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.