Ferrara, Abel

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Nationality: American. Born: The Bronx, New York, 1951. Education: Attended Rockland Community College, one year; State University of New York at Purchase. Career: While at SUNY, made a number of shorts; formed Navaron Films with long-term collaborator Nicholas St. John; directed television special, The Loner, for NBC, 1988. Awards: Independent Spirit Award nomination for best director, Independent Feature Project/West, 1993, for Bad Lieutenant.Address: William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


Not Guilty: For Keith Richards (short); Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy (+ ed, role as Old Man)


The Driller Killer (+ ed, role as Reno)


Ms.45 (Angel of Vengeance) (+ role as 1st Rapist)


Fear City


"The Home Invaders" and "The Dutch Oven" episodes of Miami Vice (for TV)


Gladiator; pilot episode of Crime Story (for TV)


China Girl


Cat Chaser


King of New York


Bad Lieutenant (+ co-sc)


Body Snatchers


Dangerous Game (Snake Eyes)


The Addiction


The Funeral; California


The Blackout (+ co-sc); Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground (segment of TV series Love on a Train)


New Rose Hotel (+ co-sc)


R-Xmas (+ co-sc)


By FERRARA: articles—

Interview with Julian Schnabel, in Interview, vol. 22, no. 12, December 1992.

"Abel down the Cable," interview with N. Helms, in Fatal Visions (Victoria, Australia), no. 18, February 1995.

"Abel Ferrara," interview with L. Bear, in Bomb, no. 53, Fall 1995.

"Cinq questions posees par Martin Scorsese," interview in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), no. 500, March 1996.

"Dealing with the Now," interview with G. Smith, in Sight andSound (London), April 1997.

On FERRARA: book—

Johnstone, Nick, Abel Ferrara: King of New York, New York, 2000.

On FERRARA: articles—

Newman, Kim, "The Street Where I Live—Abel Ferrara," in MonthlyFilm Bulletin, January 1988.

Smith, Gavin, "In the Gutter," in Film Comment, July/August 1990.

Smith, Gavin, "The Gambler," in Sight and Sound, February 1993.

Hoban, Phoebe, "Raising Cain," in New York, 1 February 1993.

Adams, Mark, "Abel Ferrara: The King of New York," in NationalFilm Theatre Programme, May 1993.

Article, in Velvet Light Trap, Autumn 1993.

Taubin, A., "Abel Revamps," in Village Voice (New York), 27 December 1994.

Macaulay, S., "Bloody Thoughts," in Filmmaker (Los Angeles), vol. 3, no. 2, 1995.

Webster, A., "Filmographies," in Premiere (Boulder), June 1995.

Trofimenkov, M., "Istina: $100 za gramm," in Isskustvo Kino (Moscow), no. 1, 1998.

* * *

According to Abel Ferrara: "There's only one kind of film to make, the kind you go all out on. Maybe some people don't like these subjects, but I don't think there can be any other subjects." To those horrified by the violence of his films he gives the uncompromising answer that "once you're an adult, then that's it; anything within the scope of an artist's imagination has got to be portrayed, and if you don't like it then leave." Given his in-your-face, unflinchingly brutal, yet unquestionable and still-developing sense of style, it's not surprising to discover that the director he most admires is Pasolini ("because he filmed his visions and did it without qualifications") and that the first film he remembers being taken to see was Douglas Sirk's devastating, no-holds-barred melodrama Imitation of Life. Ferrara is undoubtedly one of the most notable American directors to have emerged during the 1980s. His films have aroused considerable controversy, but even those who dislike them would be hard put to deny their kinetic energy and verve, and the remarkable performances at the heart of many of them (for example, Zoe Tamerlis in Ms.45, Christopher Walken in King of New York, and above all, Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant). To his admirers, though, he has been greeted in much the same terms that were used to hail Scorsese on the release of Mean Streets. Thus, Jim Shelley in the Guardian, "Ferrara is American cinema's most uncompromising maverick, someone who genuinely doesn't give a damn and one of the few American directors who not only has some kind of personal 'vision' but has the single-minded determination to express it." In the States Film Comment has championed Ferrara in much the same way as it did Scorsese in his early days; it named Ms.45 as one of the ten best films of 1981, and in 1990 Gavin Smith compared Ferrara's films to what Scorsese and Schrader "might have made together if they had remained in orbit around Taxi Driver's lurid nighttime New York and carried on exploring the pulp violence of Hardcore and Rolling Thunder and the ethnic obsessions of Mean Streets," praising his "way-out melodramas bursting with outrageous excess" for their "hyperbolic style, a subversive vein of sociopolitical comment, and a no-holds-barred pulp inventiveness" reminiscent of early Jonathan Demme and Larry Cohen.

Ferrara began making eight-millimeter shorts at high school with his friend Nicholas St. John, who went on to script Driller Killer, Ms.45, Fear City, China Girl, King of New York, and Dangerous Game/Snake Eyes. Their first feature together was Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy, a love story with fantasy elements, which they made after forming Navaron Films. Their first film to garner any attention, however, was The Driller Killer, which became something of a cult hit on the drive-in circuit in the States. In Britain, by contrast, this story of a New York artist who goes crazy and starts attacking derelicts with an electric drill became infamous as one of the films which started off the "video nasty" panic in the early 1980s, and soon found itself totally banned both on film and video, the victim of a particularly rabid and ill-informed campaign by an ill-matched alliance of pro-censorship campaigners and a sensation-hungry and grotesquely hypocritical tabloid press which revelled in what it purported to condemn. In all the furor of condemnation and vilification, no journalist or critic actually bothered to see the offending item, of course. The only magazine that attempted (in vain) to stem the tide of outraged censoriousness was the British Film Institute's Monthly Film Bulletin, which devoted several articles to this and other "videos maudits," with the present writer daring to suggest that The Driller Killer was a film of "very considerable merit," and horror guru Kim Newman noting that although "The Driller Killer has a collage of revolting sights and sounds unmatched since Peeping Tom and Performance . . . there is no denying the cheapskate proficiency with which Ferrara puts his films together, or the painful accuracy of his probing for the unhealthy nerve." He also suggests that its central character, Reno (played by Ferrara himself), is "perhaps the only psycho in the movies to be driven mad by economic/environmental, rather than sexual/psychological, factors." Whatever the case, any cinema in Britain that tried to show Driller Killer, or any shop that tried to rent or sell a video of it, would even today risk a visit from the police, a court case, and a hate campaign by the press.

Ferrara's next film, Ms.45 is the story of a mute young woman (Zoe Tamerlis) who is raped twice in a single afternoon and turns into an angel of vengeance (the film's alternate title) by dressing up as a nun and blasting away at everybody until she is stabbed (put out of her misery?) by a female friend. It might be described as the first pro-feminist exploitation film. [Tamerlis claims an assault was made on her life because of the strong female avenger image she created in the film.] Thanks partly to the advocacy of William Friedkin, Ms. 45 was taken up and distributed by Warner Bros. In Britain, meanwhile, it was not released in cinemas and heavily cut on video. By this time Ferrara's name spelled danger to an increasingly nervous British Board of Film Classification, although the fuss over The Driller Killer had brought him to the admiring attention of many horror aficionados. There followed the bigger-budget Fear City, starring Tom Berenger and Melanie Griffith. This story of the hunt for a psychopath who mutilates and kills strippers also failed to find a cinema release in Britain and was cut to bits on video. In the States, however, it brought Ferrara to the attention of Michael Mann, for whom he directed two first-season episodes of Miami Vice ("Home Invaders" and "Dutch Oven") and the pilot of Crime Story, all displaying his customary style and verve. China Girl updated Romeo and Juliet (and West Side Story) to take in a love story set against conflict between the Chinatown and Little Italy districts of New York. Cat Chaser remains the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard thriller to date (Alan Sharp provided the first-rate screenplay), even though Ferrara himself left the project before the ediing was completed to work on The King of New York. This is one of his very finest films.

The story of a gangster with a moral streak (he wants to save a children's hospital with funds raised from drug-dealing) pitted against three cops who break every moral code in the book, this is a truly stunning contemporary "film noir" and can also be read as a wry comment on Reaganite (and Thatcherite) "trickle down" economics, or as a very dark-hued Robin Hood for our times. Christopher Walken's performance as the ambitious crook-with-a-conscience is nothing short of mesmeric. When he's confronted on a subway by several black youths out to rob him, we see in his response to them what makes him "king of New York" for the 1980s. Instead of shooting the youths, he tosses them a wad of cash and tells them to report to his Plaze Hotel suite headquarters if them want more.

Even more remarkable, however, is Harvey Keitel as the utterly ravaged, almost deranged cop in Bad Lieutenant, undoubtedly Ferrara's darkest, bleakest, most tormented film, and a frighteningly intense addition to the cinema of abjection. This is also the film in which the curious religious streak, almost always present in Ferrara's work, is closest to the surface. For although Bad Lieutenant presents us with an appalling catalogue of human turpitude, it is, ultimately, a story of redemption, and one presented in often quite explicitly Christian terms; as Mark Kermode put it in a perceptive review of the film in Sight and Sound, "like The Exorcist, the film frequently seems to revel in obscenity, but remains draped throughout in the pious clothing of the priesthood." Similarly, Variety compared it to Ingmar Bergman's The Silence in that it "tackled the subject of God's absence from people's lives in such a sexually explicit and morbid context." The comparison with Bergman is also telling in that this harsh, tortured film, with its spare, elliptical, real-time narrative, delivers almost none of the conventional pleasures normally associated with "Hollywood" cinema, coming across instead as a particularly angst-ridden, contemporary "art movie." As such, it's a film to admire rather than like, but it does prove triumphantly (as if proof were needed) that Keitel is an absolutely major talent and that Ferrara, as well as being a fine visual stylist, is a first-class actor's director. As he himself put it: "the most fulfilling part of directing is to create a space for a performance. To be there for the actor, and to find the actors who can do it." Much of Keitel's performance seems to be improvised (for example, the infamous and queasy long-drawn-out scee in which he frenziedly masturbates whilst harassing two young female traffic offenders, all the while mouthing obscenities) but, just like Jack Nicholson's celebrated dope-smoking scene in Easy Rider, one suspects it isn't. As Ferrara himself puts it: "Improvisation is a funny concept because the basis of any great improvisation is great material, a great script, to begin with. And then it's very hard to say where it starts and stops. These scenes have been discussed and worked on and written together, so who knows where that improv begins or where there are real lines."

In a different key altogether is Body Snatchers, the third feature film version (this time set claustrophobically in a sealed-off military base rather than a small town or big city) of Jack Finney's classic parable of the loss of individualism and identity. It is the least successful of the trio, however, due to its trouble production history which involved multiple rewrites, the firing of its original director, and Ferrara's stepping into that role well after pre-production. The result was neither as gripping as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Don Siegel, nor as suffused in urban paranoia as Phil Kaufman's 1978 remake.

Dangerous Game reunited Ferrara with Keitel in a film-within-afilm which he has described as being like "Who's Afraid of VirginiaWoolf? on acid." Certainly it's an extraordinarily reflexive and self-conscious work where it's often made extremely difficult to work out the reality status of the images we're watching, which is something of a new departure for Ferrara and seems to take us back into "art movie" territory. On the other hand, the remark by Keitel's Eddie Israel, the director of Mother of Mirrors, the film-within-the-film, that "the ultimate is pain and suffering—that's what it takes to survive" could well be taken — as evidenced by this and Ferrara's next feature, The Addiction, a gloomy tale of vampirism among the drug culture — as a distillation of the Ferrara philosophy and a summary of the import of his entire oeuvre.

—Julian Petley, updated by John McCarty

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