Paul Morrissey

Paul Morrissey

Mention Paul Morrissey and movies about transvestites, heroin addicts, and other varieties of lowlife are likely to come to mind; but the director of such films as Flesh (1968) and Heat (1972) holds very different views than one might assume from a first impression of these films and from his professional association with Andy Warhol. “Staunchly conservative, Morrissey still frowns upon the moral and artistic state of America today,” writes Steve Ryfle, who interviewed the filmmaker in 2000. Rather, Morrissey’s vintage films reflect his view that “modern American life was going down the toilet.”1 David Bahr of The New York Times writes:

Paul Morrissey disdains rock music, abhors recreational drugs and thinks even less of liberal politics. When asked his views on sex, he pauses for a moment, looks his inquisitor in the eye and says: “I’m Catholic. I’m with Rome 100 percent.”

Such sentiments may seem surprising coming from a director whose films luxuriate in the libertine lives of heroin users, masturbating transvestites and polymorphous-perverse male prostitutes. Yet Mr. Morrissey – who from 1966 to 1972 directed more than half a dozen movies produced by Andy Warhol, discovered the avant-garde rock band the Velvet Underground and once saw a court label his work “obscene, vulgar and profane” – believes he’s misunderstood, to say nothing of misrepresented.2

Morrissey situates his work outside the counterculture and characterizes it instead as his disapproving reaction to the general collapse of morality as it occurred around him:

There’s something I realized years later, after I had made all the films, although I probably realized it at the time even though I wasn’t conscious of it. At that time, there was this idea that was just coming in – the media was just getting hold of it, and the music world was just screaming its lungs out about how great it was – saying you could do whatever you want. That was really idiotic, and stupid and foolish and silly, unbelievably stupid.

People, by the late sixties, were doing whatever they felt like, and nobody gave a damn.

“I understood that these people were good story material, good subjects to show where life had gotten to, and how pathetic it was,” Morrissey explains.3 Blood for Dracula (1974), for instance, imagines a future-shocked traditionalist vampire (Udo Kier) who despairs of finding virgin blood to drink in the sexually free and easy 1970s, while Trash (1970) depicts the boredom of heroin dependency. “So much of the culture glamorized drugs at the time,” remarks frequent Morrissey leading man Joe Dallesandro. “Paul wanted to show the seedier side, where it all led to.”4 Women in Revolt (1972), which utilizes a cast of transvestites for satirical purposes, mocks the increasingly noisy and confrontational feminist movement of the day. “I thought it would be funny if they were playing women who were converted to lesbianism by the women’s lib movement,” Morrissey says. “The whole women’s thing was so ridiculous. ‘We don’t need men,’ and all that.”5

The director envisioned his Madame Wang’s (1981) as a satire of nonexistent American values and the decline of Western Civilization:

The huge Masonic Temple was a Greek temple, it represented past culture, and it was abandoned and lived in by derelict female impersonators. That was my take on Americans, especially Southern California Americans. They couldn’t care less about anything, except maybe getting up in drag or doing a punk rock show and screaming and throwing themselves on the floor. And the poor Russian agent comes from East Germany and says, “I’ve got to meet Jane Fonda, we’re taking over this country one day, and we have to have all of our operatives in place and I’m one of them.” And everyone says, “great, so what?”6

Morrissey gives the following explication of his comedy flop Spike of Bensonhurst (1988), in which his “pain in the ass” protagonist (Sasha Mitchell) “treats everybody like dirt, and does whatever he wants”:

The little switcheroo, which I thought was the point of the story, was that finally when someone disciplines him it turns out to be the best thing that happens to him. The idea that there are some standards and a sense of order in the world somewhere […]7

Like so many avowed conservatives in American politics, however, Morrissey’s work reveals his complicity in the projects of the culture destroyers even as he professes traditionalism. The mundane drugs-and-drag depravity of his classic oeuvre, while successfully illustrating the emptiness of the revolutions in sexuality and consciousness that had been engineered during the 1960s, also serves to normalize the ascendant dysfunction.

“Life is so second rate now,” Morrissey assesses.

And that idea that life has degenerated to a second rate position was part of the story to all those movies. I still don’t see that as a story element in any other movies – the obvious fact that life today is so much poorer than it was before. And I don’t think you can tell that story unless you’re aware that there’s a difference now. Most people don’t even know there’s a difference between today and before.8

Rainer Chlodwig von Kook

Endnotes

  1. Ryfle, Steve. “Life Is a Toilet: The Films of Director Paul Morrissey”. Shock Cinema 17 (Fall-Winter 2000), p. 18.
  2. Bahr, David. “Conservative Bard of the Demimonde”. The New York Times (February 27, 2000): http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/27/movies/film-conservative-bard-of-the-demimonde.html?pagewanted=all
  3. Ryfle, Steve. “Life Is a Toilet: The Films of Director Paul Morrissey”. Shock Cinema 17 (Fall-Winter 2000), p. 18.
  4. Bahr, David. “Conservative Bard of the Demimonde”. The New York Times (February 27, 2000): http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/27/movies/film-conservative-bard-of-the-demimonde.html?pagewanted=all
  5. Ryfle, Steve. “Life Is a Toilet: The Films of Director Paul Morrissey”. Shock Cinema 17 (Fall-Winter 2000), p. 20.
  6. Ibid., p. 21.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 19.
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