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In this concise study, Nicole Brenez argues for Abel Ferrara’s place in a line of grand inventors who have blurred distinctions between industry and avant-garde film, including Orson Welles, Monte Hellman, and Nicholas Ray. Rather than merely reworking genre film, Brenez understands Ferrara’s oeuvre as formulating new archetypes that depict the evil of the modern world. Focusing as much on the human figure as on elements of storytelling, she argues that films such as Bad Lieutenant express this evil through visionary characters struggling against the inadmissible (inadmissible behavior, morality, images, and narratives).
Some Ethical Stakes in Ferrara's Cinema
To represent is already a murder. -Georges Bataille (1952)
American Boy, European Friends
Abel Ferrara is to cinema what Joe Strummer is to music: a poet who justifies the existence of popular forms. Without them, the genre film or the pop song would be no more than objects of cultural consumption. In this material world run on injustice and terror, where "popular" is confused with "industrial," any cultural expression that does not hurl an angry cry or wail a song of mad love (often one and the same) merely collaborates in the regulation and preservation of this world. Is Ferrara, along with Jim Jarmusch, Tsui Hark, and Kinji Fukasaku, right to (even accidentally) redeem genre cinema? Would it not be preferable for them to desert the dirty terrain of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer named the "culture industry" and, like Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage, invent their own territories, forms, and artistic gestures?
Ferrara's films offer an answer. How could anyone except a melancholic criminal speak to us in the name of the good (King of New York; 1990)? Who but a paranoid cop could make us believe for a second in the virtues of forgiveness (Bad Lieutenant; 1992)? Who today could bear to listen to a moral lesson if itwas not acted out by a drug-addicted, leprous vampire (The Addiction; 1995)? Who could interest us, even for a moment, in the tired old questions of the family unit or the individual? Who could continue to arouse in us a desperate faith in sacrifice and love, unless they were almost autistic, completely crazed, haunted figures within films that cultivate advanced arguments concerning the need to destroy all filmic forms?
Ferrara was born on 19 July 1951 to an Italian American father (who turned from being a bookmaker to a stockbroker) and an Irish American mother. He is the youngest of six children, with five sisters. The Esposito family (renamed Ferrara by Abel's grandfather after he emigrated to the United States) originates in Salerno, south of Naples. Ferrara studied at the Sacred Heart Catholic School in the Bronx: "You were in, like, the front row and there was this giant crucifix, about eight feet tall, dripping blood." In 1966, the family moved to the Peekskill district. At Lakeland High School, Ferrara met Nicodemo Oliverio (a.k.a. Nicholas St. John) and John Paul McIntyre. He and St. John formed a rock band, bought an eight-millimeter camera, and made their first ten-minute short, "The story of a kid who liked getting drunk with his friends." Ferrara returned to New York to study cinema at the State University of New York at Purchase and made a series of very short films (one or two minutes each) on Super 8 and sixteen-millimeter, devised as protests against the Vietnam War. As part of his studies he spent a year in Britain, where he participated in his first professional thirty-five-millimeter shoot for the BBC. Then he returned to New York and reunited with St. John; together they started writing and making films and playing music.
Ferrara's oeuvre can be read as a critical revitalization of the codes of genre cinema. He has tackled almost every popular genre: pornography (9 Lives of a Wet Pussy; 1976), gore (The Driller Killer; 1979), the rape-revenge movie (Ms .45, a.k.a. Angel of Vengeance; 1981), the thriller and film noir (Fear City, 1984; China Girl, 1987; King of New York, and Bad Lieutenant), the television cop series (two episodes of Miami Vice, 1985; The Gladiator, 1986; and Crime Story, 1986), science fiction (Body Snatchers, 1993; New Rose Hotel, 1998), fantasy-horror (The Addiction; 1995), the film-within-a-film (Dangerous Game, a.k.a. Snake Eyes, 1993; The Blackout, 1997), and historical re-creation (The Funeral, 1996; 'R Xmas, 2001.) Even music video has not escaped Ferrara's enterprise ("California"; 1996). Ferrara has now announced, among several projects that may be shot in Italy, that he will direct a comedy titled Go-Go Tales.
This critical interrogation of generic codes resembles neither a stylish reworking nor a simple exposure of cinematic clichés. It is a matter of formulating, thanks to an arsenal of basic, immediately comprehensible archetypes, certain primal, practical, and troubling questions. What are the limits of identity? What is an individual? What is a social subject? What are we conscious of? What are we responsible for? Adrian Martin has put it well: "Every problem in Ferrara's films is a social problem, a problem endemic to the formation and maintenance of a human community."
It is telling that Ferrara made his most violently inventive film-tract when he was unwisely let loose at the heart of the Hollywood system. Body Snatchers, in this regard, forms a crucial diptych with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997). Ferrara's work introduces disorder into a cynical world; misunderstandings begin here, since some critics attribute this disorder to the films themselves. His films are increasingly accused of being badly made, murkily motivated, and confused-especially The Blackout and New Rose Hotel.
Crucially, there is no "angelism" in relation to evil and negation in Ferrara, no implicit belief in an ideal perfection or state of innocence. If scarcely a trace of utopia or any radical counterproposition can be detected, this is at least as much due to a fidelity to the negative as to the fact that everything in this world is already in a state of ecstasy, exaltation, and pure inebriation. As Ferrara said of Thana (Zoë Lund, née Tamerlis), the heroine of Ms .45: "Beyond the reasons that this girl has to kill-revenge, justice, all that-there is also pleasure of a sexual kind in violence." So which is more cruel, the cynical world, or the man who merrily draws from it for his films, without pretending to change anything?
The aesthetic limitations of Ferrara's work are obvious. His cinema needs characters, narrative, mise en scène, and genre. More precisely and intensely, he needs the irreducible element at the heart of each of these modes: archetype, fable, staging, and standard imagery, respectively. As for Ferrara's public image, it is fascinating to the extent that it offers a smokescreen for the work itself. In the 2003 catalog for the cinephilic Locarno Film Festival, Ferrara is presented as "deranged." For the press, he will always be that big kid (now more than fifty years old) who strums his guitar instead of answering questions, lives in a perpetually dishevelled state, and leads journalists to the heights of poetically burlesque absurdity.
In the range of figures allowed by the culture industry, Ferrara occupies the place of the "maverick"-half-Dionysus by virtue of his cultlike devotion to alcohol, half-Orpheus by virtue of the lyre that never leaves his side. Just as Madonna, Lili Taylor, and Béatrice Dalle have come to replace Marilyn Monroe, Frances Farmer, and Mae West in their public personae, Ferrara is reassuringly inscribed in the line of those grand eccentrics who maintain the fragile continuity between the industry and the avant-garde: Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Orson Welles (a photo of whom decorates Ferrara's bedroom), and Nicholas Ray.
Ferrara calls himself the "master of provocation." His oeuvre affirms the value of explosive outbursts. In the script for Mary (first written in 2000 and subsequently reworked)-the central subject of which is the shooting of a film about Jesus-the director, James, threatens the projectionist, forcing him to continue a screening; he ends up watching the film alone, gun in hand. For Ferrara, images are a matter of life and death. Whether one creates or simply looks at a film, it must constitute an event in the existential sense of the word. He once stated, "You should be willing to die for a film." But why accord such importance to images, to the realm of the symbolic? And how to deal with the requirements of such an exacting and lofty position?
This book is the fruit of an annual seminar devoted to Ferrara's work that I have been teaching at Université Paris I since 1996. I have been able to measure, over this time, the constant enthusiasm elicited in students and guests (some of them filmmakers) by Ferrara's films. Each two-monthly encounter is dedicated to a different dimension of the Ferraran corpus-for example, "The Dreamer Killer" in 1998-99, "Evil without Flowers: Ferrara and the History of Theories of Evil from the Ancient Greeks to Hannah Arendt" in 1999-2000, or "Right, Liberty, and Criminal Life" in 2003-4. This book does not terminate the analysis. We can see here one sign among many of the interest in and admiration for Ferrara shown over many years by French and other European cinephiles. His first major interview appeared, under the title "American Boy," in a 1988 issue of La Revue du cinéma, thanks to Alain Garel and François Guérif. The Cinémathèque Française, under Jean-François Rauger's initiative, organized a comprehensive retrospective of Ferrara's career in 2003. In Italy, the first monographs on the director were produced in 1997, followed by several book-length studies. The Venice Film Festival has often honored Ferrara's films: Chris Penn received an acting award for The Funeral, while New Rose Hotel received the International Critics' Award. Critical recognition of the same order has occurred in Ireland, Austria, and Germany. In Britain, Brad Stevens dedicated five years to writing and researching a magisterial reference book, Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision.
Appreciative American commentaries are not entirely absent, starting with the essays and in-depth interviews by Gavin Smith and Kent Jones. Yet it seems that Ferrara's work has encountered enormous resistance in the United States, where his four most recent films (The Blackout, New Rose Hotel, 'R Xmas, and Mary ) have hardly been screened in cinemas. Asked what he would do if 'R Xmas failed to achieve American distribution, Ferrara responded with his customary drollness: "'We burn the negative. We eat the negative with tomato sauce. On D. W. Griffith's grave.'" Moreover, when a Ferrara film is produced and distributed by the American industry, it does not necessarily fare any better. As Jonathan Rosenbaum commented in 1994, "ertain studios perversely want certain good films to fail, e.g., most recently and blatantly, Paramount and Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love, and Warner Brothers and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers." I want to show why the culture industry has good reason to repress Ferrara, just as it repressed Orson Welles, Monte Hellman, and Charles Chaplin.
There are three essential propositions underlying Ferrara's work:
1. Modern cinema exists to come to grips with contemporary evil. On this level, Ferrara's enterprise renews for the twenty-first century what Roberto Rossellini accomplished for the twentieth. To respond to this challenge, Ferrara's work produces forms of synthesis at the levels of the individual films and the sum of his work as a whole. From a thematic viewpoint, his work explores the articulation of two of the century's emblematic criminal logics, the Mafia and capitalism.
2. In contrast to other filmmakers who are drawn to the same conception of history-that the only story is the story of evil-Ferrara follows an optimistic conception, thus preserving a sense of tragedy. This gives rise to the elaboration of characters who are in revolt, whether political (revolutionaries) or psychic (the great tormented). Such characters pose anew the question of the individual, but they all derive from the prototype of the visionary.
3. The treatment of historic evil requires the invention of filmic forms that express what is inadmissible in terms of behavior, morality, narrative, image, sound, and especially in terms of architechtonic and compositional invention. Provocative storylines (concerning murder, injury, apparent amorality, rape, and violence of every kind) are merely the currency of a structure of inadmissibility, the reign of injustice. Ferrara's work seeks to elucidate the basic elements of this structure in terms of an economy that is at once psychic and political.
Ferrara's System: Synthetic Genius and Kinetic Forms
Figurative Synthesis Two films manifest Ferrara's genius for figurative synthesis in a particularly clear way: Body Snatchers and The Addiction. (Plot synopses for all films analyzed can be found in the filmography.)
The "snatching" principle lends itself to an infinite play of metaphors. Discussing Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which has so far inspired three films (with a fourth reportedly on the way), Ferrara declared: "The book-it's beautiful. It's a metaphor like an image in a million mirrors-y'know what I mean? It's infinite." His version of the Body Snatchers story covers at least three dimensions of human experience: it is a "family romance" (a teenaged girl symbolically kills off her family); a futuristic essay on industrial pollution and global militarization; and a retrospective meditation on "Hiroshima man," in which all is shadow, a "haunted outline," where every silhouette can only be envisaged from the viewpoint of its imminent disappearance. This is figurative work on the most violent act of aggression ever inflicted upon humanity. Body Snatchers asks the historical question, What can the destruction of Hiroshima or Nagasaki tell us about the liberal, democratic society responsible for it? Its collective political question is, What can the individual do when faced with the deathly logics at work in the industrial standardization of the entire world? And its intimate, biological question is, What is revealed to us by this dream of a teenaged girl, Marti (Gabrielle Anwar)-a lethal fable invented so that she can do away with her brother, mother, and father-about the life-drive, the reproductive function of which she supposedly embodies?
How does the film interrelate these three dimensions? This can be determined clearly in the sequence depicting the Malone family arriving and setting itself up at the military base. The father, Steve (Terry Kinney), is about to lead a scientific inquiry into the toxicity of certain chemical weapons. Two worlds are depicted in parallel montage: the private world of the family with its warm, childlike atmosphere, and the dark, menacing world of the military camp. The latter is presented via a successive piling-up of collective evils: general world pollution; an explicit reference to the history of armed conflict, namely the first Gulf War (General Platt [R. Lee Ermey] reproaches Steve, "You know absolutely nothing about biological and chemical warfare"); an allusion to Nazism, via the nocturnal spiriting away of an anonymous victim by a fearsome commando unit; a triple superimposition of military, industrial, and criminal orders; and a reference to Hiroshima in the striking, spatially mismatched shot of three soldiers' shadows in the dust behind the kneeling Steve. These shadows inscribed in the toxic dirt-recalling the outlines of bodies imprinted onto Hiroshima's walls-anchor the figurative treatment of the snatchers as sketches, obscure silhouettes and undecidable effigies within a specific historical abomination.
The question of the scene thus becomes, What is the relation between the two universes, intimate (the family) and collective (war)? Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) forges this link when he asks Steve, in the middle of the latter's examination for toxic chemicals, "Can they affect the brain patterns? Can they interfere with chemo-neurological processes? ... Simply, can they alter a person's view of reality?" This is the practical question explored by every Ferrara film: How does evil attach itself to bodies and the psyche? In Body Snatchers, this question immediately receives a doubly affirmative response: evil attaches itself to bodies by spatial invasion, when a troop of soldiers instantly arrives to deposit suspicious boxes in the Malone home (the paternal bedroom thus becomes a toxic depot), and by mental invasion, when all the children in day care except Andy (Reilly Murphy) hold up their identical drawings of bloody viscera, evidence of the barbaric confiscation of their imaginaries.
From this example, the method of Ferrara's style can be deduced. It proceeds by a figurative and kinetic synthesis. The film ceaselessly establishes links between phenomena by way of circuits of propagation, contamination, and invasion. Body Snatchers begins this process by describing the destruction of intimacy by collective evil in order to deepen our understanding of the way in which intimacy is itself invaded by the germs of hatred and cruelty. As we will see, this is what is at stake in the film's depiction of the maternal.
Excerpted from Abel Ferrara by Nicole Brenez Copyright © 2007 by University of Illinois Press. Excerpted by permission.
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