Recently watched: Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973). Tagline: “Wilder than you can imagine! Explicit beyond belief! Meet them all! Hustlers and pimps! Pushers and S&M freaks! Straight guys and girls looking for thrills and one-night stands!” Sample dialogue: “It’s getting so you can’t give a blowjob on Times Square without some cop looking over your shoulder!”
It’s fun to imagine the dirty mac brigade settling into their seats at some fleapit grindhouse cinema in the early seventies to watch some raunchy triple-X titillation – and instead being confronted by this grimly downbeat, profoundly unerotic character study about survival prostitution by maverick outsider gutter auteur Andy Milligan (1929 - 1991). There’s even mournful flute music on the soundtrack for maximum erection repellent. You could call Fleshpot a “gritty” genital warts-and-all slice of life – but “grubby” might be more accurate.
Pretty brunette Dusty Cole is a street-smart and calculating sex worker barely eking out a hardscrabble existence in New York’s Times Square. Her hard-bitten demeanor begins to melt after a fluke encounter with handsome, sensitive and earnest young Wall Street banker Bob Walters. Can Dusty embrace the straight life and find true love and happiness in Staten Island with Bob? Spoiler alert: anyone familiar with Milligan’s pessimistic oeuvre will already know the answer is a resounding no!
Like Andy Warhol, John Waters and R W Fassbinder, Milligan populates his movies with his own repertory troupe of freaks and misfits – in his case, mostly drawn from the realms of underground off-Broadway theatre and pornography. The acting here is genuinely potent (some of the verbose monologues demanded of the actors are worthy of Tennessee Williams). Porn actress Laura Cannon imbues surprising delicacy, complexity and intelligence as constantly hustling, amoral anti-heroine Dusty. We glimpse the emotional toll of constantly living by her wits and the seemingly endless procession of encounters with creepy, unappealing men, and that everything Dusty does is tinged with desperation. (I love how Cannon tangibly goes into weary dead-eyed autopilot every time she begins disrobing). Always the most chivalrous and affable of seventies porn studs, young Harry Reems of Deep Throat notoriety (sans his trademark mustache) is painfully adorable as the idealistic Bob. And as Cherry Lane, Dusty’s sassy aging drag queen roommate and fellow working girl, Neil Flanagan - and his matted bouffant wig - steals every scene.
Thematically and stylistically, Fleshpot is analogous to Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), the trilogy of Warhol-produced underground films directed by Paul Morrissey, and the early works of John Waters. What separates Milligan from Morrissey and Waters is the ferocity of his misanthropy and nihilism. He takes a decidedly jaundiced perspective on concepts like “free love” and sexual liberation. Apart from Bob, none of the characters could be described as “sympathetic.” The film offers a vividly grungy cinema verité document of decrepit pre-gentrification seventies New York. Every character in Fleshpot lives in squalor and escapes to drown their sorrows at depressing dimly lit dive bars. Milligan was gay and the sexuality on display here is refreshingly polymorphous: the ostensibly hetero male tricks take a surprisingly pragmatic open mind when it comes to the gender of their sex workers (Dusty and Cherry share clients). The world Milligan evokes packs an undeniable lowlife allure, but you wouldn't want to live there. Warning: the ugly racial epithets casually thrown around by Cherry are authentic to the period and character but wildly offensive to modern ears (prepare to flinch!). There are two versions of Fleshpot in circulation: grainy and softcore (on Amazon Prime) and digitally remastered and hardcore (via Vinegar Syndrome’s website).