There are two main reasons why filmmaker Abel Ferrara isn’t a familiar name—on the order of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, say—to most moviegoers. The more obvious one is that he’s chosen to project an unruly, law-unto-himself public image that defies the rules of today’s celebrity-oriented media. The more important reason is that Ferrara has dedicated most of his career to probing ambiguous issues of guilt, innocence, temptation, and transcendence through stories and images supercharged with graphic sex, explosive violence, and a vast array of antisocial attitudes. In addition to alienating all camps in the culture wars, this combination of the cerebral and the sensational makes his movies hard to categorize as either cinematic art or Saturday-night entertainment.
All of which places Ferrara in the small club of directors who have amply proved their ability to make accomplished genre pictures—and then done the opposite, foregoing mass-audience popularity in favor of personal projects that are aesthetically offbeat and morally complex. Scorsese and Tarantino do this intermittently; Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker do it all the time; Ferrara does it more and more. Ten years ago he was the skillful director of Ms. 45 and China Girl, smart low-budget thrill rides. Today he’s the radically idiosyncratic maker of The Blackout and New Rose Hotel and ‘R Xmas, posing narrative provocations and ethical conundrums in scene after scene.
Those wanting an introduction to Ferrara’s work should check out Bad Lieutenant, his 1992 meditation on sin, absolution, and spirituality in the guise of a lurid detective yarn. Then move on to The Addiction, a metaphysical vampire film comprising one of cinema’s boldest confrontations with the 20th century’s unspeakably dark heart. Cope with these grim masterpieces and cinema won’t ever look the same.
One place not to go for an introduction is Nicole Brenez’s new book, Abel Ferrara, even though Brenez belongs to the minority of critics who treat Ferrara with the respect he deserves. While her intentions are commendable, the results are not.
Brenez isn’t writing for Ferrara newcomers, to be sure, or for people unfamiliar with the loftier heights of film-critical discourse. A critic, curator, and film professor in Paris, she takes it for granted that readers will grasp offhand references to such varied fields as anarchist literature, existentialist politics, Hollywood and avant-garde cinema, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Plus technical terms from clinical psychology and Roman Catholic theology (e.g., “hyperdulia,” cursorily glossed; “anagogy,” incorrectly defined) tossed in for show-off purposes. Well-versed readers will navigate through this display easily enough, but it erases the book’s potential usefulness for intelligent people who don’t happen to be semiotically au courant.
Even intelligent people who are semiotically au courant may quickly lose patience with the book’s tortuous language. In a discussion of Bad Lieutenant, for instance, we learn that two “figural energies” are in play there—“figurative elasticity, which concerns the amplitude of the vibration between the matrix and each of its singular echoes,” and “iconographic fertility, which concerns the possible diversity of the echoes”—and that together these “processes and their attendant energies” manifest “the extent of visual approximation that the matrix can bear (all the way to apparent dissimilitude) in figurative elasticity and the constant renewal of the motifs (all the way to their apparent dispersion) in iconographic fertility,” thus attesting “to the gravity of the complex that the film addresses.”
Whew. It may be a tad unfair to take these lines out of context, but the context doesn’t illuminate this particular matrix all that persuasively. (For starters, is that slippage from “energies” to “processes” inadvertent, or what?) Examples like this are legion. Here’s another: “According to ethical infinity, amour fou and the total communion of two subjects must never be renounced, even if one must die to avoid this mourning.” That isn’t quite so obscure, but it still reads like one of those computer-generated translations so hilariously provided by some websites.
While most of the book’s linguistic howlers are attributable to Brenez, its translator—critic Adrian Martin, who knows a thing or two about Ferrara himself—has to shoulder responsibility too. A non-word like “preventative” and a solecism like “has not yet drank enough” can pass in an email, but not in a serious critical text. It’s true that the protagonist of Ms. 45 utters just one word in the entire film, but this hardly qualifies the moment as “loquacious.” It’s interesting to assert that the “conceptual elaboration of an allegory ... opposes itself to the principle of recognition ... which is the realm where archetypes work,” but assertion is no substitute for explanation, especially when a hitherto well-understood word like “allegory” is taking on new meaning before our very eyes.
These are venial sins. Moving up the scale, we find many factual mistakes. Movies as different as Steven Spielberg’s telefilm Duel and some of Ferrara’s own pictures are inaccurately described. John Cassavetes is lumped with filmmakers who “explicitly conceive of their work as a vast enterprise of political critique,” which must have the passionately apolitical Cassavetes turning in his grave. And so on.
What’s most surprising in Abel Ferrara is how retro its main theoretical anchors are. There’s a positive side to this: Too many writers automatically assume that ideas conceptualized this morning are automatically more advanced than notions dreamed up the day before yesterday. It’s refreshing to encounter a film scholar who still takes Augustine and Lucretius seriously.
And yet, and yet. Contemporary thought is valid too, and it’s curious that Brenez references almost no critical theorists more recent than Jean-Paul Sartre, the Frankfurt School, and a phenomenologist or two. She might have strengthened her account of Ferrara’s social critique by drawing on Michel Foucault’s ideas about the linkage of power and knowledge in modernity, for instance. The concepts of “desiring machines” and “nomadic subjects” cooked up by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari could have been enormously useful.
To ignore the past several decades of relevant thought is the writer’s privilege, especially in a relatively short book. Still, it’s odd to find such a sweeping omission in a study of such a quintessentially up-to-the-minute filmmaker. Nor does Brenez make optimum use of the theoretical frameworks she does deploy. For example, she approvingly quotes Ferrara collaborator Zoë Lund as saying that in Ms. 45, which deals with rape, the protagonist’s boss hasn’t raped anyone “in the clinical sense” but is the story’s “real rapist” anyway, just because he’s a boss. This is a trip down Marxist Memory Lane that even we Last Known Ultra-leftists have to find quaint.
Strangest of all is the fan-club enthusiasm of Brenez’s approach, complete with genuflections to “the Ferraran genius” and a dogged refusal to distinguish his most thoroughly realized films, such as Body Snatchers and King of New York, from minor, less imaginative projects like The Driller Killer and Fear City. She mentions his key creative partners from time to time, yet writes as if almost every aspect of almost every film sprang directly from Ferrara’s imagination to the screen.
Nor does she address practical issues, such as the impact of different-sized budgets on different Ferrara films, and the variations in style between Ken Kelsch, his usual director of photography, and Bojan Bazelli, who has shot some of his most visually stunning films. In addition to reducing Brenez’s credibility, the book’s peculiar blend of unabashed cheerleading and gnarly intellectualism is utterly untrue to the intuitive poetics of the films it strains so hard (and needlessly) to justify.
Brenez does gesture toward even-handedness a couple of times, but her heart isn’t in it. She dumps on Cat Chaser, a reasonably good genre film. And in a weird acknowledgment that Ferrara’s work has “aesthetic limitations,” she writes that it “needs characters, narrative, mise en scène, and genre,” among many other things. If she wanted to say his movies lack these elements, why didn’t she (or her translator) just say so? In any case, Ferrara hasn’t inexplicably left characters, narrative, and the rest out of his movies; if he had, would Brenez be so keen on him?
And keen she definitely is. Ferrara’s films don’t just comment on the relationship between killing and creating images, they “explore all possible variations” on the theme. The Blackout isn’t just daring, it “takes every conceivable risk.” The protagonist of The Addiction doesn’t merely indicate the limits of intellectual discourse, she “symbolically exhausts every option of western philosophy.” Wow!
If you’re really interested in intellectual discourse, try parsing Brenez’s prose as a training exercise. It can be done—there’s little here that makes no sense at all—but an awful lot of mental labor is needed to access the book’s occasional insights, and reading it will be counterproductive if you don’t know Ferrara’s films well enough to fill in the arguments’ missing links.
Two examples of this. Brenez lists the gun-wielding Thana of Ms. 45 among various Ferrara characters who are “filled with an overflowing pain and a sublime ethical project ...” Several pages earlier, though, she has quoted Ferrara as saying that one of Thana’s motivations is “pleasure of a sexual kind in violence.” This pleasure may be compatible with a sublime ethical project, but it would take a moral philosopher more articulate than Brenez to make the case.
Tackling morality from another angle, Brenez summarizes a basic tenet of Ferrara’s work with the statement, “The only story is the story of evil.” This is suggestive as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far, since it leaves no room for the Christian redemption that surges irresistibly through Ferrara’s most powerful films. That includes his latest completed feature, Mary, which also has moments of sheer visual splendor that make you wonder how Brenez could have even considered saying that “the beautiful appears nowhere in his representations.”
Ferrara’s cinema tells a story of good as well as evil, beauty as well as horror. To deny this is to deny the full sophistication of his creativity, which is mysterious, paradoxical, and ungraspable. Like his movies, his vision rests uneasily in the merely analytical mind. It is rich, strange, anomalous. Above all it is large, containing multitudes.
- Excerpts Chapter One: A Cinema of Negation
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