Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Paul Morrissey | Flesh
drop your pants, joe!
by Douglas Messerli
Paul Morrissey (writer and director) Flesh / 1968
After the intelligent writing and co-directing with Andy Warhol of Ronald Tavel it is difficult to suggest that anything done by Paul Morrissey is worthy of being described as a movie from the Factory. Gone are the days of true experimentation, surprise, and absolute zaniness. The fascinating actors who appeared in the Tavel works have been replaced by highly dim-witted men and women who seem simultaneously incapable of comprehending what anyone might say while absolutely believing in those statements as representing some kind of mysterious truth.
It is difficult nonetheless, to completely dismiss it as most critics of the day reacted to his 1968 Joe Dallesandro picture, Flesh.
The New York Times critic A. H. Weiler pretty much summarizes the feelings of most critics who bothered to even write a review:
“A year ago, Andy Warhol introduced Bike Boy, a repetitiously seedy screen saga of a pursued Adonis for the delectation of the delicate. And now, Paul Morrissey, his associate, is exposing Flesh at the Andy Warhol Garrick Theater to prove once again that even audacious, unadulterated sex can be a trashy bore. In listening closely to his master's voice, the writer, director and photographer of Flesh has illustrated, in essence a male hooker's handbook. It might rate marginal credit as a social document if it weren't so leeringly obvious. But as produced in gaudy color, a haphazard sound track and slapdash editing, it becomes transparently clear that Flesh is simply what its title shouts.”
Even Roger Ebert who, although dismissing Warhol’s films from early on, generally attempts a fair-minded review—and in this case even apologizes for his lateness, 4 or 5 months into its run—veers closely to a homophobic attack on Warhol and his filmmakers:
“Flesh is not exactly a Warhol film, however. It was written and directed by Paul Morrissey, a Warhol associate, and it's at least interesting. It isn't very good, though; if it hadn't come from New York under Warhol's sponsorship, we'd never have seen it. Warhol is one of the chief beneficiaries of that unholy New York in-group of art investors, social climbers, fashionable first-person writers, intellectually precious homosexuals and critics too insecure to dare to seem to miss the point.”
Ebert’s description of the film’s story, moreover, seems almost to be of a movie I didn’t see:
“The story involves a day in the life of Joe, a male hustler who is married and has a baby, and whose wife's girlfriend needs an abortion. The wife sends him out onto the streets to hustle the necessary $200 (and instead of seeming sordid, this scene and indeed the whole film ranges between being funny and being banal).
During the day Joe meets an aging artist with theories about the muscles on Greek statues, a kid who wants to break into the hustling business, a go-go dancer, a semi-sincere lover and eventually even his wife's girlfriend.
Morrissey keeps the film moving more quickly than Warhol might. He isn't adverse to editing when absolutely necessary. But the film's appeal depends mightily on Joe Dallesandro in the semi-autobiographical leading role. Dallesandro is pleasant, naive, engaging. He is also, alas, not very bright and terribly narcissistic (especially in a scene where he feeds a cupcake to his baby and you wonder which one is more self-satisfied).”
So dismissive is Ebert’s piece that I’m also surprised that he sees anything even vaguely humorous about the work, but I’ll come back to that soon. At least he didn’t as many a critic today might represent Dallesandro’s naked body holding his equally naked son as some sort of child abuse.
Finally, in a review by John Fortgang in the current century looking back, more fairly reevaluates Morrissey’s work, bringing up both the weaknesses of Flesh and its strengths:
“Flesh is, in conventional terms, a primitive film. Sound and images are erratic. Morrissey's camera drifts in and out of focus like a junkie struggling to retain consciousness. It's also unusually explicit. Here is a rare example of an erection in non-hardcore porn, prompting the police to raid The Open Space where it shown in London in 1970. Sex replaces emotional intimacy, the characters remaining benign but disengaged—as, of course was Andy—in a bid to keep the real world at bay.
Dallesandro, beautiful but blank beneath his trademark bandana, is an entirely convincing (non)-presence, well-suited to Morrissey's naturalistic style. Here too is most of the cast from Lou Reed's '”Walk On The Wild Side”: the transvestite Candy Darling, who came from out on the island; Jackie (Curtis), who thought she was James Dean for a day, and Little Joe himself, who never once gave it away.
In itself this may be an insubstantial slice of life on the street, but the barriers it broke were significant, not least on a generation of artists and filmmakers who saw that it was possible to make independent—in every sense—films about those on the margins.”
In several respects, Fortgang is correct about this film’s outspoken statements of LGBTQ values, Dellesandro insisting verbally and most certainly cinematically that “Nobody’s straight or not straight” as he explains to a young street hustler. His gymnast friend, moreover, reiterates a common viewpoint held by hustlers, body builders, prison inmates, and others who daily participate in homosexual activity: “We’re not queer but other people don’t know that,” the “queer” here rejecting not so much the idea of homosexuality, but the idea that there might be anything unusual in having sex with another male or, in his gym friend’s case, even wanting to live with someone like Joe forever.
I do get a little irritated, however, with the notion that the sexual nudity of such a film that reveals even an occasional Dellesandro hard-on is somehow “barrier-breaking.” Kenneth Anger, Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Passolini, Carlos Hugo Christensen, Jack Smith, and even Andy Warhol himself, along with others catalogued by Vito Russo and my own essays in this volume/blog all showed various degrees of male nudity if not as literally as Morrissey does in Flesh in sometimes for more sexually stimulating ways. I might even suggest that Dellesandro’s earliest porn films, shot by Bob Mizer, editor of Physique Pictorial magazine, had grown so popular with gay followers before this film that they might almost be seen as part of the larger LGBTQ complex of movies, particularly since some of these clips later made their way into Thom Fitzerald’s 1999 documentary Beefcake, a film I will be reviewing in these pages.
The very fact that so much of contemporary LGBTQ filmmaking is now actually quite sexually explicit furthers the idea of such a larger inclusion of what might once have been isolated as gay porno. And, of course that open seseme allows entry to many classic gay porn movies by far more talented directors than Paul Morrissey, including Peter de Rome, Joe Gage, Jean-Daniel Cadinot, William Higgins, Kristen Bjorn, the list goes on. I don’t intend to go there, but…perhaps in the future others might.
But this is not really the important issue about the critical reactions to Flesh. What strikes me most about nearly all the critical commentary about Morrissey’s films—or perhaps we should say, Dellesandro’s films which represent Morrissey at his best—is its absolute lack of a sense of humor. If nothing else, as Ebert perceived, at times, and I’d argue most of the time, underneath the seeming banality of Little Joe’s day on the streets as he attempts to hustle up $200 for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion, is the ridiculousness of those entering and exiting our handsome sexual hero’s life.
Beginning with the absurdity of the very driving force of having to raise money to get rid of a baby with whom your own baby son’s mother is having a lesbian affair, Joe makes the rounds of pick-ups and so-called friends who live life as if it were directly based on a cartoon book or, if you want to elevate it, right out of the pop-cultural art world of Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and, obviously, of Warhol.
The very first trick he picks up on the street wants to see him again. “I’m on the street,” Dellesandro states the obvious. In other words, he’s openly available, yet the man with whom he’s just had sex apparently wants more perhaps than an occasional event which he will have to seek out. Clearly he’s thoroughly enjoyed what appears to have been simply sucking Little Joe off.
Joe’s second pick-up, a far more lucrative one, is an older artist (Maurice Braddell), who not only wants to photograph Joe in various athletic-poses (not so different one presumes from those in the Physique Pictorial for which Joe has previously posed), but the opportunity to explain in art historical terms what those classic positions meant for the Greek, Roman, and Italian artists of history and philosophize about the importance of the athletic body to love and sex, as if imparting some unperceived knowledge that few others have before discovered.
It’s clear that the true aim of his photographs and crude drawings is simply to capture the image of this male nude beauty a bit longer than the normal voyeur (he pays $100 for the privilege), and even he, who obviously done this several times in the past, is pleasingly amazed at just how easy it is to get Joe to whip off his shirt and pull down his tight-fitting denims. If Joe seems to be attentively listening to every word this poseur spouts, he later admits to his two street friends, one his own brother, Bob, that it was an absolutely boring event except that he was paid well and got a free dinner.
Talking at length with his two compatriots, Bob, and a new kid on the block (Barry Brown), Joe seems for a moment or two to be honestly imparting wisdom on how to pick up tricks—indeed, one critic asserted that this was perhaps the most honest and natural moment of the film—but is also apparent that he is quickly growing bored by the insistence of the scrawny rather unattractive new hustler boy from Wisconsin and Alabama (the subtle look that comes across Dellesandro’s face as he even mentions these names, says everything about where the boy was and where he now is), suggesting that the worst thing they could all do was hang together which would surely not attract any john. Rather that the kid should go up to Third Avenue near the 40s or 50s to hang out near a newspaper stand. It’s clear that Joe simply wants to get rid of the inquiring pest, but the boy keeps insisting upon knowing the exact location of the newsstand while attempting to get a commitment that one day soon the two might hang out together so that he can “learn the trade.”
If this scene appears to be banal in its serious discussion of their job, it’s really quite the opposite; just as Greta Garbo proclaimed, “I want to be alone,” it is something Joe desperately needs just to go about his business.
The next stop is even more hilarious as Joe visits a female friend Terry (Geri Miller) for a free blow-job. She gladly provides him with what we can only imagine is a strange desire for someone who has come from one only a few hours earlier and intends soon after to scour the streets for yet more sex.
Moreover, the act of fellatio is jealously witnessed by Geri’s two transvestite friends, Candy (Candy Darling) and Jackie (Jackie Curtis) who, in an attempt to both ignore and mock Terry’s indelicate act, pretend to read every article in a Hollywood gossip magazine, commenting on each word as if it were an important element of some sort of Holy Grail.
It’s not enough that Terry sucks off the hunk in from of them, but after talks endlessly upon having liposuction to enlarge her bosom in order to be more successful as a topless go-go dancer.
A visit to his gymnast friend, David (Louis Waldron), is an attempt to get a loan. Evidently, for a little friendly sex, Joe has taken such “loans” from the man who he refuses to describe as a customer. Although David, like the pick-up artist, is almost entirely concerned with the athletic body, he admits that he is losing some of his muscular development and can no longer get an erection. Yet he too cannot at all comprehend why Joe doesn’t simply move in with him and leave his ugly lesbian wife, Geri (Geraldine Smith). Like all the others before him, his major demand of Joe, however, is for him to take his clothes off, as he attempts to snuggle up to the hustler in partial payment for the loan. But Joe, as with all the others, quickly pulls away and speeds off.
The last scene of the film consists of Joe lying in the nude on his own bed just as in the film’s very first scene, attempting to sleep with his wife and her female lover, Patti D'Arbanville, the two obviously stoned and giggling as they nuzzle up on the left side of the bed while Joe sprawls out on the right.
The entire film might be said to be structured around this single image representing the contradictions of the film and Joe’s life: the nude body displaying his complete openness while his sleep suggesting a sense of closure and emptiness. Throughout it is as if everyone he meets demands of him, “Drop your pants, Joe,” only to reveal the complete meaninglessness of engaging with this god’s body. Of course, that is always the ephemeralness of any sexual act; it may be lovely but only while it lasts, and no matter how much any of those who worship it no one can hold onto its joys for long. If everyone wants Joe to give up all other beings and activities for them alone they will always find themselves wanting what they can never have, locked out from the world of continuous joy they seek. Flesh is only the cover for the heart, mind, and soul.
Los Angeles, September 30, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).