A former British censor once said to me of Paul Morrissey’s Trash: “It’s all very well you middle-class people trotting along to see such films at the ICA or somewhere arty like that. But what do you suppose might happen if Trash were presented to a working-class audience in Manchester?”
Which is rather like asking – as did Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, nicknamed Bullingham Manner, during the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial – whether you’d like your servants to read the book.
The answer, of course, is that the middle-classes did indeed lap up this story of a down-and-out junkie and his girl living on New York’s Lower East Side, while the Manchester audience was never given the chance, though it might well have thrown its popcorn at the screen and left after 40 minutes or so. But the fact that films like Trash, its companion film, Flesh (1968), and Heat (1971) were once seen as dangerous now seems beyond all understanding.
There are two views of this seminal film from the early 70s. One is that Morrissey, who came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory, is to be praised for imposing vaguely coherent story and fleshed-out character onto this Warholian epic. And that it’s liberating frankness, which so worried the censor, actually masked an almost puritan and certainly rightwing morality. The other is that Morrissey should be censured, if not censored, for ruining the formal integrity of something like Chelsea Girls with conventionally authored and plotted films that were a mixture of prurience and condescension.
In fact, Morrissey certainly took a strict attitude towards drug-taking. He considered his characters worse than the Bowery winos and the film a counter attack against the romanticising of drug use in Easy Rider. “The basic idea is that drug people are trash. There’s no difference between a person using drugs and a piece of refuse.”
The film itself, however, was more compassionate, suggesting that its two lead characters were capable of salvaging something of their ruined lives through tenderness and loyalty.
Joe (Dallesandro) and Holly (Woodlawn, a transvestite who told Morrissey she was a Warhol Superstar despite never having met him) live in a basement apartment they furnish with trash from the street. His heroin addiction has rendered him impotent and the plot concerns Holly’s abortive efforts to save him from himself and the oddities they meet on the way. The uptown people who pass through their orbit include a rich girl who wants LSD, a topless dancer, and a newly-wed couple fascinated by all things lurid.
Although it is clear that most of the women, and some of the men, including probably the director, want Joe’s body – and the film is in a sense a kind of paean to this – it is Woodlawn who dominates Trash, with Morrissey accepting totally that he/she is a woman. She has said that she wanted to seem ridiculous and make people laugh. But also that the watcher should feel something for a woman who craves some sort of normalcy in her life.It is a performance that manages both, even in the notorious sequence where she masturbates with a beer bottle, gripping the impotent Joe’s hand as she does so.
If the film is primitively made, with Morrissey’s static camera augmented only by documentary inserts of street life, it isn’t just an exploitative piece of sexual and social exotica. It actually has a twisted heart and mind behind it.
Whether you think Morrissey betrayed Warhol or not, Morrissey’s view of his mentor was probably right. As he said: “Andy wasn’t capable of any complicated thoughts or ideas. Ideas need a verb and a noun, a subject. Andy spoke in a kind of stumbling staccato. You had to finish sentences for him. So Andy operated through people who could do things for him. He wished things into happening, things he himself couldn’t do. In that respect he was like Louis B Mayer at MGM.”