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Fairy Tales Death Rattles

By Frank Rich

"Trash" and "Where's Poppa?", opening respectively at the Paris and Cheri Cinemas this Friday

CONSIDER what is dead. DeGaulle is dead, the sixties are dead, Rube Goldberg is dead, the peace movement is dead, the Paris peace talks are dead. You could go on and on. Hell, for all we know Howard Hughes may be dead. In any case death is in the air. After the jubilant, lively, jumping-up-and-down sixties (the Age of Aquarius, I believe), here we are stuck with the Secanal seventies. It is a good time to take a nap.

Indeed I wish I could take a nap right now, but I won't, for I feel compelled to tell you that the mood of the seventies has at last filtered down into the American cinema. After a year of indecisiveness from our American moviemakers (to wit, such products as the Perrys' Diary of a Mad Housewife and Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, films which serve the purpose of marking time rather than moving on), two major (and generally successful) works expressing the funereal feeling of the decade ahead have arrived in time to brighten up the holiday season. I say brighten up because while these two films-Paul Morrissey's Trash and Carl Reiner's Where's Poppa? -are mainly about death, they are comedies about death.

And, in a macabre sort of way, they are both very funny. Trash, the first Andy Warhol factory film to be distributed commercially nationwide, is the story of a heroin addict (Joe Dallesandro) who is constantly on the verge of O. D.-ing. Perhaps this does not seem humorous in itself, but, for good measure, there is a running gag about Joe's smack-induced impotency. Paul Morrissey (who wrote, directed and photographed this epic) has structured his film around the gag; Trash is a series of boy-meets-girl-but-can't-get-it-up episodes, each one weirder than the next.

Joe gets around. There is a girl who stages a whole strip show in her home for his benefit; when this and an extended attempt at oral stimulation fail to get him going, she tries talking about politics to excite him. There is a rich girl tripped out on acid. And a married girl from Grosse Pointe who was "thrown out of high school for giving blow jobs in the cafeteria" and now wouldn't mind being raped, with her husband for an audience.

Joe never does straighten out, but, luckily, there is always the girl-next-door waiting for him at home. She is Holly Woodlawn, an inveterate collector of garbage and solicitor of the affections of young boys. Miss Woodlawn (who is actually a transvestite) cares deeply about Joe and passionately wants him to kick heroin, if only so he will be of use to her in bed. She tries to cheer him up, she pleads with him, she screeches at him.

In the end, she fakes pregnancy (with the help of a pillow) to get on welfare. She does not succeed, though, because the case-worker who comes to call is enamored of her silver shoes ("Just like the shoes Joan Crawford always wore!") to the extent that he will not put her on the dole list unless she gives them to him. She will not. Bribing welfare workers to get the money she rightfully deserves is a violation of her principles.

For what it's worth, Trash -by any conventional standards a work of outlandish obscenity-is very much a moral movie. Holly believes in the simple things-love, devotion, trust. And while she must apply these principles to her low-life world of kinky sex, drugs, and eternally imminent death, apply them she does. She is a wholly original creation in a challenging film-the only American picture so far this year worth forcing yourself to go see.

WHERE'S POPPA?, directed by Carl Reiner from a screenplay by Robert Klance, is another modern screwball comedy, which, like Trash, evokes the kind of desperate laughter we associate with the film farces Hollywood churned out in the thirties. Also like the Morrissey film, its humor is built around the characters' anticipation of the end. To be specific, Where's Poppa? tells about Gordon Hocheiser's (George Segal) anticipation of the death of his mother (Ruth Gordon). Actually, Gordon does not so much anticipate his senile mother's demise as pray for it. He even tries to help her along-waking her up in the mornings dressed in a gorilla suit ("You almost scared me to death,." says Mom. "Almost-is not enough," answers Gordon), threatening her with violence ("You mess things up for me one more time," says Gordon, "and I'll cut your fucking heart out!"), and locking her in her room.

Gordon, a young lawyer, is stuck with his mother because his father's dying wish was that his wife would never be sent to an old-age home. This is a pain in the ass (both figuratively and literally-you'll understand after you see the film), because Mrs. Hocheiser is not only senile but nasty: when Gordon meets his true love (Trish Van Devere) and hires her as his mother's nurse (because at her employment interview Miss Van Devere informs him that "all [her] patients have died"), his mother intimidates the girl at every turn, even to the point of discussing the size of her son's "pecker."

Is this sick? The central premise of the film-distressing and unpleasant as it may be-is conceivable as a parcel of reality: Confronted with so disgusting a reality, can we do anything healthier than laugh at it? I don't think so. Where's Poppa? is a nice temporary escape from a painful awareness of death.

I might also point out that Where's Poppa? is not exclusively about a son's death-wish for his mom. There are some engaging comments on army generals who like to kill "gooks," Central Park muggers and devious football scouts as well. There are also a few sags-notably a rather sobering voyage into a decrepit old-age home near the film's end. Still, on at least one occasion, Where's Poppa? practically made me fall out of my seat with laughter. With the possible exception of napping, this seems as good a way as any to greet the seemingly grim years ahead.

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