Put It In Writing: Living Through the Films of Abel Ferrara, Part Four
Evan Louison last wrote about Abel Ferrara for Filmmaker‘s 25th anniversary issue in his report, “Letter from Rome.” Given the assignment to interview Ferrara in conjunction with his month-long MoMA retrospective, Louison responded with a five-part personal memoir that tracks the impact of the director and his work on his own life. Check back each day this week for the next in the series, and read Part One, Part Two and Part Three.
“Hell is here and now, and so is the opportunity to know heaven. I you take the journey, you’ll come to a place called the holy void. The abyss. And you come to know the light.” — Harvey Keitel, as told by Abel Ferrara; 1993.
There’s a cross section of types who travel Amtrak trains. People who for one reason or another, don’t like to fly or for some reason can’t. You’re among this crowd because you’re cursed when it comes to TSA — no matter what you craft your appearance to be, you’re pulled out of line every time and extensively searched. Any airport, any time of day. It makes any chance to take the alternative transit route irresistible.
It’s been years since you looked out the window of a passing vehicle at the disparate, evolving landscapes, the geography in places you’ve never lived so unlike your own. The Sunset Limited leaves Los Angeles and connects through Pomona, Yuma and Demming, New Mexico before you hit El Paso. It’s here you see the border for the first time in a long time and since you’re riding without a sleeper ticket, you’re bound to the discomfort of coach, and sleep is all but impossible. Headed from LA to New Orleans, you pass through West Texas and spend the days and nights in the observation car, which they leave open throughout the night. You either sleep upright in the booths there, or sit up — reading, writing and watching the stars hanging above the flatlands.
One thing about these trains and the people who ride them — they love to talk. It’s one of these nights when you’re alternating between reading and staring out the window, that a man with long hair and a beard introduces himself as Joel with a twanged accent and sits down across from you. He asks you what you’re reading and you show him the book on snake handlers, faith healers in Appalachia, and the revivalist pastor who killed his wife with snake venom. Joel fidgets and talks about the faith, about the light of God. There’s signs everywhere he says, and this is not the first time you’ve heard this expression. He tells you about his struggle with methamphetamine, about coming to the point of bottom so many times it seemed like a normal place to be. He’s clean now for a few years, but has been here before and relapsed, so it’s still a fragile place.
Without the Lord’s mercy, he says, nothing is possible. You ask him when he found his faith. He says it’s complicated. He asks you what you’re doing. You tell him you’re on your way to make a movie. And then Joel turns and looks out the window and it gets so quiet you think for a second he’s disappeared into a daze, slipped into some slipstream of memory — and when he turns back to you, there’s tears in his eyes. You can barely see his face in the moonlight and the tiny overhead reading lamp, but you can make out his cheeks glistening, wet with tears.
Movies, he says. That’s a whole world right there. I’ll tell you what it was that did it for me man… He wipes his face and takes a deep breath.
I saw this movie, he says, and it changed my whole life.
You let the moment pass after he says this and then ask him what movie. Joel takes a breath and says he doubts you would’ve seen it.
Try me you say back and he looks at you hard.
Okay, he says. You ever see a movie called Bad Lieutenant?
You smile and think for a moment, wonder if this is some kind of dream. Maybe Joel is some personified imaginary figment of your own consciousness. It is after all that late hour when things get murky. Out here on the plains, maybe this is where one’s ghosts come to life.
It’s my favorite, you say back. Now Joel’s eyes light up in the dim light and he leans forward and says, hissing at you in a whisper —
“You got something you wanna say to me? You fuck. You rat fuck. What? Say something. I know, you’re just standing there… What am I gonna do? You gotta say something. Something. You fuck. You fucking stand there, and you want me to do every fucking thing? Where were you? Where the fuck were you? Where were you? Where the hell were you?”
He’s not breaking eye contact and there are tears coming down out of his eyes now and you’re completely hypnotized. Quite simply, you cannot believe this is happening. There’s a pause here, and you wonder if he knows the whole thing by heart but before you can finish the thought, he continues —
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I did so many bad things. I’m sorry. I tried to… I tried to do the right thing but I’m weak. I’m too fucking weak. I need you to help me. Help me. I need you to help me. Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me please, forgive me Father…”
It’s chilling. When he stops he sits back and stares out the window again and it’s quiet once more save the sound of the train and you can’t tell what to say. So you just stare at Joel as he composes himself. When he’s regained his bearings, and wiped away the tears, he smiles.
That’s what saved me. That scene… I didn’t find my faith. My faith found me. I am that man. The Bad Lieutenant.
You’re about to turn 30. This film has been chasing you for 20 years.
Do you have the right?
Every creator has their prime and there’s no denying that for some, that window is a narrow period, one where their output takes on shape in frantic bursts, inspired, driven by some inexplicable force. Ungodly, unearthly, whatever it may be — it’s there in every heyday, every acme. The intersection of chance and fate, where elements combine.
La Tempesta Perfetta.
The perfect storm. Sometimes it last years, sometimes less than a handful of projects. There are very few who suspend this basic law of reality, who can widen the window long enough to encompass the whole of their creative life, though all true artisans — and I use that term in place of the more accepted generic — will endeavor to take their natural limit to task and surmount it.
But this is not to say that Abel was alone in any of this. This golden period saw a dream team generating powerful achievements in the wake of their ’80s beginnings. It would be an oversight to mischaracterize the importance of contributions made by the repeat-offenders in his circle as anything less than vital. Artisans like Ken Kelsch, Nicholas St. John, Anthony Redman, Joe Delia, Mary Kane, and most recently, Frank DeCurtis, each were crucial to Abel’s successes. Such levels of aesthetic symmetry exists between all of his pictures that there’s an undeniable providence in his choice of confederates.
The writer Pete Hammill, chronicler of New York when it was still a real place, quoting Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ maxim — that there is “a public life, a private life, and a secret life” to every man — illustrated this trifecta of appearance, interior, and the unknown, as a way of telling prying columnists to fuck off, mind their own business. What was private was not for sale and what was secret you could never steal.
But those of us who know the difference between what you read in the trades and what goes on behind the curtain, know the same can be said for any piece of creative work that finds an audience, and likewise that work’s creators. Both the artisan and the crafted work have a public life — that is, the accepted narrative — a private life — or what really happened, and a secret life — that particular tempesta perfetta of individuals, that specific meeting of the minds that forms the sum of their parts into one final product. In this way, cinema plays as proof positive that out of many come one.
Bad Lieutenant is no different. Abel hits the ground running following his untimely termination from Carlito’s Way with a project already waiting. One he’s been developing for years. From the beginning, there is the accepted narrative of Bad LT: Ripped from the headlines, the film’s seminal inspiration is the October 1981 case of a 31-year-old nun who was brutally raped after happening upon burglars in the sacristy of the Sisters of Charity at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on 116th St. The tale of the crime is sordid, diabolical — the unconscious nun is raped, beaten, violated with eucharist objects, and suffers horrific scarring, a total of 27 crosses carved into her skin before she is left behind.
The attackers take barely any trophy for their efforts, and the senseless nature of the violence rips through the media. Headlines abound and columnists use the event as example of a world gone mad, the city in ruin. They trade on the tragedy as political tender. Mayor Koch puts up a $10,000 reward, calling the attackers “Animals.” Future Fox New personality and would-be mayoral candidate Bo Dietl, then a NYPD detective, goes down in history as the man who brought in the rapists, two young men in their early twenties.
In reality, one of the accused is given up by his family, and names the other as his accomplice. Neither is provided a lawyer for hours of questioning by Dietl and his squad, and both deny anything other than being there, pointing the finger at the other. In the end a plea deal is struck and they both go away for a fraction of what the public thinks they should. The wound remains so raw that when one of the young men is released after nearly two decades and slowly rebuilds his life, he is hounded in conservative rags, with Dietl leading the charge. The convicted attacker protests his role to this day and claims his confession was coerced. Dietl mocks him in the press, saying he would have more respect for the man if he repented, and later lends his high-priced expertise to another, more literal adaptation, titled One Tough Cop, starring a pre-Evangelical Stephen Baldwin, to considerably less acclaim.
Likability is a recent phenomena of concern in narrative, and Dietl ’s case, if not his brash personality, provides Abel with an analog scenario to stage his concept of the ultimate vicelord — a man riddled with sin, with every possible transgression in power over him. Nowadays Abel attributes the origins of the LT role to narrative improvisations he would dream up while bouncing around LA in the mid-‘80s, on long nights spent hanging out with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas collaborator Menno Meyjes, in between getting movies taken away from him. One can only imagine the ideas that never made it out of those conversations, what treasures a dialogue between The Driller Killer and the man who wrote the first draft of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might have produced.
The seed is planted and when Abel returns to New York around the time of King of New York, his loft on 18th St — the same loft where Reno Miller spilt blood at the end of a power tool years earlier — becoming a development factory. A New York artist’s salon where actors, musicians, and filmmakers churn out long, death-defying sessions of consumption, riffing on concepts and images, improvising characterizations, transcribing those improvisations into scenes, playing music, and fixtures like Anthony Redman and Paul Calderon are there through most of it. Calderon remembers well his first introduction to Abel’s world.
I was in Mexico when I got the call for Miami Vice. Abel had seen me in Short Eyes, with Fishburne and Ving Rhames, David Patrick Kelly, Esai Morales… He specifically requested I come to Miami. And a lot of us came into that show on Abel’s interest. When they sent me King of New York, my agent threw it in the trash. He thought Abel was crazy, the way he spoke on the phone. But when I heard who had sent the script I said, “Look, I’ll do anything for Abel. Doesn’t matter what it is. Doesn’t matter what part. Tell him I’m in.” And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about him. He was so involved in every aspect of the Miami Vice episodes, it was completely the opposite of some other television directors. And he is, to this day, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with. Politically astute. And the most honest.
During the three years between King of New York’s preproduction and Bad Lieutenant’s, Calderon says, It was an exciting time, just being around that energy, hanging out at his loft, auditioning actors, reading scenes. Talking. There’s never really been anything quite like it. Abel was just an incredible force. He was hungry. He wanted to work. We all were, and we all did.
Calderon goes on to connect Abel’s LT character with the Spanish Harlem 1981 case. You know, that was my neighborhood. I’m from there. My whole family was there and in the Lower East Side when we moved here from Puerto Rico. We would drive around up there — Abel, Victor Argo, and myself — and we showed him where it happened, the area where those guys came from. After a year and a half of development, the film finally congeals in brief, truncated form, with a shorthanded script written by Ms. 45’s Thana herself, and Abel hovering nearby.
Zoe Tamerlis Lund, by then all too closely acquainted with the demon of addiction, appears in the film, memorialized as a waif-like apparition. A kept woman, she exists solely for the purpose of providing LT with his fix at the end of a long night, and she exhales whispers of apocalyptic poetry in between drags of her cigarette. A siren to whom he’s already surrendered, they chase the dragon together and later she helps him mainline. The truth this film represents is that life doesn’t imitate art. Neither does the latter vice versa. They are inseparably the same. There is no respite from either, and no refuge in one from the other.
The theme of LT’s obsession with the reward for the nun’s rapists slowly materializes in this phase of the project’s development. Abel describes the bettor’s vice as the most irrational of dependencies. It’s like buying a bag of dope and knowing that most likely, it’s gonna be bad shit, he says. Knowing you’re getting ripped off. And like the only part where you’re getting high is when you’re prepping your shot. It’s all anticipation, just builds up to that moment right before you take the first hit, and then it’s all or nothing, rolling the dice on that moment… And of course, you come up snake eyes.
Betting on the vilified ex-Met Darryl Strawberry, defected to the long-gone Dodgers, the team who all but destroyed an entire generation of Brooklyn schoolboys’ spirits with the great betrayal of their 1957 New York abandonment, becomes LT’s ultimate sin. Strawberry becomes a pagan idol, a false god sucking the nihilist LT further into the whirlpool of his own cracked reflection. The LT’s passion is a parable of no return. For some wrongs, there can be no forgiving. No redemption. Playing brother cop against brother cop in a championship pool, lying to everyone, not batting an eye at his family’s proximity to the danger he brings home — there is no bridge too far. He is that picture of irascible need, of insatiable hunger. A bloodthirsty vampire who can never be quenched, he is the sinner beyond redemption, the sensual transgressor beyond satisfaction. Abel sees him as a mirror of a past life and he’s not the only one.
The film itself is as much documentary as it is hyperreality and performance. It portrays the last days of sprawl from New York’s ’80s lawlessness, which bled from John Lindsay to Ed Koch, and is the best photographic record of David Dinkins’s administration, who rode into office over Giuliani a year before the film’s lighting-quick principal photography, and was swept out after one term, by the same opponent he previously vanquished, vowing to be “the toughest Mayor on crime this city has ever seen.” If only he knew.
Likewise Keitel’s self-immolating dance with death is as much a public confession as an orchestrated realization of a man at the end of his rope. When I ask Abel about the lasting image of the LT splaying himself, naked, direct to the audience, moaning as if the pierced Christ, he repeats an oft-told tale: He was going through it. He had just split with his lady [Lorraine Bracco, who left Keitel for the actor Edward James Olmos], and it was ugly. When I press him for more details on the sequence’s lasting distinction, its surrealist quality, he elaborates: That was five days in the Mayflower, in Mickey Rourke’s hotel room. Five days we spent there out of an 18-day shoot, and what you see is what we kept. Kelsch corroborates this: We threw away nearly the entire last week of the 18-day shoot. It was less than we spent on Driller Killer. And the entire last week in Mayflower was just no-hold-barred, rock-and-roll, Harvey in his element. Unleashed. He got head while reciting the Apostles Creed, stood naked in the mirror. They were all completely free.
But what about the moaning? The Christ pose? Was it improvised? Was there direction to any effect? At my insistence, Abel lights up.
You wanna know about that shit he’s doing? At that moment, Harvey was just getting into it. Ya dig? What you’re seeing there, it was like an exercise, know what I mean? That was him just getting started up. Like a fighter warming up before he goes in. He made that sound and it brought him closer to it. To the edge. It was from someplace deep inside him. He brought that with him when he came in. That was Harvey’s thing — reach out and touch the void. Just hang out there on the edge of the abyss.
Years later, after we finally meet, Abel screens a print of the film at Anthology Film Archives to benefit the now defunct Cinema Nolita — a video store two blocks from La Mela, the restaurant he lives above, where we watch early cuts of Go-Go Tales and Mulberry Street in a packed, tiny room, full of people lucky enough to be there. The screening is a raucous event and the night descends into all manner of excess. I remember only flashes of it. The white closing credits crawling and Abel’s voice singing I was born in the Bronx, I was raised on the streets… as the night fades to black, the video store closing anyway some months later, despite the success of the evening. It’s here, in this moment, I can sense the line between the movies and myself beginning to blur.
The run continues. A fast break leads to a winning streak. Bad Lieutenant makes waves and Abel is back in LA with a two picture deal at Warner Bros the following year. Nicholas St. John is back in the mix, after briefly departing, considering Bad Lieutenant’s blasphemy a form of sacrilege, and provides the scripts for both films, the first of which is an adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, the third after Don Siegel and Phillip Kaufman’s iconic efforts.
Bequeathed with his largest budget to date, Abel’s film is budgeted at somewhere between a $13 and 20 million venture. Warner Bros takes a risk in allowing the reigns of a valuable property, one previously proven to be massively successful, with exponential returns and memorable performances, to a controversial hand, and one whose highest profit margin is a decade in the rearview at this point. The film is, like most of Abel’s work, vastly misunderstood, and contains one of two powerful, unheralded Forest Whitaker performances in the Ferrara canon. It aims to subvert the traditions of adapting the Finney source material while in the same instant honoring its gravity, removing the emphasis on recognizable casting, and placing the onus on a teenage girl to decipher the pod people’s plot to take over America and then the world. Needless to say, it fails to recoup its budget, and is swept up in the dust of that year. It will be Abel’s last studio venture, and it’s worth noting that over a decade later, it’s Warner Bros who pull the plug on Abel’s Jekyll and Hyde.
Prior to Body Snatchers, on the weight of his attachment to the property, Abel secures a one-for-one exchange with Warners. Through Maverick Pictures, Madonna’s Warners specialty division that produced her turn in Truth or Dare, synonymous with her music imprint, Abel finances his most explicit indictment of Hollywood, a scathing plaint that lays out the burden a creative process bares under the weight of big money. Dangerous Game is a tragedy banked upon casting Madonna’s superstar in the lead role of soap actress Sarah Jennings, along with Abel and Keitel’s only reunion after Bad Lieutenant. An explosive mix, the picture is originally titled Snake Eyes, and trace evidence of this is remnant on a sync slate left in the frame. The title changes due to copyright concerns and one expression of Abel’s is swapped out for another. Dangerous Game is a movie about movies, the trail of bodies they leave in their aftermath, the mess kicked up in the lives of those who make them. Reunited with St. John, on what can only be read as a merciless necropsy of their Fear City nadir, Abel’s experiment with video and stepping outside the safe parameters of a measured scene continues.
It would be presumptuous to project any thoughts on St. John, who remains, save for a pair of articles in the following two years while continuing to assist Abel in his Warners projects, overbearingly silent. His few words are but hints as to his sensibilities, their common aesthetic bond with Abel’s, and perhaps, his inclinations to flee the industry. In 1993 he tells Fangoria in a piece written as an on-location set visit to the Alabama military base where Body Snatchers is shot, I love the way you can’t tell who’s evil and who’s not. Speaking about the Finney adaptation at hand, this thought could easily apply to all his and Abel’s collaborations.
A few years later, in what seems to be his last appearance on the record in print, again in Fangoria, St. John says of his process: You can’t think about that while you’re writing it; you must remain true to what’s in front of you. You have to build a world and inhabit it with the people that you need to do it with, and you must keep it true to itself…. We take characters to their emotional and logical extremes. We push them to the edge, and that’s what you need to do. That’s what I think our films do — we really get out there with them, put them in a situation and turn the screws on them… I don’t want to talk for Abel, but I firmly believe that the films we’ve done together take place in a moral universe, and I think he does too… I don’t think fashionable amorality is going to get us anywhere. It’s a disaster, and I hope we can catch ourselves before it does real damage.
If only he knew.
You track these films down on the internet and order used VHS copies. You love Dangerous Game so much you wear out the first copy and order another. For years you carry both boxes with you, wherever you move, for some superstitious fear of throwing the broken tape away. Like it might be some kind of sacrilege.
They’re shipped to your school mailbox in Westchester, the same place Abel goes for three years before bouncing to London where he really gets started — though you don’t know any of this at the time. Meanwhile these films are your salvation there, and you’re taking your education into your own hands — combing the library for texts by Villon and finding Genet and Rimbaud instead, checking out bound prose scripts for Aguirre and Kaspar Hauser that mysteriously disappear, getting a job in the film and video archive just to spend hours watching WR Secrets of the Organism and Dance in the Sun and Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol and Quenelle.
It’s late at night when you’re the only one awake that you see these films for the first time — The Addiction, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, The Blackout, and R’xmas. And something solidifies. It’s like communing with the spirit of a lost friend. Someone you forgot about who reaches out through the screen and sucks you in. Stuck in a time lacking any sense of trajectory, any stimulation, you unfurl. Principles of youth fade. You wonder if this movie thing is what you should have stayed true to all along. Maybe if you’d started earlier you’d be further along. Maybe this feels right because it is. Perhaps you were meant to be in this place, watching and learning. This is how you escape. This is how, on the verge of dropping out for good, you become a student again. In a house of young filmmakers, the projector is your friend. Watching The Addiction and The Funeral, a realm of what could be possible feels close once again. A feeling you’ve not known since high school beckons.
Every frame of The Addiction reeks of dread, seethes with that same familiar cool as Frank White, and Walken’s appearance as the ancient vampire Peina is no coincidence here. A work of slithering malice, The Addiction demands recognition of the vacuous and futile efforts to reconcile wartime atrocities in a society devoted to high-minded morality, and that particular human desperation that exists on the streetcorners, where a flirting glance can turn into a night that never ends, a terror of untold consequence. It’s as much a beware-the-lust-of-strangers tale as Ms. 45. But the lesson here, as St. John and Abel tell it, is you might lose more than your life if you can’t stand up to someone forcing themselves upon you. If you can’t maintain yourself in the face of opposition — you might lose your soul.
Up on the wall, in the chill of winter, a flash of a scene from The Funeral, projected. Annabelle Sciorra’s betrayed and frustrated mob-matriarch Jean prays before a shrine to St. Agnes. Beside Jean is Gretchen Moll’s Helen, the unwed widow of the corpse in the other room, Vincent Gallo’s Johnny, the subject of the family’s woe and guest of honor at the eponymous ceremony. Helen isn’t devout. She asks who St. Agnes is.
Jean tells her: They slit her throat when she refused the advances of some guy. She’s the patron saint of Purity. She’s just there to remind me what happens when you say no.
Of these films, half are masterful entries into the canon, while the others remain ciphers. If you ask Abel about any of them, when it comes down to it, they almost don’t happen. Each one of these things is fuckin’ miracle man, make no mistake. There’s no doubt in my mind, without those forces that came together, these movies would not exist. It’s absolutely a matter of fate.
This is what scholastic hierarchies cannot explain, what no one can teach you. Why the young vampire Kathleen Conklin takes so easily to the lifestyle of the newly undead, and to you there’s no mistaking this — is the concept of education becoming synonymous with debt, the constant submission of never knowing what could possibly be on the horizon of a degree that’s worth increasingly less than you pay or borrow for it, increasingly closer to nothing — so just as it’s no wonder this film resonates to the 20-year-old you, there’s an urgent defiance, an iconoclastic streak through Lily Taylor’s embodiment of Kathleen. She makes sense, through all her solipsistic musings. Taylor gives life to Kathleen’s conflicted state — tethered to the land of the living, with one foot in the underworld — and is one in a long line of Ferrara heroines who rival his male antiheroes for all lack of apologias.
While The Blackout remains a matter of fascination to many in Abel’s thrall, as a piece that demands repeat study, its merits survive solely on its experimentation. The picture contains Abel’s first use of the double-exposure as a prolonged effect, becoming a thematic device as much as an aesthetic one — and where there is an added layer to the truth, like the time-worn split-screen, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s what. It works and fails to great effect as any profound vision will, and becomes a staple of Abel’s narratives hereafter. The film continues to be unsung, despite containing one of the most abject portraits of excess ever committed to record, with Matthew Modine’s out-of-control-actor character “Matty” — again, the surrogates, the nudging — at one point crouched on the floor of a hotel room, attempting to maintain a conversation with his wife, played by Beatrice Dalle. She sprawls on the bed looking down at him, and he attempts to tell her of his plans, their future, blowing coke between sentences, then between words, then cutting all corners and eating the coke. You watch this and know the very definition of being sucked into your own personal bit of hell.
The stories of the shoot are legendary, with Abel allegedly absconding from the Miami set, leaving actors to direct themselves, having to be propped up during inspections. There’s a video floating around online of a Miami evening newscast that has a nightlife special segment where a correspondent visits The Blackout wrap party. Abel won’t stand still for an interview but rock in place, moving away from the mic, shouting something unintelligible at the camera. He appears to taunt the news team, blowing kisses at the female anchor, before hiding his face with a magazine, Gloria Estefan’s face on the cover. The anchorwoman’s narration of the festivities, which don’t seem particularly exciting, breathlessly intones “One of Hollywood’s most respected directors, Abel Ferrara led the production on this one, and many say it will be a fabulous film…” Gossip columnist AJ Benza tells the viewers at home, “You don’t really know quite what to expect from his films… Or his parties.” It’s completely bizarre, and the segment exists in a vacuum along with the film — as a microcosmic picture of the time. Frivolous, surfaced environs, home to a number of shapes, Abel’s voice biding time in the chaos.
Likewise New Rose Hotel, decried at the time of its release, contains contradictory multitudes. The film’s last third, largely a circuitous transposition of previous scenes, spirals into a deconstructionist memory play and prompts critics to surmise it the result of an unfinished work. But nothing could be further form the truth. Again the forest is mistaken for the trees. Ignoring the obvious prescience of the work — Abel touches on the dark web, cyber warfare, corporate espionage, biological agents, and for the first time onscreen, smartphones, when they are still considered a thing of the future, a thing not yet invented — it’s with this adaptation of William Gibson’s source text that Abel ventures into a place only hinted at in The Blackout: The dreamlife — an area his work will become devoted to in the next decade. New Rose is the shape of things to come, and is undeniably a new breed of cinema — one that lives, self-securely, as more installation than narrative. The kind of picture you put on in the background and not miss a thing.
The Funeral, by far the most elegant of these examples, is Abel’s lasting indictment of the mafia mythos. It takes the tropes of blood oaths and revenge out of the tenements and cobblestones, and constructs a Mount Vernon suburban nightmare for its gangland subjects. Absent the traditional Five Points or Little Italy setting, the construct of a crime family becomes barren and that much more stripped of life. Like vampires hiding in plain sight.
Walken appears as the elder brother to a magnificent Chris Penn and a striking, stubborn Vincent Gallo, both of whom are never better. His character spends the entire narrative debating vengeance. Like Willem Dafoe, Victor Argo, Paul Hipp and Paul Calderon, Walken works consistently within the Ferrara axis — as someone who understands the chaos of what occurs in the adherence to traditions, in the submission to our worst instincts, and in the suspension of faith. When confronted with his stubborn refusal to let his younger brother’s slaying go, faced with his own wife Jean’s accusation of his willful illiteracy, he responds as only a construct in the Nicholas St. John ether can — Don’t blame me. Talk to God. I didn’t make the world.
To this day Nicholas St. John gives no interviews on his career, one of the most consistent and distinguished of genre screenwriters. There is no comment on what made him run away from such promise, which encounters with dishonesty motivated him to flee even the fringes of the industry. In this light, that Dangerous Game is his last script written specifically for Abel — both The Addiction and The Funeral, filmed later, were from scripts completed around the same time as King of New York — speaks volumes above any such personal insights. Watching Dangerous Game now, knowing what trials the two of them endured in the years leading up to the Warners deal — childhood friends, through the thick and thin of adolescence and reunited as adults — we can only imagine how witnessing that type of change in a collaborator’s outlook or lifestyle as warranted by weathering a cutthroat industry, would inform a text such as this one. In the wash of that experience, with countless projects stifled, more than one ripped from your clutches, from Fear City through Cat Chaser, King of New York booed and dismissed upon arrival, only to gain a latent notoriety, a lesser pair would have taken their ball and gone home. Made powerless in the loom of adversity but continuing to fight, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant are not the only films Abel made as a matter of rebellion and protest. Struggle and perseverance informs his work in every picture that follows Cat Chaser, into the now.
St. John’s script for Dangerous Game tracks a self-possessed talent driving the erosion of his own private life through work and his own ego’s folly. Keitel is Eddie Israel here, a New York director riding the success of a hot picture and trying to transfer his own momentum into a personal project, far from home in the studio lots, surrounded by excess and hype. The film within is “Mother of Mirrors,” and in hindsight the scenes Israel manages to get on camera in between breakdowns and trysts between him and his two leads seem so vastly out of bounds for any commercial prospects, one has to wonder if the same can be said at the time of Dangerous Game’s release. Do ’90s audiences know what they’re getting into? Or is the analog for Abel’s own life, writ large in practically every exchange, lost on them?
Along with the formal innovations Abel puts on screen, an unprecedented obsession forms in Dangerous Game, and a first stab at creating a living surrogacy from his own life begins in earnest, and a new continuum of Abel’s work that stretches even into his most recent efforts is authored. Casting his wife Nancy Ferrara in the role of Israel’s thankless wife, who confronts Eddie after a moonlight assignation in the back of a town car parked on a Hollywood Hills turnoff. Eddie smokes and looks out at the LA lights like Frank White mourning the New York of his lost youth, and can barely respond when his wife accuses him of faking an orgasm. ‘You didn’t come,’ she says, knowing the difference. It’s a chilling moment, one you won’t see in pictures of this time or any other.
Dangerous Game amounts to a relentless study of what chaos the artist’s selfish, unflinching dedication to a craft can breed in their home. At great risk to Israel’s own family, he forges on and bears down through every instinct and desire, just as he cautions his performers against such missteps. In the course of the film’s narrative, infidelity, the agony of guilt, and believing your own legend all come into active play as thematic instruments, joining the growing swell. It, like China Girl, is profoundly ignored in the context of Abel’s greater body of work.
When James Russo’s Francis Burns screams “I need these things, I need these things!” we hear a writer providing his director with words his friend could never say himself. When Israel berates Sarah Jennings from behind the camera, calling her a “Commercial piece of shit…” we know we’re privy to something forbidden, to some trespass on the subject of the frame’s sanctioned limits — just by how quickly the expression on Ms. Ciccone’s face turns. When Israel directs Burns off camera he demands take after take, new line deliveries from the exhausted actor, cloying at him — “To God, tell it to God…”
Madonna refuses to promote the film, and rumors fly about Abel’s behavior. But the truth lies in a scene where Israel is consoling Jennings, as she confides in him the story of a brutal rooftop knifepoint rape, which years later reaches the mainstream press as a veritable truth in Madonna’s early life in ’80s NYC. It’s Abel who gets there first, compels her to go there first, who coaxes the part of herself she keeps hidden out into the open. BTS footage of early preproduction meetings between her and Keitel makes it into the picture, filmed on a camcorder by Ken Kelsch. Kelsch’s unique voice is as much an intrinsic part of these works as any other recurring contributor’s, and this dressed down, make-up less Madonna is the first frame we see of the pop queen. It’s completely unheard of. The naked lack of vanity, imposed on her character, imposed on the film’s star against her will. It’s an editorial choice Madonna protests vehemently and one Abel refuses to change, having learned his lesson on Fear City and Cat Chaser.
Always Get Final Cut.
In the early ’90s, it cannot be understated what kind of titan coup Madonna’s presence represents for a modestly budgeted studio picture by a director known for grime, gore, and crime pictures. There are so many moments in Dangerous Game where Madonna cannot be said to have ever been better. But none are so effective as when Abel’s audacity demands of her what none else at that time would dare to demand. And it’s this crossing of the line, stepping habitually past the place of respect for the artist into their private, even secret life, that begins to define all of his work. Beginning with Bad Lieutenant, dancing into the shadows of Keitel’s subconscious and luring something out into the light, Abel continues down this road with every subsequent effort. Like the long gone father to three ill-fated brothers in The Funeral says, “Carry this with you. Nothing will cost you more.”
Evan Louison is a New York writer. Abel Ferrara: Unrated runs May 1-31st at the Museum of Modern Art