I Met Andy Warhol at a Really Chic Party ...

Film auteur Paul Morrissey hates it when the art superstar pops up

For the record, this article is NOT about Andy Warhol. I repeat: Neither Andy Warhol nor his "films" will be featured in the following story. Rather, this article is all about the filmmaker Paul Morrissey.

Never mind that Andy Warhol's name appears in large bold type all over and preceding the titles of a number of Morrissey's films made in the 1960s and 1970s. Or that Warhol keeps popping up in review after review, in stories written about the films at the time, and in photos appearing in the original programs. But if you bother to actually read the credits, as pointed out by Morrissey, you'll find the titles all read "Andy Warhol Presents," with no other credit to Warhol's name.

"Do you know what 'presents' means?" asks Morrissey from his home in New York. "Points. Ed Sullivan. That was his thing, he presented them."

The Sixties weren't just about hippies and tie-dye: Paul 
Morrissey (top) and "Factory" regular Joe Dallesandro
The Sixties weren't just about hippies and tie-dye: Paul Morrissey (top) and "Factory" regular Joe Dallesandro

So did Warhol do anything at all?

"No, nothing, he did nothing," crotchets Morrissey. "A presenter does nothing but point. If he did something else it would say."

So it was all just another Warhol myth, created by the artist who took special pleasure in toying with the idea of fame and bending the perceptions of the body politic, while co-opting images, ideas, and people along the way?

"Andy never made films," says Morrissey, who started his own film career in the early Sixties. "People imagine this, imagine that, they want to give him credit for everything. Somebody else gave him the idea, and he took the ideas anybody gave him and then he depended on somebody else to get it made.

"He was totally dependent on me for coming up with ideas and for doing things," says Morrissey, who describes his relationship with Warhol as having been very good. "I was the manager, I'd generate income in some form, and he would act as the presenter of whatever it was I thought up."

It is true that "Warhol" was more a brand name added to the final product. Notice the dramatic change in what's popularly considered the Warhol film oeuvre when Morrissey enters the picture in 1966 with the film The Chelsea Girls. Gone are the silent art film experiments such as Empire, an eight-hour continuous shot of the Empire State building; instead there are films of warmth, charm, and humor, with even something of a storyline. Further proof of Warhol's noninvolvement is the fact that Morrissey made Flesh while Warhol was in the hospital recovering from his famous gunshot wound.

Ah, but of course Warhol did contribute at least tangentially with actors who were part of his Factory studio.

"What do you mean 'part of a factory'? That's all journalistic lunacy," corrects Morrissey. "It's all these vague generalized ideas people have. 'Andy had a Factory, the actors were in the Factory, I was in the Factory.' There was no such thing as a factory, there was an office. But you want to imagine they were Andy's people and Andy's superstars. If I made the movie, I cast them, not him."

But enough about Andy Warhol, which this article is not about.

It's about Paul Morrissey. And certainly no one has questioned the filmmaking credentials of Morrissey, who was treated to a retrospective of his famous trilogy -- Heat, Flesh, and Trash -- along with a documentary on his life and work at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Morrissey made seventeen films in a career that spanned three decades.

There's a moral ambivalence to the characters in these films -- hustlers, drug addicts, transvestites -- but there's no judging or patronizing or commentary from behind the lens. In fact the direction is so lightly imposed, the actors' personalities shine through the largely improvised script, giving the viewer an intimacy with the interior life of the characters.

In Flesh, we see hustler Joe (Joe Dallesandro) in a long opening scene with his wife in bed as they wake up in the morning, talking and playing as couples do everywhere. The story is just as simple and uncluttered. Joe goes out on his hustling rounds on the streets of New York, meets a few people, makes a few bucks, sees some friends, then ends up where he started: back in bed with his wife and her pregnant girlfriend. It's natural to the point of documentary, with the emphasis not on the immorality of the characters but on their vulnerabilities as people.

And it's realism, except that the actors all have model good looks. Like a tale from Hollywood in the Thirties, Morrissey would often find his actors through casual encounters or in photographs, and just get a hunch about them. Acting on instinct, he'd shove them in front of the camera with sometimes electric results.

"The actors were chosen not just for being photogenic but for having personality plus, being above average," explains Morrissey. "So getting rid of the idiot idea that this is realistic. They're entertainment films, they're comedy films."

The closest antecedent to Morrissey's works were from the realist Italian directors of the 1950s, and followed the concept of putting serious subjects into comical films. Dino Risi, Mario Monicelli, and even Federico Fellini -- the giant of humor and realism in the Fifties before veering off into fantasy -- were all favorites of Morrissey.

He admits that Flesh was a version of an Italian film he'd seen eight years prior, at least the skeleton of the story: a person going out to make some money for his family and coming back home. Morrissey realized he could just borrow the simplistic stories the Italian films were telling, since American films were much more elaborate "in some silly way."

"I deal with drugs and prostitution and people with no morality. But to me they were not a serious subject that you should say, 'Oh, what are we going to do about this?' That's all the socialist, political way of dealing with a story," says Morrissey. "It was 'Aren't human beings foolish in their behavior?' Humorous really. Not to be agonized over but to be sort of laughed at. I think that humanizes the story and also it takes the pretentiousness out of it."

Otherwise, there was no independent film movement at the time that a director like Morrissey could tap into for resources or ideas. Besides the occasional small release of indie-type films, the only movies that he could point to as being outside the control of film companies and formulas were from Europe.

Morrissey gave up filmmaking about the same time the official "indie" film movement began in the late Eighties. Too much control by distributors and production companies, such as adhering to their approved cast list and other necessities, pushed purists like Morrissey away from the industry.

You can catch Morrissey in Miami for screenings of Trash, Heat, and Flesh for Frankenstein, where he will be on hand to talk about his films. But just don't bring up the dreaded "W" name.

"If you ask me questions about the credits and you can't read the credits as they exist in the right way -- I get bothered by that all the time. So if you just see some credits, Andy Warhol, look and see what the hell credit it is," sighs Morrissey. "It doesn't make sense to me. All I know is that I've encountered it for 30 years and it doesn't want to go away."

Trash shows on Friday, March 12; Heat shows on Saturday, March 13; and Flesh for Frankenstein shows on Sunday, March 14, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, 512 Española Way. All screenings are at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 for Cinematheque members, $10 for nonmembers. Call 305-673-4567.

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