Flesh, n, the soft parts of the body; the physical nature of human beings.
The opening sequence of Paul Morrissey’s Flesh compellingly breaks all of the rules of cinema (notably, never frame a single shot longer than thirty seconds), but in so doing signals the start of an amazing treatise on family life in the laissez-faire world of the late ‘60s.
With the scratchy 78-quality of Sophie Tucker’s “Making Wiki Waki Down in Waikiki” for accompaniment (the only music ever heard), the screen is filled with Joe Dallesandro’s angelic face, trying to sleep in, with only a couple of tics near his mouth to assure that he is still amongst the living. His reverie ends with the song as wife Geri (Geraldine Smith) pummels her naked, spread-eagled man into consciousness. His casual nudity becomes the glue that holds the film together, for Joe uses flesh to earn his living and tries to make the most of his limited shelf life before his beauty fades and the roles are reversed.
On this “Day in the Life,” Geri wants her man to hustle $200 for her girlfriend’s abortion. In return, Joe begs for her to “do my laundry without asking … I need clean underwear.” The couple argues, romps and plays (hilarious is Geri wrapping her lover’s penis in a sheer scarf: the mummification of Daddy’s most popular appendage is a sumptuous metaphor) for Morrissey’s unabashed camera and are, literally, popped to and fro by the film’s jerky, flash-edit construction.
Spectacular in mood, look and silence is the sequence between Joe and his baby daughter. The toddler munches on a blueberry muffin while her loving bare-assed father revels in their shared innocence.
With that tender experience establishing devotion and character, the hustler takes his leave and hits the streets of New York. Flesh of a different sort is sought, paraded and purchased during this routine shift.
A quickie in a hotel room ends in a twenty-dollar exchange and the attempt at looking beyond sexual commerce, “I’d like to see you again.”
Catch-of-the-day is a trip home with an aging artist (Maurice Braddell, with just the right mix of lechery and love of the human form) who wants Joe to pose like the famous Greek statues so that he can sketch the body-beautiful or photograph it for paintings to come. For a C-note (and no need to waste an erection), Joe readily agrees to assume the position of Myron’s classic discus thrower. During the sitting, the relentless chatter from his employer opines that body worship is the basis of “all art, sex, and music,” but the philosophical mutterings fall on deaf ears and an empty bed.
Back on the streets, Joe gives a Hustling 101 chat to a pair of newcomers who agree that “Nobody’s straight [or gay] … just do what you have to do.” Barry (Barry Brown), whose wire-rim glasses give him the instant aura of Harry Potter, savours his new-found freedom and moves on to find a street corner of his own.
With a pair of transvestites chattering/smoking (everybody inhales at least tobacco) their way through a gossip magazine in the foreground, Joe let’s his stripper, girlfriend Teri (Geri Miller) feast on his versatile member and natter with her chums. Soon Teri’s flesh—specifically her breasts—becomes the subject of a hilarious implant debate and digital inspection, where all-concerned offer advice in their best coffee-klatch manner.
Next up is David (Louis Waldon)—Joe’s buddy. Despite the fact that he’s a “friend not a John,” Joe asks for some cash, not that he really needs it. Here, skin is used differently: David pops a zit prior to Joe’s stripping down, but he also shows off his scar from Korea—that flesh is totally dead. Somewhat concerned about Joe cheating on his wife, the sex-for-hire stud calmly replies “I married her—it’s [tricking] just what I had to do.”
After a hard day at the office, Joe returns home to find his wife getting up close and personal with her special friend Patti (Patti D’Arbanville). Rather than outrage, Joe lets the women slip off his clothes—even the crucifix this time—and “have some fun.” Turns out the abortion money isn’t needed—some flesh will be saved. The women soon abandon him and cuddle together. Despite the threesome sharing a bed, Joe is alone. Having sold his body all day, it’s spurned by the one who gets it for nothing.
The weary hustler observes the lovers press their flesh, endures a brief and hostile stare from his replacement, reflects then, finally, sleeps—his radiant face turns the other cheek from the opening.
The bonus features contain an extended scene found long after the initial release. Voice-over Morrissey opines that he doesn’t remember shooting it but feels it could be added to the film’s early narrative. Some things happen for a reason: this structure is best left alone. Another helping of Dallesandro bare verges on the type of over-indulgence not seen since the ‘60s! JWR