Paul Morrissey once said that the three early films he made with Joe Dallesandro formed a trilogy whose themes were those old staples: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (well, showbiz at least). Flesh, as its title indicates, deals with the sex part. It depicts a day in the life of a New York male hustler, Joe (Joe Dallesandro), who sells his body to support the heroin habit of both himself and his lesbian wife Geri (Geraldine Smith), and also to pay for an abortion for Geri’s lover.
Andy Warhol’s early films were more like art installations than narrative cinema. The content of his early films are summed up by their titles: Eat, Kiss, Haircut. We watch someone Sleep for six hours, and gaze at the Empire (State Building) for eight. We watch someone’s face as he receives a Blow Job, and we watch Louis Waldron and Viva Fuck (aka Blue Movie). None of these films have any plot as such, and Warhol used a back-to-basics film technique – natural light, direct sound, minimal or no camera movement – so as not to impose any directorial stamp on what he filmed. However, this is deceptive: his cast (usually made up of the “Superstars”, a polymorphously perverse group of associates and hangers-on at his Factory) were certainly assembled in front of the camera and filmed while they did their thing, whether prepared or spontaneous is impossible to tell.
Paul Morrissey joined forces with Warhol in the mid-sixties. He had made some short films previously but Flesh was his first feature-length effort. Warhol was not involved except to lend his name to the project: Morrissey and a sound recordist (Jed Johnson, later to direct Andy Warhol’s Bad) were the only crew and the film was shot at weekends, with a cast made up of Warhol associates. Flesh shares the same radical anti-technique as Warhol’s early work: many scenes are covered in a single shot, the film sometimes goes out of focus and the soundtrack is rough. In Flesh, Morrissey even goes so far as not to disguise sound edits: you can hear them as they go past. Thirty years later, the Dogme films (which Morrissey’s films surely influenced) made a point of going back to basics, but they never went as far as this. However, Morrissey’s films differ from Warhol’s in that there is a story, albeit a very minimal one. (It’s in part a reaction to Midnight Cowboy; similarly, Heat riffs off Sunset Boulevard.) He also shows an unembarrassed and non-judgemental frankness about sex and nudity – far less remarkable now but utterly groundbreaking then – and the details of lifestyles that would have seemed quite outré then and now. The films’ humour is often overlooked as well. In one scene, two male transvestites (Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, immortalised in the second and fifth verses of Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side”) chat and knit while Joe is fellated offscreen. In many ways, the androgynously beautiful Dallesandro (twenty at the time) is filmed as the object of desire. He’s introduced naked and asleep, his backside in the air as if inviting entry, and he’s nude through a large part of the film. Dallesandro is still alive and working as an actor, but his status as a cult icon rests with Flesh, Trash and Heat. He’s since graced the cover of the first Smiths album (and that’s his bejeaned crotch on the cover of the Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers), used in an advert for Calvin Klein jeans, not to mention being the subject of the third verse of “Walk on the Wild Side”.
Needless to say, this was strong stuff in the late 1960s, and Flesh has a place in the history of British film censorship. When it was submitted to the BBFC in 1969, the then Secretary John Trevelyan liked it but felt unable to pass the film. Not the least of his problems was the opening scene where Dallesandro’s penis is seen to be partially erect, a first in American cinema outside the porn industry. Trevelyan suggested to Jimmy Vaughan, the distributor (known at the time for bringing cutting-edge cinema to Britain) that he show the film under club-membership conditions at the Open Space Theatre in London. However, on 3 February 1970, the police raided the theatre, halted the screening and seized the film. Vaughan immediately phoned Trevelyan who was on the scene within minutes. Trevelyan defended the film and the Open Space’s right to show it to an adult audience, calling the police reaction “unjustified and preposterous”. The case made headlines. The police dropped the prosecution as films were (then) not covered by the Obscene Publications Act, but they fined the theatre £200 for admitting non-members to see the film. This sum Trevelyan coaxed from the notoriously tight-fisted Warhol himself. In his book Censored, Tom Dewe Mathews describes this as possibly Trevelyan’s finest hour, and it’s hard to disagree. After this, Trevelyan passed Flesh uncut on 25 January 1971, not only with Dallesandro’s erection but with very likely the first BBFC-sanctified use of the word “cunt”. (It certainly helped that in 1970, the BBRFC had raised the age limit for the X certificate from sixteen to eighteen.) Warhol/Morrissey’s struggles with the censor would continue with their next film, Trash, which I will discuss when I review that DVD.
Flesh is released as part of a three-film box set with Trash and Heat and is not at present (August 2005) available separately. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only, not Region 0 as it says on the packaging.
The film is presented in its original 4:3 ratio so is not anamorphically enhanced. The running time more or less matches the cinematic one, which would lead me to suspect that this PAL DVD has been mastered from a NTSC source. Given the way that Flesh was filmed, this DVD transfer would never be reference material anyway, but at least the worst failings of systems conversions, such as ghosting, are absent, even when watching on a PC monitor. The film’s 16mm origins mean that the film is soft and frequently grainy and there’s some minor print damage here and there. Morrissey supervised the DVD transfers himself and this looks as good as this film is ever likely to.
The soundtrack is the original mono. It sounds quite rough in places, due to the use of direct sound recording, and occasionally dialogue is not easy to make out. The major shortcoming of this box set is that Tartan have not seen fit to provide any subtitles.
Morrissey elected not to provide a commentary for the films themselves, but he does provide a short introduction (3:02) over a montage of stills and provides an optional commentary over 10:35 of deleted scenes. The commentary is provided by film director Penny Woolcock and psychoanalyst Nicola Abel-Hirsch. Woolcock first saw the film in the early seventies, when she was living a somewhat marginal existence herself, and she discusses the film’s technical aspects as well as its use of a male nude as an object of desire, and the film’s view of sexuality. Her contributions tend to overshadow Abel-Hirsch’s, but it’s a worthwhile discussion and interesting to see two women’s take on this subject matter.
Morrissey returns with a short film, About Face (4:52), a short study in close-up of Karen Holzer’s face, shot in 16mm with no soundtrack, made as an exercise in 1964. You can watch it silent, or listen to Morrissey’s commentary, in which he discusses the discipline of making a film without sound. This is something unlikely to be done today, as even the most basic video cameras have sound facilities.
The box set includes a booklet, "All Fixed-Up: The Story of Trash at the BBFC", which does also describe Flesh's censorship travails. I will discuss this booklet in my review of Trash.
Flesh has a place in film history, and Tartan have done generally well by it, the major shortcoming being the lack of subtitles. It’s only available as part of a box set, but I would expect anyone likely to want to buy this would want to buy Trash and Heat as well.