Tonight, New York cinephiles are getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience as Paul Morrissey, Warhol's in-house Factory cameramen turned indie auteur debuts his new film, News From Nowhere, at Lincoln Center and sits down for a Q+ A session with Oscar-nominated writer-director James Toback. Herewith, my random notes on News From Nowhere, plus a sidebar on a famous body -- and body part -- connecting Warhol, The 'Stones and The Smiths.
In News From Nowhere we get a return to form of sorts, though in many ways it feels more like 1977's Bad than Flesh, Trash or Heat (I wonder why didn't FSLC, which has been showing trilogies in true revival-house fashion, just screen the whole, Flesh, Trash and Heat trilogy?) It may not be a preordained official trilogy like The Godfather and its sequels, nor the Red, White and Blue thematic trilogy, but I'd wager there's a whole new generation or two in NYC that have not seen these -- and certainly not on the big screen.
Rather than posit the voyeur -- I mean viewer -- in a demimonde of hustlers, junkies and transvestites of his classic films, in News From Nowhere Morrissey looks to the suburbs for darker lurkings, specifically the coastal town of Montauk, situated on the eastern-most point of Long Island, where the land finally ends, and gives way to a vast ocean. During World War 2, a team of would-be German saboteurs landed in Montauk, and were detected but not apprehended by a coast guard sentry, only to fail in their missions, absorbed into society at large.
By way of a plot summary, News From Nowhere is also a story about a would-be conqueror who fails in his (inchoate) mission, specifically, an Argentine loner on the lam, arriving illegally by boat on Montauk's shores.
Like Candide -- or better yet, Candy -- he finds himself drifting from scenario to scenario, irresistible to the women he meets - specifically, his smuggler; an aged, rugged individualist painter; a welfare-MILF-from-Hell, and her just-teenage daughter, who is uniquely capable of unnerving him. In one of the films more memorable scenes, he asks her what she's reading, and she tells him "Jane Eyre - it's about a girl who's very unhappy, so she marries and older man." Looking away, she follows by asking what he thinks of younger women who wed men much older than them, and the camera panning between them makes for a few terrific frames of discomfort, longing, delivered in silence.
There are several familiar Morrisseyan themes and elements in News From Nowhere; certainly in much of his casting, Morrissey seems to adhere to the dicta of one of his characters in Flesh: "Body worship is the whole thing behind all art all music and all sex and all love if you cut it out for any reason you deprive yourself of one great chunk of life."
And so, true to form (as it were) we have a laconic Adonis in the Argentine, a terminal party girl in the MILF-from-Hell (a striking, more model-ish, red-headed Lohan-type), a just-teenaged ingénue, possessing an almost pugilistic beauty.
As also befits Morrissey's universe, there are two would-be controlling women with designs on said Adonis, in the aforementioned smuggler and painter who are played respectively by Olga Lirian (who appears as herself in Let's Get Lost ) and factory legend Viva Hoffman, who delivers a line that could be straight from Morrissey's mouth, as she discusses her estate while proposing-slash-propositioning a pre-nup marraige to the Argentine: "My father was smart. He got all that land for nothing, long ago". Said land in real life is the former Warhol compound, aptly named Eothen, which Warhol bought on Morrissey's advice for 275,000 in the early 70s and which Morrissey sold part of for around 35 million dollars a few years ago.
The film begins to develop an oddly comforting, albeit dysfunctional sitcom-like tone, not without its share of humorous moments amidst what is in many ways Morrissey's deceptively darkest work.
As the Argentine begins to drift from the grip of his smuggler (in a dynamic not unfamiliar to Morrissey's universe, say in Heat , wherein the older woman is left behind by the young stud she hoped to harness by promising to help) he gravitates toward the MILF-from-Hell, who in the presence of her children, laments not aborting them (apparently Morrissey, a conservative Catholic is preoccupied with abortion and infanticide, as it emerges in several of his films, most graphically in the notorious window scene in 1977's Bad's ).
The possibility of the Argentine becoming a Step-Dad in a quirky family slowly emerges, but just as he leans in for the big kiss she vomits, and while it is not quite as hilarious as the vomiting scene in Morrissey's Blood For Dracula (which is one of the all time great vomiting scenes), it's made even more slapstick when her napping daughter emerges from under the same covers (reminding me and likely only me, of the opening scene in the late Ernie Pintoff's classic Dynamite Chicken, which I'd love to see in revival) explaining to him that her Mom is snorting Ketamine, aka the Crack-like hallucinatory club drug, Special K.
But amidst the hilarity there is a heartbreaking darkness, and while I laughed at the gags initially, as the film played on, I felt at times like the characters in Hurly-Burly, speaking of party-girl Meg Ryan's unseen daughter.
News From Nowhere is also informed -- and made substantive -- by another familiar Morrissey element, the juxtaposition of radically different social classes, which takes place during a scene in which the daughter -- at a very sketchy Mom and pop "adoption" agency where the Mother is being offered money to sign over her and her mostly quiet younger brother -- she wanders around a house she will never live in, and happens upon the room of the adoption agency couple's children who ask who she is and what she is doing. In what I'll call a star-turn, she struggles to keep her cool, and does.
The scene heightens, when after she leaves, we learn that the couple's sons are part of the operation, as we hear them betting over her fate, and whether she will "last": "Girls like that never last long," notes one to the other. Kill the laugh track.
The teenager, played by Justine Crawford, reminded me mildly of another muse to an auteur-as-no-wave-sociologist Chloe Sevigny, in that both seem glam through the damage. She is possessed of an almost pugilistic beauty, a pugnacious glamour, going from seemingly asthmatically ravaged in her sheepish Chihuaha-ishness to a headstrong gamine tomboy to a ravishing femme fatale. Crawford's is a silent actresses face, and when she expresses a cartoonish surprise in overhearing some very plain talk about her mother, she emerges (horrendous context notwithstanding) like a Saturday Evening Post cover or a Little Rascal or a 'Thirties Jazz cartoon -- you can almost see the animated punctuation mark over her head.
You could argue that Morrissey has a Beatnik's sense of class warfare, in his regular pitting of a laconic, individualism against fretful paranoia and resignation to a know-your-place universe of convention. Such confrontations appear in his earlier films and are manifested again in News From Nowhere, during a scene in which the smuggler presumes to hip-up the Argentine, on life in the USA - and in the process, size him down, in order to gain control of him. But he remains unfazed; his presence in the film is the reverse of a meteor entering an atmosphere: rather than burning out upon entry, he instead arrives slowly and transforms the atmosphere around him.
As the world around him devolves, he realizes, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, that there is no there, there for him, and the promise of America has faded, so he pulls the plug on the pilot as it were, leaving behind what might be viewed metaphorically as a prematurely-sickened America and the negated hopes of a new one, already on the verge of being poisoned, literally sold into a new ownership. He jumps back aboard a smuggler's boat, destination unknown.
News From Nowhere screens tonight at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, along with the Morrissey classic, Trash. There will be a Q+A with Morrissey between films.
Taking Cover: A Few Degrees of Joe Dallessandro
By way of quick trivia, in 1975, The 'Stones rented Warhol's Montauk house to rehearse for a tour (coincidentally named Tour of The Americas), and it was Warhol's photo of Morrissey's main leading-man Joe Dallessandro's crotch, complete with stitched zipper, adorning the front of the "Sticky Fingers" album cover -- making for a different Andy Warhol banana graphic of sorts.
And by way of further album cover trivia, it was in fact Dallessandro's torso appearing on my all-time favorite band The Smiths' debut album (speaking of mid-sections, I'll point out that the Amanda Palmer cover of Nirvana's "Polly" that I debuted at this column references The Smiths' haunting "Suffer Little Children" in it's mid-section).
Looking back at (Stephen Patrick, not Paul) Morrissey's album cover designs, I've discovered much -- at age 19, fascinated by the cover art for "Meat Is Murder", I learned from the liner notes that it was a still from the greatest documentary ever made on Vietnam's history, Emile de Antonio's In The Year of The Pig, and this led to my discovering the greatest documentary ever made on the McCarthy era, de Antonio's Point of Order, both of which remain relevant, and both of which I earnestly recommend to you, dear reader.
File under less selection at twice the cost: Does the notice reading "Streamable until 9/1/01" mean that I am the last person to ever rent a Paul Morrissey film from Netflix?
File under back in the USA: For another take on an enigmatic Argentine landing in the USA (Two such films in one year? What gives?) see Country Music from this years dynamite LatinBeat series at Lincoln Center. You can read my review of The Death of Pinochet from that series, HERE