Hipsters never change, it seems. FLESH was made in 1968, and appears filled with clichés to my diluted cultural viewpoint. I feel like I’ve seen the same brand of Tennessee Williams-influenced kitchen sink drama a thousand times; I feel like I’ve heard a thousand liberal jackasses talking about sex and the body like it’s 380 B.C.E. FLESH’s sense of realism is largely the result of its independent aesthetic, with untrained actors appearing more comfortable posing nude than delivering lines; shots are often empty, meaningless, or uncomfortably filled with extreme close-ups; there is unconstrained nudity and the sexual politics harken back to Ancient Greece. All of these things have become standards for any sort of hipster “art” (cf. Xavier Dolan); to appreciate Paul Morrissey’s film requires the effort of putting it into context and ignoring the 21st century “free radical,” whom I hate.
In context, FLESH the film is still something I am inclined to dislike: it is an undeniably important piece of independent American film-making, but it is also an undeniably hip film: it came with Andy Warhol’s (as if you don’t know, the ultimate 60s underground tastemaker) name attached; its neo-Greecian attitude towards sex, and its unembarrassed glorification of the human body, are all reflective of the 60s counter-cultural attitude, where repression from previous ages was emphatically rejected and the young veered towards the opposite extreme. Sexual freedom is a trait visible in the modern hipster, but in the 60s it meant something; now, in the second decade of the 21st century, nothing means anything, everything new is an echo of something old, and youths talk the talk but can clearly be seen as unable to walk the walk.
The film’s aesthetic is deliberately wrought: Paul Morrissey’s has a keen talent for taking advantage of the ultra-independent, one-man production. That he was able to create a subtle and influential aesthetic out of nothing is the primary timeless aspect of this film. His ability is most prominently on display in the montage of Joe Dallesandro (“Joe”) playing with his child, which is beautiful, and reminds me (probably without intention of Morrissey) of Michaelangelo’s depiction of God and his son.
Dallesandro is a better actor than his “co-star” Geraldine Smith (“Geri”), who plays his wife, and his presence on-screen is probably the second timeless aspect of FLESH. He and his wife are both prostitutes in New York City, in the 60s, selling themselves to pay for friends’ abortions. Dallesandro spends most of his time on-screen posing naked, being caressed by men, or emaciated by his friends, and his casual un-self-consciousness is testament to ability, while the lines he and his wife deliver are not, sometimes sounding as though they come from the mouths of invalids.
It is not a bad thing that Paul Morrissey made FLESH, although I view it and its associated scene with contempt. It is a solid article demonstrating the attitudes of a certain group at a certain time, and it is always an honourable thing to speak well for one’s peers.