Paul Morrissey: Flesh, Trash, Heat and the Undead

Paul Morrissey HeatDon’t say “Warhol films” when you talk about my films! Are you so stupid, you talk to people like that? I have to live through this for fifty years. Everything I did, it’s Warhol this, or he did them with me. Forget it. He was incompetent, anorexic, illiterate, autistic, Asperger’s — he never did a thing in his entire life. He sort of walked through it as a zombie and that paid off in the long run. But I just cannot take that shitty reference. What were you gonna say, if you can get past that? – Paul Morrissey (from an interview with Sam Weisberg)

Paul Morrissey, the flagship film director of Andy Warhol’s infamous studio, The Factory, makes for a confusing figure. How is it that one of the more significant American independent film directors to come out of the 1960s could be so violently opposed to everything that his cinematic oeuvre would seem to represent? Perhaps a little background is in order first.

In his early years, Morrissey was raised as a conservative Catholic before studying literature, joining the army, and beginning a career in the less than creative world of insurance. It was subsequent to this that he worked as a social worker, had his first encounters with the cultural underbelly of 1960s New York, and began making short films. And in 1965 he was introduced to the already phenomenally successful, Andy Warhol.

The two men could not have been more different, but Morrissey appealed to Warhol, who invited his contributions to his own projects, including notable works like Chelsea Girls (1966) and Imitation of Christ (1967). The level and nature of these contributions is a contentious subject, and over the years Morrissey has talked down Warhol’s involvement in many of his own well-regarded projects – suggesting that he was fundamentally incompetent as a filmmaker. In any event, Morrissey ingratiated himself into the factory, positioning himself not only as the resident filmmaker, but also as the group’s film distributor and Warhol’s own business manager. The exact details of all these arrangements are endlessly disputed by those present at the time, and the truth is unlikely to ever be fully understood. What is known is that after Warhol was shot and nearly killed in 1968 by Valerie Solanas (a radical feminist who believed in the abolition of men), he retreated from the responsibilities of filmmaking and Morrissey was left to his own devices.

What followed were a series of far more narrative-driven films, directed by Morrissey, that seem incongruous with what we understand of the man. A conservative Catholic with an eye for commercialising art, his cinematic forays into the underbelly of New York and Los Angeles life seem to lack the forceful moral judgement that one might expect. Each is a fascinating and rough edged look at a universe of drugs, sex, prostitution and others forms of decadence – largely populated by amateur actors who often lived within the world that they were representing. Even more interestingly, Morrissey displays an unexpected level of comfort with transsexuals, frequently utilising them as actresses to play female characters. These are radical films not easily reconcilable with the man who had this to say of Romney (and Obama) not too long ago: 

Paul Morrissey Trash“I think he’s wonderful. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a good Christian, he’s a fine man, he’s a successful man. He has six children and eighteen grandchildren. He’s hated by the liberal toilet, Communist-worshipping, Christian-hating filth that’s behind Mr. and Mrs. Comrade Obama.”

Strong stuff, whatever your views happen to be. And the contradictions abound. Consider that this is the man who claims to have “discovered” The Velvet Underground (a claim widely disputed), before going on to manage them for a time. And yet, when more recently asked about his tastes in music, he had this to say:

“Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. It hasn’t changed. What, I’m gonna throw the great music down the toilet and replace it with drug addict rock n’ roll filth shit, sex around the clock?”

Of course, Morrissey often retrospectively suggests that his New York films are all comedies, whose principal purpose is to mock and marvel at the world of addiction, prostitution, and general seediness with which he seems fascinated, but this seems like an inadequate description. And even if it is true, he has fundamentally failed in his mission. Instead, Morrissey’s work offers a powerful glimpse at human beings, in a certain time and place, limited and subjected to their environment. They are jarring, frequently disturbing, often moving and… yes… sometimes funny. There is a sense of tragedy to these works which, while implicit within the text, takes on a greater level of significance when one understands how many of the cast were ultimately felled by the decadence so central to their core.

All of which ignores the latter two films on this list (and much of Morrissey’s later and significantly less interesting career). But I’ll let them speak for themselves. Without further ado, here are five of my favourite (and admittedly the most celebrated) Paul Morrissey films. I should note, films do not get much more explicit in their representation of sex and drug use than Morrissey’s – you have been warned.


Flesh (1968) – Also known as Andy Warhol’s Flesh

The narrative is simple (and confronting) enough. A young hustler (Joe Dallesandro) needs to hit the streets in order to raise money for his girlfriend’s lesbian partner’s abortion. He does this largely through prostitution and theft, but the film is primarily concerned with his general wanderings and conversations during the course of a single day. Joe spends time with his (real-life) baby son; teaches another young hustler how to do the job; strips down for an elderly artist etc. This was all something of a revelation for Morrissey, whose move with this film to more traditional narrative storytelling opened up a range of new possibilities.

Of course, the narrative certainly reveals Morrissey’s own reeling horror at contemporary social mores, and he pushes them to their logical (or illogical) extremes, but his distanced non-judgemental approach confounds such a simple reading – Morrissey feels for these people, and seems to like them despite any ingrained contempt he may feel. It is his use of amateur performers, whose naturalistic dialogue flows casually between artifice and genuine conversation, which allows us a window into a group of human beings, a period, and a way of thinking that is both jarring and authentic.

The number of people cast in the film who lived very short lives is more than a little confronting, and confirms what the viewer already knows – that these are people who have ventured far to the edge. Barry Brown, who makes a brief appearance as a hustler, took his own life at 27. Candy Darling also passed away in her twenties, albeit from an unavoidable condition. Jackie Curtis, who Warhol once described as being not a drag queen, but an artist and a pioneer without a frontier, passed away several years later from a heroin overdose at the age of 38.


Trash (1970)

Joe (Joe Dallesandro) is a heroin addict whose habit has recently resulted in complete impotency. It is this loose narrative device that has him travelling from scene-to-scene, encountering various decadent situations that fail to stimulate him. His girlfriend, wonderfully and loudly played by the transsexual Holly Woodlawn, is frustrated by his condition, and brings home other men with the promise of illicit substances. Joe robs a rich couple’s home, only to be caught and become the subject of their grotesque bourgeois fascination with his lowly existence. Holly fakes pregnancy (originally with the intention of adopting her pregnant sister’s own child, possibly impregnated by Joe) in order to receive welfare, but is thwarted when a social worker demands that she hand over a pair of her high-heel shoes as a bribe.

Morrissey seems to be taking shots at every level of society as he explores the plight of a drug addicted couple, dependent on theft and welfare for their lifestyle, being treated as an object of scorn, fascination and exploitation by the comfortable middle-classes and a corrupt government bureaucracy.


Heat (1972)

This is, from my perspective, Morrissey’s masterpiece. Loosely taking the narrative of Sunset Boulevard (1950), the film follows the exploits of a former childhood star, Joey Davis (Joe Dallesandro), and his attempts to re-establish himself as an actor. Living in a subpar motel on the edge of town, Joey pays the rent with sexual favours to his coarse landlord, and spends his time by the side of the pool talking to the hotel’s assortment of disturbing oddballs. One of those oddballs happens to be the less-than-stable Jessica (Andrea Feldman), the daughter of downtrodden former starlet, Sally Todd (Sylvia Miles). Jessica’s need for cash leads her to her mother’s home with Joey, where he is able to exploit the situation by initiating a relationship with this well-connected older woman. What follows is a sickly but fascinating portrayal of three exploitative people attempting to use each other to their own personal advantage. Sally wishes to control Joey like a sexual and emotionally comforting pet. Joey wishes to exploit Sally for his own career ambitions. The unstable Jessica wishes to punish her mother for a lack of financial support by seducing the apathetic Joey.

This is the film in which Morrissey’s free-flowing dialogue and naturalistic performances are combined most perfectly with a more conventional narrative structure and a more constrained aesthetic approach. It is also probably the film in which the ethical ideals of the director appear most comfortably integrated within the flow of the narrative.

Sylvia Miles is perfect in this film as the tragically lonely and incomplete Sally, and is ultimately the character that solicits the most sympathy. Dallesandro is typically and appropriately flat as the washed out actor without a single discernable emotion beyond a lazy drive towards the Hollywood dream. And Feldman’s performance is not so much an act as a struggle – there is a shrill, distant and tragic monotone in her delivery that I find fascinating. Sadly, Feldman was at least as troubled as the character she was playing, and took her own life before the film’s release.


Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

This perverse and amusing reinvention of the Frankenstein mythology combines the sexually charged imagery of contemporaneous Hammer horror films with the graphic nature of Morrissey’s earlier works – adding dialogue into the mix that verges on the unbelievable. Perhaps the most fascinating example comes from Dr. Frankenstein, played by Udo Keir, who provides this insight to his assistant: “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life… in the gall bladder!”


The plot is a confronting reimagining of the source material. Baron Von Frankenstein is married to his own sister (Monique van Vooren), has two children with her, and they live isolated from the local townsfolk in their own creepy mansion. His sister spends her days in a state of boredom, looking for opportunities to entertain herself with the local peasantry. Frankenstein spends his attempting to build the perfect sexual partner out of spare parts. When Frankenstein harvests a local peasant at the same time that his wife coincidentally solicits the affections of the peasant’s friend (Joe Dallesandro), a chain of rather disturbing events unfolds.

Suffice to say that there is some kind of obscure parody of the genre happening much at the same time that it attempts to highlight and critique ideas of perversion and sexual liberalism – ideas that for most viewers will be thoroughly buried under large doses of imagery that would seem to indulge in their very opposite.

Tragically, I have not yet had the honour of seeing the 3D version.


Blood for Dracula (1974)

Blood for Dracula covers similar territory. Dracula (Udo Kier once again) requires the blood of virgins to survive, but tragically the introduction of modern liberal values has thoroughly limited his options. As such, Dracula travels to Italy where he believes that adherence to Catholic ideals will expand his options. The unavailability of good blood has made this a sickly Dracula, frequently wheelchair bound and prone to seizures.

Upon arriving in Italy, Dracula befriends the Marchese di Fiore (played, if you can believe it, by Vittorio De Sica) who introduces him to his four daughters with the hope of marrying one of them off. Two of these women, unfortunately for Dracula, have spent enough time with their onsite handyman (Joe Dallesandro) that they have become inappropriate for Dracula’s purposes – a fact revealed to Dracula only when he attempts to drain them of their blood and finds himself grotesquely poisoned. The handyman also happens to be a Marxist, and spends his hours lecturing on the rights of the working classes at the same time that he routinely violates the rights of those around him.

Much sex and bloodletting ensues, of course, and Morrissey’s unusual adherence to these devices for making his inverse point is as jarring and interesting as ever.

Having worked through these examples, Morrissey’s cinematic vision is much more closely aligned to his ideology than I had previously believed when setting out to write this article. While Morrissey’s claim that these films were intended as comedies is insufficient, they are most certainly satires of the human capacity to retreat into self-destructive and amoral (Morrissey would say immoral) behaviour. But these are films of affection as well. There is an innate and sad empathy within Morrissey’s gaze, as he looks upon human beings standing on the precipice, even though they may not know it.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

10 thoughts on “Paul Morrissey: Flesh, Trash, Heat and the Undead

  1. Warhol was a substantial artist because over an extended period of time he expanded our notions of what art could be. The fact that I never liked his movies doesn’t change that. But I never knew much about, or thought much of Morrissey or Joe Dellasandro, especially since the only Warhol movie I really liked was Bad, which came after Morrissey. I can imagine it would be frustrating for a director to be swallowed up by an auteurish producer like Val Lewton or George Pal, so perhaps I should be more generous to Morrissey. I suppose Bad would not have had its relative narrative coherence if not for Morrissey’s influence. Still don’t like the movies though.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon. I certainly never meant to make any judgement on Warhol as an artist, so much as present a picture of how Morrissey positions himself in relation to Warhol. I certainly take all of his claims with more than a grain of salt.

  2. James, an excellent introduction to some of the most important (and Entertaining) films of their era. But where is Woman in Revolt? While not in the league of the flesh, Trash, and Heat trilogy, it was much better than Frankenstein, and a small cut above Dracula. Morrissey is a big whiner. if you work for Warhol, you are making a Warhol film, just as if you work for David Selznik, you are making a Selznik film. Morrisey’s influence was first noticable on Lonesome Cowboys. although he has recently taken credit for directing Chelsea Girls. i dont see that. The Nico sequence in particular is pure Warhol,finding still compositions in the movement of a fashion shoot. As far as being a non-active director,one of his superstars hase gone on record as saying that the difference in her performance in a Warhol picture or any other is that with the Warhol picture, andy is on the otherside of the camera. i consider Warhol the most important american artist of the 20th century. However, he never could have made Flesh , Trash and Heat without Morrissey..anymore than Selznik could have made Rebecca without Hitchcock.

  3. Brilliant analysis, James. I am told by my New Yorker parents that back in the day, seeing Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey movies was a very hip thing to do … despite the fact that they often were terribly dull–Chelsea Girls being the example they always brought up. Morrissey himself, as you and Pete have pointed out, appears to be a complex character and actually does remind me of Warhol. Remember when they examined Warhol’s habitat after his death and found … antiques! Not the pop art for which he was so famous. Artists are complicated, I guess. 😀

  4. As always James, an intelligent appraisal of the work of someone from a period that I personally consider best forgotten. Perhaps because of my age, (though I like to think not) I have little regard for these films, or the director. I have seen three of them, and was left wondering why I bothered. The main problem for me is the (almost) complete absence of any acting talent. You can put people into a believable situation, or an unbelievable one, but if they cannot act the roles, the film will fall flat.
    Unlike you, my impression was that these films missed an opportunity to portray a time, and a certain group of people living an aimless existence. It is all very well using a cast of actors who actually lived through all this, but if they have no talent whatsoever (and I am particularly referring to Dallesandro here) it hardly makes for interesting viewing. As for the director himself, the (deliberately?) controversial remarks you quote serve to show him to be a man of complete ignorance and political naivete, and have managed to make me like him even less than I did.
    Good stuff nonetheless, and sure to get us all talking!
    Regards from England, Pete.

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