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New Rose Hotel

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 3 December 1999

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Starring Christopher Walken, 
Willem Dafoe, Asia Argento, 
Annabella Sciorra, Yoshitaka Akatani, 
John Lurie, Gretchen Mol, 
and Victor Argo

Screenplay by Abel Ferrara and Christ Zois, 
from the short story by William Gibson

Where did Abel Ferrara go? One of Americaís most fiercely independent filmmakers, the frustrating, abrasive, and actively obtuse director has shown little mellowing with age. Iím not someone you could call a fan -- I abhor his calculatingly controversial and spiritually contradictory Bad Lieutenant even as I recognize the passion of the production and Harvey Keitelís performance, and I find The Addiction a preening and pretentious mix of intellectual chic and sub-George Romero splatter satire -- but I remain fascinated by the guy. New Rose Hotel, years in the development, doesnít even seem like a natural project for Ferrara, The original short story by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson takes place in the riffling memory of a doomed sap hiding out in a tiny sleeping pod in the titular establishment, awaiting certain death in the aftermath of a scam gone wrong. Itís just one guy wrestling with his thoughts and challenging his memories to reveal the hidden story.

To mine the potential Ferrara opens the story up, playing out the elaborate plot of black market corporate raiders Fox (Christopher Walken) and X (Willem Dafoe) finding their mark, setting up their trap, and reaping the rewardsÖ until it all comes crashing down. Walken limps through the film in a neat but worn old white suit like an emaciated Sidney Greenstreet, talking incessantly of making his one big score. Dafoeís X is far less ambitious and he seems weary of the hustling. Heís found himself a warm body in bar girl Sandii (Asia Argento) and starts to get attached to her just as Fox makes her the keystone of his latest plot. Simply put, super scientist Hiroshi (Yoshitaka Akatani), the top conceptual thinker at Maas, is a big time poon hound with a special liking for sexy brunettes -- like Sandii. So when his wife (Gretchen Mol, her appearance limited to silent surveillance video clips) leaves town they ply him with Sandii, pry him from Maasí royal prison, and sells him to multinational rival Osaka. At least thatís what weíre told. Ferrara leaves all the actual action off screen, feeding us the developments in reports, phone calls, and grainy video surveillance footage.

Heís more interested in Fox and X, would be hustlers living in a veritable underground of basement bars and bland hotel rooms, a future whose personality has been blurred into generic sameness, lit by colorless fluorescents, and finished off with a streaky, hazy look of bleeding color (itís at least partly by design, Iím sure, but I wonder how much of that is in the video transfer, and I further wonder if that look was pushed by Ferrara himself). The future is a depressingly bland world where cultural diversity appears to have melted into one sleek, generic look. You canít tell what city it is, or if itís a number of different cities, or if this is a Blade Runner vision where the entire country is one giant urban core. Itís a future where governments have been replaced by corporations, whose private police forces have the feel of mob organizations. The more we discover about the world they live in, the more these guys appear hopelessly out of their depth, doomed dreamers. The narrative device of never showing the heist in action only furthers this feeling (though it frustrates the hell out of anyone actually watching it -- itís maddening to finally get to the ďstoryĒ and have it withheld), making us helpless viewers in a culture of conspiracies and secrets.

Ferrara gives us unending conversations between the aging philosopher-hustler Fox and his loyal-but-burned-out buddy X. ďIf you make this happen, will it do it for you? Will it bring you redemption?Ē asks X. Fox replies, ďIt does not behoove a gentleman to be introspective.Ē X is pure introspection, which is his curse. He goes along with the plan only out of friendship to Fox. ďArenít you proud of me? I did what you told me to,Ē coaxes Sandii, with whom heís fallen completely in love over the course of mentorship as he teaches her the finer points of seduction. ďYeah,Ē answers X, ďbut donít ask me to be happy about it.Ē A typical Ferrara male, he makes her whore for him and then hates her for it, but in a surprisingly mature step he gets beyond it and even plans to marry Sandii when itís all over. A real life dream grounded in a definable future, a far cry from Foxís dream of a career of bigger and better scams: ďItís not about the money, itís about action.Ē

Well, the action backfires. Itís all very murky and narratively complicated, but when the plot falls apart X hides out in the deserted New Rose Hotel, holed up in a pod no bigger than a minivan and working through the plot like a half hour recap. This is where Ferrara becomes true to Gibsonís story, except that when he reaches back in his memory itís a new view on everything weíve already seen. This time through he brings up scenes we never saw, shuffling them around, trying to makes sense of their actions with hindsight. Is he stewing in self-recrimination, working it out, or simply putting it in perspective? Itís hard to tell, and ultimately itís a more fascinating idea than an effective cinematic strategy. For that matter you could define the entire film that way: Ferrara promising a science fiction thriller and delivering scenes of two guys talking to each other interspersed with titillating shots of Asia Argento in various stages of undress. But by the end itís a sad, melancholy portrait of a romantic questioning his very understanding of his life, and as he reworks his past, mining the past weeks for meaning he couldnít see while immersed in it, it gives us the tools to question our own understanding without leading us to any definite conclusions.

Itís little wonder the film bypassed a theatrical run and wound up straight to video. Practically every review (from festival screenings and test runs) has slammed Ferrara for his murky narrative labyrinth and defiance of all genre expectations. But thereís something in the sheer perversity of it that makes me want to like the film, a reaction further enhanced by excellent performances by Walken and Dafoe, who also serve as executive producers. Once again Ferrara serves his actors wonderfully, helping them shape characters with understatement. The film ultimately has little to do with the intricate preparations and complicated exposition fed us every few minutes, and everything to do with desperate hustlers dealing with forces far beyond their control. Itís hard to recommend a film so determined to undermine every expectation its audience has, but even if Ferrara canít make it work, its minor rewards are greater than the generic, predictable thrills of many far more coherent pictures. 

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