Trash, released in 1970, was the second part of Paul Morrissey’s loose trilogy of films starring Joe Dallesandro, and produced under the aegis of Andy Warhol’s Factory. This time Joe is a junkie, living in squalor with his trash-collecting girlfriend Holly (played by transvestite Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn). Joe really isn’t interested in anything any more, apart from heroin. He is no longer capable of satisfying Holly sexually, despite her strenuous, even frantic, efforts to arouse him. Although Joe can’t perform any more, that doesn’t stop people from trying to get into his pants, although none of them have any notable success. Joe’s attempts to get money to buy more drugs involve him in a series of escapades with some of the most outlandishly outrageous characters in the history of cinema. It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite character.
What makes Trash so fascinating is that it’s an underground movie that is genuinely funny. In fact, extremely funny. The experimental nature of the movie, the constant going in and out of focus, the improvised acting (or rather non-acting), the documentary-style approach, the deliberately amateurish camerawork – all this could so easily add up to a movie that is pretentious and cold, but Trash is monstrously entertaining.
Much has been made of Paul Morrissey’s basically conservative and moralistic approach to his material, and while that’s undoubtedly true there’s no doubt that there’s a considerable affection for this collection of misfits mixed in with that. No-one has ever portrayed the essential boredom, dreariness, banality and utter emptiness of the drug culture more effectively or more chillingly, but at the same time you can’t help falling in love with Joe and Holly. They’re pathetic, but they’re so sweet. Holly Woodlawn is simply adorable, and gives what is not only one of the finest comic performances you’ll ever see, but also a dramatic performance of considerable and surprising power. The scene in which she is reduced to pleasuring herself with a beer bottle manages to be both insanely hilarious and desperately sad. Joe Dallesandro’s acting is as minimalist as ever, but it works, and he comes cross as a weird but engaging mixture of innocence and depravity. That perhaps is the key to Morrissey’s approach – his characters are really children hopelessly out of their depth in a society that has nothing better to offer them but a soulless and barren hedonism that leaves them more empty and lost. His anger, and his wickedly barbed satire, is directed towards the society that offers its members so little of value.
Trash is a more effective piece of social criticism than much more highly praised movies like Midnight Cowboy, and it’s also very very funny.