Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #6: Paul Morrissey

Cult Filmmakers You Should Know: Paul Morrissey

By Michael Varrati

If you live in the Pittsburgh area and are a fan of the unusual or avant-garde, then it is inevitable that you will eventually find your way to the Warhol Museum. Far more than a celebration of Andy Warhol’s life work, the museum has become something of a gathering place for the wayward individuals in the Steel City who crave a place that celebrates breaking boundaries and coloring outside the lines. From audacious exhibits to film screenings and rock concerts, the Warhol isn’t simply a passive, touristy experience…it’s a fully interactive location that you can immerse yourself within and simply become part of the art.

I suppose, considering his scene, that Andy Warhol would have had it no other way.

In the short time that I’ve called the Pittsburgh area my home, the Warhol has become something of a personal haven for me. Each new exhibit is almost like a marker, reminding me what was going on in my life when it became the display du jour. I’ve attended rowdy film screenings in the Warhol’s theatre and had many cups of coffee in its quaint, industrial café. There was even a time when one of the museum’s project coordinators and I fancied one another, and though that never came to be, we still enjoy the occasional cupcake (the café is known for them) and conversation. There’s really not a part of my Pittsburgh experience that I can’t associate back to the Warhol Museum, and when I leave, it will probably be the location I think of most often. In a way, being a regular on the museum’s scene makes me feel that I am, in my way, one of Warhol’s Factory Superstars.

Now, when taking all of the above stated material into account, it should come as no surprise that when I settled on doing a piece on this week’s featured cult filmmaker, I didn’t really view it as a chore to head up to the Warhol to do my research. In fact, I can honestly say that this is one of the first times I felt like I was able to fully immerse myself into the world of the artist in question and get a sense of the universe they inhabited while they were creating their cinematic opuses.

Considering who the museum is named for, it would only seem logical that this piece would be about Andy Warhol himself, especially considering the fact that Andy was known to make an odd film or two. However, the whole point of the Cult Filmmakers You Should Know series is to introduce readers to directors who may occasionally get overlooked…and let’s face it, everyone knows Andy Warhol. Rather, today’s piece is on a member of Warhol’s elite constituency, whose work on the silver screen is remarkable and unique, but may be forever doomed to live in the shadow of his more notorious associate.

The man in question’s name is Paul Morrissey, and thanks to a revolutionary batch of significant cult films, he certainly has established himself as a filmmaker of whom you should be aware.

In the late 60s, Morrissey became a fixture of Warhol’s factory scene, forming a long-term collaboration with the apathetic artist that ultimately resulted in a slew of cinematic endeavors. Morrissey would often conceive of a feature, serving as the film’s primary writer and director. Warhol would then step in as producer, allowing the film to carry his name credit for better notoriety and distribution. Unfortunately for Morrissey, time and years of misinformation have often skewed Warhol’s participation in the films to seem more significant and greater than it was in actuality. Because of this, Morrissey’s credit on his own films has often been forgotten and trivialized by film historians…a fact that has certainly been a point of contention for the aging filmmaker in the many years that followed.

However, we here at Peaches Christ Headquarters know the full extent of Morrissey’s involvement in the films, and because of their exceptional value, wish to take a moment to celebrate this man to whom much credit is due.

Although it is true that Morrissey and Warhol did co-direct some early films together (such as the notable underground art smash Chelsea Girls), Morrissey first truly struck out on his own with an overtly sexual piece called Flesh. The first of a loose trilogy of sorts starring model Joe Dallesandro, Flesh concerned the story of a young street hustler (Dallesandro) who takes to the streets to raise money for his girlfriend’s girlfriend (yes, you read that right) to get an abortion.

Flesh paints a portrait of frank sexuality in only the way that the story of a bisexual street hustler could. Even as Joe sleeps with men and women to achieve his monetary goal, the movie still never seems to lose this sense of wide-eyed innocence that is both remarkable and at the same time a little sad. The film also lives up to its title, offering plenty of skin and leaving Dallesandro nude for the majority of the film’s run time. In an era where homoerotic imagery and male nudity was almost unheard of, Flesh was an audacious step forward…and that Dallesandro was the epitome of raw sexuality did not hurt the film’s appeal.

With just a little bit of beefcake, Paul Morrissey was able to announce to the world of cinema he had officially arrived with a style that was at once primal, but also shockingly fresh.

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If the stark sexuality of Flesh exploited the concept of what it was to be male, Morrissey’s next film, Women in Revolt, chose to turn those very notions of gender identities on their head. Poking fun at the women’s liberation movement of the time, the film was both a celebration of female sexuality and a mockery of it, utilizing three transgendered women (Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, and Candy Darling) to portray the leads.  Women in Revolt celebrated the idea of blurred gender and sexuality, painting a portrait of the very world Morrissey inhabited in his days spent with Warhol. Playing as a crude antithesis to Flesh, Women in Revolt still managed to celebrate its predecessor’s bisexual ideals and created a world where sexless gender and incestuous relationships ruled. If putting Joe Dallesandro’s penis on the screen for the entire world to see was a shock to 1960s America, then the celebration of transgendered women must have been an absolutely devastating filmic taboo. Yet, despite this, Morrissey celebrates this carnal chaos with a sense of irony and fun, challenging the moral majority of the time to stop him.

Following his work on Women in Revolt, Morrissey would return to work again with Joe Dallesandro on two more films in the aforementioned trilogy, Trash and Heat…both of which continued Flesh’s legacy of envelope pushing visuals. Trash, which features Dallesandro as a heroin addict, controversially contained a scene of actual intravenous drug usage. If the full frontal nudity of Flesh hadn’t left audiences riveted or shocked, Trash certainly upped the ante by visually portraying an act which many would have preferred to leave behind closed doors. Heat similarly played with ideas of sexuality and drug abuse, firmly establishing Dallesandro as Morrissey’s preferred representation of the 60s generation’s near destructive carefree sexuality.

Immediately following Heat, Morrissey stepped firmly into the realm of the late night horror show, creating his own twisted vision of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. With Warhol once again producing, Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein was a startling reimagining of the classic monster myth. Shot in Italy’s famed Cinecittà, Morrissey’s vision was wrought the overt sexuality that had permeated his prior works, but also served as an ironically detached critique on horror cinema. Thanks to Morrissey’s cool sense of humor mixed with the film’s explicit violence, Flesh for Frankenstein is one of few horror films that is seemingly comedic while being deadly serious at the exact same time. With multiple layers and a genuine sense of fun, Flesh for Frankenstein seemed to be Paul Morrissey’s first movie that was tailor made for the midnight crowd. Factor in that the role of the Baron Frankenstein is played by none other than cult legend Udo Kier, and you essentially have a recipe for one of the most underrated cult films of all time.

Filming back to back with Flesh to Frankenstein, Morrissey hoped to strike monster gold twice by crafting another monster tale- Blood for Dracula. Utilizing much of the same cast as Frankenstein and having Kier take on the role of the iconic blood-sucker, Morrissey was able to play with the sexuality of the vampire myth in ways that had never been explored before. Whereas the Dracula of previous versions required the blood of any human to survive, Morrissey’s Dracula could only survive on the blood of a virgin…but to add insult to injury, the vampire discovers he is surrounded only by whores.

You can see the inherent comedy in this situation, no?

Perhaps my favorite of Morrissey’s films, Blood for Dracula is the work that lends itself most to the communal experience. I once attended a midnight screening of the film (though, ironically not at the Warhol Museum) and it was one of the single most gleefully rowdy crowds I have ever experienced in all my years of attending horror & exploitation movies. There’s a moment in the film where a desperate Udo Kier cries out, “The blood of these whores is killing me!” and it is delivered with such oomph, I thought the audience might explode. These are the very moments for which cult film fans live. It’s why Rocky Horror has endured and it’s the foundation that Peaches Christ built Midnight Mass upon. It’s that moment we can all become one and cheer with the film. Blood for Dracula has such moments…and it has them because of Paul Morrissey.

Even Morrissey’s later work lends itself to the cult experience. 1985’s Mixed Blood is a Latin gangster flick that plays like a living cartoon, but serves up bloody payoff so vivid it is nothing short of a gore aficionado’s wet dream. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I remember thinking that it certainly was a film that upheld Morrissey’s grand tradition of original and bold filmmaking.

Ultimately, it is for these reasons that Paul Morrissey deserves to be celebrated…because he is bold and he is original. Morrissey’s desire to push the envelope and to bring cinema into a new frontier of art and statement is nearly unmatched in today’s filmic arena, and while I think it truly unfortunate that he must forever live in the shadow of Andy Warhol, I am also slightly grateful. After all, if not for Warhol’s notoriety, there is the strong chance that Morrissey’s films would not have been seen by so many, or worse, faded into obscurity. Though all Warhol really did was put his name out front, in doing so, he allowed us all to experience the wonderful and unique work of this completely original and audacious filmmaker for generations to come.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve spent many hours wandering the halls of the Warhol Museum, and in doing so, I often pass posters for Morrissey’s films, simply taking for granted their place in the greater Warhol-universe. But on this particular trip, I am struck by the singular notion that this placement and display is wholly unique in the entire pantheon of cinema. There are not many other filmmakers who can claim that the posters for their work hang in a museum, ensconced not as advertisements, but as art. Furthermore, the posters are a reminder of the bold steps they represent…and that strange duality that Morrissey’s work has always been able to live. I know of no other filmmaker whose work can play equally to a midnight movie crowd and to art-house patrons. But because of his strange mixture of blood, flesh, and art, Morrissey is able to straddle that line with the most carefree of ease. Certainly, this is a fact that I will remember next time I visit the halls of my favorite Pittsburgh hangout, and will make sure to give proper reverential due to this man who is truly one-of-a-kind.

A revolutionary and film god, Paul Morrissey is without a doubt one of the great Cult Filmmakers You Should Know.

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