The Addiction, King of New York, Fear City, The Funeral.
Just reading some of the titles on Abel Ferrara's resume of squalid and dark
urban film fables tinges this director's name with a pornographic piquancy.
after reading Nick Johnstone's engaging film/biography on the difficult,
temperamental, renegade - and romantic - Ferrara, we catch a glimpse as to why
he became who he is. He flagrantly cultivated his creative eye from the equally
difficult and breathtakingly innovative work of realist-symbolist directors like
Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard, Polish auteur Roman Polanski, Italian Pier Paolo
Pasolini and the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
while these international groundbreakers may have stoked his youthful creative
fire, in truth, he's still more a product of the Bronx, where he was born on
July 19, 1951, and the films of his own outlaw ouevre including Martin Scorsese,
Paul Schrader and James Toback, a trio of bad-boy survivors who glorified the
gritty urban street violence, shifting sex roles and disenchantment that tainted
a generation tattooed by the idealistic, hedonistic '60s.
tells us that Ferrara hated his youth and struggled to find his niche. He went
to movies and married early just to find that one escape route was salvation -
and the other both muse and misery. Like Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, his focus
and more instrumental relationship was with another man - Nicholas St. John -
who has written the most complex of the Ferrara film screenplays.
first half of Johnstone's book is the best. Maybe it's because we aren't as
privy to the early works (though ironically, Ferrara's latest films aren't
readily accessible either. Two of his latest movies, Blackout, which
stars Matthew Modine is only available through Video Source in Miami and Blue
Rose Hotel, which received release earlier this year in France has no
scheduled opening date in the States) like The Driller Killer, Fear
City and Ms. 45.
Johnstone lovingly provides a detailed plot line for all of Ferrara's films.
Still, there is clearly some attachment to these seminal and defining - as well
as defiant - early works, which, though they have pulled from other sources,
also eventually provided a pointof departure for recent films like Mute
Witness. For it's here that Ferrara found his voice. Though he has always
proven to be a prickly pear with censors (he's largely banned in England)
Ferrara is a director who welcomes a certain amount of input from his actors and
is alternately hurt when audiences don't understand his voice.
may be that he has to trust (and trust is a key word in his psychological
profile) before he can let go of control. Frequent collaborator, actor
Christopher Walken, who has starred in four of the director's projects, has
praised the improvisational atmosphere on the set of King of New York. On
the “Bravo Arts” program, Inside the Actor's Studio, he claimed he
and Wesley Snipes were often allowed freedom to create their own scenario:
"Okay, there's a body in the trunk. I'm gonna open it. What are you
gonna say?" said the actor as he recounted a day on the set. But to others
not familiar with Ferrara's style and hands-on approach, life on a Ferrara film
set could be hell if the arbitrary director was suffering from a frequent
hangover or bad mood.
he's a guy who at least is amenable to redemption for his characters. Like most
Catholics, Ferrara is inbred with an inordinate amount of guilt and repression,
combined with sexual suffering that pushes him to purge his demons through films
that alternately combine great beauty and innocence (and even romanticism) with
punishment, pain, ugliness and stark, dark realism and denigration.
are some terrific bits in Johnstone's book about Harvey Keitel, who after
reading the script of The Bad Lieutenant, arguably Ferrara's most
repulsive and beautiful film, didn't want to play the character. But when his
marriage to actress Lorraine Bracco suddenly broke up, he found that he had to
find a way to forgive. Making the film was his conduit and therapy.
Johnstone ultimately resorts to redundancy to keep his critical analysis of Ferrara's work from flagging but he's good at capturing the mood, fury and thunder of a particular film as well as dismissing that which isn't very interesting on the director's resume (like his TV work on series like Miami Vice and Gladiator). But like many literary-movie infusions, Johnstone's book almost parallels Ferrara's career in film. Abel Ferrara hasn't yet expunged or exorcised his personal psychological hells and vices. He just slightly changes the milieu of every project in order to circuitously come back to the same place to again nibble away at the same despair from a new angle. Johnstone likewise must rely upon the reconstruction of old in order to explain the new. I can't say this book is a boring read because it certainly isn't -- it’s fascinating and well-written, but it just is doomed to suffer the sin of the subject matter.