Somewhere in the first reel of 1971’s Women in Revolt (a follow-up of sorts to 1970’s Trash in the sense that it gave Holly Woodlawn another crack at stealing a movie right out from under the noses of her co-stars), Jackie Curtis restages Elizabeth Taylor’s restaging of Bette “What a Dump” Davis in Beyond the Forest. She takes a drag from her cigarette and sneers “what a dive” (well, actually “duyiive” in her thick Noo Yawk patois). She then demands her shaggy and stark-naked boyfriend to bend over so she can deodorize his ass. She presses the aerosol nozzle for what seems like five minutes and then tries to sanitize his mess upfront by throwing lit matches toward his crotch. It’s this moment that captures the texture of the films Paul Morrissey directed for Andy Warhol beginning with his co-direction of Chelsea Girls and giving way to Morrissey’s full control of Lonesome Cowboys and the Joe Dallesandro trilogy, of which Trash is undoubtedly the most effective.
By “texture” I mean not only the tactility of the crusty, dingy locations (which all but scream “the trust fund just dried up”), but also the fatigue of a Factory that was starting to feel the inexorable approach of its own metaphorical fifteenth minute. After all, Warhol’s own Vinyl (1965) looked like it was filmed in a party dungeon and Gerard Malanga’s central performance is nearly as winded as Dallesandro’s in Trash, but still there’s Edie Sedgwick dawdling around in the corner of the frame, lending a glamorous puss to a curdling plot (Burgess’s Clockwork Orange). When Warhol handed the reigns over to Morrissey, little must he have known that Morrissey would turn Warhol’s arguably narcissistic screen test aesthetic into its own damning critique, as well as its best punchline.
Ironically, Morrissey’s films provided a more welcoming stage for bona fide superstar performances than many of Warhol’s own movies. The first two films in the Joe trilogy are structured so each supporting character shows up, a new chapter in an Alice in Wonderland goon show, and steals the movie for a number of minutes before Joe moves onto the next actor. In deference to that, and because there’s nary a bum performance in Trash, an introductory roll call: Geri Miller (who in Flesh told a long-winded and oddly moving story about empowerment in which she reacted to a rape by being stiff and unappealing so that she could later taunt her rapist with her nubile shimmying) opens the film, trying to goad a heroin-impotent Joe into getting it up. “Does politics turn you on?” she ultimately pleads with her sandpapered, pinched-off lil’ girl voice, before sighing, “I’m never gonna see you again. I can’t be with someone and not make love.” Joe immediately begins whistling a tune. The Kewpie doll-faced Jane Forth (who was 16 during Trash’s filming) and Bruce Pecheur play a bored upper-middle class married couple who are thrilled at the opportunity to see Joe shoot up, a live demonstration of destitution in their own living room.
The transvestite Holly Woodlawn plays Joe’s long-suffering common law wife, who collects trash off the streets to decorate their scummy, crumbling flat. (One of her first lines of dialogue in the film is uttered while Joe is setting a porcelain sink in the center of the room: “Be careful, people gotta pee in that.”) With her googly eyes, a nest of burgeoning dreads atop her head, and a pronounced overbite that turns her lips into a pair of string beans, Holly’s untraditional sort of glamour lends a surprising poignancy to the wrenching scene when, after catching Joe in bed with her amoral, pregnant sister-zombie, she unleashes a volcanic tantrum of violated trust, festering jealousy, and, ultimately, wounded pride at the realization that perhaps it’s her and not heroin that keeps Joe’s cock flaccid in bed. The frazzled, cracked-glass-Cassavetes close-ups Morrissey bequeathed to her talent caught the eye of none other than George Cukor, who started an ultimately unsuccessful petition campaign in support of an Oscar nomination (one that was signed by, among others, Cassavetes player Ben Gazzara). Oscars, schmoscars. To call Holly’s performance one of the very greatest in all of cinema would be an understatement.
Holly gets all the big scenes, but then there’s Andrea Feldman, who shows up for only one scene as an ambiguously wealthy, LSD-fried nutcase and who, as an actress, defies just about any description, though she claims Morrissey called her the best actress he ever worked with. (One wonders not so much if the claim is true, but if Morrissey didn’t technically refer to Holly, Jackie, and Candy Darling as “actresses.”) She wears enough mascara to choke a horse, and her voice sort of sounds like what that horse might sound like while choking on it, or maybe if Prairie Dawn and Pee-Wee Herman gave birth to an autistic daughter. Later, in 1972’s Heat, on-screen mother Sylvia Miles’s only possible improvised reaction to one of her free-associating babbles was “What the hell’re you talking about?” Even Pat Ast, whose default mode in the same film was fan-wielding authoritarianism, was equally spooked, reacting to a crying-laughing jag with “You know, she’s really out of her bird.” Not too much later, Feldman orchestrated her final great performance when she arranged for a small bunch of her former lovers to all be present on the sidewalk in front of her high rise so they’d see when she leapt from her 14th story apartment window.
Last and least, there is Joe himself, who in the two years since playing Venus as a boy in Flesh had devolved into a somnambulistic personification of perpetual hangover. He is the stagnant black hole at the center of Morrissey’s vision of drug-addled dissolution. But the difference between the flaxen-haired Joe of Flesh and the dustpan-locked Joe of Trash isn’t even really a matter of squandered looks (even despite his acutely disheveled state Forth whines “I wouldn’t mind looking at yer body”). Rather it can be surmised by the difference between his irresistible sexy aloofness in the first film and the barely concealed contempt he has for everyone who fixates on him in the second, the difference between keeping lovers at arm’s length and at fist’s length.
In Trash, the loopy roster of mush-mouthed catchphrases (especially Holly’s climactic defense: “Just because people don’t like it and they have no use for it, that don’t mean it’s garbage!”) actually reflect both the characters’ and actors’ sad awareness of their own dumpy situations. Right off the bat, Geri responds to Joe’s choice of drugs over sex with an appeal to financial reason: “Look at all the fun you can be having. I mean, like, it’s a cheaper fun even. This is fun—the drugs—but it costs money. Sex is just as much fun as drugs and get you just as high and it’s cheaper.” Morrissey’s morality isn’t without satiric relativity, and his portrayal of sexual “revolution” as merely a liberal candy-coated guise for just another economics-based model of supply, demand, and bartering is harsh but surprisingly lucrative (and ironic considering how salable Joe’s torso was up there on the one-sheets). Which makes the notorious scene in which a sexually frustrated Holly masturbates with a beer bottle into the ultimate oddball tribute to her independence and ecological saintliness; it’s like a fantastic prototypal recycling program. (It also turns the off-hand moment when, in the midst of castigating Joe for his tryst with her sister, she responds to his pathetic request for more money by telling him to take her bottles and cash them in for deposits into a farcically quasi-martyr act of sexual self-sacrifice.)
There’s no doubt that Trash is a rude-tempered, wickedly funny comedy. (Feldman’s response to Joe’s attempt at raping her: “I don’t want to be fucked… byyy a juuunkie! Don’t rip mah eight-hundred dollar coat!”) But spiking the humor are a lot of ugly realisms and performances that walk the line between fiction and verisimilitude. Not just Joe’s unsimulated shoot-ups, but also the sticky scene in which Holly drugs and ravages a 16-year-old Johnny Putnam, a scene that only becomes more creepy when one learns that, at the time, the two really were a couple, and the scene is something of a replay of Holly’s aggressive real-life seduction. It’s not pretty, but the film’s unapologetic mockery of the hedonism behind the counterculture’s lip service to changing the world certainly lines up with the man who, on the very first page of Maurice Yacowar’s book-length study The Films of Paul Morrissey, is quoted as saying, “Without institutionalized religion as the basis, a society can’t exist. In my lifetime, I’ve seen this terrible eradication of what makes sense and its replacement by absolute horror. All the sensible values of a solid education and a moral foundation have been flushed down the liberal toilet in order to sell sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
Still, on the second page he claims, “I’m not a ’religious Catholic.’” Morrissey’s social criticism is hardly as one-note and dour as it’s made out to be by those who’d like to cast him as a closet freak/Jansenist smuggling the Good Word into the most prominent non-denominational church of the late-’60s NY art world. (That he was, at heart, a morally upstanding, Catholic schoolboy is indisputable, but try picturing a nun sitting through midnight screenings of his films.) Or that he envisioned the entirety of the counterculture (represented by Warhol’s superstars) as vacuous, indolent lost souls. Not even a decade after Morrissey’s Joe trilogy, Chris Marker documented the premature death of the ’60s revolution with A Grin Without a Cat, but because his tone resembled an incantatory lament, it doesn’t provide as many problems for its primarily left-of-center audience as, for instance, Women in Revolt’s downright acidic portrayal of a feminist strategy meeting (to say nothing of the acronym for Politically Involved Girls). If Joe, Holly, Andrea, and company are “lost souls,” it’s only in the sense that they fell for the eschatology of a young, vibrant collective, the notion that the era’s “happening” would ultimately lead somewhere else than “what happened?”
If anything, the character of the Welfare agent offers a clear and somewhat self-knowing insight into the mentality of Morrissey’s attitude toward refitting Warhol’s mundane-unto-fabulous Factory ethos onto an inverted, fabulous-unto-mundane traditional Hollywood narrative. (Unsurprisingly, Morrissey worked for the NY Welfare Department before meeting Warhol.) The bespectacled, peace-broach-wearing agent (who even “flubs lines” all wrong, so that each stutter sounds rehearsed instead of elemental) makes a fantastic show about donning his rubber boots to walk around into Joe and Holly’s grimy lair and says through his teeth, “You look like two decent, respectable hippies” before retracting it with the peace offering “You like ’flower children’ better?” But all the while, even when callously bringing the hammer down and denying them the economic salvation Holly claims she deserves, he just can’t help himself from leeringly fingering Holly’s Joan Crawford-esque silver lamé pumps. With bathroom tissue on his fingers, natch.