Exhibitionist Display in Paul Morrissey’s “Trash”

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Paul Morrissey’s film Trash (1970; produced by Andy Warhol) opens on an offbeat note, as a black screen with floating, leftward-bound neon green typography presents the principal cast. The music playing over the opening title sequence evokes the sense of entering a primitive avenue of entertainment: the instrumentals – trumpets, the banging of piano keys, and miscellaneous wind instruments – seem to be inspired by the likes of Hanna-Barbara cartoons. Much like how Enter the Void (2009; dir. Gaspar Noe) used the booming vibrations of LFO’s ‘Freak’ with an onslaught of typographic design to serve as a literal gateway to the film’s descent into the belly of Japan’s underground drug and sex scene, Trash introduces the audience to its circus of heroin users and marginalized youth with the help of a vaudeville-like introduction.

However, unlike Enter the Void, Trash allows the spectator to watch the downfall of its characters in a more relaxed realm of visual pleasure. Its episodic format offers a glimpse into the characters’ dejected realities, and refrains from outright assaulting the spectator with gruesome imagery or complex cinematic techniques in terms of editing. The scenes depicting intravenous drug use are repetitious in function and form, and the extremity of the act finds itself overshadowed by the film’s other integral purpose: the erotic display of Joe Dallesandro’s body. The camera, in addition to displaying the horrors of drug addiction, fixes its gaze (with much comfort) directly on the addict itself.

In terms of viewing Dallesandro’s body within the context of Morrissey’s camera, the film concerns itself with two principal avenues of pleasure and fulfillment: drug-use, and the gratification associated with sexual intercourse. Even though the film isn’t considered a legitimate “hardcore” production – it contains an absence of “money shots” and the prospect of fully displayed intercourse teases the audience but never truly materializes on screen – Morrissey employs several iconographic elements in his film that belong to pornographic conventions. According to Linda Williams, iconography is the “pattern of visual imagery one expects to see in a given genre.” The opening shots of the film quickly establish its erotic gaze by showing another Warhol superstar, Geri Miller, feeling up Dallesandro’s buttocks as the camera scans the various contours of his toned physique. In a film advertised as a story regarding a heroin addict’s quest to “score more drugs,” Morrissey also allows the audience the special, deliberately captured treat of another unexplored and taboo subject in popular culture besides drug use: the free display of male full-frontal nudity and the expression of male sexuality.

As previously mentioned, the episodic format Morrissey employs in his film helps abandon established notions of coherent narrative conventions: the only underlying, anchoring point in the entire narrative is Joe’s drug addiction, and how that perpetual conquest affects the people he encounters along the way, specifically his sexually frustrated live-in girlfriend Holly (Woodlawn). In terms of narrative framework, the film’s progress depends on the gradual escalation of visual spectacle involving Joe’s body or other realms of expressed sexual desire. Trash begins with a naked dance on behalf of Geri Miller meant to titillate the sexually unresponsive Joe, and the film ends with the abject scene of Joe attempting to have intercourse with Holly’s extremely pregnant and homeless older sister. The sensational devices Trash employs to engage its audience concerns itself with elements found in early cinema (a period lasting between 1903 to 1906), or as Tom Gunning coins: the “cinema of attractions.” Instead of getting lost in the fleshed out narratives present in conventional Hollywood productions, the spectator “remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment” with what is presented on screen.

This cinema, according to Gunning, solves the spectator’s curious interest and fulfillment, as well as delivering a “generally brief dose of scopic pleasure” (Gunning 121). Gunning goes on to elaborate the complications associated with this type of pleasure, or what he explains as “an excitement bordering on terror”: the showman – in this case, Paul Morrissey under the guidance of Andy Warhol – gives his film an overarching structure and imparts a mediated viewpoint that produces necessary reactions on the behalf of his viewers. Morrissey wishes to inform his audience of the repellent drug scene he was familiar with during his time by directing Trash; he was once quoted to have said: “Why do they call it experimenting with drugs? It’s just experimenting with ill health.” By integrating the notion of exaggerated spectacle in his film, Morrissey hoped to aim for “social criticism through entertainment,” an objective he once stated in an interview (Yacowar 40).

After the title sequence ends, the film starts with a shot of Joe’s bum, immediately objectifying Dallesandro’s physique. Unidentified, delicate hands slowly run up and down his rear, and the camera pans out to reveals a nude Miller performing fellatio on Joe, who seems lost in his own disinterest. Joe bangs his balled-up fists against his sides and even plays with pieces of Miller’s hair, signifying his boredom and general disinterest in regards to Miller’s attempts to sexually excite him. According to Williams in the chapter ‘Generic Pleasures’ in her book “Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible,” fellatio is the most common number used to express “maximum spontaneous pleasure” in the hardcore films of the seventies. The fact that Morrissey’s film was released with the advent of the new decade attests to the opening scene’s possible purpose to specifically provoke the audience. To Williams, there is novelty in fellatio’s momentary significance in capturing the “very idea of sexual exploration espoused by the then-expanding “sexual revolution” (Williams 150). With this in regard, the fact that Joe fails to experience any noticeable pleasure from Miller’s stimulation places Joe – the drug addict – outside the popular movement revolutionizing the country (and the larger American society as a whole) at the time. Joe’s surprise at Miller’s claim “that sex is just as fun as drugs and can get you just as high” only proves his isolated status even more; Miller literally schools Joe about the wonders of intercourse, an experience that seems to have escaped him completely once diving further into addiction. In Morrissey’s tragic setup, Adonis has completely forgotten that he’s the ideal.

As Stephen Koch observes, Joe and “his naked body, curving buttocks, gangling genitalia, classic torso and good-boy face” are the center of erotic attention in all of Morrissey’s films that feature the actor (such as Flesh, released in 1968, and Heat in 1972) (Koch 49). However, in Trash, Morrissey renders the sexual potential carried by Joe’s outward appearance as perpetually useless in the diegesis and implicitly reinforces the heroin addiction as the main source of blame. The word “useless” to describe Joe in relation to his physical fulfillment of sexual desire refers back to a Marxian analysis of fetish commodity. Linda Williams notes that the money shot – the prized sight of male ejaculation – in pornographic features is ultimately a fetish, and the concept’s combination of money and sexual pleasure “perfectly embodies the profound alienation of contemporary consumer society” (Williams 107). In terms of a narrative framework, the film drives toward the achievement of the money shot through Joe’s character and the women he interacts with; however, sexual intercourse is almost always initiated (by the other party) yet never fully realized due to Joe’s incompetence (thus creating a predicament of unresolved pleasure experienced by both the female characters in the narrative and the audience watching the film).

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Before Miller’s character engages in conversation with Joe regarding the optimal return of sex in comparison to drugs, she attempts to arouse Joe with one, last futile attempt in the form of a nude and frenzied dance. She literally puts her all into the routine, as her body flexes and moves to the music (featuring her own voice on the track entitled “Mama Look at Me Now,” which was popularized after the film’s release). Gunning notes that film directors may also use shots that involve aspects from the cinema of attractions between scenes to not necessarily halt the narrative but instead slow it down for point emphasis. Gunning explains, “[I]n fact the cinema of attractions does not disappear with the dominance of narrative, but rather goes underground, both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (e.g. the musical) than in others”(Gunning 230). By staging an elaborate show, Miller tries to salvage the “sexual mood” in the air ruined by Joe’s unresponsiveness by emphasizing her sexual readiness and desirability by literally teasing the camera with her vocal proclamations in song (“Look at me now!”) and a dynamic nude performance. The camera, in this moment, seems more interested in Miller’s body than the subject Miller tries to actually titillate: close-up shots fragment her body by focusing on her buttocks, breasts and manic facial expressions, while panning to check up on Joe’s interest levels (which remains static). The film almost seems to please the audience with this brief intermission – and makeshift apology – for the star’s inability to fulfill perceived expectations.

Only when Miller steps off the stage and realizes her failure – confirmed by the shot of Joe’s lounging figure and limp penis – does she propose that she’ll pay him drug money in exchange for her own personal gratification through cunninglingus. By initiating this exchange, Miller assumes the role of the consumer in Marxian economic theory: she uses money to obtain use value. The seller (Joe) of the commodity uses his use value to extract exchange value in the form of money. According to Williams, the contradictory aims of consumer and producer sets up a situation built on the powers of aesthetic illusion as an independent function to drive capitalist mechanisms. Thus, Morrissey uses the illusion created by the “packaging and desirability” of Joe’s character to set up spectacles centered on sexual performance that are divided in episodic treatments that display his proven uselessness as a “product” (Williams 107). When Joe attempts to go down on Miller per her request and instead lazily tries to stimulate her breasts instead, Miller’s declaration of “Nothing’s happening!” reflects her (and the audience’s) discontent at Joe’s performance.

As the camera focuses on Joe’s eyes beginning to drift after the failed exchange, a sudden and shoddy cut to him fully dressed attempting to install a sink disorients the audience with its sudden shift in space and time. The shot introduces the character of Holly (played by Holly Woodlawn, another well-known Warhol “superstar”) and depends on techniques purely associated with the cinema of attractions to depict her presence on screen. As Joe attempts to fix the sink, a woman’s voice is overheard yet cannot be readily identified to a face; the only body parts that the camera captures in its frame are the ones belonging to the slender form draped in mink fur sitting in a dingy bed above Joe’s hunched figure on the floor. The relation between sound and image, according to Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, creates a tension between the two as they both “dance around each other in a perpetual question-and-answer game” (Elsaesser 138).

The “point of origin” of the detached voice is only established once Joe wakes up from his short nap and the camera cuts to a dramatically framed close-up of Holly commenting on Joe’s poor appearance. Heavy eye makeup and pencil-thin eyebrows – combined with her slightly masculine facial features – add a severe look to her face. Morrissey uses Woodlawn’s gender identity by setting up “the big reveal” of it through spectacle. As the camera tracks Joe getting up from his bed, it also explicitly focuses on Holly taking off her chunky fur coat to reveal the skinny, androgynous body she owns underneath. The film discloses her identity through the visual cues set up on screen, opting out of the more traditional explanations embedded in character dialogue often present in conventional narrative films.

Despite this brief moment of nakedness in front of the audience, the character of Holly serves as an assertive and dominant force in the power dynamics that define her relationship with Joe. To Holly, Joe is merely a commodity promising sexual value. However, Joe’s apathy in the avenue of her persistent – and unmet – desires feeds back into the “structure of needs” and renews Holly’s (the consumer in the relationship) “willingness to pay for which will never be owned” (Williams 107).  Joe’s heroin addiction adds to her futile quest for intimacy and sexual fulfillment, and she even makes light of this fact by complaining of his frequent unconsciousness before feeling up his crotch through his trousers. Much like the trash Holly collects on the street, Joe literally finds himself transformed into an inanimate object of pleasure due to the immobilizing effects of his drug addiction.

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Trash is peppered with frequent transactions gone wrong, and the next episode incorporates the purchase, exchange and consumption of drugs in the form of an elaborate spectacle far from the realm of ordinary comfort for the viewer. After Joe roams the cold streets of New York City searching for extra money for his next hit, he finally encounters a rich young woman with a shrill and childish voice (Andrea Feldman) offering him $20 in exchange for him finding her LSD. Their brief interaction is perhaps the most artistically shot sequence of the film, and their dark silhouettes and profiles outlined by the sinister, reddish glow of the lights emitting from the corner shops in the background only adds to the mood established by their secretive conversation. In regards to the setup and blocking of the two characters in profile, the sequence appears to channel one of the most primitive modes of “cinematic” history: shadow puppetry. In Gunning’s piece describing the aesthetics forming the cinema of attractions, he connects the aesthetics of attraction to Augustine’s Platonic schema appealing to the impulse of intellectual curiosity (Gunning 124). By presenting the “dealing” scene in such a manner that literally compels the spectator to squint and struggle to see the characters on screen, Morrissey effectively creates a space that captures the public’s enduring mystery – and obsession – toward the drug culture evolving at that time.

However, the next cut inflicts a momentary feeling of dissatisfaction on behalf of the spectator, as the camera focuses on the rather upscale, fully-furnished flat owned by the rich woman instead of the hyped-up act of drug use. As the girl yells, “Do you want to see my living room?” the camera seems disinterested as well, choosing to fix its gaze on Joe sitting down comfortably in his chair instead of following her down the hallway. However, when Joe prepares to shoot up, the camera immediately focuses on the act of preparation even before the girl formally asks to watch him inject the needle into his skin. The intense close-ups and zoom-ins and outs of the needle, the veins in Joe’s outstretched arm, and the array of tools before him seem almost pre-staged, catering specifically to the audience’s curiosity. As an extended analysis, the rich girl’s character serves as a reflection upon the spectator watching the film, as she casually props herself next to Joe and revels in just watching.

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Despite her curiosity toward witnessing intravenous drug use (or the “exhibit”) being fulfilled, her sexual appetite – like the previous two women, and her friend that Joe encounters later in the film – is an independent force on its own. Joe, under the influence of heroin, reacts violently to the girls teasing nature, and subverts her desire by raping her. Thus, with this loaded sequence, Paul Morrissey continues to assert the claim – albeit in the most extreme way possible – that drug use taints the purity of sexual intimacy and social connections among people, and cements the case of Joe’s status as literal “garbage.”

Works Cited

Elsaesser, Thomas, and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

Tropiano, Stephen. “Joe Dallesandro-A “Him to the Gaze”: Flesh, Heat and Trash.” Spectator (n.d.): 47-55. Print.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “frenzy of the Visible” Berkeley: University of California, 1989. Print.

Yacowar, Maurice. The Films of Paul Morrissey. Cambridge England: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

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