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Abel Ferrara, The King of New York

Book Review by Paula Nechak
24 September 1999

The Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, King of New York, Fear City, The Funeral. Just reading some of the titles on Abel Ferrara's resume of squalid and dark urban film fables tinges this director's name with a pornographic piquancy.

But after reading Nick Johnstone's engaging film/biography on the difficult, temperamental, renegade - and romantic - Ferrara, we catch a glimpse as to why he became who he is. He flagrantly cultivated his creative eye from the equally difficult and breathtakingly innovative work of realist-symbolist directors like Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard, Polish auteur Roman Polanski, Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini and the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Yet while these international groundbreakers may have stoked his youthful creative fire, in truth, he's still more a product of the Bronx, where he was born on July 19, 1951, and the films of his own outlaw ouevre including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and James Toback, a trio of bad-boy survivors who glorified the gritty urban street violence, shifting sex roles and disenchantment that tainted a generation tattooed by the idealistic, hedonistic '60s.

Johnstone tells us that Ferrara hated his youth and struggled to find his niche. He went to movies and married early just to find that one escape route was salvation - and the other both muse and misery. Like Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, his focus and more instrumental relationship was with another man - Nicholas St. John - who has written the most complex of the Ferrara film screenplays.

The first half of Johnstone's book is the best. Maybe it's because we aren't as privy to the early works (though ironically, Ferrara's latest films aren't readily accessible either. Two of his latest movies, Blackout, which stars Matthew Modine is only available through Video Source in Miami and Blue Rose Hotel, which received release earlier this year in France has no scheduled opening date in the States) like The Driller Killer, Fear City and Ms. 45.

But Johnstone lovingly provides a detailed plot line for all of Ferrara's films. Still, there is clearly some attachment to these seminal and defining - as well as defiant - early works, which, though they have pulled from other sources, also eventually provided a pointof departure for recent films like Mute Witness. For it's here that Ferrara found his voice. Though he has always proven to be a prickly pear with censors (he's largely banned in England) Ferrara is a director who welcomes a certain amount of input from his actors and is alternately hurt when audiences don't understand his voice.

It may be that he has to trust (and trust is a key word in his psychological profile) before he can let go of control. Frequent collaborator, actor Christopher Walken, who has starred in four of the director's projects, has praised the improvisational atmosphere on the set of King of New York. On the “Bravo Arts” program, Inside the Actor's Studio, he claimed he and Wesley Snipes were often allowed freedom to create their own scenario:  "Okay, there's a body in the trunk. I'm gonna open it. What are you gonna say?" said the actor as he recounted a day on the set. But to others not familiar with Ferrara's style and hands-on approach, life on a Ferrara film set could be hell if the arbitrary director was suffering from a frequent hangover or bad mood.

Still, he's a guy who at least is amenable to redemption for his characters. Like most Catholics, Ferrara is inbred with an inordinate amount of guilt and repression, combined with sexual suffering that pushes him to purge his demons through films that alternately combine great beauty and innocence (and even romanticism) with punishment, pain, ugliness and stark, dark realism and denigration. 

There are some terrific bits in Johnstone's book about Harvey Keitel, who after reading the script of The Bad Lieutenant, arguably Ferrara's most repulsive and beautiful film, didn't want to play the character. But when his marriage to actress Lorraine Bracco suddenly broke up, he found that he had to find a way to forgive. Making the film was his conduit and therapy.

Johnstone ultimately resorts to redundancy to keep his critical analysis of Ferrara's work from flagging but he's good at capturing the mood, fury and thunder of a particular film as well as dismissing that which isn't very interesting on the director's resume (like his TV work on series like Miami Vice and Gladiator). But like many literary-movie infusions, Johnstone's book almost parallels Ferrara's career in film. Abel Ferrara hasn't yet expunged or exorcised his personal psychological hells and vices. He just slightly changes the milieu of every project in order to circuitously come back to the same place to again nibble away at the same despair from a new angle. Johnstone likewise must rely upon the reconstruction of old in order to explain the new. I can't say this book is a boring read because it certainly isn't -- it’s fascinating and well-written, but it just is doomed to suffer the sin of the subject matter. 

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Book Details:

  • Abel Ferrara, The King of New York. By Nick Johnstone. 1999. Omnibus Press. 228 pages.

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