“[…] New York City is the place where they said
Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side […]”
–Lou Reed, Walk on the Wild Side, 1972
Irrespective of his status as an American cinéaste maudit who is still largely ignored by mainstream audiences, most of all in his homeland, and has for the present time relocated to Italy, few other film directors beyond the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen have identified themselves, or been identified by critics, with New York than Abel Ferrara. In that sense, the title of the biography penned by Nick Johnstone, Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, (1) is no mere facetious overstatement, nor a facile echo of Ferrara’s 1990 film starring Christopher Walken as a drug kingpin freshly released from prison and eager to not only resume his “rightful” rank within Gotham’s gangland, but gain a political foothold in civil society, rub shoulders with the establishment and acquire an air of respectability in the eyes of “law-abiding citizens.” That Ferrara’s films provide a unique “underground” look at the dark side (perhaps as much in the sense of its crepuscular ambience and nocturnal life as of its seedy or dangerous underside) of The City That Never Sleeps can therefore hardly be disputed. The gritty streets of New York have long been the Bronx-born director’s personal, intimate turf. As a love letter to the Village of his youth in the late 60s sent from “Roma, [in] 2005” – a paean to a time and place both distant and close (to his heart) –, his foreword to Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side (2) bears testament to this emotional attachment and sense of organic belonging that nonetheless needs to be relived and/or reaffirmed by a constant criss-crossing of the length and breadth of this territory, be it by taxi, on foot or by subway – probably in that order of importance, based on the Rafi Pitts documentary, Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty (2003). Pitts struggles to follow Ferrara in his almost trance-like, circuitous roaming of the streets at night and well into the wee hours of the morning, including around such off-the-beaten-track, seemingly unpoetic or “unhip” areas as the Meatpacking District of New York (before, that is, its rehabilitation into part fashionable mecca, part aerial greenway in the last decade or so)…
In and of itself, being considered a master chronicler or documenter of seamy New York alongside such esteemed filmmakers as Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, is arguably an eminently laudable achievement, especially when socio-political awareness overrides or supersedes exploitation kicks. It can also lead to a reductively monolithic, thus potentially misleading or distorting, characterization of Ferrara’s multi-faceted work and the larger issues it addresses. Admittedly, the city of New York serves as the diegetic setting for approximately 60% of his filmography so far, discounting his work for television or video, his docudramas (including the Manhattan-based Chelsea on the Rocks  and Mulberry St. ) (3) as well as his directorial debut in the guise of a short-lived hardcore pornographer (Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy ). The films concerned are: The Driller Killer (1979); Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance, 1981); China Girl (1987); King of New York (1989); Bad Lieutenant (1992); The Addiction (1995); The Funeral (1996); ‘R Xmas (2001); Mary (2004); Go Go Tales (2007); and 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) (4)… not to mention Welcome to New York, a fictionalized version of the infamous Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case, slated for theatrical release sometime in 2014. If all of the above titles tend to provide, aurally as well as visually, a distinctively immersive experience of the genius loci of a global power city that comes across as more of a character in its own right than a mere backdrop or a vehicle for local colour, this still leaves a fair number of feature films set in various other locales: from Miami (The Blackout ) and Santo Domingo (Cat Chaser ) to Hollywood (Dangerous Game [aka Snake Eyes, 1993]) to a military base (Body Snatchers ) or cities around the world (New Rose Hotel ).
In light of his electing at least part-time residence overseas, mostly as a matter of economic survival due to the dire depletion, if not exhaustion, of funding opportunities for maverick filmmakers like Ferrara stateside, a further distinction should be made among his later films between fictional setting and location shooting. Go Go Tales is a case in point. Transposing John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) from Los Angeles to New York and set within the confines of a strip joint (supposedly fashioned after the defunct “Billy’s Topless” on Sixth Ave. and 24th St.), it was entirely shot in Cinecittà, except for the few scenes right outside the club for which a Rome street location was quite convincingly used. Conversely, it may be argued that some of his films that seem to derive and benefit the most, in terms of ambience, “authenticity,” “realism” and urban psychosis, from the myriad documentary-like scenes or seemingly stolen shots of New York’s underbelly (destitution, ethnic tension, crime, sex, and drugs) are primarily concerned with other objectives and considerations, at once more specific and broader. By way of illustration, the production notes on Bad Lieutenant – possibly the director’s most iconic and acclaimed opus, remade in 2009 by Werner Herzog and relocated to… New Orleans, ironically enough (5) (with Nicolas Cage stepping into Harvey Keitel’s shoes as the corrupt, drug-addled cop) – read: “[Abel Ferrara] had shot many of his films on the very same streets. But he focused this film more on the human soul than on New York. He wanted to emphasize that this could happen anywhere, not just in New York.”
This type of uncredited statement (which, by definition, should not be equated with authorial intentionality or endorsement) might sound surprising or paradoxical. After all, has Ferrara not been praised time and again – indeed, this may be seen as the main, if not sole, critical consensus on his oeuvre… – for capturing the soul of New York in all its glorious blackness? All the more so, in fact, if one also considers that for Ferrara “all film is documentary.” (6) Or might Bad Lieutenant not be an exception to the rule, attributable to the fact that it was co-written with Zoë Lund (who also has a cameo role as a black clad, waif-like junkie and heroin supplier), rather than scripted by longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John? Hardly so. Or, rather, all of the above propositions could be said to be simultaneously correct and incorrect. At the risk of introducing a spoiler of the present study, so to speak, one may posit that what oftentimes confuses viewers and critics alike is Ferrara’s equally labile or subversive positioning vis-à-vis genre conventions and auteurist expectations. His idiosyncratic portrayals of “low-life New York” (to use an old chestnut in Ferrara criticism!) are generally fraught with socio-economic, ideological, cultural or ethnic overtones. On the other hand, if they all contain some nuggets of perceived art-house “intellectualism,” usually in the form of existential, monologic ruminations, they also tend for the most part to eschew didacticism or moralism, miserabilism (or, a contrario, glamorization of violence and gangster lifestyle), finger-pointing and judgmentalism or proselytism, notably through associative (or non-cohesive) narratives, ritualistic (or allegorical) mise-en-scène, and elliptic (or kaleidoscopic) editing.
Here again, one would be ill-advised to overgeneralize in strictly binary terms or according to mutually exclusive categories when the cinema of Abel Ferrara precisely side-steps such compartmentalization and seeks a blurring of boundaries: between exploitation and art, documentary and fiction, verisimilitude and stylization, suggestion and graphicness. Or even more fundamentally perhaps, between abstraction and concreteness, topicality and universality, time specificity and ahistoricalness, stereotyping and originality. As a both contextualizing and crystallizing nexus of those overlapping tensions, New York City appears as a stage or, better still, an arena: a tragic circular space where a choreographed ritual, that of an individual and/or a community, will unfold, with sometimes all the trappings of a danse macabre. Examples abound. As a cross of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story (1961), China Girl exacerbates ethnic conflict with generational (and hierarchical) confrontation within the historically specific and accurate context of Chinatown’s territorial expansion over Little Italy in 1970s Manhattan, simply yet strikingly encapsulated by the tableau in the opening credits. After a brief series of tight shots that serve to establish the “Italianness” of the neighborhood (essentially shop signs and a San Gennaro (7) shrine display), we cut to a street scene with an equally documentary feel to it where the new Asian proprietors of a restaurant are busy dismantling, then replacing, the front sign, and scraping off the previous unmistakably Italian owner’s name from the window, while the Italian-American locals (as if shot from real life) look on with an air of half-resigned, half-grudging melancholy that is reverberated by the wistful tune on the soundtrack, mixed with diegetic ambient street sounds. Based on such a premise the film could have easily been corrupted into cliché and sunk to the level of dualistic reductionism. Admittedly, on several occasions the film comes dangerously close to a type of Italian pizzeria vs. Chinese fishmonger, or Mafia vs. Tong, bipolarity. Set in a disused warehouse where a racially mixed crowd of carefree youngsters sweat it out to the tune of bubble gum pop, with an immediate and electric attraction focusing the attention on Chinese girl Tye and Italian boy Tony, the extended opening sequence itself might lead viewers to fear some substandard dance film or musical romance. When the music stops, all the dancers move away in a circle as if in unison, leaving the lead couple at the center of the dance floor until Chinese hoods step forward, forcibly bring Tye back into the fold and try to grab Tony who takes to his heels. The visually chaotic, albeit merry and consensual dancing melee has unexpectedly morphed into streamlined choreography, a geometric pattern of opposing forces (dynamic minority vs. inert majority). Bathed in a bluish light, the ensuing kinetic chase – through cut-throat dark alleyways, over wire fences and up narrow steps – therefore looks unsurprisingly like some abstract exercise in expressionistic or noirish shadowplay (8) with a minimal element of topographical referentiality, i.e. Canal St. as a demarcation line (between two ethnic enclaves or two gang turfs) (9) about to be physically violated.
Not unlike what occurs in a Shakespeare play (all things relative, needless to say…), a specific “geo-historical” situation is elevated to, or transcended into, a non-demonstrative, albeit reflective dramaturgy which, in this particular instance, gradually reveals diehard communitarianism (or ghettoism) to be a destructive, quasi-incestuous process whereby each community preys as much on its own as on the Other, devouring, Saturn-like, its children, (10) in an absurd, endless, vicious circle of violence. In a particularly gory, “over the top” – dare I say, gialloesque – scene, one of the Chinese gang members responsible for blowing up the newly opened Chinese restaurant is stabbed by a Triad gangster while lying on his couch but still manages to get up and slowly pulls out the knife from his stomach. He is about to retaliate by turning the same weapon on his assailant when another blade is run through his body from behind by… an Italian Mafioso. The individual is literally – and lethally – pinned by the collusion of criminal organizations on both sides of the ethnic divide, caught in a deadly double bind. The scene then cuts to a low-angle, circular pan of the twilight sky and surrounding buildings to reveal a Chinese hood gently swinging from a rope tied to a traffic light pole. The question of the victim’s exact identity in a way pales into insignificance beside the sheer visual impact of the shot and its reverberations in the US collective imaginary, raising the historical specter of racist lynching in segregated America. The nightmarish wheel of history keeps turning – shades of old Shakes read through the lens of Jan Kott (11)… Unsurprisingly then, the tragic finale will convey a sense of spatial déjà vu: a double penetration (the fatal bullet shoots through the bodies of Tony and Tye in succession); a circular motion (the camera roves over the “star-cross’d lovers” lying dead on the wet pavement with their arms stretched out sideways, before rapidly ascending and rotating in a 360-degree arc).
If we turn to an earlier, much more iconic Ferrara film, Ms. 45, we find ourselves in another district of Manhattan (the “Garment Center,” as a caption reads over a static shot of Midtown daytime traffic in the opening frame), featuring a different type of “urban guerilla warfare” (within the context of the rape-revenge subgenre, i.e. in terms more of gender than of race, more of a lone individual than a group or community), but with similar visual imagery and spatial configuration (overhead shots and circular rituals, most notably). The initial location – the fashion district of New York City – is key in establishing a stark contrast between glamour and labour (the private fashion preview vs. the sweatshop in the back, with the overmannered designer turning from sycophantic to paternalistic), between the clean, affected, female (or devirilized) couture environment inside and the grimy, hostile urban jungle out in the streets where male aggression dramatically escalates from verbal (lewd taunts, leering stares and prurient gestures) to physical (double rape) at the expense of the female protagonist. The clothing connection is also thematically relevant to the degree that the visual metamorphosis of the mute seamstress from helpless victim to vigilante femme fatale is chiefly achieved through a spectacular sartorial (and make-up) “makeover.” The mousy, demurely dressed, wan Thana with evasive eyes morphs into an alluringly clad, self-confident, stylish temptress-cum-pyschokiller with an assertive, probing gaze, prowling the mean streets of Manhattan. Although periodically renewed, her nighttime attire is from then on almost invariably (and overdeterminedly) monochromatically black (beret, skirt, boots, jacket, nylons, hooded cape, leather pants, gloves, handbag), except for the addition of red (blouse, pants, lipstick, rouge), (12) or white in the final sequence (nun-in-garters Halloween costume). Any public display of sexual desire (more, perhaps, than actual passion), (13) which the city seems to be rife with (be it a boorish fashion photographer French-kissing his partner in a Midtown diner before walking up to the clothes factory girls’ table to chat them up and eventually stalking and pestering Thana in the streets; or a young Asian couple kissing on a street corner in Chinatown), will act as a Pavlovian trigger for the “angel of vengeance.”
Whether formal or figurative, circularity appears to be linked to repetition in Ms. 45. The first hint perhaps occurs with the primal and primary trauma (14) of the film: the two successive rapes of Thana, first outside, then inside her apartment building. Where the first assault was the result of an ambush, the second may be seen as essentially opportunistic (or perversely compensatory) in nature: not only has the frustrated burglar already ransacked the place with no apparent monetary gains, but the visible signs of the first rape (Thana’s soiled, unbuttoned blouse) seem to fuel his urges, as if a freshly violated female were fair game for a repeat, or indeed were of no other use for a male. Is this vicious causal linkage – sexual violence breeds sexual violence – not suggesting a libidinal equivalent of the broken windows theory? It is worth remembering that the latter was developed by academics in the 1980s, but endorsed and systematically implemented (under the “zero tolerance” slogan) by Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani a decade later in a bid to “sanitize” the city of New York, starting with the “gentrification” of Times Square. That area of Midtown Manhattan in all its “pre-Disney” sleazy, grungy glory is an iconic fixture of Ferrara’s cinema (see in particular the strip club setting of Fear City and Frank White’s death in the stunning finale of King of New York), retrospectively imbued with a passing-of-an-era nostalgia, as the terse, albeit politically charged epigraphic framing of his 2001 film ‘R Xmas makes clear: “In December of 1993 the Honorable David Dinkins was completing his first and only term as Mayor of New York.” (opening); “Less than one month later Rudolph Giuliani is sworn in as the 107th Mayor of New York. To be cont…” (closing).
Equally as important as the dynamics of the second assault are the circumstances of the initial one: Thana is dragged by her masked attacker (played by Ferrara himself under the pseudonym of Jimmy Laine) into a squalid alleyway, brutally pushed against trash cans and raped from behind. When the act is over, an overhead shot emphasizes Thana’s tragic isolation, her desperation and degradation (in the absence of Ferrara’s customary Catholic iconography, dereliction as a subsuming term might not be wholly appropriate), as she lies crouching amid the garbage cans, clutching her groin in pain, her legs partly naked and dirty. (15) Not only litter-strewn streets but scavenging homeless individuals have been a common sight in Ferrara’s filmic representation of New York since The Driller Killer, which, for all of its youthful imperfections (not to mention a deliberately offensive and cacophonic barrage of rehearsals and performances by an inept punk band…), already encapsulates or foreshadows the principal constituents of the future oeuvre: a violent, labyrinthine, Babylonian New York conducive to paranoia and crime; urban destitution and decay; Godardian problematizing correspondences – or confusion – between reality and art; religious and macabre iconography; mixing of documentary and fiction styles; genre-bending intertextuality, etc. In this directorial debut programmatically dedicated to “the people of NYC – City of Hope” in some prints, (16) seemingly documentary footage of winos and hobos (the film was supposedly shot in and near Ferrara’s Union Square loft at the time) is gradually replaced by a more focused and explicit point of view – that of the perched-on-a-high-wall protagonist first surveying street activities, including a stabbing incident, through his binoculars from a comfortable distance, then getting closer in order to draw sketches of the local derelicts, before eventually coming into contact with them and turning nocturnally his power drill on them: bums, crazies, drunks – in the streets, on a subway platform, at a bus stop. From his position as observer-cum-struggling-artist (a latter-day, uncouth, grindhouse equivalent of the bohemian or Baudelairian flâneur – and Abel Ferrara’s alter ego?) Reno thus soon turns to sadistic killing under the multiple, intrusive pressures and demands of a bleak city environment where noise, filth and financial constraints (more largely capitalism and commercialism) seem to conspire against him and precipitate his mental decline.
In Ms. 45, both a literalization and spreading of societal trash seem to reign supreme with a primitivistic division of mankind into predators and preys, exploiters and exploited. In this context, it is no surprise that Thana comes to using trash bags in order to store the dismembered remains of the second rapist she bludgeoned to death with an iron, before carrying and disposing of them around town. The first bag (containing a bloody hand) is dropped in a street garbage can where it will be accidentally found by a famished homeless man, first seen staggering down a Midtown street with the Empire State Building (to the east of the Garment District) towering in the far background as a “vanishing point” in the early morning light (17) – a poignantly symbolic and visually stunning frame composition leading to a macabre discovery. The second bag is left alongside a detritus-littered, tagged iron fence (ironically featuring a “No Dumping” graffiti!) that borders a vacant lot, before being picked up by an unsuspecting street corner heckler that runs after Thana through empty, narrow streets until they get to a… trash-ridden dead end back alley where, feeling cornered, she pulls out a gun and shoots her pursuer. In a third and contrastive instance, Thana surreptitiously dumps a bag in the trunk of a parked car as she walks down a clean, upper-middle-class sidewalk, thereby “contaminating” the better-off districts of the city and, possibly, the world beyond the city limits (the car has a Georgia license plate)…
If Ferrara does playfully exploit the shock potential of the motif (see the narrative thread involving the prying lady in the apartment next door and her dog, in particular), trash is thus much more than a mere horror gimmick (a morbid “follow the garbage bags” treasure hunt) or Hitchcockian McGuffin in Ms. 45. What is ultimately at stake is a form of circulation through the maze of New York streets, from Midtown to residential area via urban wasteland, a journey with the rejects – living or dead, human and otherwise – of society. At the other end of the spectrum, or so it seems, an iconically defining area of Manhattan (not to mention, one of its most scenic) rarely featured prominently in Ferrara’s films comes to the fore in an impressively executed sequence: Central Park. To some degree, this is in the order of things: crossing and re-crossing the city, including its underside, Thana is bound to run into what is now generally regarded as an oasis of tranquility in an otherwise frantically hectic city but was once, most acutely in the 1970s with New York’s fiscal and social crisis, a notoriously dangerous place, especially after dark, crippled by endemic muggings and, more directly germane to the film, rapes. In fact, Ms. 45 was shot and released at a pivotal time since the early 1980s initiated the slow process of reclaiming and restoring, eventually securing, the park under the aegis of the Central Park Conservancy.
Once again, one can appreciate the extent of Ferrara’s zeitgeist-consciousness in his approach and treatment of the city of New York (as he keeps paying particular attention to shifting and/or crystallizing moments in time), harnessed to a diachronic grasp of the history of genres (rape revenge and horror here, gangsters and film noir elsewhere). (18) All of his New York-set films are, in a profound sense, period films. It is therefore not immaterial that Thana walks into gang territory deep into benighted Central Park like a lone, yet self-empowered western gunslinger. In the process, the sequence does not only introduce an additional referenced subgenre in an already lavishly intertextual film: besides the 1970s rape revenge format proper, a short list would notably include Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960) (as Thana cleans her bathtub after killing the second rapist, a close-up of bloodied water whirling down the drain is superimposed with another of a wrinkled eye – probably her snooping, garrulous neighbor’s – peeping through a spyhole); Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), already a major influence on The Driller Killer (hallucinations, paranoia and a vengeful spirit caused by an all-too real, in the case of Thana, sexual trauma; the skinned rabbit) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) (the nosey neighbor); and Dario Argento’s gialli with their baroque gore (the white backdrop sheet splattered with the photographer’s blood in his studio). The Central Park scene also returns us to the circular motif as well as the thematically related notion of a primitive, ritualized chase… with a twist. Her sensuous silhouette leisurely descending the steps from what looks to be the Bethseda Terrace Arch Bridge with only the clicking of her footsteps being heard in the still night, Thana gets to an imposing open-air rotunda or amphitheater-like area and positions herself in the center of a multiple circle design on the floor (including five large, darker dots) as four sinister-looking street punks armed with nunchaku and knives emerge from different corners of the frame and start circling her. Although spatially identifiable with the bull’s eye of a target, she is quick to turn the tables and ward off any return of the traumatic rape scene of the opening: with the help of her trusted .45-caliber automatic pistol she gracefully picks them off one by one in a flowing sweep. The slinky gazelle of the night will no longer be thrown and fed to the lions… Apart from the fact that, betrayed by one of her gender, Thana eventually succumbs, the company Halloween party finale is but the logical culmination of this scene with its circular choreography of a bloodily reversed trap (iconified by the large fake cobweb on the back wall of the party apartment).
If the disenfranchised rove about the streets of New York and the thanatic angel of vengeance walks up and down the city, including its shadowy, debris-riddled alleyways, the Big Apple as permanent Technicolor spectacle (with its multiple facets and “life forms”) does not appear to be fully graspable or palpable on a pedestrian level. Driving around town is thus an omnipresent, almost vital activity in Ferrara’s New York films, primarily yet not exclusively, within the context of his take on the gangster and corrupt cop genres. Even in an artistically “inferior” film like Fear City, cruising through the rain-slick, nighttime streets of pre-1990s Times Square (with the ubiquitous garish neon signs of peep shows, sex shops and “live topless dancers” clubs) or other parts of Manhattan is a distinctive way, however awkward, for Matt and Loretta to re-connect emotionally, if not re-ignite an old flame; or for Matt, when he is alone at the wheel, to reminisce about his past failures and errors. Most of Ferrara’s trademark ingredients are there: night, rain, city light reflections (on car windows), and driving more or less aimlessly, or for no apparent narrative function other than to convey the sensory feel of daily life in Gotham. There are naturally exceptions to the last of those components. Bad Lieutenant, for instance, is bookended by two concurrently similar and opposite purposeful car-driving scenes. At the start of the film the nameless protagonist is seen driving his two sons to school: during the ride the language used by the father sounds disturbingly inappropriate, but the real shocker comes when, after dropping the young boys off, still sitting in his car stationed right outside the school, the lieutenant proceeds to snort cocaine. In the rest of the film, he will be seen at his suburban home only fleetingly, as if his personal domicile were his unmarked police vehicle where he can swear, drink, take a hit and listen to baseball at leisure. And so he drives through slummy areas in the Bronx or unkempt streets in the Lower East Side. Or pulls over two underage New Jersey girls driving their father’s car without permission on a rainy night, asking one to bare her buttocks, the other to mimic fellatio, all for his masturbatory enjoyment. Or speeds off through traffic (after shooting at his car radio!) by slapping a red revolving police light on top… (19) The sin-and-salvation arc of the film logically leads to a double-whammy finale: the redeemed polymorphous addict drops off two young men (they could easily be mistaken for his own two sons grown older by less than a decade…) at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and forces them to board a Greyhound heading out of town; shortly thereafter, he is shot martyr-like in a drive-by, his car parked under a cruelly ironic Trump Plaza banner advertising “It All Happens Here” and in front of a mostly indifferent crowd and uninterrupted traffic. (20) As always with Abel Ferrara, the allegorical, Catholic plane can only be attained through the most grittily realistic or crudely concrete elements. In a sense, God as well as the devil is in the details, and Bad Lieutenant is as much about the fascinating urban corruption of contemporary New York as it is about guilt and redemption.
If Bad Lieutenant alternates between moments of directionless, random driving and more destination-oriented car rides, a film like ‘R Xmas – entirely premised as it is on the drug trade (at least run as a small-scale, family business) as nothing more than a parallel economy that, but for its immediate operating site and the illicit nature of its merchandise, resembles any mainstream society activity carried out by a chain of people with similar aspirations – is structured around a shockingly ironic type of commute between two diametrically opposed parts of town. The average American suburban home/inner city work location dichotomy is thereby turned on its head and into an apparent schizophrenic impossibility or aberration: upmarket Manhattan, probably in the Upper East Side (residential home), and the Bronx (drug-dealing operation). The film cleverly starts with a mise-en-abyme of representation and performance on stage, on film and in daily life. We seem to be immersed in a 19th-century fancy world of cobbled streets and hackneys until the picture starts pixelating and the viewer gradually identifies a school pageant production of A Christmas Carol (21) taped by one of the pupils’ proud parents on their camcorder. The fairytale-like fantasy mood is continued for the nuclear family of three (husband, wife, daughter) by a horse-carriage ride down Fifth Avenue, past the Guggenheim Museum, and the obligatory visit to Santa Claus in an upscale department store. (22) The ostensibly trivial, if indirect, grain of sand that will derail the linear existence of the picture perfect, happy family around which the storyline revolves is the Party Girl doll that is all the rage with kids that particular Christmas and has parents fighting over it like vultures (witness the brief, albeit eloquent scene at an FAO Schwartz-like toy store).
If the titular drug linchpin of King of New York is megalomaniac enough to do charitable work on a grand scale by funding the renovation of a children’s hospital in a low-income Harlem neighborhood and can be lionized for it, the Latin American couple of ‘R Xmas is not only greasing the palms of their high rise doorman and parking attendant with tips and Christmas presents, but people in their community are grateful for their generous financial support (in terms of college education, in particular) and the husband is publicly celebrated as a benefactor – “the man who gave so much to the kids of our neighbourhood, helping out with this and many other recreation centers,” to quote from the ambiguous closing. In an overall sense, ’R Xmas creates an ideological, yet undogmatic blurring between “regular” society and its outlaw fringes, and explodes the myth of a non-porous social, cultural and legal divide within an increasingly materialistic world. Is today’s commodified Christmas spirit (since philanthropy and generosity appear to have deplorably devolved into the self-seeking distribution of gifts as bribes) fundamentally different from illegal commerce (reliant on bought loyalties)? Is drug trafficking not part of a bourgeois, capitalistic structure? Can cocaine, just like Christmas, not be conducive to a societal bond, however superficial or pernicious the latter might be?
One of the status symbols for what is essentially an American Dream façade is the sleek, black BMW M5 the Latino couple drives back and forth between their residence and their “workplace” in ‘R Xmas. Fluid, intricate, overhead camera movements highlighting lines of colour and dots of light (from other vehicles’ headlights, skeins of lights on bridges, or dissolves of the Manhattan skyline after dark), or the grid pattern structure of bridges and elongated volumes of skyscrapers, all reflected on the car’s polished glass and metal, convey a sense of streamlined luxury, comfort and safety until rap music inflections begin to creep into the Christmassy soundtrack, and furtive, documentary-like or stolen shots of ghetto streets suddenly become part of the urban landscape. The visually and aurally kaleidoscopic layering effect is repeated in the “commuting” sequences subsequent to the husband’s kidnapping when the wife is desperate to assemble the ransom money. Expressive or reflective of situational and psychological mood alike, the shimmering presence of the Big Apple can thus alternately or overlappingly be soothing, magical and anxiety-inducing. In a scene of The Addiction (a film mostly shot in the NYU/Washington Square area as an illustration of William S. Burroughs’ “junk pyramid”) (23) Kathleen is applying lipstick while riding in a cab, shot from outside through the backseat window: her inner thoughts in voice-over commingle with reflections of traffic, neon and car lights flickering across her face. The vampire’s eternally pulsating life appears to be one with the night rhythms of the big city.
Such an intrication, rather than fusion, of concrete and abstract, visual and mental components is, as we have seen, an idiosyncratic feature of Abel Ferrara’s cinema and its rendition of the mosaic of New York. Except for Fear City which is uncharacteristically content with mechanically framing the narrative with stock aerial footage of the Manhattan skyline at night in the opening and closing credits (as well as a couple of “reminder” shots from a helicopter in the course of the film, with a sensationalistic newscast voiceover in one instance – “another dark night for New Yorkers” – for good measure), the light-dotted or sweeping vista of the metropolis, far from assuming a purely functional or contextual value, usually rises to the status of pregnant visual leitmotif whose exact import, however, might be partly ambiguous or undecidable. In the claustrophobic, pre-apocalyptic (and should we add “belatedly” post-9/11?) 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Skye seems to find solace from emotional suffocation in her painting while Cisco needs to venture out on the rooftop terrace of their Lower East Side loft periodically in order to both vent his angst and survey the eerily “business as usual” city life around (except for a man jumping to his death off an adjacent building), be it at night or in the daytime, through binoculars or with his bare eyes. In Bad Lieutenant the very absence of any panoramic view or panning shot of the cityscape is indicative of the protagonist’s visibly constraining, aporetic “street level” predicament. Tragically, but also redeemingly, there will be for him no exit from urban desolation, not even through staring off at the city silhouette as other Ferrarian “heroes” have the opportunity to do at critical, reflective moments in their lives. In ‘R Xmas, for instance, a lateral pan of the night skyline (mere points of light against a dark blue background) accompanies the male lead as he goes out on the terrace to think back on the recent traumatic experience of his detention and the abuse he endured at the hands of his violent captors.
The richest example, however, is the fetishized, metamorphic face of King of New York’s Frank White as he scopically embraces the city. In the long opening credits sequence, his release from prison segues into a slow, silent, blue-tinted, nocturnal approach of New York via bridges, (24) glimpses of the skyline, reflections of a passing elevated subway train in a street puddle, hookers and dealers in shadowy, dilapidated neighbourhoods. These hauntingly lyrical shots from the black driving limo alternate with close-ups of taciturn Frank’s half-lit, impassive and indecipherable face looking out the misty window as he wordlessly reconnects with “his” city. In his new (head)quarters at the Plaza Hotel, he will next be seen staring out the penthouse sliding door where the lit midtown Manhattan buildings and skyscrapers are reflected, his visage immutably meditative and inscrutable, despite a perceptible streak of melancholy. A third moment will provide a partial key. This time, Frank White gets out on the terrace at night conversing with his female “Park Avenue attorney,” his words barely audible until they walk up to the camera: “it’s something you’ve looked at all your life and it crossed your mind that you’d never see it again.” A rather cryptic statement in the absence of a more complete context, unless we assume that this “something” is nothing but the magnificent view of the city’s illuminated buildings around him – a view he had lost in prison and might very well end up losing again, permanently. In a sense, it could be argued that Christopher Walken’s unique facial “landscape” – at once mask-like and mobile, unalterable and ever-changing, enigmatic and unpredictable – resonates with the multi-faceted, light-checkered cityscape of New York where tangibility intersects with unreality, being-thereness with elusiveness, serenity with tension, physicality with abstraction. A sense of fatality and finality – of tragic fatum – will progressively creep over his increasingly wistful, disillusioned, almost ghost-like face, as when emerging from the decrepit depths of the brick warehouse where he has just ordered his men to execute a traitor, a gorgeous shot shows him standing in a door frame, gazing at the all-too-near, all-too-far Manhattan skyline after dusk – inextricably within grasp and out of reach…
Perhaps Frank White already intuits that he himself will soon be put to death, or to “sleep,” at the brightest nocturnal center of the City That Never Sleeps within the befittingly oxymoronic context of chaotic stasis. As “the king of New York” sits alone bleeding in a cab, his heart finally stops beating, in one final moment of harmony with the stalled heart of the city, i.e. a monumental traffic jam around Times Square, complete with wailing paramedic and police sirens, and car honks. But thanks to an obligatory (in terms of genre tropes), yet operatic succession of extended shootout and car chase sequences (over and under a bridge) reminiscent of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), New York has long been transformed into a (post-)apocalyptic or Dantesque pandemonium – the urban equivalent of a revisionist western like Sam Peckinpah’s ultra-violent Wild Bunch (1969). The lashing rain washes out the deserted wasteland underneath the bridge structure to a monochromatic bluish, elemental inferno. The hustle and bustle of urban life in the modern city par excellence has given way to an archaic clash of brute forces in some primeval no man’s land. Not to worry – it is still there, as resilient as ever. The King is dead. The Earth’s last day is a-coming. Long live New York!
- Nick Johnstone, Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, London/New York: Omnibus Press, 1999.
- Clayton Patterson (ed.), Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005, XIII-XIV. I am grateful to Adrian Martin for bringing this text to my attention.
- Chelsea on the Rocks centers on the legendary hotel (located at 222 W. 23rd St. between Seventh and Eighth Aves.) that had been a refuge for artistic and bohemian life in Manhattan for over a century until a drastic change in management and tenant policy occurred a few years ago. Mulberry St. documents Little Italy (a location used in several of Ferrara’s early films) during the famed San Gennaro feast.
- For various reasons, not least of which lack of space, The Funeral, Mary, Go Go Tales and 4:44 Last Day on Earth will hardly be touched upon in this essay. On New York in Go Go Tales, see in particular Murray Pomerance, “Blood from a Stone,” Senses of Cinema 63 (July 2012): http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/feature-articles/blood-from-a-stone/
- Concurrently, and in a further irony, Ferrara was in Naples, trying unsuccessfully to get his Pericle il Nero project (an intended prequel to King of New York narrating the rise to power of drug lord Frank White in the 1970s) off the ground at the time Herzog was shooting his Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans…
- Nick Johnstone, 4. Sadly, the quote is not properly referenced, but would seem to foreground the inherently self-documentary – i.e. confessional or autobiographical – nature of filmmaking.
- The annual Feast of San Gennaro (with its parades, street vendors, and the candlelit procession in which the statue of the saint is carried through the streets of the neighbourhood) is featured prominently in the rest of the film. Not only does it contribute to its authentic flavour and the sense of wounded ethnocultural pride (at a time of celebration and festivities) among the Italian-American community; it is also an intertextual nod to such iconic gangster films as Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974) where assassination of Mafiosi occurs during the same festival (and again in Part III  which, however, postdates the Ferrara film by 3 years)
- The camera repeatedly cuts to fighting shadows on walls and ground during the combat scene at the close of the sequence. By the time of The Addiction, less than a decade later, this technique will be perfected to an art form in gorgeous black-and-white. See in particular the night sequence culminating in Kathleen taking a bearded homeless man’s blood: the heroine walks along an anonymous street that almost resembles a German Expressionist set (minus the distortions), preceded by her own shadow projected, Nosferatu-like, on a brick wall.
- The neutral, generic term neighbourhood is interestingly favoured by the film’s most vindictive characters, in particular Yung addressing his sister: “You want to socialize? Stay in this neighbourhood;” “Just stay in this neighbourhood, that’s all I ask. […] You have yellow skin and almond eyes; you’re nothing but a Chink to them. That’s why we live in Chinatown.” Such perverted community-based logic finds a strikingly senseless endpoint in the justification of intra-ethnic racketeering: “You’re Chinese – you do business with the Chinese.” Symmetrically, an irate Alby lashes out at Tony: “You were born in this neighbourhood – don’t forget that.”
- The clash between the established, patriarchal leaders and some of the younger members of each gang is a constant reminder of the Oedipality at play. In view of the infighting among the Chinese youths (diehards vs. soft-liners), and after Alby has just been severely beaten up by the Mafia boss for not toeing the line, the Tong counterpart tellingly remarks: “Our responsibility is to control our children.”
- See his more-contemporary-than-ever Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (1965).
- One may also remember that the brief Chinatown scene in the film starts with the camera slowly panning downward from the top of the phone booth until Thana’s hooded face with her gloved hand holding the receiver (all black-colored elements) is tightly framed by two bright red uprights of the booth structure. In rhetorical terms the visually arresting shot is tantamount to a hypallage (or transferred epithet), implicitly foregrounding Thana as a Little Black Riding Hood figure… Pay phone booths and kiosks in Ferrara’s pre-cellular era films are part of the New York street scenery: see in particular Fear City and Bad Lieutenant, as well as an early scene of King of New York where an unidentified gangster inside a phone booth is blasted to pieces by Frank White’s henchmen using shotguns and pistols.
- When she joins her giggling co-workers at the workshop window for a voyeuristic look at a secretary “riding” her boss “like a horse” on his desk in the building opposite, Thana is unflustered and even exchanges a searingly suggestive and promising glance with her own boss as a proactive lure for a bit of dalliance at the upcoming office party.
- The Funeral will offer a gangster version of the originary trauma (as a perverse childhood rite of passage into manhood and a displaced Freudian primal scene – lethal rather than coital, active rather than passive), repeated from one generation to the next, until the cycle of violence and destruction here again turns on itself. Gun to gun, coffin to coffin – to the (visual) letter…
- A similarly expressive static, high-angle shot shows the titular antihero of Bad Lieutenant taking drugs in a shadowy tenement stairwell, crushed in the corner of a wall (inside stairs and outside steps are another recurrent and typically ominous motif in Ferrara’s New York films.) In The Addiction, an overhead shot enhanced by circular camera movements portrays Kathleen writhing in pain in her bed after being bitten by a female vampire. That vampirism is a form of sexual rape will not come as a surprise for fans and scholars of the horror genre.
- As indicated by Nicole Brenez in her Abel Ferrara, Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 175.
- Ferrara generally eschews singling out the iconic monuments of the Big Apple, in a likely effort to avoid creating a “postcard effect.” The Empire State Building, however, is already present in his debut feature when the camera somewhat overdramatically pans from the tri-coloured lit top down to street level where the eponymous protagonist is maniacally “working” on his next homeless victim.
- It is perhaps no coincidence that, as an explicitly “historical” film, The Funeral is set in Yonkers, New York, in the 1930s, the era when classic American gangster flicks were made.
- This type of “abuse” of police prerogative is encountered with even greater visual impact when the cops of King of New York are seen speeding against traffic flow around busy Times Square after picking up Frank White for questioning on no legal grounds at the Lunt Fontanne theater on Broadway until they get to a desolate wasteland area with burnt-out car carcasses where they proceed to intimidate and brutalize him.
- Amplified by a long, static take that perfectly conveys a disquieting sense of detachment and unconcern, this topos about New Yorkers’ unabashed individualism and blatant lack of compassion (famously captured for posterity in an emblematic sequence of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy ) gets ironically subverted in The Addiction: experiencing acute vampiric withdrawal, Kathleen gets out in the streets at night, banging on a shop’s metal shutter and crying for help until she is rescued by an unusually sympathetic and responsive stranger who is cruelly paid in return by a savage bite in the neck…
- Charles Dickens’ emblematic morality tale clearly dovetails not only with the thematic of social injustice and hypocrisy in the rest of the film, but also with Ferrara’s obsessive concern with redemption.
- Additional Yuletide New York iconography includes televised ice skaters at the Rockefeller Center. Seasonably de rigueur It’s a Wonderful Life is however missing, as are the Salvation Army volunteers traditionally standing outside stores and businesses, singing carols and ringing bells.
- See Joan Hawkins, “”No Worse Than You Were Before”: Theory, Economy and Power in Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,”” in Xavier Mendik & Steven Jay Schneider (eds.), Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon, London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2002, 17.
- Including the Queensboro Bridge, immortalized by Woody Allen in an iconically romantic shot of Manhattan (1979) (reproduced in the film’s poster image), with the couple played by Diane Keaton and the director, seen from behind, sitting side by side on a bench at the foot of the bridge. In a twist of gruesome irony, the scene is referenced in Ms. 45 with Thana and a barfly: the mise-en-scene replicates the basics of the original (although with a different bridge…) until the man turns on himself the weapon she had just tried to kill him with.