The Director's Chair Interviews
The Man: Who Cares?
by Kent Jones
"There has to be something called reality in order for us to come to its rescue."
"We hate the films of Abel Ferrara just as much as the next person." This is from a review of Dangerous Game (the late-night cable replacement title for Snake Eyes, for which the author admits a special fondness just because it's so terrible. The same Dangerous Game that no less a tastemaker than Norman Mailer calls a "bad, hysterical, messed up film" in a hot-air panegyric to Madonna in Esquire ("I've come to the conclusion that you are a great artist..our greatest living female artist"). Our greatest living female artist wasted no time putting the hex on Dangerous Game (henceforth referred to by its original title) before it was even released and referring to Ferrara as a "scumbag" in the bargain. Root around and you could probably dig up scores of lousy reviews for this most provocative and dissonant of all Ferrara's films. While you're searching, you may discover that even the raves for most of his films are qualified. An admirer like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice felt compelled to label Ferrara a "scuzzmeister" who had "lift[ed] himself up to a higher spiritual plane" before his short review in praise of Bad Lieutenant. And to the Rex Reeds or the Pauline Kaels of the world, Ferrara is at best a harmless nuisance and at worst a grating, annoying, irrelevant guttersnipe, an ill-mannered busboy at a $100-a-plate dinner.
Not that Ferrara is working overtime to dispel his press image. Last summer he substituted for Scorsese at a chic film preservation fund raiser. The story I heard was: Abel gets up to the mike, gives it a tap, says something like, "Okay, can everybody be quiet please? There's something I'd like to say about film preservation." Tongues keep wagging, glasses keep clinking. "Please - can you be quiet for a minute? This is important." Same. "Can everybody just shut the fuck up for a minute?" Guess who got thrown out by security guards.
But after all, what's Abel Ferrara to chic Manhattanites who like their movies bite-sized, chewable and easy to digest? It's now early October, and showers of million dollar bouquets are about to come raining down on a confection called Pulp Fiction. In case you haven't heard, this tasty, gladhanding movie is the work of a hyped-up ex-video store clerk named Quentin Tar-antino, who was lumped together with Ferrara in 1992: "the sons of Scorsese." Pay a little attention and ask yourself--could two filmmakers be any more different (and could two filmmakers be any more different from Martin Scorsese)? Tarantino is a canny audience manipulator with his eyes on heaven, and he has one trick up his sleeve: a slow build-up to a perfect mixture of horror and hilarity that's like a drug-rush. Scene after scene proceeds according to this same blueprint. It's the sort of filmmaking that Ferrara, in an interview we did last February, calls "planned parenthood, you know what I mean? Safe sex, baby." For an underworld movie, Pulp Fiction is pretty clean and orderly.
Over in the next galaxy is Ferrara. "The point is, you gotta make something happen up there: something's gotta go down or there's no sense turning on the camera...How can I put this? There's gotta be an event, that you're gonna turn the camera on for, and if that event isn't there, then what's the point? What're you shooting? Are you doing this shot so you can go to that shot?" Here's a case in point. Midway through his 1992 Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel pulls over two young girls for driving with a busted light. At this point, we know that Keitel's New York police lieutenant is a serious junkie, that he's into kinky sex, that he's on the trail of the rapists of a nun, and that he's putting an impossible amount of money on the Dodgers in the series (while he's taking bets on the Mets from his fellow officers) and he's losing. Keitel starts innocuously talking up the girls, on whom the camera fastens for long blocks of time. There's nothing dramatically pointed or mechanized in their actions and--in the process--a nice, unassuming portrait of Jersey girls develops like a materializing photograph (they're under age, it's their dad's car and he doesn't know they have it, they've just come from the Cat Club and, "Look--maybe you could just give us a warning or something."). The lieutenant responds by suggesting they do something for him in return. "Y'ever suck a guy's cock?" They drown in their bad luck before coming up for air: "Yeah--so what?" Keitel lets them know he means business before he instructs the girl in the passenger's seat to put her ass in the air and the driver to "Show me how you suck a guy's cock--show me! You little fuck! Show me!" It's repeated like an incantation before she snaps to attention and starts miming fellatio like a porn queen. Ferrara cuts from a close-up of the driver to a wide shot of the whole event. There's a light rain that puts a fog on the window between the driver and Keitel, who is furiously beating off and mouthing half-intelligible obscenities to himself. He comes, zips up his fly and walks off into the darkness. The girls try to get themselves back together, sharing a can-you-believe-what-just-happened-to-us breather.
A good part of the beauty of this emblematic Ferrara scene is the quiet; it's New York toned down to a whisper. Ferrara may be the most patient director in American movies today, possessed of a deeply contemplative sensibility under a patina of hardcore low-life. American movies within the last ten years have been rife with obscene, exotic flauntings (up in the pantheon would be the sex at knifepoint/gas mask number from Blue Velvet, the broken bone jutting through the skin in Born on the Fourth of July, the fisherman pissing on the corpse in Short Cuts, and of course Tarantino's patented party favors.) But the Ferrara scene is "Kinkiest Movie Scenes Anthology" material only on paper. Part of the reason is that its action is out of the blue, mysterious, its raison d'etre non-titillating, its effect oddly lulling and harmonic. With any of these other scenes there's a Point Being Made (for Lynch, its the engineering of the audience into territory as strange and deeply uncomfortable as he can manage; for Oliver Stone it's a boneheaded reminder of the horrors of war; for Altman, it's a stale editorial on the callousness of American life). The machinery behind these set pieces reveals directors in search of big shock effects, tripping over themselves to get to them. But in this scene, the obscenity is a private self-flagellation. Ferrara moves into things unassumingly. Instead of reordering reality to suit his concept, he works with what's there--the immediate reality of the rain, the "Oh my god--why us?" non-plussed reactions of the girls, the fact that the non- actresses didn't know how to drive a car which caused an on the spot rethinking of the scene, Keitel's instinctive return to a civil servant demeanor as he walks away.
"What's that Kubrick rap?" Ferrara mused, trying to answer a question of mine about how movies are constructed. "The idea that a movie's an inverted pyramid is bullshit." It's certainly true of his movies, which don't really have subjects as much as destinations, end points, outcomes. And where a Tarantino controls his framing and camera placement to the point where you might think you're watching a puppet show, Ferrara listens to what his locations and his actors are saying; he lets them breathe. All of New York seems to be hovering outside the frame. In his practice of randomness within a specific framework, Ferrara has a strong affinity with Warhol. But Godard's his hero, and he's a filmmaker for whom Godard's maxim, "Cinema is truth 24 frames per second," (he quoted it during the interview) is a natural law.
Ferrara gets indelible impressions of things other directors take for granted: a sodden, acne-faced altar boy doing first communion chores; a strip joint with the required dose of tired pizzaz; some loose-limbed shucking and jiving around the San Gennaro festival. More and more, he has tended to structure his films according to site and moment-specific, non-dramatic action, and this gallery of faces, moments, movements, places is so vivid precisely because it is not weighted down with the kind of thematic hope chests that have you watching most movies the way you go through a maze.
Ferrara started making films with his friend, and writer, Nick St. John on 8mm when he was an adolescent in New York. There are rumors that he made porno films before The Driller Killer, but he won't talk about that (if it's true, it's not much of a surprise). His debut, shot in his Union Square loft, is a late 70's period piece (the director himself--under the pseudonym "Jimmy Laine"--plays an artist who lives in a menage ą trois with a couple of downtown chicks, and the ambiance is very Bowie/Lou Reed). Drive-in obligations are fulfilled (lesbian sex in the shower, repeated killings using guess what as a weapon), but the sensibility that underlays the action is decidedly the Ferrara I've been describing. This surprisingly elegant looking film constantly plummets into chancy areas (very frank footage of homeless people, long stretches devoted to a seventh-rate new wave band hanging out and not practicing that get the rotting sybaritism of that time perfectly). The progression away from generic obligations and dramatic lynchpin structures is steady thoughout each successive picture--the hallucinatory Ms. 45, the Chinese-Italian Romeo and Juliet film China Girl, the decadent gun-blasting escalation of King of New York (that's the film where he starts to find his now trademark quietness), Bad Lieutenant and Snake Eyes . The exception is the 1984 Fear City, which has a nice feeling for the world of Manhattan strip joints but which devolves into a hero fighting his demons and finding the killer in the process--remind you of 10,000 other movies you've seen? His oeuvre expands and contracts like an accordion --sometimes the episodes of Miami Vice, the pilot movie for Crime Story, Cat Chaser (based on an Elmore Leonard novel, filmed without his regular team and straight to video) count, sometimes they don't. Right after Bad Lieutenant he shot a fast, tough widescreen remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (for $20,000,000, his biggest budget by a mile) that barely came out in theaters ("It's an awesome piece of material...they should make one every year."). These money in the bank projects not only keep Ferrara healthy and working, they also enrich and reflect back on his more personal work. The reality of genre filmmaking is treated with the same clarity as the reality of New York in the other films. And while our most vaunted filmmakers perch themselves high above the working stiffs, Ferrara sullies himself regularly and stays at ground level with projects on demand. There is a healthy tension in his work between exploitation and thoughtfulness: he dives into his demi-monde of muggers and pimps with a relish beyond the decorum of more haloed directors like De Palma or Altman. He "exploits" his characters the better to nose dive into their world.
Many of his admirers thought that he had permanently soared off into the ether with Snake Eyes. I heard stories about the shoot--fast, single takes, Abel sitting in the corner having a glass of wine and letting the film direct itself. The finished product bears out those stories. This wild, mean, smart movie about confessional filmmaking and the business around it is the work of a director interested in letting different elements--film within film, scenes of family life, video rehearsals that may or may not be staged --collide at full throttle ("With Snake Eyes, Abel Ferrara signs his name to a film in which he is ultimately not just foreman as well as architect but also active spectator and implicit and central actor," wrote Camille Nevers in Cahiers du Cinéma). The interaction between Mother of Mirrors, the film within the film (James Russo and Madonna as a suburban couple in a state of war: she's found God and he wants to continue the promiscuous lifestyle they've led), and the domestic life of Eddie (the director, played by Keitel) is just that: we don't see them engineered so that the fiction "illuminates" the reality. Instead they butt up against one another, and the film is about the war between filmmaking and domesticity. Of course, the most effective way to allow collisions to happen is to stay as uninvolved as possible. "He's gonna stand where he wants to; I'm not gonna push him around on the set," Ferrara said in response to a question of mine, something about the "powerful effect" of cutting back and forth between Keitel in dark glasses and the bright chrome burnish of the scene from Mother of Mirrors (shot on a different film stock). "In other words, he's gonna stand where he's gonna stand...I mean, he was basically directing that film, so we were shooting a documentary about the making of that movie, Mother of Mirrors. And that was Harvey's film. Or Eddie's film."
The scenes between Keitel and his wife (played with a beautifully raw simplicity by Ferrara's wife Nancy--the part was originally offered to director Jane Campion) have an off-handedness and mysterious intent that is fascinating when stacked against the harsh histrionics of Mirrors or the embarrassing Actor's Studio dialogue of the video rehearsals. These scenes are quick, undramatic (eating dinner, making love, sitting by the poolside), and in this context the sweet domesticity takes on a hyperrealistic edge. Eddie is in such a rush to get into the nightmare of moviemaking that his life with his family becomes itchy, annoyingly stable. Filmmaker Olivier Assayas admires these sequences for the way they catch the "obscenity of everyday life." The way the filmmaking scenes are structured, we always arrive "in media res," the imagery is harsh and discordant; they represent another world, a mixture of hard work, confession, outlandish behavior, and complete unreality. Typically, there is nothing made of Eddie's "stature" as a director; it's all about the work.
One scene in Snake Eyes shakes things up spectacularly. We go from an overheated moment which has Godard's point-making simplicity (Russo has been fucking Madonna; he gets a call from Keitel saying, "I'm looking at the tapes and she's good;" Madonna tells Russo that she slept with him only to get into character; she leaves and Russo's drug dealer/girlfriend appears; "Did she give you a blow job?" she asks, then provocatively licks his hand before she bites it; he slaps her and tells her never to do anything like that again) to a drifting camera in medium-shot before a mirror with a black band down the middle, under a whitish bathroom light. You start to wonder what you're looking at, if Keitel as Eddie set up this shot, if Ferrara did, if director of photography Ken Kelsch did. A title appears on the screen: PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY. As Eddie, Keitel calls out to "Ken," his D.P., to check the framing. Madonna appears before the mirror, getting herself into an overwrought emotional state appropriate to the scene to be shot. "What do you want me to do?" she calls out over and over. Again, whether she is in character, or whether she is acting, or whether she, Madonna, must prepare herself emotionally to play the role of the actress playing her role, is debatable, ambiguous. Russo appears in the background being made up in a garish light. "I mean, I'm not getting my picture taken by fucking Richard Avedon right now, you know," she says. Is that line scripted or is it Madonna getting pissed off? Periodically there are breaks. And we are waiting. A certain pressure is building that becomes utterly fascinating: we are in a closed space without any visual (not to mention dramatic or reality) coordinates. Madonna becomes more distraught, actressy. Keitel appears and reassures her, and also encourages her ("You go where you have to go"). It is unclear whether Madonna is waiting for the crew, whether the crew is waiting for Madonna, whether or not this is scripted. An eagle-eyed viewer who gets a glimpse of the clapboard will see, "Snake Eyes A. Ferrara, K. Kelsch." Did they just use a clapboard for the movie within the movie and forget to put Mother of Mirrors on it, or was Ferrara encouraging the ambiguity, or is this really the beginning of a shot for Snake Eyes? And there is no change--Madonna still seems to be getting ready, or is now ready and we have not been aware that the scene has started. Then the light shatters and a flashlight is pointed at us--there's been a cut. Russo appears next to Madonna. "Where's he hiding? In the medicine cabinet next to the tampons and the aspirin?" A deep, ominous synthesizer chord sounds. Russo appears in the most garish grand guignol close-up, spouting obscenities at Madonna ("I've seen you suck the cocks of CEO's."). Back to Russo and Madonna, now from a different angle, doubled before the mirror. The scene from Mother of Mirrors seems to be proceeding as if cut and scored--but is it Snake Eyes that is scored? Cut to rehearsal video of Keitel.
Is this sloppy filmmaking? A pretentious mishmash? Is Ferrara just lazily repeating a provocative game of fiction and reality he picked up from late 60's movies? Not to belabor the comparison with Godard, but there's a parallel to be made between Godard's lionization (he's the apex of cinema, every film is a masterpiece) and the lack of respect accorded Ferrara, because both are strategies for avoiding the hard work of understanding. The world is filled with too many film critics who have gotten fat and developed the slovenly habit of comparing every movie that comes out to other movies. The taxonomy gets smaller and narrower, and Ferrara and Godard are both left out in the cold. "What's interesting in the cinema," wrote the late French critic Serge Daney, "is never the symbol itself but its fabrication, the symbol-becoming of the smallest object." The same is true of categories like "Pirandellian," "surrealistic," or "game of illusion and reality." You must pay close attention to what Ferrara is doing before you categorize him.
And what is Ferrara doing in a scene like this? First of all, he is stranding us, cutting us adrift from all but a few reference points. At a time when things are so stale, when every object seems to have a fixed meaning in every goddamned movie (anything neon is a ticket to instant sleaze, a convertible on the road equals...freedom!), it's a breath of fresh air to see things in such a loose perspective without any sort of moral grid behind them. But we are also seeing the hierarchy of life, filmmaking and the reality of the film within the film dismantled. The tortuous work of making Mother of Mirrors and the superreal creatures in it who are dancing a violent, obscene pas de deux overwhelm Snake Eyes, but we keep returning to the small, potent family vignettes, the better to ponder the value of so much naked soul-searching artwork when Eddie ends up alone, destroying his home life in the name of honesty. No tidy script with nicely planned scenes about the filmmaking process this time. With the hard dedication of a Rodin, Ferrara carves out a wrenchingly physical representation of movie work (which is the point of collapsing the barriers between realities), and creates a collapsible and ambiguous sense of onscreen time that approximates the lost hours of making a film.
Where Ferrara is decidedly un-Godardian is in his true blue faith in actors. "You gotta be there for the actor--that's the point of directing," says Ferrara. "You gotta know where he's gonna be and you gotta be there to give it to him. 'Cause when the bottom line comes, he's the movie. The camera's not on the director." However, he takes the opposite route from Cassavetes or Pialat, who structure their films according to their actors' emotional truth and thoroughly defined conceptions of character. Character for Ferrara is never an independent concept--it is always deeply rooted in theme and place. If it exists at all in his world, it is a series of biological drives, environmental influences. His people are abstract in comparison with the self-motivated automatons in standard $50,000,00 Hollywood issue ca. 1994. For instance, we don't even know the Bad Lieutenant's name. He is defined only by his onscreen actions and the environment pressing down on him. The same is true of the driller killer, Ms. 45, the Romeo and Juliet of China Girl, the king of New York and Eddie in Snake Eyes. In a sense Ferrara is an actor's dream, because his work is so rooted in concrete action. But he is also extraordinarily demanding of actors, because they are required to go so far. "I'm expecting you to fuckin' die: you're still alive, therefore you're not workin' hard enough," is Ferrara's Snake Eyes-like pep talk to actors, and only the gamest are attracted to him--Walken and Keitel, Lili Taylor (who just starred in Ferrara's upcoming black and white vampire movie, The Addiction, shot in 20 days), Russo and Caruso, Madonna.
Walken accentuates his somnambulant vampire side for King of New York. In his white suits, staring off at the horizon of Manhattan, he recites his dream of building a kids' hospital with money made from his cocaine empire, in his patented cracked, hypnotic drone voice. Only Ferrara and St. John would dream of creating a character like this, the logical extension of the asinine oceanic urge to "clean things up" that results in abstract drug wars or ecstasy over the fall of the Berlin Wall without consideration of the consequences. He is a perfect character for the end of an era when the American government was selling arms to an arch enemy in the middle east to fund an illegal war in Central America. And Walken has just the right tragically compromised, visionary demeanor. The king of New York ends up gut-shot and dying in the back of a cab after a torrential bloodbath that seems to cover the whole city. This altruist is surrounded by cops with guns drawn, and the aura that Walken gives off--is there another actor who can hollow himself out so thoroughly?--inspires the driver to jump out of the cab and run.
What to do with New York City? Bad Lieutenant, which is Ferrara's most epochal movie thus far, might be the brutal answer to King. St. John turned down this project because he's "not into the asking questions type of screenwriting or filmmaking." Paradoxically, where King of New York seems more unresolved, Bad Lieutenant ends with a painful, gut-wrenching act of forgiveness. This movie has been down-graded by everyone from Roger Ebert to Mike Leigh as a collection of actors' scenes (Leigh even compared it unfavorably to his own gaseous and vastly overrated Naked, a piece of patchwork that really and truly is a collection of actors' scenes). In truth, few recent movies, American or otherwise, have shown such intelligence and rigor at work behind the camera. The film glides forward like a silent pageant made up of tableaux in which Keitel's lieutenant drifts in and out of the spotlight. Rather than the dog-tired melodramatics of a junkie gambler in debt up to his ears, there is the material reality of Keitel self-destructing against the landscape of the streets of New York. Outside of a handful of directors (Hou-Hsiao Hsien, Assayas, Pialat, Edward Yang), find me another director today who trusts himself enough to let his camera do the work, instead of stuffing a string of explanatory speeches down his characters' throats. The cavernous and untended streets of the Lower East Side, the loneliest, darkest back wall of a tenement stairway, the Korean deli abuzz with recriminations at hooded black youths, the sunken cheeks and serpentine body of the lieutenant's smack connection (Zoe Lund, Ferrara's old friend--she was Ms. 45--and the co-author of the script), the hopped up voice of the radio call-in host who freaks on anyone who's lost faith in the Mets, the dim whiteness of a hospital corridor accompanied by the most obscene Schoolly D. rap ("He say: your granny? She's a dyke/And your little sister too?/She's so low she sucks the dick of a little maggot")--each of these elements is Keitel's co-star. If there's a star trip it's not onscreen. He recedes into a tiny kitchen corner to cook up some smack and gets just as quiet and tranced out as Lund. His big scenes--full frontal nude freakout, the masturbation scene, a confrontation with Christ and his final anguished howl in pressure cooker close-up--are deep, deep in the grain of the movie. As a performance, of course it's a marvel, but it's also an egoless collaboration with the director.
No one has worked harder than this scrappy New Yorker with the hard-boiled delivery to render the sense of the city as a tangible phenomenon. Ferrara and his A-team of loyal, dedicated artists (Ken Kelsch, sound mixer Michael Barofsky, St. John and Lund) have spent a career trying to capture the way it feels to walk through New York, to shout across one of its streets, to loiter next to one of its crime scenes, to witness its depravities and live with them every day. But he's not just a big city chronicler. He is a completely unsentimental realist (in the moral and biological senses) who sees things squarely in material terms, and on the level of forces at war. Listen to him talk about his own situation in the business. I asked him whether he wanted more money for his films. "No. We want to make our own movies, our own stories. It's like runnin' guns...I think about what films I wanna make and how I'm gonna get 'em made--that's my concern." Open the pages of any film magazine and you're bound to find an interview with a director who is crying in his or her beer because they can't find $30,000,000 to make some star-studded project. For Ferrara, this does not make sense--how can you make a new movie if you fret about lost projects? "In France, [Snake Eyes] opened in, like, 140 theaters across the country. You know, I mean, a film like that..." Ferrara knows it is absurd to expect the general public of any country to embrace a film as difficult as Snake Eyes; by the same token, he knew it was a necessity that he make it for those few who do. He knows his films are not "investments in worldwide entertainment" as he characterizes Jurassic Park, and that it's absurd to try to shove art down people's throats. "Whose fault is that?" he said of the presence of Jurassic on 70% of French screens. "Let people see what they want to see. Are you gonna tell them to go see fuckin' Carl Dreyer films?" Even when it comes to his hero, he is unflinching. When I lamented the fact that Godard had not had a commercial release in America for seven years, Ferrara just laughed and said, "Sometimes you're on, sometimes you're not."
Indeed, his own movie about moviemaking is the only one I know of to invoke the Engulf and Devour policy of CAA (Creative Artists Agency), the hugely powerful talent agency that may well be the greatest influence on Hollywood filmmaking today. Eddie invites Sarah (Madonna, who, as a powerful and bitchy TV actress, has her one right role) to dinner and she brings her agent. Their hidden intention is to take Frank, Russo's character, out of the movie. "We'll back whatever choice you want," the agent says. "What do you mean back whatever choice I want--you want to get rid of the guy." Eddie then puts the agent on the spot by pointedly asking her if she could provide him with an alternate list of non-CAA clients.
"What is the protocol?" said Ferrara about Hollywood, which he characterized as "a fuckin' skank street, a bunch of fuckin' shoot-from-the-hip, rock 'n' roll dudes...the biggest freaks money can buy are rockin' on all night. They're fightin' for survival..." The crap that you read in Premiere about "creative differences" or "mulitple rewrites" is just quaint language for back-stabbing raised to the level of an art form. Supreme realist that he is, Ferrara knows that this is what happens when vast amounts of money are involved. His one to ten million dollar budgets (Snake Eyes cost ten, partly because Madonna was in it) keep people out of his hair. His tough guy act (late 70's drug culture in style: "She's a fuckin' jerk... Like we sit around taking out the best scenes in the movie to spite her. You know how parnoid you gotta be to fuckin' say something like that?," he said when I brought up Madonna) also serves this function. In that sense he's strikingly similar to the Hollywood auteur-legends like John Ford and Howard Hawks who dodged every question about being an artist that left-brained adolescent interviewers threw them with the "I'm just a storyteller doing my job" number. In order to function in that system they could have no pretensions to artistry in public--that's the brutal fact. As for Ferrara, he's a thematically driven director who is uninterested in polishing up his imagery and his world view the better to sell himself, a rare item in American cinema these days. The only comparable example is Jon Jost, the cranky maverick who has made a slew of movies, each for what a Hollywood production spends on the gaffer's lunch. Listening to Ferrara speak, always on a plane of bedrock necessity, you realize how much time most filmmakers spend justifying themselves, assuring their interrogators that they have a serious theme (like Tarantino proclaiming to the multitides that the pornographically violent Pulp Fiction is a film about "redemption"). Ferrara is not interested in making movies--he's interested in, as he said, making his movies.
If Ferrara has weak spots, like an attraction to ratty scene hogs like Caruso and Russo, a penchant for bluntly obvious dialogue ("I need these things! I need these things!!!" screams Russo in a Mother of Mirrors scene to proclaim his attachment to decadent materialism), an abundance of tits and ass that prompted his wife to walk out of a New York Film Festival screening of King of New York, they are overshadowed by his virtues. For most film directors, moral ambiguity means championing one side of an argument and portraying the other in a "sympathetic light." In his pragmatic detachment, he may be the only director with the patience to portray situations from the point of view of the conflict. "Just because a cop is wearing a badge, why should he be a hero?" said Ferrara about King of New York. "A cop's making $40,000 a year, these guys [drug dealers] are making $40,000 a day, you see? It's like a whole big difference. You're a cop and you're gonna come on with this moral righteousness...Now, even outlaws live by rules, you know, honor among thieves. So I think it's down to the individual." Only someone who keeps their outsider-fringe credentials painfully intact could state the problem with such clarity. I'm convinced that those who are unwilling to see the germaneness of Ferrara's work are blinded by a simple matter of taste, and in the end that's the least defensible position towards any work of art. When I saw Snake Eyes in a theater (after it had been recast as Dangerous Game and snipped in order to get an R rating. "We had to go through a whole song and dance with this thing. It didn't end up being much, but it's the attitude of it: why, why, why?"), the audience chuckled mildly throughout the movie but I had a strong feeling that they liked it. I also knew that if asked, they would say it was a bad movie, so jarring are its Actor's Studio trappings and so slim is its resemblance to anything else on view at the moment (except Godard's recent work: Germany Year 90, Helas Pour Moi, his tough and inquisitive Histoire(s) du Cinema videos). But in an era when the 12-step mentality rules, a film that posits a conflict between family stability and artistic self-vampirism on equal terms and with such fierce clarity poised on the razor's edge of chaos is a shining singularity.
There's a tyranny of consensus that rules in the film business, where talent agencies, film magazines, studios, film critics and pretty boy wunderkind directors operate in perfect, well-oiled synch. In Ferrara, there is finally a cause worth defending. His work is like a wrench in that machinery, busting up all sorts of categories and expectations. The films don't obfuscate or dissemble in order to be liked, and they have a logic that leads step by step to devastating outcomes in which action and theme are so solidly bonded that they become nearly indistinguishable. Ferrara speaks of the ending of Bad Lieutenant with typical nonchalance. "Once he says, 'How could she forgive you for something like that [the nun forgives her rapists],' well, the next step is, 'If she did, then I will. But you, as the rapist, you've gotta understand what she did. Your life ain't worth shit. In fact, I could just, in one second, blow your fuckin' brains out and no one would give a shit. But I'm not gonna do it, so you've gotta live with that. You're gonna be a better person for it, I'm gonna be a better person for it.' You know, that's where it's at." At the very last minute, with the threat of danger from his creditors hanging over him, the lieutenant forgives the rapists, gives them his gambling money and sends them on a bus out of New York City. It goes against everything in his nature (he shares a vial of crack with the zonked perpetrators and slaps them while forgiving them--at gunpoint). But despite the presence of Christ and the fine theological point being made, Bad Lieutenant seems more a film about the state of urban America than an expression of Catholic guilt or religious feeling: while everyone screams about putting more cops on the streets and stepping up something called the drug war, the final, simple answer is forgiveness. But forgiveness is hard to come by, and seems possible only under extraordinary circumstances. Arguably this is a realistic portrayal of redemption, but that redemption doesn't bring any peace to the lieutenant, who not long after dies a lonely death in his car in front of Madison Square Garden. It's all done in one long shot, one of the greatest endings I've seen in a movie, modern or otherwise. Keitel sits in his car while midtown traffic goes by. After awhile, a car pulls up next to him. "Hey, cop!" we hear a voice call, then two pops from a gun and the car speeds off. The dulcet "Pledging My Love" by Johnny Ace mingles with the street noise. Nothing happens for a time until one woman notices, and then a small crowd gathers around the lieutenant's car. The noise doesn't stop and the traffic keeps going: a huge truck and then a city bus with a cheesy advertisement on its side pass slowly before the camera, obscuring our vision of the car. They pass, revealing the car, the crowd, and a cloudy day hanging over midtown Manhattan. Is this a transcendant expression of spiritual immanence or an insistence on materialist reality? And is it a carefully thought out formal maneuver or an expedient one-shot money saver in a film budgeted at around a million dollars? It is finally none of these things. It is a delving into a galvanic situation by a great realist of modern cinema. I've tossed the word "reality" around alot in this admiring portrait, and during this historical moment when it has come to seem such a nebulous term, it's reasonable for the reader to expect a definition. As we're knee deep in all manner of technological folderol in the movies (computer animation, interactive game films, red raincoats in black and white films about the holocaust and disappearing body parts in revisionist tracts about '60's America), one definition that comes to mind is: evidence of a mind at work. That's Abel Ferrara and his movies in spades. He's the man.
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