It’s difficult not to detect the influence of Pasolini on Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (2014), and not only due to the fact that Ferrara was reportedly undertaking vast amounts of research for his yet-to-be commercially released quasi-biopic on the director during the project’s development. As in many of Pasolini’s most vicious films, Welcome to New York equates corporate capitalism with fascism, then critiques these structures through a series of claustrophobic, tragi-comic pornographic set pieces. Also like Pasolini, in Ferrara’s worldview monetary value finds its foremost expression through the manipulation and sublimation of young bodies, and the lingering effect is one of total cynicism in the face of these casual atrocities.
Like most of Ferrara’s recent work, Welcome To New York has the aura of a modern day parable, and achieves a sense of grand universality despite its minimalist design. The majority of its action unfolds over a couple of days, and is restricted to a few claustrophobic interiors. Though it takes the form of a thinly fictionalised take on a specific, sensationalistic real event – the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair – it’s less interested in relaying the details of the case than using it as a springboard for a tale of dehumanising effects of abstract finance and the alienation of late-period capitalism, and it registers with the force of an epic myth. The film’s closest relative in the Ferrara canon is perhaps the similarity compacted consumerist deconstruction Go Go Tales (2012). Like that under-seen masterwork, Welcome To New York expresses an incredibly intimate portrait of the city. In contrast to the kind of glossy, touristy, portrayals that are heavy on snapshots of the city’s most famous landmarks, Ferrara reduces the metropolis to a series of meticulously rendered motel rooms, corridors and airport hallways.
Though Welcome to New York remains in line with Go Go Tales’ conception of late capitalism, here Ferrara focuses his attention on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Gone are the eccentrics and rough-and-tumble artists desperately trying to make a go for it that populate Ray Ruby’s Paradise, a go go club that hosts innocent talent shows after hours. The earlier film is populated with characters who spend their days dreaming of a success that seems impossible to grasp, Welcome to New York is about the people who exploit them and are collectively transforming the city into a homogenised, corporatised wash. Unsurprisingly, the tenor of this film is much more downbeat; Go Go Tales ended on a note of optimism, suggesting that with an unlikely combination hard work, dedication, and extremely good luck, a lone wolf showman might be able to resist the omnipresent forces trying to crush his aspirations (hey, Ferrara managed to get Go Go Tales financed, after all!). By contrast, Welcome To New York is one long gaze into the abyss of the wealth-bestowed power, entitlement and empathy deprivation that characterises a character who functions first and foremost as a stand-in for late capitalism’s most predatory aspects. Ferrara has long been associated with outsiders barely eking out a living on the cusp of civilized society, but here he turns his attention to a high-end-consumerist landscape dominated with stately, sterilized structures.
Naturally, it’s not too long before Ferrara counteracts this abstracted and immaterial world of high finance by lavishing attention on extreme, often grotesque, bodily sensations. The structure of the film is divided into three parts of roughly equal length, and each takes a drastically different form and register – transitioning, in order, from soft-core porn to crime procedural to tightly-wound chamber drama; throughout his long and varied career, Ferrara has already proven himself adept at handling each of these genres. The first half hour or so transforms a hotel-set orgy Devereaux and a few colleagues indulge in with a line-up of high-end hookers into a Boschian atrocity exhibition. The ever-increasing excesses of physical experiences is posited as a necessary counter-point to their abstract monetary value creation – divorced from money as a material thing, they need such grand carnal displays in order to remind themselves of the abundance of their wealth.
In essence, this driving idea isn’t too different from that which animated Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). However, while that film plunged viewers into Belfort’s libidinous worldview, allowing them to experience the delirious highs of his lavish lifestyle with the same frenzied fervour as he does, Ferrara captures everything from a steely, unromantic remove. Far from fetishising the excess (which Scorsese inarguably did, but in order to serve the artistic purpose of illustrating the ability of pop filmmaking – especially advertising – to co-opt libidinous desires in order to feed the growth of corporate-capitalist structures), Devereaux’s antics are painful to watch. Wheezing and grunting like an animal in heat as he thrusts, then stumbling as he struggles to carry his body around the room, it’s often hard to tell whether his grimaces are registering pain or euphoria. He views these women as nothing but commodities that exist only to satisfy his bodily urges (he even lathers expensive wine and ice cream over them, as if to cement this point), just as he views the many low-level service workers who attend to his more mundane requests as independent individuals. Every person he encounters, in his eyes, is only valuable to the extent that they can directly produce some kind of value.
This all-consuming desire for consumption extends to every aspect of Devereaux’s life, and the metaphor is pretty clear – the institutions of big finance that hold sway over the rest of the western economy horde power to such a hyperbolic extreme that they’re fundamentally removed not only from material labour but any concrete moral codes. As in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012), the mechanisms of high finance are linked to a built-in death drive – these western corporations seek to profit from the destruction of labour, economies, and commodities, seeking only to feed itself for the purpose of endless self-perpetuation. These institutions don’t just exploit structural inequality, they actively foster it.
If Ray Ruby – a man who has very little and is hungry for social mobility – is entirely future-orientated in his thinking, Devereaux is a man who refuses to think beyond the present moment and his own immediate gratification, dedicated to nothing but the indulgence of every primal urge he experiences in a slavish, compulsive way. Most worryingly, he’s totally aware of his own monstrosity yet refuses to feel any guilt or remorse – he doesn’t even have hypocrisy to hide behind.
Go Go Tales is etched in the gloriously smeary textures of super grainy 35mm, while Welcome to New York is constructed of compositions of a kind of candour and clarity that could only be captured with high-definition digital. The action is framed by geometrical, architectural framing, all straight lines coloured in grey and dark blue. This creates the sense of being the cold hangover to the previous film’s dance-like drift; there are no flashy flourishes, nothing to convey excitement or ecstasy. It’s instead transparently banal and grotesque. The deep-focus framings that foreground the blandly lavish bric-a-brac of the high consumerist settings as much as the actions of the human subjects imply that these characters are natural products of these homogenised environments.
It’s telling that Devereaux genuinely has trouble telling the difference between consensual (though driven by economic incentive) sex and assault. His reactions to his arrest are characterised by perplexity at his being detained for this incident despite never having been punished for any of the other transgressions he’s committed over his lifetime. Ferrara’s protagonists tend to be similarly self-destructive and compulsively tied to their base desires, but they’re at least eaten by guilt and self-loathing and scramble towards some kind of salvation, even if this hope of redemption proves to be ever-elusive and their quest motivated primarily by self-interest. Devereaux is transparently unrepentant, concerned only with keeping himself afloat. The extent to which he rationalises his crime is comically wrong-headed, as he complains about minor inaccuracies in the charges he faces (“I didn’t force her to give me a blowjob, I jerked off onto her mouth!”), and refuses to see his actions in anything other than abstract, inhuman terms.
The sequence that follows enacts a kind of return-of-the-repressed scenario, with all the figures that are usually pushed to the sidelines coming to the fore to wreak revenge. As Devereaux is begrudgingly forced through a lengthy and degrading incarnation process, the policemen overseeing him treat him with explicit contempt, clearly working through their own anger at the entitlement and lack of remorse this kind of rich white dude displays on a regular basis, and most likely aware of the lack of consequences he’ll ultimately have to face. In a complete 180-degree power turn, he’s now the one manipulated by others, stripped and verbally assaulted and humiliated. Minorities – racial and economic – are institutionally repressed into a subjugated class. As in Cosmopolis, Devereaux suddenly finds himself plunged into a tangible labour sphere he previously remained insulated from.
Despite Devereaux’s visceral frustration, this sequence is oddly procedural. Like Devereaux, these police officials use the standardised language of mainstream bureaucracy to taking out their anger, employing these familiar structures as a means of personally motivated oppression in a manner that formally excuses it. Ferrara implicates the audience in this systematic indulgence of power, forcing us to acknowledge the extent to which we too may use these systems to vent personal frustrations if endowed with such an opportunity. This section is just as slow and drawn-out as the orgy scene, and just as deliberately off-putting, but there’s a sense of catharsis here that, in part, inspires us to reflect on the perverse pleasure we feel in seeing a figure like Devereaux cut down to size. As Devereaux is pushed through a series of enclosed, transitional spaces, he himself seems perplexed by the shoddy treatment he’s getting in spite of his wealth and social standing. Yet Ferrara, always eager to implicate his audience, underlines the inherent hypocrisy of the feelings of schadenfreude we may be experiencing, as we justify our sadism by telling ourselves that Devereaux deserves his comeuppance.
Naturally, Devereaux is enabled by his wealth to escape any serious consequences, thus frustrating our desire for a rise-and-fall narrative comeuppance – he’s able to pay for bail and spends the days leading up to his trial under house arrest in an expensive townhouse, and his wife Simone ultimately digs into her family fortune in order to pay damages. Not only does his economic standing insulate him from punishment – and thus from being forced to reflect on and feel guilt for his actions – but he also speaks of actively stripping himself of human niceties like empathy in order to better progress within his chosen profession. The deliberate and methodical blocking of these emotions necessary to financially exploit without being hampered by any semblance of morality has also turned him into an empty shell of a person, unable to register the effects his actions may have on others and incapable of honest self-reflection. And he’s not portrayed as a grotesque aberration, but one of the crowd. Devereaux sees the situation in abstract terms, not once thinking of the human dimension, simply keeping his mind focused on preserving his career and funds. Pointedly, the maid herself is dropped from the film as soon as she’s given her testimony; her experience is merely transformed into abstracted data, which a team of lawyers can then manipulate into creating a positive or negative verdict.
Simone recognises how ugly, self-serving and toxic Devereaux’s actions are, yet acts in the interest of preserving his standing, simply because she fears having her own reputation dragged down with him if he’s charged. Despite being accomplished and capable, she’s still tethered to a phallocentric social order whose mechanisms she has to operate within in order to progress professionally. A victim and enabler of institutionalised inequality in equal measure, she’s motivated primarily by a necessary wilful blindness that has allowed her to overlook his actions out of a combination of apathy and complacency and self-interest, but this pattern of behaviour has resulted in his monstrous self-regard ballooning in private to the extent that that she can barely recognise him.
This all ends as it must – with both Devereaux’s power and his nuclear family dynamic being re-instated, despite the fact that the man has learned nothing from the ordeal and will most likely return to his cycle of thoughtless consumption. As usual with Ferrara, narrative details are stripped down to a bare minimum, leaving a series of emotionally weighted gestures and mundanities that add up to form a psychological portrait that manages to achieve a surprising degree of sympathy while never betraying the essential toxicity of its subject. If the film’s attitude towards late-period capitalism is totally, almost overbearingly despairing, it at least expresses a strong hope in the ability of cinema to foster this kind of empathy through form.