Shot as something of a lark between Lonesome Cowboys and Flesh, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s heretofore unreleased (technically unfinished) San Diego Surf functions more as a moment of transition than it does a prequel to Morrissey’s increasingly jaundiced masterpieces that followed. Made in the spring of 1968 while the Factory was at the tail end of their extended fieldtrip to a not entirely welcoming West Coast, San Diego Surf stars Taylor Mead and Viva as a couple preposterously married with children. The two have opened up their beachfront home to a bevy of bleached blond surfers, who catch both waves and the wandering eyes of their hosts. Among their lackadaisical ranks is Joe Dallesandro, a dim New Yorker with a thrilling physique but absolutely no surf cred who hopes some of the boys crashing the couple’s home can teach him a thing or two about riding the waves. The movie’s B story, as it were, involves Viva throwing a mixer for the benefit of a pregnant Ingrid Superstar in hopes that she can land a husband, only none of the surfers on hand appear in any mood to get tied down, though complicating matters is Mead’s open flirtations with the tawny crew, which drive his admirer, Luana Falana, to desperately attempt to catch his attention with a chorus of “Do you know the Muffin Man?”
Far less rigidly structured than Morrissey’s subsequent films under the Warhol brand name, but with creeping hints of the oddball collaborator’s scarcely concealed contempt for the scene he was documenting, San Diego Surf often seems as close to an equal partnership between Warhol and Morrissey as any of their films together, taking into obvious consideration the notion that Morrissey reportedly pieced together the footage years after Warhol’s death. (Not more than a month after San Diego Surf was filmed, Valerie Solanas plugged Warhol in the gut, and Morrissey took over the Factory’s filming operations.) Here, the glamorous and the infantile cohabitate on a casual level, and frivolity remains the Factory’s default mode.
Even as early as Flesh, the next film in Warhol’s timeline and one of the purported reasons San Diego Surf never saw the light of day until decades later (Flesh was simply a better film and thus got favored for immediate release), Morrissey was beginning to inject his own skepticism about the conflation of lifestyle with artistic expression. And though many in the fold decried his “cheap commercial tricks” (such as his behind-the-camera tactics of stoking his players’ innate jealousies to bring about more acute on-screen antics), the ensuing films arguably rivaled Warhol’s earlier avant-lite happenings, at least to the extent that they showcased the strong personalities the Svengali’s harem had accrued.
If indeed Morrissey crafted the footage both he and Warhol shot during San Diego Surf‘s three-week shoot to better serve his own interests, then the evidence on hand suggests Warhol was the one in primary control during the actual filming process. Only one unforgettable moment in the whole film suggests the guidance of the same twisted genius who made Holly Woodlawn masturbate with an empty Coke bottle and gave all the female parts in his anti-feminist burlesque Women in Revolt to drag queens. Early in the film, Viva punctuates a rant against Mead’s not-so-latent homosexuality by carelessly dropping their baby from her hip. A nearby Dallesandro snaps the infant up before it lands on the concrete in what appears to have been a totally unscripted near-disaster. “You were nearly a complete failure as a mother,” is Mead’s deadpan response. Aside from the near-death of that baby and Mead’s climactic tête-à-tête with Tom, a gorgeously tan young thing he begs to piss on him while they take turns humping a surfboard, San Diego Surf lacks the confrontationalism that marks Morrissey’s greatest contribution to the brand. As has been noted in various Warhol accounts, even a band of misfits as willful as the Superstars was no match for the tranquilizing idyll of SoCal.