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Put It In Writing: Living Through the Films of Abel Ferrara, Part Five

Mary

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, Part Three and Part Four.

A Glorious Exile, a Spirit Returning to Form

The soul answered and said, What binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome, and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died. In an aeon I was released from a world, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient. From this time on will I attain to the rest of time, the season, in silence. — Gospel of Mary, Nag Hammadi

You can recognize his profile from outside through the window when you walk up, and before you see him, you hear the zealous sneer of laughter. It’s unmistakeable. He looks older when you turn the corner. But the same irascibility and mischief is still in his eyes, and it’s a heartwarming sight. Abel’s been through the ringer the last 15 years, and it’s something you feel in common with him now. When you pull yourself out of a ditch, it’s easy to recognize a kindred spirit on the road. They’re the ones covered in a mud somehow only you can see.

They’re gonna move the DeKoonings over so they can project my movies man, he says. Can you dig that? It’s more than fitting. You bring a rascal into a hallowed landmark and this is the outcome. Be ready for the marble to crack.

It’s been over a decade since you’ve first met, and somehow the ones whose lives circled the precipice have gotten younger. He’s more childlike than ever. He seems tired and grips his temple, closing his eyes for long periods in between pauses, in between thoughts. We’ve been going non-stop, he tells you. You talk about Kubrick making The Shining, taking a year to make a fucking film… We just shot in Munich and the Alps and Mexicali and I flew up here yesterday for one night. It was like a fucking war. I don’t think I’d have the patience. Maybe in the next life.

The project in question is the long in the works Siberia, starring Willem Dafoe, again stepping into the fire for the sixth time, this time as an unnamed adventurer in a snowy landscape who encounters dreams, visions and his own doubles on his journey. Abel talks about Jack London, about the drink taking the man, about immigration. He’s spent the last decade plus, since shortly after his last New York crime story’s release, as an expatriate. An American in Rome, he takes all comers but will not suffer fools. Watching his recent forays into a loose field of documentary-styled, hybrid metafictions, there’s as much patience and compassion as there is shortness of breath and urgent tempo. It’s a rhythm he has ingrained in his personality, one he developed from years of bending an ear to street-life double-talk and the music of industrial cities. He’s a hustler in the oldest sense of the term — but somehow, the most honest hustler you’ll ever encounter. With no second face to this man, he’s as much an open book as he is unknowable, now perhaps more than ever. There are more worlds within to be experienced, more games to run with him at the center.

Watching Piazza Vittorio, focused on the historic plaza and adjoining parkland that encompasses his neighborhood in Rome, it’s again apparent that what Abel executes so effectively is to continually turn the pages of an ongoing story — his own. He peels back the skin one layer at a time, and at times it can be excruciating to watch. But after 40 years of carving away at his own artifice, a monumental undertaking, the face in the mountain may remain inscrutable and rough, but it is far from opaque. It’s his.

***

While Abel’s born in the Bronx, his family flees the urban environs to the upstate countryside, just as so many Italians and Irish did in the decades that followed the war, and its this same flight your family takes from out of Brooklyn to the Suffolk County exurbs in the 1950s. So many who come from overseas, crossing borders to begin life anew, will first land in the cities, only to seek the solace of the exurbs and country in time. Abel’s grandfather, from a small village near Salerno, not far from where Pio’s legendary stigmatic ministry took place, comes to America just prior to the Great Arrival. Settling in the farmlands over the city that become the Morris Park section of the Bronx in time, he raises a dozen children, all without learning word one of English. My grandfather came here, on the boat, like so many others, and he had a job five minutes before he got ashore, and he couldn’t even read the piece of paper they had him sign, Abel says. He was a good man. He took people off the street, put them through school. He was an immigrant when it wasn’t easy, and it still ain’t easy. I been in Rome for 15 years and I just got my working papers yesterday. So I know what it’s like. Abel’s father and uncles grow up in this split-image world, knowing the Italian cant and dialect of home and the official language of the outside world, codeswitching to fit in at school. His cousins haul scrap metal and drive trucks alongside his father and Abel ends up raised largely by his extended family. He knows the strength bound up in familial hardship, the community that can rise to fill in the gaps where inequity lays waste to aspirations.

Like the United States, in the global flux of warzone migration, the European Union represents a destination where certain invaluable rights are exchanged over property, status, and comfort. The affluence and careers a family may be accustomed to in their homeland are then abdicated for basic survival, and Italy — where Abel finds himself in empathic symbiosis with emigres from each continent, and as an American by birth, a minority — is no different. Roaming the Piazza, Abel finds no shortage of individuals who left from another, hard-trodden place to come to this one, some with more reason for being here than others. The underlying ethos that here presents itself is fairly concise, and requires no great logic to intimate: Everyone has to be somewhere. But from the voice of an American in voluntary exile, no truer words could ever be spoken.

It’s no different than the last time this happened, when millions of people got burned up. You ask me how do you turn people into fascists? You tell me, how is some American citizen gonna be against immigration? He taps the table for emphasis, never looking away. This is how. Right here. You can turn people against each other like that. It doesn’t take a fuckin’ genius. These people we’re talking to on the street, it’s the same thing. Everybody’s lives, they’ve all got their own struggles. But we all come from some place and we end up where we end up. From his new home abroad, Abel sees a hotbed of vitriolic nationalism and ethnocentricity in his place of birth, as back home, his country of origin suffers under the weight of xenophobia and outrage at the darkening of our populace. And although current, in reality the groundswell of intolerance is born from out the supremacist outcroppings Europe faced since the demise of the Axis powers, that continue to rear up through the Eastern Block in the last phases of the Cold War and field the ethnic conflicts surrounding the fall of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s.

In a series of simple, bare bones encounters, Abel creates a cross-section of Roman residents, illustrating a diverse array of nationalities and languages, and in the process takes the narrative of invaders verse invaded back to its most fundamental level. As an Ecuadoran immigrant celebrating the Aztec solstice in a public park tells him, It’s not easy. But we have to keep going.’ Life for an immigrant, in terms defined in the Piazza, is a simple thing. As Abel says, These people aren’t thinking about whether or not they’re European citizens or whether or not they belong. Fuck no. They’re thinking about where’s my next meal coming from, where am I sleeping tonight, and how am I gonna stay alive, keep my family alive. That’s it. At the end of the day, we’re not that different. You see? We’re the same. I’m over there trying to make a living too. I tell ‘em so, right off the bat. I go in there, we hide nothing. And that’s not some line man. It’s the God’s truth.

The question then becomes: How did we find ourselves here?

***

Following a muted reception for R’Xmas, an underrated working class drug picture based on a supposedly true affair, Abel finds himself at a crossroads. Adrift and exhausted, his personal affairs in disarray, he sojourns with longtime production designer Frank DeCurtis to Rome. Chasing financing for one picture, ending up making another.

The first, Go-Go Tales, takes root in the Chelsea cabaret scene from the early ’90s, and one 20th Street club in particular not far from Abel’s loft. In Abel’s infamous appearance to promote The Funeral on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997, this is the project he discusses wanting to make next, calling it “Cheers with a little T&A.”

But like most things Ferrara, nothing can ever be that simple. He and DeCurtis end up in Rome for years, with Abel becoming duly obsessed with both the concept of the actor’s burden, and the little known Stendhal phenomena known simply as Jerusalem Syndrome — a type of fugue state where visitors to the Holy City slip into alternate consciousnesses, fully believing themselves to be characters from the Old and New Testament. When you ask him about the former preoccupation with method preparation for a theatrical role, Abel says You look at Harvey in Bad Lieutenant. And then he turns around and does Dangerous Game not a year later. How the fuck does he do that? I mean, what does he have, to be able to not let that destroy him?

This film, known unofficially as the Mary Magdalene Project, takes several years to materialize and even more for the resulting work to reach America’s shores. Besieged by a series of financial calamities, double-dealing, casting runarounds that keep him stuck in a developmental stage and circling the runway, Abel’s shadowed throughout the process by filmmaker Alex Grazioli, whose resulting documentary Odyssey in Rome is one of two films made between R’Xmas and what will eventually be called Mary.

Paired with Rafi Pitts’ Arte-funded Abel Ferrara: Guilty as Charged, the two portrayals form a diptych of an artisan in crisis. In both, Abel finds himself embroiled in his own self-perpetuating legend, victim to his own hangups, and captive to a worldview that allows for his monomaniacal focus, if only in concert with his demons. If you ask him about them now, he has only the harshest judgement for either. I’ll tell you, there was some beautiful stuff happening at that time, he says, and those guys, they just missed it completely.

In my first years trying to make movies in New York, these two films built a spell around Abel’s persona, and after meeting him, it becomes a difficult one to dispel. So much of your experience in watching and living through these pictures, the ones that inform and define you, amounts to what level of impression a cult of personality-like effect can have on your perspective of the work. But that risk, of legend engulfing identity, is one all public artists wager, and many — Abel not least among them — have turned a fair profit from. Mary is a triumph, wins four prizes at Venice and yet still languishes, undistributed in the US, and unknown for most save the faithful. When it finally reaches our side of the pond, this becomes our introduction.

***

In October of 2008, Mary receives a limited engagement stateside, at the late Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives, which houses prints of most of Abel’s films, including some cuts which were never given their proper public view. This is three years after its premiere at Venice, where Abel takes home the Grand Jury Prize among others, and dedicates the picture, saying simply, This is for our fathers and for our daughters.

In the wake of the announcement, and an alarming dearth of press, few outlets seem interested in heralding a prodigal son of New York’s return. You become convinced, this might be an opening. A way in.

You get the call late. Looking back, you’re not sure how you have this number in the first place. Some programmer’s contact maybe, possibly from a friend of a friend, but the night seems about to tip over into the following morning when the message you left hours earlier is returned, and the static filled voice on the other end is Abel’s.

You’ve pitched him the idea briefly — to create a short commercial for Mary’s release, consisting mainly of Abel giving a tour of the Catholic monuments in what used to be the Five Points and Little Italy — before saying Whenever you want to do this—

But Abel suddenly cuts you off mid sentence: The fuck you talkin’ about man? What about right now?

Marshaling friends from out of what they thought would be a quiet night, rigging an old pillow with a belt to jury-rig a makeshift steadicam, you load the crew of three into a station wagon and leave Brooklyn around 11:30. It’s quiet on the Avenue of Puerto Rico and when you step out the front door of the Love Chapel, a lopsided, long-ago torn down building where you spend many an endless night, the cinematographer says, Todd Haynes told me when they lived here back in the day they didn’t go out after dark.

You get to La Mela a little after midnight and it all happens so fast. Abel’s a force in motion, and you’re traipsing after him through the kitchen of the restaurant, seeing the same Madonna as in in the corner of the room, Abel calling into the line cooks and porters Yo-yo, tell ‘em where you’re from my man…and the kitchen door slamming in his face, the sous chef pleading with him, Please, please, the kitchen is dirty. Abel smiles and laughs: Well, a clean kitchen’s a broke kitchen. This a money kitchen. Come on…

We head out to the bar and pass the statue again. Abel pauses in front of the Madonna, for effect. That statue, he says, it makes me think about growing up, going to this church, they had this life-size crucifix. You’re sitting there, kneeling in your pew and you’re staring up at the blood… It was an awesome statue. He pauses and laughs again. I went back to that church 35 years later to film Bad Lieutenant — and they got this chrome-beveled cross up on the wall, tiny. Laughter is an important component of any conversation with Abel. He leans his head back and smiles every gap-toothed inch he has. He’s in good spirits, nothing like the man under fire in the Grazioli doc or the manic creature in . He’s sound and solid, his freneticism only one facet of his greater life. He’s sipping red wine and feeding people gnocchi off his plate, and when you ask him how the decision to shoot Mary Magdalene’s story as a meta-fiction, one that plays out as half-film with a film, half-psychic projection on the part of the protagonist, he rolls his eyes and looks like you might ruin his mood.

You wanna know where it all began, he says, Well in 1945, in Egypt, they found this jar, way out in the desert. Those were the gnostic gospels. Makes you wonder what they were trying to hide. You know, it’s not an intellectual thing. You either have faith or you have belief, you either believe in God or you don’t, you could believe in Jesus as God, or 500 other situations… He trails off and you wonder how to keep this from going off track. Perhaps it’s impossible. Suddenly, Abel’s pulling you out the door of the restaurant, and saying Come on, let me show you the neighborhood. You wanna see where Heath Ledger used to eat breakfast?

***

Mary marks the beginning of a phoenix period for Abel. A reclamation of the legacy his work has authored in the culture, the films he goes on to make in or from Rome, occasionally making the commute back stateside for 4:44 Last Day on Earth, and Welcome to New York, he maintains a steady clip of alternating between steady narrative collaborations with a rotating cast of players like Dafoe, as well as a burst of documentaries that harness the energies of the moment. But at the heart of it all, for Abel, is the added depth of perspective that an eventual sobriety and being a stranger in a foreign land can bring. Films like Napoli Napoli Napoli show us a humanity that is as common and forceful, as hard to look away from as any stylized character of his early work. And it’s this same methodology that Piazza Vittorio continues to expand upon. Abel remains a character on the margin of each of these, and Napoli’s first person, direct-to-camera interviews with female inmates from the Campania region show us the secret drive behind both the tragic noir and relentless provocation of his early work — a deep, abiding interest in what makes people desperate. What makes them sin. What gives them hope.

Meeting Abel sporadically throughout the following years, it’s easy to lose sight of the difference between a man and his work. There’s something brittle about his nature, perhaps from inching toward the hard edge of an unforgiving vocation. These films are portraits of lives lost in a balance they’ve fallen out of. Lives that lose their way, hell bent and out of control, but still worth living, worth saving, worth caring for, at least enough to forgive. Enough to cry when they disappear. When the last frame ends. When the lights go out on Frank White in the back of cab in a city that was his. The hard cut to black on what could have been.

For as many pictures as he makes, there are those that slip through his fingers. Even of the films that are eventually completed, it can be said, there are a myriad of other possible versions that might have been realized. This can be said for any director, but throughout his career, time and again, interference and censorship has played hell with Abel’s work. And repeatedly, he has responded by continuing. By carrying on in the face of opposition. The world may say what they will of the legend, but the artist is full of heart.

In the MoMa offices, talking in a glass-walled room that feels like a sound-proof chamber, Abel smirks at me like we share a secret. The New York that isn’t what it was when either of us first arrived from outside the city limits some 30 years apart, is the elephant in the room. That, and the confines of sobriety, as it does or doesn’t define the person.

I ask Abel if he feels liberated, and he suddenly sits up in his seat. I don’t feel any different man, he says. Let me tell you, you wanna know what I used to do? When I was having a hard time, I would put on Billie Holliday and listen. And it gave me great comfort when I would get high, to hear those records and her voice and know that she was somehow connected to me. We both were doing this thing, together. But that was the person I was. I listen to Billie now man? And I know that wasn’t the dope singing. That was her. Before, and after, still. So the whole Abel legend? That wasn’t the drug. That was me. That’s your only mistake. Thinking you need something you don’t, to keep moving.

Late at night, writing this, you listen to Abel perform at the Louvre three years back. In headphones. It feels like you’re there. He plays, sings. Some songs you’ve heard before. Some new. In between, John Giorno’s “Thanks for Nothing” and William Burroughs’ “A Thanksgiving Prayer” are read. Then Abel reads a speech by Fidel Castro. At its close, a line that seems to ring true now, for him, for anyone who’s crawled out the mudhole covered in muck, laid in the sun till the dried and could be brushed away.

We do not need to the empire to give us anything.

As Abel reads this, he laughs, and repeats it.

Coming from him, it sounds true.

There’s something — writing this now — that becomes undeniable. Obvious. And it’s the absence of a model. A mentor. That figure of example. In this lack is where you build surrogacies. Create bonds out of the unreal. Connections that may or may not exist. This void is what you’re responding to even without knowing. At an age where things don’t have names, where nothing makes sense — this is how you find him. In the shape of someone else. As Frank White tells Roy Bishop:

Welcome to the circle.

You pick the most dangerous and exciting voice you can find, the most powerful rebellion you can see, because that is the hope you see yourself reflected in. How this image you’ve crafted in absence appears to you. As a legend cloaked in shadow. Late at night, up past your bedtime with only a rickety VCR to rely on, you sit in the absence of an audience, staring up at the screen. What that name at the close of the credits gives you is but a flicker of a greater impact. One that will take time and plenty of it to define.

Years after you’re flung headfirst into the adult world to fend for yourself, you’re struggling to stay afloat. Your first girlfriend is from Morris Park, and on mornings when you’ve no money for the bus, you walk down the Avenue toward the zoo. Hustling past the convent, the streets lined with single-family homes, you wonder if the Bad Lieutenant might be sitting out front as you walk by, if you might catch a glimpse of his kids running out of the house, late for school.

Somehow your father’s antique Rhodes comes into your possession. You inherit this for a short time, until you have to give it up. You pick it up from a music shop in the village where it’s been repaired, and abscond with it, once you know for sure it’s all paid for. Lugging it all the way back to Brooklyn, taking two trains, the instrument is just one more thing you’ve learned to covet in place of a lasting relationship with the man who sired you. It’s a transitional object, a thing in place of a feeling, and you’re probably too old for these childish things. But you can remember the instrument from when you were still young and your father still lived with you. You can still recall hearing him practice, down in the basement. When he should have been working, and you should have been asleep.

In the music shop, you wait to hear if you’ll have to pay, and as the owner hefts the case from out the back of the shop, grumbling at the weight, you see a name stenciled on the lid that adjoins the back of the keyboard body. It’s the name of a band: The Roosters.

***

I don’t need forever.

Somewhere in the years where I’m supposed to be making my first marks in the world, Frank White becomes my nickname. A friend gives it to me in the heyday of ill-advised merrymaking that personify the early aughts, where whole years of drugged nights that ended badly one time too many have become a blur in retrospect.

There’s no getting that time back. If what’s been said of filmmaking is true — that motion pictures, like any photographic record, amount to a momento mori, documenting the death of that small time contained in their frames, then the age-old photographer’s maxim, to Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades, applies to your own experience as much as a single snapshot.

If there was no record of your life, of your time here, what would being king be worth? Is there any kind of royalty that could be appraised as worth being alone? When life turns corners without you, and friends move on, and you wash ashore like something beached and helpless, for some reason, that nickname sticks, like the old stigmatic reputation for frenzy. But in time, that haze lifts and you’re no longer in your glory. You’re no longer young. More corners have turned on you than you’ve managed to round and stay upright. Soon you’re the only one left in the trenches. The streets are all different, the city full with strangers. You fear the King is Dead after all.

One day you’re on a line in a needle exchange on Allen St that you use for a permanent address, and as you wait to pick up your mail, you look up at the projection screen on the wall of the dayroom, where the program’s participants gather during drop-in hours for food, warmth, awaiting methadone and suboxone services.

Just a glance is enough to know what’s playing. You hear the dialogue before you see it, and already know it’s King of New York before you turn. It’s the climax of the picture. Showdown on a Manhattan bound 7 train. Frank White verse Roy Bishop. White grabs some poor woman, a straphanger on her way home, and pulls his gun.

He says “Don’t worry, but don’t move… You have a family? I don’t want to hurt you but I will blow you away if I have to, you understand?” He looks at Bishop. “Could you do that?”

Bishop implores him to put the gun down.

“Come on Frank. You can’t hide behind her forever —”

Frank White says, “I don’t need forever…”

And it’s the last we ever hear him say.

You look around at the slack-jawed, nodded out faces. You’re the youngest and whitest face in the room. And you’re completely invisible. No one notices you. No one sees who you are. No one cares. They’re hypnotized by the movie. Watching Frank White make New York pay for what it owes them and erupting into cheers at the bloodshed. You fade into the background and hear your name called and you’re back at the Library again. Somehow you never left.

It’s still not for many years that this connection, like all the others, becomes clear. Looking back on your life writ in the same ink as these characters, somehow interwoven, events and synchronicities you have in common come round the track and pass you by repeatedly. It’s dizzying. They fly right by you a countless number of times before you can face them head on and recognize them.

Maybe the movies know you’re watching. When first you meet them in motion. Maybe it’s meant to be and there’s more of them waiting, calling for you in the shadows, just down the line. Maybe if a legend lives forever it’s in the impact. Maybe if that being becomes immortal it’s in the manifold depressions that it cuts into our foundations. In our endless constructed responses to feelings, the stuff we call our meaning, what makes an image last forever and a narrative effect feel uniquely ours, is what memory we create of it.

What retention we hold onto, like a keepsake mark, so not to deal with its death, its fleeting nature, its leaving. Just as the films and characters and words abandon us, their impressions never flee. They stay. Like the legend. Like the author’s resonance. The one who conducted the energies and put them into play on the screen.

***

Don’t you think it’s time, you put it in writing?

Years later you’ll try to share the little film you made, direct others to where the documentation of that night lives, the experience so imprinted in your memory it feels like yesterday. But it’s gone. Vanished. Like it never existed. Websites shutter. Servers go offline. A small thing that could mean the world to someone goes missing in a flash, a 404 error message issued in its place. Data is lost. And in this new epoch where anything and everything is awash in the digital ether, just a series of keystrokes away, this is how the things you cherish, the things you make, disappear.

You remember something Abel said that night, about how a film is the shadow of silver on a wall. Not a computation of zeros and ones. But then, that’s no longer the case, even for him. There are no more objects, strips of celluloid negative with actual pictures printed on them. Now is the age of facsimile and simulation. Of semblance in the place of physical media and actual artifacts. You ask Abel if there’s anything he misses about the medium and he looks at you wistfully. I guess no one’s ever done a study of what happens to your brain, that ten minutes or so of black that you sit through in the theatre, when the micro-seconds of leader space between the 24 frames adds up. Maybe that’s what the magic of that was. What it did to your brain man.

Years ago, that night on Mulberry Street, careening half-way down the sidewalk, you struggle to keep up, nearly colliding with an elderly Chinese can-collector, who calls out to Abel, Hey, hey, my friend, my friend — but Abel waves back at him with both hands as if to say STAY AWAY, and laughs again, pointing at the man and yelling this guy’s an agent for the FBI, this guy works for the FBI! You catch up as he turns the corner and Abel’s still mid rhapsody. To be alive at every moment man, you’re not gonna anesthetize yourself for nothing. He passes a woman waiting for a cab, and without missing a beat tells her, Hi Baby —without looking back or waiting for a response. He turns left down Centre Street, cutting through a parking lot, and stops to see a man seated near the attendant booth with a sign and a cup in front of him. Hey papi…he says. The man is effusive back, Heeeey, how are you? But Abel doesn’t respond, just leans in the attendant’s window and says You got a five and five singles?

The attendant’s weary. He doesn’t want to give up his change. Abel turns to the crew: Who’s got a dollar? Give me a dollar. You got some change?You give him the dollar and he says to the camera, Now there, that’s a true democrat, before shoving the dollar in the cup the man on the ground holds up to him and saying, Okay, now remember, that’s mine.

He gets about halfway down Centre before he drops down on his heels and leans against a railing. Looking at me like he’s asking permission, he sits and says, Well come sit with me man, don’t leave me alone.You want to ask so many things. You try to talk about Bad Lieutenant, but Abel cuts you off — How can you talk about the films? You think it was easy for me to go into a church and desecrate it? It was fucking difficult man, to say the least. It brought up the guilt in me man, but it’s about being above that. For fear of missing a return to the subject at hand, you find yourself at a loss for words. The experience of coming face to face with an idol in the flesh is a dissembling one. Especially when it’s everything you ever expected.

But Abel’s in his element, and continues unprompted. Don’t think you have to be redeemed.To be redeemed, you have to be destroyed first. So it’s not about redemption. It’s about living a better life. Just getting started, he continues: In Chelsea, we were interviewing a Viet veteran, and this guy had died a couple times and come back to life. And ya know, in Vietnam, when a guy got wacked — I mean, when a guy got shot, you always held the guy…

He halts suddenly, something about the image striking him, with his hand moving in circles mid-air in front of him like some directorial semifore, saying silently, keep rolling, keep rolling.

He regains his bearing and goes on, or tries to: Because those — his voice breaking, catching in his throat — Because those 45 seconds between life and death… Are so… Now he breaks down, and it sounds like he’s about to cry. He stares at the ground and takes a deep breath to get through the thought. Then quietly, he finally comes to rest, and almost inaudibly, he says, They’re so important…

It’s a ghostly tone, one you haven’t heard from him previously. It’s like he’s somewhere else. You wait. In your training, you’ve learned it’s always better to listen, to see if there’s more. And there is. Abel’s only just getting there: Anyway, this guy, he got blown up, flew off a cliff, and when he came to, he heard this voice. And he says to the Voice — “Am I in Heaven, or in Hell?”… And the voice laughs and says to him, “You are in Heaven, and You Are in Hell.” Abel’s smiling again now, and you think you’re beginning to understand where he’s taking you.

He stands, shoots his arms through his cuffs, smooths back his shock of white curls, and looks at you. You gotta be constantly human, you dig? You gotta be constantly your own savior, and your own creator. There’s nothing you can say about these movies that you made, so you can’t — come on — he gestures to you to cross the street with him — So you can’t talk about films. You can only make ’em.

And like that, he moves to cross the street, abandoning all hope for survival as the cars whip past him, and the thought occurs to you that maybe there never was any expectation to survive. Maybe he really believed the answer to Who wants to live forever? was no one. Maybe he wanted to answer the rhetoric with his own life. Maybe he would live forever because of all he’d done and he knew that.

***

Over a decade later, leaving the Museum of Modern Art, wandering up toward Central Park, not sure of your bearings this far uptown still, even after all these years, Abel weaves in and out of the foot traffic and has that man-on-a-mission stature to his stride. So you fall in at his side, trying to keep up in the conversation and the pace.

After a while, he stops short, mid-sentence, and snaps at you — Man, where the fuck are we going? Where are you taking me?’

You make your way downtown and part ways. Abel smiles wide and there’s a joy in his eyes. Something you say makes him laugh. Or maybe it’s just the face of a man who hasn’t slept. He turns, throwing something about wanting to read your book over his shoulder. And then he’s gone, mixing into the crowd like Frank White in Times Square, rounding the corner. Again the question emerges: Was any of it real?

You watch him go and turn to walk east. But something’s strange, not right. Slowly you realize the date. It’s Spy Wednesday. The beginning of Holy Week. In a few days, it will be Easter. In Rome, the Order of the Franciscan Nazarenes will process, in robes and hoods, looking like Klansmen.

You can hear the bells at St. Anthony’s and Most Precious Blood ringing nearby. Tonight there will be a tenebrae service, a slow vanquishing of the holy candles, and then a strepitus toll, followed by nightlong matins and lauds. All around you on the walk back to LES, Catholic schoolboys in suits and ties wander the southside of Houston street. And as you pass Elizabeth Street, there’s a group of them singing.

Evan Louison is a New York writer. Abel Ferrara: Unrated runs May 1-31st at the Museum of Modern Art.

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