“The sage disregards all distinctions and takes his point of view from Heaven.”
– Chuang Tzu1
“That film (Mary) made me a Buddhist. I got so Catholic I became a Buddhist.”
– Abel Ferrara2
From the beginning, Abel Ferrara’s filmmaking has engaged in a fearless, often painful but always exhilarating exploration of spiritual faith. While no less uncompromising than his earlier work, the films of the last decade – particularly Mary (2005) 4.44 Last day on Earth (2011) and Pasolini (2014) – express a newfound compassion that manifests thematically and formally. Ferrara’s focus has shifted away from the linear ‘Catholic redemption’ narrative of films like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) to a more open approach to storytelling, a graceful layering of fact and fiction, the political and philosophical, the sensual and the spiritual.
This move toward a more lyrical form seems to mirror the development of the poet, as described by the Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee. Born in Indonesia in 1957, Lee spent much of his early childhood fleeing political persecution. His father – who looms large in his poetry- had been the personal physician to Mao Tse-tsung until they fell out and Dr Lee was forced to leave China for Jakarta, where he fell foul of the growing anti-Chinese sentiment and was imprisoned for a year. Dr Lee escaped and fled with his family, settling finally in Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s and becoming a Presbyterian minister.
Lee’s poetry embodies a potent mix of Christian symbolism and Taoist philosophy, and his redemptive sense of spirituality shares much with Ferrara’s own: “each must make a safe place of his heart, / before so strange and wild a guest / as God approaches”.3 According to Lee, the poet must journey through his/her own psychology – working out psychological issues and preoccupations from one’s own subjective viewpoint – before moving beyond it, when, in Lee’s words: “you have to posit something beyond your own psychology toward that which your psyche is embedded in.”4 Lee’s poetry follows this trajectory, in that the earlier work is often anecdotal, focused on a real event or memory, and expressed in deceptively plain language, where in the later poems the ‘reality’ of a given moment is subsumed into an expansive, highly lyrical mysticism.
A corresponding movement can be detected in Ferrara. Pre-Mary – Ferrara’s multi-layered exploration of faith centered around the hidden Gospel of Mary Magdalene – the films burn with the existential fire that rages in the soul of their protagonists, Ferrara consumed by the redemption narrative. The subsequent films cling less violently to the dynamics of internal psycho-drama, as if the obsessive need to confront the protagonists’ bad faith has been assuaged. The narrative is still present, but is allowed to play out within a wider context, to be expressed with a new formal freedom.
The seed of this change has been present all along in Ferrara’s explorative attitude to filmmaking, or what Brad Stevens, author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, sees as his “interrogation of the line between ‘being’ and ‘acting’.”5 Ferrara shares John Cassavetes’ concern with capturing life rather than merely recreating the semblance of it. In both Cassavetes and the best of Ferrara, the dialogue, responses, and movements of the actors are never prescribed, never those expected. Like the notes of a Miles Davis trumpet solo, their actions are both impossible to predict and yet somehow precisely what they are meant to be, always true. Ferrara’s fascination with Christopher Walken6 surely has something to do with the actor’s Cassavetian quality. Walken is the living embodiment of the performative ambiguity Cassavetes prized. He gives no clues, refuses to signify, and yet we cannot take our eyes off him. Somehow his denial of access to the characters’ inner life stimulates us, raises the stakes.
There is a moment in King of New York (1990) when Walken’s Frank is taking a shower and looks directly into the camera. This look – at first irritated at our invasion of his privacy, then questioning, and finally turning away satisfied – represents something akin to a Zen moment of enlightenment. As viewers, the shock of finding ourselves holding the gaze of the protagonist as he appraises us “makes us confront the artificial nature of the film-viewing experience.”[6, Brad Stevens from email correspondence with the author, 2015] A similar moment occurs in Bad Lieutenant when a desperate and disheveled Harvey Keitel stares out at us, to be told by a junkie friend: “There’s nobody there”.
Such moments also occur in Mary and 4.44 Last Day on Earth, the latter a low key two-hander with Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh as a New York couple facing the final hours before an environmental disaster destroys the planet. In both these later works, the engagement of the direct gaze is made all the more powerful for being woven into a new form that acknowledges no distinction between the fictional scenario and footage of real events and real people. Ferrara has evolved beyond the inability to connect implied by the line in Bad Lieutenant. The one-sidedness of the film viewing experience is replaced by a dialogue between film and viewer, artificiality replaced by authentic communication.
Of Ferrara’s contemporaries, only Paul Schrader and Terence Malick share his explicitly spiritual concerns. Like Schrader’s existential heroes, the protagonists of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, The Blackout (1997), Dangerous Game (1993) – to name but three – appear to follow variations on Sartre’s ‘bad faith self-deception’ narrative, in which we witness the journey from destructive forms of self-expression dictated by external, societal forces, towards ‘authenticity’, a renewed faith in internal moral values and self-belief. The word “towards” is key here, for in Ferrara there is no final Bressonian moment of grace or redemption for the hero. It is the journey – not the destination – that interests him, and his endings are resolutely ambiguous.
Yet where Schrader’s narratives follow a transcendental trajectory, Ferrara has no model. In even the most generic of his films, such as King of New York, narrative can appear to become fragmentary, the characters seem to refuse to stick to the script. Indeed, one can imagine Schrader – fundamentally a writer – at work in a book-lined study, the infamous brass crown of thorns (that, legend has it, he wore while writing the screenplay for Taxi Driver) crouching on the mantelpiece, while outside in the wild New York night Ferrara – a natural born filmmaker – prowls the streets, a beer in one hand and a tattered script in the other, on the never-ending quest for experience (and funding for his next project). In the last decade however, the Ferrara of Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, who freewheeled his way through Rafi Pitts’ 2003 documentary Not Guilty like Charles Bukowski with a movie camera, has become subsumed into a calmer and more compassionate artist.
Mary represents the moment of transition from Ferrara’s almost obsessive preoccupation with the darker aspects of Catholicism to a more compassionate and positive spirituality. The existential redemption narrative is still present in Forrest Whitaker’s unfaithful TV talk show host, forced to wrestle with his beliefs when his son is born with life-threatening medical problems. This however is but one narrative strand, one of three interlinked lives through which Ferrara explores the nature of faith in the modern world. Central also are Juliette Binoche’s actress, compelled to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage after having played the role of Mary Magdalene in “This is My Blood”, a controversial film reminiscent of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Matthew Modine as the film’s impassioned writer, director and star, desperately trying to remain true to his own vision amidst the cynicism of the media and intolerance of religious fanaticism.
With each poem, according to Li-Young Lee, the task of the poet is to encompass and express all aspects of human experience: physical and intellectual, sensual and spiritual, with each aspect informed by the other. Into Mary‘s multi-stranded narrative Ferrara weaves scenes from the film-within-the-film, in which Mary and her fellow disciples debate Jesus’ teachings, and Binoche is seen fishing with a group of women, as capable and strong and intelligent as any male counterpart. On top of this, testimony from real-life religious scholars is included, framed in the context of interviews on Forrest Whitaker’s TV show. By refusing to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’, by utilising drama, documentary testimony, and found footage- and giving all equal weight – Ferrara allows the film to express Lee’s various levels of human consciousness at once.
The existential rawness of the performances in Mary are no less compelling than Keitel’s in Bad Lieutenant, but Ferrara’s empathic tunnel vision is tempered here with a new compassion. No longer obsessed with documenting one man’s bad faith and tortured quest for redemption, in Mary Ferrara proposes possibilities of living spiritually with a newfound sense of optimism.
With 4.44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara puts the sincerity of this optimism to the ultimate test. The scenario is simple: the end of the world has been scientifically predicted to the last minute, and all the human race can do is to wait for death. Avoiding both the sensationalism of Hollywood’s apocalyptic blockbusters, and the arch, self-consciously ‘art house’ take of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Ferrara approaches the set-up with sobriety and humanity, presenting the last day of life for bohemian New York couple Cisco (Willem Dafoe), an actor, and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), a painter. As in Mary, Ferrara makes no distinction between this fictional narrative and the real news footage he includes: massing crowds in St Peter’s Square, religious gatherings around the world, and the testimony of environmental experts such as Al Gore and various spiritual gurus, including the Dalai Lama.
The grip of Catholicism and the need for redemption has loosened further in this film. Cisco does lapse into self-pitying rants on the rooftop of their apartment, Dafoe framed in isolation against a darkening sky, but his existential histrionics come across as impotent and empty. It is the moments when he and Skye are together that Ferrara makes count. Their last day is superficially much like any other; they make love, take a nap, watch TV, order take-away food. Cisco shaves and a distracted Skye asks why he’s bothering; “I do it for you” he says, surprised. Of course, as the clock ticks away, every tiny interaction, every gesture, is heroic, imbued simultaneously with a sense of tragedy and of hope. All through the day Skye continues to work on a painting, facing down death with creativity, affirming at once both the sanctity of art and the ‘every day’ nature of artistic activity.
The love scene that opens the film is rare in its tenderness. Only the comparative scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1971) comes close to the intimacy and realism with which Ferrara describes two people who love each other making love. As the countdown draws to a close, Ferrara ends with another embrace, a simple close-up of the doomed couple’s faces looking out of frame towards whatever awaits them. As the ominous glow in the sky intensifies, Skye talks them both through their fear and into death: “and we are angels, already…”. The scene is as profound an affirmation of faith as any in cinema.
Despite the respectfully restrained tone of Pasolini, the film is nevertheless emblematic of the spiritual shift in Ferrara’s work. Essentially Ferrara cleaves as closely as possible to the factual events of Pasolini’s final day. The actual places the poet and filmmaker visited on that day provide the locations, and even the clothes he wore and the books he owned are used to supplement Willem Dafoe’s shamanic performance.
However, like a negative image of Mary and 4.44, Ferrara surrounds the ‘reality’ of Pasolini’s last day – waking at the home he shared with his elderly mother, doing an interview with a journalist, eating with friends – with fictional dramatisations of excerpts from the projects he was working on at the time of his death, his novel Petrolio, and scenes from the script for his next film Porno-Teo-Kolossal. In conjunction with the interview, these glimpses into Pasolini’s imaginative life allow a deep and fully rounded portrait to emerge. A middle-aged man who lived with his mother while conducting a clandestine nocturnal life involving sex with rent boys, Ferrara remains completely non-judgemental on the contradictory nature of Pasolini himself. Indeed, by imposing no distinction between external reality and the world of imagination, Pasolini becomes the extreme embodiment of Li-Young Lee’s model of the poem, giving expression to all the apparently opposing facets of the human psyche.
The films of Terence Malick strive for a kind of Christian mysticism, in part through his ‘butterfly net’ capturing of moments of sublime natural beauty, and via the poetic use of a voice-over narration that speaks not only to the audience but to a mystical third party too. In comparison, Ferrara’s recent work embodies a kind of Taoist ‘ordinary mind’ that sees all aspects of the psyche as sacred, without distinction or favour. Rather than elevate the spiritual aspect over the sensual or corporeal, Ferrara integrates all these parts into a whole. Through theme and form, his films echo Li-Young Lee’s belief that a poem is a model of psyche just as a human being is an image of ‘God’ or cosmic presence, that they act as objects through which we can contemplate or experience Tao.
- Chung-Yuan Chang, Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art and Poetry (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011) p. 63 ↩
- In a 2015 interview with the author, the edited version of which can be seen here at The Guardian. The author wishes to thank Brad Stevens for inspiration and encouragement, and to Abel Ferrara, for his generous counsel during this brief interview: “Jus’ write whatcha feel!” ↩
- Li-Young Lee, Nativity, Book of My Nights (Rochester: BOA Editions Ltd, 2001). ↩
- Author, “The Totality of Causes: Li-Young Lee and Tina Chang in Conversation”, American Poet, 33 (Fall 2007). https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/totality-causes-li-young-lee-and-tina-chang-conversation ↩
- From email correspondence with the author, 2015 ↩
- The two made four films together during the 1990s: King of New York (1990), The Addiction (1995), The Funeral (1996), and New Rose Hotel (1998) ↩