The ’90s was an extraordinary decade for the cinema. As the elephantine decadence of the mainstream increased in grossness, a dizzying constellation of alternatives seemed to spring into existence all over the planet in rapid succession. One of the most vibrant and intense of these “resistances” can be found in the films that Abel Ferrara made throughout this time; also, for many, one of the most short lived. With King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992), Ferrara’s reputation peaked as a fearless indie maverick. By the time of The Blackout (1997) there were already rumblings of impatience, dark references to Ferrara as a “mid-’90s icon”, a has-been whose best work was behind him and who had, to all intents and purposes, lost the plot. His two subsequent movies, New Rose Hotel (1999) and R-Xmas (2000), vanished into immediate and pitiless obscurity. It is only now that he has managed to get another project off the ground, the upcoming religious drama Mary, after a gap that seemed rather ominous, especially compared to the giddily prolific ’90s, which saw him release nine features in ten years.
Yet this hiatus is probably the best occasion so far for taking stock of Ferrara’s achievements, marking as it does the end of a magnificent chapter in modern cinema. Whatever his future brings, his greatness will forever be linked to the ’90s. Before then, those familiar with The Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1980) and especially the underrated China Girl (1988) might have singled him out as an interesting talent capable of unusual work. But would anyone have seriously considered him as among the greatest contemporary filmmakers until the astounding decade long burst of creativity which produced what Brad Stevens boldly and even defiantly proclaims as “nine masterpieces”? The most immediately striking feature of Stevens’ passionate and well-researched new book Abel Ferrara: the Moral Vision is its fearless opposition to the sort of complacently killjoy thinking that prefers even extreme artists to, as Cocteau would say, know how far to go too far. Those of us who regard such allegedly beyond-the-pale examples of Ferrara in self-indulgent free fall as Dangerous Game (1993), The Blackout and New Rose Hotel as representing perhaps the most formally sophisticated, emotionally resonant American cinema of the past 15 years and who consider Ferrara’s horrifically precipitous fall into neglect as an outrage will find much to rejoice about in Stevens’ staunchly partisan film-by-film study.
Each chapter opens with a “making of” section that draws largely on email interviews with Ferrara’s collaborators. Stevens’ Citizen Kane-like reliance on the testimony of participants leads at best to some wonderfully vivid anecdotal nuggets. Particularly interesting is the chapter detailing the filmmaker’s early years, examining his spell in college in England and his earliest films in unprecedented depth. The young Ferrara emerges as a product of his times, self-assured, knowingly “artistic” and defined by the anti-Vietnam war zeitgeist. These vivid early pages make one regret that the biographical thread becomes increasingly ruptured and oblique as the character of Ferrara vanishes behind his co-workers’ often very specific and perhaps sometimes overly respectful accounts of their participation in his projects. But, of course, it is the films themselves that are at issue and Stevens’ critiques of them that form the meat of this volume.
Ferrara tells Stevens “We were always creative. We grew up on Warhol and Pasolini. We became the local filmmakers. And we still are”. Local filmmaker; there is much in that self-definition. Ferrara’s oeuvre falls into two clearly distinguishable halves, that of Hollywood hired hand and the more personal trajectory of his New York centred independent work. The division is not, of course, straightforwardly geographical but rather separates an organic creative development nurtured by an originary milieu from its temporary interruption. The “interruption” spans most of the ’80s during which time it might have seemed that Ferrara had become an artistically deracinated hack. The ferocity of the Driller Killer auteur‘s resurgence at the end of this period is one of the most remarkable aspects of his career. The concept of “local filmmaker”, in some ways analogous to Godard’s “small businessman” persona, is above all a declaration of opposition to the Hollywood system’s imperialistic impulse. But it also implies the artisanal and personal approach to filmmaking that has become the hallmark of Ferrara’s mature period. Stevens’ appreciative examination of Ferrara’s earliest existing shorts, the experimental Nicky’s Film (1971), the politicised heist flick The Hold Up (1972) and the slice of upper middle-class bohemian angst Could This Be Love (1973), usefully illustrates just how far back the values apparent in Ferrara’s later work can be traced.
In his recent Senses of Cinema review of Stevens’ last book, Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, Noel King identifies a “(minor) flaw here [that] derives from Stevens’ occasional fan-like keenness to insist on the artistic stature of his authorial subject, his readiness to practise a somewhat strident redemptive auteurism and aesthetic reclaiming that so much of his book quietly works against, simply by showing us how much skilful work… Hellman has performed over so many years”. This tendency also inflects Stevens’ approach to some of the minor films from Ferrara’s earlier output, most notably his first feature, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976), a porno made for the good reason that it was the only picture the director could get made at that point in his career. After a veritable litany of good naturedly dismissive comments from crew members attesting to how lightly everyone took the venture, Stevens offers an intense and persuasively argued account of “a difficult but rewarding work” of “remarkable formal sophistication” that “moves easily between serious drama, pornographic cliché and blasphemous satire worthy of Bataille or Buñuel”. Stevens’ analysis seems largely structure-based; he sets great store by the film’s lack of coherent narrative. Yet a second viewing, bitterly disappointing in light of the book’s commentary, revealed the work laughed off by its crew rather than that eulogised by the author – a grubby, sticky, tedious assortment of sex set pieces whose linear incoherence is more likely evidence of playful indifference than artistic seriousness. The risk that Stevens runs in his relative reluctance, sometimes against all evidence, to write off any Ferrara film as purely commercial fluff is to comparatively undervalue the imposing fearlessness of the best work. Although every Ferrara film deserves serious attention, it’s not as if he’s a talent whose only traces were discernable deep beneath the surface of run-of-the-mill B-products and whose uniqueness needed excavating and championing. Grateful as we must be to Stevens for such a comprehensive examination of Ferrara’s entire oeuvre, the last thing the creator of Bad Lieutenant, Dangerous Game and the other ’90s work needs is someone to make excuses for him.
But this quibble is decidedly minor when compared to the book’s strengths. Where Stevens really excels is in his examination of Ferrara’s faith in an aspect of his filmmaking crucial to all his finest work: improvisation or what Stevens calls “the holiness of impulse”. An admirer of Rivette and Cassavetes, as well as champion of possibly the most underrated of all American films, Bob Dylan’s freewheeling masterpiece Renaldo and Clara (1976), Stevens seems especially concerned with improvisational practices in cinema. In his brilliant chapter on Dangerous Game, which alone would be worth the book’s price, he cites an image from Dylan’s film to aptly illustrate the improvisational dynamic in relation to an auteurist framework: Dylan films a character delivering a monologue while playing pinball, the camera taking in the progress of his game. The choice of focusing on the ball’s progress is Dylan’s, but the exact trajectory of its movements is indeterminable. In other words, auteurism does not necessarily imply absolute control but can legitimately exist in terms of a dialogue or even a contest with chance. The agents – or, at least, chief agents – of chance are, of course, actors. Starting with a fascinating comparison of a dialogue scene from the King of New York script and the far richer improvised version of it that appears in the final film, Stevens skilfully charts the vibrantly ambiguous relationships in Ferrara’s later work between actor and character, actor/character and situation, actor/character/situation and director and, far from the least of these, film and viewer. This is not, Stevens explains, ambiguity for its own sake, but rather as a philosophical reflection of Ferrara’s belief in a world of immanent flux where people’s motivations are fathomlessly complex and contradictory even to themselves, irreducible to the neatly legible schemata that pass for “character” in mainstream cinema. Indeed, he identifies those invariably secondary characters that try to live according to a fixed and thus inevitably artificial self-image as the most negative in Ferrara’s cinema.
One of the best examples of Stevens’ examination of Ferrarian performative ambiguity and evolution can be found in his analysis of the director’s ongoing collaboration with Christopher Walken, from the seminal leading role in King of New York to his more problematic part in New Rose Hotel. Like his characters in The Addiction (1994) and The Funeral (1996), the actor’s “King of New York” is predicated upon his ability to “render even the simplest of actions ambiguous”. The impenetrable thoughts flickering behind his eyes seem forever changing and perhaps only tenuously connected to the situation at hand. The audience remains as much in the dark about what goes through his mind as the people around him and, very possibly, as Ferrara himself. By the time of New Rose Hotel, Stevens argues, the very unpredictability that made Walken ideal for the earlier films had become all too predictable, a collection of overly familiar mannerisms. The all-important sense of flux has frozen into a fixed act. Walken’s “bad” performance here might be deliberate or it might be genuinely bad; it makes no difference because Ferrara has created a character for him that is also locked into a fixed act, taking the changes in Walken’s public image into account. The character is a bad performance, a self-created cliché, so Walken’s interpretation works perfectly. Yet a sharp edge of fruitful ambiguity remains in this grey zone between the role, the current reality of the actor’s persona and its perception by Ferrara and the viewer. Again, we find Ferrara working fiction at its high-risk interface with reality.
In the light of Stevens’ arguments, it isn’t hard to see why Ferrara’s work attracts so much hostility. He challenges a broad sweep of audience expectations by breaking down the distinction between “good” and “bad” acting, by refusing to reduce character or narrative to easily explicable points of fixity, by embracing the messiness of life and demanding that every viewer approach his cinema with the sensitivity and incertitude that life itself demands. In his chapter on New Rose Hotel Stevens reads this most maligned of films as an essay on perceiving images that questions the difference between the “good” and “bad” viewer. For instance, “bad viewer” Fox (Walken) shows videos to his cohorts as part of preparations for a kidnapping and verbally reduces them to clichés, delivering pat descriptions of the people on screen based solely on their image. Yet Ferrara imbues his images with a vertiginously intricate resistance to such a reductive, if hardly uncommon, approach. The clearest example is femme fatale Sandii (Asia Argento), who seduces and betrays X (Willem Dafoe) and emerges as irreducible to any clearly comprehensible motivation beneath her carefully maintained image of seductress. Like the presumably moribund X in the dazzling sequence of flashbacks which constitutes the film’s final section (the formal complexity of which, Stevens reports, caused producer Ed Pressman to accuse Ferrara of deliberate sabotage!), the audience is left with the futile job of figuring out “what really happened”. Not in terms of the outcome; it is clear that rather than leaving with X, Sandii betrayed him. The important (and impossible) task is attempting to trace the pattern of emotional truth running through Sandii’s relationship with X.
For Stevens, this is far from being as simple as the substitution of uncaring insincerity for the initial semblance of love, as would be the case in most films. Thanks to Argento’s marvellous – and marvellously Ferrarian – performance, it is apparent that her emotions are consistently open to at least two interpretations. As Stevens claims, one could subject the film to endless analysis without being able to conclude what her exact feelings for X might have been or even if those feelings were clear in her own mind. For, as Stevens writes, “the ability to be in a constant state of moral and emotional flux is a prerequisite for the achievement of full humanity”. And it is possible that in this one sentence he has exposed the beating heart of Ferrara’s universe as reflected both thematically and formally in his greatest films. This rejection of any concept of fixity or any absolute judgement is the essence of the filmmaker’s radicalism and its elucidation here makes The Moral Vision required reading for both Ferrara’s admirers and those among the unconverted willing to give this ferociously challenging filmmaker another chance.
Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, by Brad Stevens, FAB Press, UK, 2004.
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