Over the last few months I’ve been diving back into the films of Abel Ferrara. When I was 16 and was old enough to start renting videos without getting age checked, I took full advantage and started hording the films I was never allowed to see when I was younger. I had already been reading the “Leonard Maltin Video Guide” as if it were scripture since I was 12, memorizing directors and their works, making lists of films that I had to watch, almost as if it were some kind of “vision quest” I had to take before I could enter manhood.
I didn’t ease into his work. As per Leonard Maltin’s guide, I picked the “quintessential” Ferrara film at the time – BAD LIEUTENANT.
This wasn’t my first NC-17 film though. That honor belonged to Paul Verhoven’s SHOW GIRLS. I handled that one pretty well, so expecting something similar to that experience, I popped the tape into the VCR. The next 90 minutes affected me in a way that I didn’t expect… I HATED IT. Why on God’s green earth would someone want to watch a film about a corrupt, misogynistic police man who’s addicted to drugs, gambling and prostitutes? Why would somebody subject themselves to a film that is basically plotless, a film with so much grit and grime that you feel like you need to baptize yourself after watching it? I immediately wrote the film off and moved on with my life, but couldn’t help but wonder… what are his other films like?
I took a chance on KING OF NEW YORK, not as jarring as the previous, still pretty entertaining, but still didn’t grab me. Mind you this was the late 90’s, and everything I saw I compared to what Tarantino, DePalma and Scorsese were doing at the time. I kept it going – NEW ROSE HOTEL, THE FUNERAL, BODY SNATCHERS.. they were all fine (by my standards as a teen) but I still just didn’t “get it”.
Then one day I was buying records at a yard sale. The dude had a stack of video cassettes. DVD was still in it’s infancy, and my collection of cassettes was around 400 at that time (most of them bootlegs…). In the stack I saw two films I had never heard of. Ms.45 and CHINA GIRL. At a buck a piece, who the hell was I to argue. I paid the man and later that night popped in Ms. 45. Once again, like BAD LIEUTENANT, the first 30 minutes made me feel disgusted. A story of a perfectly innocent girl, raped TWICE on the same day on the way to her apartment. I was about to just turn it off when… she ends up killing the second rapist in her apartment and puts his body in the tub, only to dismember it later and scatter the pieces throughout the city! Okay… that was badass… what now? As disturbing as it was, I finished the movie and felt completely changed by it, not necessarily in a good way, but seeing the pattern of this guy’s work, maybe I was too quick to compare his films to the more mainstream ones of the day.
Next I put in CHINA GIRL – which I FUCKING LOVED. This newer take of the Romeo and Juliet set in New York on the street that divides Little Italy and China Town, I started to see that this guy LOVES New York and knows how to shoot it, The respect for the city- The dirt, the grime, the rats, the crime… New York is his canvas and trashy cinema his paintbrush.
I went back to his other films, with a different mindset. I started to see what he was doing, where he was coming from. These weren’t the streets of New York captured by Scorsese in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and King of Comedy… these were the alleyways and avenues behind the streets, where the real monsters lurked. I stopped thinking of his films as “cinematic”, instead I thought of them as visceral – an experience meant to create an emotional response of disgust, yet also gratitude that I was tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Suburbia.
I never watched any of his films past NEW ROSE HOTEL in 1998. Someday I might. Most of them are not well favored and I feel like I would think differently about him as a filmmaker if I didn’t like them. That being said, I can honestly say that I’m not an Abel Ferrara fan, as there as quite a few of his films that I didn’t enjoy, but there is no doubt that when I even look at the cover of some of his films (Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant specifically)… I get a little sick to my stomach…
Good Filmmaker or not, an emotional response like that has to account for something.