film still comes across with a sense of innocence in its portrayal of a man trying to support his family by the only way he knows how.

The next film, Trash, from 1970 is certainly a more polished film and feels more like an actual narrative film than Flesh's semi-experimental approach. There seems to be a lot more thought and consideration in the camerawork and the actors are actually attempting to create genuine characters as opposed to the improvising seen in Flesh. Though Trash has its share of improvisation, the performances here are much more watchable because there is an actual beginning, middle and end to the dialogue and scenes.

Trash stars Dallesandro again - this time playing a drug user living with his girlfriend, Holly (played by female impersonator Holly Woodlawn) - and the film follows Joe through another series of seriocomic adventures amongst the squalor and streets of New York.

The film's highlight is no doubt the enthusiastic and hilarious performance by Woodlawn. Like Divine in the films of John Waters, Holly Woodlawn isn't playing a female impersonator or drag queen, but an actual female role. The viewer's true sympathies lie with Holly throughout the film in witnessing her attempts at trying to have a normal life and to achieve her goal of receiving welfare.

The title "Trash" has two meanings - the low-life "trash" that Joe and Holly represent and the aesthetic look of the film as Holly collects junk and refuse from the street to decorate her home...of which she is extremely proud. Trash is a much better film than Flesh due solely to the appearance of Woodlawn.

The third film Heat in 1972 is the third and final chapter of the trilogy and this time finds Joe Dallesandro in a sexy spoof of Sunset Blvd. opposite Sylvia Miles. 

All three films have been released as "The Paul Morrissey Collection" on DVD by Image Entertainment.