Crime and Punishment
It started quickly for Ferrara in 1990. The script entitled "King of New York", written by himself and longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John was given a modest release around the country, largely thanks to the screen presence of Christopher Walken. It began to gather steam with the New York Critics and Film Comment crowd (who are always ready to embrace a new vision of New York) and gradually grew. Not everyone fell in love with Ferrara's effort though- including Roger Ebert who quoted that Ferrara can't go much further on pure style, instead needing a sound script*. But if anything, "King of New York" opened up several viable options for Ferrara. Even if his films weren't for all tastes, there was a genuine cult base to his scruffy compilations of crime and punishment in the big apple. His next movie, "Bad Lieutenant", felt like a major "fuck off" to anyone who dared to go along with its vile outlook on religion, cops and salvation. The film is a litmus test, that's for sure. There are invariably those who walk out on it the minute Ferrara frames Keitel's genitals just outside the screen as he masturbates and makes two teenage girls pantomime sexual gratifications. And then if one makes it that far, they have to endure Keitel drunk and screaming bloody murder at the image of Jesus coming down off the cross. It's not an easy film to love (or for that matter even admire), but I somehow feel like it was meant as a purge for Ferrara. His pessimistic worldview often spews off the screen, whether he's dealing with racism, sexual aggression or personal interaction. In "Bad Lieutenant", Keitel explores all of these as the title character. But he also experiences slight salvation in a final gesture. Yes, there are plenty of images and words to combat against in "Bad Lieutenant", but there's also a deep understanding of subliminal emotions and cathartic release. There is a method to his madness.
And madness is what seemed to propel Ferrara for the next four years, producing a film a year. Even though his work was getting very little commercial recognition (though "Bad Lieutenant" received an Independent Spirit award nomination for best feature as well as Keitel winning for best actor), there were enough responses to his work that studios continued to finance his films. His one attempt at mainstream acclaim happened in 1993 with his remake of Jack Finney's novel, "Body Snatchers". It's probably Ferrara's most ordinary film, both in style and construction. There is some fun to be had by the way Ferrara back lights almost everyone except Gabrielle Anwar, providing featureless shadows that generate a sense of anonymity among the alien-or-not population. It didn't perform well at the box office and received middling reviews, shuffling Ferrara back behind Nicholas St. John scripts and meagerly financed independent pictures. This is probably the smartest thing he could have done.
1994 saw Ferrara churning out two wildy different films. First, there was the black and white vampire flick starring Lili Taylor entitled "The Addiction", which dealt more with the philosophical meanderings of its literate bloodsuckers rather than bloodletting. Stylish and cool, it's a film that feels joined-at-the-hip with other low budget independent features such as Michael Almereyda's "Nadja" and Larry Fesenden's "Habit". It's tempting to say this was the "in" type of film to produce during this time, but its also indicative of a certain state of low-budget filmmaking in the mid 90's. One has to place 1994 within the confines of a heavily mutating style of filmmaking that was beginning to see its virtual end-of-life after just 5 years of Sundance glory and studio manipulation. Neo-noir was played out and filmmakers were searching for new ways to digest old genres in fashionable and ultra-cool manners (see Jarmusch's treatment of the western in "Dead Man" just 1 year later). The vampire film was certainly due for a re-visualization and Ferrara's attraction to characters dealing with pent-up frustration seemed like the perfect substitute for closeted New York vampires. Helped by the murky black and white photography (by long-time DP Ken Kelsch), "The Addiction" is a film that gets better on repeat viewings. Once one gets over the fact that this is not a horror film, but simply another workmanlike exercise for Ferrara to analyze sex, violence, sin and redemption in the big apple, it goes down a lot easier. And this is not a bad thing- to me anyway. Images are often obscured to the point of abstraction and the voice-over (in monotone) lends an eerie mood to the film. It's also one of the more emotionally charged works in Ferrara's oeuvre, dispensing with his usual clinical attitude towards motivation and giving us a character in Lili Taylor who we sympathize with.
This underlying sadness of "The Addiction" is not lost in translation. This was coming from somewhere very specific. Around this same time, writer Nicholas St. John dealt with the death of his young son. This script and the even more emotionally volatile "The Funeral" (filmed two years later) evolved directly from that mournful period of his life**.
The next film in '94 was "Dangerous Game" aka "Snake Eyes" starring, yes, Madonna. Routinely dismissed as a minor or even bad work from Ferrara, I find it to be one of the more elative pieces of his career. Detailing the production shoot of a film-within-the-film, Harvey Keitel plays the director, managing the on-screen disintegration of his actors played by Madonna and James Russo. The insanity on the imaginary film soon spills over into real life as the drugs, booze and territorial sexual transgressions bleeds into real life. "Dangerous Game" is a hall of mirrors, literally, and we're never sure when Ferrara is playing with us. For example, throughout the film-within-the-film, we're given quick glimpses of the clapboard and with the film's title (called "Hall of Mirrors"). Halfway through the film, one clapboard reads with Abel Ferrara's name. Innocent continuity error or something more self-reflexive? With Ferrara, one gets the sense he's not a man who fucks around. I can imagine "Dangerous Game" being the closest we ever come to a documentary about the curt artist. But even if the misogyny seeps through the screen, Madonna and James Russo, as the on-screen married couple hurtling towards certified disaster, they're bold creations in Ferrara' body of work. How often can one say that about Madonna?
It was 1996 before Ferrara returned behind the camera with the aforementioned "The Funeral". Littered with his largest cast yet, its a searing chamber piece about the intertwined lives of 3 brothers in 1930's New York. When their mob lifestyle catches up with them, the morbid humor dries up and "The Funeral" becomes a somber period piece that's articulately acted and carefully photographed. Starring Christopher Walken, Chris Penn and Vincent Gallo as the tightly wound mafioso clan, "The Funeral" continues something he started in "Dangerous Game"- the illumination of some fearless performances by women, this time in the visage of Annabelle Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini as the wives. "The Funeral" erupts into shattering scenes of sadness and despair as the brothers mourn the death of their youngest, and again, its clearly a representation of the despairing situation of the film's writer. The moment that Chris Penn's anger and sadness explode on the screen, its not hard to imagine him acting as a syphon for the flood of emotions locked inside Nicholas St. John. This film, as well as "The Addiction", deserve the light of day on DVD.
Ferrara wasn't working in anonymity during this time. He reached some of the highest peaks of critical acclaim from 1990-1996. Besides the already noted awards of "Bad Lieutenant", Ferrara's mid-90's work was also graced with a Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival (for "The Addiction") and the runner up prize at the Venice Film Festival the next year for "The Funeral". Add to that the growing reputation amongst the New York film critics, and it would seem Ferrara was on a crash course for devising his masterpiece. Instead, he would not see another film released theatrically in the United States and become dependent on foreign finance and relegated to the film festival circuit for the next 10 years.
*Chicago Sun Times, 10-07-1990
**Time Out Guide, '07 ed.
Read Part 1 here.