PAUL’S MOVIE: MIXED BLOOD

This entry was posted on November 27th, 2014

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By Joe McElhaney

A.

An entry in The Andy Warhol Diaries, Friday, January 3, 1986:  “Paul’s movie Mixed Blood is playing midnights at the Waverly, so Sam [Bolton] and I went over (tickets $10, popcorn $5).  And I just loved the movie.  It was everything he’s done before, but it was photographed well and he seemed to know so much about the Lower East Side and the Alphabet — Avenues A, B, C, and D — for someone who hadn’t been in New York for so long.”[1]  The Paul being referred to here is Paul Morrissey, a figure whose name in 1985, the year in which Mixed Blood was released, was still being linked with Warhol’s.  In the aftermath of Warhol’s death in 1987, his life and work have taken on a mythical weight that has submerged many of his friends, colleagues and collaborators.  Morrissey has been no exception.  But he has pushed back the hardest, and his public statements about Warhol as an artist have become increasingly contentious and derogatory.  Moreover, Morrissey has laid claim to either partial or total authorship on several important Warhol films, including The Chelsea Girls (1966) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968).  The obtuseness of Morrissey’s comments about Warhol is one of the clearest indications of what Stephen Koch calls the “mutually incompatible talents” of the two men.[2]  But Morrissey’s desire for authorship on certain Warhol films obscures the specific forms and implications of his own work, which in spite of certain clear points of contact, are quite different from those of Warhol’s.[3] In most of the literature on Warhol, this difference has inevitably been seen to Morrissey’s disadvantage.[4]  While I do not wish to make a case that Morrissey is a filmmaker on the same level as Warhol, and remaining mindful of major differences between these two artists, Morrissey’s work is nevertheless of some importance and demands to be reckoned with.  Few of his films offer possibilities for such a reckoning as Mixed Blood and for reasons very much bound up with the historical moment in which the film was made.

Morrissey’s most widely known films prior to Mixed Bloodstretching from Flesh (1968) to Blood for Dracula (1974)—were all billed and advertised as Warhol productions (“Andy Warhol Presents”). But Warhol himself had nothing to do with the publicity or distribution of Mixed Blood.  By 1985, his days as a filmmaker were essentially over. And the eighties in general was a decade marked by the Factory’s  carefully staged commercialism of its radical sixties aesthetic. Previously, Morrissey himself was often regarded as the initiating and primary influence on Warhol’s commercialization, dubious as it now seems that Warhol could ever be seduced into making changes that he himself did not desire to make. But Morrissey’s own films, beginning with Flesh, do mark the emergence of a comparatively accessible filmmaking practice that is built upon the radical formal and social concerns of Warhol’s earlier work.   For example, the opening shot of Flesh can be seen as a revisiting of Warhol’s Sleep (1963).  But while the Warhol film engages in numerous plays with the possibilities of cinematic duration across its 321-minute running time as it films John Giorno in various states of sleep, Morrissey filming Joe Dallesandro engaged in the same activity is far more circumscribed.  In Flesh, the shot’s length (one extended take) is determined by the moment when the accompanying Sophie Tucker record, “Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki,” non-diegetically placed on the soundtrack, comes to an end, about two minutes and thirty seconds into the film, as the shot also ends.[5]  The record itself, though, is not heard in its entirety but instead begins about a minute after its proper opening so that both image and sound are locked in synchronization with one another.  Such an approach is far removed from Warhol’s more listless and often repetitive placement of music in his own films. For example, in Vinyl (1965), the Martha and the Vandellas recording of “Nowhere to Run” is diegetically heard twice for no apparent (or, at least no conventionally apparent) reason, the possibilities of shaping temporal experience through a synchronicity of sound/image relations resisted. Mixed Blood, on the other hand, does not encourage any such comparisons and contrasts with Warhol and is the product of a very different moment in history from the “Andy Warhol Presents” films, let alone The Chelsea Girls.

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If Warhol’s film output during the eighties was virtually non-existent, Morrissey’s was fairly extensive, resulting in five films:  In addition to Mixed Blood, there is Madame Wangs (1981, and the last of the “Andy Warhol Presents” titles), followed by Forty-Deuce (1982), Beethoven’s Nephew (1984), and Spike of Bensonhurst (1988).  Of these, only Mixed Blood and Spike of Bensonhurst received anything close to widespread commercial distribution.  But these two films are linked through the contributions of the playwright Alan Bowne, who wrote the play that Forty-Deuce is based on and who also contributed to the screenplays for Mixed Blood and Spike of Bensonhurst.  While the three films are, in many respects, different from one another in form and tone, all of them are set in a New York City dominated by drugs and crime and all of them make use of Bowne’s gift for stylizing vernacular language.[6]

Mixed Blood dramatizes the saga of a Brazilian drug dealer, Rita La Punta (Marília Pêra) and the various underage males, the Maceteros, who work for her. These males function as part of a symbolic family, along with her biological son Thiago (Richard Ulacia) and a prostitute named Toni (Geraldine Smith). Rita and the Maceteros engage in violent confrontations with a rival dealer, a Puerto Rican named Juan the Bullet (Angel David), who has his own group of young male workers, the Master Dancers. Mixed Blood’s working title was Alphabet City before that title was pre-emptively claimed by Amos Poe’s drug melodrama, released the year before Mixed Blood and set in the same area of New York.  The aptness of the title change works on several levels.  Within the context of Morrissey’s film, and the context of cinema in general during this decade, the question of blood ties is central: family, ethnicity, race, and, by extension, community, even as such ties, in the case of Mixed Blood, often culminate in violence, death, the shedding of blood. Moreover, in the age of AIDS and of heightened anxiety about intravenous drug use, blood also refers to things entering the bloodstream. During a decade in which the “Just Say No” campaign of Nancy Reagan (who appeared on the December 1981 cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine) assumed center stage in the “war on drugs,” Mixed Blood takes as its setting an area of Manhattan, the East Village, that was widely identified with drugs and poverty as well as with its largely black and Hispanic population. As a low-budget film made outside of Hollywood, Mixed Blood should have found a niche for itself within the eighties strain of independent (or “indie”) American cinema. However, the film’s visual and dramatic sensibility never totally aligns itself with the period from which it emerges. Mixed Blood is typical of its period and quite eccentric, its eccentricity almost entirely traceable to Morrissey’s intervention on the project. But rather than turning the film into a curiosity, this eccentricity throws into relief a number of important questions about the cinema of the eighties, as well as clarifying certain aspects of Morrissey’s own auteur status.

A central method of reading eighties American cinema has been that of (to use Andrew Britton’s memorable term) Reaganite entertainment: a reactionary filmmaking practice completely connected to Hollywood and making unquestioned use of virtually all of Hollywood’s traditional forms, a patriarchal cinema devoted to an ideology of reassurance. For Britton, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982), in its drive towards the “restoration of the father,” is the ultimate example of this tendency.[7]  Alternatively, if we move outside of Hollywood and Britton’s model, we find another eighties cinema that is attracted to, in Bérénice Reynaud’s words, “impossible relationships” where “bodies missed each other” and in which “speeches competed and failed to communicate anything.”  This is a world of “blank silences, sullen obsession or bouts of hysteria” and in which “language itself was in a state of crisis.” [8]  For Reynaud, films such as Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours (1983), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Class Relations (1984) and, especially, Raul Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) epitomize this strain, as does Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984). The last of these is also an emblematic eighties “indie” film and, by virtue of being American, one that implicitly responds to Reaganite Hollywood. Jarmusch’s comically spare, black-and-white world is one in which organic life and spontaneous gestures have been reduced to the bare minimum, resisting the contemporaneous investment in individual initiative and ambition.  Stranger than Paradise is an immigrant’s tale in which the American dream and the notion that America itself is a utopian space—a paradise—have long since lost their capacity to motivate and inspire.  (“Went to see Stranger than Paradise,” Warhol writes on November 12, 1984.  “It isn’t good.”)[9]  But where does Mixed Blood fit in with all of this?

Morrissey’s own self-presentation and political statements over the years could serve as a pre-condition for a reading of Mixed Blood as Reaganite entertainment on a low budget.  Morrissey has repeatedly boasted of his conservative politics, his puritanical attitudes towards sex and drugs, and his devotion to Roman Catholicism.  All but the last of these put him distinctly at odds with the Warhol environment of the sixties. Warhol’s sublime performance as an inarticulate dandy, detached from any firm commitment to the atmosphere around him, stands in marked contrast to Morrissey’s bombastic public persona, one that shows no inclination towards Warhol’s irony.  Morrissey has insisted that his films demonstrate the perils of a world in which a liberal culture and its freedoms of expression are given full rein.  His attraction to filming Bowne’s Forty-Deuce, for example, was that it was an “astonishing indictment of the liberal horror”.[10] But the reception history of some of Morrissey’s films suggests that if Morrissey’s statements are to be taken at face value, then the films have become far more complex phenomenons than he might be willing to acknowledge.  Pedro Almodóvar, for example, has spoken of the importance of early Morrissey to his own work, finding in the films a sensibility as “amoral” and “playful” as his own.[11] In the case of Mixed Blood, rhetorical precision is most often elided in favor of a world of suspended meaning, in which the very “freedoms” Morrissey’s film is ostensibly denouncing (or, at least, that Morrissey claims the film is denouncing) are given a voluptuous and, in spite of some melodramatic trappings, profoundly comic form of presentation.

In his book-length study of Morrissey, Maurice Yacowar often echoes his subject’s interpretations of his own films.  Of Mixed Blood Yacowar writes, “Rita thrives from the moral debility of the liberal culture” and that her “ ‘family’ is a false community [that is] manufactured in the absence of a value-centered genuine family”.[12]  (What might this “genuine family” be like?  Yacowar does not say.)  But two pages later, he writes that Mixed Blood evidences “anthropological respect” and a “documentary view with no moral to push”.[13]  Such seemingly contradictory readings, offered almost within the same breath, point to the film’s highly ambivalent attitudes.  For example, near the end of the film, Juan the Bullet is arguing with a local crime boss, Hector (Marcelino Rivera), who is working alongside of him in their mutual battle with Rita. Hector wants to attend his son’s confirmation, which is conflicting with Juan’s scheduled violent confrontation with (and likely murder of) Rita, in the aftermath of Juan’s kidnapping of her.  Hector lectures Juan on his absence of any sort of connection to the traditional family.  “All you is is a gang,” Hector tells him.  “My turf is my family.”  He refers to himself as belonging to a group of “responsible people” while also remarking to Juan, “I don’t see your mothers.  Or your grandmothers.  You don’t go to confession.  You don’t get elected to the block association.  I don’t see you yelling to your kids in Thompson Square [sic]…That ain’t family, Bullet.”  Divorced from its larger context in the film, the speech might carry some conventional moral weight.  But it is uttered by someone who does not, at any point in the film, function as an ethical barometer, and this kind of moralizing from him threatens coherence of characterization. (Hector is a former policeman who was kicked off the force, presumably for corruption.)

This “problem” of coherence for Morrissey, though, is not unique to Mixed Blood. J.J. Murphy has noted as early as Women in Revolt (1971) Morrissey’s tendency to forsake character consistency in the name of “parody and farce”.[14]  Morrissey himself, though, has addressed this issue in relation to his work in a somewhat different manner: “ If you make [your characters] embody contrary thinking then they’re a little bit funny, a little more human”.[15]  Contradictory characters are a mainstay of traditional forms of narrating in that such contradictions can supply a narrative with structuring elements of tension and contrast.  But it is also true, as Morrissey’s comment indicates, that such inconsistency can, in the ironic distance created, produce comic effects.  Murphy’s reading of Women in Revolt, though, implies a certain opportunism by Morrissey, a tendency to stoop to easy laughs at the expense of his camera subjects.  This reading is typical of much of the anti-Morrissey literature, in which Morrissey’s condescension towards his subjects is regarded as being of an entirely different order from Warhol’s simultaneously ironic and all-accepting sensibility.  Warhol’s irony is epic, grandiose and, for whatever humor is present in the works, finally beyond comedy itself.  Morrissey, on the other hand, is an almost entirely comic artist, with everything pitched at ground level (so to speak).  Morrissey’s statements on his alleged contempt for his subjects would confirm the pattern in his work detected by his detractors, since he so often claims that his films are attempts to show the emptiness of the lives being depicted and that comedy is his favored form for doing so.  However, I see a more complex pattern at work here, in which Morrissey’s cinema does not simply present inconsistent characters for the sake of humor. Even allowing for the fact that contradictions may be present to varying degrees in most cultural texts, in Morrissey we are dealing with a cinema that is actively driven by its own ideological and formal contradictions, incongruities, and inconsistencies.  Yacowar expresses his admiration for the “consistency of Morrissey’s moral vision.”[16]   I admire that vision as well but not for its consistency, moral or otherwise.

B.

Warhol’s comment that Mixed Blood is “everything” that Morrissey has done before but what was “photographed well” needs to be placed in a certain context.  “Well photographed” is not the first description that comes to mind when discussing such prior Morrissey films as Flesh, Trash (1970), Women in Revolt, or Heat (1972), all of them marked by a willfully haphazard camera style that might seem Warholian only if one has never seen or paid much attention to a Warhol film.  At no point do Morrissey’s films of the late sixties and early seventies demonstrate Warhol’s formal and conceptual rigor or remarkable eye for space, light and framing.  Morrissey is not a formalist. Instead, the camera in these earlier films uneasily co-exists with its flamboyant performers, the camera panning and zooming into and out of faces and bodies. Morrissey’s performers in his early films move through urban interiors and exteriors that, while shot on location, feel abstracted and threadbare, all the better to focus attention on the considerable appeal of the human subjects.  But this style undergoes some changes in the seventies, with Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula, as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) being more professionally “crafted”.The early hand-held and zooming style of late sixties/early seventies Morrissey is gone and does not return in the decade to follow.

Beginning in the early seventies, Warhol withdrew his films from distribution and by the eighties these films, rarely screened, became a distant memory for some, while for a succeeding generation the films became known only through reputation, a reputation mainly built upon misunderstandings.  As Morrissey continues to work in the eighties, the shadow of Warhol over him significantly recedes.  Whereas his films of the sixties and seventies uncertainly waver between approximating the forms of underground cinema and attempting a more commercial approach, Mixed Blood decidedly gravitates towards the latter and demonstrates a remarkable assurance in its overall narrative and formal organization. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic music, for example, at no point attempts even the mildly ironic contrast between image and sound offered by the Sophie Tucker record in Flesh, in which Tucker’s performance energy in the song is of another dimension from Dallesandro’s physically inert state.  The Tucker record, dating from 1931, is filled with sexual innuendoes that feel anachronistic in relation to Dallesandro’s late sixties world of male prostitution, in which sexual desires (including homosexual ones) are given more explicit articulation. Mixed Blood, on the other hand, expressively draws upon various Latin pop records contemporaneous with the period. Not only does the music confirm the specificity of the strongly Latin culture depicted in the film but the tones, rhythms and lyrics of the various song selections reinforce the film’s narrative content and the movements of the human figures within the frames.

The opening image of Mixed Blood is a Manhattan urban landscape, filmed with a long lens that foreshortens at least three works of architecture: in the foreground, a ruined apartment building in the East Village, its windows blown out; behind it, a high-rise apartment building farther west; and behind this farther still and to the left of the frame, the Empire State Building (the last of these, of course, the subject of another famous Warhol film).

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The wistful opening strains of Mongo Santamaria’s “Amanecer” (or “Dawn”) are heard over these shots of New York at dawn, music and image reinforcing one another. A tilt and then slight pan to the right gradually shows the ground floor of this ruined building, painted with an orange and yellow tropical scene with palm trees. A bodega on the corner of the building is the only sign of “life” among these ruins.  Across the street, to the left, the façade of another building is painted with another image of the sea, this one in shades of blue and green, the white sails of ships visible on the far horizon.

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In one concise mobile shot, the film has established the nature and boundaries of its world. What is  “outside” of Alphabet City is, at once, only steps away (through long lens shooting, three buildings that are, in reality, separated by many blocks appear as though they are in proximity) and yet economically and socially beyond reach.  The architectural grandeur of the Empire State Building as it ascends towards the sky contrasts with the descent the film takes into the streets of Alphabet City. The first images of that area we see connote both an urban ruin and, through the paintings of tropical seascapes, an ironic paradise, struggling to assert itself.  Typical of Morrissey, the film creates a highly circumscribed geographical and social world, in this instance defined by the borders of Alphabet City. Thiago, an adult, is nevertheless forbidden by his mother to leave these borders; and while the other Maceteros are not physically restricted in this way, the sense of Alphabet City forming its own distinct culture, a kind of diaspora apart from the rest of New York, is overwhelming.  The rare occasions when the film leaves Alphabet City are mainly in order to show the activities of The German (Ulrich Berr), a drug supplier for Juan and Rita, and his Australian girlfriend Carol (Linda Kerridge), both of whom soon become absorbed into the world of the Alphabet.  Even here, the film does not stray very far from the East Village, as The German and Carol are staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel, about twenty blocks away from Rita’s activities.

While it is true (as critics have noted) that, in terms of narrative, Morrissey structures the films stretching from Flesh to Heat in a way that Warhol never did, in these earlier Morrissey films the narratives still conspicuously lack any urgency and an element of parody or pastiche is often present. The Bowne films, while scarcely free of camp elements, show more evident investment in traditional structures of narrating, even as parody and pastiche remain, particularly in Mixed Blood and Spike of Bensonhurst. The organization of Mixed Blood conforms to most of the “classical” conventions: goal-oriented protagonists, inciting and complicating incidents, three-act structures, and clear resolutions.  The saga of Rita La Punta is a perverse variation on the American immigrant dream narrative (the kind of myth resisted in Stranger than Paradise but recycled in a nostalgic manner by Paul Mazursky in Moscow on the Hudson a year prior to Mixed Blood). Rita, like the characters who surround her, is nothing if not goal-oriented in her desire to sell drugs and engage in gang warfare and conflicts with the police. Compare Mixed Blood in this regard with Morrissey’s earlier drug film Trash. The taking of drugs in Trash is completely detached from its selling, and the anxious flow and exchange of capital (so central to eighties cinema in general and reaching its art-cinema apotheosis in 1983 with Robert Bresson’s L’argent) only enters the film in an indirect fashion, through the petty thefts that Joe (Joe Dallesandro) engages in in order to pay for his narcotics.  Seemingly taking its cue from the drugged impotence of Joe, Trash is a film in which no one seems to be “in charge” of the narrative and virtually all attempts to take matters in hand (such as Joe and his girlfriend Holly—played by Holly Woodlawn—trying to deceive a welfare worker into believing that Holly is pregnant) come to a listless end.  But in Mixed Blood only minor characters are addicted to drugs. The drug-selling protagonists are not only devoted to sobriety, hard work, and the making of money but they are clearly meant to serve as metaphors for immigrant capitalist entrepreneurs. Rita does not so much “thrive from the moral debility of the liberal culture” as acquire substantial profit from the selling of a product she actively despises. (“No drug trash in the Maceteros,” she declares.)  In this manner, her contradictions as a fictional character also allow her to become the embodiment of a particularly nefarious practice of capitalism: the willful and morally indifferent selling of harmful products.  A handmade sign hangs in her apartment: “Drugs Kill.”

Moreover, Rita insists on an ethnic purity for the Maceteros.  “Never mix blood”, she firmly declares in response to the possibility that a non-Latino could ever become a Macetero. Ethnic and racial conflicts animate much of the film, with Rita assuming for herself and Thiago a (wholly imaginary) higher position within the world of drug dealers by virtue of their status as Brazilians rather than Latinos.  Refusing any dependence on Juan the Bullet, Rita declares, “We can always go to the Chinks for our supply.  Or even the niggers—if we have to”. A pastiche of gangster melodrama is strong throughout, with Rita assuming center stage as a variation on Ma Jarrett in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), both women also having a quasi-incestuous relationship with their respective sons. But what is contained within Mixed Blood’s structural and generic connections and conventions is another matter.

While the film is not quite figurative or symbolic enough in its visual and dramatic language to become a full-blown allegory, Mixed Blood is consistent with a recurring eighties setting (already underway in much of seventies cinema) of the decayed urban environment, in this instance New York City.  In films of the seventies, New York is often represented in terms of heightened verisimilitude, all the better to create an indelible sense of urban economic and social despair.  William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) are two prominent examples, the latter also incorporating expressionist elements into its fabric of realism. In eighties New York-based cinema, on the other hand, we may speak of a fascination with representing the city in states of uncertain historical transition. In its most interesting manifestations, New York in eighties cinema often looks strange, at times surreal, as though the films are uninterested in attempting to directly represent the city. Friedkin and Scorsese are again central here, Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Scorsese’s After Hours (1985).   Mixed Blood looks no less unreal than many other eighties New York films (including Stranger than Paradise) but it achieves this in its own particular manner. Morrissey repeatedly de-naturalizes the raw material of his environment, often turning the urban landscape and décor (the latter of these cluttered with religious iconography and kitsch items) into a comically pagan and theatrical playground.  Alphabet City in Mixed Blood becomes not a potential site for redemption and renewal but is alluring precisely in the state in which we see it, as a ruin, and there is none of the verisimilitude combined with idealized window dressing of New York here that we find in such contemporaneous films as Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1984) or Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

“It used to be beautiful down here. Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, shooting galleries up to the cojones.  And now they’re starting to fuck up the whole Alphabet”. This is Hector speaking, at a meeting attended by the local police captain, Captain Kenzo (Yukio Yamamoto), The German, Carol, and other locals in order to discuss the problems with Rita. But Hector is also alluding to what would eventually be the complete transformation of the Alphabet into what it is today:  a place for the economically affluent, of soaring real estate prices, and trendy shops and restaurants.  (In the same sequence, another man in the room refers to incipient co-operative apartments in Tompkins Square.) “When they bring too much white trade down here”, declares Hector, “they ain’t gonna buy from us”.  Such declarations from Hector carry no less ironic weight than his defense of a “normal” family life that occurs later in the film. But when these two sequences of Hector are placed side by side, and with both of these soapbox statements being uttered by the same morally dubious character, a question arises as to how we are to read the film’s ideological intent.  In spite of Morrissey’s claims that his films attempt to show the despair brought on by the indulgences of liberal politics, Mixed Blood never overtly proposes that what we are seeing is the direct result of this kind of political practice.  One could conceivably read the film in opposite terms: that the poverty and crime are the result of right-wing indifference in the age of Reagan.[17]  There are no detailed references in the film to either the then-current administration in New York (headed by the Democratic mayor Ed Koch) or to Reagan’s presidency.  If there are available economic and social options beyond those chosen by Rita or Juan the Bullet, the film is unable to imagine them.

Throughout Morrissey’s work, there is a total indifference to creating a convincing image of the “normal”.  If such an image is present at all, it is for the same source of comedy and satire as the world of drug addicts, prostitutes and transvestites.  The “straight” couple in Trash (played by Jane Forth and Bruce Pecheur), leering at the naked Joe as he bathes or injects heroin into his veins, or the welfare agent (Michael Sklar) swooning over Holly’s platform shoes, are part of the same absurd universe.  In Mixed Blood, whatever might be construed as normal (Hector’s family, Rita’s daughter with her husband and new baby) is either kept offscreen (Hector’s family) or literally disposed of no sooner than they are introduced (Rita’s son-in-law is killed by the Dancers in the one sequence in which he is briefly shown; Rita’s daughter and grandchild never return).  Captain Kenzo is no more or no less corrupt than anyone else in the film, which is to say that he is part of the same comic fabric of moral relativism that dominates the film.  “Most people reviewing [my] films would say there was no judgment made”, Morrissey stated at the time of the release of Forty-Deuce, “but that they were comedies is a kind of judgment on the subject.  Showing the foolishness of people’s lives, which is the basis of comedy, is in effect a kind of moral judgment”.[18]  This is true enough, except that not all comic forms are alike in their implied or overt moral judgments. And Mixed Blood, as in almost all of Morrissey, draws upon a particular form of humor that complicates the moral judgments Morrissey claims his films are making:  camp.

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Rita’s idol is Carmen Miranda and, intoxicated at a celebration for her granddaughter’s christening, Rita performs one of Miranda’s signature songs, “Tico Tico”, for the admiring attendees.[19]   Miranda is a fundamental gay camp icon, her outrageous costumes and extravagant performance style having also made her a favorite for drag impersonation.[20] As early as Flesh, Morrissey made use of drag performers.  But aside from Flesh itself, which contains a sequence in which Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling play “themselves” as they read aloud advertising copy and celebrity profiles from a decaying forties movie magazine, Morrissey’s use of drag performers is similar to that of John Waters’s collaborations with Divine: Divine is in drag but otherwise portrays a female character in a self-contained fictional world, as in the two films they made together in the eighties, Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988). (Both Morrissey and Waters use drag performers differently from Warhol, who always insists that an artist such as Mario Montez retains a link to his drag persona, even when ostensibly assuming a role, such as that of Montez as “Lana Turner” in More Milk Yvette (1966)).[21] For Morrissey, such casting continues as late as Madame Wangs, in which the title character is played by a drag artist billed as Virginia Bruce (the name presumably a reference to the actress who appeared in many Hollywood films in the thirties and forties).  But by the eighties, the very nature of drag and gender transformation itself began to undergo its own changes of which the early deaths of such figures as Candy Darling (1974), Jackie Curtis (1985) and Divine (1988) seemed to indirectly anticipate or, in the case of Curtis and Divine, signal. Carmen Maura’s transgendered woman in Almodóvar’s Law of Desire (1987) is one major example of a new system being initiated during this period of immersive gender transformation, one that is far removed from the ironic clowning of a Holly Woodlawn or Jackie Curtis, who feel no need to convince us of a successful passage from male to female. Morrissey is never able to make the leap into a cinema of bodily metamorphosis and gender mutability, so central to the emerging cinema of Almódovar or (in a very different register and with very different implications) David Cronenberg.  Physical phenomena in Mixed Blood remain static, articulated at the level of an extremely violent comedy of manners.

Pêra’s performance as Rita La Punta implies a return to earlier forms of drag but embodied in a biological female. In her Hollywood films, Miranda’s accent and fractured English were often the butt of jokes and, for Miranda’s detractors, this reduced the already stylized Miranda to the level of a Brazilian caricature.  A typical example: In Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943), when asked the routinely polite question as to how she is doing, Miranda responds by saying that she “very well-to-do, thank you.”  In the midst of a negotiation with Hector and The German in order to dispose of both Juan the Bullet and Carol (the latter has become an object of Thiago’s affection and hence a rival for Rita), Rita, without pretext, suddenly brings up Miranda’s name.  “Did you see Carmen Miranda in Holiday in Havana?” she asks Hector.[22]  He can’t remember if he has but this prompts him to ask Rita why Miranda never stopped smiling.  “Why should she?” Rita rhetorically asks while also smiling broadly herself, “She was the Abraham Lincoln of Brazil.”  The two men nervously laugh.  Rita stops smiling and then seriously adds, while raising her index finger for emphasis, “And she knew it.”  On one level, the citation of Miranda is tied to the film’s thematic of immigrant experience:  For Rita, Miranda as a Brazilian enacts the possibilities of great economic and social success and thereby serves as a role model for a new version of self on American soil, in which Rita can likewise become “very well-to-do, thank you.”  But Miranda also suggests something else.

In Rita’s ruin of an apartment (described by Hector as a “goddamn bunker”), she constructs a shrine to Miranda, with Christmas lights draped around Miranda photographs and sheet music, a gesture rather like that of a male homosexual admirer for a beloved female star.   But such a gesture also allows Rita to construct a shrine to herself, a chair placed on high for her in the midst of these totemic objects, as though the chair were a throne from which Rita surveys her kingdom.  As such, she is closer to that legendary figure of camp, Maria Montez, in particular Montez as the evil high priestess Naja in Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944), than she is to a musical comedy star like Miranda.  The underage boys who surround Rita have not only a pragmatic function (helping her to sell drugs) but also a symbolic one that splits into two parts: as her extended family (her boys) and as cult or camp followers, who worship her.

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The stupidity or naiveté of the Maceteros is fundamental here because they must remain inferior to her, obey her commands, and share in her tastes and values, including her love for the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, who function as idealized versions of her own boys.

Language and language differences become a further source of Rita’s power, her foreign otherness giving her command of her domain through spoken language. When The German and Hector pay their first visit to Rita at her apartment she sits on her “throne” and refuses to speak English to either men. Instead, Toni must translate for her, as though Rita were Brazilian royalty and the two men hostile foreign dignitaries. In Mixed Blood, Pêra’s delivery of her English dialogue is filled with unexpected emphases, rhythms and pronunciations impossible to reproduce on the page, even though Rita rarely makes grammatical errors, as does (the carefully scripted) Miranda, or unintentionally comic mispronunciations, as does Maria Montez.  On the contrary, Rita is capable of quickly uttering a rather complicated line (typical of Bowne) such as, “Since when is Captain Kenzo using jig dykes for his strong-armed shit?” Like Miranda’s malapropisms or Maria Montez’s accent, such utterances have the potential to produce laughter for the audience. But Pêra delivers her dialogue in a knowing, self-conscious manner which suggests that, like Miranda’s “errors,” she is in on the joke.  But Rita presides over her world, is its dominant force, unlike Miranda who is invariably a comic diversion in her own particular world.

If the “restoration of the father” is a key element to Reaganite cinema Mixed Blood presents us with another articulation within this basic paradigm.  When the father is either weak, absent or beyond restoration, the mother assumes an all-powerful and devouring function, particularly in relation to the sexually and emotionally stunted son as mother and son (quite often) enact a scenario of repressed incest, as in Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985) or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).  Mixed Blood intensifies this variation on the Oedipal scenario: The mother’s dominance over her adult son is absolute. Mother and son literally sleep together (although without having sex), the mother’s hand (in the opening of the film) resting on her son’s chest as though she were his wife or lover. The film, though, is incapable of offering the restoration of the father or the banishment of the mother as a solution to the either the mother/son relationship or to the general situations that the film represents.  Thiago’s father is beyond restoration because Rita “is never sure” as to the identity of the man responsible for impregnating her.  “But I think”, she ponders, “that he was not so smart”.  The film is wholly fascinated by the concept, as an end in itself, of the all-powerful matriarch.

But this fascination has less to do with her biological status as a mother than with her iconic one, strongly tied to the decadent, camp female star. Rita situates herself as a type of female idol, at once religious (Catholic rosary beads drape from out of her coat pocket, a small image of the Virgin Mary sits atop her Miranda shrine, and she occasionally makes the sign of the cross in response to tragic events) and secular.  As such, she is also the sacred and profane mother so central to camp appreciations of the female star.[23]  In her encounter with The German and Hector in her apartment, for example, her Portuguese is frequently scabrous and obscene.  Moreover, her last name, while literally translating as (and Captain Kenzo notes this) “the point”, is also very close to la puta, the whore. (Juan the Bullet makes a deliberate slip in calling her this). Pêra brings an association that would have been fresh in the minds of many viewers watching the film in 1985: her performance as the prostitute in Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981), a film that, like Mixed Blood, surrounds Pêra with very young boys who are linked to the world of crime and poverty and for whom she briefly assumes a maternal function, most indelibly the sequence in which she haltingly breast feeds the title character. But for Babenco, Pêra imparts a kind of post-neorealist authenticity to his film, whereas for Morrissey the same actress functions within the realm of camp artifice, everything in quotation marks, everything tied to stylized enactment and ritual.

Although the film is not a star vehicle, per se, Pêra’s Rita becomes a nucleus around which many of the film’s crucial issues revolve.  Even her heavily accented English seems to spill over into the larger environment.  With Rita, we are not in Reynaud’s version of eighties cinema facing a crisis over language or “blank silences”. In Mixed Blood, even though a struggle over language of sorts takes place it primarily occurs through characters who are highly verbal but whose thick accents (almost the entire cast is non-American or has a heavily regional American accent) turn the delivery of dialogue into a sometimes-labored attempt to simply get the words out. This is not a crisis, though, and the characters (with one important exception, to be addressed in the next section of this essay) do not fail to communicate with one another. Kenzo’s accent, for example, is even thicker than Rita’s.  But the dialogue makes no attempt to simplify language or to supply a literary form of broken English.  Instead, Kenzo’s dialogue is delivered at a fairly rapid pace, as though he were in total command of the English language. The dialogue in the film becomes an object of both play and power for virtually everyone, with Rita exercising the ultimate control.

Throughout the dialogue, there is an incessant repetition of such words as “trash,” “scum,” “garbage” and “toilet”.  And Morrissey has often stated that the toilet is a metaphor for his entire body of work.  When Carol questions Rita as to why she lives in such a wretched apartment with her boys when she clearly can afford something better, Rita acknowledges the shabbiness of the surroundings. But Rita defends herself by saying of the boys, “I make sure they take baths.  They keep their clothes clean and comb their hair. And when they walk down the streets, everyone looks and says, There go the boys of Rita La Punta. Not like the other trash that works and lives in this toilet”. But the toilet in Morrissey is, literally and metaphorically, both alluded to and hidden from view and the film avoids the drive towards carnivalesque transformation central to the work of, for example, Waters in which Divine is able to joyously declare, in Pink Flamingos (1972), “Filth is my life!”.  For Rita, the clear attraction of living in a “toilet” is that she can possess far greater power in such an environment than she can in the world of luxury hotels in which The German and Carol live.  Like the scheming, quasi-fascistic Montez in Cobra Woman, dominating an island of inferiors, Rita allows herself to both live within and rise above such “low” surroundings.  Consistent with the logic of homosexual camp (which resists the kind of overt moralizing that Morrissey claims his films engage in), Rita’s status as both a woman and as a Brazilian immigrant are not defined in terms of concrete biological and cultural matters, of a pre-determined essence.  Instead, they become sites of negotiation, available to be appropriated and extravagantly self-dramatized amidst the chaos of all that surrounds her.

D.

Here is a shot of Thiago from a sequence early in the film, after he and his mother have been told that Juan the Bullet has just killed one of her boys.

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Behind him is his mother’s shrine to Miranda. In a displaced fashion, this single shot contains within it two images of homosexual projection:  first, the man at the center right of the shot, all muscular arms and voluptuous facial features, an object of desire; second, the display in the back of the shot, offering up a tribute to an iconic “mother camp” figure.  Strictly within the logic of the film’s narrative, this shot demonstrates Thiago’s entrapment within a world so vigorously controlled by his own biological mother.  But the use of Thiago and the other young men in the film exceeds its containment within this fiction.  Throughout Morrissey’s work, the male body is situated as an object of intense desire and scrutiny; but it also the source of laughter, all of these epitomized by the use of Dallesandro in his films with Morrissey.  Koch’s arguments about Flesh might also hold, in some ways, for Mixed Blood when he writes that in this early Morrissey film “men are weak but adoring, while women are strong but hateful.”  For Koch, the camera in Flesh engages in an “ostentatious adoration” of the male body while also subjecting it to a “subtle, or not so subtle, rage.”[24]  Thiago may consequently be subject to the camera’s “ostentatious adoration.” But he is also stupid, “weak but adoring,” the one figure in the film who has virtually no command of spoken language at all, a major eighties embodiment of the notion of blank silences. “He is a little… slow”, an unembarrassed Rita tells Carol.   And it is precisely this inarticulate “slowness”, the fact that he is primarily image rather than spoken language, which allows him to serve as an ambivalent object of desire.

Throughout the film, Morrissey’s casting decisions in relation to the male performers are such that we are constantly made aware of a certain male beauty on display. Even as the cinema of the eighties addresses homosexuality in an increasingly overt manner, erotic male spectacle, influenced by fashion magazine ideals of attractiveness and divorced from any overt expression of homosexuality or a gay political position, is a central feature:  Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), for example, or Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986), as well as Morrissey’s own Beethoven’s Nephew. Mixed Blood is no less “closeted” in this regard.  But male beauty here often seems to be on the verge of rotting: actors with overripe features, full lips, bushy and overgrown eyebrows, their bodies and faces of a piece with the environments that surround them, an architecture of broken windows, empty door frames, and gaping holes brought on by neglect.  Sexual desire remains unfulfilled (unless it is occurring through prostitution), even while the atmosphere of the film itself has an erotic intensity surpassing the conventions of mainstream male erotic spectacle.  In certain close-ups, mainly singles of the young men, only the eyes of the actor move as the head remains still, and the difference in the film between a look that connotes hostility or violence and a look that connotes a (usually forbidden) attraction is blurred. Desire itself becomes caught up in the rituals and repressions set and determined by Rita, goddess of all that she surveys. There are literal rituals enacted in Mixed Blood, such as those of violent initiation for boys who wish to join the Maceteros, or of expulsion for one boy who wishes to leave the Dancers, the bodies here subjected to a “subtle, or not so subtle, rage.”  But ritual also manifests itself in the formal organization of certain sequences. The opening is, once again, key.

Following the first shot from the Empire State Building to street level in Alphabet City, a cut takes us to a graffiti-filled cement block wall of a building, the camera panning across this wall until it reaches the bombed-out doorframe (almost literally a hole in the wall) and the steps to this edifice.  As credits roll over all that follows here, another cut shows a closer view of the doorway, as first José (Rodney Harvey), a Macetero, steps out and then stands, hands in pockets, as he looks off.  Another cut, the camera now on José’s left, takes us even closer to the door frame as Toni emerges, followed by Thiago, both of them looking off to out-of-frame left, then right, then left again.  A cut out to a long shot shows Thiago taking Toni’s hand (an ironic, gentleman-like gesture in terms of what will follow) as he and Toni descend the ruined stairs, followed by José, the three of them exiting the frame from left to right.  A fairly tight three-shot of them walking down the street follows, the camera tracking with them, their steps synchronized to the rhythms of “Amanecer”.  This is the first of several sequences built around characters walking, the repetitive rhythm of the actors and the alignment of their bodies within the shots providing a sense of purposeful, choreographed movement.  What follows is an extraordinary organization of images built around alternating eyeline matches, as José and Thiago pimp for Toni, who is “sold” to a young Latino (who is accompanied by two friends). Tying these gestures to early morning hours, to the awakening of the city, allows them to become part of a perverse, ritualistic natural order of things, occurring day in and day out.

No words are spoken in this opening.  It is all handled through looks exchanged between characters:  within shots (Toni, standing at the window of a newsagent’s shop, looking at the man who will soon purchase her sexual favors, who then looks at her as he lights her cigarette) but, especially powerful here, eyeline matches that take us across shots:  the various alternating shots between Thiago and the man interested in Toni, heads barely moving as the primary emphasis is on eyes that move up and down, up and down as they look off-camera; or between Toni and Thiago as the Latino has intercourse with her against the outside wall of a building and Thiago observes this activity from a distance, before turning away and quickly walking down the street alone, as though the sight of this is too much for him.  But the intensity of the eyeline matches here is such that explaining them away strictly in terms of narrative function limits their potency.  The close-ups of these beautiful men looking at one another, even though they are clearly tied to the activity of selling Toni, carry with them a sense of an erotic spectacle in and of itself and one that is even stronger than the story material whose meaning those looks are attempting to convey.  This act of selling a woman into prostitution manages to create an atmosphere of homosexual cruising in which ultimately the “wrong” (heterosexual) couple is formed, even if only briefly and for the sake of a financial transaction.  Returning to Reynaud, then, this opening sequence offers its own articulation of a world in which bodies have “missed each other” and in which “love was impotent to express itself except through blank silences”.

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Homosexual or bisexual characters in Morrissey are present as far back as Flesh. But such identities and desires are inevitably caught up in the contradictory farcical mechanics of those earlier films, in which homosexuality can be suddenly, even illogically, assumed by a character with all the dexterity of a quick-change artist.  This is not true of Mixed Blood, partly because its gangster melodrama elements, even if not treated in an entirely respectful manner, impart certain conventions to the proceedings.  But these conventions also allow for an intensity in terms of the film’s imagery, one that exceeds Morrissey’s earlier work, even as such an intensity also places the film somewhat outside of prevailing norms of the period in terms of male eroticism. The only gay characters we see in the film are the “old fags” briefly glimpsed at a gym.  The film’s contradictions allow it to repudiate these men even as its visual and performance language creates its own overwhelming gay/queer environment.   For all the film’s humor and irony, its formal organization creates a deeply resonant and indelible sexual atmosphere, at once closeted and overt. Mixed Blood cannot laugh off the power of all of its images, even as it holds back from that which it most desires.

My thanks to Steve Barnes for his input on this essay. 

Notes:

[1] Andy Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries, Pat Hackett, ed., (New York: Warner Books, 1991), p. 706.

[2] Stephen Koch, Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol, revised edition, (New York: Marion Boyars), p. 105.

[3] J.J. Murphy offers a brief, useful overview of some of the literature (by Callie Angell, Jonas Mekas, and Tony Rayns) that has attempted to make clear distinctions between the films of Warhol and the films of Morrissey, as well as offers his own assessments of the Morrissey films.  J.J. Murphy, The Black Hole of the Camera, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 228-245.

[4] Douglas Crimp, for example, argues that Morrissey “cynically attached himself to Warhol and adopted a great many of Warhol’s formal strategies only to put them to a very different, even opposite purpose.”  Douglas Crimp, Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012), p.17

[5]Of Warhol’s Sleep, Morrissey is typically condescending, describing the film as “ ‘cute.  Interesting.  But I only stayed for about an hour.’ ” Maurice Yacowar, The Films of Paul Morrissey, (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 17.

[6] Bowne’s credit for Mixed Blood lists him as the source for “additional dialogue” but much of the language in the film has more in common with Forty-Deuce than with Morrissey’s preceding films. By the time of Spike of Bensonhurst, Bowne is listed as co-screenwriter, his name appearing in the writing credits before Morrissey’s.

[7] Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out:  The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment, Movie 31/32, pp. 1-42.

[8] Bérénice Reynaud’, “Three Crowns of the Sailor,”  http://www.rouge.com.au/2/crowns.html.  Retrieved on 9/12/2014.

[9] Warhol, p. 614.

[10] Quoted in Yacowar, p. 97.

[11] Almodóvar on Almodóvar, Frederic Strauss, ed., Yves Baignères, trans. (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 13.

[12] Yacowar, p. 105.  Yacowar also accepts Morrissey’s version of his contribution to various Warhol films and in the book’s filmography he lists Morrissey as the director of The Chelsea Girls and Lonesome Cowboys, with Warhol listed as producer and camera operator.  Such 1967 Warhol films as ****, The Loves of Ondine, I, a Man, and Bike Boy are in the book’s filmography with no director credits given.  My Hustler is given no director credit either but Warhol is again listed as producer and camera operator while Morrissey is listed as “production assistant.”  See Yacowar, pp. 135-136.

[13] Yacowar, p. 107.

[14] Murphy, p. 241.

[15] Yacowar, p. 103.

[16] Yacowar, p. 98.

[17] Spike of Bensonhurst is much more explicit about what it regards as the pernicious effects of liberal political policy.  The supposed “softness” of liberalism towards drug dealers is directly correlated with the poverty and crime in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, particularly Red Hook.  The film even includes a cocaine snorting, anti-drug testing congresswoman in a big hat, played by Sylvia Miles, who is clearly intended to be a parody of the Democratic New York congresswoman Bella Abzug.  Nevertheless, ironies abound.  The “solution” to drug-related crime and poverty is not political conservatism or a conventional law and order program.  Instead, it is organized crime that will make matters right, the same organized crime that we see dealing in drugs, even as its top figures now publicly align themselves with liberalism: A poster of Mario Cuomo, then-governor of New York, hangs on the wall of a restaurant owned by Baldo Cacetti (Ernest Borgnine) who declares, “Now I even vote for the liberal politicians – all of that garbage.”

[18] Yacowar, p. 103.  op. cit.  Gary Indiana, “Aces the Deuce:  An Interview with Paul Morrissey,” East Village Eye (March 1983), p. 8.

[19] Miranda has long been a particular favorite performer of Pêra’s. Since 1972 she has been performing musical tributes to Miranda, in full Miranda-like costume.

[20] In 1980, the playwright Ronald Tavel, a frequent collaborator with Warhol in the sixties on such films as Vinyl and The Life of Juanita Castro (1965) (as well as sections of The Chelsea Girls,) wrote the theater piece Carmen Miranda: The Musical.

[21] As Jonas Mekas has famously put it, “In a Warhol film, even when an ‘actor’ acts, it looks like he’s living it; in a Morrissey film, even when an actor lives it, it looks like he’s acting.”  Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971, (New York: Collier Books, 1972), p. 333.

[22] Holiday in Havana (1949) is the title of a B musical with Desi Arnaz in which Miranda does not appear.  Rita has most likely confused this with the Miranda film Weekend in Havana (1941). Such errors (intentional or not) are often central in camp quotation, in which getting details slightly wrong becomes part of the misaligned comic performance.

[23] Esther Newton discusses the myth of the sacred and profane mother in relation to the tradition of the female impersonator rather than the female star in Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).  Drag performers who also do impersonations of female celebrities, such as T.C. Jones and Lynn Carter, are, however, discussed by Newton.

[24] Koch, p. 126.