"My Own Personal Holocaust": ABEL FERRARA Profile
[Originally published in Plastic magazine #3, Summer 1997]
Abel Ferrara was on the set of his monochrome vampire junkie opus The Addiction, when one of the backers informed his that no-one wanted to see black and white films anymore. “What about Schindler’s List?” Ferrara asked. “That was about the Holocaust,” came the answer. “Well, this is about the Holocaust,” Ferrara replied without missing a beat. “My own personal Holocaust.”
Ferrara is a weird hybrid of his New York upbringing, serious arthouse filmspeak and black gangsta rap culture. Wiry and notoriously unpredictable, he usually turns up late for interviews and leaves in the middle, if he turns up at all. He peppers hs sentences with ghetto lingo and says “motherfucker" a lot. He has also created alongside scriptwriting partner Nickolas St John ('Nicky') some of the most violent, misunderstood, erratic and yet at times brilliant genre films of the '80s and '90s.
Love him or loathe him, he remains a true original, a kind of low-rent Scorsese whose films show a distinctive and consistent vision. He always seems on the verge of the big-time, only to be shafted by studios who see his incapacity for compromise to be a major pain in the arse. They have branded him a maverick like Welles, Fuller and Peckinpah before him, rewritten and recut his movies until they are almost unrecognizable, hampered their promotion and virtually ground his career to a halt by the late '80s.
Christopher Walken saved him in 1990 with his psychotic tour-de-force in Ferrara's first critical and financial success, King Of New York. Further success followed in 1992 with Bad Lieutenant, a claustrophobic exercise in human degradation and salvation. Made for indie movie houses it secured his 'auteur' status and allowed his earlier work to be examined in a new critical light. Ferrara's name can now appear before a film's title “from the director of Driller Killer”.
Ferrara was born in 1951 into an Italian Catholic household in the Bronx. Considering his flair for controversy, surprisingly little is known of his early work as a down-and-out underground New York filmmaker. I found a review of a '70s hardcore porno called The Nine Lives Of A Wet Pussy, in which Ferrara appears pants down (but not pole-up) under his future acting moniker 'Jimmy Laine'. He may have also directed as 'Jimmy Boy B' but it doesn't appear Ferrara has much to say on the subject.
His first feature was the notorious “video nasty", Driller Killer (1979). Ferrara's common themes of damnation and salvation can be found in an opening shot of tortured artist Reno (played by Ferrara as 'Jimmy Laine') standing arms outstretched under an enormous statue of Christ. Reno's personality begins to disintegrate in his own concrete hell, impaling neighbourhood bums with a portable power drill to release his artist's block, while a tinpot no-wave punk outfit "The Roosters” rehearse endlessly in the next apartment, echoing the chaos of Reno's nightmarish existence. A wonderfully talentless assortment of girlfriends and groupies snort copious amounts of candy and improvise inanely about the CBGB scene (Iggy Pop, Dee Dee Ramone) that Ferrara was no doubt a part of.
Driller's ad campaign dumped the film into the 'Maniacs with Machines' pile alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Toolbox Murders ad nauseum. Ferrara's intended audience of oddball cinemaphiles probably never bothered to see it, although the film would become a cult curio among tke more open-minded of the gore crowd. An interesting but pretentious mess, Ferrara attacks his material with an amateur's enthusiasm, and sections of Driller... have his trademark intensity amidst the organ fondling and cranial perforations.
Ferrara struck a lucrative distribution deal for his next piece, Angel Of Vengeance (aka Ms. 45), but the film's heart is planted firmly in the sleazy grindhouse cinemas of New York's 42nd Street. Doe-eyed Zoe Tamerlis plays a mute fashion designer who is raped twice in one afternoon, first in an alley by Ferrara in a clown mask, then at gunpoint in her apartment by an intruder. In an uncharacteristic fit of rage Tamerlis splits open his head with an iron, cuts up his body in the bathtub with a breadknife and stuffs his body into bags which she then secretes around the city. Slowly losing her grip on reality, she dresses like a tramp, toting the intruder’s .45 and sealing each bullet with a kiss, blows away any poor sap who finds himself attracted to her. Tamerlis was an eccentric addition to the Ferrara camp (she would later script and star in Bad Lieutenant), insisting on conducting interviews only at 11pm at a certain New York restaurant, then making a grand entrance in Ms. 45’s cape and beret, firearm tucked into her belt.
Angel Of Vengeance was described by one critic as “Repulsion meets Death Wish” and he was dead on target. Ferrara avoids the self-conscious overuse of 'technique' in Driller Killer and walks the razors edge between art and exploitation with a master's balance. Dismissed by most as pseudo-feminist ranting or a cynical mudbath of misogeny, Angel Of Vengeance is a squalid little gem whose dubious appeal should not be overlooked.
Angel... ushered in the '80s, a period where Ferrara seemed poised to strike it big in Hollywood but was marked with one disaster after another. Hotshot producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, grandnephew of Hollywood mogul Harry Cohn, saw Ferrara's two grindhouse hits and was impressed with his potential. Cohn was looking for a director to make a gritty film-noir thriller; Nicky St John had a script already prepared for Fear City. Production began in 1984 on Ferrara’s first 'big' ($4 million budget) film and his first taste of a hostile studio system.
Ferrara soon realised Cohn wanted a trained monkey to make his own kind of film. The final product is pure flashy trash, a neon-flavoured romp through Showgirls territory and one of the least Ferrara-like of his films. Curtis ordered rewrites on seventy pages of script and controlled the final cut, and seemed more interested in Melanie Griffith crawling around naked on all fours than in Nicky St John's exploration of the morality of a killer. Little wonder Ferrara threw his macaroni salad at Curtis on one crucial day of filming, slapping his glasses off his head screaming “Don’t call me a stupid asshole!”
Fear City led to TV offers directing episodes of Miami Vice, Crime Story and the pilot of The Gladiator, a bland chunk of whitebread righteousness starring Ken Wahl, who hunts down drunk drivers in his gadget-laden pickup truck. Thankfully The Gladiator was not picked up a series and Ferrara returned to film in 1987 with China Girl, a modern New York retelling of Romeo and Juliet with switchblades, Ferrara’s personal favourite of his films. It's also one of his weakest, partly due to the casting of two hopeless teenage leads, the young Italian Tony (Richard Panebianco) who falls in love with Tye (Sari Chang) at a Little China disco. Their liason starts a race war between the two families, with beatings, assassinations and retaliations galore before the predictably tragic ending. Ferrara opted for a fairytale approach, playing the acting straight and avoiding his obsession with New York dirt and decay. But he couldn't help himself during the fight scenes - the result is an uneven combination of the “Beat It" clip and A Clockwork Orange, where the blue filtered gang ballet lurches into the gratuitous thud of sticks against skulls. The film fortunately kicks in after a customary hysterical Italian funeral scene for a final ten minutes of pure Ferrara.
His next project was an ambitious attempt to film Elmore Leonard’s political pulp noir Catchaser. Leonard’s tale of lust, greed and revenge set against a backdrop of palm trees and enchilladas is turned into a studio actioner that’s too talky, too glossy and too Hollywood for its own good. More of a footnote in Ferrara’s filmography, he freely admits he stuck too closely to the novel and didn’t concentrate on making a good film. From all reports his cut was butchered by the studio, and the film sank into video shelf oblivion.
Ferrara and St John thankfully returned to home territory in 1990 for perhaps their finest collaboration, The King Of New York. Christopher Walken had spent almost two decades playing haunted psychotics from The Deer Hunter to The Dogs Of War and The Dead Zone, but Ferrara was able to capture him at his icy best. Walken plays Frank White, a cold blooded cod-eyed killer freed from prison and determined to blast his way back to the top of New York’s drug underworld. “A dime bag is sold in the park. I want half,” he declares as he plots to donate his criminal wealth to a neighbourhood hospital. Wesley Snipes and David Caruso represent the system’s bloated failings as two self-serving cops on a personal vendetta to bring down White. Larry Fishburne and Steve Buscemi also appear as White’s coked-out henchmen.
But the real stars of the film are Ferrara’s brilliantly executed violent setpieces. A bungled police raid on White’s lair leads to a high speed car chase through Manhatten, a scene that outclasses just about every frame of Reservoir Dogs and beyond. Tarantino readily admits he plundered King Of New York’s double-gun carnage as much as John Woo and the Hong Kong film mafia.
With King..., Ferrara finally made a big-budget classic within a studio system that could never come to terms with him. Almost to spite his critical and finacial success, he sidestepped the system and would finally secure his ‘auteur’ tag with 1992’s Bad Lieutenant. Shot in true urban guerilla style in 20 days and constantly rewritten with scriptwriter Zoe Lund (formerly Tamerlis), Bad Lieutenant is wildly uneven but is the closest to ‘pure Ferrara’ we have seen yet. The Bad Lieutenant is a character based on a Ferrara rap song (“I got a wife and five kids and a house by the park and a model in heat that I keep in the dark”). The unnamed New York cop abuses his position to score dope, shoot smack, roll around with prostitutes, masturbate in front of horrified teenage girls, and eventually gambling himself into an early grave.
Harvey Keitel was born to play the role. A Polish Jew, Keitel grew up on the same Brooklyn streets as Bronx-born Catholic Ferrara, and both have worked since their early careers towards Bad Lieutenant’s philosophy, “Hell is here and now, and so is the opportunity to know heaven.” Keitel lumbers across the screen with a cathartic roar, the quintessential method actor in his most harrowing display of self-destruction.
Ferrara plundered his personal demons further in Dangerous Game (aka Snake Eyes). He betrays his leanings toward French New Wave when he describes the film as a “cross between Bad Lieutenant and [Truffaut’s self-referential] Day For Night”. Taking the latter’s cue, Keitel plays film director and Ferrara surrogate Eddie Israel on the set of his latest nightmare project “Mother Of Mirrors”. By day Israel screams at his actors (Madonna and James Russo) to find their own personal hell and lay it bare, while at night he lives his own hell as his relationships between his wife (Ferrara’s then real-life wife Nancy) and mistress Madonna crumble around him.
Dangerous Game is Ferrara’s bravest attempt to live his own art in an uncomfortably close parallel to his real-life split with his wife and mistress at the time Marla Hanson, but it’s also a bore and my least favourite film after The Gladiator.
Ferrara lightened the tone a little on his next project, a brief return to the studio system for the second middling remake of a 50s SF classic, Body Snatchers, with a distinctly non-Ferrara cast Gabrielle Anwar (Scent Of A Woman) and Meg Tilly. Nicky St John manages a few potent riffs on a well-worn frame, like the alien pods’ tendrils snaking around the sleeping victim and literally sucking the life from them. Warner’s $20 million pricetag and co-writers like genre giants Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) and Stuart Gordon (Reanimator) can’t disguise the fact that Body Snatchers is a big-budget B film. Perhaps it’s a case of ‘too many cooks’, or the suspenseful ending after an interminable build up is a case of too little too late. Maybe Ferrara’s talents lie beyond what is essentailly an old-fashioned chase flick. Whatever the reasons, Ferrara’s heart seems elsewhere.
He continued his compulsive fit of filmmaking (he has made seven films in the last seven years) with, ironically enough, The Addiction. Filmed in stark black and white, it follows a philosophy student (Lili Taylor) after being bitten by a vampire, through a downward spiral of blood lust and death. Christopher Walken plays a vampire guru figure who guides her through her strange new nihilistic universe of hunger and gratification. The Addiction is yet to receive an Australian release on either cinema screen or video, but from the production notes its vampires shooting up blood from syringes appear to be thinly disguised metaphors for a subject closer to Ferrara’s concerns.
Moral decay and redemption also echo in his next film, a barely-released take on 30s gangster epics like The Godfather. The Funeral begins with Ray and Chez Tempio (Walken again, and a superbly off-kilter Christopher Penn) accompanying the coffin of their younger brother Johnny (Vincent Gallo) to the family home. The film cuts between the preparations for Johnny’s burial and recollections of the three brothers growing up as second-rate gangsters in Prohibition-era New York. Walken believes himself to be beyond salvation as he executes his brother’s killer in cold blood; Penn is an unstable schizophrenic whose increasingly irrational brutality sets up the inevitable downbeat fianle. Ferrara and St John offer their bleakest scenario to date, a doomed world of cornered souls that comments on the moral bankruptcy of an atheist society turning to rot.
His latest, The Blackout, is currently doing the overseas festival circuit, and sounds like Ferrara has no intentions of mellowing with age. He promises a drug-fueled Hitchcock ride into darkness with Claudia Schiffer and a bald-headed Dennis Hopper who supposedly out-Hoppers his Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Critics will be divided, mainstream audiences will stay away in droves, and Ferrara will laugh, call them all “motherfuckers” and jump back into his own private abyss.