Still Living on the Edge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Paul Morrissey began a phone interview from his New York apartment the other day, he had just returned from Harvard, where several of his pictures had been screened. He was pleased by the experience, and it had set him to thinking about his films, which will receive a retrospective showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art starting today. Opening the series will be "Spike of Bensonhurst," with Morrissey present to talk about the film.

"There's something about all the films that I have made in that they don't seem old or dated, and some people mention that," Morrissey said. "A freshness and spontaneity are still there."

Morrissey, who began making films for Andy Warhol in the mid-'60s, remains best known for a trio of films starring the monosyllabic, Adonis-like Joe Dallesandro: "Flesh" (1968), a takeoff on "Midnight Cowboy" in which Dallesandro hustles to support a wife, baby--and the wife's girlfriend; "Trash" (1970), in which transvestite Warhol star Holly Woodlawn copes with a drug-addicted boyfriend (Dallesandro) and schemes to regain the "respectability" of receiving a welfare check; and "Heat" (1972), a reworking of "Sunset Blvd." with Dallesandro cast opposite Sylvia Miles.

In these and more recent films, such as "Mixed Blood," "Beethoven's Nephew" and "Spike of Bensonhurst," Morrissey uses an outrageous sense of humor to point up the absurdity in life's dire predicaments to achieve an effect of laughter and pathos.

"People treat serious subjects so seriously, which is so obvious a way of dealing with them," said Morrissey. "I'm always thinking that the best way of dealing with them is to show people as human beings. Take 'Spike of Bensonhurst,' which is my favorite of my films. In all these Mafia movies you get the impression that these people are all psychopaths, neurotics who never have a good time. But I wanted to show the trivial problems a godfather [played by Ernest Borgnine with a wonderful light touch] has, like collecting money from pizza parlors or keeping a daughter away from the wrong man.

"I've always stayed independent, but I've always felt an obligation to make movies an untutored audience could like. That's what I love about old Hollywood movies. There are all these new freedoms in modern life. People get all the sex and drugs they want, but I ask, is it really so wonderful? Why are so many people ill at ease, awkward, unfulfilled? With 'Spike' I wonder whether a Mafia double standard is better than no standard at all."

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Monstrous behavior has long fascinated Morrissey, who made campy Frankenstein and Dracula pictures, and is currently preparing a picture, to be called "Hugo Klang," starring his Dr. Frankenstein, the ubiquitous Udo Kier, an R.W. Fassbinder favorite with a Lugosi-like specialty in reptilian charm. "I told Udo that I wanted to have a contemporary monster. I thought he should play a handbag manufacturer-designer in a backwater town in Germany determined to become a cutting-edge fashion designer. He's a Calvin Klein wannabe. So many things go on in life that never find their way into the movies because so much of it is unappealing. But that's what I want to show."

Morrissey hopes to make the film for Lars von Triers' Zentropa company, which he says is now lining up the completion money.

The strange workings of fame are something Morrissey knows first hand. He was a Fordham graduate working at an insurance office job in Manhattan when he was inspired to make movies by critic-filmmaker Jonas Mekas' Monday evening programs at an Off-Broadway theater.

"Jonas believed in home-made movies and encouraged people to experiment," Morrissey recalled. "He believed one person should be the author. So I bought a camera and started making silent narratives, and I decided that they should be simple and the casting should be realistic."

Morrissey later met Warhol through their mutual friend, poet Gerard Malanga. "Andy said, 'Your films are great. They are in focus!' " Morrissey said. "Andy had no technical expertise. He said, 'Why not come help me make a movie? I'm afraid to move the camera because I don't know how to.' I went over to the Factory Loft, later shortened to the Factory, and he had asked about 25 people to show up. But what should we do with them? I soon learned that when you went there to help Andy you had to do everything. I think I filled a vacuum."

At this point Warhol was making 30-minute movies of people talking, and Morrissey soon learned that it helped for him to think up things for them to talk about, gradually introducing fictional elements. When it came time to make the landmark "Chelsea Girls," in which some purported inhabitants of the raffish Chelsea Hotel represented themselves before the camera as extravagant decadents, Morrissey thought that the 30-minute segments, which were to make up the three-hour, 20-minute film, might work better if presented on a split screen, allowing much cutting back and forth. This technique allowed the 1966 film to emerge as an unexpectedly compelling, contemporary Dante's "Inferno."

With "Lonesome Cowboys," Warhol operated the camera, but after his near-fatal shooting by feminist Valerie Solanis in 1986, Morrissey took over the whole show and with "Flesh" received directorial credit for the first time. (No previous Warhol films bear a director's name.)

"Andy was the best producer I ever had, a really nice guy, and you have to give him lots of credit because he was essentially a timid man," said Morrissey. "The more he became famous, the more he made money. Eventually, he became famous for being famous. He didn't know what he was doing but he was determined, the tortoise rather than the hare.

"I became his manager and had to generate income. A disco in Queens offered to pay him to come with a pretty girl, and that would be news that would get into papers. But I thought, why would you go to a disco in Queens? You had to have a reason, so I thought I should start looking for a rock and roll group to manage that would be playing there. And that's how I found the newly formed Velvet Underground. I was managing Andy's celebrity and made it look like he was doing everything; this was understood."

Nowadays, Morrissey feels as a filmmaker out there "all by myself." His most recent work has suffered the vicissitudes of limited distribution, but he still cherishes his independence, especially the matter of casting, which for him is the starting point of writing his scripts. At 60, Morrissey wants to continue making movies for young audiences with young actors.

Noted Morrissey: "What kids experience is more revealing about modern life, because by the time people have reached their 30s and 40s they're too far gone to do that."

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