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Flesh (Paul Morrisey) 1968


    The late sixties were probably the most adventurous period in American film history. The counterculture revolution’s discontent with all established art provided an audience for some of the wildest cinematic experiments to ever hit the screens in this country. Pop artist Andy Warhol’s forays into filmmaking represent some of the most challenging of all of the period’s experimental works. Presented by Warhol, Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, the first in a trilogy of films staring pretty boy actor Joe Dallesandro (it was followed by Trash and Heat), is one of the most accessible and popular of their collaborations.


    As the film opens, we see the face of Joe as he placidly sleeps in bed in an extreme close-up shot. A seemingly random selection of music plays in the background as we watch him calmly lay there for a few minutes. When the shot is finally changed, the effect is shocking. We’re shown a Joe, fully naked, in the same position that we’ve been watching all along. The motivation of this setup is initially a bit enigmatic, but once we learn of his occupation, it becomes apparent. Though Joe has a wife (who he sometimes invites to meet his tricks), he is a street hustler, but by the standards of the world that Flesh takes place in, he’s an innocent, and that sentiment is precisely what the opening sequence was trying to convey visually. Soon, the film oversteps itself along these lines in a scene where we watch a still-naked Joe frolicking with his son (though this image critiques any prudishness we might have felt upon seeing the nudity earlier), but the point is still made. Perhaps too vacuous to be corruptible, Joe is really only understandable as a product of his society. The world that he lives in is all too willing to treat him as a commodity, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes in which we see him being posed by a elderly man who’s a supposed artist and a gay friend who wants him to emulate a pornographic photo.


    As the movie proceeds, and Joe continues on his sexual odyssey (a absurd quest to hustle two-hundred dollars to give to a friend of his wife’s for an abortion), we see a series of encounters that paint life in New York City as a never-ending procession of vice. Drag queens, fellow hustlers, and a seemingly limitless procession of johns are the people that we meet as we follow Joe around on what seems to be an average day’s work. Though Flesh isn’t brazen enough to show penetration on screen, it is shockingly candid in its portrayal of sex and nudity. The non-professional cast and the hand-held camerawork give the film a spontaneous, rambling feel that is interrupted by the frequent, chaotic jump cuts, which always disrupt the naturalism and remind us that we’re watching a fictional film. The photography feels distinctive, mostly because it sexualizes its male protagonist in a way that’s rare in film. Usually, only women are treated as sex objects in movies, and while there’s plenty of female nudity in Flesh as well, it’s the presentation of the male nudity that seems the most deviant.


    Though the technical aspects of Flesh might not be as polished as in a mainstream film, their shoddiness doesn’t detract from the unexpected emotional impact that the film packs. There is an undercurrent of sadness running throughout the film, and one can’t help but see the empty-headedness of Joe and his friends as a more troubling signifier of their generation’s amiable attitude toward its aimlessness. One girl’s narration of her rape is made more disturbing because of her resignation to it than by the crime itself. Still, most of the movie is more interested in making us laugh than worry about the state of the nation, and many of the unscripted scenes are surprisingly funny. Few modern comedies are as frank as this one. The sexual bluntness of the film also makes more current films look prudish and puritanical by comparison. The movie still seems ahead of its time in nearly every respect, even if most of the topical humor is a bit dated. By comparison to the aimless young adults of Flesh, the troubled teens in any given Larry Clark film seem downright motivated.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman