Life without Zoë
Ferrara’s are exploitation and genre movies inundated with lofty goals and sour idealism. Ultimately their desired effect hinges on where and how you see them rather than from the content within. Ferrara on television seems ridiculous, the milieu too antiseptic. He has no business being on DVD, either…a digitized Driller Killer (1979) runs contrary to every sleazy thing the work stands for. If you’re going to ‘do Ferrara’ at home, it should be with pan-and-scan tapes, preferably plugged-up, third-generation dupes on a brand-x label picked up for three bucks apiece from a street vendor.
Nor should they be viewed outside of New York City, Brooklyn or the Bronx. Watching Abel Ferrara west of Staten Island should be punishable by law. But, alas…even in the Big Apple the venues are now woefully limited. Ferrara at Lincoln Center? The Paris? The Ziegfeld? No…not at all. The places that are worthy were exiled down the memory hole ages ago, one reason why New Yorkers cling to the Film Forum as if it were a life preserver. One or two of the sites may still operate, though far removed from their proper function: the 8th Street Playhouse, The Waverly, The Elgin, Variety PhotoPlays…perhaps the Thalia on a drizzly Tuesday evening. These are where the films could once breathe…or gasp for the rancid air emanating from the sewer.
His vision of New York isn’t anywhere near the posh uptown digs of the nouveau riche in Woody Allen. It’s not even close to the lower Manhattan of Martin Scorsese or the Brooklyn of Spike Lee. Sure, Ferrara and his camera have toured those neighborhoods, but his lowly characters and sordid morality tales — many seemingly ripped from the pages of the Sleazoid Express — are fixed in an underbelly that Scorsese’s tough guys can only speculate on. Compare the drug breakdowns and ask, who here is truly fucked: Harvey Keitel descending from the frying pan into the fire in Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), or Ray Liotta’s relatively cushy comeuppance at the mercy of the Witness Protection Program in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)?
The recurring themes of persecution and self destruction (to say nothing of the hollow religious iconography) that run from Ms. 45 (1981) through The Funeral (1996) will surely be analyzed ad nauseam by the blog community today, making my bead on them inconsequential, irrelevant and undernourished by comparison. If we excuse Driller Killer as the product of an overanxious sophomore unwilling or unable to calm his ambitions (it’s as bad as any film can get), then the ‘auteur’ in Ferrara and his subsequent pictures appears to me to be superficial at best. There are obvious qualities that can’t be denied, namely a technical proficiency and the outright gift when it comes to actors. There are excellent performances by Keitel (terrifying through a wide-angle lens) in Bad Lieutenant; the late Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45 — an actress and model, she also had a hand in Bad Lieutenant’s screenplay; the fruitful association with Christopher Walken, at the top of his game in King of New York (1990) and The Funeral; and Lili Taylor as the subdued vampire in The Addiction (1995).
However, would the films work at all without the intuitive casting? Ferrara’s jaundiced and myopic outlook eclipses otherwise viable scripts (usually written by or co-written with others), their impact dependent upon how much selective cynicism is shared between the director and his viewer. This makes him very popular among audiences eager to interpret all the urban angst and bloodletting as strands of political and moral editorializing — and not just some artfully rigged outlet for self-indulgent aggression. But when Jesus Christ calls on Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, what ought to have been a blinding revelation plays like an impotent and demystified postscript, a hasty afterthought imagined by a temperamental rube caught squandering a particularly vast resource.
Soon after, it somehow seemed appropriate, perhaps even necessary, that the director land in the murky science fiction of Body Snatchers (1993). The third version of the Jack Finney story that spawned the earlier Don Siegel and Phil Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers pictures, Ferrara’s bunker mentality seized the impending doom of emotionless drones with understated relish. It may be the weakest of the three, but it’s one of the best things Ferrara’s ever done.
After that I gradually lost interest. Ferrara was part of the committee behind Crime Story, an excellent TV program that ran for two seasons in the late ‘80s. But Dangerous Game (1993) was an exercise in tedium, dissuading me from later efforts like New Rose Hotel (1998) and ‘R Xmas (2001) — have these things ever experienced proper release? I’m sure my Blog-a-Thon brethren will taunt me with claims of greatness for the few I’ve yet to see, as if watching them will make me come to my senses. Perhaps, one day…