Film

Abel Ferrara: The scariest filmmaker in New York

Abel Ferrara (1951, Bronx NY). Growing up, and wanting to be a filmmaker myself one day, Ferrara wasn’t a director who I understood or had much regard for, but I respected because it seemed he’d made a deliberate choice (possibly he had no option) to stay outside the mainstream, and instead make films that would offend and cause controversy among audiences and critics.

In several interviews he’d described the film industry in the 1980s as being alittle like Mel Brook’s The Producers, in which greedy distributors at Goldman Sach could make money from tax losses if a movie bombed at the box office. And this was how he got his first film Driller Killer (1979) financed, his only other work before this was several short films and a porno called 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976).

Perhaps, like Roman Polanski and David Lynch, it was this which would set him on the path to becoming a cult/arthouse filmmaker, although Lynch and Polanski would both achieve the critical acclaim and commercial success in Hollywood that Ferrara has never had. Today his work such as King of New York, Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant and Ms.45 are now considered solid classics of Independent Cinema of the eighties and nineties by fans and critics alike, even Martin Scorsese called Bad Lieutenant one of the best films of the nineties.

Ferrara would also complain how critics at the New York Film Festival would reject and criticize his films, in fact in academic books on the subject Ferrara’s films are often omitted or dismissed as violent exploitation with little artistic merit (Geoff Andrew Stranger Than Paradise), although Sight&Sound had given an interesting exploration of the expressionist style and horror themes in King of New York (1990).

Ferrara had also worked and been friends with other directors from New York or whose worked explored similar themes, such as Scorsese, Michael Mann (Miami Vice 1984, Crime Story 1986) and Spike Lee.

Although Ferrara resented the criticism from the New York Festival, he said he could understand why people were angry or rejected his films. As a person, although educated, intelligent and passionate, his persona appears chaotic and self-destructive, and his characters reflect this violent and unruly nature, normally through a gritty, Noirish and seedy camera lens.

His 1993 film A Dangerous Game explored this paradox by casting Harvey Keitel as a director exploring themes of sex, addiction and self-destruction in which the characters (Madonna and James Russo) play actors essentially playing themselves making a film. Clearly influenced by Ferrara’s hero the French auteur Jean-Luc-Godard (Tout Va Bien, 1972), who’d deconstructed the filmmaking and narrative storytelling process, the film’s star Madonna and critics would dismiss it as pretentious ‘shit’, and Ferrara would probably agree with this remark.

In other interviews, Ferrara has said that the best time for independent filmmaking, in terms of finance, was between 1991-1996, in which he’d had some critical and commercial success with Bad Lieutenant (92), Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (93), The Funeral (96) and The Addiction (95). Interestingly, following a decline in popularity, and after relocating to Italy where he is no doubt considered an ‘auteur’, he would find critical success and inspiration in his later career with such films as Welcome to New York (2014), Pasolini (2014), 4.44:The Last Day on Earth (2011), Go Go Tales (2007), Mary (2005), Chelsea on the Rocks (2008) and Napoli (2009). Perhaps, despite the bitter snub from Hollywood and critics whom never gave him anything, as he bitterly jibes on the commentary for King, he admits makes films to earn a living and, perhaps, because he wouldn’t know what else to do.

Ferrara seems like a director he struggles to be an artist, remains a starving artist, but has a love of true cinema, such as that of Scorsese, Kubrick and the French New Wave, and has tried to be as uncompromising and truthful to his artistic vision, but consequently paid the price for pursuing this. For example, Ferrara claims to have spent five years developing the script with resident scriptwriter Nicolas St John, and would spend hours designing the shots on King to make it look ‘perfect’, but which he’d said was a nightmare and would never do again.

This is evident with King, in which he’d had a budget of six million dollars, which was probably the largest budget he’d ever received during his turbulent career. The film caused almost as much controversy as his followup feature Bad Lieutenant through its ‘glamorous’ depiction of sex, violence and drug-crime, but along with New Jack City and Boyz In The Hood, heralded a new contemporary style of gangster film exploring racism, gang culture and hiphop music. During the commentary for the film, which many consider a cult classic and possibly his best film, he criticises it as a ‘bullshit Hollywood genre’ and although he’s proud of the work, admits alot was just unrealistic fantasy. It was inspired by the gang violence and drug crime that appeared during the 1980s and which many gangster rappers such as Biggie Smalls and 50 Cent (‘Ghetto Qu’ran’) would reference, but remains essentially folklore.

Although Ferrara admires Kubrick he’d rejected the concept that a film was like a ‘prism’, in which all the parts would connect to make the whole. He’d also quoted Hitchcock in interview when he said ‘If I can’t explain a film in a one sentence, than I don’t know what it’s about.’ He’d also referred to Kubrick when discussing the editing for King, in which, although he thought the film was perfect, a film is never actually finished, since you could always go back and make changes, but that the studio would eventually take it away from you.

Possibly the most interesting scene in any Ferrara film is the ending of King, which some critics have described as a modern horror film where gangsters replace the monsters or vampires. Most of his films, which I remembered, end with a suicide (Driller, King, Bad, Bodysnatchers, Addiction, Funeral). In King, Walken plays Frank White, a kindof Dracula style gangster returning home to NY from prison, where he quickly sets about destroying anyone who stands in his way, including the abusive but honorable police.

After the climax, where Walken and his gang are defeated, Ferarra didn’t know how to end the film, and wanted to avoid the cliched hailofbullets-type end used in Scarface. As with Keitel’s deranged detective in Bad, or the violent sociopath anti-heroes we’d seen in French Connection (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976), Ferrara creates a moment in which we feel both sympathy, contempt and respect for this villainous, evil character. In many ways we respect Frank White because he appears to be self-made man, who works hard, takes care of his people, has ambition and appears to respect women (but only for as long as he needs them). In the final scene, like Keitel in Bad, the camera lingers as if waiting, expecting him to reveal some sign of repentance for his terrible life – but he never does, and remains vigilant to the bitter end.

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