Paul Morrissey: An Introduction


The long-defunct National Film Theatre of Australia (NFTA) was a great venue for local cinephiles under the age of 18 to sneak into films legally beyond their reach.


I was 17 when I got into my first R-rated movie at the NFTA. It was Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970), and the second its no-nonsense opening credits ended, I copped an eyeful. The screen was filled with the rather blotchy backside of Joe Dallesandro, a fleshy monument that barely managed to obscure the sight of a woman performing oral sex on him.


Or at least she was trying to. Trash tells the militantly grungy but strangely touching tale of a beautiful young man whose heroin habit has rendered him impotent. He drifts through his pathetic days having tawdry encounters and trying to scam a little money to help out those closest to him.


The strongest sensation I felt watching this film twenty-eight years ago is the very same one I feel re-seeing it today. Despite the semi-pornographic, low-life ambience of everything that is shown, Trash recaptures the sort of innocence we associate with old D.W. Griffith movies, both in content and in form.


These people, for all their odd, ironically self-conscious banter and the high-camp way in which Morrissey places them into unlikely melodramatic plots, are revealed to us in a disarmingly direct, honest way. And the camera, clunkily zooming and panning to capture improvised moments of magic, takes us right back to the spontaneous ways of the earliest films.


As a matter of fact, tracking the work of Morrissey from the fledgling experiments of the mid ‘60s to the extraordinary black comedies of the ‘80s (such as Mixed Blood, 1984) is like seeing the medium of cinema accelerate in its evolution from inspired primitivism to multi-layered sophistication. There is no career in film quite like his.


Morrissey, now 66, has forever been dogged by the misapprehension that the true auteur of films including Trash, Flesh (1968) and Heat (1972) is the celebrity who put his name above their titles: Andy Warhol. Morrissey was an integral part of Warhol’s Factory in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But he eschewed both the excesses of the hard-drug lifestyle and the artworld-type avant-gardism that Warhol had brilliantly expressed in his silent, plotless ‘movie portraits’.


Almost from the very start, Morrissey’s interest was in characters (however bizarre), storytelling and an almost anthropological observation of urban manners. He oriented Warhol towards feature-length production and improbably profitable commercial releases.


What Morrissey did share with Warhol at the time – and bequeathed to later filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Lars von Trier – was a taste for discovering self-styled superstars, larger-than-life presences whose lack of conventional acting skill made them fascinating palimpsests of documentary reality and fictive contrivance.


Today, Morrissey prides himself on having invented the no-frills, Dogme style of filmmaking decades before Trier and his mates wrote it into a manifesto. Like the Dogme movies, Morrissey’s works can at times be relentless, stagey and repetitive. But even the most brittle, like the outrageous Women in Revolt (1972), contains moments of rich humour, interpersonal violence, streetwise lyricism and erotic tenderness that put most traditional movies to shame.


© Adrian Martin November 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search