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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.

Rock DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) launches upon a series of strange and frightening experiences after mysteriously receiving a goth record credited to “The Lords”. But are her ordeals real or just hallucinations? And is the elusive tenant down the hall in apartment 5 just another figment of her imagination? Meanwhile, museum curator Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) investigates what he believes may be a link between the Lords’ surprising new hit song and the local heritage of sorcery and witch burnings. Could the eccentric old ladies living in Heidi’s building be the remnants of Salem’s seventeenth century coven, and, if so, do they have plans for their young friend?

Rob Zombie’s latest horror opus, The Lords of Salem, is impressive in a number of ways. Ambitious, consistently atmospheric, and occasionally quite unsettling, the film is filled with images that will remain with those who view it. Cinematographer Brandon Trost deserves much of the credit for the veneer, somewhat tenuous, of something approximating class, which keeps the show afloat over the stinking morass of its unsavory obsessions. The special effects and art departments are equally commendable, as are the contributions of musicians Griffin Boice and John 5.

The Lords of Salem does, however, begin to overstay its welcome as it becomes increasingly apparent that the film has little or no purpose apart from cramming as much blasphemous shock value onto the screen as possible while maintaining a stylish pretension to some kind of seriousness. Still, horror fans should find much to enjoy, and may detect and appreciate the writer-director’s indebtedness to genre classics including Black Sunday, Rosemary’s BabyThe Wicker Man, and The Fly. These same fans, unfortunately, may be disappointed to learn that familiar performers like Michael Berryman, Meg Foster, Richard Lynch, Andrew Prine, and Sid Haig are squandered in worthless, unrecognizable cameos.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that The Lords of Salem is:

9. Media-critical. Pop culture carries the potential for mass hypnosis. Rock in this case is literally “the Devil’s music”.

8. New age. Wicca is “a positive, earth-centered religion”.

7. Multiculturalist/pro-wigger. Heidi sports ratty dreadlocks and gets along swimmingly with her non-white coworkers.

6. Pro-miscegenation. Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) – a white Hispanic, presumably – is something like Heidi’s occasional guyfriend. Matthias is married to a Latina (Maria Conchita Alonso).

5. Anti-family. Matthias, appalled at the thought of changing diapers, has never wanted children. An attendee at a drug rehabilitation support group recalls that his mother was also an addict and responsible for his own drug problem. (see also no. 3)

4. Drug-ambivalent. Hard drugs are a problem from which Heidi is still recovering, but cigarettes and liquor receive a free pass. Mrs. Matthias smokes marijuana.

3. Pro-choice. “Children are a bit of a waste.” Childbirth is more than once depicted horrifically. First a witch licks a newborn infant and spits on it, disgusted by the taste. Later scenes depict a human mother giving birth to inhuman invertebrate offspring. (see also no. 5)

2. Feminist/pro-slut/pro-castration. In the opening scene, a coven of seventeenth century Femen disrobe and disport without shame. “That felt good,” Sonny (Dee Wallace) says after braining Whitey with a pot, thus repurposing traditional women’s domestic wares into the means of gender retribution. Heidi, Zombie’s feminine ideal, is a tattooed eyesore who sleeps bare-bottomed and experiences sexual self-actualization with a goat. Her guyfriend Whitey, a sensitive nurturer, does a weenie dance to the Velvet Underground’s masochistic paean “Venus in Furs”.

1. Anti-Christian. The Lords of Salem is a veritable cavalcade of blasphemous celebration. Images likely to offend religious viewers include monstrous, masturbating clergymen, Christian objects juxtaposed with liquor, and a priest (Julian Acosta) forcing Heidi to give him a blowjob. Church is “slavery”. The Bible is “the Book of Lies”. “Our philosophy,” says rock musician Count Gorgann (Torsten Voges), who no doubt speaks for Zombie himself, “is to expose the lies of the Christian whores and Jesus the true bringer of death.” “God must die. God is the unholy pig,” he adds for those in need of further clarification on his views.

KILLING-THEM-SOFTLY-poster

A strong exercise in Scorsese imitation, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly may well be the most depressing experience to which multiplex moviegoers are treated in 2012.  Set in a bleak expanse of rust belt squalor during the meltdown of 2008, the gangland story begins when small-time gangster and dry cleaner the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) recruits two crooks, naive Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and ne’er-do-well Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to pull a masked hold-up of the gambling establishment run by Markie Trattman (GoodFellas alumnus Ray Liotta), who is to be framed for staging a robbery of his own game and customers.  Markie, true to his name, is the perfect mark for the crime because he previously staged just such an inside job and admitted to it and so will be the obvious prime suspect if the same thing happens again.  Into this situation enters the mysterious enforcer Jackie (Brad Pitt), assigned the tasks of investigating what actually happened and meting out the appropriate sanctions.  Flying in to assist him is button man Mickey (James Gandolfini), previously a class act but now a sloppy, erratic drunk going through a divorce.  The upshot is that, however it all ends up going down, none of this business is going to be pretty.

On one level, Killing Them Softly is a tough, unsentimental crime film and a set of character studies.  At the same time, however, it operates as an unsubtle and tactless allegory about the decline of American prosperity and the bankruptcy of the ideals traditionally associated with it, with samples of speeches by Bush and Obama running parallel to the action.  The words of the title appear onscreen in succession as part of a fractured, abrasive montage of optimistic Obamaspeak coupled with grating noise and shots of trash blown in the wind that sweeps a desolate lot walked by doomed Frankie on his way to meet the Squirrel – a representative entrepreneur and criminal mediocrity, there being no distinction between the two things as depicted in this story.  Killing Them Softly posits the existence of two types of players in this world: statists and businessmen.  All are gangsters who run their rackets through subterfuge and coercion.  In one of the film’s cheapest and least imaginative moments, Jackie sits in a bar and mocks the Obama speech playing on television and goes on to smugly thumb his nose at the American experiment itself, denouncing Thomas Jefferson for getting drunk, screwing his slaves, and keeping his children in bondage.  This country is a business, Jackie asserts, and every man looks out for himself like a beast in the jungle.  Or, as Mickey succinctly puts it and sums up the story, “It’s all bullshit.”

More than simply a downbeat, despairing sociopolitical tirade or declaration of nihilism, however, Killing Them Softly offers more than enough to make it recommendable.  Multiple character creations compel viewer interest, with Gandolfini and McNairy in particular making the most of their scenes.  Gandolfini immediately establishes sympathy and scorn with his characterization of a tough but dissipated and finally pathetically apathetic thug going through a divorce and wasting his life on liquor and prostitutes, which allows the actor the opportunity to deliver some 200-proof obscenity (causing an elderly woman at the screening I attended to become audibly agitated, surely the mark of fine movie profanity) in high gangster style.  Liotta, though he has only a few brief scenes, also appears to solid effect.  Less reliable than the impeccable acting is the selection of pop songs, which, in faithful Scorsese tradition, are rather overutilized.  “The Man Comes Around”, for instance, is the perfect song to establish Jackie’s seriousness and formidability as an enforcer, while “It’s Only a Paper Moon” assists the screenplay thematically and casts an amusing irony over events; but is it really necessary that the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” accompanies the scene in which Russell shoots up heroin?  On the whole, however, Killing Them Softly is an admirably adult and serious film, heavier on the dialogue than on the flash and action, and will test the patience of those expecting a typical shoot-em-up.  4 of 5 possible stars.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Killing Them Softly is:

9. Diversity-skeptical. Jackie isn’t buying it.

8. Sexist/anti-slut.  Women are whores and trash.  Mickey’s wife has been unfaithful.  Russell recounts for Frankie a sickening episode of random sex with an insane nymphomaniac, imitating the ludicrous sounds she made, and telling how she afterward threatened to commit suicide, to which Frankie casually replies that they all behave that way.

7. Anti-torture.  Markie, under interrogation, receives a beating so unpleasantly savage and bloody that no viewer should be left with the idea that violence is glamorous and fun.

6. Antiwar.  During the credits, “Money (That’s What I Want)” fades into a lugubrious sound collage that includes helicopter noise and what sounds like echoing urination.

5. Anti-drug/drug-ambivalent.  Russell, through heroin, becomes an even more disgusting mess than he is at the beginning.  Cigarettes, however, retain a certain grimy chic, though one corporate type gangster is more than once offended by the odor.

4. Pro-miscegenation.  Mickey enjoys himself with a black hooker (who, however, frustrates him by treating her anus “like a national treasure”) and recommends Jewesses to Jackie.

3. Anti-business.  Criminals are businessmen and vice versa.  The “corporate mentality” has left even organized crime unmanned and degraded.

2. Anti-state.  Bush and Obama are phonies.  Jefferson was a drunkard who owned and abused slaves, thus discrediting all subsequent U.S. history and achievement.  The ridiculousness of gun and drug control is illustrated by the fact that, though no government agency interferes with the mob murders in the film, hitman Mickey was once arrested for gun possession while on a bird hunting trip, while Russell is eventually nabbed by the authorities not for armed robbery, but for mutually voluntary and perfectly ethical drug trafficking.

1. Nihilist/anti-human.  The sky is always dark.  “It’s all bullshit.”  The human condition is vile, obscene, and absurd.

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