This annual October series considers the consequences of when international auteurs reknowned for excellence in the field of le cinema dip their toes in the chilly waters of the disreputable horror genre; an exploration of what happens when Werner Herzog or Jim Jarmusch takes on vampirism, Nicholas Roeg dreams about killer dwarves, Philip Kaufman gets paranoid about pod people, Ingmar Bergman howls at the moon or Michael Powell indulges his voyeurism fetish. A series about the beautiful collision of grindhouse and art-house.
abel ferrara, 1995.
“I’m rotting inside, but I’m not dying. I could go on like this forever.”
When you have a religious epiphany, it doesn’t happen gradually. You just wake up one day and you’re a True Believer.
That’s what happened to me with Abel Ferrara. I never liked his films and then one day, Holy Christ, (BANG!), I was a goddamned acolyte.
It was late in the summer of 2007. Anthology Film Archives was running a cult 80’s series, I think focusing on films made in NYC - I went, more or less just to stay out of the heat in the East Village, to see Ms. 45, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager and hadn’t much liked, but always felt like I should like and back then I habitually broke up my wandering downtown by going into whatever repertory movie was showing at one of the theaters in the neighborhood.
It was a 9:30 p.m. screening and Ferrara showed up.
Up until the moment of conversion, I didn’t like his movies - I didn’t like his movies because I didn’t understand what he was. Or I guess more honestly, I was wrong about what he was. I thought I had his number and I was wrong. It might seem strange to include him in a series focusing filmmaking auteurs who aren’t horror auteurs - after all, he made one of the most notorious video nasties (Driller Killer), a seminal rape-revenge film (Ms. 45), a pulpy serial killer flick (Fear City) and a remake of an all-time classics (Body Snatchers.) But suffocating Ferrara’s artistic identity in that way won’t take. It’s the wrong read of him.
He’s a filmmaker it’s easy to be wrong about because what he’s selling, when sold, is usually bullshit. Him being the real deal is like discovering a Big Tent faith healer who can actually perform miracles, that the touch to the forehead that collapses the sick and enfeebled only to see them rise in healthful wholeness isn’t a performance of flailing limbs and audience plants, but an honest-to-shit Act of God.
From the start, I didn’t like Ferrara because I didn’t like The Bad Lieutenant, one of the many “Sons of Mean Streets” (as John Pierson dubbed them) that flooded the market in the early 90’s. The wave of Scorsese imitators included semi-forgotten “hot talents” like Rob Weiss, Nick Gomez and C.M. Talkington, but also Tarantino and Ferrara. Bad Lieutenant* was the centerpiece in the comeback of the Mean Streets Godhead, Harvey Keitel. The film was a perversion of the thankless “gruff cop” type-casting the actor had fallen into and more than fit in with all the cheap, dumb Scorsese knock-offs polluting the era.
Hal Hartley famously said “At film schools, you have all these kids from the suburbs who are writing gangster films that take place in the city. And that's so far removed from them... They should be writing stories about sitting on their couch watching gangster films.” At the time, I wrote off Bad Lieutenant as another empty gesture, another knock-off, although one with an unusually large (and unwelcome) amount of Cassavetes-aping over-acting; a more than usual amount of chest-pounding and crying as Keitel attempted to perform his emotions like a kid discovering Method Acting at theater camp.
I thought it was a big load of shit. Like Rob Weiss. Like Quentin Tarantino. An imitation of movies the filmmakers had seen, not expression of something they felt or knew or believed. Too slick in its transgressions, too enthusiastic in its depravity; a performance of spiritual anguish, a puppet show of moral sickness. Weightless as only the emptiest pastiches can be.
But then Ferrara walked into that screening of Ms. 45 and I was wrong. Before he even got started, he expressed repeated, antic, disappointed surprise that people were there watching his movie when simultaneously, Brett Favre was making his debut for the New York Jets. “Brett Favre! Brett Favre!” He repeated over and over in his thick, slurring Bronx accent. “I bet $500 on this game and you’re here watchin’ a fuckin’ movie I made a million years ago? You’re crazy. Brett Favre!”
This was about a preseason game. He had bet $500 on a preseason game.
He was eating something - I couldn’t tell what it was - out of a greasy paper wrapper and jumping from topic to topic with no concern for the audience’s reaction. The Bad Lieutenant remake had recently been announced, so he offered his thoughts on Nicolas Cage: “The kid’s a loser. The kidsa loser.”
On Werner Herzog: “I’ve never heard of this guy, but this fuckin’ guy thinks he can fuck with Zoë’s movie? Fuck him.”
He moved on to speak at length about Ms. 45’s 17 year-old star, Zoë Lund (aka Zoë Tamarlis.) He was relentlessly profane and told stories about her heroin usage that would have made Richard Pryor blush (she used to sit at a typewriter working on the script The Bad Lieutenant with a needle fixed in her arm and as she’d nod off, he’d push the plunger in; she’d wake up and start typing again)** - his stories about her adventures in Hollywood, specifically about Warren Beatty trying (unsuccessfully) to fuck her, were awe-ful.
But more than anything, he spoke about her with real love. A real, grimy, street, no-bullshit love. It’s weird to think about and even harder for me to write about (because I have no talent for that real, grimy, no-bullshit style) but just remembering Ferrara talking about Zoë makes me want to cry. Of course her addictions killed her. Of course she wrote The Bad Lieutenant. Of course he loved her.
And that’s it. You wake up the next day and you’re a goddamned disciple.
The Addiction came at a point in Ferrara’s career when it wasn’t clear what he was going to be. It was easy to misunderstand Bad Lieutenant because up until that point, he hadn’t displayed the most stable artistic identity. Notoriously, he began his career in the late 70’s directing pornography under a pseudonym, but he hated the experience. He even performed in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy as a last-second replacement, telling The Guardian, “It's bad enough paying a guy $200 to fuck your girlfriend, then he can't get it up."
From there, he made a pair of pure exploitation films, Driller Killer and Ms. 45., the first steps on a journeyman’s wander: episodes of Miami Vice, a badly butchered DTV Elmore Leonard adaptation, a “modern day Romeo & Juliet.” His personality started to emerge with 1990’s King of New York, a seedy, quintessentially NYC crime film. Although the movie’s fun and massively influential in the world of hip-hop, in some ways it feels like throat-clearing: a pulpier, more formulaic tune-up for Bad Lieutenant, the next film on his docket.
And that one was the breakthrough. It changed his career’s trajectory - it was taken as a given that it announced an exciting new artist; it was one of the rawer and more unsettling works in the emerging guns-n’-genre obsessed American Indie 90’s, qualities that made it all the more Important. But instead of following Lieutenant with an obviously personally meaningful film befitting his newly minted status as an auteur, Ferrara instead did a big budget sci-fi remake for Warner Brothers, a puzzling take on Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers (which had already been adapted by Don Siegel in 1956 and subsequently remade by Phillip Kaufman in 1978) that moved the story from an anonymous suburb to a deep South military base.
Critics twisted themselves into knots trying to like it (it was even an official selection in Cannes) but audiences hated it, especially the science fiction fans who adored the first two movies, and the studio dumped it ignominiously on a handful of screens.
Had Bad Lieutenant been a fluke? His next film, Dangerous Game (a.k.a. Snake Eyes), sure wanted to make you think that was the case: starring Madonna in her “hey, I’m a movie star, too!” phase, the NC-17 rated film plays like a bad imitation of what Ferrara seems to have thought people responded to in The Bad Lieutenant. It’s moody and narratively formless; it’s sexually-charged in a deeply ugly way. It stars Harvey Keitel.
Body Snatchers was his attempt at using his newly-found artistic cache to jump to genre-filmmaking for the studios. It didn’t take. Dangerous Game was his go at doing the kind of Serious Movie the guy who made Bad Lieutenant might make. That didn’t take either.
His next film, 1995’s The Addiction, is the film where Ferrara finally figured out how to be Abel Ferrara.
Which is not to say it’s his best film or even maybe that it’s a good film, but what it unmistakably is, is an Abel Ferrara film: filmed on the streets of New York, featuring a rap and Vivaldi soundtrack, produced by Russell Simmons, with cameos by a slew of Ferrara regulars like Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra and Michael Imperioli. Stylistically aggressive, it’s bluntly filmed in black & white. It’s relentlessly obsessed with Catholic themes of guilt and sin, the meaning of evil and the possibility of humanity transcending its worst aspects - there is no way to make a movie more quintessentially Ferrara. He’s the only filmmaker who would have Edie Falco team up with Onyx’s Fredro Starr in orchestrating a vampiric orgy of bloodlust. Staged at a party for a young woman receiving her doctorate of philosophy from NYU.
The movie leans into the obvious metaphor of vampirism as addiction: the main character, played by Lili Taylor, gets her first few fixes by shooting herself up with blood stolen from nodded off victims (rather than biting them.) There’s no getting around it’s unmistakably about Zoë Lund on some level: the young, brilliant, uncontrollable intellectual girl who thinks she can conquer New York City with philosophy and a needle. It’s a film about being young and brilliant in New York City and consciously rejecting the ethical systems in place around you, about being the kind of young and brilliant person who has a deeply held set of convictions about what it means to get fucked up, the kind of young and brilliant person who brazenly steps beyond the boundaries set up for them and gets annihilated.
Lund, who had a falling out with Ferrara around the time of their big shared success, died a couple years after The Addiction was made. It’s impossible not to see her in Taylor’s character: enthralled by the fury of her own intelligence, empowered by her disillusionment, strung out.
Because it is a film about Lund, The Addiction feels personal, like the work of Ferrara and no one else - even though on the surface it might make sense to lump it in with his other genre work, it couldn’t have less to do with Fear City or Body Snatchers. Sure, it retains all of the sub-genre’s tropes about mirrors and consecrated ground and a fatal allergy to daylight, but its relentless pontificating, its constant use of Holocaust, Vietnam and Middle Eastern war-zone imagery, its Catholic insistences about sin and guilt, its vision of all the Zoë Lunds we’ve known in our lives, all of these artistic gestures overtake and strangle any resemble to his journeyman work.
It’s a movie that’s pretentious. Using Taylor’s status as a philosophy grad student as a cover, it spews endless references to Heiddgger, Sartre, Burroughs, Baudelaire, Feuerbach, Descartes, in dialog, in voice-over, in literal lectures and during her dissertation exam. And if it doesn’t always work, if sometimes the ceaseless overblown philosophizing occasionally makes you cringe, it doesn’t matter. It’s a good thing. Because it represents Ferrara embracing the freedoms of his auteur status, embracing the truth that his films can now be directly about these things, his films can now be directly about the ideas and fears and obsessions that have always consumed him.***
The Funeral can have asides about Communism and labor organizing. He can explore the dense, speculative science fiction of William Gibson. In Mary, he can reset the thematic and narrative structure of Dangerous Game more in line with his beliefs about faith, art and selling out. Go-Go Tales can explicate the relationship between money and moral debasement in a seedy strip club. A film based around a series of heavily philosophical interviews Pasolini gave just before his death can exist because The Addiction, mess that it is, exists.
But maybe more than that, the blossom of Ferrara’s lovable “fuck you” attitude grew from The Addiction’s unashamed embrace of intellectualizing bohemianism. It’s a movie that really, truly, absolutely, I'm serious, does not care what you think of it. Taylor’s performance is grotesque and raw and repellent and true.**** Walken’s cameo is unforgettable, a kind of Nicolas Cage-style mega-acting that never comes untethered. Cypress Hill plays under a rumination on conservative Catholic theology. Lines like “Existence is the search for release from our habit and our habit is the release we can find” fill the scenes from margin to margin. The movie castigates us all for our feeble disinterest in resisting sin and calls us all collaborators with genocide, accuses us of being zombified addicts to human evil.
In the final scene, after failing to kill herself and then receiving communion from a priest, Taylor’s character places a single rose on her own grave, in broad daylight.
I have no idea what this scene means.
I don’t know if the character is supposed to have mastered her addiction (as Walken’s character implied is possible), if it’s some kind of a fantasy sequence, if Ferrara doesn’t want for it to be concretely intelligible in terms of the story. I just have no idea. And I’m glad I don’t because it’s the kind of gesture made by a filmmaker in pursuit of an artistic ideal only they can see. It’s the gesture of a fearless filmmaker, one that reminds me of the Cassavetes quote about Love Streams, “If you don't have time to see it, don't. If you don't like it, don't. If it doesn't give you an answer, fuck you. I didn't make it for you anyway.” Even if you can’t exactly see what Ferrara is after in The Addiction, what he’s about, it’s still a film that makes you want to trust.
Being an acolyte sometimes means blind devotion sustained a belief in the promise of revelation. Fortunately I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t have to wait for death to have my faith repaid. Instead, The Addiction foretold the coming career of an unhinged genius, a prophecy which has since come to pass. It’s all enough to make me want to bet on preseason games.
~ OCTOBER 7, 2016 ~
* Monkey Trouble, made two years after Bad Lieutenant (and Reservoir Dogs), was the comeback’s crowning achievement, if not its centerpiece.
** Her friend Richard Hell told The White Review, "I've known a lot of serious drug users, but Zoë was Queen. You've got to admire someone as committed to it as she was. She didn't just love heroin, she believed in it.” Which is a quote I think about a lot.
*** There’s no place for me to put it, so I'm just throwing it in as a random footnote, basically unrelated to the clause to which it is attached: I highly recommend you get some old fashioned physical media style DVD’s of his films and listen to the commentary tracks. 1) They’re fuckin' hilarious. 2) If you put on a fairly confusing/oblique film like ‘R Xmas you will come out more confused than you did before you started. 3) They’ll make you forgive everything. 4) Good, semi-coherent stories about Ice-T and Christopher Walken.
**** A little aside about the actors in Ferrara’s films: most of his work contains an amount of aesthetic instability and unevenness that is smoothed over by a ferocious central performance. Whatever its flaws, it’s impossible to give up on The Addiction because Taylor is just too good in it. The same can be said for Pasolini & Willem Dafoe or even Keitel in The Bad Lieutenant. The most striking example is Ms. 45, where a dull script and semi-competent filmmaking are entirely put over by Lund’s work. Because of her eerie, suggestive, engrossing peformance, it’s a film that feels almost ludicrous to criticize, even if close scrutiny does it absolutely no favors. For comparison, look at Driller Killer, the similar exploitation film Ferrara made just before Ms. 45. It’s terrible and Ferrara casting himself in the lead role means there’s only the mushy mess with no forceful artistic element for the weak material to organize itself around. His very best work, like ‘R Xmas, Welcome to New York, Mary and The Funeral are jammed across the board with excellent performances that make his sprawl and rambling philosophical-political wandering into a virtue.