I have loved the cinema of Paul Morrissey longer than I have most filmmakers. He has always been a fascinating figure to me. When I happened to have a very long and personal conversation with him this passed September, I decided to pen my own informal history of his work. The quotes in this piece come from notes I took, and the information I use is paraphrased from his words. The conclusions I draw from Mr. Morrissey’s words are my own. Though he may sound like a bitter old man, I can speak from experience and say that he was very generous and kind to me.
“Andy Warhol was a bastard.”-Paul Morrissey
If you ask Paul Morrissey anything, he will eventually get around to what a “vampiric asshole” Andy Warhol was, and how it was he (Morrissey) who was responsible for creating the films for which Warhol took the credit. Of course, there is truth to Morrissey’s allegations, but without being relegated to the background Morrissey may never have worked so ardently on his own films. The real shame is not that Warhol took the credit Morrissey deserved, but that critics and filmmakers have chosen to ignore or overlook Morrissey’s unique contributions to the cinema.
Morrissey’s first four features credited to himself, Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Women In Revolt (1971) and Heat (1972) are a testament to Morrissey’s quick growth as a filmmaker and his ability to construct complicated narratives with a miniscule budget. Between Flesh and Trash alone, Morrissey elaborates his framing and blocking to become reflective of the psychological navigations of the film’s characters. The static wide shots of Flesh, derivative of a theatrical stage are replaced by tighter shots that are naturally broken up by objects in fame, faming characters within the fame in Trash. Women In Revolt is Trash refined, more elegantly plotted and photographed. Heat, with a larger budget, utilizes more traditional Hollywood formulas of montage and shooting. It is in Heat that Morrissey adopts the finer filmic dialects of the big budgeted studio films, shedding the “underground” aesthetic that Warhol employed.
These first four features also out stride Warhol with their content. The minimalism of My Hustler and Chelsea Girls can only go so far to become reflective of contemporary social and political issues. As Morrissey’s technique grew, so did his film’s capacity to offer some sort of meaningful commentary on the world around them. The derelicts, the junkies, the trash pickers, and social workers that populate Morrissey’s early features are figures of sympathy, designed to warrant certain condescension from the audience, a pity for them since they are but the symptoms and products of the corruption of society. A conservative Catholic, Morrissey carefully instructs his audience to disapprove of these characters, but not to reject them. The careful composition of close ups in these films remind the audience that Morrissey’s characters are people to, that they are unable to escape the circumstances of their position, and must be admired for their ability to make-do under such conditions.
The sum of these parts, the interests of Morrissey the filmmaker allows him to further imbue his films with a sense of refined comedy. Moments such as Joe Dallesandro in Trash, straightening up his trash filled apartment, knowing too well that his wife will return with more trash recalls the screwball comedies of Hawks. Instances such as these separate Morrissey’s work from his contemporaries who, led by Jonas Mekas, advocated a style of filmmaking devoid of any Hollywood trappings unless utilized to a satirical end. An attitude to the classic films of old Hollywood such as that of Mekas is entirely beyond Morrissey. When asked who his favorite directors are, Morrissey champions “Hawks and Ford, who shot some of the most beautiful images in movie history.” In fact, Morrissey goes further, claiming that “my (Paul Morrissey’s) films continue in the vein of those old Hollywood movies, I just redress them, and fill them with real people that you can care about.” Statements such as these speak to Morrissey’s unflinching admiration of the classic studio system, but also to his own tremendous ego.
Morrissey’s attitude to his celebrity and his position as a filmmaker in the seventies is perhaps why he is so often overlooked. Morrissey equates himself with the classic film directors of Hollywood, but he is also too vocal about putting down his contemporaries, dismissing many films as “bullshit”. In one instance, Morrissey singles out Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), criticizing Pacino as “an ugly little man and a real blow-hard.” Outbursts like these are best attributed to Morrissey’s frustrations, to being unable to find a producer or a studio to invest in his films so that he could transition into the mainstream. By 1972, after Heat, Morrissey had isolated himself, belonging neither to Hollywood or the New York Underground. However, Morrissey’s films were doing tremendously well in Europe, where he quickly moved, to begin work on his infamous Blood For Dracula (1974) and Flesh For Frankenstein (1973).
These two horror films are decidedly more exploitative than Morrissey’s American films. But the biggest change in Morrissey’s work comes with his treatment of Joe Dallesandro. In Flesh, Dallesandro is an object of sexual beauty and gratification, by Trash, he is a dead shell, impotent, lusted after out of a perverse need of the film’s characters to understand drug addiction and prove their superiority. In Heat, Dallesandro has learned to use his sexual objectification to manipulate those around him to best suit his own devices. In Morrissey’s two horror films Dallesandro is transformed into a new kind of object, an ideal “hero”. The damsels in distress of these horror films force their own ideals of heroism onto Dallesandro, who is unable to maneuver himself out of their control. In this way Morrissey dissects the mechanisms of the narrative pertaining to the hero archetype.
Likewise, the Udo Kier characters in Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein represent an extreme amplification of the traits that defined Joe Dallesandro’s antagonists in Morrissey’s earlier American Films. This amplification came out of Morrissey’s need to vilify Warhol, to reveal the artist for what he really was in Morrissey’s eyes. It wouldn’t be till after Flesh For Frankenstein that Morrissey’s films would be distributed without Andy Warhol’s name before the film’s title. Interestingly, Morrissey’s need to be free of Warhol’s shadow and gain recognition as an individual filmmaker prompted the casting of Roman Polanski in Blood For Dracula. This odd choice of casting reveals Morrissey is also capable of the objectification of which he accused Warhol, and that he dramatized in his first films with Dallesandro.
The horror films Morrissey produced in the mid-seventies trapped him in the European exploitation market, where the best jobs he could get were with low budget independent productions. These films, The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1978) and Forty Deuce (1982) present Morrissey as a filmmaker attempting to refine his craft under considerable constraints. It wouldn’t be until Mixed Blood (1985) that Morrissey would be able to return to a subject he understood and a style derivative of Trash. However, Mixed Blood, though Morrissey’s most complex drama, is more of a stylistic regression, one that was necessary to make his next film Beethoven’s Nephew (1985).
“Beethoven was a hideous man. And because he was deaf, he would wander the streets humming his music loudly and kids would throw rocks at him. He was just such an ugly bastard, a real monster of a man.”-Paul Morrissey
Morrissey had long wanted to do a film on Beethoven, and had become taken with the scandal surrounding Beethoven’s relationship with his nephew. In this new film, Morrissey would make Beethoven’s nephew the idolized object and Beethoven the man who objectifies him. The film is controversial due to Morrissey’s candid approach to homosexual incest, and the attribution of such behavior to a historical figure such as Beethoven. But Morrissey points out that “I (Paul Morrissey) researched and researched, everything that happened in my movie really happened. People love Beethoven. But they only love the music, no one could ever really love an asshole like that”.
The financial support for Beethoven’s Nephew came mainly out of the interest to produce another film like Amadeus (1984). Morrissey hated Forman’s film, and made it clear he intended to tell the truth about his subject, and that it wasn’t pretty. “My film is as ugly as Beethoven was,” says Morrissey, “and the producers (Orfilm) hated it, so they screwed me!” Beethoven’s Nephew never got a national release, and only a single release to VHS a few years later. “No one wanted my movie,” claims Morrissey, “I had all these great German actors (Wolfgang Reichmann, Dietmar Prinz) from the theatre, so it was good, top notch stuff, but nobody wanted to know about the real asshole he (Beethoven) was.”
Critic Jon Davies has argued that the break out success of Morrissey’s first two films was due largely to the moment they were made. Though Morrissey would never admit it, interest in his work in the late sixties only really took off after Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) had been released. Since then, Morrissey’s films have been unable to find a stable audience, and continue to drift on the outskirts of American Independent Film history. Yet, one has to admit that Morrissey’s own view of his work, coupled with his surly personality, have done him few favors.
Robert Curry is a Film-Maker and Writer who lives in Philadelphia. He is a co-founder of Zimbo Films, which produces several provocative short films, of which he writes and directs, many of which can be seen at Vimeo.com/dogsuit. Further writing can be found at his website, Zimbofilms.wordpress.com