While I will soon be posting (after agonizing delay) on the harder-to-find films directed by Paul Morrissey, it would be negligent not to first address a conundrum that a museum’s worth of researchers, hundreds of well-detailed books and even direct witnesses have failed to answer effectively. Was it Paul Morrissey or Andy Warhol that “directed” the bulk of the films both are credited with, if the verb “direct” can even be applied to such loose, improvised cinematic exercises?
The debate about Morrissey’s exact imprint on the films designated as “Andy Warhol films” (particularly the feature-lengths shot between 1965, when Morrissey officially entered the Warhol Factory, and Warhol’s near-fatal shooting in 1968, after which Warhol ceded most filmmaking duties to Morrissey) will probably never be resolved. In my interview with Morrissey for Hidden Films (later reprinted in Bright Lights Film Journal), he yelled at me for quite some time after I casually referred to films he is credited as co-director on as “Warhol films.” According to him, Andy Warhol was an incompetent, who knew nothing about camerawork or editing or direction. In almost every interview with Morrissey since he permanently parted ways with Warhol in the late 1970s, he has regarded Warhol with at best gentle pity and at worst outright contempt. One story he has held firm on is that he cast and directed all the films, then “let” Warhol operate the camera and put his name on (and his money towards) the finished product, to keep up Warhol’s celebrated status as a filmmaker (which no doubt helped bankroll Morrissey’s own career).
To take Morrissey’s account at face value would be grossly unethical. So I talked to several people who knew both Morrissey and Warhol at various stages of their alliance, and their descriptions vary wildly, with a few exceptions. Most agreed that Andy Warhol was a taciturn sort who scarcely if ever gave direction to his cast; that Morrissey, with or without Warhol’s collaboration, is a talented filmmaker; and that nonetheless Morrissey tends to exaggerate his creative input on these films and downplay Warhol’s.
One thing is self-evident: regardless of Morrissey’s stronger camerawork skills, Warhol certainly didn’t need Morrissey to make a movie. He shot scores of films starting in 1963, years before Morrissey entered the scene. Some of the more famous ones included “Blow Job,” a single shot of the title act’s recipient’s face, and “Empire,” the eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building. Warhol clearly had a vision, a need to convey his fascination with people that struck him as beautiful, and fill the frame with their presence for perhaps longer than an audience desired. Even though Morrissey added new visual elements to later Warhol Factory releases, the camera’s obsession with performers that could be defined as “fabulous”–fabulously gorgeous, or fabulously epicene, or fabulously grotesque–remained intact.
That said, it’s undeniable that Warhol Factory releases did start to change in style circa 1965, and parallels can be drawn between films of that period that Morrissey, while uncredited, claimed to be involved with (“My Hustler,” “Bike Boy,” etc) with ones he indisputably helmed later on (“Trash,” “Heat”). While several people I talked to scoffed at my even mentioning the word “editing”–a practice Warhol avoided–almost every movie I watched that Morrissey has associated himself with appeared to have been meddled with after the initial shooting. It’s as if Morrissey employed Warhol’s tactic of shooting until the film stock ran out, but then got bored watching the footage and decided to fast-forward to more interesting parts of the dialogue. We, the audience, get to take in this visual restlessness, with all the blotchy jump shots and screen distortions and whirring noises that playing with film reels generated in those days. There’s also a great deal of panning (a trick that Morrissey claims he taught Warhol), a lot of salty dialogue, and even a semblance of a storyline. It’s evident that Morrissey intended to shake up the monotony of Warhol’s static tableaus.
What is considerably harder to prove is how much influence Morrissey had over these projects. Did Warhol allow certain edits and camera angles and object to others? Did he himself want more dialogue, or was that all Morrissey’s suggestion? Who came up with whatever scant plot structure there was? Who was the true “visionary”?
The closest I got to an “objective” answer was when I visited the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in late December. I was set up by the very helpful curator Greg Pierce with a screening of “Andy Makes a Movie,” a 1968 short film documenting the making of “San Diego Surf.” The last film made before Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, it was shelved for decades, edited by Morrissey in 1996, then finally shown publicly in Miami in the fall of 2011, and at Museum of Modern Art in October.
During “Andy Makes a Movie,” we see images of both Warhol and Morrissey operating cameras, and the cast lounging about, but only hear Warhol and several members of his entourage being interviewed by film professor Aaron Sloan, with some background conversations occasionally seeping in. Warhol gives his usual vague, detached answers; asked why he gave up painting for moviemaking, he replies, “The camera is easier to work, you just turn it on.” Later, we hear Morrissey’s squawk of a New Yawk accent as he instructs Warhol on what seems like a basic camera maneuver, a fleeting example of what Morrissey would call “incompetence.” While Morrissey, unfortunately, is never interviewed, there is a second brief but rather telling glimpse into their relationship, after Warhol is asked if Morrissey buys, tests and works most of the equipment used on his films. Warhol says, “Uhhhh…I guess so.” Then the doorbell rings, and Warhol excuses himself. It’s a cop-out, to be sure, but Warhol’s consternation at this question speaks volumes.
Generally, though, there are no easy answers to this dilemma of who should be credited for what, and there likely never will be. All we have are the accounts of the many actors, collaborators, musicians, archivists and hangers-on who knew both men on a personal level. My “research” will never compare with that of, say, Gary Comenas, founder of the web site WarholStars.org, which, citing from literally hundreds of books and articles, provides an exhaustive, chronological account of Warhol’s life and creative output, and that of his entourage. (I must thank Gary profusely for answering most of my questions, mentioning my interview with Morrissey on his site and linking me to several Warhol stars). But luckily I was able to touch base with a few key figures in this saga: Holly Woodlawn (the Puerto Rican transgendered star of “Trash” and “Women in Revolt,” who’s still friends with Morrissey); Gerard Malanga (the legendary photographer and poet who collaborated with Warhol and his crew between 1963 and 1970); Mary Woronov (who appeared in several early Warhol films as well as the three-hour Warhol/Morrissey extravanganza “Chelsea Girls”); and Taylor Mead (the daffy poet and Warhol regular often seen dancing nude in films like “Imitation of Christ” and “Taylor Mead’s Ass.”)
Woodlawn, whom I reached over the phone at her California home, more or less supported Morrissey’s viewpoints. To be fair, she admitted that her interactions with Warhol were few and far between, but she remembered him being on-set during “Women in Revolt.” “The guy didn’t know how to use the camera, and you could hear Paul behind him, saying, ‘Andy, press on, Andy, press off,’” Woodlawn recalled. “Paul was very mad because Andy was making all this money, and not once did he say ‘I would like to thank my partner.’ That’s where all that anger comes from. Paul is not a spotlight person. But Andy could have said thanks.”
Malanga, through e-mail, confirmed that Morrissey was responsible for virtually all of the creative aspects of “San Diego Surf” and “Lonesome Cowboys” (despite Warhol’s co-director credit). According to Malanga, the official first time that Warhol moved the camera was on “Camp,” shot in the summer of 1965 prior to “My Hustler,” but Morrissey did instruct Warhol on camerawork during the making of “Hustler,” the first Warhol Factory film Morrissey was involved with. An amusing tidbit: Malanga (as well as Woronov) vehemently denied Morrissey’s claim that he discovered The Velvet Underground, saying that it was underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin who introduced the band to Warhol.
Mead, who still resides in New York City, was a bit more laudatory of Warhol, albeit in a slightly sarcastic manner. “Andy’s a fucking genius and an asshole, too,” he said. “But his presence is enough. And Paul knows what he wants. The two worked together beautifully. Paul claims to do all the filming, but Andy’s influence is always there.” He added that, to the best of his recollection, Warhol and Morrissey “took turns” operating the camera on “San Diego Surf” and “Lonesome Cowboys,” both of which were for the most part improvised. (For the record, Mead claims it was he who discovered Woodlawn, while Woodlawns avows that Morrissey found her).
Woronov (who left the Warhol camp shortly after the release of “Chelsea Girls” in 1966) said that Morrissey may have been around for the filming of Nico’s scenes in “Chelsea” but was not present for her scenes, which Warhol filmed. She believes that Morrissey’s claims about his input on the films are grossly overstated, and challenged his viewpoint during a film festival in Poland several years ago, to which he replied, “You don’t know!” Woronov also credited lighting designer Billy Name, and not Morrissey, with both the minimal editing work on “Chelsea” and the concept to run the film as two reels simultaneously. (Malanga called this version of events “ridiculous”; I could not reach Name for comment). Like Mead, she noted Warhol’s powerful reputation and aura on-set. “Nothing happened unless he was on set,” said Woronov. “He was the catalyst for everything. He had a very strange way of directing. Sometimes he would say, ‘That’s wrong,’ sort of to someone else. But he never directed you. But if he was in the room, people just started acting out.”
I could not reach Joe Dallesandro, the long-haired, often naked male model cast as a passive hustler in several Morrissey films (his jean-clad crotch is on the cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”). But there are enough quotes out there to indicate that he preferred working with Morrissey. In the biography “Little Joe, Superstar: The Films of Joe Dallesandro,” by Michael Ferguson (who runs Dallesandro’s web site and also kindly helped me with some of my research), Dallesandro describes Warhol’s work ethic during the shooting of “The Loves of Ondine”: “The camera was facing one direction and he was facing the other direction, not looking through the camera at all, just reading his newspaper, and every once in a while, he’d hit the on-off switch. And that was him directing this movie.”
Whatever ones’ take on their individual artistic merits, it’s clear that Warhol and Morrissey’s relationship was a strange and strained one, and remained so through the years, even after Warhol’s death. According to several sources, Morrissey convinced Warhol to take his early films out of circulation in 1972. In a 2008 Trikster.net interview with Douglas Crimp, author of the recent “Our Kind of Movie”—The Films of Andy Warhol,” Crimp said that Morrissey found these works “pretentious and boring.” That’s why you have to fly to Pittsburgh or take a day off of work to reserve a screening at MoMA to see most of them.
According to several sources, Morrissey agreed with the Warhol Foundation to waive the rights for “Lonesome Cowboys,” “San Diego Surf” and other films he is credited with, in exchange for the rights to “Flesh,” “Trash” and other films more dear to his heart. In 2007, Morrissey took in $27 million from the sale of the Montauk beach house he purchased with Warhol in the early 1970s for $235,000, Morrissey having become the sole owner upon Warhol’s death in 1987. But all that cash apparently can’t bury old wounds…
As noted in the interview, Morrissey forgot who I was midway through. Subsequently, he found my blog and wrote the following comment: “Do you have a paper magazine of HIDDEN FILMS? I would like to buy a copy,” but did not refer to the interview. I responded to him but have yet to hear a reply. A month later, when I interviewed Holly Woodlawn, she told me that she had spoken with him before I called her, to get his blessing, and he again forgot who I was. One source told me that these lapses in memory could be due to his being struck by an automobile in June 2009, though reports of that incident severely overstated his condition, declaring him brain dead; according to Woodlawn, he sustained only minor injuries. Both Woodlawn and the publicist that set up the Morrissey interview for me acknowledged that he can be a bit “scatterbrained.” My personal feeling is that he willfully chose to forget me, though I’ll certainly never forget him or these months spent researching his career and films (which will, I promise, be analyzed in-depth in the next post)…