Tyler Durden Does Warhol
Flesh (1968)/Trash (1970)/Heat (1972)
Director –Paul Morrissey
Producer- Andy Warhol
Genre – Experimental/Avant-garde
Themes –Drug Addiction/Stardom
Long before TV producers had begun to see the commercial viability of reality TV shows such as Big Brother, New York ‘pop’ artist Andy Warhol had been exploring a similar topography in his prolific collection of avant-garde films some 30 years earlier. Nowadays we’ve become accustomed and familiar with reality TV, populated by star hungry wannabees desperate for their ‘15 minutes of fame’ and prepared to do anything at any cost. But this was also true during Warhol’s Factory era, when socialites, street hustlers, drug addicts and transvestites converged on his New York City venue in the hope of becoming a ‘superstar’. Always far ahead of his time in his thinking, Warhol, more so than many of his contemporaries, was always able to see the commercial possibilities of his society’s obsession with both the glamorous and the dangerous. This may appear commonplace now in our ‘reality’ saturated living rooms but Warhol’s productions, it could be stated, pioneered the cinematic documentation of the sort of New York street life that had been the fundamental theme for the majority of The Velvet Underground’s lyrical world.
And so welcome to ‘trash’ cinema, the type of film that was marginalized then and has now become, in part, the unlikely foundation of several ‘reality’ TV shows. Just think of the tabloid headlines that the last two series of Big Brother have initiated, the issues that arose and the debates that fuelled the nations consciousness. Anthony and Craig’s’ homoerotic relationship, Kemal's over the top ‘campness’, Nadia’s sexuality or the overwhelming desire for stardom exhibited in the more than forgettable supporting cast. Warhol may have handed over directing duties to Paul Morrissey for this trilogy (‘Flesh’ (1968)/’Trash’ (1970)/’Heat’ (1972)) but the themes remain intact, the subject matter remains as raw and the characters retain an authenticity as realistic as any Velvet’s song, whilst also being as banal, superficial and as bizarre as many a BB contestant.
The Factory ‘superstars’ found fame in many Warhol productions but ‘Flesh’ was Morrissey’s first fullscale conception and revolved around the story of a bisexual hustler (Joe Dallesandro) who pays for his wife’s lover’s abortion by turning tricks. His wife, Holly (Holly Woodlawn - the inspiration for Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wildside”), is a transvestite who cruises for sex and collects trash in the slums of the Lower East Side. Narratively that’s about as good as it gets, but avant-garde cinema is more renowned for its capacity to reflect personal expression than its ability to retell a coherent story. It’s explicit, even by today’s standards, filmed much more like a documentary than anything else, the dialogue is predominantly improvised, with naturalistic lighting and a relatively poor sound quality throughout. Nevertheless the graphic depiction of drug use, and the lifestyle that accompanies it, is more than enough to put any prospective heroin novice off, more so than any Trainspotting could ever do. The degradation of the human condition is so extreme in its portrayal that even the most voyeuristic of viewers must begin to question their own reason for continuing to spectate. Furthermore when you consider that many of the Factory ‘stars’ lives ended under tragic circumstances the effect is even more disturbing. Only time will tell if the stars of BB will befall a similar fate!
‘Trash’ is just as visceral as its predecessor and anyone who couldn’t stomach the first should not seek solace in the second of this trilogy. Joe Dallesandro and Holly Woodlawn return once more as the central couple with the familiar lifestyles, addictions and sexual predilections that they had previously displayed in ‘Flesh’. There is more of a narrative here but once again it contains a series of vignettes depicting aspects of their personal lives that range from moments of extreme boredom to the frankly perverse. At times these events are dealt with by means of a certain degree of humour at their core, something that Morrissey constantly stressed, and should be viewed primarily as satire. Though how can a mainstream audience ever take what appeared unremarkable for the Factory elite as comical. The sight of Dallesandro ‘shooting-up’ or Woodlawn masturbating with a beer bottle will always be controversial and uncomfortable viewing for the majority. Having said that wasn’t there a similar incident involving a bottle during the last series of BB, performed by someone called Kinga? My, how times have changed!
Possibly the most palatable introduction to the trilogy is ‘Heat’, which contains a more conventional narrative structure than its forerunners and ultimately resembles a film rather than a dramatisation of reality. With the characters transferred to a Hollywood setting the theme is essentially a satirical comment on the obsessive nature of the desire for stardom. It is funnier, though nonetheless as extreme or sexually explicit as the previous films, but lacks the junkie culture of New York City street-life. Dallesandro is once more the focus of the story as he sleeps with whomever necessary to secure his ultimate goal, to become a ‘superstar’. This is portrayed with the same insouciant disaffection he displayed in the both ‘Flesh’ and ‘Heat’. His many sexual encounters are approached with an air of dissatisfaction and necessity rather than passion, in much the same way as Warhol appeared cold and distant to others. When Dallesandro hooks up with a fading movie star Sally (Sylvia Miles) to further his career it’s difficult to avoid foreseeing the outcome. The more comical moments are mainly provided by Sally’s wayward daughter (Andrea Feldman) who is both hilarious and irritating in equal measures, when you hear her screeching voice you’ll know exactly what I mean.
If you’re brave enough, or purely curious, all three films are available in a DVD boxset now. Alternatively, sit back and wait for some junkies to feature on the next series of Big Brother, even if it’s only to see if Warhol was entirely accurate in his insightful forecasts of reality based cultural forms.
Tyler Durden – tMx 22 – 11/05