Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V. > calendar
October 2018, arsenal cinema

King of New York – Abel Ferrara Retrospective

MS .45, 1981

Abel Ferrara is a survival artist. An artist who has survived much, a survivor who makes art, and who sometimes make his own survival into art. He survived a childhood in the Bronx and a strict Catholic upbringing, as well as countless subsequent alcohol and drug escapades. He has also survived as a filmmaker, as he was able to reinvent himself several times over the course of his career. He started out in the 70s quite literally in the gutter, shooting filthy exploitation and porn films in the darkest corners of his home city of New York, which had yet to see any sort of gentrification. In the 80s, he worked his way into the mainstream and had become one of the key representatives of the new American independent cinema by the 90s. Today, most of his films are made in Europe. But it’s ultimately unimportant who produces Ferrara’s films, which genre he works in, whether he has large amounts of money and a vast studio apparatus at his disposal or whether he makes his films with a few close friends and funds them more or less from his own pocket; he still tackles every project with the same irrepressible energy. All that really counts in his cinema are its moments of highly personal affect. In her book on Ferrara, French film scholar Nicole Brenez described this idea as follows: “Ferrara needs the crowd, the street, and human commerce. His critique does not use the weapons of objectivity; it responds to the real like a sigh responds to a kiss, or a cry answers a blow.” Arsenal is showing twelve feature-length films by this exceptional director from all phases of his career. The selection was curated by Lukas Foerster.

BAD LIEUTENANT (Abel Ferrara, USA 1992, 5.10., with an introduction by Michael Kienzl, & 19.10.) Ferrara’s most obsessive film is based on a script by Zoë Lund, who also appears in a supporting role. At its heart is a nameless police officer (Harvey Keitel) already hopelessly trapped in a spiral of drugs, debts, and sexual obsession even as the film is just beginning. He eventually loses any sort of foothold after meeting a nun who has been raped; it’s not the crime itself that makes his anger burn white-hot, but rather the fact that the woman has forgiven her attackers. BAD LIEUTENANT is like a Catholic answer to Taxi Driver: a baroque big city odyssey that has lost none of its dark power today. In 2018, the final shot before the Trump Plaza Hotel feels like a veritable prophecy: “It all happens here”.

KING OF NEW YORK (Abel Ferrara, Italy/USA 1990, 6. & 10.10.) Ferrara began the 90s, his most productive decade, with the ultimate New York film, a perfectly stylish gangster movie whose eruptions of violence seem to emerge directly from the depths of the shimmering blue street canyons. Christopher Walken plays gangster boss Frank White, who picks up the same line of business much where he left off after being released from prison. Trailed by rival gangs and the hardly any less amoral police, White rolls through New York in a black limousine, his mask-like visage illuminated by the lights of the city, accompanied on the soundtrack for the first time by rap by Schooly D, with whom Ferrera was to work again several times in the period that followed.

MS .45 (Abel Ferrara, USA 1981, 6. & 18.10.) Zoë Lund, who was just 17 when the film was shot, plays Thana, a mute seamstress, who is raped twice at the beginning of the film before mutating into a sort of goddess of revenge that descends upon the New York Garment District. Her campaign against male wrongdoers of all kinds grows slowly, but surely into an entirely unhinged rampage, whose psychedelic dimension come to the fore at the very latest in the finale when Thana puts on a nun’s costume. The Catholic obsessions that Ferrara shares with his regular screenwriter Nicholas St. John crackle here in the sort of unfiltered fashion seldom seen on screen in his later films. MS .45 is an exploitation cinema classic with a long, complicated history of censorship; we are showing both the slightly cut international release version, as well as the marginally longer German dubbed version.

WELCOME TO NEW YORK (Abel Ferrara, USA/France 2014, 8. & 21.10.) Its theme comes straight from the tabloid headlines, the leading role is played by one of the biggest stars of his generation, who gives a memorably exhibitionist performance of self-exposure, and the premiere took place in a tent on the beach in Cannes after the festival’s selection committee rejected the film: there can be no doubt that WELCOME TO NEW YORK is Ferrera’s return to the wild punk attitude of his early career. Yet his adaptation of the affair surrounding French politician and former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn (embodied, in the fullest sense of the word, by Gérard Depardieu) is hardly speculative gossip cinema, but rather a thoughtful study on narcissism and self-protection mechanisms.

THE FUNERAL (Abel Ferrara, USA 1996, 11. & 16.10.) One of the Tempio brothers is already dead at the start of the film, while two of the others, Ray (Christopher Walken) and Chez (Chris Penn), both of whom brutal gangsters, swear to bring the one responsible to justice. Their revenge campaign soon takes on a surprising, self-destructive dynamic all of its own. Another gangster film akin to a ticking time bomb, with a starry cast (Benicio del Toro, Vincent Gallo, and Isabella Rossellini appear in supporting roles) and comparatively straightforward plot, which admittedly doesn’t move towards the future but rather into the past, towards melodrama and self-examination.

THE ADDICTION (Abel Ferrara, USA 1995, 11.10.) Student Kathleen Konklin (Lili Taylor) is followed by mysterious stranger (Annabella Sciorra) and bitten by her. Afterwards, she herself begins to develop an appetite for blood. THE ADDICTION is a vampire film like no other: no bloodthirsty monster hunt, but rather an introspective investigation of the spirit, filmed in atmospheric black and white. The focus is not on the fear of the undead, but rather the philosophical community of vampires: lost souls who long for death, but who are repeatedly confronted with the dark depths of their own morals as they continue to endure. “Ferrara’s universe is based on a Catholic existentialism that has to a certain extent been extinguished, an existentialism for which being human is inseparable from a personal relationship to evil – we’re all addicts”. (Marjorie Baumgarten)

THE DRILLER KILLER (Abel Ferrara, USA 1979, 12. & 20.10.) A low budget exploitation film shot on grainy 16mm film stock, at once a valuable document of the cult midnight movies of the 70s and a mission statement on the part of filmmaker Ferrara: it’s about guilt and forgiveness, the appeal of evil, and above all the relationship between life and art. The director himself takes on the leading role: Reno Miller is a psychotic painter living in a small apartment on Union Square (Ferrara’s own apartment) who gets caught up in a crisis equal parts artistic and financial. One night, he comes up with the idea of hunting down the homeless with the help of a drill. “This film should be played loud” announces the text at the beginning of the film.

NEW ROSE HOTEL (Abel Ferrara, USA 1998, 13.10.)Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe, the two quintessential Ferrara actors, play bounty hunters Fox and X. Over the course of their attempts to hunt down a computer genius, they meet Sandii (Asia Argento), which sets a series of unholy events in motion. NEW ROSE HOTEL is at once the most abstract and sensual of the director’s films and also brings Ferrara’s golden nineties to a perfect close: based on a short story by cyberpunk author William Gibson, the narrative is initially transformed into a set of metaphysical power relations, a “triangular geometry of power” (Tag Gallagher) and eventually dissolves completely into a hypnotic flow of dream and memory images, reflections and projections.

GO GO TALES (Abel Ferrara, USA/Italy 2007, 13. & 17.10.)After several problem projects, Ferrara finally succeeded in making one of his most beautiful and most surprising films in the form of 2007’s GO GO TALES, a warm-hearted, faintly nostalgic, almost plotless comedy nearly that unfolds entirely within a strip club named “Ray Ruby’s Paradise”. Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) is struggling with huge debts and tries himself to avoid bankruptcy, but even winning the lottery is of little help, as the winning ticket is nowhere to be found. “As is always the case in Ferrara’s films — and as almost nobody seems to understand — the real libidinal force of the movie lies less in the provocative content, than it does in the force field of intensities created by set design, lighting, and especially camera movement”. (Steven Shaviro)

PASOLINI (Abel Ferrara, France/Italy/Belgium 2014, 14. & 18.10.) Ferrara’s most recent feature is dedicated to the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini. The rudimentary plot is set in 1975: the now fifty-plus poet and director (played by an intriguingly exhausted Willem Dafoe) is in Rome preparing a new film surrounded by his family and simultaneously starts a relationship with a much younger man. Ferrera is not interested in the concrete circumstances of Pasolini’s murder, combining instead observations of the everyday, scenes from Pasolini’s films, and excerpts from his literary oeuvre into a dense collage. As is always the case with Ferrera, it’s impossible to distinguish between life, art, and death.

SNAKE EYES (Abel Ferrara, USA/Italy 1993, 15. & 20.10.) This oft-overlooked film (which also appears under the later title of Dangerous Game) is a key work in Ferrara’s filmmaking career – because it marks the point at which his cinema becomes reflexive and begins to consider its own nature. A sort of complementary film to BAD LIEUTENANT: another highly personal reflection on guilt, addition, and redemption whose boundaries do not dissolve into the chaos of the big city, but rather plays out as an intimate chamber drama. Here too, Harvey Keitel takes on the leading role, playing a director named Eddie Israel who is making a film about a marital crisis while living through one himself. The female lead is none other than Madonna herself in an impressive performance – another of the many casting coups to be found across Ferrara’s filmography.

BODY SNATCHERS (Abel Ferrara, USA 1993, 19. & 29.10.) KING OF NEW YORK is to the gangster film what BODY SNATCHERS is to science fiction cinema: an attempt to draw up a nihilistic balance for a genre and bring it to an end, with Ferrara expunging it of all positive references to heroism and agency. The third cinema adaptation of the story of the body-consuming aliens who infiltrate a small American town by “taking over” each inhabitant one by one concentrates less on satirical aspects than its predecessors, focusing instead on the fateful intermingling of individual and social violence. “BODY SNATCHERS is Ferrara’s darkest, maybe also hardest film, a film in which the intimacy of the family is confronted with the coldness of the military apparatus”. (Hannes Brühwiler) (lf)