Producer Andy Warhol and writer-director Paul Morrissey were prolific collaborators in the ’60s and ’70s, reaching the commercial zenith of their partnership with the campy gorefests Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). More typical of the Warhol/Morrissey aesthetic, however is a trilogy of grungy docudramas about street people, all starring somnambulistic stud Joe Dallesandro. Typifying a certain downtown aesthetic, thanks to filthy locations, ramshackle storytelling, and unglamorous actors, Flesh (1968), Trash, and Heat offer unflinching looks at what straight-laced people would classify as deviant lifestyles. These are challenging pictures to watch, not only because so much of what’s shown onscreen is ugly but also because Morrissey mostly eschews tools that might help sustain interest, such as economy and suspense. As exemplified by Dallesendro’s tendency to perform scenes in the nude, these pictures are about letting it all hang out.
Whereas Flesh tells the story of a low-rent gigolo, Trash is the tale of a zonked-out junkie. Dallesandro plays Joe, a perpetually bewildered New York City heroin addict who spends the movie drifting in and out of sexual situations, even though the only kind of scoring he wants to do involves getting dope. The style is set right in the first scene, because the opening image is a close-up of Dallesandro’s pimple-covered buttocks as he receives (offscreen) fellatio from a shapely dancer. Unable to get the desired response, the dancer then performs a striptease, but Joe merely lies on the couch, still unable to get an erection. Once this pointless vignette runs its course, Joe wanders into other situations, eventually spending most of his time with his undersexed girlfriend, Holly (played by female impersonator Holly Woodlawn). Various “highlights” of the picture include Joe shooting up on camera and Holly servicing him/herself with a Coke bottle. Oh, there’s also a scene during which a young woman patiently extracts lice from Joe’s pubic hair.
Trash isn’t quite as dull and puerile as this description might suggest, though Morrissey clearly savors real-time grotesquerie. The picture has a mildly satirical quality, sometimes poking fun at the slovenly excesses of street people and sometimes skewering the ridiculous behavior of wealthy dilettantes who slum for kicks. The sum effect of all this gutter-level camp is that Trash feels like a John Waters movie on downers. (Lest we forget, many of the characters in Lou Reed’s classic song “Walk on the Wild Side,” notably a certain transvestite named Holly, were inspired by members of Warhol’s clique.)
Discovering the redeeming values in Heat is difficult. Set in Los Angeles instead of New York, but filled with the same downtrodden losers as the previous pictures in the trilogy, Heat stars Dallesandro as Joey, an opportunistic young man trading on his past fame as the teenaged costar of a TV series. Taking up residence in a typical LA apartment complex with a courtyard surrounding a pool, Joey makes a deal to have regular sex with the complex’s obnoxious, overweight landlady in exchange for discounted rent. He also encounters Jessica (Andrea Feldman), a deranged young woman living in the complex with her infant child—the product of a drug-addled one-night stand—and her lesbian lover. Jessica’s middle-aged mother, Sally (Sylvia Miles), is a faded actress who once appeared with Joey on his TV show, so Jessica hopes that Joey can help persuade Sally to cough up extra cash, seeing as how Jessica doesn’t work. Joey quickly gloms onto the lonely and neurotic Sally, becoming her lover and spending long stretches of time in the mansion she won in her divorce from a wealthy man.
Everyone in Heat is a delusional striver, except perhaps for the simple-minded transvestite who wanders around the apartment complex while masturbating 24/7. Miles’ performance has some Shelley Winters-style grandiosity, but the rest of the acting is sloppy and unmemorable, just like Morrissey’s camerawork. Even more problematic is the derivative nature of the piece, since Heat is basically a thick-headed riff on Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). So unless wallowing in human desperation is your idea of fun, Heat is too amateurish, contrived, and dreary to merit your attention.