Andy Warhol evokes a few iconic images – The Factory, silver-foiled walls, orgies, drugs – but the only Morrissey I was aware of was the lead singer of The Smiths, and Dallesandro meant even less. Flesh marked the beginning of my stroll of discovery into this arena of cinema that, although far from forgotten or untapped, has been given that most modern of rebirths: the DVD boxset.
Andy Warhol had no direct involvement in this film, but indirectly, of course, he allowed and inspired young directors such as Paul Morrissey to make these types of films. The film opened at Warhol’s Garrick Theater in New York, recouping its $1,500 costs in the first week, and ran for seven months before finding worldwide distribution. Its biggest success was in Germany, where it became one of the highest grossing films of 1970. For Dallessandro it meant instant cult and mainstream fame, depending on which country’s perspective you look from. Nineteen when Flesh was filmed, he seemed to embody many of the intangible ideas of the late sixties – a new sex, a masculine androgyny, a drugged-up Renaissance figure.
Flesh is a gentle piece of neo-realism, although it can’t have seemed gentle at the time. The silences, the reportage close-ups, the ability to capture the natural plays of expression upon the human face and body, certainly stem from Antonioni and Pasolini. The opening sequence is a close-up of Joe’s face as he sleeps on the pillow, accompanied by the sounds of a chirpy 1920s or 30s jazz song. The image is held for the duration of the song, as we are invited to consider the beauty of the boy. As the song finishes the image cuts sharply to a full shot of Joe, sprawled naked across the bed, arse facing the ceiling. While briefly sensual perhaps, it is not a sexual moment, and the opening scene becomes one about the banality of flesh. Joe, still naked, grapples on the bed with his wife who wants to spur him into action and go earn some bread. Joes moans that she hasn’t done any laundry. That’s her role; his is to protect his family and earn the money.
The film is structured around this day in Joe’s life. He is coerced into action to earn money to pay for his wife’s girlfriend to get an abortion. He goes out onto the streets to pick up tricks as a prostitute. Yet there is little or no sadness in the film, no moralism, no poignant desolate shots of Joe being flung into a cell. It’s simply a plausible ‘day in the life of somebody leading a silly, absurd life’, as Morrissey retrospectively describes it in a brief introduction on the DVD. ‘The simple story is of someone living some sort of family life in an age when there are no more rules that apply to anything, at all, let alone to married life’. It is almost a gentle comedy. The characters are making it up as they go along, from the elderly English artist who has Joe pose for him in various ancient Greek positions as he tells him about the philosophy of sex; the transvestites who coo over a fashion magazine as Joe receives a blow job from his stripper ex-girlfriend, who then tells him of the time she was raped (but now thinks she might have kinda enjoyed it); the boys who want to learn about hustling from Joe as an easy way of making money; right through to his wife, who married Joe partly because she wanted to get out of school, and her girlfriend who decides to keep the baby after all. He isn’t put out though, he’d have had to make the money sooner or later and hustling isn’t too much of a drag.
It’s hard to have a strong opinion about the characters or their actions. They aren’t doing too much wrong, they seem happy enough – lost maybe, but they seemingly had no destination in mind. Terry, the ex/current girlfriend, doesn’t want to learn anything (the transvestite Candy suggests she’d be better to fill her mind than to fill her breasts with Silicon) ‘because if I learn too much I won’t always be happy, because the more you learn I think the more depressed you are.’ The elderly artist similarly is happier, despite or perhaps because of his classical education, in embracing the beauty of the flesh. ‘Body worship’, he explains to an uninterested Joe, ‘is the whole thing behind all art. If you cut out body worship you deprive yourself of a great big chunk of life’.
The film does not worship Joe’s body however, unless you use the word within the context of a time without religion or passion. From the outset and from the title we are asked to see the body as flesh and question our preconceptions. We see Joe naked with his child on the floor, enough to shock the British censors of the time, but the scene shows flesh in its innocence. Flesh loses its innocence and becomes a commodity as he sells himself to tricks, but despite this Joe’s flesh never becomes soiled. Niether he nor any of the characters appear or become repugnant. They’re simply living their ‘silly absurd lives’ in a state of blissful, naïve ignorance.