Special Dossier edited by the Senses of Cinema editorial team
Since his earliest feature films from the 1970s, the work of American director Abel Ferrara has resisted easy cblassification. Across his lengthy career, Ferrara has made rape-revenge films, documentaries, music videos, splatter movies, biopics and made-for-TV crime dramas. While Ferrara’s oeuvre lends itself to critical interpretations of distinct cycles,1 taken holistically his movies are less a cohesive, singular body than a dynamic, evolving journey. The unique ‘rush’ of a Ferrara film – no matter what its generic or thematic fascination – is one that bleeds through and across both the intellect and senses, yet remains consistently loyal to what Brad Stevens identified in the title of his essential 2006 book as a distinctive “moral vision”.2
We acknowledge from the outset that this is a relatively limited dossier focussed specifically on Ferrara’s work between 2005 and 2015. In part, this is limitation is simply due to the fact that in recent years, distribution issues have stymied the release of many of Ferrara’s films. While Ferrara himself has voiced in numerous interviews his understandable frustrations at this scenario, thematically and formally at least there is something about this sense of loss that runs across much of his work in the decade, attuning us to a particularly Ferrarian sensitivity to “the pathos of things”.3 This, for our purposes at least, loosely evokes the Japanese aesthetic concept of mono no aware, defined by Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit as “an increased emotional receptivity which results in mujōkan, a secularized melancholy of Buddhist origins,”4 or the “awareness of impermanence”5.
This invocation of Eastern traditions is by no means random, as demonstrated in Rowan Righelato’s article “The Tao of Abel” that addresses Ferrara’s Mary (2005), 4.44 Last Day on Earth (2011) and Pasolini (2014). Hinging around the figure of Mary Magdalene, her apocryphal Gospel is in Biblical terms non-canonical, simultaneously therefore both present and (officially, from the perspective of the Roman Catholic church at least) absent. 4.44 Last Day on Earth follows Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and his partner Skye (Shanyn Leigh) in their New York City apartment they await the end of the world, a premise built in to the film’s title. The biopic Pasolini too works towards an inevitable end for those already familiar with the life (and death) of this iconic figure: Dafoe again stars in the title role as the Italian filmmaker and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the film explores the last days before his murder on the beach in Ostia on 2 November 1975. In their different ways, loss is reconfigured in these films in a manner less a sombre death knell and closer to the awe inherent to mono no aware. Despite the subject matter of his recent work, these films suggest Ferrara has (for the most part, at least) left his bleaker work behind.
Drawing parallels between the career of Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee, Righelato sees a shift across Ferrara’s filmography towards “an expansive, highly lyrical mysticism”. Yet unlike the spirituality of directors like Paul Schrader and Terence Malick, “Ferrara’s recent work embodies a kind of Taoist ‘ordinary mind’ that sees all aspects of the psyche as sacred”. Striving for a holistic balance between the spiritual and the physical, the spirituality that has long marked Ferrara’s work takes a notable shift towards a distinctly Taoist model in these three works in particular.
Righelato notes the inclusion of actual footage of real individuals and events in 4.44 Last Day on Earth and Mary, and that Dafoe and Ferrara’s dedication to authenticity in Pasolini verged on the “shamanic” with regards to the use of actual locations and the use of Pasolini’s own clothes and books. These documentary aspects of Ferrara’s work in the past decade comes to the fore in Senses of Cinema co-editor Tim O’Farrell’s close examination of three of the director’s recent documentaries; Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009), and Mulberry St (2010)6 Whether it is the end-of-an-era spirit that marks his examination of New York City’s iconic Chelsea Hotel, the dire socio-political context of Naples in Southern Italy, or the more personal examination of the role of one particular iconic Manhattan neighbourhood in his life both personally and as a filmmaker, these three films too are marked by feelings of loss in range of different ways.
O’Farrell considers Ferrara’s documentary practice in his article, which explores a range of aspects that the filmmaker’s work in this context raises. O’Farrell looks at the use of different techniques across Mulberry St, Napoli Napoli Napoli and Chelsea on the Rocks, particularly the use of interviews and the potentially exploitative elements in Ferrara’s use of re-enactments, and a kind of restlessness of style. Performance is a key notion across these films, both that of Ferrara and his subjects. Like both Welcome New York (2014) and Go Go Tales (2007) in particular (films James Slaymaker considers closely elsewhere in this mini-dossier), the issue of corporatisation is granted prime placement in each of these three documentaries, whether it be the battle for control on the board of the Chelsea Hotel, the City of New York’s mercenary approach to the San Gennaro Festival or the malign shadow of the Cosa Nostra in Napoli. Linking these documentaries to Ferrara’s other work between 2005 and 2015,O’Farrell considers how they function as kinds of elegies: riddled with notions of loss and sadness, yet – importantly – not helplessly so.
Ferrara’s notorious Welcome to New York itself of course seeks to directly provoke associations with a real-world event in its barely-disguised re-enactment of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, particularly allegations concerning the sexual assault of a 32-year-old maid who worked at the Sofitel New York Hotel where Strauss-Kahn was a guest in May 2011. Slaymaker considers this film closely, noting from the outset that “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”. It is from this perspective that what feels like an exploitation film – particularly with its sleazy, softcore opening scenes of debauchery – is consciously deployed as the perfect cinematic foundation for a film that seeks to rip open and lay bare the parallels between capitalism, class, power and corruption. As Ferrara said in an interview with Mahohla Dargis in 1993, “every film is an exploitation film…Tell me one film that’s not an exploitation film, one film that’s made where they don’t care if they get the money back”.
Slaymaker shrewdly finds in Welcome to New York’s fascination with flawed capitalism a companion film in Ferrara’s earlier Go Go Tales. Aside from their shared thematic concerns, both films also suffered extraordinary distribution challenges, rendering them difficult to come by even for Ferrara aficionados. Promoted as a cross between the US sitcom Cheers and John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Ferrara called Go Go Tales his “first intentional comedy”, while critics like Dennis Lim and Ed Gonzalez considered it his equivalent of Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Receiving an extremely limited release, Go Go Tales was a mere taste of what was to come for the problems that Welcome to New York was to face seven years later: failing to gain official selection at Cannes that year and receiving no French cinema distribution, it was released directly on VOD while at the same time facing a number of legal difficulties with both Strauss-Kahn himself and disputes regarding its US distribution.
Spanning back to his early short films, the density and diversity of Ferrara’s broader oeuvre renders the discovery of his work a continuing process of lost-and-found: hidden treasures await those with the determination to seek them out. These ‘lost’ films – as we have seen most recently with films such as Go Go Tales and Welcome to New York – are presenting increasing challenges in terms of the simple practicalities of access alone. Yet through Ferrara’s work of the past decade, the preciousness, beauty and ephemerality of lost things is woven into the films themselves. This mini-dossier does not seek to place restrictive conceptual parameters around the recent work of Abel Ferrara, but rather to flag as a vital moment in the ongoing journey of his still unfolding body of tumultuous, intoxicating cinema. It ideally acts to spark further attention on the last decade of Ferrara’s filmography in particular, and to underscore his ongoing position as one of the most important, challenging and exciting American directors working today.
- See, for example, Nicole Brenez’s vital work on the director, in this instance particularly the chapter “A Critical Panolpy: Abel Ferrara’s Catholic Imagery Trilogy”, in Film Trilogies: New Critical Approaches, Eds. Claire Perkins and Constantine Verevis (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012) pp. 127-144. ↩
- Brad Stevens, Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (London: FAB Press, 2004). ↩
- Michael F. Marra, “The Aesthetics of Tradition: Making the Past Present”, in Asian Aesthetics, Ed. Ken-ichi Sasaki (Singapore: Nus Press (in association with Kyoto University Press, Japan), 2010), p. 45. ↩
- Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, Rituals of Self-revelation: Shishōsetsu as Literary Genre and Socio-Cultural Phenomenon (Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1996), p. 190. ↩
- Richard B. Pilgrim, Buddhism and the Arts of Japan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 37. ↩
- The hour-long documentary Searching for Padre Pio also screened on Italian television in late 2015. ↩