MIAMI - Only a certain kind of person took up residence at New York’s notorious Chelsea Hotel. Arthur Miller, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan and Dennis Hopper all lived there. Andy Warhol directed a film there. Sex Pistols lead singer Sid Vicious was charged with stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there. Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” there.
And, eventually, director Abel Ferrara was drawn into the Chelsea’s fold. An iconoclastic artist who has straddled the line between mainstream Hollywood studio movies and fiercely independent pictures, Ferrara is a rambunctious, unpredictable auteur who has made commercial entertainments that have earned considerable cult followings and scabrous, smaller films that sometimes seem to dare the viewer to keep watching until the end credits.
Thursday he was to be honored at the Miami International Film Festival’s Career Achievement Tribute.
In “Chelsea on the Rocks,” being screened at the tribute and his first foray into documentary filmmaking, Ferrara introduces us to past and present denizens of the Chelsea as it undergoes a gentrification from free-for-all hideout for artists, outcasts and loners into yet another luxury, upscale resort in its trendy Manhattan neighborhood.
In the process, Ferrara - who occasionally stumbles into the frame in mid-interview or breaks out into a hacking cough, or even sets the camera on himself - becomes a kindred spirit to the people he introduces. Some are famous (actor Ethan Hawke, Oscar-winning director Milos Forman); others are ordinary working-class folks who found the hotel’s chaotic, bohemian vibe a perfect match for their lifestyle. They share a lot of wild anecdotes - stories about drug overdoses and suicides, all-night parties and public mental breakdowns, encounters between legendary stars and even supernatural occurrences.
In other words, the hotel is a perfect milieu for Ferrara, that true original: There is simply no mistaking his movies for those of anyone else. He also happens to be emblematic of the increasingly personal, intimate style of filmmaking emanating the world over, another factor that led festival organizers to honor him.
“Yesterday I saw the final edit of the tribute reel we’ll be showing at the screening, and I was so moved,” says festival director Tiziana Finzi, who came up with the idea of presenting Ferrara with his first career tribute within the United States. “He’s had a 30-year career, and I had forgotten completely about a lot of his early movies. When you look at his body of work, you realize his movies may be very powerful studies of drugs, religion, violence and family relationships, but at the center they are also very romantic and loving.”
Those may seem like odd words to apply to Ferrara’s best-known films, which include “Bad Lieutenant,” the infamous NC-17 rated character study of a corrupt, coke-addicted, alcoholic cop (immortally played by Harvey Keitel) who investigates the rape of a nun; the seminal gangster classic “King of New York,” in which Christopher Walken stars as a mobster who gets out of prison and sets out to conquer Manhattan’s $1 billion drug trade by whatever means necessary, most of them predictably violent; and the harrowing “Dangerous Game,” in which Keitel played a film director who juggles a troubled marriage and an abusive affair with his leading lady (played by Madonna).
But look past their often sleazy, occasionally repulsive exteriors, and Ferrara’s films - from such early exploitation fare as “Driller Killer” and” Fear City,” to his more recent, pensive output such as “The Funeral” and the religious allegory “Mary” - all wind up as profoundly humane explorations of guilt and redemption, of people struggling on the fringes of life with mortal sin and conscience, with lost souls who hope beyond hope for a path, or at least a sign post, toward salvation.
Speaking from New York on a scratchy, near-unintelligible connection, the raspy-voiced, Bronx-born Ferrara, 57, admits to being fascinated by those recurring themes, particularly when focused around protagonists living on the fringes.
“What else is there to make a film about, other than who we are and why we’re here?” he says. “What other subject matter is there other than what happens next? There are no more interesting subjects than that, especially when you’re dealing with people on the margins of life.”
A lot of the people we meet in “Chelsea on the Rocks” qualify as marginalized - an old woman who screams whenever anyone gets near; a sidewalk artist who makes a living selling paintings of the hotel to tourists - but their stories fascinate Ferrara as much as the ones told by celebrities such as Hawke, who speaks candidly about moving into the hotel during the dissolution of his marriage to actress Uma Thurman, or director Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus”), who relates wild anecdotes about events he witnessed while living there during the 1970s.
“Milos is just an incredible guy,” Ferrara says. “He was like a classic mentor of the Chelsea Hotel Society, because he had lived there twice, and the stories he tells are outrageous. I like that you get to see the real side of people in ‘Chelsea on the Rocks.’ I’ve always said every film is a documentary of sorts, no matter how narrative someone wants to make it, because they’re all ultimately about getting to the honest relationship between a director and an actor. That’s why documentaries were always something I wanted to do.”
The experience proved so rewarding that Ferrara is putting the finishing touches on his second documentary, “Mulberry St.,” about the annual Feast of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy. The movie will be screened as a work-in-progress during the festival along with several other seldom-seen Ferrara films, including “Mary,” starring Juliette Binoche as an actress in the role of Mary Magdalene in a biblical drama, and “Go Go Tales,” a rare Ferrara foray into comedy that stars Willem Dafoe as a nightclub owner trying to stave off eviction.
Although “Mary” and “Go Go Tales” have been screened extensively in Europe, they have barely been shown in the United States, a testament to how Ferrara, like his characters, has become somewhat of a fringe artist. He has worked successfully within the Hollywood studio system, directing episodes of TV’s “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story” and a big-budget “Body Snatchers” remake and maintains a cabal of A-list actors (including Keitel, Walken, Dafoe and Matthew Modine) who remain at his disposal whenever a new project arises.
But Ferrara, who recently moved back to New York City after living in Italy for several years, says he’s more comfortable drumming to his own beat, away from the Hollywood infrastructure.
“When you work in Hollywood, you have to constantly fight the elements that want to make things more mundane, which makes it more difficult to maintain your vision,” he says. “That gets harder and harder to do after a while. I eventually decided I had had enough of them, and they had had enough of me. Besides, being from New York, I’m used to going where the money and the films are, anyway. New York is really the financial center where you raise financing. Making films under the circumstances of studios ... I don’t know. There are other ways to do things.”