Sie sind auf Seite 1von 188

(" ~~="

,J

1-L

ABEL FERRARA: THE MORAL VISION


First edition published by FAB Press, May 2004
FAB Press
7 Farleigh
Ramsden Road
Godalming
Surrey
GU7 1QE
England, U .K.
www.fabpress.com

Text copyright 2004 Brad Stevens


The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
Design and layout by Stephen Thrower and Harvey Fenton.
This Volume copyright FAB Press 2004.

ABEL FERRARA: THE MORAL VISidN


By Brad Stevens

World Rights Reserved.


No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, ele~tronic
or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retneval
system, without the prior written permission of the Publisher.

"! await the end of cinema wth optimism."


Jean-Luc Godard, 1965
Front ~OV9Y"iHstratirF. " ,.
Detail from the UK theatrical release poster for The Addiction.
Back cover lllustrations:
.
A street scene from China Girl, zoe Tamerlis in Ms.45, Abel Ferrara m The Driller Killer,
Paul Hipp as Christ in Bad Lieutenant, and Madonna in Snake Eyes.
Front\spiece illustratlon:
Abel Ferrara during the making of Snake Eyes.
Title page illustrations:
lmages from Rafi Pitts' documentary Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty.

A C\P catalogue record for this book ls avallable from the British Llbrary
hardback: ISBN 1903254132
paperback: ISBN 190325406X

FAB
PRE~~

"The world has run out of f/ms. Jt's hit the bottom of the barre!, so they're stuck with us."
Abel Ferrara, 1994

(o

r
Contents

Acknowledgements
Thanks to the lollowing lar their help:
Abenaa, Julie Alter, Barry Amato, Asia Argento, John Barnes, Dennis Bartok, Paula
Boadu, Pier Maria Bocchi, Olivier Boh\er, Emmanuel Bonin, Charles-Antoine Bosson,
Chuck Braverman, Ni col e Brenez, Francis Brewster, Susie Bright, Nico Bruinsma, Al\an
Bryce, Douglas Buck, Paul Buck, David Buelow, John Charles, Sebastien Clerget, Jeff
Conner, Barry Cullison, Mitch Davis, Francis Delia, Joe Delia, P.J. Delia, Rich E\1,
Jennifer Feist, Harvey Fenton, Abe\ Ferrara, Roy Frumkes, Walter A. Fydryck, Tag
Ga\lagher, Silvana Gallardo, Janice Ginsberg, Lee Goldberg, Nathanie\ Goold, Lucille
Grace, Larry Gross, Larry Hankin, Marcia Haufrecht, Robert Haufrecht, Cecil Howard,
Barbara Ann Jackson, Kent Jones, Mary Kane, Craig Kellem, Ken Kelsch, Bill Krohn,
Richard Kurtz, Charles Lagola, James Lemmo, Robert Lund, Christopher Luppold,
Ruth Maria Mamaril, Michael Mann, Adrian Martin, Maitland McDonagh, Doug\as
Metrov, John Mhiripiri, Babeth Mondini-Vanloo, Marc Morris, Giona A. Nazzaro, Kim
Newman, Chris O'Neill, Bill Panzer, Scott Pardo, Yvonne Patino, Olivier PSre, Alberto
Pezzotta, David Pirell, Rafi Pitts, Begonya Plaza, Laurie Post, Mark Rance, Anthony
Redman, Maisoon Rehani, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Randall Sabusawa, Mike Shore,
Richard Harland Smith, David Szulkin, Micole Taggart, Alex Tavoularis, Dean
Tavoularis, Lanny Taylor, Laurie Taylor, Stephen Thrower, Hermann Vaske, Marlene
Ver Planck, Fiona A. Villella, Ken Wahl, Robert Walak, Jean Westley, Lynne Whitelord,
Trevor Willsmer, Brian Winston, Bil\y Wirth, Holly Yellen, Peter Yellen, Christ Zois and

Elia Zois.
For Nicole Brenez, with all my \ove.

1.

Foreword by Abe/ Ferrara

The Early Years

9 Uves of a Wet Pussy

21

The Driller Killer

41

Ms.45

59

Fear City

77

Miami Vice

84

The Gladiator

91

Crime Story

95

10

China Girl

103

11

The Loner

115

12

Cat Chaser

121

13

King of New York

133

14

FBI: The Untold Stories

150

15

Bad Lieutenant

157

16

Body Snatchers

173

17

Snake Eyes

185

18

The Addiction

207

19

The Funeral

223

20

California

237

21

Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground

241

22

The Blackout

245

23

New Rose Hotel

267

24

'RXmas

281

25

Filmography

305

26

Unrealised Projects

340

27

Bibliography

350

28

lndex

361

CONTENTS
4

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Foreword By Abe! Ferrara

Dear Brad
Jusi want lo thank you for somehow putting the las! 30 odd years of our
orchestrated chaos (or is it coordinated anarchy) into something
approaching order and understanding. 1 know you are right on when
most of !he names 1 am reading bring back warm and loving memories;
!hose who love !he work and !he honor of being able lo work. With no
help from !he peanut gallery you are someone who can separate the
true friends from !he bums and deadbeats that have crossed/recrossed
and continue lo cross and clog our path.
Like whether a tree makes a sound falling in a desolate and dark place
a film playing with no audience is !he saddest thing in !he world. There
is no projection without !hose prepared lo absorb !he reflections of silver
off a silver screen. Like this crew.

,,
(,
1

1,

To !he next 30 years, Vol ume 11. ..

,,
,,

Abel
NYC

'

1: FOREWORD

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

The Early Years

and al/ the trans you missed,


and al/ the nights you let slip away
they a/1 slipied away; what remans are the memories,
forged nto pleasant horseshoes.
the despair has been hammered away;
hammered away by the forgotten blacksmith.
ah despar, the great conqueror of the present,
ah happiness, the victor of the past.
the battleground future is left to these great warrors,
we impotently await the outcome.
how fragile we are
how fragile
how broken
'
Remnants of Bonfire, a poem by Abel Ferrara (written at Alvescot College,
1970)

, Ferrara and Dale Diamond at David Pirell's wedding (1974).

above: Oennis Gray, Ab " 1

i'

. e td Th,, Be Love Left to right: David Pirell, Nadia Von Loewenstein, Abel Ferrara and the back of
below: Sh oo tmg ou

.
d
Carl Low's head. Francis Delia behind camera m backgroun .

'1

'1

Born July 19th 1951, Abel Ferrara was named alter his paternal grandfather, Abel
Esposito, one of six brothers from Sarna, an ltalian village in Salerno (south of Na pies):
"In 1900, when my grandfather was eighteen, he walked all the way to Naples and
managed to catch a ship to America, where he changed his name to Ferrara.
Somehow, and 1 could never get my grandfather to explain this, but somehow he goes
to California and comes back to New York with a boxear full of grapes. He does this a
couple of times, and ends up with thousands of dollars. He married a Jewish woman
and, after having a nervous breakdown as a result of losing all his money during the
depression, went back to Sarna, leaving his wife and kids in America. He had to sneak
out of town. When he carne back two years later, my grandmother just said 'What too k
you so long?'. He had offered free passage to anyone in Sarna who wanted to come
with him, and he ended up bringing hundreds of people to America. He had eleven
children, and was also raising three or four orphan kids. They were living on 138th
Street in the Bronx. My grandfather owned land. This was during the depression, when
people would rob these non~English-speaking immigrants big time" .1
Abel junior's father, Alfred J. Ferrara, married an lrish-American woman who bore
him four daughters and one son. The family lived on Morris ParkAvenue in the Bronx,
where Abel attended the Sacred Heart Cathollc School. According to Douglas Metrov,
"Abel's father owned a scrap metal yard in upstate New York. l'd hate to speculate what
he did on the side. Big Al was a jovial man, always very nice to us; happy to see us.
He had huge ears and nose, and a small, bald skull. 1guess he drank a lot. That may
be why he didn't live toa ripe old age".2 'Big Al' was apparently involved with illegal
gambling, and it seems to have been this involvement which caused the family's
sudden move to upstate New York's Peekskill district in 1965: Abel recalls that "lt was
a tough period in my life, growing up and being an adolescent, so 1would go back and
spend my summers in the Bronx for a change of pace. 1went back and forth between

2: THE EARLYYEARS
B

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

both places for a while, but then finally it was just Peekskill". Abel enrolled at
Peekskill's Lakeland High School, where, in 1967, he began mak1ng short f1lms w1th
friends Nicodemo Oliverio (later known as 'Nicholas St John'), John Paul Mclntyre and
.
Richard Shaw.
Ferrara and Oliverio, who took turns writing and directing befare assummg the

roles they felt most comfortable with, would bring their foo.tage to. the camera
ctepartment of Caldor's, a Peekskill department store, seek1ng adv1ce from the
manager (who had once made documentarles): "At that time, the middle of the 60s, the
only means of expression for working class kids like us was rack 'n' roll or cmema.
Nicky wrote poems and songs, and we put together a group with our friends. We_ wer~
very influenced by The Rolling Stones. But 1 was s~art enough to kn~w that 1 wasn t
going to make a living that way, so 1 got into film. K1ds of my gen~rabo~ saw a lot of
movies. We'd go to any movie, at any time. So one day, after puttm~ astde $1~0 and
calling the prettiest girl in school, 1borrowed a camera and shot my ftrst film. Thts was
before the days of Superw8, and we were shooting with singleweight cameras that we
begged, borrowed, or stole to get. 1 took the film down to the Caldor to be developed,
and when 1got it back llooked at the first inch of it and just threw tt out because 1t was
so terrible. Then 1 tried it again, and this time 1 knew what to do. lt was the story of .a
kid who liked getting drunk with his friends. lt was ten minutes .long. This ~irst r:novte
made me feel llke continuing. 1 also had the example of Sal Mmeo, who hved tn my
neighbourhood. 1figured if he could make it, why not me? This was the l~te 60s .. 1t was
a certain time. Everybody was doing something, all my contemporanes. Sptelberg
made a feature-length sci-fi movie when he was thirteen years old. Everybody else
would be lucky to make a two-minute film. He's shooting a two-h.our m~vie tha~ he'll
play in the local theater. Making movies wasn't any great shakes; 1t was Just a thmg to
4
do. That was an era when people weren't thinking about getting a job".
,5
Ferrara's childhood, which he recalls as "an extended one by a lot of standards ,
was brought toan end by the threat of conscription: "By the time 1was about eigh~een,
the Vietnam War was really going on, and if you didn't go to school you were bastcally
dead. Vietnam brought the world in very quickly. We were a\11wA, we were all cannon
fodder. We were totally, vehemently against the war. My teenage years were wrapped
up around the fact of seeing my friends being sent off to war, and sorne of them ~ot
coming back. lt made things more precious. 1wasn't primed to continue my edu~atlon
formally, but you almost had no choice. So 1 went off to college and started trytng to
study film. 1immersed myself in filmmaking and creativa thinking. The gre~t advantage
of school was that, unlike in high school, we could get access to real equ1pment to 9~
out and make movies. The films we made at that time were totally focused on antiVietnam stuff: Super-8, 16mm, ene-minute, two-minute films. We were always creativa.
We grew up on Warhol and Pasolini. We played music, and then it wasn't that far-flung
to make films. We became the local filmmakers. And we still are. We made the most
boring films yo u ever saw. We were making four and five minute silent movies that were
metaphorical and pseudo-intellectual. We couldn't use and. couldn~t get sync ~ound.
We couldn't get dialogue, which really bummed us out. But m fact, tt helped us m that

it taught us how to work without sound".


Ferrara began attending Rockland Community College in the late 60s.7 Although
there was no film course at Rockland itself, the college's student exchange sche~e
enabled him to spend much of 1970 studying film in England: "1 lived in Oxfordsh~re,
Cotswolds. 1 shot my first 35mm there, with a BBC crew. A short. lt was k1nd of n1ce,

because 1 was a kid, 18, 19. 1 was studying under Brian Winston, who later became
ch_airman"of NYU's film program. He was a very good teacher".B According to Brian
Wmston . The place was called Alvescot College, and it was a private school set up by
an Amencan couple, John and Virginia Tilley, in their rather palatial Ox:fordshire home.
lt was an idyllic spot in the depth of the English countryside, but close to Oxford. The
mam contract was with a community leve! college in New York: it had a powerfully
~mbitious president who wanted the sort of overseas program that only bigger instituttons ran to .. 1knew John Tilley from Oxford University days, and 1offered to teach these
Amer~can students film-making. lt seems tome that it was a pretty good course. lloved
teachmg, a~d the~e yo~ng Americans were lively and committed. Eventually we had a
very early httle 1-tnch VIdeo studio in a barn. We carne up with a number of exercises
and screenings - all stuff that 1 soon ca me to know was standard in film schools. Abel
1 remem~er as ~ pretty ~ocused and impressive young man. 1 certainly don't have any
recollect1on of h1m pushtng the sort of material he would later so much make his own.
He was a good-looking, assured guy, and 1think he had the prettiest dirl in the class in
tow. As t~ th~ work we did - well, it's thirty years ago, and 1 am afra id, thousands of
student ftrst ftlms later, 1 just don't remember it. But l remember him, and 1 am proud
he has done so well".9
An announcement in the October 1970. edition of Words, Alvescot College's
~e~sp~per, re~ds as f?llows: "Brian Winston's Mass Communication~ class will begin
ftlmtng tts movte on Fnday, Oct. 30. The theme of the movie was presentad by Edith
a~d agreed u pon by the rest of the class. As of now it shall be filmed in black and white
w1th no sound synchronation (sic). Music may be dubbed in after the film has been cut.
Each member of the class will contribute to the making of the film. Abel has been made
t~e director, ~rank_ the cinematographer along with Greg, while Nadine is casting
director and w1ll be m charge of costumes, and all the props will be collected by Annette
and Ly~ia. Brian and the class would welcome members of the college who would like
to help m the making of this film. We really hope it's a good one".
lt wa~ a.t Alv~scot that Ferrara first encountered Mary Kan e, who would produce
many of h1s f1lms: Abel and 1 met at college in England. 1 recall being in a student film
h~ .m a de there. All 1remember is sitting ata table on the lawn with a lot of other people
stttmg at tables on the lawn. At Alvescot, Abel was the 'filmmaker': kind of wild kind of
crazy, ver; .int~ns,e, v~ry smart, a leader. We all did what he said. lt was the e~rly ?Os:
we ~ere .htpptes , 9?1ng to change things, going to make a statement! He was very
cha~1smabc: at the time, 1 did not even think about it, just kind of fell in. lt's only in
lookmg back that l. can talk about his charisma. The exchange program was with
Rockland Communtty College. lt wasn't so much an exchange as a semester abroad:
there was no one from England coming to Rockland. We all carne back and went to
SUNY-Purchase".10
According to Ferrara's classmate Mike Shore, "1 didn't even know there was a film
class when 1 signed up, as 1 just wanted to go to Europe and see the world. The film
class meant more to some than the rest. 1 remember Abel and 'Nadia': Nadine Von
Loewenstein, who went to my elementary school and was an exotic, beautiful woman
who Abel connected with my entire year in Alvescot. Abel and 1 both contributed poems
to the school newspaper, and mine was the controversia! one, beca use 1used the word
'fuck' in it. His was about being fragile. That was the theme of his poem, and even then,
alt~ough 1lov~d m~ own p~em, 1knew his was better. 1also remember him playing folk
QUitar and bemg fnends wtth the artsier kids. His confidence, his sense of self, won
1

2: THE EARLYYEARS
!1

:
1'

10

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

11

people over. He was cooler than me, and had ~ vision of who he was and_ what he
wanted to do. He was comfortable in his own sk1n. There was only one mov1e shot at
Alvescot that 1can recall. Abe! directed it, and l was one of the people in_ it. l s~t at a
table on the back lawn wearing my grey flannel, double-breasted su1t, wh1l~ my
girlfriend wore her hair back and sat at the other side of this small table. lt was k1nd of
1

!i'

exciting, and Abe! was really into it" . 1


_
As Ferrara recalls, "l made college 1ast forever. l kept work1ng out schemes so
that knew everyone who was my junior so that even after 1 graduated, l could keep
getting access to the equipment. Because after you graduated, you were fucked. !he
equipment you got at school was top of the line, and if l didn't keep the conneQtlons
alive with the students still at school, l would have had no way to get access to the
equipment 1 needed to keep shooting. After l graduated college 1 was basically living
off friends. At first bugged my mom for money, but then 1 sort of naturally shifted over
to younger women that 1was dating. 1was adamant about not taking a regular job. You
sort of get to a point in your life where you decide what you are going to do _and t~en
that's what you do. 1had decided to be a filmmaker: so to take sorne other kmd of jOb
seemed like a step backward. 1was a filmmaker, and if that meant l had to starve for
a while, then that's what it meant. 1 continuad making short films, showing them
' h
"12
anywhere 1could, on a wall, at sorne bd
o y s ouse .
.
Reunited with Nicodemo Oliverio13 in 1971, Ferrara made a s1lent, b1ack ~nd
white experiment ("a preliminary for The Hold Up"14) lasting six minute~ and featun_ng
no onscreen credits. According to Ferrara, the title is Nicky's Film. Th1s short ~eg1ns
with an out-of-focus shot showing a woman (Ferrara's girlfriend at the time, Nad1a Van
Loewenstein) asleep in bed, then cuts toa more distant view, revealing that Nic~demo
Oliverio is crouching by the bed. Oliverio stands and cautiously looks out the wmdow.
An insert shows two men dressed in black waiting by a car. Disturbed by this, Oliverio
makes a phone calJ.15 The next scene shows Oliverio talking to a bearded Abel
Ferrara who is sitting behind a desk incongruously positioned in a desolate landscape
("That ~as my father's junkyard"16). The final scene begins with Oliverio ~itting at his
kitchen table. A large man enters, accompanied by a woman who treats h1m ~efere_n
tially and another man. All three sit down, and the large man has a conversat1on w1th
Oliverio. As these visitors depart, the man who had remained in the background says
something to Oliverio. Following another insert showing the men in bl~ck ~aiting, by the
car, Oliverio picks up a knife and places it in his belt. We then see Ollveno runn1ng out
of the house and collapsing onto the ground (he has presumably been shot by the
waiting men). The final image again shows the s1eeping woman, who is still out of
focus.
Needless to say, it is impossible for the viewer to construct anything more than a
tentativa narrative from these fragments, and our impotence is reinforced by the fact
that, as in Maya Oeren's At Land, we see conversations which, though the~ would
presumably explain everything, the absence of a soundtrack preve~ts us heanng. B~t
impotence - the protagonist's as well as ours - is very much the p01nt. T,he manner 1n
which Oliverio reaches for a pack of cigarettes that turns out to be empty IS wondertully
suggestive, and this detai1 is recalled when the woman at Oliverio's k_itch~n t~ble calmly
unwraps a new pack and begins smoking (Oliverio's frustration be1ng 1mphed by_ t~at
hand-gesture with which he dispe1s the smoke). Since these _film~ak~rs we~e liVIng
under the threat of conscription, it seems reasonable toread N1cky s F1lm as m sorne
way 'about' Vietnam: disturbad by an externa! menace perceived as both absurd and

inexplicable, the protagonist is manipulated and eventually destroyed by forces he can


never hope to understand. The challenge to received values encouraged by anti-war
protests can be felt in the text's incoherence (the three landscape shots which
punctuate the second sequence are almost entirely unmotivated), as well as in
F:~rara's decisio~ ~o imbricate the danger facing his hero with an implicitly feminist
cnt1que of mascuhn1ty. The opening and closing shots suggest that these events have
been ?reamed by ~he s_leeping woman, but whereas the female dreamer of Maya
~eren s early w~rk 1magmed herself doubled, tripled, multiplied, that of Nicky's Film
1nvents a neurot1c and powerless male facing total erasure. Ferrara's acknowledged
debt to Reman Polanski 17 is already evident, and Oliverio's climactic decision to
confront his shadowy enemy, even though he realizes such an action is suicida!
sugges~s- an affinity with Peckinpah1B while anticipating Fear City and Bad Lieutenant:
Mascul1mty here is what it would always be for Ferrara: a problem.
The following y~ar, _Ferra:a directed an ambitious short entitled The Hold Up, 19
the screenplay of wh1ch IS attnbuted to Ferrara and Nicodemo Oliverio (the only time
the latter would use his real name on a film). The central characte~ is Johnny (Ken
Fowler), a blue collar worker married toa woman (Mary Kane20) whosS father owns the
factory where Johnny is employed. Johnny's coworkers Bob (Robert Denson) and Joe
~Joe Guida) are laid off, but Johnny, presumably thanks to his father-,in-law, keeps his
~o?. Desperate for_ mane~, Bob and Joe decide to hold up a gas station, and Johnny
JOins them out of fnendsh1p. The robbery goes disastrously wrong, and the three friends
are_ arrested. An ~pilogue set three months later shows Johnny returning to the factory
wh1le t~? men d1scuss how Johnny's father-in-law used his influence to keep Johnny
out of Jall: Bob and Joe both received prison sentences.
Although Ferrara now regards The Hold Up as little more than a technical
exercise c:'f!e were still_trying to figure out how to move people in and out of rooms"21),
that Reno1r_1an generos1ty which would become one of his distinguishing features is
already ev1dent. Though clearly motivated by a passionate political commitment,
Ferrara refu_ses to present class struggle in terms of heroes and villains (that division
betw~en sa1ntly workers and evil capitalists we find, for example, in Eisenstein). The
expenenc~ d~~cribed here is one of powerlessness in the face of injustices not attrib-~~d1v1dual corruption, and the film traces an intricate network of guilt and
utable
respons1b1l1ty. The_ factory's owner, far from being unsympathetic, is genuinely
concerned about h1s employees (as he tells Johnny, "these decisions come from God
knows where. 1_ don't even know who works at the front office anymore"), and while
Ferrara makes 1t abundantly clear that the hold up would not have occurred had the
worke~s been tr~ated fairly, violence is neither excused nor glamorized: the robbery's
pathet1c n~ture IS r~vealed when we see Joe and Johnny assaulting a terrified night
worker_whlle B~b ~~~ks the man's loase change up off the floor. Corruption may be allpervaslve, but md1v1duals in supposedly privileged positions are as much victims as
those on th~ bottom r~ngs of the ladder. The clmax - in which images showing Bob
and Joe posmg for pollee photos (while a volee reads out their sentences) are followed
by a s~ot o~ Johnny returning to work, then a brief exterior view of the factory - makes
the po1nt w1th remarkable precision: on one leve!, Johnny has escaped incarceration
dueto his_family ties; on another, he is simply in a different kind of prison.
The 1nfluence of John Cassavetes is very apparent (especially when Joe shows
~ohnny and Bob a nude photospread and claims to have slept with the model), but so
IS that of Cassavetes' aesthetic opposite, Robert Bresson. Consider the sequence

t?

2: THE EARLYYEARS
12

ABEL FERRARA ~ The Moral Vision

13

depicting a day at the factory: a close~up of a timeclock being punched three times in
succession is fol\owed by a slow pan (lasting 32 seconds) over the factory's exterior,
then another shot of the timeclock. Ferrara reduces everything to essentials, using
three simple images to tell us al\ we need know about the mindless repetition of these
characters' working lives.22 For him, the factory (and its domestic equivalent the family
home, portrayed as another 'prison') is capitalism incarnate, the heartless emblem of
a system which may be inescapable, but is nonethe\ess susceptible to criticism and

!,i

1
1

i 1'1
1,1

!1.:
11'1

analysis.
Could This Be Love, made the following year, reveals an increase in ambitions
and technical resources. Whereas The Hold Up was in black and white, featu[ed a
post-synchronized soundtrack,23 and ran 14 minutes, Could This Be Love is in colour,
utilizas direct sound recording, and lasts 29 minutes: "1 was still trying to figure out what
1was doing, and l kept shooting fi\ms whenever 1could. 1would find people who were
film students and who wanted to be cinematographers and get them to shoot
something for me so 1could get access to their equipment. 1remember one time 1was
working with a kid named Jon Rosen, a brilliant sti\1 photographer who wanted to make
films. And 1gel him over to my girllriend's apartment (to shoot Cauld This Be Lave). 1
was living with this gorgeous girl at the time, and the scene was basical\y her and
another girl fucking each other. So we're gonna do the sex, and we're all set up to
shoot. My girlfriend pulls down her jeans, and Rosen just froze up. But then he got it
back together and started fi\ming. And he was a good cameraman. Then later he had
to show those dailies to his class because it was a requirement that you screen your
work. l remember getting a telephone cal\ from him a few weeks later screaming at me
2
that the school was so upset with the dailies that they had actually cal\ed his mother". 4
According to Francis Delia,"\ first met Abe\ in the mid-70s in Nyack, NY where he
(and 1) were living. He shared an apartment in a big house with his girl Nadia, a
beautiful blande Russian. 1 was operating as a commercial photographer at a studio
over Turrie\lo's (formerly known as Perriello's) pizza parlour, and heard that this crazy
guy Abe\ was making sorne kind of 16m m movie called Could This Be Love (for which
his uncle Bobo, dad Big Al and other supportive relativas had ponied up a G apiece),
and might be looking for a photographer. We met at a coffee shop on South Broadway
called the Strawberry Place - he drank OJ & black coffee. 1later introduced him to my
brother Joe. 1took over from Jan Rosen on Could This Be Love, and in the end was
responsible for 75~80% of the cinematography. For at least a significant chunk of the
film 1never saw Rosen. 1met him once and then he never showed up again. l'm afraid
he was gui\ty of what Abe! referred to as 'refrigerator lighting'. The 'script' was literally

,1,

scribblings on shreds of wrinkled brown shopping bag paper''.25


David Pirell recalls that, "1 met Abel at college. Almos! all o! the people involved in the
films were lriends at this time. 1 grew up with the Delia lamily (Frank, Mike, Al, Joe).
Abe! had come back from a semester in England and began Could This Be LOve,
which was \ike a soap opera on acid. 1played the executive shoe manager. lt provided
an insight into how Abel could do things from a director's point of view. lt was total
improvisation, then he would say yes or no. l'm also credited with 'Graphic Oesign',

',','
'1

i 1;:!

though 1didn't do much except set the titles and credits". 26


Jt was shortly befare beginning Could This Be Love that Ferrara met Douglas
Anthony Gervasi ~ later known as Oouglas Metro, then Oouglas Metrov, and now
simply Metrov ~ who would become an important collaborator: "Abe! and 1 met wh.en
1 had an apartment on 89th Street on the Upper East Side o! Manhattan (or was it

96th Street?). Frankie the Wolf (Delia) introdu


a place to make his first film out of film school ~~~dAbel to me, b~cause Abel needed
know what 1 was doing with this hu e a a
.
a vef'j, very blg apartment. 1 don't
to shoot his first film there so 1 sai~ o k~ hrt~ebnt. lt had elght rooms, and Abel wanted
to New York to beco me ~ painter
. 1 ha d een to film scho~l at UCLA, but moved
painter because 1 didn't know th~ ~i~st th~n empathy lar a fllmmaker. 1 became a
abo~t how to ralse money to make
movles. Abellearned how to do it He i
of Gibraltar until they would finaily gi:eai~~~~i~a~ lt. He could c~ip away at the Rack
armed his uncle in Bridgeport to give him $5 000 !ust tok s~nd hlm away. He strongCould This Be Love there in m
rt
'
o ma e lt. Anyway, he shot half of
upstate), and the situation wa . Y ap_a ment (~he other half was shot in a house
it".27 Metrov's autobiographicals n:~~7~~~~~ chao~c. My place was destroyed. 1 loved
Magus' and Ferrara 'The Piltdown M n' a om~ o a Werew~lf (in which Metrov is 'The
Be Love's production: "The Piltdowa ~ contams th~ followmg acc~un.t of Could This
that was, as Director the urest f
n a_n h~d denved a theory Jn film school, and
with the spontaneou~ im:Uises o~~~ of ~lrectlng was to stand back;and not intelfere
Magus demandad the Piltdown M ~ ~e ors and crew. The result Was anarchy. The
directions, then who in the hell wa::u a e charg~. After _all, if the director did not give
Magus' remonstration but it was notp~~ed_to. The Plltdown Man contemplated the
hand at telling anyon~ what to do".28 un 1 hJs next picture he woud actually try his

Abel's
that Taylor,
"1
1 former. .Engli
. . sh pro1essor at Rockland Community
College
recallsLanny
was a ways cntJCJZing Abel's
.

1
obsessively about drugs and sex Abel
Id . scre~np ays, whlch seemed to be
plays full of symbolism and all that sh;o~ tJ~st say Ah, you want meto write screenCould This Be Love l'd never don
. _u was very pleased when he cast me in
that, and had never ~ven been on : ~~~:~~gb except stage, theatre, amate~r stuff like
on South Mountain Road ever f
. e efore._ My scenes were shot In a house
film was totally improvis~d".29 y lme 1dnve past, 1thlnk ofthe day we filmed there. The
0

Rich ~~: ,!~:a~o!~ba~~~~~~=~o~:~~ ~orked with Ferrara on Could This Be Love was
blimped cameras and 2 years doi:lc~ure photographer: 1spent 2 years doing studio
military shooting for the Department gf Docfumen~ary work. 1 spent my last year in the

.
o e ense m South EastAsia M
shootJng for the public information office (TV
t
. y pnmary JOb was
through a girll was seeing in the early 1970s T~e w~r~ news). 1 met Abel and friends
had spent sorne time in England t
t d . ey a recently graduated college and
in art school at Rockland Commuanit~ ~~~~:n~ e~~hange schoo! callad A~vescot. 1was
people who included Mary Kan e, John Mcln~y," Nelkw(ash hanglng out Wlth a group of
k d
.
e, IC w o used dlfferent names) and
a few others 1
1 did severai
starting with Could This Be Lave.
were at hand so he'd be tr in t~ w
s_e ays,
el had to use whatever resources
things like th~t 1had expe;,engce wothrk Wlth student cameras which had no film in them,

1
cameras and lighting
d
..
1 helped out on the technical end"_ 30
, an was an electnc1an, so

~~~;:ono~h:~~~ofl~'~he:rly ~rojec~b

~iend ~:n:e~~:: f~cus~s

~7ist

Set in Greenwich Village Co Id Th' 8


(Nadia Van Loewenstein) and 'her
onhan
named Jacky
ptck up a prostituta Cath (C
.
ee ese er). The two women
'Casandra Cortez'), in 'a 'low :ent' ~::~~a:l~~~e;g, h credite~ u_nder the pseudonym
then mvlte her toa dinner party
being given in honour of Mr Gatt~ Ca 1 Le o
rk , ohw),
a de~artment store purchaser
interested in a range of shoes made b
Y ac Y s usband, M1chael (David Pirell). At the

3:r,

2: THE EARLYYEARS
14

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

15

party, which is also attended by Renee's husband Stephen (Lanny Taylor) and
Stephen's pianist friend Dennis (Dennis Gray), Renee introduces Cathy as her cousin.
As the evening progresses, Cathy strikes up a friendship with Mr Gatto whi\e Jacky and
Renee express their contempt for her.
lf Could This Be Love's upper-middle-class bohemian setting seems to have
little in common with The Hold Up's blue collar milieu, the two films nonethe\ess share
a sensitivity that crosses all class barriers. Yet the \esson Could This Be Love teaches
is one not \earned by its two central characters, for Jacky and Renee are the prototypes
of a figure that will play an increasingly important role in Ferrara's oeuvre (The Driller
Killer's Tony Coca-Cola being perhaps the most notable example): the individuaLwho
avoids those dangers associated with emotional intimacy and openness by
withdrawing behind a 'cool' facade of stylish gestures and snobbish superiority. The
limitations of this lifestyle (which is really a retreat from lile) are neatly suggested by
Renee's story about being forced to share a taxi with "a guy 1 didn't even know". \f one
thing unites al\ of Ferrara's films, it is their insistence on the importance (for actors,
characters and viewers) of remaining open to fresh experiences, the only true villains
being those individuals unable or unwil\ing to accept this challenge.
Ferrara introduces this theme in a fascinating and uncharacteristic way, for Could
This Be Love's early scenes present Jacky's world as an attractive one, and we are
initially asked to share her condescending attitude. As the film progresses, however,
Cathy and Mr Gatto - whom Jacky and Renee view as embodiments of \ower-class
stupidity and middle-class dullness - are revealed as the only characters capable of
making a genuine connection (though it is by no means clear if Mr Gatto rea\izes Cathy
is a prostituta, or whether Cathy agrees to see him again because she regards him as
a potential client- as a\ways, Ferrara \eaves us with questions we cannot answer).
Mr Gatto's conversation with Oennis is worth quoting in fu\\, since it reveals the
maturity and insight Ferrara was already capable of achieving:
Gatto: "When 1 carne back from overseas, they made me the manager of the shoe
department. No\ a bad job. Lots of men would have grabbed that job and not wanted
to move on, but 1 decided to go to business college.
Dennis: G.l. Bill, or did they pay?
Gatto: Oh, G.l. Bill. That was before all these employee benefits. 1 used to work all day,
then catch the train to NYU. l'd do my night's homework on the ride down. And l'd watch
al\ the people either going home or going out on dates and l'd wonder if it was a\1 worth
it. But looking back on it 1 don't regret a moment. Te\\ me, did you go to college?
Dennis: On occasion."
Ferrara shoots this dialogue in a single, unobtrusive two-shot. 'Meaning', far from being
rhetorically imposed by lighting, camerawork or editing, resides in the nuances
conveyed by two talented actors. Whereas we had earHer been encouraged to \augh
at Mr Gatto, Carl Low's superb performance suddenly makes us confront a human
being struggling to deny his growing awareness of the things he sacrificad for success
(beautifully conveyed by the sudden quickening of his speech as he moves from the
introspection of "l'd wonder if it was al\ worth it" to the overly emphatic confidence of "1
don't regret a moment"). Yet this confession would come across quite differently were
it not addressed to Dennis, whose reactions provide a very precise context: his single
question, "G.l. Bill, or did they pay?", conveys not real interest, but rather the sense that

he_ is keeping the conversation goin out f


.
do shee~ pollteness, and Mr Gatto's speech
galns much of its poignancy fro
g
someone whose existence hasm b:~nun erst_andln_g that this is the kind of response
orgamzed In accordance with the business
world's dictates must have come t
found Jacky and Renee, we are ~o:x~~~t. e~o;ever ~ppealing we m ay initially have
ences of a man who has dedicated his life ~o o. c~nslder the more complex experilonger confident. lf education for M G
achlevtng goa\s of whose worth he is no
clearly drifted through his studies w~th ~h~~ ~:~anded s~r~ggle and sacrifica, Dennis
the words "On occasion" suggest.
tude of pnvlleged ease and superiority
But Ferrara does not caricature Dennis on
have to regard this character as com lacent .
the_ ~on~rary, any tendency we might
we hear ~im playing a piano with re~l deptho~fs:~i~lclalls r~ndered problematic when
whose skllls were displayed in th'
g. Dennls Gray was a real pianist
IS 1 m much as Nad y, L
.
responslble for Jacky's sketches F ' ' . .
Ja on oewenstein was the artist
erraras 1ns1stence 0
11
o co aborators prevents his films becomin
. . n u Jlzmg the individual talents
f 11
Dylan's Dear Landlord- "Now
h f
g mor~llstlc tracts (he is fontl of quoting Bob
eac o us has h1s ow
1
'
was meant to be true And if you don't
d
.
n specla Qlft, And you know this
and Cou Id Th1s
. Be ,Love includ
un eresbmate me , 1won 't un derest1mate
.
you")
es severa\ mame t
h'
.

unexpected emotional depths (Mr Gatto admits " n s In w ICh ltS characters revea\
people 1 do business with" Renee
1 real\y sort of desnise most of the
e t
,
recounts her drea
fb .
"
a hy gazes at a photograph of two h"
m o elng persecuted as a witch
arises naturally from the generosity
whatever morality this film
w IC Ferrara approaches his material.

wit~ il~e~):

expresse~

Footnotes
1- Abe\ Ferrara, conversation with the autho

~: ~~~~g~:r~~tri~~~~~:;ili~oNti~~~~~h~~r:~~~s122nd_

2002.
4-Aiain Garel ~nd Francois Guerif, "Abe! Ferrar:akmg 1~ (~roadway Books, 2001), pp. 114-115.
48 (~y translatlon), Jarecki, p. 115 and Co R . Entr~.tlen 'La Revue du Cinema 436, March 1988
N'ck
"Sick Stmie' of Sin and
Abe! Feccaca, 2002", lndex Magazine, Nov
8
6 Hasted, 1b1d, Gavin Smith "Moon. th G 9 r' The lndependent, Apnl 3rd 1997 p
"Raising Abe\", The Vl/age Voice
8the 199u2tter'', 6F6ilmSComment, July/August 1990,' p.
Amy Taubin
2
and Jarecki p. 116, and Gene Gregorits
'
'
"Ab ,Fp. , . cottTobias ' "Ab e Ferrara", The Onion,
Nov 20o '
1
7- Rockland Community College would
e errara. The Sex & Guts lnterview" (2003)
e u'ed a' one of the location' in Todd Solondz'; Stocytellin

Ha~t~d,

De~

(2~,01).

Sl~u ~;~Id,,

200~:

46

8- Abe! Feccaca", Boom, July 1995

39
g
9- Brian Winston e-mail to the a th' p. M ' and conversation with the author
10-M
'
u or, arch 12th 2002

ary Kane, e-mails to the author Janua

11- Mike Shore, e-mails to the autho; N


ryb31st and February 1st, 2nd and 3rd 2003
12- Jarecki, p. 11 .

' ovem er 18th and 19th 2003.


6
13E According
. to Mary Kane "Ni ek never went to Rockla d H
,';":,be,ll:h,nk Gecmany" (e-mail to the authm, Apcil 1't 2~03). e wa' at anothec 'chool, then 'tudied in

e errara, conversatlon with the author


15- Telephones feature prominently in virt . 11
associated with frustration. The Driller Kille~: ~e~~ t~f Ferr~ra's subsequent films, and are usually
u~able to contact Matt after Leila dies in Fear Cit
rows hls t~lephone through a window, Loretta is
Lleutenant_loses his temper during a phone con y (a _scene only m the_ television version), and the Bad
the workpnnt version of Snake Eyes Matt - ;~rsatlon, as do Dr Colllns in Body Snatchers Edd" .
al':'o't invaciably bcin9 bad new" of
and the wife in 'R Xmas. Telephone
Cnme Story, of Madlyn's father's death in Snake E
Fear C~~y, of an assault on the O'Donnells in
16- Abe\ Ferrara, conversation with the author.
yes, of Sandu s betrayal in New Rose Hotel.

Paz!a~ att:c~~~~kout,

~:1'1:

2: THE EARLYYEARS

16

ABEL FERRARA- The Mora\ Vis\on

17

17- According to Francis Delia, "The entire crew of Ms.45 was encouraged to study Polanski's Repulsion
during the filming" (e-mail to the author, April 3rd 2003).
18- Straw Dogs was released in 1971, and wou\d have been fresh in Ferrara's mind when he made this
short: as he told Gene Gregorits, "Tome, Straw Dogs was a bigger influence than The Wild Bunch. The
Wild Bunch always seemed like a c\assical film. l didn't see it in the theatres. \ saw Straw Dogs in the
theatre".
19- Francis Delia, recal\s that "Abe\ 'borrowed' the equipment to film The Hold Up from Purchase College"

'',

(e-mail to the author, January 4th 2003).


20- According to Mary Kane, "The Hold Up was a long time ago, needless to say. 1.certainly had no
aspirations about acting, but l guess at the time 1 had the right look" (e-mail to the author, January 31st
2003).
21- Abe\ Ferrara, conversation with the author.
22- Severa\ touches, notably the use of rack music emanating from an on-screen source to accompany
a scene of violence, suggest the influence of Martn Scorsese: perhaps Ferrara had already seen Who's
That Knocking at My Door (1968).
23- Ferrara informed me that he substituted his own volee for Ken Fowler's while dubbing Johnny's
dialogue, justas Jean-Luc Godard personally dubbed Jean-Paul Belmondo's performance in Charlotte
et
Julespp.
(1958).
24-Son
Jarecki,
116-117. The girlfriend mentioned by Ferrara is Nadia Van Loewenstein, who is also
thanked on the end credits of The Hold Up (where her name is mis-spelt as 'Lowenstein'). She \ater
became a producer on the TV series Sesame Street.
25- Francis Delia, e-mails to the author, June 9th, 15th and 24th and November 17th 2002 and March
29th 2003. \t would seem that Jan Rosen only photographed the sections set in Jacky's studio. On the
cred1ts, Frank Delia is credited with 'Technica\ Expertise' and thanked for his "photographs and immeasurable contribution".
26- David Pire\\, e-mai\s to the author, April 8th, 9th and 24th 2002.
27- Douglas Metrov, e-mails to the author, June 7th and 8th 2002. Metrov's apartment was used for the
scenes in Jacky's studio (one of his paintings can be seen above the phone}. He is credited under his real
name, Douglas Gervasi.
28- Anatomy of a Werewolf (1992), unpub\ished manuscript courtesy of Oouglas Metrov.
29- Lanny Tay\or, conversation with the author, December 29th 2002.
30- Rich EH, e-mail to the author, January 23rd 2003 and conversation with the author March 24th 2003.
31- Oee Oee Rescher \ater became a popular television actress. She also appeared in severa\ feature
films, the only interesting one being Blake Edwards' Skin Deep (1989). According to Francis Delia, "Oee
Oee's father, Gayne Rescher, was a well known cinematographer (Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, May's
A New Leaf, Preminger's Such Good Friends): he may have been the connection between Oee Oee
and Abe\" (e-mail to the author, March 3oth 2003).
32-According to Francis Delia, "Car\ Low was my (tuture ex) father-in-law. The grandfather of my children.
1 introduced him to Abe\. He was a \ife-long actor (he had a smal\ role in Hud), and an extremely good
one; a pro to the core. He had a long running role on what was then TV's longest running show in history,
Search for Tomorrow. l have no doubt that Abe\ worked closely with Carl, probably structuring a
framework for Carl to work within that a\lowed Carl to display his exce\lent talent" (e-mail to the author,
June 24th 2002).

opposite: Abel Ferrara in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.

18

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

1',
'

9 UVES OF A WET PUSSY (1976)

,1.';
li,
'

1
'

"A display in the lobby caught his eye and swiftly drew his attention. lnside the Coming
Attractions frame was a poster for a porno called Coming Attractions. A passive
cameraman filmed a naked woman with a censor's black bar stamped over her cunt.
She beckoned the camera to join her in bed. Definitely the camera, not its man. On her
wall was the self-same poster for Coming Attractions. A passive cameraman filmed a
naked woman with a censor's black bar stamped over her cunt. She beckoned ... True
to its poster, the film concerned not merely a porno movie-within-a-porno movie, but
also the actual making of the movie that was, well, how could he defihe it? The movie
closest to the surface? The movie at the beginning? Or the movie at the end? The
movie - that he had paid to see, that sized it up best. The actual crew of Coming
Attractions was visible, naked, to the overcoated eye. Prime fucker was the directress
of the film to which the ticket belonged. Within. that film, she portrayed an actress. In
the role of horny thespian, she starred in yet. another porno feature which was also
entitled Coming Attractions. The question which Oliver wanted answered was whether
she had really directed the movie for which he had bought a ticket. Probably her
directing was acting, too; just another role. There might still be another movie lurking
behind what appeared to be the last one."
From 490, an unpublished novel by Zoe Lund

1''

1.

1';'

l.

!.'',''
.'",
1

above: Abel Ferrara and Francis Delia shooting 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy in the woods of Pomona (photo by Rich Ell).

"They have to have a story, even in porno movies."


Edgar in Jean-Luc Godard's Eloge de L' Amour

,
in the woods of Pomona.
be/ow: 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy s crew
F
ra Rich Ell Holly Yellen and John Mc\ntyre.
,
Left to right: unknown crew member, Abe\ erra ,

Although The Driller Killer is usually described as Ferrara's first feature, that label
more properly belongs to a porn film released theatrically in 1976 under the title 9 Lives
of a Wet Pussy. The 1977 edition of John Willis' Screen World notes that 9 Uves of a
Wet Pussy Cat (as it was identified on all posters and publicity materials) premiered
during August 1976, while an advertisement in The Daily Record suggests it was still
playing in February 1977 (double-billed with The X-Rated Cheerleader starring Harry
Reems). lt was released on video by VCX in 1982. Production notes for Ms.45 presumably preparad, or at least authorized, by Ferrara - refer to the film as Nine Lives,
and describe it as "a contemporary lave story with an element of fantasy... released in
1975 (sic) with independent bookings in New York theatres", thus carefully avoiding any
mention of its sexually exp!icit nature. When asked in 1991 about the allegad porn
content of his early work, Ferrara obliquely responded "1 don't puta classification. l've
made a lot of films. A lot of them have to do with people getting it on" 1, and Kent Jones
once noted "there are rumours that he made perno films befare The Driller Killer, but
he won't talk about that" .2 According to Joe Delia, "There was an unspoken rule between
us that Abel's feature career started with The Driller Killer. The title Nine Lives was a
euphemism we adoptad lf the film was ever mentioned" .3 In 2001, Asia Argento revealed
that "Mr Ferrara will not speak about his porn film. He says that now he has two
daughters and that's why he will not allow it to be re-released or talk about it in
interviews".41n 1988, Ferrara informad two French journalists who asked if Nine Lives

3: 9 UVES OF A WET PUSSY

20

ABEL FERRARA _ The Moral Vision

21

(sic) was a thr\1\er that "Sorne episodes were sort of 1\ke something you'd find in a thriller,
but otherwise it was rather an erotic movie. lt was my first feature, one of the first things
1shot in 35mm. lt was a sex:y portmanteau drama about three or four women we knew,
their sexual adventures. 1t consisted of seven episodes, ten minutes each",5 while in
2003 he told Gene Gregorits that "l've gotten tapes made from prints from the old days,
and back in those days, when a print went around, the project\onist would keep his
favourite scenes. After a few trips around the country, the only thing left was the bad
scenes. And look man, l've got kids, so l'm not about to broadcast the fact that we were
doing hardcore films, but it's also the fact that they weren't that good to begin with. We
were st\11 learning to make movies. The few good things we did manage to finish don't
exist anymore".6 When l asked Ferrara about this film, his only comment was "l'm not
ashamed of having made a porn film, but if 1hadn't directed anything except 9 Uves of
7

a Wet Pussy, you wouldn't be writing a book about me".


9 Lives of a Wet Pussy's on-screen credits are particularly amusing: Ferrara acts
(asan old man in a grey wig) and co-edits under his usual pseudonym, 'Jimmy Laine',
with direction attributed to 'Jimmy Boy L'. The music is by Joseph Delia (credited under
his real name), the screenplay is by Nicodemo Oliverio (under the pseudonym
'Nicholas George', also used for his carneo as a chauffeur) and John Paul Mclntyre is
the sound engineer (credited as 'J. Paul Jaquette'). Director of photography 'Francis X.
Wolfe' was Francis DeliaB, who recalls that "Part of the film was shot in Lower
Manhattan, Little ltaly. Our 'guide' in Little ltaly, who was not well-versed in the
components of a film crew, was being given a tutorial: 'he's the art director, he's
assistant cameraman, he's the dolly grip'. The 'guide' looked at Abel through a cocked
eye, pointed and asked ' ... him ... that guy... what does he do?'. lf there's a point, it's
that Abel's talent is in a sense invisible; as with most effective directors, he would
recruit strong talent - in front of and behind the camera - and let them run with it. Our
production company, Navaron Films, was named after the coffee shop we frequented,
The Navarone Gafe, on the comer of 17th and Union Square. We barely knew that
Warhol's Factory was right around the cerner. The cast was a patchwork quilt of
desperadoes, strippers, ex-cons and an unemployed schoolteacher. One of the lead
actresses was a stripper who called herself 'Chantal'. l'm certain that casting was a
word-of-mouth process, and that the cast were generally not friends of Abe\".9 As Rich
EH remembers it, "Sorne of the actresses were employed by an agency called Mambo
High, which provided strippers to New York clubs. The people who ran this agency
were all Mafia types, and 1 think they also put up some of the money. The guy who
appears in the gas station scene worked at a topless bar in Nyack. 1 was helping out
with the cameras, and Abel also had me taking photos. 1 was mostly assisting Frank
Delia. 1remember shooting parts of the film in Little ltaly, because we'd go down to this
place on Mulberry Street, and just park the car outside. l'd always get nervous,
because it really wasn't the kind of area where you wanted to leave $1000 worth of
camera equipment. That scene in the little wood was shot in Pomo na, where 1lived at
the time. The whole crew used to come over and crash at my house. Abel would work
without stopping for 24 hours: he'd keep going until he collapsed, or until everybody
else collapsed" _1o
Holly Yellen, who is credited as the fi\m's 'assistant director', recalls that "1 first
met Abel through Frank (Wolf) Delia. My husband Peter and 1were friends with Frank
and Frank's brother Joe. On 9 Uves, my functions included set design, continuity,
talent coordination, driver, gopher, cook, assistant camera (Wolf taught me how to

load/un load film mags and pull focus - that was m


.
.
. Y favonte part) and ass1stant location
psychiatrist (assistant to Abel that . )
1
the term 'directed' loosely A,bel kls . evhen dlrected a scene that Abel was in (using
...
newwathewas
f)'
apartment in Little ltaly, on Mulberry St t 1 1
gomg or : Jt was filmed in an
,people's jobs were. His remarks
that was asking
Who s dis guy and wha duz he do?' W
.
r o 1 mmg. The l1ne was:
and everyone would crack up Wh~~ fl h~n t_hm~s got tense, one of us would say that,
about the neighborhood bec~use all t~mtng In Ll~tle ltaly, 1remember being concerned
open prey for a rip-off rhere were onl e ~xpe~slve film equipment we had rented was
going on. 1 asked Ab~l and ot th yt a ew o us on the crew, and there was so mueh
accent). Whether it wa~ said gright ~ st an~ar~ reply: 'Don' worry about it' (intense NY
sorne unsavory characters and anyoun o; msl;h~ated, we had gotten this location thru
(or, more importantly, who 'we knew :n~o: IS part of t~e 'hao~ knew who we were
thatoneofthe reasonsAbel acted ~'th t
bodywas golng to np us off. 1remember
male actors. And there was always th' a scene was that he was havin_g trouble getting
the funding wasn't going to be forth IS ~ressure ~hat the film be more hardcore or else
As filming progressed, Abel knew h~o~~~~ Th~ !~rst sce~es we.film~d lwere pretty soft.
ok'gn .1 _up or lt wasn t golng to happen. And
the way 1remember it was that he was
a_ feature length 35m m film, made it on :~dlng thiS ~lm so tha~ he could say he made
QIVe him credibility. But it was not his choi~:\ on time, and tt looke,d good. lt would
o_ make a porno. lt was non e of our
choices, and l'm sure most of us look'
film for very little money 1 thi k'
IOQ back, WISh we hadn't made it We made that
kidding Most o! th . t :
n my pay worked out to about 25 cents an hour no

e 1n enors were shot on a set


b "lt . A ,
'
we crashed right there exhausted B t
we Ul In bel s Ioft, and sometimes
was infectious. He wouid do an hi~
no one ~orked harder than Abe\. His energy
on it. And thinking b t h
yt g o get that film made. lt was like his lile depended
b h' .
.
a ou ow poor we all were back th
it. We were a really tight little crew
d
en, may e 1s l1fe d1d depend on
Richie, Frank and Nicky. 1 never f~l~~n:em~~~o~lalong great. lt was m~, Abe, Jackie,
woman on the crew (Queenie wa
.
a ~ alth_ough 1 was baslcally the only
think she was in school) You'd thi sk ~ot m~~lved ~lth thls film during the shooting - 1
with all these guys, b~t they w:rel ~ou 1 tbe welrd forme worki~g on this porno film
shooting we would relax by sittin aroun~o u_ e gent~eme~. ~ometlmes at night after
high. lt felt like family. And you hagve to rem:lthb a QUitar, Slngtng Stones songs, getting
25, and 1think l'm a couple of years older th:n ~b=e we~e all rea/1~ young. l was only
But lt was a d1fferent time. There
wasn't so much fear".11

~hat

~=~."m:~~~ ~~:::~e~ thfefi~uy

According to Francis Delia "M th


.
brilliant photographer acce ted th y en c~mm~rclal photography partner, Bobby, a
location for the 'Lot an'd his d~ughte~' ~:=~~~a:~e JOb of 'art di~ec~ing' the Little ltaly
moniously abandonad ten years earlier - th~ t ~tace looked llke lt ha~ be~n uncereclean the place 1 dropped down o
ft
a e was half set The fJrst JOb was to
.

ne a ernoon and Bobb d


d
su1tcase from a closet, slung it up on a tabl'
Y
a heavy leather
handguns, at least twenty of them 1
't e and opened lt: lt was loaded with
shooting that sequence except pe~hapcsanth rteatlly remember too many specifics of
.
'
'
a 1 was a cramped spac
h
s1 uat1on for any cinematographer"_ 12
e, an un appy

r~gg_e

Puss~~~~s~r:l~y:~~a~~~; f~n~~~~ ~~~~ne the_ film, ?elieves that 9_ Li~es of a wet


had redeeming social value although it was ~nl~erl~lller. That movle (m my opinion)
during Fall 1975. We had great ti
k' as,ca y a grade B porno. lt was filmed
me ma mg lt, because we were all beginning our

a'

3: 9 UVES OF A WET PUSSY


22

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

23

careers and had been friends for many years. Abe\ was a good and unique director. 1
remember the film opening at a theatre in the city: everyone attended this screening
and \aughed at how stupid this movie was, but we believed it would \ead to better
things. We alllearned a \ot about the film process, and \learned what 1did not want to
do" _13 Joe Delia insists "it was never anyone's intention to make an inte\lectual
statement with this production. l always had the feeling that it was a means to get to
the next leve\, which was to get another film made",14 a sentiment echoed by Douglas
Metrov: "The on\y reason Abe\ made 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy was because that's the
only kind of film he could get money for. Arthur Weisberg, an old perno producer from
Detroit, gave him the money. Why he's not credited, who knows? Tax reasons,
Arthur was a character, boy-a truly tough, no-nonsense Jew. 1 only met him brief\y a
couple o! times, bu\ the memory is indelible. How Abel ever found him, God only
knows. Abe\ wanted me to be in the film because al\ the guys were going to be in it,
like a family thing. But 1refused, and went to \\ve in \taly instead. When 1came back, 1
saw the film and laughed my ass off at the sight of my friends in powdered wigs and
beards showing their private parts for aH the pe!Verts in the world to see. Abe\ really
pushed forme to be in that film. He considerad ita bit o! treason that 1would not be in

m~ybe.

it, but he forgave me eventuaHy" _15


Joe Delia's musical contribution began a coHaboration that would \ast unti\1997:
"lt was my brother Frank who introduced us. Abe\ was then living in Nyack with a
woman named Nadia. 1was an up and coming studio piano player and arranger with
my eyes on a career in records and studio work. As lar as 1was concerned, Abel and
the whole crew were a pretty crazy \ot, and 1 didn't think much of them at first. 1
remember that there was a birthday party for Abel al the house in Nyack during July
1975, and he asked if 1 wanted todo the music for this perno film he was about to
make. 1was not on the scene during production, but it was through this encounter that
1 ended up in the film business. 1found that Abe\ and 1had many things in common:
we both had fathers who owned junkyards, we're both unwavering \overs of Bob Dylan
and the RoHing Stones, and we had both been potential cannon fodder for Vietnam.
From the early days, Ferrara a\ways liked to think of his team as a band, especially
the original members. The earliest crew was Abe\, Nicky (0\iverio), and Jackie Mac
(Mclntyre). 1 believe that Queenie (Mary Kane), Wolfie (Frank Delia), and Dougie
Ge!Vasi (Metrov) came next. 1was the next to come into the inner sanctum and stayed
the longest (over 20 years), with the exception o! Jackie who still has a gig every few
years as Abel's dolly tech. 1 remember a tew other people like Dave Pirell, Richie Ell
(an electrician), HoHy Ye\\en, and a number of other Nyack based people who were
footnotes in the early days. The early 'band' consisted of Abe\, Nicky, Jackie Mac,
Queenie, Wo\f, Oougie Ge!Vasi and myself. We recorded the score to what was then
titled White Women al a studio in Blauvelt NY called 914 (named alter the telephone
area code), which was just 5 miles south of Nyack. lt's owner was originally a
producer named Brooks Arthur who had built a studio in the New York City suburbs,
and brought in artists like Melanie and Janis Jan to make records. Springsteen's Bom
to Run was recorded there in its heyday.16 By 1976 the studio was in between owners
and starting to go downhi\1, and the engineer was basically setting the hourly rate. Far
from having a picture to lock up to, there was no picture at al\ to work with, and we
had to re\y on basic rough timings of the cues we needed. 1 put together a group of
musicians that included Danny Toan on guitar, Max Weinberg on drums (he played on
the hard rock track that goes over the rest room scene), Abe Speller (he p\ayed drums

on sorne of the tracks), Don Payne (ato n


.
then), and a guy named Santos on e~cu ot~h s1t~diO ~ass player, an old guy back
overdubbed bass on the tracks The e p . S~lon. 1 thlnk Danny Toan and myself
us record the entire score for $25o T~glt"eer s na me was Larry Alexander, and he Jet
remaining hundred dollars l"t
. e otal budget for the score was $350 wl"th th
.
sp 1 up among the

,
e
lnch tape, and used non-virgin stock We ca muslclan~. We recorded on 16 track 2track_s that were transferred to mag. stock me ou~ w_lth probably ten or so lengthy
sesslons were outstanding and b
and lald In across each vignette The

ecause we h d 1 k
.

.
recor mg stuQio for the lowest imagin bl
a ue ed mto a state of the art
d
score of the earlier Ferrara films"JB a e rate, we ended up with the best produced
Holly Yellen, David Pirell and Do 1
Pussy being known as White W
ug a_s ~etrov also remember 9 Uves of a Wet
"based on \he novel Les Femm~;:'~~;,~~e 11 was in production:19 indeed, \he words
openlng credits. Needless to say the .
s by Francols Dulea" appear among the
'Francois DuLea' being a jokey' ref:~~::o such bo_ok an~ no such writer, the name
t~ought the title sounded French and
to ~rancl~ Delia, who recalls that "Abel
flrmly planted in cheek) a certain',
. was lookmg to lmpart (with tDiigue as alwa s
flick".20 Although distributors
to what was really jusi a
bad
clalms he wanted this film to be releay I~Siste~ on a more exploitational title Ferrara
Francis Delia ("Nothing Sacred was
othing Sacred, a cla,tm contlrmed by
11 did show \he degree lo which Abel t k ha\ was agreed would be bes\. 1suppose
Yellen ("Abel wanted lo call it Noth"
~o \he film as a serious attempt"21) and Holly
it. The tille they ended up with wa '"9 b~cred. 1was hoping that's what they would call
According to Joe Delia 'Whesns9o L"atant. 1hated it"22).
h
'
1vesofaWetP

ouses on 42nd Street, Abel did somethin h


. ussy flnally reached \he porn
onwlth hlm. He would go find a theater th~t\ha~ he did on almostevery film 1 worked
golng out of the city and finding a mo . h
film was playlng m (sometimes even
how it was playing and what kind of ;le. ous~ in the suburbs) and would check out
du_smess lt was doing. This time it was 9 Uves
playing to an unruly Times Square
au lence \he ki d th t .
a~rIon_ on the screen. Abellater told me
that a'
n_
a lnteracts verbally with the
Wlth hls grey powdered ha ir, someone in th t on_e pomt, when he carne on the screen
no old guy... that's a young motherfucker!"'.~3audlence stood up and yelled 'hey, that's

evenfu:~l'gree:

th:etitl:~

kind~ po:O~

Glven that one of 9 Uves of a Wet Puss ,


formal structure, it seems worth describin th~ ~~-ost fascinating aspects is its elaborate
g ts 1 ICult but rewarding work in detail:
1-_ After the opening title - which a
. .
somethmg that could be a bell a h
. ppears over an mdlstinct shot showing
depicts two unidentified wome~ m;ki~~sl plece, or a street at night24 - the first scene

lovema~~e.g,

2- Another sequence of
LaMonde') and an anonymous man.

. .
.
thls ttme lnvolving Pauline ('Pauline

3- The third scene shows Pauline h .


.
addresses in French, while delivering the fo~vln~ sex _wlth her stable boy,25 whom she
1woke up very early this morning Da 'd
ow~ng volceover commentary: "Dear Gypsy
1dressed and went lo \he stable. As
s\111 .asleep and \he house was really quiet:
boy David brought back from Francey H ' ow, l m havlng an affair with the new stable
touches me, 1 lose my mind 1 w t t. es so young and beautiful and quiet When he
G
,

an o grab al him
d 1

. ypsy, 1can t understand how you can't want h'


an pu 1htm to me, scratch at him.
tnto me, when it's pushing deeper and dee
~~ t~ fuck you. Oh God, when he puts it
per, ee l could come forever. And the hay

v~u~~s

3: 9 UVES OF A WET PUSSY

24

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

25

on my back, and him urgent inside me. lt's a\1 1 can do not to scream out and wake
everyone. And then, when he comes, when he comes, oh God, how 1 \ove it when he
comes and comes. Oh Gypsy, you must really \earn to \ove men again".
4- We see Gypsy ('Dominique Santos'), apparently a witch, sitting in her room,
alone except for a black cat. Severa! very brief shots of Pauline and Gypsy embracing
on the bed are cut in. Gypsy reads a \etter, smokes opium and masturbates while
addressing the fol\owing comments direct\y to Ferrara's camera: "'Gypsy, you must
real\y learn to \ove men again'. Learn to \ove men again! That's Pauline. She does
nothing but have intercourse all day long, then she writes me \etters about it, as if 1
might be interested. Those are al\ hers, faithfully written, telling me about her p~ivate
afternoons and her greasy paramours, bragging about her incest, her \echery and her
violence. But 1 knew al\ that already. You see, she's really justa chi\d. 1 haven't seen
her in a while, but she keeps in clase contad. This is her way of saying '\'m there by
you'. And it's good. Very good. But 1miss her, and sometimes 1hate her for not being
here when 1 need her. But what can 1 do? Al! 1 have is the \etters and the opium to
explain why she's away.26 Dearest Pauline, have you ever imaginad that you may have
had me? .... 27 Have you guessed yet why 1 know your \overs so well? No, you could
never guess my simple, passionate Pauline. My present is your present, but yours is
not mine. 1 share my moments with you, 1 live my \\fe with you. But not with your
consent, not with your knowledge. The time will come though, when you wi\1 know it,
and you wi\1 want \t. But the time is not yet here".
5- The camera tracks past trees to reveal a \uxurious house (actually the
Maidman Mansion in Nyack). Pauline, her husband David (David Pirell) and their
chauffeur Rizio (Nicodemo 0\iverio) emerge and enter a limousine. As Rizio drives,
Pauline and David sit silently in the back seat while Pauline de\ivers the following
voiceover monologue: "Dear Gypsy. lt began raining again today as we \eft the house.
As usual, David and 1weren't talking, but by now it doesn't matter that much tome. He
wouldn't tell Rizio or me where we were going, and so we al\ sat in si\ence, staring out
the windows. Oh, we still make \ove together when he's not snorting coke with Rizio or
ba\ling his mistresses and boyfriends. He's the only man \'ve ever had who can fuck
and fuck and never lose his hard-on, and 1can come a hundred times. He keeps balling
as if nothing were happening, but this cruel detachment of his, which drives me so wild
when we're in bed, makes the rest of my life with him unbearable". In a sequence which
vaguely anticipates the opening of Body Snatchers, the limousine pulls up outside a
gas station (on 9W in Nyack), where the atiendan\ ('Tony Richard') lollows Pauline into
the rest room and makes \ove to her.
6- Gypsy masturbating, intercut with fantasised glimpses of Pauline naked
against a white background, fol\owed by two shots of Pauline exiting the gas station
rest room, leaving the exhausted attendant lying on the floor.
7- Gypsy sitting behind atable with a pack of Tarot cards, addressing the camera:
"\ am laying out three cards, Hungarian fashion, representing Pau\ine's past. The
Empress, eterna! symbol of the female and ferti\ity. The Emperor, symbol of fraternity and
masculinity. And The Devil, symbol of the domination of matter over spirit, of revolution
and incest. But 1knew this would read so. 1 know Pauline. She has her grandmother's
soul. They even say she has her face. You see Pauline's great-grandfather and his two
daughters carne to America in 1903 from Po\and. Pau\ine's great-grandfather was a very
strict Christian. He was really over-protective of the two girls. When the old man would
go out to work, he would \ock them up in the apartment. The only time they could leave

was
when
they
were chaperoned
.
curious
they
became"
. L"fl e was pretty \onely, and the o\der they gol , the more
8- In .a flashback to the turn of the centu
. ,
ry,. we see Pauhne s grandmother (also
played by Pauline La Monde') and h
~heir lather (Ferrara2") as he read:;:.,o~~l(o':i~tster ('Peggy Johnson') sitting next lo
And Lot went up out of Zoar and dwelt in \he g Btbhcal passage (Genesis 30-32):
htm, for he feared to dwell in Zoa . d h
m_ountatn, and his two daughters with
e dwelt tn a eave, he and hts
. two daughters
A nd th e trst-born said unto the yor, an
.
unger, Our father is old
d
.

ea
o come m unto us after \he
, an there ts nota man in the
t .
rthk wtne,
manner
of
all
the
e
rth
e
d nn
and we will lie with him th t
a . o me, let us make our father
by this, the two young women ~ct ~ ~et:ay preserve seed of our father''. Inspirad
encourage their father to drink wine unt"luh f ~1 story of Lot and his daughters they
and have sex with him. The action 'i e a s asleep, thencarry him toa nearby bed
eventng ... ", "Later, that same night ") s adccompanted by tntertitles ('The following
narrated
by Gypsy, who informs us that
"After th ey got the o\d man into bed ...th an
t
.
gtrls knew by instinct whai they had \o do.
Their father was so drunk from all the
gtrls felt free to do with him as th
1
that he would never wak6 up and so the
.
ey P eased. lt wasn't t"l p , '
comp etely sattsfied herself that th
.
un t au\me s grandmother had
1
continuad to satisfy themselves wi~h~~~nger ~ot her c_hance. Until sunup, the girls
woke, and the whole night remain d
regard for thetr father. The old man never
But the past
appears again in the future and str:n a s;c:et only between the
9- Gypsy in her room, spe k" gte a alrs appear to run in the family".29

'
a tng o the camera "P 1
prtncess. She carne to this country t
1b
. au me has a lover. A Nigerian
Darkness of soul come to life. A midn~~tfl~~:~e Pher. beauty.. She was black magic.
S~e loved her purity, her virginity. But the evil f . aultne befnended her immediately.
thmgs that made both Pauline and h 1
orces had other things planned, violent
brought it on, but 1had nothing to do :~h ~ver suffer. lt was jealousy and magic that
Pauline had a spiritual tracker and h 1 t\" 1was afraid of that black bitch. She knew
doe~n't want to. She's forgotten u: e ~~~u d have stopped it. But she didn't. Now she
Paulme does. 1 tell her so while she a l. n my own way 1 \ove her just as much as
dreams and al\".
s eeps, only she can't hear it. Not with the bad

:i~~

gi~'ls.

10- Nine_shots of Pauline making \ove to Naca


.
.
. 11- Paultne and Nacala sitting on a sof
la (Joy Stlver), the Ntgerian princess.
sttll have nightmares from that first f
? N a. Nacala says to Pauline "Do you know 1
bothers me a little ... 1 can picture m;~;f llot so much as in the beginning, but it sti\1
only been here a few weeks and , w 1 ta over again leaving your apartment 1 had
12
as a e. Very late"
.
.
-A flashback showing Nacala be"
.
mto a building by two m en. Na cala mant~g chas~d a long a dark New York street and
a broken bottle, but the other rap
h ges to ftght off ene by cutting his fa ce with
se
.
es er at knife po t
.
quence (whtch anticipates The Driller Kn
m on the statrs. Both this
were present in VCX's 1982 video t
f
1 er and Ms.45) and the previous ene
OVO/video editions.
rans er, but have been removed from their current
. 13- Another scene, punctuated b fa des t
.
maktng \ove. Gypsy delivers the foil Y_
o ~lack, showtng Pauline and Nacala
l'd be so jealous with Pauline 1 wou\~;~;g narratlon: "There used to be times when
coul~n't understand that. Why should sh:~~:~, her letters or answer her calls. She
her hfe. You see, being her lover tod
.
s never known a jealous moment in
tomorrow. lt's as if she didn't have
ay would never mean you wi\1 be her lover
a memory. Only the one in her arms was the one

3: 9 UVES OF A WET PUSSY

26

ABEL FERRARA- The Mora\ Vision

27

she desired. And because of this, our lave was impossib\e. 1wanted to own her, and

\1.",,,,

she couldn't be owned"


.
( h' h . preceded by shots of a statuette, Tarot
15
p
n Gypsy's bed making
.
14- The penultimate sectlon w IC
. p r , dream We see au 1me o
cards and the moon) deplctS au In~ s 'ndisti.nct (the end credits append the w~rd
\ove to a man whose f~ce remams ; mention who plays the part), while delivenng
'Dreamlo~er' to :he cast hst, but do( ~o assage in italics is inexplicably missing from
the followmg voJceover ~.omments t e. p t l had a dream about you. We were in bed
VCX's current transfer): Gypsy. Last nlgh
d l'k hours and 1was on the verge of
, b
f K gforwhatseeme 1 e
,
making \ove. We d een uc m 1 k t you and then the strangest thing happE?ned.
an orgasm. l opened my e~e~ to. oo ~ t b , You weren't worried anymore about who
You beca me aman. lt wasn t hke tt use o e.
. to o later on. You didn't ask me
l'd been with the night befare: or where 1t~~ gb~ngYougjust took me, and you fucked
to stop seei_ng Nacala orto gtve up th~ :s~ed o~- to stop and you laughed. We kept
without saytng a word. When 1 carne, ff 1 wi~h the moonlight in the dark. You were
going on and on, and we were so bea~ tu, .
our ufse so clase that 1 could feel
kneefing above me, driving your b~dy mt~ T;ee'/wish~g over and over that it would
the b/ood rushing through your vems, anh t 1 p nted and you didn't Jet anyone come
never stop. For the first time you knew w a wa lf to you and you took me and took
between us. lt was just me and you. 1 ga;e:;~~ bite and your teeth kept sinking into
me and took me and took me. Then you s a e
b'f , to keep biting How 1 wanted
me. lt seemed so beautitul, 1 wanted you t~,k;e~s ~~~ence is interc~t with shots of
you to see that it felt so good, oh so goo .

Gypsy wandering halt-nak~d thro~ygph:y ~o~~~!-ring the following monologue in her now
15- The final scene s ows
.
d
t sinister nature. But
dark room: "1 tried to fight the desire. 1 trtted tod aNcokwnolwmleus~es~~cumb to it. She must

h
ver would have re urne .
without coercton s e ne
p
. e's letters ("There's no need for
., G
ses a candle to burn au 1tn
.
succumb to tt . ypsy u .
,
.
needs patience. False unity is no umty.
these anymore") and conttnues: The ll_nt~erse s walks over to her bed, on which a

There is no reality ex~ept human re~~Ys.,~J: b~en waiting.lt's been lonely and dark
naked Pauline is sleepmg. As Gypsy Y
d
ks blankly into the camera. The
.
1 ft" p uline awakes an 1oo
for me here snce you e , . a
. d by repeated shots of Pau1ine against
image freezes. The end credtts are accompame
a white background.
11 the ingredients (cum-shots, lesbian
.
lf 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy cont~ms a needed to secure distribution via the
scenes, close-ups offe\latio a~d ~enetra;ton, ~~~ng resembling a linear plot.30 But this
standard outlets for hardc~re, tt fatls to ~ ~r ab
remarkable formal sophistication.
narrativa 'incoher~n~e' IS ac~ompante. di~in~t we cannot say with certainty what it
Consider the opentng. after an ~~~ge so In
shows two women making lave, but
spoon-shaped necklace worn by
depicts, the first
ectvely identify them as Pauline and
denies us a glimpse at elther thetr ac_est t
t h n the other's wns re rosp
. .
one and the wa e o
d.
mpletely black) the second (conststmg of
Nacala) or the \ocatio~ (the b~ckgroun "t~s ~~an - this time ~e can see Pauline's fa ce
11 shots) show~ Pauhne havt~g hse~h~~ (consisting of 26 shots) features Pauline and
and sorne detat1s of the room, t e
and not only is the location
f
f both partners are onscreen,
the stable boy - the aces o .
.h
ber of establishing shots while a voiceover
fully visible, but the scene begtns wtt . a num
.
identifies these characters and exp\alns what they are domg.

sequenc~ (consl~tt~g of~~~~~~sihe

Although sorne kind of pattern involving a gradual movement from obscurity to


clarity is apparently emerging, Ferrara systematically dashes any hopes we might have
that this pattern will develop consistently. Even self-contained sequences, su eh as the
one in which Pauline makes lave to a gas station attendant, refuse to follow a
predictable course: Pauline's claim that her husband "wouldn't tell Rizio or me where
we were going" gives rise to severa\ questions (Where are they going? Why? What will
happen when they get there?) the film implicitly promises to answer, but this narrativa
thread is one of severa! that will be arbitrarily abandonad. Similarly, whereas hardcore
porn aficionados might expect a scene such as the one depicting Nacala's rape to
conclude with an ejaculating penis shown in close-up, Ferrara ends it at a random
point. 31 These strategies, representad at perhaps their most extreme by the shots of
Gypsy walking with no apparent purpose or goal through a forest, suggest that Ferrara
wishes to deform and destroy generic rules: the gas station and stable boy sequences
parody archetypal porn situations (much as a segment set early in th.e century uses
intertitles to evoke that period's cinema), yet their lightness of tone is Contradicted by
the general atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and mor oppressive as
the film progresses.
9 Uves of a Wet Pussy moves easily between serious drama, pornographic
clich and blasphemous satire worthy of Bataille or Buuel, taking in a dream, a
flashback which may be a fantasy, a flashback which is also a nightmare, and visualizations of Pauline's letters (which claim to be factual accounts, but could be fiction),
and in this it recalls the tone and structure of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and
Margarita, a novel Ferrara was interested in filming during the 70s. While Pauline must
cope with what most of us would label 'reality' (sexual intercourse, a loveless marriage,
etc.), Gypsy emphasises black magic and the Tarot (it's as if the Marlene Dietrich
character from Josef Van Sternberg's films had entered Erich Van Stroheim's fatedriven universe). Although Gypsy supposedly lives in present-day America, we see only
the interior of her house, with no hint as to where it is situatect32 - a complete contrast
with the 'fantasy' sections, many of which begin by meticulously establishing a location
- while those birdca\ls present during some exterior scenes can also be heard in her
bedroom (even at night). There is, then, plenty of evidence to suggest that Pauline's
erotic adventures occur entirely within Gypsy's mind: for her, Pauline embodies a
freedom she can neither fully embrace nor decisively reject,33 and although she insists
"1 had nothing todo with it", the combination of desire and aggression demonstrated by
Nacala's attackers clearly externalizes Gypsy's own confessed feelings towards their
victim (much as Pazzo acts out Matt's hostility in Fear City). But Ferrara's point is that
Gypsy's fantasies are more vivid, and often more 'realistic', than her reality: like Could
This Be Love's Jacky (who also owns a cat) and The Driller Killer's Tony Coca-Cola,
she is a solipsist who denies her potential richness by shutting out the externa! world's
complexities34 and becoming a ene-dimensional caricature. Whereas Pauline's
sexuality is free-flowing (the Tarot reading links her with both masculinity- The Emperor
- and femininity - The Empress), taking in promiscuity, bisexuality and incest (not to
mention the crossing of class, race and language barriers), Gypsy insists on
reproducing those patterns of ownership and domination which distinguish 'normal'
heterosexual relationships. The film's structure is circular: the opening shots present
Pauline purely in terms of sexual characteristics (breasts and pubic hair), and it is this
state she returns to at the conclusion, her blank stare implying she will no Jonger display
that autonomy Gypsy found both fascinating and threatening.
1

3: 9 UVES OF A WET PUSSY

28

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

29

Reinlorcing Freud's claim (in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuaiity) that both
homosexuality and heterosexuality can be seen as "a result of restriction in one
direction or the other'', Ferrara's early work is notable for its insistence on bisexuaHty
as a norm: il his heterosexuals (or exclusive homosexuals like Gypsy and The Driller
Killer's Dalton Briggs) tend to be neurotics obsessed with power and control, bisexuals
such as Pauline, The Driller Killer's Caro! and Fear City's Loretta reveal a healthy
normality to which others can only aspire (Could This Be Love also fits this pattern,
since Jacky and Renee's bisexua\ity is presentad as a point in their favour). The key
moment here is that dream in which Paunne imagines the erasure of gender roles:
once Gypsy becomes a man, she is immediately lreed ol possessiveness and
jealousy. Although, like Kathleen in The Addiction,35 she uses philosophy to justify her
actions ("There is no reality except human reality"), even the narrator defines her desire
for sexual exclusivity as unhealthy ("\ tried to fight the desire. 1tried to acknowledge its
sinister nature"), Ferrara's refusal to provide establishing shots of Gypsy's room
suggesting just how insulated the world she has created to protect hersell lrom human
interaction actual\y is.
This privileging of bisexuality relates to Ferrara's focus on life Hved in the here and
now. Though often treated as a refuge from those strains and tensions which epitomize
the late twentieth century, the biological lamily unit represents capitalism in its purest
form: the patriarch 'owns' his wife much as he 'owns' his house, and the success of this
way ol lile in the past guarantees its success in the tuture (at leas\ in theory- in practice
it almos\ always ends disastrously). Yet Ferrara is supremely uninterested in past
events, living, like his heroine, completely in the moment:36 compare Gypsy's
description of Pauline - "being her Jover today would never mean you will be her Jover
tomorrow. lt's as if she didn't have a memory" - with Ferrara's daim that "1 don't think
the past necessarily tells you why somebody is the way they are- l'm more concerned
with the luture than with \he pas\".37 This is the key to 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy's odd
structure: if it is impossible to state with certainty that any given scene occurs in the
past, the present or the tuture (or is a lantasy), then everything must be perceived as
taking place in an eterna! now. Ferrara, whose aesthetic values (lorm) are inextricable
from his fascination with untraditional relationships (content), may wel\ have been
attracted to this genre because pornographic films, no matter how degraded, convey
direct experience, individual shots existing because of their immediate attractions
rather \han as part ol some larger structure. Here we see, lar the first time, that
ferocious commitment to life as flux which will become pre-eminent in Ferrara's work.

Footnotes

1- Howard Feinstein, "Dangerous Abe\", The Guardian (section 2), June 12th 1994, p.8.
2- Kent Jones, "The Man: WhO Cares?" (1994). Available on the Hard Press website.
3- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, December 16th 2002.

4- "Asia Argento Takes Angry Bitch Cinema A Bit Further" (2001). Available on the Vice/and website.
5- Alain Garel and Francois Guerif, "Entretien: Abe\ Ferrara", La Revue du Cinema 436, March 1988, p.
48 (my translation).
6- Gene Gregorits, "Abe\ Ferrara: The Sex & Guts \nterview" (2003).
7- Sorne of Ferrara's recent comments on 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy suggest a desire to substitute myth for
fact, and should not be taken literally. In 2002, he considered recutting the film for a (subsequently cancelled)
OVO release on Nico Bruinsma's Cult Epics \abe\, claiming he had only let the sex scenes run so long for
commercial reasons, and now wished to shorten them. The following year, he went to the opposite extreme,
insisting he wou\d only allow the CinmathE!que Francaise to screen 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy if they could

track down the complete four-hour versionl Acc rrf


perhaps he's referring to the entire unedit~d foo~a ~:~}o
, Jer St
8. lo Permanent Midnight
g ..
19951

Holl~ Yellen, "1 think we shot 3 to 1 on that film

(~-ma'1 lo !he author. April28th 20D3)

so
'

~~~!~:E;:F:~~=;,:~=~:i~~~~n~:~~:~!i;:~i~~~e~~~:::~~p~~:~~=:~~:d:~~~:~0:0~a:jit~;

Hustler-ites
dubbed him 'the Dog' Franyk carne
lerre. toSma\1,
ne of fellow
those
t
h Ldark, and so constantly Ira,, ng women
wl h the as-yet-unheralded Abel F
"
e .ez arry after an early career mak'
,
.
giving him this name:
usual nickname was actually
sIC . Abe\ s1mply called me 'Wolf' (no
.
'. a may well be, but Ferrara is the one
.
"you look like a wolf'. Jerry
asking him why he

r~c~lls
~nswered,

accx:':~~; t~o!~~ ~;~a;s


~=~'::~~,~~). l_~emember

~~; ~~~~P ~~~'~:


calledw~~ ~=~eh~

;:r:~,~~h:~=~~og'
g~~s~::i~.::;'~~ ;~en:
mor~
pat~
~rmane~t
really stuck the :a~;v::f~ d~~.r~=~:t:::::::~~~eth::; (including J~~ry~':;;~ ~~:g~~~;~:~%asa~:i~:v:o

m;oiker was origioated by the


and great talen!) had it
or
a small circle of erry own the
toward heroin. 1 don't know for ert
.Midmg?t movie as the

9-

Francis Delia, e-mails to the author


or, arch 29th 2003).
t,hJune 18th and November 17th 2002.

'

1()... Rich El\, conversation with th

a:;~r ~ ~la;ch 24th 2003.

Y~llen turned down a role in 9 Uves of a ~et ~~:th, 9th and 10th 2003. Holly Yell~n's husband Peter
11- Holly Yellen, e-mails to the

:~~e;,;~~isM;~~:. :s:.~:: ~~ ~~r~:~~~rn ~~~em1u;;~ ~~ :~~e~~~u:~;:e~:~~~p~:;r:~a;:~:rts in The Driller


3- David Pirell, e-mails to the author

14- Joe Delia, e-mail to the autho

h~lp

o'

A 8

02 and April 9th 2003.


th 2002 and.Apri118th 2003.

pn

t:~ a~~~mber

~~ ~~ne

No~ember

15- Douglas Metrov, e-mails to


16th 2002.
later
finance The Driller Killer and
8th and
17th 2002. Arthur Weisber wou
producer credit). lo Rafi Pitts'
his daughter Rochelle Weisbergg
1:rr~~a s father put up the money for 9 Lives of a Wet pe errara: ~ot Guilty, Frankie Cee claims that
S -. e cover of Springsteen's Born to Run albu
~ssy, but thls is almost certainly incorrect

~xecut,~e

doc~m~~~a~~bof,~h,ch

has~~

~Fi~~;:~n;~ ~~~:~~:::y~;:.::~:~~;(~c;ho, ~si~: fro~l::~;k~~"~~"~ ~::~e~~=~~;~:~:;~:;'


0

-Santos IS credited underthe name 'J

'

~~~;=~~~~a~~;F~~:,~!h:n~a;;~::,~::~~:::r=~:~~:~~:=g~~~~~~-~~~:~~~;~ ;,~n~~~~~ a;h;,~oi~~~


18- Joe

Delia~ e-~=i~:;:;h';::~t J;e Saotos, who appears in ~:~:'6i~ySaotos", who plays Gypsy in 9

19- The title White Wo

or, ecember 16th and 18th 2002

.
men was later used for an
1
0-1 FFranc~s Del!a, e-mail to the author, June 18th ~On0re2ated porn film directed by Henri Pachard in 1986
2
t h

2 - ranc1s Delia e

~~~ ~~!!y :~11en, ~-~:i~~o ~hte :~t~~~~~~~~0~~t~02003~2.

24- Given th:t ~~m~rl to the author, December 16th 2002.


e lmage appears to be a fll f
that this shot's vagueness
25 Th .

~~=~;/ossible
-

~~ ~ ~:~~~ ~~da:t~~a~~~;s ~o~


!he one preferred by Ferrara, it
a e to facrhtate the on-screen title

e actor who plays the stable bo is i

i:::;~ :~~~=: ~i:~o;e~~~=~d ~~:~~~:~~~:~~:~~:~~~:eD~I~: ~:~ ~:;:~:':e~e::~ s:~:~:d~h~~~=~

a
;~~ pclay anythmg (e-mails to the author, December 1~~hshodwn up on the music credits: he certainly did
ampare Ferrara's 19?0 poem R

an 18th 2002).
27 s
.
emnants of Bonfir. . "Wh t
a remains are the memories".
- .ome mrnor damage to currently circulatin
. te.
28
ens1ble.
9 prm s has rendered Gypsy's nex1 comment mcompre.
h
.
- Ferr~ra had initially asked Lanny Tayl t
can you Imagine the effect this would h or o play thls role: according to Taylor u said 'Ah '
A
th
th
ave on my care
.
'
, e mon be\
e au or, December 29th 2002). !t is 1 believ
eras an Enghsh professor?"' (conversation with
onscreen 'performers': Ferrara has m~re in co~ unusu.al for male porn directors to cast themselves as
Reynal (Deux Fois), Chantal Akerman (Je Tu 11 ~~n wrth su.ch female European filmmakers as Jackie
~;.\~~ked bodies io a maoner which is uninhibited ~u~~d AS<a Argento (Scarlet Diva), who reveal their
.
IS scene appears to have been at least
.
. ever narciSSistlc.
Rlch El\ shows Pauline cowering behind Ferra:aa(:~lly, d~ected b~ Holly Yellen. One of the stills taken by
o rs ressed In a black shirt unlike anything he wears

3: 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY

30

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

31

during the 'Lot and his daughters' scene). lt seems likely that this is from a sequence not used in the final
cut, perhaps a continuation of the 'Lot' scene in which the father confronts his daughters. According to
Holly Yellen, "1 don't remember the details of that scene, but don't assume that beca use 1don't remember
it 1didn't direct it!!! You're talking about 27 years ago!!" (e-mail to the author, April 28th 2003).
30- 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy belongs to a movement which has been dubbed 'pomo chic': fi\ms that, in
Nick Roddick's words, "surrounded the required doses of intercourse and cum-shots with huge\y
ambitious (and often downright pretentious) philosophica\ narratives" ("Opposite of Sex", Sight and
Sound, March 2000, p. 5). But whereas Gerard Damiano (Devil in Miss Jones, Skin-Fiicks) and
Stephen Sayadian (Caf Flesh) are repulsed by sexuality, equating seriousness in pornography with the
wlllingness to present sex negatively, Ferrara, a true child of the 60s, sees sexual intercourse as
potentially liberating.
31- This radical rethinking of narrative, which will cometo be typical of Ferrara's work, can per!laps be
traced to the influence of Pier Pao\o Pasolini: The Canterbury Tales (1971), for example, consists of
stories that begin and end in a similarly arbitrary manner.
32- Ferrara's representatives of the death force frequently occupy isolated 'rooms' whose exteriors are
never revealed: compare Pazzo's \air in Fear City, Peina's apartment in The Addiction, or Mickey Ray's
club in The Blackout.
33- Absent women who become objects of obsession whilst being subjected to multiple interpretations
appear in 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy, California, The Blackout, New Rose Hotel and Ferrara's screenplay
Mary, in which Maree Reale searches for the 'absent' Mary Magdalene, and herself becomes an absent
object of obsession for various other characters.
34- Tellingly, Gyspy's masturbatory fantasy shows Pauline isolated against a white background, her
sexuality deprived of its context. Uke Gyspy's insistence that "My present is your present, but yours is
not mine. 1 share my moments with you, \live my \\fe with you. But not with your consent, not with your
knowledge", these images suggest a critique of the traditional porn-viewing experience.
35- During the dream sequence, Gypsy bites Pauline, like one of The Addiction's vampires, making
this the first of severa! vampire references in Ferrara: in Ms.45, Thana's boss attends a party dressed
as Count Dracula; in King of New York, Thomas Flanigan tells Tip that "Gilley's after your wife. \t's
more than obvious by the vampire marks on her neck", and Joey Wong is seen watching Murnau's
Nosferatu; in Bad Ueutenant, zoe Lund delivers a speech about vampires; and in The Blackout,
Matty claims "1 feel like !'m in a vampire movie".
36- Notice how seldom Ferrara uses the past tense during the commentary he recorded for The Dril\er
Killer's 1999 DVD release, often tall<ing about fictional events in a film made 20 years ago as if they were
taking place that very moment.
37- Gavin Smith, "The Gambler", Sght and Sound, February 1993, p. 21. One might also compare Gypsy's
description of Pauline with Tolstoy's account of Platon Karataev in War and Pea ce: "Karataev had no attachments, friendships, or lave, as Pierre understood them, but loved and lived affectionately with everything life
brought him in contact with, particularly with man - not any particular man, but those with whom he
happened to be. He loved his dog, his comrades, the French, and Pierre who was his neighbour, but Pierre
felt that in spite of Karataev's affectionate tenderness for him he would not have grieved for a moment at
parting from him". War and Pea ce presents rigid gender divisions as a thread uniting domestic miseries with
the horrors of battle. Karataev (\ike Ferrara's Pauline) inhabits a utopian world not arranged along these
lines, and thus recal!s Tolstoy's numerous references to gender ambiguities, the most notable of which
occurs when Nicho\as, dressed as an old lady, is captivated by Sonya, who, in male clothing and with a
moustache, ''was brighter, more animated, and prettier, than Nicholas had ever seen her befare". The
novel's emotiona\ c\imax can be found in neither Natasha's marriage to Pierre, nor Princess Mary's marriage
to Nicholas (Tolstoy describes both coup\es in terms which are at best coldly matter-of-fact, at worst
suggestive of mutual resentment, jealousy and inequality), but rather, severa! chapters ear\ier, in Natasha
and Princess Mary's ecstatic lesbian relationship with each other: "From that day a tender and passionate
friendship, such as exists only between women, was established between Princess Mary and Natasha.
They were continually kissing and saying tender things to one another and spent most of their time together.
When one went out the other became rest\ess and hastened to rejoin her. Together they felt more in
harmony with one another than either of them fe\t with herself when alone. A feeling stronger than friendship
sprang up between them; an exclusive feeling of life being possible only in each other's presence".

opposite: Abel Ferrara and 'Pauline LaMonde' In 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (a scene that does not appear in the final cut).

32

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

abovs: Paulina LaMonde and David Pirell outside the Nyack gas station in 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy.
opposlte: Domlnique Santos during a break In the 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy shoot (photo by Rlch Ell).
below: Paulina LaMonde and Joy Silver in 9 Llves of a Wet Pussy (a scene missing from VCX's curren! OVO transfer).

34

ABEL FERRARA" The Moral Vislon

:i'

:,,

above: David Pirell's wedding (1974): Deborah Delia, Joe Delia and Abel Ferrara (facing camera seated); Petar Yellen
{standing behind Joe).

be/ow: Abel Ferrara shooting 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy in the woods of Pomona (photo by Rich Ell).

top: Francis Delia during the making of 9 Uves


of a Wet Pussy.
above: Video cover artwork for the V~S edition
of 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy, released m the USA
byVCX

/eft: Deborah Delia (daughter of Carl Low_and


then-wife of Francis Delia) and Co~ld Thl~ Be
Love's Dennis Gray at David Pirell s weddmg
(1974).

36

ABEL FERRARA _ The Moral Vision

above: John Mclntyre recording sound for 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy in the woods of Pomona (photo by Rich Ell).
opposite: Rich Ell filming 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy in the woods of Pomona.
below /eft: Nadia Von Loewenstein at David Pirell's wedding (1974).
below right: Holly Yellen during a break in the 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy shoot.

38

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

1
,''

THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

"lt is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist
- the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with death from
: i

adolescence to prematura senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to

accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself

from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the
rebellious imperativas of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the
decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of
experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the
present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, mer:nory or planned
intention ... The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance, Cuivers with the
knowledge that new kinds of victorias increase one's power for new kinds of
perception; and defeats; the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one's
energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people's habits, other people's
defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self~destroying raQe. One is Hip or
one is Square ... one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West
of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of
American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed."
Norman Mailer, The White Negro (1957)
1

In 1977, shortly before beginning what would become his 'official' first feature,
Ferrara made a 16mm short entitled Not Guilty: For Keith Richards in collaboration
with Babeth Mondini-Vanloo (usually known simply as 'Babeth'), who recalls that 'We
made it to support Keith Richards, as a statement against his bust in Canada at that
time. This was an experimental film with music by Richards (we used existing
recordings), to defend his right to abuse his own body. He was certainly not trafficking
drugs to make money, so we felt he would not have been busted had he not been a
famous rack star Qust as John Lennon hada hard time getting a green card in the U.S.
because he was subversiva, whereas any other crook who had that amount of money
was welcomed). The great thing was that Abel also played the lead in it. We both
directed equally: maybe 1 directed a little bit more during the scenes in which Abel acted.
His co~star was S usan Andrews, daughter of Hollywood actor Dan a Andrews: she Jater
became the wife of Menno Meyjes (scriptwriter of severa! Spielberg films), who had been
my boyfriend, and it happened that we exchanged, so 1 married her husband, Raymond
Mondini, and she married Menno. Abe!, Menno and 1 had been friends since 1974. So
Abel played Keith Richards and Susan played the judge who declared him not guilty.
There were two other actors who had small parts in it: Persian brothers named Zaid and
Massoud (they went to film school at the San Francisco Art lnstitute, where both M en no
and myself got our masters in filmmaking: 1 stayed on to teach there from 1977 to 1979).
There was no real screenplay: only Susan Andrews, who reads the verdict, had scripted
lines. Abel and myself wrote these together. The other actors, including Abel, all
improvisad. Jt was shot around the same time that Abel was shooting The Driller Killer.
1 edited it: Abel looked at severa! edits and made comments/suggestions. We both did

.
.
d rt taken out by Vipco to promote The Dril1er Kmer's UK video release.
One of the notonous magazme a ve 5

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

40

ABEL FERRARA _The Moral Vision

41

above: John Mclntyre recording sound for 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy in the woods of Pomona (photo by Rich Ell).
opposite: Rich Ell filming 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy in the woods of Pomona.
below left: Nadia Van Loewenstein at David Pirell's wedding (1974).

below right: Holly Yellen during a break in the 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy shoot.

38

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

"lt is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist
- the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with death from
adolescenc to prematura senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to
accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself

from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the
rebellious imperativas of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the
decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of
experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the
present, in that enormous present which is without past or futura, mernory or planned
intention ... The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance, "quivers with the
knowledge that new kinds of victorias increase one's power for' new kinds of
perception; and defeats, the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one's
energy until one is jailed in the prison a ir of" other people's habits, other people's
defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self-destroying rage. One is Hip or
one is Square ... one is a rabel or one conforms, one is a frontiersmanin the Wild West
of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of
American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed."
Norman Mailer, The White Negro (1957)

In 1977, shortly befare beginning what would become his 'official' first feature,
Ferrara made a 16mm short entitled Not Guilty: For Keith Richards in collaboration
with Babeth Mondini-Vanloo (usually known simply as 'Babeth'), who recalls that "We
made it to support Keith Richards, as a statement against his bust in Ganada at that
time. This was an experimental film with music by Richards (we used existing
recordings), to defend his right to abuse his own body. He was certainly not trafficking
drugs to make money, so we felt he would not have been busted had he not been a
famous rack star Uust as John Lennon hada hard time getting a green card in the U.S.
because he was subversiva, whereas any other crook who had that amount of money
was welcomed). The great thing was that Abel also played the lead in it. We both
directed equally: maybe 1directed a little bit more during the scenes in which Abel acted.
His co-star was Su san Andrews, daughter of Hollywood actor Dana Andrews: she later
became the wife of Menno Meyjes (scriptwriter of severa! Spielberg films), who had been
my boyfriend, and it happened that we exchanged, so 1married her husband, Raymond
Mondini, and she married Menno. Abel, Menno and 1 had been friends since 1974. So
Abel played Keith Richards and Susan played the judge who declared him not guilty.
There were two other actors who had small parts in it: Persian brothers named Zaid and
Massoud (they went to film school at the San Francisco Art lnstitute, where both Menno
and myself got our masters in filmmaking: 1stayed on to teach there from 1977 to 1979).
There was no real screenplay: only Susan Andrews, who reads the verdict, had scripted
lines. Abel and myself wrote these together. The other actors, including Abel, all
improvisad. lt was shot around the same time thatAbel was shooting The Driller Killer.
1 edited it: Abel looked at severa! edits and made comments/suggestions. We both did

d rts taken out by v;pco to promote The Driller Killer's U.K. video release.
One of the notonous magazme a ve

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

40

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

41

so me the cinematography: actually, we did all tasks jointly'' . Sadly, the only two prints
0
of this film both appear to have been lost. According to Francis D~lia, "Even though l
showed up on The Driller Killer set, Not Guilty was never ment1oned to me. In any
event, l'd kili (a mosquito at leas\) to see if'.2
.
.
As Ferrara remembers it, "Nicky (Oliverio) had started to wnte the scnpt fo.r T.he
Driller Killer a while befare, but it was sort of different vignettes that we ~ere ptectn,g
together slowly. We didn't sit ctown and say, hey, we're gonna make a mov1e no~ that.s
cal!ed The Driller Killer. We had already started shooting a documentary on wmos tn
New York, and we tried to come up with a way to incorporate that into a story so that
we could make a feature out of sorne of what we already had. We knew that the story
had to be accessible to a bread audience, because that would be the only way we
would convince anyone to give us money. The film cost $70,000 in totaL. We h~d
started with the wino documentary footage, and we put together a twenty-r:'mute chp
of scenes from what would become the film, and went around to try and ra1s.e money
from all different sorts of independent financiers. In the end, whether the f1lm costs
$100,000 or $30 million, it's the same deal. You gotta take the idea and present it to
the capitaL 1carne upon a guy who was making a lot of money domg perno f1lms (A~hur
Weisberg). He took a chanca on me and gave me the money to make. The Dnller
Killer. we started shooting December of 1977. Nicky and 1 put the chps together,
raised the money during the winter, and finished the film the ne.xt su~mer~ We s~ot 1t
initially like a student film, but once we got the money we fimshed 1t qu1ckly, hke a
regular movie. The cinematographer carne from NYU. We puta sign up on the wall that
said we were looking for someone with equipment who could work long hours. We shot
at clubs around New York including Max's Kansas City, where we developed a lot of
the punk-rock aspect of the film, with the live band footage. When we got ~one, the
movie opened in about 20 theatres in Seattle or Portla~d ?r some.place. They re ~al11.ng
us up for TV spots. We were laughing- you got to be k1ddmg, you re gonna put th1s f1lm
in the theatre much less put spots on television?! 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we can make
money with this picture'. And it was a smash. lt was one of my biggest hits and it had
3

.
the biggest opening weekend of any of my films"
The Driller Killer's central character, Reno Miller (played by Ferrara under h1s
'Jimmy Laine' pseudonym 4), is an impoverished artist living in a New York apartment
with his bisexual girlfriend, Carel (Carolyn Marz), and Carol's female lover, Pamela
(Baybi oay). Reno is working on a painting he hopes ~omosexual art dealer Dalton
Briggs (Harry Schultz) will buy. Driven insane by financ1al pressu.res,. as well as Tony
coca-Cola's punk rack group The Roosters rehearsing day and mght m the apartment
downstairs, Reno prowls the streets killing vagrants with a power dril!. When Dalton
refuses to buy the painting, Carel walks out, returning to her ex-husband Stephen
(Richard Howorth). Reno responds by murdering Dalton and Stephen.
.
According to Ferrara, The Driller Killer is "a documentary about a dear fnend of
mine, Douglas Metro (later Douglas Metrov). 1 played the role of my friend. He was a
painter who quit painting just befare the great new wave of Schnabel and Basqu1at.. He
went into screenwriting, and sold his first screenplay to Mel Brooks (Solarb~ble~,
directed by Alan Johnson in 1986). And that was the l~st one he ever ~old. He hved m
that attic with those two girls, they were his real girlfnends. Those pa1~tlngs ~re real,
those are his stuff. 1played the role because it was shot over a long penad of t1me, and
5
we couldn't interest an actor in staying with a film shot in bits and pieces". Oougl~s
Metrov, who appears in the film as Tony Coca-Cola, recalls that "Abel, Frank Del1a,

Nicky ~t. John and myself were living in Frank Delia's studio apartment on East 17th
Street m lower Manhattan. The place was dark and sweltering hot in the summer. This
was around .1975, 1 b.elieve, way befo re Noho became fashionable. We had no money.
We .ate nothmg but p1zza. from Stromboli's down the street. We had no a ir conditioning,
so m the summer even1ngs we would hang out the fourth floor windows for those
occasional wisps of cool air corning in off the Hudson. Well, there was a liquor store on
the street bel~w, and these pathetic winos would buy liquor, drink it on the sidewalk,
and get so bl1nd drunk they would end up crawling on their hands and knees up and
down 17th Street. Sorne of them would crawl right into traffic, and taxi cabs, racing 5060 mph, ~ould have to swerve to avoid running over these poor idiots. We would hang
out the wmdows and marvel that there were actually people in the world in worse
condition than we were. Because l have an over-active, sick irnagination, 1 started to
make .up ~tories ... What if a vigilante carne out at night, and put these peor souls out
of thelf m1sery?; they were so miserable, so terribly, terribly rniserabl.e. lt made total
sense, in a very dementad way, that someone should put them out 'of their useless
mise~: The o~iginal Driller Killer did his work with a hammer and a ten 'penny nail; Jater
the k1llmg dev1c~ would evolve into an electric dril l. So after a few weeks of listening to
~hese awful stones, Abel started talking about making a movie based on the vigilante
Idea. He wanted to make a feature but couldn't come up with an idea so he started
talking about The Driller Killer. 1 could not believe he would actuall'y' want to make
such a rnovie. lt was a joke, 1 told him, just a sick joke. 1 begged him not to rnake the
movie, but the more l begged, the more he became absolutely determinad. 1 was
heartbroken. He spent the next tour months looking for money, and then he found
so me. By then (because 1had finally sold a painting) 1had moved into a new Ioft on the
next street up (East 18th Street). Abel had wanted to m ove in with me because Frankie
the Wolf's place was unbearable. But 1wanted my own space, and 1' was selfish, and,
as muchas 1 l_oved Abel, 1said he could not move in because he was almost as biga
slob as Frank1e the Wolf, and l am anal-retentiva. But 1 did say he could shoot The
Driller Killer there, because by that time he had built such momentum to make the
film, l saw it was inevitable. He is the most remarkable man that way... he is unstoppable, the most persistent man on the planet. That is his greatness. Tony Coca~Cola's
abode. was shot i~ a Ioft two stories down from mine in the same building. There was
no scn~t. The scn~ts .ca me later, much later, when Abel made Nicky write things down.
M.aybe m the ?eg1nmng there would be a little scrap of paper here and there. Maybe
N1cky would g1ve Abel a scrap with sorne scribbles on it. Everything was improvisad.
They didn't believe in scripts. 1 was never given a line (obviously). We could do
whatever we wanted. Everyone on the crew could do whatever they wanted. Abel just
got the rnoney and put everyone to work on this big, mad party. That is his genius. We
all used pseudonyms. We were just having fun. We made up names. Mine was
'Rhodney Montreal'. 1 can't speak for the others, but l rnade up that na me beca use 1
had nothing better to do. 1thought it was a good na me. Carolyn Marz was my girlfriend
for awhile. 1gave her the na me Marz, and she kept that name. 1forget her originallast
name ... Smith or something. She was an airline stewardess. She may have tried for a
short time to be a serious actress, but she had no staying power in that department.
She became a born again Christian, and we never saw her again. Abel named the
other girl 'Baybi Day' and she kept that as her real name. S he was a stripper. He loved
her: H~ later told me she got elephantitis of the hands. lt was very sad. She was quite
pet1te, 1nnocent and beautiful. lt didn't seem right that she got elephantitis of the hands.

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

42

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vlsion

43

. .
1 0 8 very gifted astrologer. He
One of the film's editors, Orlando Galhnt, wa~ lar:member being flabbergasted by
predicted greatness for Abel way back dwh~n, ~~or greatness but Orlando ignored me
the prediction. l thought 1was the one es mde t d for great'ness 6 The other editors,
ing Abe\ was es 1ne

and revered Abel, a1ways sa Y


. d but broke up Bonnie took the
Bonnie Constant and Michael Const~nt, ~e;e n:~r~eer, off and on o;er the years, but
name 1 gave her ~ Ruben Maste~s. use s~: was once a nun. She ended up doing
haven't seen her for a very long time ~o~. h 7 Abe\ moved into the East 18th Street
odd jobs in the film bizd bu; 1 l~s~;~a~n~ st:;~d there for years. 1was astounded that
apartment after 1 move ou m
'
er 15 ears and there were .draw1ngs
he kept th~t place so long. 1carne bac~h~nc;e~: sti\l Jntou~hed, exactly as 1 had left
yd Abelleft those things exactly the way they
and other \ems 1 had left there, and
"B
them. 1was astounded ... and deeply move .
were out of respect. The man has.~ very: very d~e~ h~:~i~e sense) asto how 1would
Francis Delia recalls Ferrara lectur~ng ~e (m P t
f r the next 'epic' which
h
with 'hard hght' 1n prepara 10n o
'
need to sharpen my e ops .
t be The Driller Killer (1 was probably the only
unbeknownst to u~ at that polnt was oa fled \in commercial photographer, and 'soft
d d;w; The Driller Killer, but only because
one making any kmd of regulard$1 ~s
light' was big in that). In the en , urne
.
,9
Lar Flynt offered me a permanent $400/week J?b at H_ustler'.
es Lemmo was
ry When The Driller Killer went into productlon dunng 1977, Jam f. d of my
"Abe\'s roommate Douglas Metrov was a nen
the DP. As Lemmo recalls.
.
d to Phil that Abel was looking for a
brother-in-law Philip S\agter. _Metrov mentJone d hat lpwas up to (1 was assisting for
cinematographer. Philip me~tJone~ mrhn~~r:~:iv~ a ca\1 from Abel. We met, and he
Arthur Ornitz), anda short time a er a
.
ssession of the Holy Grail- financing
was as crazy with film as 1was, and ~e wa~ m buy the film and develop and print it.
to make a feature. But only enough lnk~ncmg t Sounded great to me. A crew was

t? He was wor mg on 1.
.
. friends of friends that wanted to work on a flm,
What about eqUipmen .
gathered pretty much the same way. ot but all completely void of apathy - the best
some with a little expenence some n ,
tf
aid so it wasn't unusual for crew
9
9
crew you could get. However, n~ one_f~~: :e'~ ~le to get a day's work for dollars,
1
members to not show on some ays
Y
da was an adventure, but it added
sometimes more than one cr~w r:'ember - ev~~y w~s on edge and it came through
to the unpredictability
the f_llm Jtself. ;~~:~v~J1 with the film f~r something like two
in the work. lt was all 1mprovJsed. 1 wa
k nd" 10 Lemmo was responk d only and not every wee e

roo

?f

:~~~~~; ~= :ho~~:~ ~=~el~c~s ~ighti~g, drinkin;a::r;o~;~~:tt~=t~e=~k a~~:~~~~~~~~

documentary images fllmed ~~~h ~ hl~~e:overed o.urselves with blankets. Only the
. "bl , 11 Other scenes photographed
someone's old car, set up a npo ' a
driver of the car and the front ~f ~e ~~~s t~=~~~:~reReno telling Pamela she doesn't
by Lemmo include: Pamela an
aro In
.'
aint his portrait" Ca rol
know anything ab?ut painting; To_ny
through a window. "1
talking about a mlcrowaved dog, a
1 h done piece of glasst And we wanted
remember the phone scene, becaus~ ~e on ~ th~ end of a tirade abo~t the phone bill,
Abe! to toss the phone through the w_tn ow a
one 'How much can a piece of glass
all in the same shot. 1remember yel~ndg al~ s~;:as short and Baybi Day was late: she
42nd Street where customers put a
possibly cost?'. And 1remember tha ay~g
worked at one of those peep hale porn ~1 o~~ on t a nude woman who is supposed
quarter in a slot to peep through a sma wln ow a

n~o~:-~o~~r~~~ ~=npoh~on~

to be moving around sensually as the platform she's sitting on rotates so all the
customers get equal time. But on that day she'd fallen asleep on the turntable and was
upset, because her boss had screamed at her and threatened to fire her. Baybi was
a lot of fun, and of course she was beautiful and a pleasure to photograph, but she
was also very sensitive, and an experience like that could send her into an emotional
tailspin which Abe! would have to pull her out of: 'Hey, no prob, we've gota whole 45
minutes of daylight left, take your time!'. 1also remember a scene where our Key Grip
and Chief Rigger Jack Mclntyre volunteered to get drilled when Abel was unable to
find an actor willing todo it without pay- 1wonder why? Actually, 1 think someone was
cast for the part, but when he showed up on the set and was told what he had to do,
he left. But Jack was ready for anything. After he was made up, he asked if he could
borrow a set of barn doors (equipment was rare and valuable). 1said 'sure, untill need
them'. 1 didn't know why he needed barn doors until 1saw him securing them under
his shirt and heard Abe! testing the dril! and saw that it had real dri1HJit in it. 1thought
they were nuts! The dril\ could go right through the tin barn doors. But they laughed at
my concern, and Jack got into position. We began shooting, and Abe! started drilling
into Jack's chest, and Jack was squirming .around and moaning and groaning.
Suddenly, the dril\ plunged down into Jacks ches\ and Jack let out a scream. 1thought
the dril\ had punctured the barn doors and gone into his ches\. 1, quickly stepped
forward, to do what 1don't know, leaving the camera (still running 1think). But it was
part of the scene: Jack and Abel had figured out a way to do the 'authentic' death
plunge. 1was the one who was so con cerned about Jack's safety, and now, dueto me,
he had to do it again!" .12
When the money ran out, production shut down for six months. In 1978, after
additional financing had been acquired from Arthur Weisberg, filming resumed without
Lemmo: "1 had landed a job assisting Michael Chapman on Philip Kaufman's The
Wanderers (1979), and needed to go off and make a living"13 On The Driller Killer,
Lemmo is credited with 'Photography' and 'lnspiration' under the pseudonym 'Jimmy
Spears': "The fictitious name was dueto my membership in the camera union. Same
thing for Ms.45, on which l'm credited as 'James Momel'. 1don't know who ca me up
with 'lnspiration', but Jimmy Spears was from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
-"So let me introduce to you, the one and only Billy Shears". Somehow it made sense
at the time".14
Lemmo's replacement was Ken Kelsch, who recalls that "Abe! was looking for a
DP for The Driller Killer. He called NYU for a recommendation, and they sent me over
for an interview. Some stuff had already been shot prior to my entrence. We shot 21
additional days, with the last two days at Max's Kansas Cty being fifty hours straight.
1 gota nominal fee for myself, my wife (Assistant Camera), my van, my equipment, and
my guard dog. lt's hard to describe the nature of my collaboration with Abe!: there's
always a lot of discussion befare and during ... and sometimes afterwards! 1 can't
remember how specific Abe! was about when and where 1 should move the camera,
but he was pretty busy directing and doing his own thing".15
Tony Coca-Cola's girlfriend was played by Laurie Taylor: "1 was barely a teenager
when 1 did The Driller Killer. Abel was my father's student at Rockland Community
College. My dad, Lanny Taylor, was this radical hippie type English professor who
beca me friendly with Abe\. In fact, my dad is one of the old bums that gets drilled! The
one that says to Abel's character 'Having problems with your old lady?'. The steel plate
they placed on his chest malfunctioned and the dril! went through, puncturing my

4: THE DRILLER KILLER


44

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

45

!i
il

'1'

father's chest. Not too bad, justa scratch, but still. You can see when you watch the
film my father's face, when he 1ooks horrified, pushing Abel away, he real/y wanted to
push him away! There was no script, at least for my scenes. Sorne of those cast
members were nuts, but 1 was on a very comfortab1e leve! with Abe1, because 1 k~ew
him as a family friend befare he beca me a director" .16 Lanny Tay1o~ recalls that My
scene was totally improvised. There was no screenplay at all. Abe1 JUSt gave me ~he
situation. He said 'okay, you're here, you're drinking, and this guy starts threaten1ng
you with a dril!'. That was it".17 Another derelict (the one killed near a bus stop) w~s
played by Peter Yellen: "1 had been friendly with Abel since around 1975. l. met h1m
through Joe Delia. 1used to go and hang at Abel's apartme~t a.nd go _to part1es there.
1was a serious actor, and for a while we were ta1king about fmd1ng a f1lm the two of u~
could appear in together. Abe! asked meto be in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy,_ but t.wasn t
interested. For The Driller Killer, 1 really used a lot of method preparaban: 1d walk
around the streets in my bum outfit, just so 1 could see people's reactions - 1 ~ad
everything except the sores! 1 noticed how everybody tended to ignore_ bums, treatlng
them as if they weren't there, and 1 used that in my scene, wh1ch was tota11y
improvised 1don't recall ever seeing a screenplay, though given the way that Abe1 and
18
Nick work~d, it wouldn't have been necessary for anything to be written down" James Lemmo recalls that "1 met Nick twice on the set, but 1don't know how long. he
stayed either time. The first time he visited was the first time we met, so we. on1y
chatted briefly",19 while, according to Ken Kelsch, "1 really can't recall seemg a
screenp1ay. 1t seems to me that much of the film was improvise~. Nick wasn't present
during the film1ng".20 Mary Kane believes "They are probably nght that there was no
script. 1 certainly do not remember one. Abe1 was basically the producer. He got the
money, what little there was, had the idea, and got the actors. 1hand1e? the mon~y, the
scheduling, etc. We had very little experience in the official film makmg c.apac1ty, but
kind of fe11 into whatever needed to be done, with Abel in the 1ead. We ~~~ not ~~o~
what we did not know (if that makes sense). lt wasn't 1ike we knew the offlc1al or ~1ght
way to make a movie and we were going to do it our way. We just kind .of figured 1t o~t
as we went. The Executive Producer credit was given to Rochel1e We1sberg, who d1d
not have anything to do with the production - it was her father, Arthur Weisberg, who
provided the financing".21 According to Holly Ye11en, who is credited with 'continuity an~
script', "Although there had been a screenplay for 9 Lives of. a Wet Pu~sy, 1 don t
remember seeing one for The Driller Killer. 1think there was JUSt ~n outl1~e; 1 never
saw Nick on the set that much for either film. 1remember going to 01ck Sm1th s. hous.e
up in Westchester and getting the recipe for blood. At Oick's hou~e, 1got to go 1nto h1s
lab and 1saw the heads he did for Little Big Man and The Exorc1st. He had hun~reds
of little drawers with eyeballs and things in them. 1t was amazing. 1was ~n extr~ 1n the
scene shot at Max's Kansas City. 1 also remember taking a bunch of st1lls dunng the
shoot. They ended up using one of my photos for a poster. That was cool. Abel was
always very generous to me. They had two rabbits. They killed one, and .that .rea.lly
upset me. 1 made Abel give me the other one, which l took home. lt far outllved 1ts l1fe
expectancy. 1 called him Howard Hughes, because his toena~l~ grew and gr~w and
constantly needed trimming. lt's funny: 1 saw the rushes/da1hes, of course, 1 was
around for so me of the editing; 1went to the premier... but after that l never saw those
22
films, and now it all seems like a dream".
Joe Delia remembers "walking up the stairway to the ninth floor of the Ioft on 18th
street to meet with Abe! about this film he had shot. The elevator didn't work and it was

a long hike upstairs and down for every session. l'm pretty su re it was on this film that
Abel had an assistant or something who went by the name of Ruben Masters who
greeted me when 1 got to the ninth ftoor. 1 had done 9 Uves with Abe1 about a year
befare and 1didn't really know the guy that well. The whole group, including Gervasi,
~ac!ntyre and Abel, w~re just a b~nch of my brother Frank's wacky friends - 1 really
d1dn t take th~ whole thm~ very senously. 1don't ha ve any recollection of Nicky having
worked on th1s film, and 1m su re that he wasn't around for most of the scoring in any
case. Peter Yellen played one of the bums who got murdered in the film and 1 can
remember him tellin.g me that he would walk around lower Manhattan in his bum getup and scare th~ sh1t out of people on the street as he tried to get into character. There
were also two g~rls 1knew from Rockland County, Hallie Coletta and Laurie Taylor, who
played groupies for the punk band. When we made the deal for the music Abel and 1
sat at the ta~le. in the kitchen of the Ioft and he wrote down a number o~ a scrap of
paper and sl1d 1! across the table. lt was something like 300 dollars for the gig, and 1
f1gured why not. They had just acquired a Steenbeck editing table ar1d it was located
one floor down in a little space on the eighth floor. l had two syntheslzers at the time:
an Arp Odyssey and an Arp String Ensemble. Maclntyre had a Tandenberg 2 track
~ach1n~ wh1ch was set up dJrectly to the left of the editing table, and he took the synths
d1rectly mto the 2 track. machine. l guess he had to do cell sync bounc~s in order for us
to do overdubs, and th1s was how we did the score. The only non-synths we used were
a~ electric guitar, which 1 played, and one of those lag type drums that had different
p1tches and were played with rubber mallets. The whole thing was made up on the
spot.. YV_e were working in a very small space, and it was usually me, Abel, Ooug and
Jack1e 1n the room. There was always a lot of surreal hooting and hollering coming from
Abel and Gervasi every time a particularly bloody scene appeared; often the footage
was so gruesome that 1 had to keep my head turned away from the screen on the
Steenbeck whi1~ 1 played the synthesizers. We worked every day for about 3 weeks,
and when we f1nally had everything recorded to the 2 track, transfers were made to
35mm stock and laid into the film. By the completion of the project, Abel and 1 had
connected on a musical leve!, and as friends. He had introduced me to the craft of
scoring films, and ended up sharing a wealth of knowledge and opportunity". 23
As the oeuvre develops, it becomes more and more obvious that Ferrara's social
status roughly parallels, and sometimes actually duplicates, his characters', from the
blue collar worker of The Hold Up and the struggling artist of The Driller Killer to the
successful filmmaker of Snake Eyes and the popular actor of The Blackout. The
presence of a confessional (and at least partially autobiographical) element is not in
?oubt, the vividne.ss of Ferrara's pelformance in The Driller Killer itself testifying to an
1ntense personal 1nvestment. Yet how can anyone emphasise with a psychopath who
roam~ the streets of New York murdering derelicts? Ferrara has, on severa[ occasions,
?escnbed the film as a co~edy (the title is a pun on 'killer diller'), and its central joke
1s surely that "':he,n Reno 1s not committing random murders and verbally abusing
Carol; he ~eally 1s.n t abad sort at all. Consider those shots in which the camera adopts
Reno .s pom~-of-v1ew as he approaches a sleeping Carol and Pamela: menacing music
comb1ne_s w1th handheld camerawork to provide an archetypal 'dangerous-psychopaththreate~lng-~e~ple~s-~~men' situation, but the sequence ends with Reno merely telling
~arol hJs .pamtmg 1s f1mshed (he doesn't even wake her up). The way we judge Reno
Js. determ1ned by how he behaves at any specific moment: we are encouraged to take
h1m at face value whenever he demonstrates spontaneous affection, but compelled to

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

46

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

47

draw conclusions of a quite different kind during his murder sprees. Ferrara's condemnation of the ki\lings while they are being committed is absoluta, but our evaluation of
the character and his actions can only exist as those actions occur, Reno's contradictions being systematically revealed during the scene in which he alternately threatens
his buffalo painting (''1'11 cut your eye out, man"), attempts to reassure it ("1 wouldn:t hurt
you ... lave you"), and plays an appropriately 'macho' role, namely that al a bullfrghter
("Hey, Toro").
.
Although this sounds similar to the treatment of Henry in Henry: Portra1t of a
Serial Killer (1986), it is really quite different. John McNaughton's film has been
acclaimed for its objectivity, its refusal to sensationalise events, perm1t 1denttf1catto.n
with the protagonist, or provide a position from which he could be condemned, but ~h1s
objectivity is a sham, McNaughton's world-view being both c~here.nt. and mm~
bogglingly simplistic: these are awful people and the world they mhabtt ts. a cessptt.
Admirers claim that, by observing Henry's attack on the occupants of a mtddle-class
household via a video recording, audiences are implicated in the action, making them
question the nature of their relationship with screen violen ce; in actuality something far
more insidious is taking place, for McNaughton is really asking us to worry about the
motivations of those terrible people somewhere out there. And this experience of
unwarranted superiority is potentially available to all viewers, who will presu~~~ly be
feeling superior to each other. How democratic! The finely nuanced moral sens1btl1ty we
bring to bear whilst watching The Driller Killer is as different from this a.s possible little wonder McNaughton's film enjoyad a trendy middlebrow success whtle the mere
mention of Ferrara's is usually greeted with complicit laughter.
Most of Ferrara's output is shot in what might be called an improvisational style. To
avoid confusion, 1should stress that 'style' is the key word here: whether or not cert~in
scenes were actually improvisad (which they were), the director is deliberately maktng
use of techniques - handheld camerawork, naturalistic dialogue, a lack of 'professional'
polish in the editing and sound - associated with documentary filmmaking, and t~us
useful for conveying a sense of immediacy. Appearances, however, can be decept1ve:
analyse any Ferrara film and you will find a solid structure to which no~hing is irrel~vant.
The Driller Killer's opening scenes state themes its auteur would st1ll be explonng 20
years later, the important contrast (if it is a contrast) betwee~ the sa~red and the profane
being established during the credits, under which we hear ftrst a tolhng church bell, then
electronic music.24 The introductory sequence consists of the following 14 shots:
1- A brief close-up of a painting depicting Christ. A woman's voice can be heard
saying "This way, please".
2- A view from the rear of a church. Reno enters the frame and slowly walks
towards the altar. The camera smoothly tracks behind him, preventing us seeing his
face. We gradually become aware of a figure seated in the front row. The soundtrack
intersperses religious music with ominous noises.
.
3- A medium-shot of Reno taken from the altar, providing our first glimpse of h1s
face. Reno crosses himself, as if by instinct, and looks screen-right.
4- A medium-shot of the old man in the front row (essentially Reno's point-of-view).

5- A close-up of a crucifix.
6- A shot, taken from the altar, in which both Reno and the old man are visible as
Reno slowly moves towards the man. Carel and a nun can be seen standing in the

7- A closer shot of Carel and the nun. Carol moves forward in arder to see
something taking place off-screen.
8- Reno and the old man, seen from behind (essentially Carol's point-of-view
though \he camera is slightly too clase).
'
9- Reno, as at shot 3.
10- A close-up of the old man's hands. Reno's hands enter the frame and the man
seizes them.
11-A brief glimpse of Reno, as at shot 9, reacting in shock.
12- A shot of the old man. The handheld camera pans to Reno and follows him
as he runs towards Carol.
13- Reno approaches Carol (who is standing next to the nun), grabs hold of her
and runs out. Carol asks "What's the matter with you?" The camera follows them
towards the door as they leave, then returns to the nun as she says "Mr. Miller, what's
wrong? Did something happen?"
14- A low-angle shot of the nun saying "1 don't understand. He 'had your name
and your number". Overhead, the incompleta legend "... or prayer. And there is alway~
cause to pray" can be seen.
lnstead of beginning by clearly establishing a protagonist, Tlle Driller Killer
plunges us headfirst into a moment of crisis for its central character a crisis which
moreover, we will never understand the exact significance of. The implication seems t~
be t~at the old man is Reno's father, but during the journey home, Reno, after being
rem1nded by Ca rol that "You never knew your father", emphatically denies the
pos~ibili~y, ~nd, aside from sorne glimpses of the man during a dream sequence, the
subJect ts.~lmply dropped. At precisely the point where we are primed to expect clearcut exposltton, Ferrara offers us only muddle and confusion. lt is not unusual for fictions
to po~e .questions. during their early stages - indeed, Roland Barthes places the
estabhshmg of emgmas among the five codes, in this case the hermeneutic all
narra~ives require in arder to function - but The Driller Killer flagrantly vial ates on'e of
class1cal construction's principal rules, namely that every enigma be satisfactorily
resolved befare the climax.
Ferrara's insistence on betraying our expectations25 is clear even befare the
opening scene. After a card (missing from many prints) that declares "This film should
~e played loud" (reminding the audience of those exhibition practicas most
f1lmmakers render invisible), the main title appears in red lettering against a black
background; rather than fading or cutting to black, however, the screen dissolves to
red (as if \he tille has absorbed \he background rather \han the other way around).
lnstead _of an establ1shmg shot, Ferrara begins the film proper with a painting which,
~hough 1t ~a~ be part of .the church's decor, is never seen again: we can mentally
mtegrat~ 1t w1th su~ceedmg shots only by bringing to bear our knowledge of the
appr~pnate c~nnect1on between paintings of Christ and churches. Similarly, although
certa1n shots 1n the church sequence appear to represent the viewpoints of.individual
ch~racter~ (Reno, Carol, the old man), none can be unproblematically described as
pomt-of-v1ew shots. Ferrara keeps us in the dark asto how these images relate much
as he withholds information concerning relationships between characters: ofte~ in his
work we will be unable to determine exactly how or for what reason this person
connects with that person until we are sorne way into the film (and sometimes not
even then).

frame's extreme rear.

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

48

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

49

Equally significant is the fact that we never see the chu~ch's exterior (th~ fol~~wing,
scene simply begins with Reno and Caro\ climbing into a tax1), the ~efusa! of trad1bo~al
construction (both here and in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) sugg.es.tmg that, the ?pen1ng
sequence, and perhaps the entire narrativa, takes place w1th1n Renos m~nd. ~or
Ferrara the events depicted are less important than the fragmentad manner ~n wh1ch
they ar~ perceived, and in this he resembles those typically American nov.ehsts who
treat the 'sensible world' "not as an ultimate reality but as a system of s1gns to be
deciphered" .26
Although none of these tactics are in themselves unusual by ~ontemp~rary
standards (J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson, in their 1974 article 'Some VJsuai.Molifs of
Film Noir' note that in many noir classics, "Establishing long shots of a new loca le ~re
often with,held, providing the viewer with no means of spatial orientatio~"), the illus.lon
of an unstructured text totally determinad by the superfluity principie sh1elds from v1ew
a stylistic rigour worthy of Bresson or Dreyer. On the formal leve\, ~err.ara's cinema
seems to be an objective one (subjective shots are certainly hard to fmd 1n the mature
it fascinating to see how this sequence makes such careful ~se of
fi\ms),
5
50
subjective imagery: shots 4, 5 and 8 are all in so me sense POV shots represent1ng th.e
viewpoint of different characters (though, intriguingly, only the shot taken from Renos
point-of-view is unproblematically subjective). Additionally, shots 2 and 12 allow us to
see what Reno sees while keeping him visible within the trame (shot 12 even uses .a
handheld camera to convey his sense of panic as he runs from the old man). Th1s
mixture of formal and informal elements encourages a subtle but nonethe\ess palpably
present sen se of disturbance. lf informality dominated, we would react in a certain way;
if formality dominated, we would react different\y; in either case we would have the
comfort of knowing that the response we were required to give was 'known: in ad~ance.
But the importance Ferrara attaches to every individual image here comb1nes w1th the
range of contexts in which these images are set to pose a perceptual cha\lenge of
remarkable complexity.
. .
Ferrara is determinad to undermine complacency at every leve\, a determmat1on
also evident in his use of Freudian theory. lf Ferrara had unambiguously est~~lished
the derelict old man as Reno's father, we might have traced Reno's random k1lhngs of
vagrants toan Oedipus Complex, the Father's murder being obsessively repeat.ed. In
a sense this is corred, the theme of the murderous son being introduced 1n the
newspaper story Caro\ reads concerning a fifty year old truck drive~. wh? "broke down
and wept as he talked about his son Lewis, who is accused of htjackmg a bus ~nd
killing two people", but Ferrara leaves Reno's paternity deliberately vague, demandtn.g
we pay equal attention to economic motivations (despite its extremely low b~dget, th1s
remains among the few fi\ms daring enough to show the on-screen de~t~uct1on of ~eal
money). Reno's 'problem' is no more traceable to a simple source than .1t 1s sus~pttble
to a simple solution, the capita\ist structures identified by Marx bemg ~s ltkely .to
provoke neurotic behaviour as the familia\ ones disc~vered by_ Freu~, and 1f Reno k11ls
as a way of repeating the Oedipal crime, he is also dnven by hts ctes1re to remove from
view the plentiful reminders of a sub-class he may soon join.
lt is here that the dream sequence becomes re\evant. lt appears 10 minutes in,
well befare the first murder, and is preceded by a shot of Reno and Pamela discussing
their plans for the future: Ferrara dissolves from them to the buffalo painti~g, which ~he
camera slowly moves towards, accompanied by a noise which could be e1ther mock1ng
Jaughter or barking ctogs (dogs feature in severa! of Reno/Metrov's pictures). A cut to

b!ack preced~s flashes of light and clase details of the painting (so clase they are
v1rtua!ly meantngless). Aclose-up of Reno against a black background, his head turned
away from the camera (virtually recreating a similar shot of Ferrara in 9 Uves of a Wet
Pussy) is followed by a shot of a middle-aged man, whom we have not seen befare
st~nding in front of the buffalo painting; he holds a light near the painting, but at n~
potnt does he so much as glance at it, instead looking camera-right and saying "1 don't
really know too much about painting". The next shot again shows Reno against the
black "b~ckground whil~ .carol's voice is heard repeating her "you never knew your
father l1ne from the tax1 nde. The following images show a newspaper headline ("State
abandons mentally ill to city streets"), a close-up of Metrov's clown painting (visible
else~here on a wa\1 of the ~partment), and the old man from the church sitting in
Renos apart~ent (acco~pan1ed by the sound of Ca rol asking "Who was that guy?"),
befare returntng to the m1ddle-aged man, who insists "lt's not only here, it's all around
~ou. You're sitting in it". This is followed by some very brief shots showing the old man
tn th~ ~?artment, a drawing of an eye, a flash of red (accompanied by a repeat of
Car?l s You never knew your father"), anda final glimpse of the midd~e-aged man, sti\1
ag~mst a black background, saying "Now you know it dear, but it don't help 'em". At this
pomt the laughing/barking is replaced by electronic music as the camera zooms back
from Reno's eye, announcing that the dream has enterad a second phase. The eye is
r~placed by a brief glimpse of a green suriace, then reappears, the camera moving in
slrghtly, befare the green suriace is again shown; this time, a hand holding a power dril!
is seen agai~st it: .and .the .dril\ is turned towards the viewer. In a series of images
Ferrara has tdentrfted (tn hts OVO commentary) as a tribute to Buuel's Un Chien
Andalou, Reno's eye appears again, followed by another shot of the dri\1 a final zoom
in .to Reno's eye, a shot of Reno on a dark city street approaching the ca~era with his
dnll (a flash-fmward to one of his later murders), and a very brief glimpse of a
~ewspaper he~dline about New York's 'Son of Sam' serial killer. The nightmare ends (if
tt ever does) w1th Reno against the black background (now revealed to be a shot of him
asleep in his apartment) as he awakes with a start.
Whereas cinematic dreams tend to be neatly explicable in a way real dreams
se~d?m are, Reno's nightmare is notable for its imprecision. To deal with only the most
stnkmg mystery, who is the middle-aged man? Perhaps he is Reno's father, in which
case the far older man in church genuinely was nothing more than a derelict who as
Reno insists, found his address and phone number "in the garbage while he's looking
for h!s lunch'> Or perhaps he is Reno's father at a younger age, an interpretation
poss1bly conftrmed by the fact that when Caro! is heard repeating her "Who was that
~Id ~uy?" l~ne from .the. taxi ride, it becomes "Who was that guy?", suppressing the word
old . But tf Caro! IS nght about Reno never knowing his father, how would he know
what th~ man looked like? Perhaps the man is Reno's father as Reno imagines him, or
someth1ng ~lse completely (a friend, a brother). Since the man, who would appear to
be addressmg Caro\, seems to be talking about the problems of homelessness the
juxtaposition of these shots with glimpses of the old man reinforces Ferrara's inte;minM
gli.ng of Mar~ and Freud. lndeed, the dream's second half- which comprises a comparattvely stra1ghtforward anticipation of Reno's murders - both emerges from and
attempts to resolve the confusions created by this initial sequence of images.
But ultimately we cannot answer any of these questions, and if Ferrara wants
us to take one idea from his work, it is this: that the theoretical straitjackets we use
to structure our understandings of art and lite are at best constricting, at worst

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

50

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vlsion

51

'
'1

.'

actively harmful. This explains why Tony Coca-Cola comes across as the film's most
explicitly negative character. lf the supreme virtue in Ferrara's cinema is the ability, or
even the willingness, to embrace experience, then Tony Coca-Cola is a representativa
of the death force, since he has managed to shut out the external world and transform
himself into a petiormer (as Ferrara puts it during his OVO commentary, "he's got them
glasses mirrored on the inside"): it is significant that he is played by Douglas Metrov,
the artist Reno was based on, for he essentially functions as the protagonist's mirror
image (their relationship resembles Gene Kelly and Georges Guetary's in Vincente
Minnelli's An American in Paris, or Harvey Keitel and Jim Brown's 'Dreems' in James
Toback's Fingers). Reno's movement from contemplation to action (he .distantly
observes street violence befare becoming directly involved with it, a trajectory often
followed by Martin Scorsese's characters) is motivated by his fear that the phallus source of female pleasure and symbol of male control - has been rendered redundant.
The sight of Carel dancing with Pamela immediately precedes, and seemingly
provokes, Reno's most extreme outburst of violence, and similar imagery is used
throughout the oeuvre: Ms.45's shoe salesman recalls strangling his wife's cat after
seeing her making lave with another woman; in Fear City, Matt looks on impotently as
Leila kisses Loretta; Crime Story's Torello expresses pathological jealousy after
watching his wife dancing with his cousin (though the effect here is slightly different,
given that another man is involved); in Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel watches two
women play out a sado-masochistic scenario; in a scene eventually dropped from The
Blackout's final cut, Matty dreams of being unable to interven e as Annie dances with
Susan; and in New Rose Hotel, X observes Sandii taking part in a lesbian sex show.
As his name, the way he rides his first victim like a rodeo bull ("Ride 'em, cowboy"
comments Ferrara in the OVO commentary, echoing a line used by Willem Dafoe in
New Rose Hotel) and the gunfighter pose he strikes after one of the murders all imply,
Reno is attempting to conform with a masculina ideal derived from frontier mythology.
But, as_ in Taxi Driver (1976), the Westerner's relocation in film nor's infernal city
redefines his assertion of agency as psychotic while transforming him into his
ideological opposite- the monster of the horror film. 27 For Ferrara, Reno's saving grace
is his monumental failure to complete this transformation: although his actions are
more directly harmful than those of the quite amiable Tony, they nonetheless preve he
is still a human being, driven by desires with which most of us can identify.
Where Reno fails, Tony succeeds. Reno may strenuously deny his Oedipal
fixation, but Tony, as his childish babble in the nightclub suggests, has quite happily,
and without any discernible effort, fixed himself at the pre-Oedipallevel. Whereas Reno
strains to maintain a 'masculina' persona and a heterosexual relationship (while, if the
kiss he plants on a derelict's cheek and his treatment of Briggs are any indication,
wrestling with repressed homosexual impulses), Tony's ability to attract women is
actually increased by his tendency to wear female clothing (something Reno imitates
when he puts on Carol's underwear and lipstick): as Pamela notes, in a shot tellingly
intercut with Reno's macho posing, "Tony's so great, the way he dresses up in womens'
clothes. He has better things than what we have. Nice silky nightgowns, leather garter
belts. He makes himself up so beautifully. 1 mean you just don't meet people like that
anymore. Anywhere". While Tony, in his rarefied and consequenceless world of art, can
amuse himself by singing "1 want sorne pizza, llike my pizza", Reno's attempt to preve
how much he likes his pizza by hungrily devouring severa! slices provokes Carol's
disgust. And while Reno struggles to make a living as a painter, Tony has secured a

52

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

record contract. 28 Yet Ferrara's fascination with the creative process, implied by the
amount of time he spends simply observing The Roosters' rehearsals (compare JeanLuc Godard's use of The Rolling Stones in One Plus One), renders his evaluation of
the work eventually produced supetiluous: any criticisms we make of Reno's paintings
or Tony's songs (not to mention Jacky's paintings in Could This Be Love and Eddie's
film in Snake Eyes) must be strictly our own.
Tony is only the most obvious example of a problem afflicting practically every
character: solipsism. The film's 'dialogue' often involves one person sitting silently while
another talks (Ferrara's work contains many examples of this, as does Godard's), a
motif introduced in the opening sequen ce, during which the old man delivers an almost
inaudible monologue: "Kili the sinners and it kills the sin ... We are sticks to the man who
could burn us ... All the churches of the world are dead ... and then hang thyself. lt kills
the sin. Heed the sign". This senseless babble exists at the opposite extreme from the
director's audacious filmmaking techniques, for while Ferrara encourages new and
unfamiliar modes of thinking by refusing to satisfy our desire for a cherent narrativa,
the old man's speech communicates nothing, reducing langua9e to introverted
rambling. Yet this man's madness is only one step removed from what the world about
him defines as normal behaviour. Consider the following examples:
- When Carel insists Reno's painting is finished, he responds with a' stream of abuse:
"What do you know about painting? Tell you what you know about painting, man. You
don't know nothing about painting, man. You know what you know about? You know
about how to bitch and how to eat and how to bitch and how to shit and how to bitch
but you don't know nothing about painting".
'
- Reno approaches a sleeping derelict and interrogates the unresponsive man: "How
come you sleeping here? How come you're not home with your old lady? ... Come on,
talk to me".
- Tony's girlfriend complains about the new background singers while Tony continuas
applying lipstick and brushing his teeth as if she were not even in the room: "1 don't
think they loo k good ... it's not just me who thinks that, the other girls think so too. They
don't fit in. One sits there and snaps her gum, opens her blue eyes ... 1 mean they don't
even do anything right. .. y'know it's just incredible what you'll come up with to put in the
band ... Tony, are you listening tome?".
- Reno delivers a monologue to his buffalo painting.
-Prior to performing in the nightclub, Ton y sits in his dressing room issuing a steady
stream of nonsense, one of the few audible phrases being the command
"Everybody ouf'.
-A drunken derelict tries to determine exactly why Reno is waving a drill at him: "O id
you stop by to have a drink with me? Hey, what you got in your hand? ... There's no
job in the world that 1 know worth getting out of bed in the morning for... What you
got, problems with your old lady? Ah, 1 thought so ... 1 got the same problem myself,
man".
-A derelict makes a series of disconnected statements toso me people waiting ata bus
stop, who pretend he is not there: "What? New York? ... Dad, l'm getting married, Dad.
Dad, 1 want your blessing, Dad ... Where is my Dad?".
- Tony attempts to communicate with Reno while having his portrait painted: "You don't
tal k to me, you're trying to scare me, man ... You aren't communicating''.
- Briggs delivers his verdict on the buffalo painting to a silent Reno: "No, this isn't right.

4: THE DRILLER KILLER

53

This is nothing. This is shit... you're becoming simply a technician ... work of pure
unadulterated ego".
~ Reno picks up the telephone and pretends that Carel is on the other end: "CaroL ..
Alright baby. How you doing? ... Fine".
- The last thing we hear, under the closing credits, is the voice of a derelict: "Nobody's
telling me that l'm not a respectable person in this world. Excuse me, am 1 a
respectable person? That's right, right over here. You got it. You got a quarter? God
bless you".
Communication has here ben reduced to the most basic level, with l~nguage
unable to develop beyond its own narc1ssistic terms of reference. Ferrara's concern
with life as performance, a concern he shares with Cassavetes and Minnelli, will
beco me of increasing importance in his later work. 1 discuss this at length in the chapter
on Snake Eyes, but for the moment it should be sufficient to note that all of The Driller
Killer's characters, even the most insane, can in sorne sense be described as
performers, and thus come across as ghostly reflections of each other: notice how the
talkative bus stop derelict becomes silent the minute his audience"disappears. 29
Yet if negative communication is emphasised, one might search in vain for an
example of positive communication. lt is here that we must consider the mise-en~scene,
Ferrara's ideal of human interaction being inextricable from his stylistic practices.
Ferrara never discusses 'his' work, instead peppering interviews with references to 'our'
films, what 'we' did, while deflecting compliments onto actors, screenwriters, cinematographers.30 The numerous statements of self encountered in The Driller Killer stand at
the opposite extreme from Ferrara's "1 don't bring anything to a picture befare we start.
We have the story and we have the players and what the film ends up looking like comes
together during its making".31 Needless to say, 1 am not implying one must read
Ferrara's interviews in arder to discover this, for.his method of working is clear enough
from the actual films, the vitality of the performances providing ample evidence of an
open and freeflowing collaboration between director and actors.
The Driller Killer's milieu is presented in a light simultaneously critica! and
celebratory. One of Reno's most positive attributes is his lack .of sexual jealousy, his
relationship with Carol's female lover, Pamela, being relaxed and friendly. Although
severa! critics have mistakenly asserted that Carel and Pamela are both Reno's lovers,
the thing which attracts Carol to Reno is clearly his willingness to tolerate her bisexu~
ality (one presumes it was not being catered for in her marriage), her ex-husban?
Stephen and the concept of sexual exclusivity he represents being portrayed parodlcally (a point made by the mock-romantic music heard as Carol reads his letter). Yet
while Stephen's insistence (shared by Tony Coca-Cola's jealous girlfriend, as well as 9
Lives of a Wet Pussy's Gypsy) on choice, spec1fically the choice of one lover or
another, is presented as an extreme, his ideological opposite, Pamela (essentially a
comic variation on 9 Uves' Pauline), is treated in much the same way, for Pamela is
defined by her inability to choose: she asks Reno to drill a hale in her bedroom door,
but cannot make up her mind whether it should be on the left or right, and later has
trouble deciding which television programme to watch, insisting on changing channels
until finally arriving back at the one she started with.
All this will perhaps make more sense once we interpret the film as a dream text if
the opening scene could be taking place.inside Reno's head, then so could many more.
One moment in particular - Pamela recoiling in horror when she finds an unidentifiable

54

ABEL FERRARA ~ The Moral Vision

substance in a garbage can - is totally incoherent on the realistic level. Although certain
com~enta~ors cl~im th~t what Pamela finds is the remains of Reno's first victim (who
~as ~1lled 1n the 1mmed1ately preceding scene), the pinkish mass in the garbage is not
1denl1fiably human. (Anyway, what would a body part be doing in Reno's trash? We
never even see him carve up his victims.) 1 initially believed that the garbage can
contained Reno's skinned rabbit, but a dead rabbit could hardly provoke such extreme
hysteria, and the substance doesn't look much like a rabbit anyway. Pamela never
mentions her ~iscovery to anyone, and the whole matter is simply dropped, reinforcing
the scene's mghtmare logic. This is clearly an extreme example, but other scenes
which superficially appear 'realistic' preve upon reflection to be just as 'illogical'.
Consider the following:
-Reno d_iscovers that his telephone service is about to be disconnected. He responds
by throw1ng the phone out the window, yet later uses it to call Briggs.
- Although the local church would appear to be at least a taxi ride awaY, tolling bells can
b~ heard fr~m Reno's apartment, sometimes in the middle of the n~ght (notably just
pnor to the f1nal derelict murder). They can also be heard, at exactly the same volume,
from Stephen's apartment (a somewhat similar effect was used to unite interior and
exterior locations in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy).
~ Connected to this is the fact that Stephen's home is shot in such a.' way as to stress
its similarity to Reno's, emphasising the shower, the yellow wall in the bathroom and
th~ painting ~ver Stephen's bed (a more traditional variation on the one above Re~o's).
As1de from th1s, there is no establishing shot of the building, and no indication asto how
Reno tracked Carol down and broke in.
- There is no explanation as to why the door abruptly slams shut behind Briggs when
he enters Reno's apartment at the end. lt would also be impossible for the drill bit to
penetrate Briggs' body and pin him to the door.
Either Reno is imagining many of these events, notably the drill murders (he himself is
far from sure of their reality), or he is imagining them all, the entire narrative being an
elaborate fantasy. lf one accepts the latter proposition, then a strikingly coherent
pattern emerges: the apartment is Reno's psyche (his insistence on telling Carel that
"this place has been here long befare you got here, and it's gonna be here long after
you leave" ~an be understood in more than the obvious sense); the presence of Tony
Coca-Cola llterally beneath Reno's feet is a constant reminder of what he aspires to be
(a self-contained, financially successful artist); the landlord (Aian Wynroth), even
further down in the basement, is a childlike figure, shifting responsibility onto a
symbolic 'Father', the building's owner, who offers Reno little except the threat of
castratio~ (''They gonna take all your pretty stuff and put it out in the street. You gonna
have to s1t out there and watch it. People are gonna take it"); Briggs' office indicates a
repressed homosexuality, finally embraced when Reno makes himself up to receive
Briggs into his own apartmentlpsyche; and the church and Stephen's home, the two
lo~ations which brac~et the film, represent those inherited drives Reno consciously
reJects, but subconsc1ously wrestles with, respectively religious guilt (cf. the painting of
Christ, the 'crucified' derelict, the nun given an aura of menace by being filmed from a
low angle) -linked, logically enough, with both the Father anda descent into insanityand the demands of sexual exclusivity with which a Catholic upbringing would be
associated.

4: THE DRILLER K\LLER

55

The lack of establlshing shots for such locations as the church, Stephen's home
and Briggs' workplace reinforces the impression that these 'rooms' are part of the same
'building': Briggs' office is introduced via close-ups of the various art objects it contains,
and this sequen ce follows directly on from Reno's nightmare. Whereas traditional filmmaking grammar dictates a movement from establishing shot to medium shot to closeup, providing an overview befare filling in the details, Ferrara tends to begin scenes,
and often films, with an isolated image which he then sets in a larger context (9 Uves
of a Wet Pussy offers a particularly neat example}. The externa\ world is of interest to
him only insofar as it illuminates psychological states, a focus which, at its most
extreme, can lead to a cavalier disregard for the kinds of information most a':ldiences
require: The Oriller Killer abandons its protagonist in much the same way as it
introduced him, at a moment of crisis, and this overall movement is reflected in the
structure of individual scenes.32 Ferrara often throws us into the middle of a situation,
making it difficult to grasp either setting or context,JJ and our exit will usually be made
in a similar state of ignoran ce, at least if we insist on reading these films according to
norms and conventions - those of a narrative-driven cinema - in which they have no
interest

Footnotes
1- Babeth Mondini-Vanloo, e-mails to the author, November 17th and December 9th 2002, April3rd 2003.

Menno Meyjes attended Brian Winston's course at Alvescot the year after Ferrara, with whom he collaborated on an unmade adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita in the late 70s.
2- Francis Delia, e-mail to the author, March 30th 2003.
3- Jarecki, pp. 117-118, Gavin Smith, "Moon in the Gutter", Film Comment, July/August 1990, p. 46 and
John Andrew Gallagher, Film Directors on Directing (Praeger, 1989), p. 54.
4- The lead role had already been offered to New York Dolls singer David Johansen, who would later
appear in one of Ferrara's Miami Vice episodes.
5- Smith, ibid, Kim Newman, "Thrilling to Drilling", Shock Xpress 1, July 1985, p. 1 and commentary on
The Driller Kil\er OVO (1999). According to Oouglas Metrov "1 have never stopped painting, despite what
Abel has said" (e-mail to the author, _June 7th 2002).
6- Orlando Ga\lini also worked en Amos Poe's films Unmade Beds (1976) and Subway Riders (1981).
1- 'Ruben Masters' is also credited as 'art director' on Ms.45, 'continuity' on Francis Delia's Nightdreams
(1981) and 'script supervisor' en Caf Flesh (1982). Bonnie/'Ruben' and her husband Michael later
moved to Philadelphia, where they directed porn films underthe joint pseudonym 'Veronika Rocket'. Susie
Bright has described their 1983 film Smoker as "my favorite porn flick of all time". Michael passed away
a few years ago, but Bonnie continues making and editing films in Los Angeles.
8- Douglas Metrov, e-mails to the author, June 7th and 8th 2002, January 11th and March 5th 2003. Joe
Delia also recalls that "the paintings stayed in the exact same place for the entire time 1knew Abel, which
was over 20 years" (e-mail to the author, January 2nd 2003). Reno's buffalo painting is Metrov's The Gift,
which was installed in the Hall of states in the National Visitors Center, Washington, D.C. in 1979. Reno's
portrait of Tony Coca-Cola is Metrov's Se/f Portrait, based on a photo taken by Francis Delia. All the
paintings Tony/Metrov is seen admiring ("How do you do this, man?") are by Metrov himself.
9- Francis Delia, e-mails to the author, June 18th and 24th 2002, March 3oth 2003.
10- James Lemmo, e-mail to the author, April 27th 2003.
11- James Lemmo, e-mail to the author, May 10th 2003.
12- James Lemmo, e-mails te the author, April 27th and May 10th 2003. Although this scene was not used
in the fmal cut, Jack Mclntyre does appear onscreen in a quite different role, as the man waiting for a bus

15- Ken _Kelsch, e-mail~ te the author, January 30th, February 26th and March 3rd 2003
16- Laune Taylor, e-mail to the author, December 18th 2002.
.
17- Lanny Taylor, conversation with the author, December 29th 2002
18- PeterYellen, convers~tion with the author, January 15th 2003. .
19- James lemmo, e-ma1l to the author, June 18th 2003_
20- Ken Kelsch, e-mail to the author, February 15th 2003 _
21- Mary Kane, e-mail_s to the author, February 3rd and March 2nd 2003.
22- Holly Y~llen, e-~alls to the author, April 7th, 10th and 28th 2003.
23- Joe D~lla,_ e-ma1l to the author, January 2nd 2003 _
24- We wlll again experience this contrast between sacr d
.
.
York's opening credits.
e and profane sounds dunng Kmg of New
"
.
. .
25- As Ferrara proudly notes half an hour into his OVO e
exploitation movie house they've got the ma
. ommentary, At th1s pomt 1n the normal
. d
.
.
'
nager 11e up w1th a gun to his head"
~~ ~eshe, A. Fledler, Lave and Death in the American Novel (Peregrine 1982) p .29
- eno s status as a traditional 'monster' is mock d b
'
'
point ("The 27th spirit was Renuvie He appear d _e th y the text Tony Coca-Cola reads to him at one
Renuvie"). According te Douglas Metrov "The b:ok ~~m e fo~m
a monster... Renuvie. l'm calling you
don't recall the exact title (though that' mi ht actuall readmg In that sc_ene wa~ a book of_ ~aemons. 1
personalities that might be conjured for p~r
/b have be~n the t1tle!. lt lls~d spec1f1c demonic
practice such things. 1was interested at the ti::e~ ~ d"dla.~k maglc. lt _w~,s JUSt ~ Jdke; we didn't really
200 ).
' u 1 n really pract1ce (e-ma1l to the author, April1st
3
28- The relationship between Reno and Tony can be traced all th
.
.
protagonist incapable of displaying 'masculi ,

e way back te N1cky's F1lm, wherein a


precisely these qualities, and is treated defer:n~iaj~~ert:nd control confronts a ~an who possesses
29- The bus stop scene is particular! rele
y e_woman who accompanies him.
the derelict share Reno's Oedipal obs~ssio~a~t :~ a~y-~eadmg of t~e film as a dream text: not only does
one of Reno's paintings.
' u e lml ates a barkmg dog that could have strayed in from

?f

30- According to Anthony Redman, "1 remember sort


. .
..
reviews of our films never mentioned m H
.d 'li of JOkmgly complammg to Abel about how the
whenever you read the name Abel Ferr:~a e sal
ony,_ we ~no:" that these films are group efforts, so
Abel, my imagination's not that good"' (
, you,:houl_d lmagme lt says Anthony Redman'. 1 said 'Sorry
.
conversa 10n w1th the author)
31- Stght and Sound, February 1993, p. 21 .

32- Snake Eyes, New Rose Hotel and 'R X


. .
11 h
te abandon scenes and films rather than b _ma~ha ave Slmllarly 'randa~ endings. Ferrara's tendency
view of filmmaking: as he told Scott Tobias r;~g200~m"~h s;.at~~ ofh~ompletlon co~plements his practica!
1
finish editing. They just take it away from you Wh 'k a s e m~ about maktng a movie: You never
The Driller Killer's arbitrary climax like so mu.ch lo ~o~s where we re at when they take it away?". But
Poe (see especially The Narrative ~f Arthu" G de sepln errara, also suggests an affinitywith Edgar Allan
. .
.
' or on ym of Nantucket).
33- Thls IS even true of hls 1970 poem Remnants of Bonfire, which begins mid-sentence.

(and trying te ignore Peter Yellen's derelict).


13- James Lemmo, e-mail to the author, April 27th 2003.
14- lbid. Lemmo would go on to photograph Ms.45, Fear City and The Gladiator, as well as directing a
series of undistinguished films. He is currently working as a commercial photographer. His website can
be found at http://www.jlemmo.com/.

4: THE DRILLER KILLER


56

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

57

Ms.45 (1980)

Gavin Smith: "There are two ways of reading Ms.45: one is that it's about a person who
gets carried away by violence.
Abe! Ferrara: She's getting into the power of the gun, yes.
GS: The other, more radical reading is that when she starts to kili non-threatening men,
the film almost implicates all men in the oppression of women.
AF: That's a very simplistic way of looking at the movie. The dog deserved to die
because it barked?"
Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 22
"The public had a lot of trouble with the character. Thana isn't clearly defined. At times
'
1 think her sympathetic, and at other times, fascistic. lt shook up people
to see an
innocent person like themselves suddenly become a wanton murderer."
Abel Ferrara, quoted in Cu/1 Movies 2, p. 102

zoe Tamerlis as Thana in Ms.45.

Whereas The Driller Killer anticipated the still-thriving serial killer cycle, Ms.45 is
among the earliest explorations of the revenge for a rape theme which continuas to
fascnate mainstream and exploitation filmmakers. Ferrara's contributions are
unarguably the best of these series, but it must strike us as ironic that, viewed in
retrospect, they appear to be commenting on subsequently produced works, answering
moral and philosophical questions not even asked by later directors.
Ms.45's protagonist is Thana (Zoe Tamerlis), a young, mute seamstress
employed in Manhattan's garment centre. One day, while returning from work, she is
dragged into an alley and raped (the rapist is played by Ferrara under his 'Jimmy Laine'
pseudonym). Upon arriving home she is raped again by a burglar, whom she manages
to kili. Thana proceeds to cut up the burglar's body, depositing the pieces in various
locations and arousing the suspicion of her landlady Mrs. Nasone (Editta Sherman).
She also begins prowling New York at night, using the burglar's gun to shoot m en who
behave threateningly towards her, then men who threaten other women, and finally
men picked at random. The climax occurs at a Halloween party where Thana, dressed
as a nun, attempts to shoot every male present befare being stabbed in the back by
her feminist workmate Laurie (Darlene Stuto).
Ms.45 contains the stunning screen debut of zoe Tamerlis: as Ferrara recalls,
"Alter Saturday Night Fever, this genius producer (Robert Stigwood), was doing this
search for the lead character in a movie called Times Square. Times Square was the
follow-up to Saturday Night Fever, and as big a hit as Saturday Night Fever was,
that's as big a bomb as Times Square was. They had a million-dollar talent search.
They went to every city. They played up the auditions as a publicity stunt, the search for
an unknown for the lead role. Zoe ca me in third. 1happened to know the guys who were
doing that casting search, and they said 'We've got the girl for you. We can't tell you her
name now, but we know they're not going to use her, because she's too whacked for
these people. But she's awesome'. So for a $60,000 movie, we had a million-dollar
talent search. As soon as 1 looked at her through the peephole in the door of my Ioft

5: Ms.45
58

ABEL FERRARA ~ The Moral Vision

59

studio 1 knew she was the one 1 wanted" _1 According to Zo's then-boyfriend Brian
Lang, '"In the fall al 1979, Zoe dropped out of Manhattan School of Music, to which she
had just been transferred at the beginning of her sophomore year (and had busted her
ass all summer to get into as a music composition majar} to make Ms.45. She was only
paid $1500. 1 appeared in the party scene at the end. 1was the dancer in the hat and
mask (a death mask with feathers). Nobody in this scene was paid. Everybody was a
friend of somebody in the cast. The scene was completely improvisad (except for the
principals}. lt was a real end of shooting party. Friends of the cast were invited. We
picked our own costumes. 1 picked the death mask and gown off the rack- the cap and
scarf were mine. We were only given general instructions: react, run, wind L!P against
that wall. The principals were carefully choreographed, but the guests/extras were not.
Everybody did their own thing, and itjust worked. lt's ironic that the Soho Weekly News
interview with Zo had Divine on the cover, because, according to Zo, Ferrara tried to
get Divine to play the landlady to cinch the film as a cult favourite, but he/she wanted
union scale".2
Ferrara originally wanted Ken Kelsch to photograph the film: "Abel and 1 had a
disagreement on Ms.45. Hey, 1actually wanted to get paid! Abel asked me to work for
a percentage of the gate. 1was doing commercials at the time, and was asking for less
than what 1 usually got for a day... for a week! And that was for my wife also (she was
my camera assistant). Abel sneered and said he'd just buy me a Mercedes. lt was an
eight-year argument".J Kelsch's replacement was The Driller Killer's original DP
James Lemmo, who recalls that "Ms.45 had only a 36 page outline. Nicky wou\d
provide dialogue from time to time, but the main character didn't speak, and the other
characters really had nothing to say: the film wasn't heavy on plot, it was moments
loaded with circumstances, expressed cinematically. We used the same hidden
camera technique we had used on The Driller Killer in Ms.45 ~ same but different ~ to
get the shot of the photographer and Zo walking among the crowd on 5th Avenue
while he talks her into coming to his studio. We set the camera on sandbags on the
roof of a car parked on the avenue. As a crowd gathered to watch, exactly what we
didn'twant, my assistant, the camera and myselfwere covered with blankets. Then we
waited. Finally the crowd lost interest in watching a blanket on top of a car and went on
their way. New people walking by didn't look twice, had no idea anything was going on.
When the street was completely clear of on-lookers and crowded with the usual, we
radioed a ready to the AD and moved the blanket slightly to clear just the front of the
lens- no one noticed. The actors walked through the crowd and did the scene, with the
sound woman walking a few feet behind them with her nagra under her coat - she's in
the scene and easily spotted if you know this story, otherwise she's just another
pedestrian. A $100,000 shot lar a couple hundred bucks. We don't always have the
luxury of putting the camera where we want it. Camera decisions are often made based
on doing something different just beca use it's different, without any meaning behind it
other than that. Many people commented on the overhead shot in Ms.45, in the
apartment when zoe drags the body into the bathroom. Sorne said it representad the
eye of God looking down on ZoS's sin (1 swear l'm not making this stuff up). lt was a
small apartment, we had been shooting there for days and had shot every corner and
angle that existed: to say that the location was shot-out was a majar understatement
When we carne to those shots we were stuck for a camera position, until 1 pointed at
the ceiling: it was the only place we had not put the camera. Jack Mclntyre's eyes lit
up, and he rigged the camera above the bathroom door, tight against the ceiling with a

1,
'i

60

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

wide angle lens. 1could only guess at the composition because we had to remove the
long viewfinder and l couldn't get my head between the short viewfinder and the ceiling,
and so couldn't look through the camera".4
According to Joe Delia, "lt was about ayear after we finished up The Driller Killer
that 1heard from Abel again. He had asked if he could bring his crew to my house in
Rockland County to shoot a scene for his new film. For years after that, 1felt bad for
having said no, and was surprised that it didn't seem to bother him. 1really don't have
much recollection of the filming of Ms.45, but months later was called down to the Ioft
to meet with him and see sorne of the film. Abel asked meto do the score and we sat
down at the same table that we had done the Driller Killer deal at and he did exactly
the same thing. Took a scrap of paper, wrote a number down, and slid it across the
table. This time the figure was considerably higher than on Driller Killer: $1500. Abel
explained that we would have to take part of that budget and buy a VCR so we wouldn't
have to work at the editing table, and he would cometo my studio in Tappan and record
the score. lt was 1980 and home video machines were not that commn yet. Half inch
home VCRs cost in the neighbourhood of $850 to $900 which would l~ave about $600
to pay whatever musicians we brought in, and whatever was left would be my fee. At
this pointAbel and 1weren't really that clase as friends, and 1felt like 'here we go again,
another free gig on another gory low budget movie'. 1 told him 1 had 'o think about it,
and left. What happened next was to be a defining moment. About two days later 1
called my brother Frank in LAand told him that 1had walked onAbel because 1thought
it was a bullshit deal. Frank cut me off mid-sentence and informed me that Ferrara was
going to be a majar director, and that there was a buzz going on about him in NY and
LA that 1didn't know about. He told me in no uncertain terms to 'get the fuck down to
the Ioft befo re it's too late and tell Abel yo u want to do the film'. Frank swore that 1 would
regret it for the next fifteen years if 1blew the deal. 1got in my car, drove right down to
18th street and walked up to the ninth !loor. When 1walked in 1 could see a keyboard
set-up and a small amp set up in the area to the right of the kitchen. One of the guys
who played a band member in the party scene had heard from someone that my
negotiation with Abel was breaking down, and was right on the spot to try and take my
gig. Abel played me something that the guy recorded on a cassette machine which
sounded like a thin analog synth playing one static, single low note for the duration of
the two minute scene. 1 couldn't believe it. 1 pulled Abel aside and told him 1 really
wanted to do it and was sony that 1bitched about the money. 1 knew he liked me and
wanted me to be on the team, but he felt bad that he had given this other guy the
impression that he had the gig. Abe! said, "Can't we give this guy something todo with
you on the score, man?" 1shot back to Abel, 'yeah, he can go get the fucking coffee for
me on the sessions'. Abe! was taken back by my response, but that was it. 1 think he
respected me for handling it the way 1did. lt was on the music for Ms.45 that he and 1
really hit it off, both musically and as long time friends. lt was a gas doing the score for
Ms.45. The film itself was worlds apart from Abel's two previous movies in terms of
production. The casting of ZoEi was amazing. Lemmo was the DP, Nicky wrote the
script and Queenie (Mary Kane) was one of the producers. Sin ce funds hadn't arrived
yet to purchase the VCR, we decided to get started anyway. Abel arrived for that first
day of music with a Movieola that he had at the Ioft. He must have borrowed a car and
drove it up to Tappan with the Movieola and a bunch of film reels in the back seat. We
schlepped this contraption out of the compact car, and into my little backroom studio.
We plugged the Movieola in, and after repeated efforts to thread the work reels, we

5: Ms.45

61

1.' .
,. .
n
:
'

,,,

'

il
1

ended up with nothing but chewed up film. Things got much better with the music
production once we got the VCR. 1 still have the unit and it worked perfectly as my
home video machine for nearly twenty years. lt was a top loading Panasonic, weighed
a ton and cost $860. Getting the VCR for us was like the invention of the light bulb. No
more reels of film to deal with, and although we were far from being able to lock to
picture, it was a new world for us. At the time my recording set-up consisted of a MiniMoog anda Prophet 5 (of course pre-midi). 1hada Teac 4 track that was on loan from
a German photographer named Kalle Kooler, which had to be fit with a step down
transformar to work on our current. The machine ran at 7 1/2 and 15 ips and we could
do as many bounces as we needed to do, without losing too much quality._ l had an
early sequencer by Roland and an old Knabe baby grand in the living room that
wouldn't hold a periect 440 tuning. The score itself broke down to two types of themes.
There were the contrapunta! piano themes that were sketched out befare hand and
were to some degree improvisad as we went along. These themes were used for the
opening, and the so-called work themes, i.e. when Thana cuts up Pete Yellen in the
bathtub. The other themes were more jazz-like in nature, using a live rhythm section
and tenor sax. These cues were played from about midway through the film, starting
when we see Thana make her transformation while she puts on lipstick. We used a
fusion groove for the scene in Central Park when the gang circles Thana. Also, the
rhythm section and sax played a dance track that replaced the production track for the
Halloween party at the end. When we recorded the piano themes, Abel would sit in the
back room studio with my then wife Sylvia who did the engineering on these cues. He
would cue up the VCR, yell quiet on the set, and count me into the cue. He would run
picture in the back room - 1 was in the living room at the piano, without picture. At the
end of the cue he would yell cut and 1 would run back and see how it looked with
picture. There was a very spontaneous and creative vibe going on for this score, with
Abel pushing me to be as creative as 1 could be. He didn't seem to feel that the
presence of the score would in any way threaten or take away from his vision of the
film. This wasn't the case in sorne of the later films, where there was far less score and
much more scrutiny. Abel had a good ear for modern styles of composition - he dug
Bernard Herrmann and Stravinsky, but on the other hand if the music started going in
the direction of jazz-like harmony, with altered chords and odd time signatures, he
would nix it. 1was pleased on Ms.45 that 1had the freedom to do cues like the Central
Park cue, albeit not Ferrara's favourite style. The live date was one to remember. Abe
Speller played drums, and the electric bass was played by a veteran studio musician
named Don Payne. He was much older than the rest of us, and he never stopped
talking about how he used to back up Lenny Bruce in LA's strip clubs in the 50's. Artie
Kaplan played the saxophone, carne up with sorne of the riffs that we used, and cowrote the flnale with me. The keyboard playing on the date was me on Fender Rhodes.
Larry Alexander was a Grammy winning engineer who was kind enough to agree to
handle the engineering. He had little to work with: a Tapco 8 in 4 out board, a couple
of Shure 58s that 1 had, plus a couple of higher quality microphones he brought in. We
had a pair of amazing little Telefunken speakers for monitors (courtesy of the German
photographer) and homemade baffles for the drums which Larry somehow managed to
capture beautifully on tape. The pay was another story. We started setting the session
up in the morning and the musicians played from about 2 in the afternoon until clase to
8 o'clock. The deal was set at $75 dollars a man and 1 think about $100 dollars for
Larry. lt was well below scale, but everyone wanted to be a part of the score and didn't

!.1

really mind that the money was so low and that it went longer than expected. The only
one who bitched about the bread was Don, and he was the only person there who had
any money. Sometime later we tried to make it up to the guys by making a scale
payment to the musicians. Abel never forgot the early years with me, and always saw
to it that the music budgets on the later films were as good as the overall budget
allowed. When the recording was completed, Chris Andrews had transfers made of the
two track mix-downs to 35 mag. At this point, Abel just ran with it. Hedida painstaking
job of mixing and editing the score, and when 1 saw the screening for the first time 1
was just blown away".5
Francis Delia recalls being present at an LA screening attended by Richard
Donner: "Donner was chomping down on a Whopper when the dark red blood from
Peter Yellen's ostensibly hack-sawed corpse started drip, drip, dripping onto the New
York Times. Donner gagged, stood up, said That's it... that's enough!", flung open the
screening room door, flooding the darkness with noontime Hollywood glare, and strode
out. Abel, stunned, went running after Donner, shouting 'What about The Omen? That
was grisly!'. Donner kept walking, saying 'Not like that!'". 6
Ms.45's starting point is clearly The Driller Killer, the two films' structural and
thematic similarities being overwhelming: both deal with protagonists who, driven
insane by the pressures of modern life, take to the streets and kill a series of
strangers7. But of greater significance are the differences, all of which stem from the
fact that the flrst character is a man, the second a woman: whereas Reno kills those
homeless rejects he may soon join, Thana is in a certain sense lashing out at the
so urce of her oppression, the film giving serious consideration to the idea that rape is
simply the most direct expression of that aggression which defines every heterosexual
relationship, with all men implicated in a rape culture and collectively guilty of crimes
punishable by death. Ferrara thus endeavours to educate his audience in what has
long been among the central tenets of feminist theory, but to describe Ms.45 as
educative will almost certainly give a misleading impression, for it is completely nondidactic. As Ferrara has stated, "We weren't influenced by feminism, we were
influenced by women", and we are asked to live the argument rather than respond to
it on a purely theoreticallevel, our identification with Thana fluctuating as we become
aware of both the justice and inadequacy of her position. Few will question Thana's
right to kili a man who has broken into her apartment and is in the process of raping
her, and her actions here have Ferrara's total support, the burglar's tate even being
anticipated by the editing: the cut from the man entering the apartment to the rows of
neatly packaged meat in the supermarket; the way in which Thana's first view of him is
broken up into separate shots of his feet, chest and head, much as he will be literally
chopped up as the film progresses; and the cut from Thana beating him with an iron to
the eggs Mrs Nasone is preparing for her dog Phil, who will later be fed the burglar's
remains. But, at the other extreme, surely even hardline feminists will balk at Thana's
attempt to kili the young Chinese man (Michael Chin) affectionately kissing his
girlfriend. Between these two extremes lies a vast grey area where easy judgements
will not be possible: satisfying as it may be to watch Thana dispatch a street gangB
cowardly enough to attack a lone and, as far as they are aware, unarmed woman, our
satisfaction is tempered by the knowledge that Thana has sought out this situation. And
while such characters as the obnoxious photographer, Thana's condescending boss
Albert (Albert Sinkys), and the Arab who offers to pay for sex deserve sorne kind of
chastisement, capital punishment would seem a little extreme, something Ferrara
1

'i ,,
~

i i ' !' '

5: Ms.45
1

1,

62

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

63

clearly realizas: although Mrs Nasone's constantly barking dog Phil is undoubtedly as
annoying as any of the other males (he is even connected with the burglar by the fact
that they both knock over a plant in Thana's apartment), the final shot reveals he has
been reprieved from what we previously assumed was a death sentence.9
The complexity of Ferrara's argument is best illustrated by the scene in which
a shoe salesman tells Thana how he discovered his wife in bed with another woman,
and reacted by strangling her cat; fully satisfied that she has encountered another
monstrous male, Thana takes out her gun and attempts to shoot him; when the gun
fails to fire, the obviously shocked man grabs the weapon and aims it at Thana.
What follows is entirely without dialogue and virtually impossible to conv~y in the
cold medium of print: the man looks at Thana, anger gradually fading as it begins to
dawn on him that his behaviour in sorne way justifies this response, points the gun
at his own head, grits his teeth, and pulls the trigger, blowing his brains out. The
subtlety with which Ferrara makes the slightest change of expression on his actor's
face register a wealth of meaning (there even remains the possibility that the
salesman thinks the whole thing is a joke) underlines the scene's ambiguity: the fact
that this man is capable of realizing he deserves to die means that perhaps he
deserves to live.
Ferrara's method here has much in common with Otto Preminger's, and, in a
culture where Preminger's masterpieces are still almost totally misunderstood, it is
hardly surprising that Ms.45 has been so blatantly misrepresented, with most commen~
tators reducing the film to precisely those terms it explicitly rejects. Two possibilities are
usually offered: Ferrara is either providing a dramatic illustration of the 'rape culture'
theory, or demonstrating its untenability. The first proposition is palpably untrue; the
second, despite having a certain plausibility, hardly stands up to detailed analysis.
Theories interest Ferrara far less than the process of exploration: Ms.45 draws no
conclusions, contains no didactic statements on gender, and rejects that either/or
mentality permeating virtually all American films which tackle 'serious' issues.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a critic seeing Thana as an unproblematic
audience identification figure is Danny Peary, who boldly declares that "every male
character is obnoxious" .10 Clearly this is true of the overwhelming majority, and while
the climactic massacre represents Thana's final descent into madness, her project of
killing every non-female at the party is given a certain legitimacy by the conversations
we overhear (one man talks about buying a virgin, another refuses to go through with
a promised vasectomy). Yet Peary seems to have forgotten the nice young Chinese
man, as well as Ricky, a tenant in Mrs Nasone's building: although Ricky appears in
an aggressively masculina gorilla costume, he is completely non~threatening, his
relationship to the Phallus being defined by his habit of constantly losing keys (a detall
linking him with the Chinese man, who is seen fumbling with keys while trying to open
a door). There is also the blind man, whose disability prevents him from indulging in
the traditionally mal e prerogative of turning women into objects for the gaze. In this he
is the obverse of Thana herself, for Thana's disability would hardly be considerad a
disability at all by most of her victims, who require women to look attractive and keep
their mouths shut (like the model in the opening sequence). lt is questionable whether
the men Thana encounters even notice she is unable to talk: the street hustler is
clearly more than used to having women walk past him without saying a word, while
the shoe salesman tells Thana his life story without pausing for breath. The legitimacy
of the 'rape culture' theory is underlined by the way in which the first rapist orders

64

ABEL FERRARA The Moral Vlsion

Thana not to make a sound, while the second holds his hand over her mouth
providing more acted out variations on what are seen elsewhere as normal male~
female relationships.
. Yet, as Thana discovers, silence can also connote power. The opening shots ~
w~rch .show Albert attempting to interest a female buyer, Mrs Grimaldi (Mariana
Tnpaldr, who also appears briefly in The Driller Killer), in his latest creations- contrast
tw~ differ.ent kinds of female silence. Albert talks constantly throughout this scene,
tryrng to rmpress a woman who is obviously someone of importance in the fashion
world, but she remains silent, indicating her opinions by a shake of the head, offering
o_n~y perfu.nctory comments when Albert returns to show her the second design, and
v~srbly unrmpressed by remarks about her "impeccable taste". Although feminine
srlence usually signifies woman's inability to penetrate the masculina realm of
language, t~e. ~rst ~hing Ferrara shows us is a woman controlling a situation by refusing
t~ tal k. Our rnrtlaJ v1ew of Thana contrasts her with Mrs Grima!di while exemplifying the
krnd of structural games already evident in The Driller Killer, for we first see the film's
~entra! character in the extreme background as Albert returns to his workshop. Yet 'see'
rs not really the correct word, for 1 doubt any first-time viewer will notice Thana at this
point: we are given no reason to single out this silent figure, played by an unfamiliar
actress standing completely still and staring straight ahead. Thana is literally in
~om.an's 'correct' place (she is even positioned behind an ironing bo~rd}, making as
lrttle rmpact on the mise-en-scene as she does on the outside world, her status as an
autonomous adult belied by the pat on the head she receives from Albert.
Thana is provided with a curious counterpart in Laurie, 11 a workmate who
frequently asserts control of language: she directs obscene gestures and comments
towards men who accost her, criticizes a waitress, and tells the flirtatious photog~
rapher to "fuck off'' (it is presumably the standard sexist clich about women who
behave in,;;luch a way that has lead more than one critic to describe Lauri_e as a
l~sbian, though there is no evidence to support this). According to zoe Tamerlis, "At
f1rst Thana has admiration for Laurie, but later she feels contempt. Laurie talks a lot
but she's hypocritical. Thana can't talk, she can't bullshit. Her only way to respond is
through action, which is more honest".12 Laurie endures Albert's slimy behaviour and
~creaming fits without complaint: he does, after all, have the power to fire her, and it
rs fa~ ~ore. prudent to take her frustrations out on other people. To sorne degree,
Laune msprres Thana's killings, with Thana translating Laurie's words into actions.
S~en this way, Laurie becomes the equivalent of Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) in
Hrtchcock's Rope (her stabbing of Thana is the equivalent of Cadell firing a gun to
alert the police), making her the prototype for a series of Ferrara characters- from Joe
Barker in The Gladiator to Mickey Ray in The Blackout- who look on as others give
their ideas flesh.
Ferrar~ frames his debate entirely within the terms of feminism: there may be
s?m~ questron as to the best means of dealing with patriarchy, but the male point-of-

vrew IS excluded, except insofar as it has been internalized by such female characters
as Mrs Nasone, whose dog has taken the place previously occupied by her dead
husband (their photos sit side by side in her apartment), the bag lady delivering a
monologue about how she "don't talk to women. All women do is laugh and sing and
say the w.ord 'pussy"', and, as her final action preves, Laurie. Although Ferrara appears
to be settmg up an ending in which authority figures arrive just in time to kill Thana our
expectations are aroused only so that they can be defeated: the introduction of the

5: Ms.45

65

police is completely superiluous, and after one detective orders the other to "Check
that office for night workers. Somebody must know where they went.", the forces of
masculine law simply disappear from the narrativa.
lt is significant that the film's writer plays one of the detectives, just as its director
plays the first rapist Though the text's creators may be male, they have ~hosen ~o
surrender at least a degree of authorial control. Ferrara claims that pnor to h1s
discovery of Zoe Tamerlis he had been prepared to abando~ th~ proj~~t, and
comments made by Tamerlis indicate how much leeway she was gven m dec1d1ng her
character's background: "1 like Thana a lot. 1 knew a lot about her that others didn't.
That she carne from a banal, religious background, that her handicap was p~ychosow
matic from way back. Her dream was to be a model, but she had no hope of leaving
13
the sweatshop. She was very innocent. She'd seen a lot but hadn't done anything".
But none of this is evident in the actual film, and Tamerlis, with her insistence on
traditional notions of psychology, appears to have missed the genuinely radical nature
of Ferrara's achievement, for, as so often in his work, we are told nothing about the
central character's life prior to her first onwscreen appearance. This is something quite
different from the Hawksian ideal of character defined by action, for even Thana's
actions reveal litt!e about her past, and if her inability to speak means she cannot be
'known' by people she meets, she remains equally inaccessible to the viewer. Ms.45
would have been quite different, more like Jane Campion's The Piano (1992), had
Ferrara let Thana take us into her confidence by means of a voiceover, and while his
refusal to do so connects with his refusal to believe in a 'self' which could, at least
potentially, be expressed in a 'pure' form, it also undermines the assumption that_mal;
viewers can 'know' female characters: the first line of dialogue, 'What do you thmk? ,
is addressed by a man, Albert, to a woman, Mrs Tripaldi, and answered only with a
disdainful shake of the head. Our lack of knowledge about Thana - far from being
concealed, or even minimized, by the text- is flagrantly flung in our faces by the dream
scene (possibly even vaguer than The Driller Killer's), during which_the camera pro:'ls
through Thana's apartment- showing a sleeping Thana, the corpse m the bath, the f1rst
rapist, a distorted closewup of Mrs Nasone, and the fridge where body parts have been
stored was we hear a man's voice saying "Thana. What happened to you? Are you a
mutant dressed like this?", followed by a little girl's voice saying "That's right yo u
(incomprehensible), they say take the mutes away just right". We may assume that the
man is Thana's father (he repeats the burglar's question 'What happened to you?",
thus connecting him with Thana's recent trauma), but he may not be. And what did
happen to Thana? Just how is she dressed? ls this the incident that triggered the l~ss
of her voice? Or is this comment addressed to someone else? The second vo1ce
apparently belongs to a little girl tormenting Thana, either during ~hil~h~od or more
recently. But who is she? Why does this memory return now? Was th1s g1rl m some way
responsible for Thana's inability to speak? ls she Thana's sister? N_one of th~se
questions can be answered in even the superficial sense. Most Amencan na~rat~ve
films endeavour to make their protagonists 'known', the entire grammar of estabhsh1ng
shot reaction shot, point-of-view shot, etc. being dedicated solely to achieving this.
Ferr~ra's rejection of traditional editing patterns, on the other hand, is imbricated_ with
his determination to keep us at arm's length. But this does not preclude emotlonal
involvement; on the contrary, our involvement will necessarily be of a far more intimate
kind since we will be forced to work harder for it, importing that capacity for
und~rstanding we bring to our actual relationships.

66

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Ms.45's most extraordinary achievement is the Halloween party massacre, a


complexly layered sequence in which, as various thematic strands are drawn together,
Thana becomes a modern version of Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) in Vincente Minnelli's
Me~t Me in St. Louis (1944). Tootie's own Halloween massacre involves killing the
patnarchal Mr Brockhoff, causing the other children to declare her "the most horrible of
all". Yet the murder of the Father, like Tootie's destruction of her snow people family, is
purely symbolic, the 'killing' consisting of flour being thrown in a man's face. Thana's
murders are. Considerably more deadly.14
The party is held in a room displaying imagery - cobwebs, bats, spiders,
skeletons 15 - intended to evoke a Gothic tradition which, with its insistence on the
duality of Good and Evil, can only be perceived ironically in this context. Writing about
Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), Andrew Britton claims that "lt's theme
~mbodied in the image of the funhouse itself, is the way in which the language and
1mag~ry of the Gothic and its characteristic thematic concerns (the determinants,
funct1ons and consequences of sexual repression) have been tecuperated by
American culture, as 'entertainment', in the interests of conservativa reassurance", 16
and much the same point could be made about Ms.45's party, wherein those motifs the
American horror film shares with the Gothic are trivialised and rendered camp. But
Britton's comments also describe the genre's progress since the !ate 70s, its thematic
underpinnings progressively neutered by a satiric invocation of conventions seen as
having no reference to an externa! world (Wes Craven's recent work seems to go about
a~ far in this direction as is conceivable). Ms.45 provides a much-needed critique of
thrs tendency, actively encouraging us to compare Ferrara's masked rapist (a product
of specific social conditions) with the masked partygoers, who dress as Gothic
predators (Count Dracula, a devil, a witch), but finally become prey.17
These_ costumes also refer to severa! gender types (the cowboy, the Latin lover),
sorne of whrch have been reversed (the woman in a policeman's uniform, the man in a
brida! gown). Thana herself wears a nun's habit, adopting an identity to which the
Gothic would assign a fixed meaning (even if this meaning carne to be rejected or
rendered problematic), but which is here stripped of its association with the forces of
Good, becoming simply another female role the inherent artificiality of which is
underlined by its adoption as a party dress.
A further !ayer of irony is added by the revelation that Thana is carrying a gun, the
symbolic phallus the nun's habit is supposed to reassure us its wearer is lacking. This
link between gun and phallus is established during the second rape, with the rapist
beating his gun on the floor as he approaches orgasm, and the implied connection
between violence and sexua!ity is not lost on Thana, whose face displays orgasmic
satisfaction as she cuts up the man's body. Within a patriarchal culture, the phallus is
both sexual, literally the penis, and symbolic, the sign of difference between male and
female (hence the indlcator of masculina power), the two functions being indistinguishable. Yet, as the desperate nature of rape implies, men are hardly confident in
their possession of this 'important' object the shoe salesman in particular is haunted
by the idea that his wife is cheating on him with a series of authority figures -"a lawyer,
a banker, a cap" - whose superior access to money and power define him as castrated
(his ~vent~al discovery that she has actually rendered the phallus redundant by
sleepmg w1th another woman being the ultimate humiliation).
Thana's appropriation of the phallus operates on two levels. The sexual nature of
her experience is obviously crucial: the image of blood draining from a bathtub is
1

5: Ms.45

67

suggestive of menstruation, emphasised by the dissolve from this shot toa c!ose-up of
Mrs Nasone, whose eye is superimposed over the plughole. Mrs Nasone's function as
a mother-figure for Thana and the murders' erotic overtones are both reinforced in the
aftermath ofthe burglar's death: hearing Mrs Nasone in the hall, Thana hurriedly tidies
the apartment and throws a shawl around her shoulders in arder to hide her dishevelled appearance, becoming a child concealing evidence of masturbation from a
parent. Thana's gun gives her a previously denied sexual power, demonstrated by the
more seductive style of dress she subsequently adopts, enabling her, like Kathleen in
The Addiction, to recreate her violation with the roles reversed. This point is made
explicit when Thana pushes the burglar's corpse into a bathtub: as she stand~ behind
the body, which is bent over the tub, and attempts to force it all the way in, she
assumes that stance taken by the first rapist, who assaulted Thana from behind while
she was bent over a garbage can.18 After the initial killings, Thana's gaze is constantly
caught by the sight of sexual activity: lovemaking in the office opposite; the Chinese
man kissing his girlfriend; and the photographer necking in a restaurant (it is Thana's
stare that causes Laurie to notice the couple and comment on their behaviour). But
phallic power is not merely sexual, since the gun enables Thana to communicate, in no
uncertain terms, exactly what she thinks of those men who pat her on the head and
treat her condescendingly. In effect, the weapn restares her power of speech, an idea
Ferrara emphasises during the Chinatown sequen ce by having Thana hold a telephone
as if she were talking into it.
We are never permitted the luxury of viewing Thana as an aberrant 'case': her
actions and experiences, though extreme, have universal relevance, being precisely
rooted in a carefully detailed context. As in The Driller Killer, the New York
backgrounds, the living and work spaces as much as the hostile streets, have a
decisive role to play, Ferrara's sensitivity to decor's psychological function having few
parallels in contemporary American cinema: consider his tendency (briefly evident in
The Driller Killer, but a majar structural element of Ms.45 and the mature works) to
begin a shot befare the actor enters the frame, and continue it after her/his departure
-like Reno's flat, these settings have been here long befare the characters arrived, and
will be there long after they lea ve. Ferrara demonstrates how architecture interacts with
individual psychology: as Thana's apartment grows increasingly chaotic and untidy, it
mirrors the mental state of its occupant while becoming indistinguishable from the
garbage-strewn streets.
Leslie A. Fiedler has described the difference between Gothic and what he calls
'sentimental' novels in the following terms: "The flight of the gothic heroine is out of the
known world and into a dark region of make-believe, past the magical landscapes of a
legendary ltaly, along the shadowy corridors of the haunted castle, which is to say,
through a world of ancestral and infantile fears projected in dreams. The sentimental
heroine confronts the dangers of the present, that is, of life as recorded in the
newspaper; the gothic heroine evades the perils of the past, that is, of life as recorded
in history" .19 In Fiedler's terms, Ms.45 combines the Gothic and sentimental traditions:
its infernal city is a product of contemporary capitalism, and can only function as an
externalization of the protagonist's neuroses beca use those neuroses are themselves
attributable to capitalism. The vigilante may be a charactertype usually associated with
the Western, but Ferrara's New York, both here and in The Driller Killer, has its roots
in film noir, his vision of a civilization on the verge of collapse leading to the creation of
a 'hero' whose deeds can no longer be referred to a fixed system of legal and moral

68

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

arder, and whose insistence on maintaining the hero role in the absence of this context
is adduced as evidence of insanity. In 1941, Raoul Walsh's High Sierra dramatized the
idea of 'crashing out': the hero, no longer interested in justifying his actions as
necessary to the upholding of a higher ideal, dispels energy through violent acts which,
though they inevitably lead to his death, show up bourgeois society's hypocrisy by
virtue of their purity. 20 But by 1947, Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire had replaced
'crashing out' with 'crawling', an attempt to discharge energy through random
movement as Robert Mitchum's Keeley puts it, "Soldiers don't have anywhere to go
unless you tell them where to go. When they're off duty they go crawling. Or they go
crazy". For such modern noir'heroes' as Reno, Thana and Travis Bickle, as well as the
protagonists of later Walsh and Dmytryk films (White Heat, Obsession, The Sniper,
Bluebeard), only the second option exists.
But it is another strand of film noir (and melodrama) that provides the best means
of understanding Ms.45, for Thana combines the male noir 'hero' with those
transgressive heroines who~e assaults on patriarchy are simultaneously affirmed and
defined as monstrous: Ann Savage in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, Gene Tierney in John
M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven and Bette Davis in King Vidor's Beyond the Forest
(for a non-American example, see Luis Buuel's Susana). Once again, Andrew Britton
has summed up these films in terms which he.lp clarify Ferrara 's acilievement: "both
film noir and the woman's melodrama provide numerous examples of female protagonists whose very monstrousness allows the director to propase a critica! analysis of the
social conditions which have channelled powerful energies and a formidable intelligence into destructive, and self-destructive, forms ... lt is not necessary to formulate
'positiva images' of female strength, resistan ce or independence in arder to produce a
narrative that criticises patriarchy from a woman's point of view, and many works of the
greatest dramatic and ideological power have chosen instead to represent the tragic
waste or perversion of a woman's struggle for autonomy and self-definition in the
context of an implacably hostil e and oppressive culture ... the attitude we are invitad to
adopt to such a woman will depend entirely on whether her actions are attributed to a
specifically feminine, and inherently defective, will, orto the real social pressures which
are brought to bear on women in a world where their freedom and their range of action
is drastically limited, and where all human relationships are characterised (as those in
film noir are) by greed, opportunism, self-interest and mutual exploitation".21
1

Footnotes
1- Abel Ferrara, The Onion, November 2002 and The Virgin Ffm Year Book 1983, p. 123. Born 1963, zoe
Tamerlis (later Zo8 Lund) would go on to act in several interesting films and co-write Ferrara's Bad
Lieutenant before her death in 1999. She left behind a significan! body of work, including several unfilmed
screenplays and a remarkable unpublished novel entitled 490 (!he first part of a projected trilogy).
2- Brian Lang, e-mail to the author, March 1st 2002.
3- Ken Kelsch, e-mails to the author, March 2nd and 3rd 2003.
4- James Lemmo, e-mail to the author, May 10th 2003.
5- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, January 3rd 2003.
6- Francis Delia, e-mail to the author, June 18th 2002.
7- Ferrara emphasizes these similarities by having casting three of the actors who played murdered
derelicts in The Driller Killer as Thana's victims, and by naming two female characters Carol and Pamela.
8- According to Brian Lang, "The guys who played the rapists Thana shoots in the Bethesda fountain
scene in Central Park were Maoist activists from the Revolutionary Communist Party Bookstore
downstairs from Ferrara's 18th Street studio" (e-mail to the author, March 1st 2002).

5: Ms.45

69

9- lt is worth noting how seldom animals appear in Ferrara's work: aside from Ms.45's dog and the dog
being walked by one of Fear City's victims, there are cats in Could This Be Love, 9 Lives of a Wet
Pussy and, briefly, China Girl (which a\so shows police on horseback), a rabbit in The Driller Killer, fish
in Crime Story, and some cows in Body Snatchers. Other than that, animals are mostly conspicuous by
their absence: The Funeral's screenplay contains a scene in which Chez recalls having accidentally killed
a dog, but this does not seem to have been filmed; The Driller Killer includes paintings of dogs and dogs
barking on the soundtrack, but no actual dogs; a cat killed in The Loner never appears onscreen; the only
animal in King of New York is Nosferatu's crowing cock.
10- Danny Peary, Cult Movies 2 (Delta, 1983), p. 104.
11- According to Laurie Taylor, who played Tony Coca-Cola's girlfriend in The Driller Killer, "Abe\ and
Nick wrote the character of Laurie forme, thus her name is Laurie in the film. 1 backed out the day befare
shooting, and Abel didn't speak tome for 15 years!" (e-mail to the author, Oecember 18th 2002). Laurie
Taylor (now Laurie Taylor-Williams) went on to appear in severa! television shows (Seinfeld; Law and
Order) and films (Drunks). Aside from making some award-winning documentaries, she directed and
acted in Twilight Highway (1995), which has a Joe Delia score.
12- Peary, p. 101.
13- Peary, p. 103.
14- lt is perhaps ironic that Ms.45 should be dedicated to the memory of Ferrara's own father, who had
died recently.
15- Also visible at the party is an image taken from Philip Slagter's poster for The Driller Killer, showing
Reno and Tony merging over a female torso. This can be seen behind Thana as she falls out of the frame
after being stabbed.
16- Andrew Britton, "Biissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment", Movie 31/32 (Winter 1986),
p. 36.
17- A comparison further encouraged by Ferrara's brief reappearance, still wearing a mask, at the party,
where he can be seen dancing next to Laurie.
18- As Sophie Charlin has pointed out, there is another echo of the first rape when Laurie stabs Thana in
the back.
19- Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Peregrine, 1982), p. 128.
20- Walsh's film has strong overtones of existentialsm: Ida Lupino's question 'What does it mean when
a man crashes out?" is surely the inspiration for Jean Seberg's "Qu'est-ce que c'est dgueulasse?" in
Godard's A Bout de Souffle.
21- Andrew Britton, "Betrayed By Rita Hayworth: Misogyny in The Lady from Shanghai". In Jan
Cameron's The Movie Book of Film Noir (Studio Vista, 1992), pp. 213-214.

'''

opposite top: Joe Delia and Abel Ferrara working on the score of Ms.45.
opposite bottom: Joe Delia (left) during the creation of the Ms.45 score, with engineer Larry Alexander (right) and Abe
Speller (behind drums).

70

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

5: Ms.45

71

abo ve:
Stephen Singer and Zoe Tamerlis in Ms.45.
right:
Thana is cornered by a heckler (Vincent
Gruppi) in Ms.45.

opposite top:
Thana prepares lo go out in Ms.45.
opposite bottom:
Thana is raped (for the first time) in Ms.45

below:
Thana prepares for the Halloween party in
Ms.45.

'
li 1

'

!'

5: Ms.45

72

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

73

above: Thana is raped (for the second time) in Ms.45.

opposite top left: Thana sees the first rapist (Abel Ferrara) reflectad in her bathroom mirror in Ms.45.
opposite centre left: The photographer (Stephen Singer) killed by Thana in Ms.45.
opposite bottom: Thana surrounded by gang members in Ms.45.
below: Thana runs through a New York street in Ms.45.

74

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

5: Ms.45

75

FEAR CITY (1984)

"lt was made by committee. We weren't really in control. We shot it in LA. lt was a script
that Nicky had written previous to The Driller Killer, in about 1975. We were going to
make it then,. We were very into that scene, and that scene was then very vital. The
Disco scene. Barry White on the jukeboxes and the whole deal. Then, when we didn't
make it, we went beyond and somehow, when that film carne about, the script was so
old that we wanted to make a different film, but the producers wanted to make Fear
City. Maybe that was the problem. But you try your best and sometimes it works out,
sometimes it doesn't. You just can't get hung up on it. lt was a very personal film to us.
Those characters in there all had human counterparts. The girl Melanie Griffith played
was a girl 1was very much in lave with at a certain point in my life. lt w8.s basically her
'
story. Actually the girl Melanie played is the girl who -appears in The Dr'iller
Killer. The
punk rock chick Baybi Oay. 1 lived absolutely at the merey of this girl. 1 mean 1was so
in lave with this girl it was pathetic."
Abel Ferrara, Samhain 19, February/March 1990, p. 14 and audio comrnentary on The
Driller Killer DVD

In the four years between Ms.45 and Fear City, Ferrara's only realizad project
was a long video, shot in 1982, for a group known as The Beds. The video's producer
Mary Kane recalls that "We did a few songs with dancers. My memory is that it was
purely musical. 1mostly remember the production, and how pleasant it was to work with
dancers - they were really ni ce ladies" _1 According to Joe Delia, "A gal named Merle
Miller was the lead singer. 1 knew her from the studio scene in NYC. S he had a pretty
good career going as a jingle singer, helped on by the fact that at the time her sister,
Leslie Miller, was the top female commercial singer in town. Merle also worked with
Barry Manilow and Bette Midler: last 1 heard, she was doing the wedding circuit. 1
remember Abel talking about The Beds, and 1 told him that 1 knew Merle. 1 wasn't
around for any of the shooting or post on the video".2 The Beds marked the first time
that Ferrara would work with Randall Sabusawa: "Abe! and 1 had mutual friends. 1
heard about him when 1 was working with John Avildsen around 1980. Avildsen's
nephew had been trying to get John to see Ms.45. so Abel had a print dropped off at
our office. 1 had to rentan optical reader for our flatbed (editing table) in arder to view
the print. John and 1 only saw maybe a reel, but 1 remember thinking that Abel had
something interesting going on. Later, at a party, again at John Avildsen's (Madison
Avenue, upper east side crowd, Central Park view, etc.), 1 see this guy on the couch
with a leather jacket and sunglasses. And l'm thinking, 'who is this guy wearing shades
at night?'. Someone pointed out tome that it wasAbel, and 1remember thinking, '1 want
to meet this guy, because he's doing something un usual'. 1went right over to him and
told him 1 wanted to work with him. lt was the start of a professional and personal
relationship. We became fast friends, and worked together for over 16 years. The first
time he and 1actually collaborated was on The Beds, which was a long-form rack and
roll video. But the first feature that 1worked on with Abel was Fear City, on which 1was
his assistant. 1 did another stint with John Avildsen working on The Karate Kid while

6: FEAR CITY

77

Abe! was cutting Fear City. We were all staying ata house in Laurel Canyon. John and
Abe! had little contact. John would ask about him from time to time, but 1 was really
looking to get out from under John's wing to work with someone like Abe l. Abe! and 1
talked about John a lot, mainly because 1had done a lot of work with Avildsen, and he
was in a different league".3
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex body of work, Ferrara's oeuvre can be
divided into three distinct strands: the early semi-underground shorts and features,
made in New York; a period of work-for-hire, taking in a much wider range of locations;
and the mature films, again mostly (though not exclusively) New York-based. lf one
accepts this proposition, then Fear City - set in New York with exteriors. shot on
location but interiors (as well as the climactic fight) filmed in Los Angeles - provides the
perfect bridge between the first two strands. Des pite having much in common with The
Driller Killer and Ms.45, Fear City focuses on more conventional characters, is filmed
in a relatively traditional style (Ferrara has described it as "a very milquetoast version
of the other two" 4), features a surprisingly starry cast, and marks the beginning of what
may have been a wrong turn for Ferrara (though perhaps one he needed to take): if
nothing else, the straightforward storytelling skil!s evident here prove (if proof were
needed) that the narrative obscurities of earlier and later works are deliberate choices.
Fear City's central character is Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger), an ex-boxer who, with
his partner Nicky Piacenza (Jack Scalia), runs an agency, the Starlite, which supplies
New York clubs with strippers, among whom are Matt's ex-lover Loretta (Melanie
Griffith) and her new female lover Leila Powers (Rae Dawn Chong), as well as Nicky's
girlfriend Ruby (Janet Julian). A serial killer named Pazzo (John Foster) has been
attacking Rossi's female employees (one of his victims being Leila). 8oth Matt and
contemptuous cap Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) suspect Goldstein (Jan Murray),
owner of a rival agency, but when one of Goldstein's girls is killed, Goldstein and Matt
jointly hire protection. This proves a failure, and Matt, encouraged by his Mafia mentor
Carmine (Rossano Brazzi), personally hunts Pazzo, defeating him during a fight in an
alleyway and rescuing Loretta, with whom he is reunited.
According to cinematographer James Lemmo, "Conflicts between Abe! and
producer Bruce Cohn Curts took place on a virtually daily basis. At that time, to the
press and others, Bruce described himself as an 'auteur producer'. Need 1 say more?
This is the only one of the films 1worked on with Abe! where we were required to shoot
'TV coverage': alternate shots to substituta for nudity or suggestive dancing, and
sometimes with language if a scene had 'fuck' as every other word. But unexpectedly
this occasionally worked in the film's favour. Abe! mentioned that when the actors knew
it was TV coverage', they appeared to feel no need to give a top performance and
would just say the words, which more than a few times turned out to be the best
performance and the take used in the theatrical cut". 5
Ferrara remembers shooting two explicit sex scenes - one with Melanie Griffith
and Rae Dawn Chong, the other with Griffith and Tom Berenger- he was not permitted
to include in any version of the film (but which he hopes to eventually restare). James
Lemmo clearly recalls shooting these scenes "They were both hot by the standards of
the time, too hot, and 1 believe that's why they were cut, but 1 don't know for sure. 1
wish 1 knew where they were - Bruce probably has them. When we began shooting
the Griffith/Berenger lave scene, it was clear that it was going to be hot. lt was a
closed set, these were two talented and great looking actors, and Abe! was in a
directing frenzy, running his hands through his hair, pacing quickly around the bed as

78

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

the scene progressed. Then, surprisingly, he asks that a bottle of booze be brought to
the set. We're figuring, how much hotter can it get? But Abe knows what he's doing,
so the prop guy runs out and gets a bottle of Black Label or Jack Daniels - l've
forgotten which, but it was something fast-acting. When the prop guy returns, he
whispers to Abe! and sticks the bottle through a separation in the flats. Abe says
something like 'Yeah, yeah', takes the bottle, cracks the sea!, and starts guzzling.
Griffith and Berenger never gota drop".6
Joe Delia recalls "doing the songs with David Johansen. 1think there were about
6 in total. Sucker Cty was the best one. New York Oo/1 was OK, but had a weird feel
to it. The actual scoring gig went to Dick Halligan. He was the trombonist for Blood
Sweat and Tears. 1don't know if he ever did another film. Berenger and Melanie. Pretty
fuckin' good cast. Abe! called me in the middle of the night at sorne chick's place that 1
was crashing at and told me to be at a certain hotel at one in the afternoon the next
day. 1 showed up and they turned the lights out and put a video on of the rough cut. 1
couldn't keep my eyes open. 1 slept through hall the film, but managed to keep the
producers from knowing it. We gota pretty good amount of money to do the songs and
went up to a studio in Connecticut and cut the tracks, vocals and mixed. Abe! and 1
worked all night at that place and 1 drove him down to the Washington Bridge, got him
a cab, and went home and crashed. At noon, Abe! called me and woky me up and told
me to be at the hotel with the masters in one hour. 1told him the producer had to have
the balance for me or 1wouldn't turn over the masters. lt was a bold move but that was
my deal. 1turned over the tapes, the guy gave me the money and everything was fine.
Later, Abe! told me that the guy really respected me for having done it". 7
Fear City was Ferrara's first collaboration with editor Anthony Redman, who
would work on many of his subsequent films: "l'd been hired as a replacement for Jack
Holmes, who'd walked off the project. 1had already seen The Driller Killer, and 1also
remember going to see Ms.45 with my then-girlfriend: when we left the theatre, she
said 'l'd like to do that to you'! But 1 didn't immediate!y make the connection between
those films and the director l'd been asked to work with, and the first time 1saw him, 1
just thought 'l'd like to kick this guy's ass'! 1 started looking at the footage that was
already cut: it all seemed fine, except for one reel that had been stuck together with
white sound tape. 1 asked Abe! and Nick to come into the cutting room, showed them
this reel, and said 'Who is responsible for this? Jack Holmes is a professional editor.
1 know he had nothing to do with this. You guys were sneaking in here and recutting
everything, weren't you? No wonder this guy left. You wouldn't let him do his job. He
wasn't being paid enough for this'. Then everything went smoothly, and 1became part
of Abel's team: 1told him 'you've got too many ltalians; you need at least one Jew'! We
established a pattern whereby 1 would do the first cut of each film by myself. Abe!
wouldn't be present in the cutting room: 1wouldn't let him in".B
While Ferrara's two previous films trapped us within the minds of individuals
whose sanity was in doubt, Fear City focuses on group interactions. In a sen se, this is
only a change of emphasis: The Driller Killer contained scenes involving Tony CocaCola, Dalton and Caro! in which Reno was not present, just as Ms.45 included scenes
with Thana's landlady. Yet the sheer number of important characters here indicates
their changed function, which is to provide a wider, more multi-faceted view of the
Ferrarian milieu. This method involves a fundamental shift in the relationship between
viewer and character. The necessity for this shift will not become clear until King of
New York, which adopts a new attitude towards the protagonist. Fear City, the first in

6: FEAR CITY

79

a series of problematic transitional works, simply creates a 'hero' considerably less


ambiguous than his predecessors: whereas Reno and Thana were torced to deal with
interna\ as well as externa\ pressures, the ambiguous aspects of Matt's personality are
siphoned off and projected onto Pazzo.
The idea of he ro and villa in being opposite sides of the same coin has its filmic
roots in German expressionism, but seems to have been introduced into America by
German refugees during the thirties, making itself felt most clearly in film noir. The noir
'he ro' frequently found his unacknowledgeable desires embodied by a doppelganger to
whom he was nominally opposed. Fear City fits this general pattern, the connection
between Matt and Pazzo being emphasised by the way Ferrara twice cuts from Pazzo
attacking a woman to Matt waking up with a start. Pazzo's attack on Leila is ar explicit
acting out of Matt's expressed desire to "kick her ass all the way down to the Battery",
and there is a sense in which Matt is directly responsible for Leila's death, since he had
insisted on driving Loretta home, thus preventing her meeting Leila outside the club. 9
Matt's eventual defeat of Pazzo thus becomes a victory over his own darkest impulses,
allowing him to overcome those neuroses (with which Pazzo had been systematically
associated) that prevented him achieving a mature relationship.
Vividly dramatized though this relationship between the protagonist and his secret
sharer may be, Matt still fits neatly into the mould of avenging hero, and if the relentless
infernal city imagery deprives the vigilante of a moral context to which his actions can
be referred, he remains clearly distinguishable from his double, who is responsible for
crimes Matt would never be capable of committing. This uncertainty asto Matt's status
is indicated by Fear City's two different endings. In Ferrara's version, Wheeler
confronts Matt after the climactic batt\e and says 'You think you're a hero, Rossi?":
Matt's response, "No, not by a long shot", causes Wheeler to sneer contemptuously
befare telling his deputy to "Get him out of here". Bruce Cohn Curts' version eliminates
the final Hne, replacing it with a close-up of Whee\er smiling and saying "Maybe you
are. Take him home" _10
Nevertheless, though Matt may be more conventional than Ferrara's previous
protagonists, he is a somewhat odd figure on whom to centre a 'mainstream' thriller.
Consider the opening scene - Matt and Nicky's visit to Mike (Michael V. Gazzo)'s
nightclub - in which Nicky, greeting the strippers and others employees, asserts _a
gregarious personality that itself has the feeling of a nightclub 'act'. As with Eddte
Israel in Snake Eyes, Nicky is more of a 'periormer' than the actual performers he
employs. Matt also greets some of these people, but in a way that suggests he is
merely fulfilling a duty. Although it seems reasonable for viewers to assume that Nicky
will be the central character, it is the sullen, withdrawn Matt with whom we will be
asked to concern ourselves.11 The contrast between these two individuals implies that
Matt is failing to master a 'masculine' role, his solitary nature being suggested by a
few brief shots of him walking through his empty apartment, turning on a television,
watching an advertisement for cosmetics, turning the TV off and gazing out the
window (a sequence stressing Matt's alienation from a dominant consumer culture, as
well as his similarity to the equally solitary and alienated killer). lndeed, there is
something emotionally masochistic about the way Matt lingers outside Loretta's
dressing room as she kisses Leila, and is repeatedly drawn to watch his ex-lover strip
befare an audience of cheering men.
Yet Matt differs from Reno and Thana in that he belongs to a social group: the
Starlite agency contains a 'family' of dancers with whom he maintains warm personal

80

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

relationships, his best friend (Nicky), and a loyal employee (Harry). Matt's problem
(anticipating Eddie's in Snake Eyes) is that he is unable to recognize any of this: it is
significant that Harry's offer of working without payment should be made to Nicky, for
Matt constantly rejects claims of friendship (he prefers the clear-cut ethics of
'business)', the killer's function being to break down those barriers Matt has built to
insulate himself from emotional demands.
Another difference is that, whereas we were not asked to consider the pasts of
either Reno or Thana, Matt suffers from a trauma caused by his having killed an
opponent in the ring, an event which motivated his retirement from boxing (we also see
an incident from Matt's childhood in which he witnessed a gangland killing). The
flashback, previously a device one would have thought Ferrara incapable of using, is
here indulged at great length, the boxing scenes' use of slow motion (even the dialogue
is slowed down) coming across as almost parodie. This clumsiness of tone provides
further evidence of Ferrara's inability to fully engage with a relatively unambiguous
protagonist, but these scenes are intricately related to one of Fear City's most
interesting threads. lf this precisely defined background is evidence 6f more conventional ambitions, it is al so in a very real sense the film's theme: the mal e characters are
unable to cleanly break with the past, and hence yearn for a lost purity. Aside from
being haunted by past events, Matt seeks to renew a relationship vyhich, it is made
clear, he put little energy into at the time; Wheeler used to work for the vice squad and
continues to act as if he still does, breaking off a homicide investigation to check the
date on a club's liquor licence; Carmine inhabits a world which belongs to a more
gentee! era, and ends his p!ea for Matt to take ca re of the killer with the words "Twenty
years ago this cal\ would have been unnecessary". The key figure is, of course, Pazzo
himself: compelled to purify the hellish city, his insistence that "With the death of each
criminal, each whore, each worthless life, man comes one step closer to purity" is
chillingly echoed by Wheeler's claims that "Nobody's clean." and "A police officer is the
living manifestation of the law". Two montage sequences (one of which ends with a
mirror being smashed) juxtapose the activities of these characters: as Gavin Smith has
pointed out, the track-in on Wheeler firing his gun is rhymed with the track-in on Matt
praying, "both preparing to act out violent scenarios, as ritualized as the killer's martialarts workouts". 12 There is also a connection between the anatomy charts in Pazzo's
room, the outline of a human body Wheeler uses for target practice, and the drawing
of Pazzo which Matt pins to his wall. As in The Driller Killer, 'normal' behaviour and
insanity are seen as continuous.
According to Nicodemo Olfverio, Pazzo was originally to have been presented in
greater depth: "We tried to give him more of a motive. Like he's sexually maladjusted
but he has this mentality that '1 can abuse the law because l'm strong and periect'. He's
more philosophically based. There are three books in his room: Thus Spoke
Zarathustra by Nietzsche, Origin of Species by Darwin and Crime and Punishment by
Dostoyevsky. So he's a killer, but he's also the flower of phi!osophy. The character
preves that God is dead. The amoralist world has arisen"_13 In the film, however,
Pazzo's books are unidentifiable, and if Oliverio's ideas remain unrealized (at least in
Fear City- they would be taken up again in The Addiction), this is surely attributable
to the fact that Pazzo has no human qualities whatsoever, and is thus unredeemable
in Ferrara's eyes: the name 'Reno' may appear amidst sorne graffiti during the climactic
confrontation, but if Pazzo resembles anyone in The Driller Killer, it is Tony CocaCola, who similarly insulated himself from social interaction. Ferrara identifies the

6: FEAR CITY

81

killer's search for purity in terms of absolute negativity, leading to Pazzo being drawn
in extremely broad strokes which link him with the monsters of fairy-tales (his cutting of
Honey's fingers recalls Der Struwwelpeter).
Whereas so many cinematic serial killers are associated with femininity, Pazzo
embodies an excessive and brutal form of masculinity. lt is, then, obvious why the film's
moral centre should be associated, subtly but unambiguously, with its female
characters: though failing to share the men's twinned obsessions with purity and the
past (a point made explicit when Loretta agrees to make !ove with Matt "As long as it's
not for the past"), they nevertheless become the victims of these obsessions. As in
Could This Be Love, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy and The Driller Killer, Ferrara's
portrayal of a lesbian couple is remarkably respectful. Loretta's affair with Leila is
presented as a tender, mutually beneficia! relationship conveyed not through
voyeuristic images of lovemaking, but via su eh details as Leila jokingly refusing to fetch
Loretta's morning coffee and the repeated phrase "1 love this mouth".
This feeling of intimacy is also present during Loretta's scenes with Matt. Ferrara
has described the film as partially autobiographical, and although the Starlite's real-life
model was Mambo High, an agency that provided strippers to New York clubs and was
involved in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy's production, it seems reasonable to assume that
Matt's relationship with Nicky is based on Ferrara's friendship with 'Nicky' Oliverio.
According to James Lemmo, "Abe! and Nicky both mentioned to me that the Fear City
characters were based on two guys who ran such an agency. However, as 1 saw it then
and still do now, the agency owners were the basis for the story, but the relationship
between Abel and Nicky had been the basis for the emotional relationship between the
Berenger and Scalia characters, but not in any way that was factual. Even what was
portrayed was only a foundation for the fictional relationship between the Fear City
characters. So 1 guess yo u could say it was a compilation of four NY guys" _14
Ferrara obviously conveyed this sense of personal investment to his actors
(Griffith, in particular, has never been better), enabling us to infer an entire relationship
from so me deceptively simple dialogue, such as Loretta asking Matt if the street noise
still keeps him awake, and if he has been seeing other people (he says yes, though we
have reason to believe he is lying; Loretta responds "Did it help any?"). lnstead of
privileging generic motifs while treating emotions in a perfunctory manner, Ferrara
subordinates plot to characterization, his cursory treatment of the killer achieving a
structural significance: determined to eliminate 'impurity', Pazzo would be uninterested
in, and unable to comprehend the nuances of, Loretta's relationships, and Ferrara's
lack of interest in him, rather than being a flaw (as Julian Petley, who complained that
"The killer's role is distinctly underdeveloped",15 obviously saw it), follows on logically
from this, becoming virtua!ly a declaration of principies.

Avi~dsen b:cause his nephew,_ Chris Avildsen, was hanging out in Abel's Ioft, and he got me a job on
Ne1ghbors (Mary Kane, e-ma1l to the author, March 21st 2003). John Avildsen's son Jonathan Avildsen
appears in John Marino's White Boy (2001), which Ferrara 'presented'.
4- Ouoted in Kim Newman's "Thrilling to Drilling", Shock Xpress 1, July 1985, p. 12.
5- James Lemmo, e-mails to the author, May 10th and 11th 2003.
6- James Lemmo, e-mail to the author, June 18th 2003. Lumiere's 1994 U.K. video release of Fear City
uses a still from this unseen sequence on the cover.
7- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, January 22nd 2003.
8- Anthony Redman, conversation with the author.
9- Fear City's TV version includes a scene in which Loretta is unable to contact Matt after she sees
Loretta die, thus implicating Matt in her return to the junkie underworld.
10- Ferrara told me that this alternate shot was filmed at the demand of producer Bruce Cohn Curtis.
According to James Lemmo, "1 think 1 shot that. But 1 can't say for sure, because we shot don't know
how many close-ups with patrol car light bars and no patrol cars. We shot it in the alley when we shot
everything else. lt was an afterthought, possibly at the end of the last day in the alley" (e-mail to the
author, May 1Oth 2003).
11- Compare the indirect manner in which Ferrara introduced Reno and Thana.
12- Film Comment, July/August 1990, p. 44.
13- Film Comment, December 1983.
14- James Lemmo, e-mail to the author, June 18th 2003.
15- Review of Fear City, Monthly Film Bu!letin 631, AugUst 1986, p. 248.

Footnotes

1- Mary Kane, e-mails to the author, February 6th and March 22nd 2003.
2- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, February 6th 2003. According to Moogy Klingman, "Merle's son Jesse
died of a drug overdose when he was around 21. He lived with Merle on Riverside Orive. Though Merle
was a successful jingles singer (they make great money), she went through many changes and quit the
music business. l've heard from several people who had no connection to each other that she became a
stripper in the Florida Keys" (e-mail to the author, February 19th 2003).
3- Randall Sabusawa, e-mails to the author, February 13th and 17th and June 10th 2003. Mary Kane also
worked with John Avildsen, providing 'location services' for his film Neighbors (1981): "1 met John

82

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

6: FEAR CITY

83

MIAMI VICE (1985)

"Directing a TV show is like directing the middle of a movie. You're coming into an
ongoing situation. You just jump in and rack and roll for a week. Real fast schedule. lt's
like playing chess against the clock. Can you do this scene in two hours? Then do it in
forty minutes. No matter how fast you go, yo u' re behind. lt too k every fucking bit of my
ability to be able to control the crew, to deal with the actors, and to tell a story in that
incredibly compressed shooting period. 11 1 had lo do that every day, l'd probably
commit suicide. lt's an impossible situation. You have eight or nine days to make an
hour-long film. One of the producers worked with us on developing a project called
Sarah. When the financing didn't come through, she made up for it by finding us work
on Miami Vice. l /ove working on television. lt's so fast. A few days of shooting and
Bam! 30 million Americans can see what you've done. What's more, when you direct
an episode of Mi ami Vice, viewers immediately think of you as part of the whole series.
lf 1 want a good table in a restaurant, all 1 have todo is say, "You know, Miami Vice ... "
Whereas if 1 said, "You know, Ms.45 ... " odds are they'd show me the exit. When you
work in television, you beco me part of a great American cultural wave, which isn't the
case when you deliver sorne bloody thing like The Driller Killer."
Abel Ferrara, Film Directors on Directing, p. 55, Breaking In, p. 119 and The Dark Side
5, p. 48

Episodic American television is widely considerad to be a medium in which the


director has little creative control. According to Don Siegel, "Most of the work done on
television is poor, as far as directing is concerned. lf yo u' re going to be in television you
should be a producer, because a director is not important. On a series you have a
regular producer, cameraman, crew and cast. When a director steps in he doesn'twield
much authority. Most directors on television don't even ha-ve time to look at the footage
they've shot each day. Television directors direct traffic".1 Despite their moments of
interest, Ferrara's Miami Vice episodes - The Home lnvaders and The Dutch Oven
- confirm the truth of Siegel's words: had the series been shown without credits, 1 am
by no means certain 1 could have singled out Ferrara's segments. This is not to say that
these works are without value or importance: merely to suggest that their interest is
mostly of a negative kind.
Miami Vice, which ran from 1984 to 1989 under the control of Michael Mann,
was considerad something of a breakthrough for its striking art direction. The stars,
Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, both did fine work in the 70s, Johnson in
L.Q. Jones' A Boy and His Dog (1974), Thomas in Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin
(1974), and Johnson had twice been married to Fear City's Melanie Griffith (who
guest-starred in a Miami Vice episode directed by Johnson himself). According to
Randall Sabusawa, "1 suggested so me of the people from my experience with John
Avildsen for Abe] to consider when we could afford to work with them. One big
example was Bonnie Timmerman, a casting director. Abel asked me who l would like
to work with, and 1 suggested Bonnie. She helped us, but did Abel a big favour by
recommending him to Michael Mann, who was doing Miami Vice. Abel gota couple

84

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

of episodes, and, as far as l recall, this put him on the map as far as Hollywood
marketability was concerned".2
lf Ferrara brought little of himself to Miami Vice, he certainly took something
from it: though the Miami locations are not especially well used, the area interested
Ferrara sufficiently for him to return severa! times (in Cat Chaser and The Blackout
- his planned remake of La Dolce Vita was also to have been set in Miami), and his
subsequent fllms draw heavily from Mann's pool of acting talent. Miami Vice finds
Ferrara working for the first time with Paul Calderone, David Patrick Kelly and
Giancarlo Esposito, while episodes by other directors include such familiar faces as
Victor Argo, Richard Belzer, Steve Buscemi, Benicio Del Toro, Larry Fishburne, Terry
Kinney, Judith Malina, Tomas Milian, Richard Panebianco, James Russo and Wesley
Snipes (not to mention James Remar, who was Ferrara's first choice to play King of
New York's. Frank White, and Reni Santoni, who would narrate Cat Chaser's release
version). Even Zo Tamerlis turns up in The Prodiga! Son, the two-hour second
season pilot directed by Paul Michael Glaser (a clip from whose film The Cutting
Edge can be glimpsed in Snake Eyes), which appeared shortly aftSr Ferrara's first
segment (it seems reasonable to assume that Ferrara recommended Tamerlis to
either Mann or Glaser).

The Home lnvaders (also the title of the Frank Hohimer novel on which Mann's
1981 film Thief was based) does not actually feature Philip Michael Thomas (though he
is still credited), since, as we are informed near the beginning, his character, Ricardo
Tubbs, is on holiday. Since Thomas had been injured while shooting the previous
episode, ChuckAdamson's screenplayforThe Home lnvaders had to be rewritten, with
Lieutenant Martn Castillo (Edward James Olmos) replacing Tubbs. The plot has Sonny
Crockett (Johnson) and Castillo joining torces with Crockett's old mentor Lieutenant
John Malone (Jack Kehoe), who is investigating a series of particularly brutal burglaries.
Despite Malone's incompetence, the robberies are eventually connected with a Miami
hair salan, where the parking lot attendant is seen duplicating a customer's car key. After
!he pollee inform !he driver, Mrs Goldman (Sylvia Miles), that she is a target, Crockett
and Castillo stake out her house. When the thieves fail to turn up, Crockett and Castillo
realize that the car actually belongs to Mrs Goldman's daughter, and hurry to the correct
house, where they find the robbery in progress and manage to kili the gang. As the
police celebrate with Mrs Goldman, Malone announces his retirement.
Ferrara's second episode is entitled The Dutch Oven: when asked what the title
referred to, Ferrara replied "1 never understood it. 1 asked that question a few times
myself and l never gota straight answer. 1 really didn't".J An undercover operation in
which Crockett and Tubbs are involved ends with female cap Trudy Joplin (Oiivia
Brown) killing a rip-off artist who has opened fire on her and Crockett. Upset by the
killing, Trudy visits a club where her ex-boyfriend David (Cieavant Derricks) sings with
his band. The two decide to see each other again, and David takes Trudy toa party on
a boat, where she observes Adonis (Giancarlo Esposito), an old friend of David's,
seUing drugs. 4 Unable to decide where her role as a pollee officer ends, Trudy asks
Crockett's advice, and is told that Adonis is connected to a Colombian drug baron.
Trudy introduces Adonis to Crockett, who is posing as a potential buyer, and when
Adonis goes through with the sale he is arrestad in the club. David arrives and
expresses contempt for Trudy's actions.
According to Joe Delia, "At the time that Abel was called in to direct the Dutch
Oven episode of Miami Vice, 1 was playing keyboards in David Johansen's band,

7: MlAMl VICE

85

doing session work around town and scoring Abel's films as they carne up. Johansen
and 1 had recently written and produced an album titled Sweet Revenge that had a
song on it called King of Babylon, which was based on a riff by Danny Toan. Shortly
befare the Miami gig with Abel, the band was touring as the opening act for Aerosmith
at 15,000 seat hockey arenas filled with teenage boys who had come to see Steve
Tyler and Joe Perry. Halfway through the tour we hit the stage in Binghamton NY, and
the band was booed and than pelted relentless\y with everything from cigarette lighters
and ice cubes to whiskey bottles that shattered all around us for the entire set. Soon
after that, the band was called to go to Florida and appear on Miami Vice, which was
in its second season and still the hottest show on TV. The gig was a much needed
boost in morale for an act that was already on its last legs. About a week befare
Johansen had been booked to do the show, Abel had called to tell me that two spots
were open for songs to be periormed on camera. They had been thinking about using
David for the party on the boat, but needed a song for the male lead to sing in a
nightclub scene. My brother Francis crafted a sweet lyric, titling the song Love is for
Sale. 1 wrote the m u sic, we finished the whole thing over the phone from NY to LA, did
a demo track, and had a singer named Steven Swann do the vocal. The song had to
pass muster first with Abel, and then with the powers that be at Miami Vice. 1 landed
in Miami with guitarist David Nelson, who 1 had brought down to assist me and play
guitar on the sessions. A limo picked us up at the airport and brought us to the
Alexander Hotel in Miami Beach, the same one that had the production offices for the
show. 1 had requested a suite, reasoning that 1 would be writing for the sessions and
would need space for a rented keyboard setup and a room for Nelson. We ended up
in a luxurious five room suite on the 17th floor overlooking the ocean, and were booked
in for eight days. (Johansen cursed me out when he arrived four or five days later,
finding himself in a single room on the sixth floor with no view.) 1 did all of the prep for
the sessions on equipment that was rented in, taught Nelson his parts, rehearsed the
lead actor, Cleavant Derricks, who was to do the vocal. Producers carne and went and
we auditioned the song live in the hotel suite. lt carne down to the wire asto whether
Lave is for Sale would be in the show, but we finally got the green light. Production of
the song, as well as a number of source cues and incidental cues took place at
Criteria Studios, and the dates went beautifully. Abel had managed to get the whole
Johansen band in on the gig (1 believe with the exception of guitarist Hue Gower), and
everyone stayed at the Alexander for the two days that they were on cal!. Denny
McDermott was the drummer, Brett Cartwright on Bass, Nelson on guitar, and myself
on keyboards. A van driven by a large fe mal e teamster arrived at the Alexander to pick
up the band for the shoot, which was taking place on a boat sorne 45 minutes away.
lt was a five PM cal\ for the band, and Johansen made everyone wait for fifteen
minutes in the van. The teamster was in no mood. When he finally arrived, he
complained about how we were going to be waiting around all night just to shoot one
song. We passed by a convenience/wine-liquor store, and he insisted that she stop.
"1 ain't stoppin' 'til 1 get to the destination that 1 got written down right here" she said,
and that was that. We arrived at the set and l was amazed at how far Abel had come
in the years since 9 Lives. TV might not have been Abel's medium of choice, but he
was right at home and in great form. He pulled me aside and told me there were too
few extras on the boat, and that he would have to shuffle them around for each setup
to make it feel like there were enough. Nicky St. John had a small role, Giancarlo
Esposito was there, and Don Johnson kibitzed with the band on the deck of the boat

86

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

befare the shoot. Meanwhile Johansen stayed in the trailer griping until a PA finally left
the set and apparently got whatever it was he wanted the teamster to stop for in the
first place. Hours later it carne time to shoot King of Babylon. He carne roaring out of
the trailer, dressed like a gay Caribbean mad hatter- batik pants and a batik shirt which
was tied above his nave\, showing his paunchy mid drift. On his head, a straw top hat
that was two feet high. The shoot was a gas, with producers and director al\ happy with
the night's work. The stay in Miami ended up with Abel shooting the nightclub scene
with Cleavant Derricks performing Lave is for Sale. Cleavant did a bang up job singing
the song, and Abel was generous with close-ups of the band backing him up. A bass
player and drummer from Fort Lauderdale were hired in for the day, and Nelson had
stayed on board to play guitar for the scene. When we first arrived in Miami, both
Nelson and 1 had been told not to shave. lt turned out that Dave Nelson with a five day
growth was a dead ringer for Abel Ferrara, and for the entire day people were mistaking
him for Abel. The scene ended with the band walking anta the stage, led by Cleavant
and myself, to find Crockett and Tubbs busting the bad guys. 1 assured Abel that acting
was not my strong suit (he later concurred), but he went ahead with the shot of me and
Cleavant walking towards the camera and reacting to the bust going on. Today, regular
airings of the episode on cable are there to remind me of my acting debut: a self
conscious close-up of myself, adjusting my tie like Rodney Dangerfi,eld, trying to find
my mark. What led up to that was the musicians were al\ filed up in a row waiting for
Abe\ to cal\ action. Every time we rehearsed it, everybody was moving too fast, causing
a pi le up, like the Three Stooges. When it ca me time for the take, we still didn't have it
together, and 1 was so nervous there was no way of doing a good one. Miami Vice was
awesome. We had such a great time back then"_5
A few characteristic moments aside, Ferrara's lack of control over these episodes
is painfully apparent: Crockett and Malone's father-son relationship in The Home
lnvaders, though it recalls Matt and Carmine's in Fear City, is developed with
spectacular obviousness, climaxing in Malone passing on the symbolic phallus (a frshing
rod) to Crockett while telling him "yo u Jet me show you when it was time to take your gun
out of your holster. Now Jet me show you when it's time to put it on the shelf'. Maurice
Hurley's script for The Dutch Oven is slightly better, its exploration of (in Crockett's
words) "the line between being on-duty and off-duty. The line that marks that grey area
between being a cap and having friends that use and deal" being pursued with
surprising complexity: the expected resolution -in which David tells Trudy he approves
of what she has done- is avoided, and David's criticisms are allowed to carry surprising
weight. Both episodes, but especlally The Home lnvaders, present cops as similar to
crimina!s: note the nearly identical methods by which the thieves spy on a house they
are planning to rob and the police spy on them; the ambiguity of Crockett's claim that
Malone "taught me everything 1 know about robbery"; the prostituta (Nancy Valin) who,
in an echo of Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, immediately connects the
aggressively contemptuous Crockett with the robber who beat her up ("Ooh, another
tough guy. You wanna beat me up too?"); and Gallo (David Proval)'s insistence in The
Dutch Oven that "Crockett here could be in a blue uniform in a Columbus Day parade
and 1 wouldn't believe he was a cap". But these parallels are mostly superficial, and in
any case typify Michael Mann's own concerns (Ferrara insists "Michael's into the same
basic groove. He's going after the same things, so it's easy to lock into his style"6), the
gang member who likes to assault prostitutas turning up again tour years later in Mann's
TV film L. A. Takedown (1989), as well as its big-screen remake Heat (1995).

7: MIAM! VICE

87

More interesting is the way The Dutch Oven's characters are presented (and
present themselves) in a self-consciously theatrical manner, something surely attributable to Ferrara. The striking opening shots, which show Trudy making herself up as
a prostituta, and the first line of dialogue, Crockett's "Showtime", indicate that Ferrara
is developing the 'life as theatre' theme which takes on increasing importance in his
mature work. ldentity here becomes shadowy, indistinct, the single leve! characterizations typical of network television broken down until the characters become as much
'performers' as the actors playing them. Trudy admits thatAdonis' ludicrous drug dealer
rap ("l'm not just pretty, l'm the Candyman") is "mostly jive", but Adonis later sums up
Crockett and Trudy in a manner which, though based on ignorance (Trudy is only
pretending to be romantical!y involved with Crockett), has the ring of truth, his
insistence that Crockett "ain't got no dreams, no power... you're just using him, same
as you're using me" connecting directly with the moment when David denounces Trudy
in similar terms: "You lied, cheated. You used me ... You got no sou\". In the way they
both mask their isolation by retreating behind 'macho' personas, Crockett and Adonis
suffer from complementary emotional problems, an idea Ferrara stresses by having
Crockett's entry into the club reflected in a mirror behind Adonis: the scene in which
Adonis 'acts' the role of 'drug dealer' while Crockett pretends to be a customer renders
the affinity between them so obvious that even Adonis is moved to comment on it ("1
like power myself'). The obsessions of both menare mocked by David Johansen, who
appears (wearing an oversized top hat) ata party singing "1 am the King of Babylon.
l'm on anego trip. What you on?".
These characters are further connected by their paranoia: leaving aside those
genuinely deceitful actions involved in undercover work, imagined betrayal is a
consistent motif: Crockett upbraids his Bridge partner for not playing "fair"; Trudy
believes she has been asked not to participate in Adonis' arrest because of Crockett's
intervention ("That's what 1get for opening up to Crockett"); and David accuses Trudy
of betraying him (a betrayal anticipated by the song he is introduced singing).
Unfortunately, the rapid schedule appears to have prevented Ferrara doing any
detailed work with his cast: while one can usually grasp the meanings he is reaching
for, they remain only partially realized. Those remarkable performances which distinguish Ferrara's theatrical features (it is almost possible to 'read' such films as The
Funeral and King of New York by attending to nothing but the acting) are replaced by
bland line-readings, while the reunion ofTrudy and David, whose relationship is at least
potentially similar to Loretta and Matt's in Fear City, is sabotaged by Brown and
Oerricks' seemingly totallack of interest in anything except breaking for lunch. Ferrara
compensates by staging a number of sequences (in both episodes) involving actors
talking to, but not looking at, each other. lf Ferrara typically encourages intimate
relationships between his actors, the emphasis on their isolation here registers as a
protest against both the imposed working conditions, and that dismissive attitude
towards emotional nuance these conditions imply.
When John Cassavetes appeared in (and sometimes directed) a TV show entitled
Johnny Staccato, his growing resentment at being locked into a weekly series
expressed itself as an animosity towards the character he was playing (Staccato
becomes almost completely contemptible in Solomon, the last Cassavetes-directed
episode), and something similar would appear to be going on here. As the stil!-frame
which ends The Home lnvaders testifies, Crockett is an isolated figure of little interest
to his director: whatever prvate hells Ferrara's later characters occupy, they remain

BB

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

vividly alive, and thus redeemable, to the extent that they can interact with others, an
interaction which takes many forms - from being taught the meaning of forgiveness by
a nun to ordering fast food- but is inherently enriching. By contrast, the characters in
Miami Vice, though superficially adjusted to society, resemble nothing so much as
Tony Coca-Cola or Body Snatchers' pod people. The Home lnvaders' pre-credits
sequence comes close to addressing this as a theme. The opening shots show two
children, a boy anda girl, sitting in their bedroom. The boy is playing with a computer,
while the girl talks to her doll. The mother and father's behaviour suggests that, like
the children, they are trapped in prvate worlds, their house's antiseptic white walls
dominating a living space lacking warmth or humanity. 7 The gang's violent entry
almost comes as a relief (though they are too blandly conceived for this to be
sustained), and the sequence ends with the children holding each other. As in Body
Snatchers, the family is brought together by an externa! threat which embodies their
alienation.
The most interesting thing about these episodes is the way: they anticipate
Ferrara's later work. Details of the attack on, and subsequent queStioning of, The
Home lnvaders' Mrs Taylor (Kay lngram) are recalled in Bad Lieutenant, while The
Dutch Oven's drug dealer becomes the focus 6f King of New York. 1 do not mean to
suggest that Ferrara introduced these elemen'ts into Miami Vice: on the contrary, it
seems likely he simply filmed the screenplays as they were handed tO him, becoming
increasingly frustrated by his inability to transcend their clichs. The later films do not
simply repeat earlier situations, but return to them with the specific intention of
revealing complexities thought to have no place in a television series: Mrs Taylor's plea
- "Don't let it happen again. Please catch them"B- stands in marked contrast to the
insistence of Bad Lieutenant's nun that she has forgiven her violators, just as
Giancarlo Esposito's villainous drug dealer is at the opposite extreme from King of
New York's Frank White, who claims "l'm not your problem, l'm justa businessman".

Footnotes

1- Quoted in Alan Lovell's Don Siegel: American Cinema (BFI, 1975), p. 50.
2- Randall Sabusawa, e-mail to the author, June 1oth 2003.
3- F11m Comment, July/August 1990, p. 46. According to several slang dictionaries, 'dutch oven' is a term
describing the act of holding your partner's head under the bedclothes after you have farted! The
relevance of this to Ferrara's Miami Vice segment is obscure at best- presumably somebody's idea of a
joke.

4- Nicodemo Oliverio/'Nicholas St. John' can also be seen passing out drugs during the party sequence.
5- Joe Delia, e-mails to the author, January 21st and 22nd 2003.
6- Film Directors on Drecting, p. 54.
7- Troubled domesticity is a motif running through both episodes: Mrs Goldman claims "1 haven't had this
much fun since 1 watched my ex-husband file for Chapter 13", Gina tells a thief that her non-existent
spouse is always attending board meetings, and The Dutch Oven's rip-off artist pretends to argue with
his wife on the phone.

8- Michael Shane's mother will deliver a variation on this dialogue in The Loner: "Have you brought them
to ]ustice? ... Don't worry. You will".

7: MIAMI VICE

89

THE GLADIATOR (1986)

"... those damned bars in San Francisco where all good Californians got together to
stare off into the sea, so we could tell ourselves: The frontier's gane, boys; the
continent's dead; Manifest Destiny's gane to hell in a hand basket; so where are we to
find adventure? In a desert mirage? ... No more West, boys, except in the blurry frontier
of an empty whiskey glass."
Carlos Fuentes, The 0/d Gringo (1985)

Ferrara's description of The Gladiator, a television movie shot during the winter
of 1985-1986, suggests that it is a film of no distinction, a commercial assignment on
which the director, working with a completely unfamiliar cast and (DP James Lemmo
excepted) crew, did little more than call 'action' and 'cut': "We did that job beca use it
got us an advance for Nicky to write the first draft of King of New York. So it's like
sometimes 1 have a trade-off. lt's Winter in New York, so we go to LA and crash cars
for about three weeks and everyone has a good time. We had a lot of Sam Peckinpah's
crew working on the film. That was like a graduate course in smashing cars up. 1 mean,
why? 1 don't know. That film was about that. That was done for the money. lt was pure
prostitution! We had a kind of bet that we could have the final product ready to be
screened two months after getting the initial idea".1 Even the film's star, Ken Wahl,
remembers it as "pretty much just a straightforward TV movie - nothing remarkable or
out of the ordinary occurred during shooting".2 Yet Ferrara's unmistakable touch is
consistently visible. How this carne to be remains unclear: the director of an unambitious TV filler in which the three writers all have co-producer or executive-producer
credits is unlikely to have been encouraged, or even allowed, to make extensiva
changes. Yet the well-structured screenplay has obviously benefited from Ferrara's
organizational skill, revealing distinct thematic echoes of The Driller Killer, Ms.45 and
especially Fear City, with specific scenes and even lines of dialogue ("Nobody's above
the law") taken directly from the latter (the endings are virtually identical).
The central character is Rick Benton (Wahl), a divorced mechanic whose younger
brother Jeff (Brian Robbins) di es in a crash ca used by a black car, the driver of which
had already been responsible for a series of fatalities. When Ueutenant Frank Masan
(Robert Culp, in essentially the same role he would play three years later in Monte
Hellman's excellent Silent Night, Deadly Night 111: Better Watch Out!) offers little
hope of catching the killer, Rick takes to prowling the city at night, fOrcing reckless
drivers off the road. Naming himself The Gladiator (after Jeff's high school football
team), Rick becomes subject to attention from both the pollee and the media, including
his girlfriend, radio show host Susan Neville (Nancy Allen). After nearly killing a
pregnant woman whose husband had been taking her to hospital, Rick decides to give
himself up. On his way to the police station he encounters the Death Car and, after a
long duel, turns its driver over to the authorities.
The relationship between Rick and the Death Car driver (curiously, the film's
trailer refers to him as The Skull) resembles that between Matt and Pazzo in Fear City.
Like Rick, the killer pursues drivers who break road safety regulations: the woman in
1

8: THE GLADIATOR

91

the pre-credits sequence is attacked for backing into the killer's car, a couple who
accidentally hit the killer's vehicle with their car door are torced off the road, a car
crashes after challenging the Death Car to a race, and Jeff is singled out for speeding
up ata yellow light. The only exceptions to this pattern are sorne women the driver kills
(offscreen) after they regard him in a manner suggesting sexual availability, an action
implying an even deeper connection between the killer and Rick, who quickly finds an
excuse to leave Susan's house when she attempts to seduce him. The only real
difference between protagonist and antagonist is that none of Rick's actions preve
fatal, and Ferrara foregrounds the fact that this is more dueto luck than design: a car
Rick torces off the road narrowly avoids hitting a pedestrian befare crashing into a
phone booth which just happens to be empty, and Rick comes clase t killing a
pregnant woman whose husband subsequently informs the police that "1 don't think this
guy was The Gladiator... this guy was insane. He wasn't sorne kind of do-gooder. He
was raving, wild-eyed, like he wanted to kili me. Like he wanted to run down me and
my wife and kili us both", a statement mirroring Rick's earlier description of the Death
Car driver ("He was trying to kili us. He came right at us""). Though Ken Wahl"s
performance hardly conveys this insanity (as with Miami Vice, lack of time appears to
have prevented Ferrara working closely with his cast, none of the performances being
more than serviceable), we are left in no doubt that Rick is, in his own words, ''way over
the line". Typically, Ferrara tells us almost nothing about Rick's past: sin ce he is raising
his younger brother, his parents are presumably dead, but rather than fill in the details,
The Gladiator leaves us in the dark. The Death Car driver's history is also complete! y
unknown, which suggests the possibility that he is wrestllng with a trauma not unlike
Rick's (the similarity between the two is emphasised by their customized cars: note the
mirrored shots of extensions around the wheel area - a ramming device in Rick's case,
a blade in the driver's).
This focus on a vigilante protagonist connects The Gladiator with Ferrara's three
previous theatrical features, and continues his exploration of the 'hero' divorced from a
heroic context, Susan's complaint that "the media's trying to turn this guy into sorne
kind of a he ro", as well as Rick's response, "Maybe he is", echoing the ending of Fear
City (particularly the producer's version). Yet Rick bears a greater similarity to Ferrara's
most clearly insane character, The Driller Killer's Reno (Rick even uses a power drill
to customize his car). Like Reno, Rick is descended from the Westerner, but the closing
of the frontier ensures that his actions no longer have a coherent reference point,
allowing their gratuitous nature to become evident: Susan sarcastically evokes The
Lene Ranger ("With a blare of the horn and a screech of the brake he gets the bad guys
off the road and vanishes into the night without so muchas a 'hi-ho Silver"'), but in this
context he could equally be defined as, in the words of Susan's caller, "The fallen angel
of the Lord cast out from grace ... he's gonna crash and burn in Hell". As the scene in
which Rick discovers he has inspired sorne young thugs ("lf 1was The Gladiator l'd ram
yo u through these lights. Anybody stands in my way. l'd blow 'e m off the road") makes
clear, Rick is the focus for a series of wildly disparate fantasies, his self-perception
being merely one of various equally val id options.
TV movies tend to either centre on an unproblematic protagonist, or deal with a
'social problem' that, by its nature, can be solved without highlighting flaws in the
capitalist system. lf, say, Paul Wendkos or Leo Penn had directed The Gladiator,
drunk driving would have been extractad from the system that gave birth to it and
presentad as a crime which could be safely condemned, the cosy homilies offered by

92

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

the Citizens For Highway Safety functioning as a neat summary of this 'message'.
Ferrara instead emphasises CFHS's inadequacy by introducing the meeting with that
circling movement - in which the camera, cut free from any individual perspectiva,
brings members of a group into and out of view - he often uses to suggest moral
distance3, and stressing (through a series of isolated close-ups) the organization's
failure to mediate conflict. Ferrara's disenchantment with modern America runs too
deep to accommodate the belief that ideological contradictions can be resolved by
'rational' confrontation, contemplation and discussion (as The Blackout's treatment of
Alcoholics Anonymous and psychiatry makes clear): that faith in the efficacy of gradual
reform demonstrated by a woman at the meeting ("in the long run, with all ofyour help,
maybe we will stop it") is merely the other side of the coin from the demand for
immediate action ("What are we gonna do about it, tonight?") of the man whose son
has died, neither of them being willing to countenance that radical reform of capitalism
(the all-encompassing nature of which is suggested by the juxtaposition of radio reports
concerning road deaths, stock market news, and a fast food advert) necessary to
eradicate the symptom of alcoholism. As in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), the
inability to view events from an objective political standpoint causes characters to
either blame 'fate' for their misfortunes (Susan's "Lately it feels like l've been driving
with a cloud over my head", Joe's "Death is part of the great plan ... , ebb and flow of
karma"), or demand simple solutions to complex problems: the question "What are we
gonna do about it, tonight?" (repeated in voiceover severa! times) is certainly among
the inspirations for Rick's actions, but Ferrara dramatizas this position's untenability by
having Rick become the very thing he hoped to destroy.
Another of Rick's inspirations, Joe Barker (Stan Shaw), is introduced in his
workshop delivering the following speech: "There's arder to the chaos of the universe.
As above, so below. 1 mean even here, within the natural order imposed by me,
because here 1 am God ... where we been, somebody else is playing God. Don't you
think it only right that everybody gets a shot at it? ... Why don't you think about it?"4
Rick's vigilante activities are motivated (at least in part) by a desire to put Joe's ideas
into action, and while Joe (unlike Mickey Ray in The Blackout) is never directly
confrontad with his responsibility for The Gladiator's activities, it is significant that he
voices approval of the customizing Rick is carrying out ("Nothing like honest sweat to
bring aman back to himself. ldle hands are the Devil's workshop").
Joe's philosophy is simply a more thought out variation on that of The Gladiator's
other male characters: Rick, his boss Garth (whose used car lot is significantly called
Dream Cars), Ueutenant Frank Masan and the Death Car driver all attempt to 'play
God', inhabiting dream kingdoms within which they can impose arder, a tendency
embodied in parodicform by Garth (surely blood kin to Thana's slimy bossAibert), who
is introduced telling Susan that the cars are "mine, all mine ... l'm the king of the classic
car and this, of course, is my kingdom.. l'm number one in Los Angeles ... when it
comes to cars, Los Angeles is the world". Susan's sarcastic response - "1 guess that
makes you king of the world" - establishes her as the representativa of an unneurotic
norm, a role that descends from Could This Be Love's Cathy, 9 Uves of a Wet
Pussy's Pauline and Fear City's Ruby and Loretta, and will later be played by Julie in
Crime Story, Luci Palma in Cat Chaser, the nun and the Jersey girls in Bad
Lieutenant, Madlyn in Snake Eyes, Jean in The Addiction, Jean and Clara in The
Funeral, the wife in Subway Stories, and Annie 2 and another Susan in The
Blackout.5 lt is hardly coincidental that these characters are all women: for Ferrara,

8: THE GLADIATOR

93

critiques of masculinity can only be made from a feminine, a~.d at least i~~licitly
feminist, perspectiva. Though Lieutenant Masan expresses host1l1ty tow~rds V1g1la~te
activities and drunk drivers, he has a great deal in common with both the k11ler and R1ck
(something Ferrara stresses by a match-cut from the map Rick is using to plot the
Death Car driver's activities to an almost identical map on the wall of Mason's office),
relying on the law to provide him with a series of ready-made moral certainties behind
which he can retreat.
lt should be stressed that the film is not perfect The final duel in a used car lot,
though a thematically resonant idea, is poorly realized, and visually this is by far
Ferrara's dullest work (especially in the daytime scenes): James Lemmo ~eems to
have been mainly concerned with keeping the actors visible (which is not at all the
same thing as privileging them), and the LA locations barely appea~ to have caught
Ferrara's eye. Nevertheless, in its mostly successful attempt to d1sco~er p.ersonal
themes within unpromising material, The Gladiator stands as a model of 1ntell1gent Bmoviemaking.

Footnotes

1- Film Comment, July/August 199_, p. 46, La Revue du Cinema 436, p. 50 (my translation), and conversation with the author.
.
2- Ken Wahl, e-mail to the author, February 16th 2003.
3- In contrast with those static long-shots which contemplate actions regarded as potentlally valuable,
such as LT's breakdown in Bad Lieutenant orthe bedroom conversation in 'RXmas.
.
.
.
4- Frank White, Kathleen Conklin and Ray Tempio make similar attempts to articulate the1r phllosophles,
but Ferrara refuses to take stated motivations at face value.
5- There are many comparable characters in Shakespeare: the cinematic prototype is, of course,
Vertigo's Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes).

94

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

CRIME STORY (1986)

"Crime Story was majar. Chuck Adamson wrote it, same guy who wrote (one of) the
Miami Vice episodes 1 did. 1 sat in on meetings. Dennis Farina and Adamson were
partners as .cops. Farina's Torello character is Adamson's life story. Farina plays
Adamson. 1 helped on the script but they had worked on that project a long time befare
1 got there. Michael Mann really had a vis ion of what he wanted to do. lt was travelling
around in his mind. 1 dig TV. lt really turns me on to be able to get into people's homes
like that and there's a lot more things at your disposa!. lt has to do with the budgets,
how fancy a shot you can pull off. When you have the crew and you have a hundred
people, then yo u say 'All right, let's lay a few thousand feet of track'. Why not? The
money's there anyway."
Abel Ferrara, Film Directors on Directing, p. 55 and Film Comment, July/Aug 1990, p. 44

The television series Crime Story (which )'asted from 1986 to 1988) was a longcherished project of producer Michael Mann, who hired Ferrara to dinect the featurelength pilot. As with Miami Vice, severa! actors from Ferrara's later films, including
James Russo and Vincent Gallo, made early appearances during the series' 43episode run, and two 1987 segments were directed by Francis Delia, who recalls
Ferrara turning down an offer to play a running character. The pilot takes place during
Easter 1963, and begins as Mike Torello (Dennis Farina), a Lieutenant in Chicago's
Majar Crime Unit, deals with a gang (or 'crew') of thieves robbing an expensive
restaurant. Getaway driver Pauli Taglia (John Santucci) escapes and reports to his
boss, Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). Luca becomes invo!ved with Johnny O'Donnell
(David Caruso), whose parents are old friends of Torello. O'Donnel!'s plan to rob a
museum is carried out with Luca's assistance, but when they take the jewe!s to fence
Phil Bartoli (Jon Palito), the derisory amount offered leads an angry O'Donnell, along
with his friends Bennie Primo (D. V. DeVincentis) and Jo Jo Sweeney (Jim True), to
rob a jewellers' owned by Bartoli. Luca, who has become part of Bartoli's operation,
kills Torello's partner Wes Connelly (William Russ) and O'Donnell (Primo and
Sweeney having already been executed at Bartoli's orders), then prepares to rob a
department store. Torello plans to arrest Luca during the robbery, but at the last
minute Luca attempts to call off his crew and leaves the store. The job nevertheless
goes ahead, and Torello kills all those involved. Upon discovering that Luca is not
present, Torello enters Luca's social club and comes clase to shooting him.
Most prints of Crime Story end with a Florida-set scene introducing Joseph
Wiseman's character Mr. Weisborg and Andrew Dice Clay's character Mr Goldman.
According to Ferrara, "1 cast Clay in Crime Story, and he became a series regular. 1
remember when we were shooting, he'd keep saying 'You want meto do it more like
Brando? Yo u want a little more James Dean in there?"' .1 Ferrara had to start work on
China Girl befare this section could be completed to everyone's satisfaction, and the
version used in the final cut was actually shot by another director (Ciay is now barely
visible mixing drinks in the background).
Crime Story's pilot can best be approached by considering how it reflects the
concerns of two authors. Although any distinguished work must ultimately be attributable to a single creative genius, the complexity of America's popular cinema is at

9: CRIME STORY

95

,, i

(!

. ,;,

least partly due to the sheer heterogeneity of its determinants: the influences of
director, writer, genre, producer, actor, etc., whether collaborating harmoniously or
productively clashing, provide the basis for an art which embodies, in living form, the
democratic system's strengths and contradictions.
Despite their attraction to similar subject matter, Mann and Ferrara are entirely
opposed in terms of approach. According to Ted Gioia, whereas most forms of art rely
on what he ca lis 'the blueprint method', jazz is constructed according to a
'retrospectiva method': "The blueprint method is most clearly representad ... in
architecture. Here the artist plans in advance every detail of the work of art befare
beginning any part of its execution. For the architect this plan takes the for~ ~f _a
blueprint; for the painter it is revealed in prelirninary sketches; for the novel1st 1t 15
contained in outlines and rough drafts. Sorne rnay feel that the blueprint rnethod is the
only rnethod by which an artist can adhere to forrn. Frorn this point of view forrn is,
almost by definition, that aspect of art which adheres to a pre-existing plan- in other
words, without sorne sort of a blueprint, there can be no forrn. Nonetheless, one can
imagine an opposite approach to art: the artist can start his works with an almost
random manoeuvre - a brush stroke on a canvas, an opening line, a musical motif and then adapt his later moves to this initial gambit". 2 Whereas Mann begins with a
concept- a grand, usually epic, design - then proceeds to fill in the details, Ferrara
begins with the details, allowing the larger structure to emerge organically during
filming.J As he told Gavin Smith, "1 don't bring anything to a picture befare we start.
We have the story and we have the players and what the film ends up looking like
comes together during its making" 4_ Ferrara would undoubtedly agree with the
narrator of Maree! Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, who observed how
"People foolishly imagine that the broad generalities of social phenomena afford an
excellent opportunity to penetrate further into the human soul; they ought, on the
contrary, to realise that it is by plumbing the depths of a single personality that they
might have a chance of understanding those phenomena". On those_ o~casions wh~n
Ferrara starts with a single 'idea', he uncovers so many areas of amb1gU1ty, cornplex1ty
and contradiction that this idea becomes submerged in the experience of discovery
("The idea of making the movie is trying to understand it, and it constantly changes the script changes, the actors change it" 5). When Ferrara reworks his past films, it is
in arder to view them in a new light, revisiting familiar territory to discover something
previously overlooked.
Crime Story is structured around the similarity between cops and criminals, a
typical Mann concern that Ferrara does not so much overturn a_s realize with a
vividness his producer would have been incapable of. Difficult as it is to imagine the
director of The Driller Killer and Ms.45 making a film not set in present day New York,
the Chicago of 1963 is evoked with a casual but precise sense of detail, and if the
precision is Mann's, the casualness can surely be traced to Ferrara, who, as in The
Funeral, audaciously refuses to linger over the carefully recreated dcor. The film is
technically flawless, Ferrara's bravura camerawork suggesting a flexing of muscles
after the inevitable compromises dictated by those short schedules he had become
used to in television: Crime Story begins with a car chase so full of energy, verve and
inventiveness that it can easily be interpretad as an apologa for the desultorily shot
chase which ended The Gladiator.
At Crime Story's heart is Mike Torello, who fluctuates between extremes of
immobility and violence. Dennis Farina's astonishing performance seems to have
provided Ferrara with the key, for Farina's face registers a barely contained psychosis
even during moments of relative calm. Luca similarly alternates between hysteria and

!i.'
1

96

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

placidity, but is capable of separating the two (his careful negotiations with Bartoli
reveal no hint of the psychopath who threatens his wife with a knife or beats Pauli),
functioning, like Tony Coca-Cola, as an example of that total control to which the
protagonist aspires. This pattern is extended further through Johnny O'Donnell's
uncontrollable energy, and Connelly's pathetic assault on a stolen police car. Whereas
O'Donnell, who is consistently associated with childhood (he is first seen walking out
of his parents' shop behind his mother, preceded by severa! children), references an
option irrevo.cably closed to Torello, Connelly undergoes that psychological collapse
which remains a real threat for the protagonist: significantly, Connelly's confession of
losing control occurs not in reality, but as Torello's fantasy. Torello's daily exposure to
the nightmare city ensures that re-establishing contact with childhood energy means
less a return to purity (as it does with O'Donnell), than a surrender to insanity. In the
midst of a network television pilot, Ferrara has created, or more accurately
discovered, a character strikingly clase to The Driller Killer's Reno Miller (a
connection underlined by the presence of a bartender named Reno).
The world shared by police and criminals is explicitly seen asan imsane one, with
characters constantly invoking madness: a cop (Michael Rooker) infofms Torello that
the restaurant is a "madhouse"; Detective Sergeant Danny Krychek (William
Smitrovich) tells Torello that the raider is a "psycho", and Torello himself refers to the
man as a "crazy idiot"; Torello is accused of being "crazy" by his wife and O'Donnell
is described as "nuts" by both a member of his crew and Luca, who also observes that
stealing from Bartoli was a "crazy move". As so often in Ferrara, we view a neurotic
society from both inside and outside. The opening sequence serves as a useful
model, demonstrating how cinematic meaning is created by directoria! style. The car
chase is filmed in such a way as to convey the exhilaration of those involved. The
flowing camerawork, rapid editing and fast rack song on the soundtrack make us
appreciate how it feels to be either a thief escaping from the authorities, or a cop in
hot pursuit (Ferrara underlines their interchangeability by having the criminals drive a
stolen pollee car while the police use an unmarked vehicle}. But we are also shown
terrified hostages for whom the experience is not fun, notably a woman forced to crawl
out the back window of a speeding car. 6 lf we are to condemn criminals who prey on
soclety, it cannot be from the viewpoint of the law's representativas, who exist
arbitrarily on one side of a legal divide: as Torello points out to lawyer David Abrams
(Stephen Lang), "Hall the time yo u don't know which side the law is on. That's the way
the wheels of justice turn in this town, and they're the only wheels we've got". Torello
and his doppelganger Ray Luca are playing a game, a metaphor explicitly stated in
Torello's elucidation of "the way the legal game is played around here", and reinforced
through such details as the game O'Donnell and his friends play in the street and the
chariot race Bartoli watches on TV.
Torello and Luca, and by extension the groups they represent, have a great deal
in common (consider the execution of Primo and Sweeney, viewed from a low angle
which is repeated when the police arrive and begin 'shooting' the corpses with a
camera), their hostility directed towards a society, associated with femininity and
normality, they are temperamentally unable to have any part of. This theme, already
suggested by the brilllant use of an aquarium (perhaps inspired by Orson Welles' The
Lady from Shanghai, though the scene more closely resembles one in Alfred
Hitchcock's Sabotage) as a background to O'Donnell and Luca's discussion of the
museum robbery (with Ferrara's camera lingering on people who have simply come
to look at the fish), achieves its most striking expression in the astonishing
department store heist that ends the film, providing a bookend to the car chase with

9: CRIME STORY

97

which it began. Again, cops and criminals are associated with each other, and against
the shoppers, by virtue of their shared uniform (black suits and hats). The gunfight
finds these groups rampaging through the store in an orgy of destruction aimed more
at consumer culture than anything else, the killing of Luca's crew given less emphasis
than the broken dcor (notice the close-up of a mannequin's head exploding). lt must
be stressed that this is again a directoria! decision: the scene could easily have been
shot to emphasise other aspects, but Ferrara's use of a camera moving smoothly yet
rapidly ahead of his characters (on both sides of the law) encourages us to share the
general exhilaration rather than identify with specific individuals. But, as in the
opening sequence, Ferrara forcibly reminds us of those people - the customers in the
shop as well as the passenger and driver torced out of a taxi by Torello- wh0 are the
real victims of these conflicts. The energy may be directly conveyed to us, but we are
nevertheless encouraged to reject these violent displays by being shown a point-ofview which perceives them as orchestrated insanity. 7
The hostility with which society is regarded by otherwise opposed groups of
lawmakers and lawbreakers is a theme associated with the Western, and, as in The
Driller Killer and Ms.45, Western imagery is used as a reference point: Torello is
compared by Chief Kramer (Ron Dean) to Billy the Kid, O'Donnell is asked why he has
to behave like a 'cowboy', the bar where Torello gathers information is occupied almost
entirely by Native Americans who take turns throwing tomahawks ata picture of Custer,
and Mr Weisborg (Joseph Wiseman) observes that the sea is "where we all come from.
Except the lndians. And the lndians are unreliable". Torello's actions are thus viewed
in a historical perspectiva (many locations feature prominently displayed American
flags) whereby the Lawman- acting in the name of, but functioning outside, civilization
- is robbed of context and redefined as a product of neuroticism. Without an alibi to
engage in violent action - to, in Chief Kramer's words, "Make it go away with work" Torella's alienatian becomes blatantly obvious, a point made during the opening shot,
in which the camera slowly moves around Torello's black car, eventually discavering
Torello, also dressed in black, sitting motionless in the driver's seat, only moving when
news of an "armed rabbery in progress" pro mises the possibility of submerging himself
in seemingly purposeful action. Torello, like Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) in Arthur
Penn's Night Moves, understands his complex domestic problems 8 in those terms
familiar to him from the world of criminal investigation, the furious look on his face
(emphasised by a camera slowly tracking in from a low angle) as he observes Julie
dancing with a yaung man (who turns out to be his cousin) indicating a barely
suppressed neurosis which might explode into full-blown psychosis if not directed
towards socially acceptable targets. Yet it is precisely the personal nature of Torello's
campaign which renders him incapabl"e of dealing with the coldly calculating Ray Luca.
Representativas of legal arder take out their frustrations on either inanimate abjects (a
car, a window, a phone booth} or Pauli, the most pathetlc member of Luca's crew, but
are rendered impotent when confronted with Luca himself. The comic subplot involving
small-time burglar Ignacio (Martn Ferrero) reinforces the inadequacy of this brutal
approach: Torello sarcastically asks a fellow cop to "Take (Ignacio) out and shoot him.
That's how easy it is to get rid of yo u", a statement repeated almost verbatim when he
comes clase ta killing Luca ("See how easy it is? How really easy it is?"). As the scene
in which he threatens a thief by promising "1 'm gonna find what you lave the most and
l'm gonna kili it. Your mother, your father, your dog. Don't matter what it is, it's dead"
eloquently demonstrates, Torello's claim to be interested only in protecting the public is
a transparent coverfor his real need, shared with severa! Sam Peckinpah protagonists,
to lash out in frenzied and, to al! intents and purposes, directionless violence.

1
1

'

98

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

Yet, although Torello is troubled in the extreme, he is not completely lacking in


that spark of humanity which makes it possible for Ferrara to be interested in him: if
the concept of redemption figures so prominently in Ferrara's work, it is because,
however far his characters may fall, there is always something worth redeeming.
Torello's guilt over his inability to save O'Donnell is clearly genuine, especially when
contrastad with the behaviour of Luca, wha, despite bearing a direct responsibility for
his friend's murder, displays nota trace af remorse.9
This aspect of Torello's character is shown most clearly during the early scene in
which he ei1ters a bar and is approached by an attractive woman called Julie
(Darlanne Fluegel), who engages him in the following conversation:
Julie: "What's your name?
Torello: Mike Torello. Yours?
Julie: Julie.
Torello: Hi, Julie. Are, uh, are you alone?
Julie: 1was for a moment.
Tarello: You meeting someane?
Julie: Yes.
Torello: As good as me?
Julie: lt's a tough call.
Torello: Really?
Julie: He's an absolute animal.
(They kiss.)
Torello: Your place or mine?
Julie: Do 1have a choice?
Torello: Get in the car."
(Julie walks out of the bar, followed a few seconds later by Torello.)
During our initial viewing, we will take this at face value. Julie, whom we are
seeing for the first time, is obviously a sexually available woman Torello has accidentally encountered. Yet, as the following scene reveals, they are actually husband and
wife, their conversation being part of a game in which Julie appraaches Torello and
pretends to be a casual pick-up. This is typical of Ferrara's mature work,10 but if the
sequence which opens Snake Eyes presents improvisational games as substitutas
for genuine emotional interaction, Crime Story's bar conversation shows how
Torello's ability to 'improvise', to respond creatively to another individual, distinguishes
him from his double (though it also demonstrates his schizophrenic nature and need
to artificially display that control which comes so naturally to Luca). Perhaps even
more impressive is the later scene, superfluous in narrative terms and all the more
audaciaus for being placed between two of the protagonist's most unsympathetic
maments (his psychotic stare during the wedding and his subsequent interrogation of
Julie), in which Torello plays pool with sorne fellow cops, listens as Connelly's
replacement Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan) relates a humorous anecdote, and
attempts to seduce a woman named Lianna (Laurel Cronin), whom he eventually
passes on to Joey lndelli befare staggering out. Although the 'pretend' seduction has
here been replaced with a 'real' one, Torello is giving justas much, if not more, of a
'performance': he has clearly singled out Lianna because she is overweight and
considerably o!der than himself, and thus not someone whose sexuality he can take
seriously. Yet Torello and Ferrara both refuse the easy option of rendering this woman
simply grotesque: Torello's expressed wish to "strap you on and go ice skating" is

9: CRIME STORY

99

sufficiently overblown to avoid being confused with a genuine proposition, but phrased
carefully enough to stop short of being insulting. As so often in the films of John
Waters, a character who could be the basis for a cheap laugh is instead presented in
the bes! possible light (quite literally - the lighting chosen is deliberately flattering),
Lianna's "1 like to dance. 1 lave to dance actually. 1 used to dance professionally"
registering with a humanity of truly Renoirian proportions.

Footnotes
1- Abel Ferrara, conversation with the author.
2- Ted Gioia, The lmperfectArl: Ref/ections on Jazz and Modern Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988),
p. 60. According to Joe Delia, "1 worked very closely with Abel and music, and knew his taste. 1 don't
remember him ever liking jazz at all. He knew that Dizzy, Bird and Miles were cool guys, but \ think that
was about the extent of it. We never used anything remotely like jazz in the scores, which for me was
somewhat disconcerting, since 1 have a fairly good background in the form and would have liked to" (e-

mail to the author, January 16th 2003).


3- Although both Mann and Ferrara work from screenplays, the emphasis they place on written texts is
totally different.
4- Abel Ferrara, Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 21.
5- Abel Ferrara, Sight and Sound, April 1997, p. 8.
6- Bad Lieutenant's rape scene will work in much the same way, with our identification split between the

''
!

rapists and their victim.


7- An even neater example is Luca threatening his wife with a knife when she finds him cooking a steak
in the middle ofthe night: we know, though she does not, that Luca's steak contains the stolen jewels, but

this does not prevent our seeing how bizarre his behaviour must appear.
8- Notice how Ferrara evokes Torello's domestic alienation by focussing on the ceilings, corners and blank
walls of his house.
9- Ferrara's generosity may not extend to Luca, but it does extend to other members of the criminal
fraternity: although Torello thinks the restaurant crew have carried out theirthreat to kili a hostage, Ferrara
reveals that they have actually shot a wall.
10- lt is curiously echoed by the following sequence from New Rose Hotel's screenplay:
"INT. HOTEL BAR- NIGHT.
X walks up to the bar and orders a drink. As he looks in the mirror behind the bar he notices the reflection
of an attractive brunette seated ata table staring at him. He goes back to his drink, looks up again, same
thing. He turns around. S he continues to stare. He looks up and down the bar, and walks over to her.
He sits.
X: Can 1buy you a drink?
Brunette: 1 already have a drink.
X: Well, then what can 1do for you?
Brunette: What do you have in mind?
X: 1noticed you looking at me.
Brunette: Sounds to me like wishful thinking.
X: (appears perplexed and uncomfortable, looks around the bar forthe answer) Do you want meto leave?
Brunette: ls that what you want to do?
X: No.
Brunette: Why don't you tell me what you want todo?
FADE TO: INT. BRUNETTE'S HOTEL ROOM, BARCELONA- N\GHT.
X and the brunette enter the room. S he turns and kisses him passionately, grabbing his crotch at the same
time. He jerks his head backward with the shock of recognition that it is Sandii in disguise.
X: Sandii!
Sandii: Uubilant) Fax said you would be fooled. And boy were you ever. (mimicking) "1 noticed you were
looking at me. Do you want meto leave?" (laughs)."
This scene was not included in the release version of New Rose Hotel: according to Asia Argento, it
was never even shot.

100

ABEL FERRARA-

Th~l4oral Vision 1-.,, ".$,Jt


"f(e

o"?.

10: CHINA GIRL

101

10

CHINA GIRL (1987)

"The Chinese and ltalian situation is much different than Verona, or the Sharks and the
Jets. China Girl is Little ltaly 1987, so once we set it there, it's a new story. The power
structure is united, and when the kids discover that, it's a great political awakening. The

Chinese and the ltalian kids have been brought up to hate each other. They never
realize the racism that they're instilled with is just another too! being used to oppress
them in that society. lt's the older generation that is oppressing that strata of kids. The

,!'

film is about their realization of that- their political awakening."


Abel Ferrara, Film Directors on Directing, p. 51

Tsu Shin (Joey Chin) threatens Tony (Richard Panebianco) and Tye (Sari Chang) in China Glrl.

102

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

China Girl is a loase update of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In a New York
where Chinatown and Little ltaly are rigidly divided, !tallan Tony Monte (Richard
Panebianco) and Chinese Tyan-Hwa (Sari Chang), known as 'Tye', fall in lave,
despite the objections of their families. The appearance of the Cantan Garden, a
Chinese restaurant, in the middle of Little ltaly creates problems for Tony's brother
Alby (James Russo), who is torn between his friend Mercury (David Caruso)'s
demands for action and local Mafia don Enrice Perito (Robert Miano)'s insistence
that the restaurant be allowed to operate. The Cantan Garden also causes conflict in
Chinatown: Tye's cousin Tsu Shin (Joey Chin, who had played a similar role in
Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon two years earlier) insists the restaurant's
owner should continue to pay his gang for protection, but Tye's brother Yung Gan
(Russell Wong), acting on the orders of Triad leader Gung Tu (James Hong), warns
him to leave the establishment alone. When Tsu Shin and his friends blow up the
restaurant, Alby and Mercury attack the gang in Chinatown, leading to reprisals on
both sides. Yung Gan and Tsu Shin return to Little ltaly and murder Alby. Tye is
disowned by Yung Gan after refusing to end her affair with Tony, and the two lovers
are shot by Tsu Shin as they wander through Chinatown.
As critics were quick to point out, China Girl features severa! details derived
from West Side Story, notably the name Tony and the use of a fire escape for the
balcony scene. But Ferrara and Nicodemo Oliverio also include material from Romeo
and Juliet that does not appear in Robert Wise's film (notably the older generations'
attempts to maintain peace) while eliminating such majar structural elements as
Romeo's killing of Juliet's cousin. The filmmakers also make playful use of names
('Mercury' for 'Mercutio', 'Rosetta' for 'Rosaline') which echo those of the play, and
have Mercury greet Tony with the words "hey, Romeo".
According to Joe Delia, "1 heard that the script to China Girl was pitched as an
Urban Romeo and Juliet- sort of like West Side Story without Russ Tamblyn and
Natalie Wood. Did anybody really think that Abel was going to re-enact the Sharks and
the Jets dancing around and singing 'When you're a Jet'? There were sorne great
casting choices. Caruso, Russo, and Paul Hipp, who was a singer and guitarist working
the clubs downtown. 1 remember first meeting Paul backstage at a gig 1 was doing at
the Bottom Line in New York. About two weeks later his girlfriend carne up to me and
told me that Paul was being considered for a role in China Girl, and asked if 1 would

10: CHINAGIRL

103

put in a good word for him with Abel. The production office was set~up in China Town
and when 1 went down 1 saw that there were headshots pinned up by Randy
Sabusawa's desk, and Paul's was at the top. They were still considering the casting,
but Paul seemed to be the front runner. 1 mentioned to Abe! that 1 had met him and
thought he was great. Abel told me that Paul was playing a gig on Bleeker Street on
Saturday night and that he would pick me up between shows at Tramps on 15th street
and we should check him out. A black limo pulled up and a couple of us piled in to the
car that had Abe! and a couple of actresses and models inside. We could have easily
walked the 15 blocks to Bleeker Street faster than the car could make it through
Saturday night Village traffic, but we had the limo so why not use it? When we g9t down
to the Rack 'n' Roll Gafe, we sat at a ring side table amongst a boisterous bridge and
tunnel crowd. Hipp ca me out and blew the place away. Just him and a Stratocaster. No
band, no lights, nothing but Paul and a guitar, singing Chuck Berry and Elvis songs by
himself, and working the room. Abe! and 1joked that we had just discovered the new
Elvis and that we should sign him immediately to a long term contract. When the show
was over, we allleft to get back into the limo for the second show at Tramps. The only
problem was the limo had been booked for a one~way ride, so we just walked. Of
course Paul got the part. By the time China Girl was being made 1was in almost daily
contact with Abel. On board from the inception of the script, through pre~production,
shooting and post. Once filming started 1would show up at the set from time to time
when needed and would also start writing themes as soon as there was any footage to
look al. He and 1 would have lengthy telephone talks al all hours, day or night, on
everything from music to casting choices. He felt clase to the images in China Girl and
said that it would be the last time anyone would see the way Lttle ltaly really looked ~
that, in essence, it was a documentary of a bygone time. When 1saw the first cut of the
opening montage, 1 wrote a theme on the piano, recorded it on a noisy cassette
machine, and gave Abe! the cassette. Christopher Andrews was doing all of the pre~
editing on a small system they had in the Ioft (1 think it went from 1/2 inch to 1/2 inch).
He would transfer my demos to 1/2 inch videotape, then use them as the temp dub.
This version of the theme had just the right feel for the montage, but was unusable for
a final beca use of the recording quality. Eventually we recorded this and a number of
other cues at the Power Station with a small orchestra of about twenty five. Abe!
decided that we should give the theme to the brass band that was playing in the scene
for the feast of San Gen na ro. The average age of the musicians was 75 or 80 years
old: they were the band lhat played all of the funerals and festivals in Little ltaly. The
theme had an ltalian flavour to it but was not based on anything authentic, so 1 think
they thought it odd. They learned it by rote right befare the scene was shot, and it
played well, tying in the title theme to the San Gennaro scene. From the beginning
music was intended to be an important part of this film and much time was spent
selecting songs, acquiring rights and completing the score. Before China Girl, we had
never used a Music Supervisor per se. There was rarely much funding for song
licenses and it just wasn't part of the process. Abe! had very clear opinions on what
music would go into his films, and the last thing he wanted was someone giving him
hundreds of songs to pour through, 99.9% of which he would ha te and the other .01%
of which would be unattainable. Song choices would be made by committee with Abe!
of course being the final word. Once a song was selected, one of the producers
(Randy Sabusawa when he was on board) would work on the clearances and try to
make the deal. As soon as the first rough cut of China Girl was done, Vestron

104

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

insisted on a screening. The film at this point had been temped with demos of the
cues 1 had written, and with songs that were appropriate. This is standard procedure
on most films. lt seemed !ike sorne of the suits didn't get the concept of a temp dub
and were confused and panicked after seeing the rough cut. The temp score sounded
good but was made up of rough demos. 1ended up going into a rehearsal studio in mid~
town and playing the cues for a couple of the executives on the piano, explaining each
one and how it would be orchestrated and produced. Jimmy lenner was than brought
on board as n1usic supervisor. Jimmy is a talented producer and music supervisor with
exceptionally good ears and instincts. He pulled together the recording sessions for the
score and original songs and made deals for the licensed tunes that went into the film.
Sentimental Reasons played in counterpoint to a scene where a character is murdered
via a knife to the stomach and one to the back, simultaneously. Nat King Cole's estate
passed on the master license due to the violen ce in the scene, but the publishing was
acquired and we recorded the song with a trio backing Peter Yellen's vocal.
Compulsion replaced the temp track during the dancing sequence near the beginning
of the film. To say that Abe! hated the song would be an understatemen. Pianist Mara
Waldman accompanied Rick Christman on Verdi's La Donna Moble from Rigoletto and
Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot. Dougie. Metro had a song in the film titled 1
Lave You, and another punker named Bonnie Rae landed a spot with a tune titled Land
So Far Away. There was new age music played on Shakahachi flute during one scene
by someone named Lucia Hong, and MarcAnthony, who was relatively unknown at the
time, had a cool song titled Blue With Me which was temped into the film from early on
and remained in the film. Aerosmith and Run DMC's Walk This Way ended up as one
of the only hit songs that 1 know of to ever find it's way into a Ferrara movie. Over the
years, Abe! would write songs and often we would collaborate on songs for the films (a
few years later a cute song that he had written titled Rockabilly Willy, which was
performed by Haywood Gregory, was used for the wedding reception in King of New
York). For China Girl, he and 1collaborated on Chinatown Tonght. 1sang on the de mo
but it needed a strong vocalist and everybody, including Abe!, gave the vocal on this
song a shot. Paul Hipp's was by far the best, but at the end of the day one of the
powers that be decided that they wanted David Johansen to sing the song. 1 was
playing in this novelty act of his called Buster Poindexter. Abe! knew him a bit, and
seemed to like him. We had taken the sessions from the studio on 39th street where
we were doing most of the recording over to the Power Station on 53rd street. At the
time it was the best place to record in New York, and we had the best studio cats in
town p!aying on the date. The control room was packed with the brass from Vestron,
the China Girl producers, inc!uding Michael Nozik and Randy, an engineer, an
assistant, Abe!, and Johansen's soon to be producer Hank Medress. The band kicked
into the song and after a few times through was ready to get the take. The vocalist was
set up in an isolation booth todo reference vocals, and l can remember take after take
being scrubbed due to the band not being able to play a!ong with the vocals in the
headphones. 1finally went into the booth and told the engineer to lose the vocals in the
cans, that we would cut it without the ref vocal. After two subsequent vocal sessions at
the 39th studio we finally gota vocal that was usable in the film. Hot and Bothered was
a collaboration credited to myself, Paul and Abe!. Paul puta brilliant lyric and vocal over
a Prince-like funk track, but 1seem to remember (regrettably) Paul's vocal being
redone by a female vocalist. In my opinion, Midnight For You which was composed and
performed by Paul, was the best song in the film. Hipp walked into the studio on 39th

10: CHINA GIRL

105

street from the pouring rain, guitar in hand (no case), and sang the song in one take
with me following him on the keyboards: 'The taxis run like urine, through this junkie
town's last good vein ... and it's midnight, midnight for you'"J
An attempt to understand how and why China Girl differs structurally, thematically and stylistically from the rest of Ferrara's oeuvre might begin by considering
the director's fondness for quoting Stanley Kubrick to the effect that a film is notan
inverted pyramid based on a single idea. Ferrara is here dealing with a society
whose power structure is very much an inverted pyramid, spreading out as it
descends, and the film adopts a similar narrative structure. The stylistic differences
follow on logically, perhaps inevitably, from this, China Girl being the only film in
which Ferrara's camera makes abstract points, slowly tracking over the lovers'
bodies befare ascending to observe Yung Gan cradling Tye in his arms. Although
there is an obvious similarity with the finale of Bad Lieutenant, the effect is
completely different: whereas LT's death, like so much else in that film, is observed
from a detached perspective which counterpoints the event's intensity (something
also seen in China Girl during the fight that breaks out at Alby's wake, brilliantiy
structured by editor Anthony Redman in terms of an opposition between emotional
close-ups and contemplative long-shots), the camera's lyrical movement in China
Girl provides unmediated directoria! comment, conveying both the director's
sadness at these characters' deaths and, by echoing an earlier shot of Tony lying in
an almost identical position on his bed, the inevitability of their demise (inevitability
being a very un-Ferrarian concept, making this simultaneously the director's most
elegiac and despairing work).
Ferrara has repeatedly singled out China Girl as a personal favourite: talking
to Gavin Smith in 1993, he commented "That's my favourite movie. llike the people,
1 like the locations, 1 like the way Bajan Bazelli shot it" 2, while the following year he
informed Michael Helms "That's my favourite one. There's something about it. That's
the only film 1 can actually enjoy watching".J The reason for this affection is far from
obscure, given Tony and Tye's unique status as majar characters free of neuroticism
(a distinction Ferrara usually accords to peripheral figures). Totally free of
postmodern posturing and intuitively understanding how theoretical positions must
be subordinated toa process of give-and-take, Ferrara highly values a film that in so
many ways contradicts his usual artistic practice simply because he "like(s) the
people". In the previous chapter, 1 noted Ferrara's tendency to begin with details,
working outwards until the bigger picture emerges. China Girl is the exception that
preves the rule, its material being so strong that Ferrara was content to see what he
could discover within a set framework. Yet, despite it's al!egorical nature, what brings
the film so vividly to life is Ferrara's familiarity with the area's reality, a sense of
inwardness communicated through such touches as the line of washing pulled in as
a rainstorm begins.
The Chinese and ltalian communities are depicted as two separate lines
moving in parallel, an image suggested by the opening credits, during which the word
'China' enters the screen at bottom-left and moves up, while the word 'Girl' appears
top-right and moves down. At the top are those Triad leaders and Mafia dons who
make the rules for Chinatown and Little ltaly without living there themselves (Mercury
complains that Perito is "up in Staten lsland waiting for the next pay-off''); on the next
rung are Alby and Yung Gan, who may eventually ascend to positions of power but
in the meantime must act as mediators; at the bottom are those street gangs and

workers who, in their different ways, keep the system running smoothly, but have no
say in decisions which affect their lives. Although virulent racism, a form of streetlevel apartheid, is encouraged by the higher-ups to prevent anyone breaking out of
the poverty trap, the bosses do not, at least on the surface, share this racism, being
united in their desire to make money. China Girl shows this racial hatred, used for
so long to maintain 'arder' (i.e.: the ability of the ruling class to make a profit),
spiralling out of control and threatening interests it is supposed to serve. We are thus
offered a Mar:xist demonstration of capitalism collapsing under the pressure of its
interna! contradictions, a process Marx saw as inevitable. The proletariat's decision
totear down barriers between their communities suggests nota desire to unite in the
face of an oppressor, but, ironically, the perpetuation of that racism which enabled
their oppression. The action is sparked by a single incident glimpsed under the
credits, the opening of the Cantan Garden in Little ltaly, the crossing over of barriers
being the motif that defines every scene: even the in-fighting of the Chinese and
ltalian gangs demonstrates the two groups' similarity. Thus the second sequence - in
which Tony dances with Tye and is chased by Tsu Shin and his gang- extends the
initial series of shots, the Chinese restaurant:s appearance in Uttle ltaly being
followed by an ltalian's entry into Chinatown (Ferrara's repeated use of themes and
motifs associated with the Western is evident here- the moment in whi.ch Tony thinks
himself safe because he has crossed the 'border' of Canal Street only to have the
gang continue their pursuit recalls Jack Nicholson's Goin' South}.
This motif is best illustrated by the ten-minute section that begins with Mercury
insisting the dons "don't give a shit about us" (echoing Tsu Shin's complaint about
how the Triad leaders "don't even know we're alve"). The bombing of the Cantan
Garden which immediately follows leads to Yung Gan confronting Tsu Shin; their fight
is interrupted by the arrival of Al by, Mercury and Nino (Paul Hipp) in Chinatown; Nino
pursues Yung Gan and is about to shoot him when Tsu Shin emerges from the
darkness and rescues his cousin; Alby returns home to find Perito waiting with Gung
Tu and severa! other Triad members; Perito punishes Alby for his attack on the
Chinese gang by beating him up; one of the Chinese gangsters is simultaneously
attacked by a Triad enforcer, who thrusts a Chinese dagger into his stomach, andan
ltalian hit man, who stabs him from behind with a meat knife. The breaking down of
rigorously enforced divisions, the shifting of allegiances (between characters as well
as between character and viewer), the power elite's use of Chinese and ltalian
weapons to enforce partition - all this is masterfully conveyed, political theory being
brought vividly lo lile rather !han baldly stated.
Ferrara demonstrates the pernicious nature of a racist ideology he insists we
understand but, through the careful division of sympathy between Chinese and
ltalian characters, ensures we cannot share. Tony's recognition that avenging Alby's
death will only perpetuate a cycle of senseless violence ("What are you gonna do,
huh, kili more people? Alby's in there because nobody gives a shit about blowing
somebody's fucking brains out") has the director's full support, underlined by the way
he prevents our deriving any satisfaction from the death of Tsu Shin by filming it in
long-shot with the action obscured by shadows. Following Fear City's hesitant use
of a multi-character narrative, the notion of a group protagonist here leads to the
creation of a truly democratic style which embodies an anti-racist statement
comparable to that of Douglas Sirk's lmitation of Life (which Ferrara recalls as the
first film he ever saw) or Samuel Fuller's masterpieces (one guesses Fuller would

;'

.11'

1.

106

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

10: CHINAGIRL

107

have adored China Girl). lntriguingly, Ferrara originally planned to have Tony
watching Fuller's The Steel Helmet on television, an idea abandonad when clips
proved too expensive (in the sequence as we now have it, Tony watches a pastiche
of music videos shot by Ferrara himself).
Though interracial romances should be uncontroversial by late 80s standards,
taboos against miscegenation reta in a curious power. A subplot involving an interracial
affairwas removed from Rob Nilsson's On the Edge (1986), while the British distributor
of Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction eliminated severa! scenes depicting
Eastwood's affair with Vonetta McGee. More recently, it seems fair to blame the
commercial failure of Jonathan Kaplan's Love Field and Kathryn Bigelow's _Strange
Days on their mixed-race couples, but this taboo is most evident in Alan J. Pakula's
The Pelican Brief, wherein the refusal to countenance a romantic attachment between
Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts, despite the fact that romance is virtually
demanded by the film's conventions, seems almost pathological.4
This context allows us to appreciate Ferrara's courage in presenting interracial
sex as something positive.s Tony's affair with Tye represents by far the most
idealizad relationship in any Ferrara film, their eventual deaths traceable to externa!
forces rather than character flaws. Realizing that bigotry must be repudiated on both
moral and, given the constant threat of violence, practica! grounds, Tony and Tye
create a world in which !ove is the only reality acknowledged: as Tony tells Tye prior
to their idyll in a derelict apartment, "Nothing matters but yo u and me". Yet, as Tye's
response - "1 wish we never had to go back" - and the ominous music accompanying
their lovemaking serve to remind us, the world outside still exists and poses a
constant threat. Whereas Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris shows how
withdrawal from society inevitably leads to its power structures being recreated in
microcosm, Ferrara (at least in this film) shares Frank Borzage's belief that the
romantic 'world apart' can only be threatened by those externa! forces the lovers
hoped to escape. This attitude is partially a consequence of the couple's immaturity:
Tye and Tony are barely more than children, while Borzage's lovers often strike us
as childlike, but the fact that severa! Borzage characters start out expressing
attitudes of extreme cynicism before being softened by !ove indicates that
'immaturity', at least as generally defined, is a positiva trait, something that must be
grown into rather than out of (cynicism is always the easy option). Although Borzage
never allows us to forget the externa! world, he sees it and the universe occupied by
his romantics as existing on different planes of reality, something he often uses 'bad'
technical effects to emphasise: consider the obvious use of miniaturas in the opening
shots of A Farewell to Arms and Secrets, or the back-projection Borzage makes no
attempt to 'realistically' integrate in Man's Castle. The shack described as a 'safety
zone' in the latter film has much the same function as Tony and Tye's apartment, but
the Borzage China Girl most resembles is The Mortal Storm (1940): both show
their central couples united as much by politica! commitment as sexual attraction,
rejecting that mindless racism which defines the society they are attempting to
escape - compare the scene in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are
singled out against a crowd giving Nazi salutes and singing "a glorious song of a new
Germany" with Tye and Tony's first dance, the lovers facing each other as the crowd
draws back. Neither director rejects or downplays sexuality: although Martn
Scorsese claims that romance lifts Borzage's lovers "from the physical to the
spiritual"6, Borzage never makes this kind of distinction, instead presenting sex as

108

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

a spiritual act while realizing his spiritual concerns with a physicality intensa enough
to render the 'real' world indistinct.
The one thing sexuality never becomes for Borzage is voyeuristic, and whereas
he was probably aided by stringent censorship codes, Ferrara, with far more
available options, chooses to film Tony and Tye's lovemaking in a remarkably
subdued style, refusing displays of female nudity and stressing the scene's lyrical
nature through the use of slow dissolves, a distinct contrast with those hard cuts
which distinguish the gang fights.
Ferrara's imagery also demonstrates how gang activity threatens not only
romance, but also spirituality: it is Yung Gan and Tsu Shin's entry into Chinatown that
disrupts the Catholic festival, a sequence which includes one of the film's most
unforgettable shots, the plaster Madonna knocked over and shattered, its head
spinning on the ground. This image itself echoes two moments in which Tye is
knocked to the ground by Yung Gan and Tsu Shin (the second time fatally), a
connection made explicit by the cut from Tye cowering in fear after bring slapped by
her brother to our first view of the Madonna, and it seems reasonable to interpret
Tony and Tye's pose during the final shot as referring to the crucifixion. This association of young lovers with religious iconography conflates sexuality and spirituality in
a manner which implies, however tentatively, that they are manifestations of similar
impulses. The radicalism of this idea is best summed up by Robn Wood:
"... organizad religions are, precisely, the ideological flesh, always compromisad, always subject. .. as they become ideologically crystallized, to revisionism and
reaction, a hardening into dogma ... We should note, however, that all the great
religions have been in their first, relatively pure phases revolutionary, and were
persecuted as such. In other words, the authentic religious impulse has always been
intimately associated with drives toward liberation. lt is the expression of everything
within us that rebels against constraint: of the struggle of the oppressed against the
oppressor, of the libido against the superego, of (to borrow a title from Norman O.
Brown) "Life Against Death." At bottom it is the instinctual revolt against ideology of
everything that ideology seeks to contain or repress. That is why, if we associate it
with the spiritual, we must equally associate it (and learn to comprehend the ultimate
unity of the two) with the sexual ... All forms ofthe sexual, like all forms of the spiritual,
must inevitably be culturally specific, hence ideological. The significance of the
orgasm is that it takes us, as we pass the point of no return, beyond choice and
control, and beyond ideology... lt should be recognized as corresponding to those
moments of spiritual exaltation- the momentary intimation of the transcendent- that
we commonly describe as religious experience ... it is the fusion of the sexual and the
spiritual that, within the debasements of late capitalist culture, provides the surest
way to subversion and revolution". 7
For Ferrara, Catholicism is not 'fixed', but in a constant state of flux - as he told
Howard Feinstein, "Redemption is a moment-to-moment reality. The process isn't
like a magic wand waved over you for all eternity. lt's a struggle between heaven and
heii"B - the feelings it is associated with being similar to those experienced during
intercourse. Sexuality and religion will never again be this transcendent for Ferraraindeed, Snake Eyes, The Funeral, The Blackout and New Rose Hotel suggest he
may eventually follow Pasolini's trajectory and redefine them as simply two more
instruments of oppression - but in China Girl we glimpse a sexual relationship so
pure that it has, at least potentially, the power to redeem a corrupt society.

10: CHINA G!RL

109

rJ
1

Footnotes

1- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, January 12th 2003.


2- Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 22.
3- Fatal Visions 18, February 1995, p. 4.
4- Gregory Hoblit's Fallen is even more desperate, dragging in the destruction of civilization-as-we-knowit by a force of Absolute Evil purely in arder to keep Denzel Washington out of Embeth Davidtz's bed.
5- Ferrara had already explored interracial relationships in 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy and Fear City, and
would do so again, either centrally or peripherally, in most of his subsequent films.
6- A Personal Journey with Martn Scorsese Through American Movies (1995).
7- Robn Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revsited (Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 12-13. Ferrara had
already made this connection in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, wherein The Bb/e inspires two women to
commit incest, an act specifically identified (during the Tarot scene) with revolution.

8- Howard Feinstein, "DangerousAbel", The Guardian (section 2), June 2nd 1994, p.9.

opposite top and bottom: Richard Panebianco in China Girl.

110

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

112

above: Tony is rescued by Mercury (David Cerusa) in China Girl.

above: Tye meets with Tony in China Girl.

below: A crowd gathers on the streets of Lttle ltaly in China Girl.

below: Sari Chang in China Girl.

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

10: CHINA GIRL

113

11

THE LONER (1988)

"The way they pick TV shows is, they make ene show, and that show's called a 'pilot'.
Then they show that one show to the people who pick the shows, and on the strength
of that one show, they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get chosen and
become television programs, some don't, and become nothing."
Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994)

Abel Ferrara directs Kristy Swanson and Rick Logan in The Loner (photo by Douglas Metrov).

114

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

In 1988, Ferrara shot the pilot for a proposed television series entitled The
Loner1, written and produced by Larry Gross. The most complete account of its
production can be found in Douglas Metrov's novel Anatomy of a W~rewolf, in which
Metrov is 'The Magus' and Ferrara 'The Piltdown Man': "Aaron Spelling, Emperor of
Bellbottom Television, was losing his empire; he figured the Piltdown Man's touch might
help. Spelling talked sorne kid executive over at ABC out of $5 million to make a pilot
for his latest brainchild, The Loner. lt was actually !leen Chaiken whp recommended
the Piltdown Man as Director; the Piltdown Man in turn hired the Magus as Production
Designer, a seemingly lucky break for the Magus. There was a lot of excitement around
the project. The Magus was suddenly in charge of a very professional union Art
Department who'd just come off the cancelled Love Boat series. The Art Director, who
is second in command to the Production Designar, told the Magus not to worry about
anything except creating the best looking sets possible; that he, the Art Director, would
take care of all the mundane details like renta! returns, etc. A number of sets required
artwork for the walls; it just so happened Philip Slagter was now living in downtown LA
producing fabulous new paintings. The Magus struck a deal with his o!d pal to rent
about a dozen pieces at a very reasonable rate. The sets were a smashing success;
everyone on the production was certain the Magus would be up for an Emmy Award.
The Magus was ecstatic, unaware his joy was about to enter the meatgrinder.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the union professionals who ran the Art Department
neglected to return Slagter's paintings on time, and Slagter was sitting home happily
calculating his growing revenue. The day after wrapping the shoot, Slagter turned in a
bill for over $15,000.00. When Duke Vincent, Spelling's mafia sidekick in charge of
production (he boasted regularly of his intimate connections with Carla Gambino) saw
the bill, he took a crap the size of Catalina; and the Magus and everyone else on the
production scrambled wildly to climb out of it. The Duke refused to pay Slagter a penny,
but Slagter had an Ace up his sleeve - the union pros had made another slight
blunder. They'd neglected to have him sign a release for use of the paintings, and
Slagter threatened to impose a court injunction on the pilot. The Duke's fury grew
worse; he retorted that he'd cut out every scene with a painting in the background. At
the same time, the Duke accused the Magus of being in collusion with Slagter, in other
words that the two friends had secretly agreed to soak Spelling and split the profits. lt
was an absurd accusation. Fact was, Slagter was now holding the Magus responsible
for getting his money, and the Magus was helpless to do so; the Piltdown Man then
attacked the Magus for lack of professionalism. The Magus' dream of working as
Production Designer for the Piltdown Man or anyone else was b!own to he! l. The whole

11: THE LONER

115

event turnad into an agonizing mess; the pilot was a majar flop; the series never went
anywhere. All the Magus got out of it was the loss of two of his oldest and best friends,
and threats to have his kneecaps busted by Sicilian thugs".2
According to Randall Sabusawa, "lt was a bit unusual for us to be working with
the Spelling group, but it was a gig. We did have a few of our team members aboardAnthony Redman, Joe Delia, Douglas Metrov - but it was a struggle to maintain the
kind of artistic freedom we had been used to. This was network TV. lt would have been
nice to score a TV series. lt was devised by Larry Gross (48 HRS). As 1 recall, it was
pitched as a story about a guy who could play classical piano, feel comfort8.ble in a
tuxedo talking about modern art, in his fridge has only champagne and caviar ... and oh
yeah, he's a cap. After John Terry was setas the lead, the female partner had to be
approved by the Spelling group and ABC TV. 1 think the fact that a black woman was
cast had a lot to do with Abe l. Although Larry Gross was the producer, a lot of the hiring
was on my shoulders ... made a lot easier by having the Spelling machina behind us.
Forme, that was a positiva. Blair, the production manager, was firmly behind me, but
we did encounter a bit of antagonism ... these were people who had a long string of
majar TV hits behind them. 1 was the associate producer, and the Spelling top brass
did not want me around (they did not really care much for the people we brought in
either). 1 remember Abe! being on the phone with his agent, who was giving him the
news, and Abel without hesitating said 'l'm on the plane'- meaning if they did not want
to work with me, he was gane. 1was kind of shocked. But that was typical of his team
mentality. We finished that one, but it did not get picked up".J
Set and filmed in Los Angeles, The Loner focuses on Michael Shane (John
Terry), a man from a privileged upper class background who has chosen to work as a
cop. Together with his partner Jane Carver (Vanessa Bell), he tries to arrest Cale
Newton (Ciaude Brooks), a young thief attempting to sell stolen diamonds. When Cale
pulls a gun, Shane shoots him. Cole's partner Manny Sanchez (Rick Legan) is arrestad
but later released, while Cole's girlfriend Sherry Spicer (Kristy Swanson) escapes.
During the opening of an exhibition, Shane's socialite mother Kate (Constance Towers)
introduces Shane to Jessica Grenville (Ciare Kirkconnell), who represents severa!
artists, including Jake Willis (William Russ). Alter talking to unemployed poet Abner
Gibson (Larry Hankin), Shane visits Kyle Hadley (Michael Medeiros), a gangster for
whom the three thieves were working. Hadley claims he has forgiven Cale, Manny and
Sherry for trying to rip him off (by asking more than the agreed upon price for the
diamonds), but later has Manny and his mother (Julia Calderone) killed. Shane visits
Jessica's apartment to protect her from a prowler (who turns out to be Jake), and a
romance begins to develop. As Cale recovers in hospital, Shane obtains the diamonds
and sets up a meeting with Hadley, who is holding Sherry hostage. With Carver's help,
Shane manages to kili Hadley.
The Loner seems to be something of a bad memory for everyone concerned.
Although Ferrara was allowed to use many of his regular collaborators and make
certain changas to the screenplay, many of his casting suggestions were ignorad. Larry
Gross recalls that "Abel was very worried about being trapped in this TV ghetto instead
of making the kind of films he wanted to make. He really wasn't su re where his career
was going. He didn't have much say as far as the casting was concerned. He was
obliged to use John Terry, who had recently played the newspaper editor in Full Metal
Jacket, beca use Aaron Spelling was convinced that Terry had great potential. He was
also not permitted to cast Janet Julian as Jessica. lt was Abel who had the idea of

116

ti

'1
i

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

making Carver, Shane's female partner, an African-American. He was convinced that


Theresa Randle was going to be a big star, and he wanted to use her, but she was
rejected by the producers. And, of course, Abel was right about her becoming a star:
every time 1 run into him, he says '1 told you we should have cast Theresa Randle'!".4
According to Ferrara, "You try to do something good with all these assignments. The
girl we got to play Carver was fine, but Theresa Randle would have been much better.
Ultimately, that was what san k the project: as soon as ABC's executives saw that 1 had
a white guy kissing an African-American woman, they immediately lost interest''.5
One of the parts cast to Ferrara's satisfaction was Abner Gibson, the poet played
by Larry Hankin. As Hankin recalls, "Abner was written well. The part seemed designad
for me, but of course 1 didn't exist befare 1 auditioned as far as the writer knew. 1was
kinda sarta hot at the time. 1was going into a lot of auditions. 1was too quirky for most,
but the fit was obvious on this one. They had to hire me for this - no one el se carne as
clase to the character as written - or so 1 believed. 1 loved Abner and wanted to go
further with him. 1 had him written in my mind severa! episodes down the line by the
time the pilot was finished. The friendship off-camera that John Terry!and 1 had went
right on in front of the camera, and what yo u saw was what was. Mr Ferrara seemed
focused and completely human and approachable all the time 1 was in his presence.
He seemed to like my work, always gave me r'oom and encouragemrnt to do what 1
wanted with the part, always 'got' what 1was trying to do and helped me get there within
the framework of the story, and gave me what seemed to be a fair amount of single
coverage. As an actor, that's about as good as it gets vis--vis working in television.
lmprovising never carne up. John never tried to and 1was just trying to be 'good': i.e.:
do my job and not make waves. Plus: what 1 had to sayas written was fine. Abel never
suggested improvising. We didn't hang out much and 1 never saw him again after the
screening, but 1 can truthfully and proudty say 1 once worked with the legendary Abel
Ferrara. He was an artist, 1 like and respect his films, he had a sense of humour, and
he was only really late twice".6
Joe Delia believes that 'The main character was such a wimp, the show really
didn't have a chance. He drove a beat up old Porsche and played Chopin on the piano.
lt was a fun show to work on, and 1 wrote a theme that wove in all of these bits of
Chopin, like The Revolutionary Etude"J According to Oouglas Metrov, "The Loner was
meant to be an hour-long pilot to launch the TV series. lt finally aired on ABC, but for
sorne reason, the broadcast was cut short. They only aired the flrst 20 minutes, then
switched to another show. And that was the end of that. The whole project was cursed.
The fundamental reason may have been because Larry Gross' script was so bad. No
one would -admit the script was bad, not even Abel; the blame went in a mi Ilion alternate
directions. Furthermore, Aaron Spelling was building a 40 million dallar mansion at that
time. Lots of people were secretly jealous of his success, and wanted him to bomb.
There were underlying political reasons for The Loner's failure. 1don't know what they
were exactly, but you could smell them while working on the project; you could smell
them everywhere". B
Approximately 11 minutes into The Loner, Ferrara's camera tracks past a
painting showing two distorted faces, one of which appears to be screaming, and
finally comes to rest on Michael Shane, who is nervously shaking a wine glass. This
image precisely sums up Shane, a man so torn by interna! conflicts that he seems
barely distinguishable from those painted faces with which he is juxtaposed. As the
shot continuas, Shane's mother approaches and asks "What is this mission you have

11: THE LONER

117

in life to make yourself and everyone around you miserable?", to which Shane can
only reply "1 don't know".
Who is Michael Shane? This is the question around which The Loner has been
organizad. Shane is a typical!y divided Ferrara protagonist: he constantly seeks
intimacy, but immediately withdraws whenever intimacy is offered (see his encounters
with Carver, Jessica, and especially his mother); he has rejected his wealthy
background, yet flaunts his privileged status (he boasts about his Porsche, and owns
a piano which Carver describes as "bigger than my who!e kitchen"). This division is far
from simplistic, and John Terry's fine performance suggests that even Shane's boastful
behaviour is motivated more by self loathing than a desire to impress (as Carver tells
him, "You're the type of guy that won't jo in a club that'd have you for a membr").
"l'm a cop" declares Shane at one point, but in a tone of voice which implies he is
far from comfortable with this label. Shane is unable to reconcile the two halves of his
personality, to decide which one represents his true self, and the strain is driving him
insana: he stresses the seriousness of his threat to kili Hadley by pointing out that "1 need
to get my head examined", and tells his mother that he is losing control. lndeed, practically the first thing we are told about Shane is that he is a 'flake'. Like Mike Torello and
Reno Millar, Michael Shane moves through an insana world which functions as a
distorted ref!ection of his inner conflicts: the interracial affair Shane pursues with his
African American partner is echoed by the interracial affair between Col e and Sherry, two
ofthe diamond thieves he confronts9, while the elaborate graffiti seen on the streets, the
murals in the Moulin Rouge bar, and the paintings in Jessica Grenville's gallery suggest
that the different societies Shane in ha bits are simply two sides of the same coin (which
is to say variations on a single dilemma), neither being more 'real' or less 'authentic' than
the other. Shane (like Snake Eyes' Eddie Israel) sees his life as an elaborate
pertormance, with no line to mark the point where reality leaves off and fantasy begins:
the scene in which Shane and Carver throw Manny off guard by pretending to be lovers
immediately follows a scene in which Carver rejects Shane's 'genuine' romantic
overtures, and when Jessica compliments him on his "neo-high school caution", Shane's
response is "Yeah, well, who knows? Maybe it's all just a trick".
Shane desperately wants to both conform with that model of masculina power
embodied by Kyle Hadley (as well as Cary Grant in a clip from His Girl Friday'"), and
hide behind the same facade of 'cool' detachment as Abner Gibson, the poet who lives
in Shane's building.11 Shane and Abner recall The Driller Killer's Reno and Tony
Coca-Cola (while anticipating The Blackout's Matty and Mickey): in both cases, the
downstairs neighbour successfully carries out that withdrawal from life the protagonist
strives in vain to achieve. Abner has manufacturad a ene-dimensional persona free of
cracks or contradictions, and the emotional investment Shane has made in this ideal is
suggested by his fury when he discovers that Abner is thinking of becoming an
accountant: "You're a poet" he declares with a confidence conspicuously lacking from
his earlier assertion that "l'm a cop". Shane's identiflcation with Abner has reached a
point where he seems to no longer be aware of the fact that they are two different
peop)e, a tendency so conspicuous that even Abner feels obligad to comment on it:
when Shane, while devouring cold Chinese food, asks "Are you eating?", Abner
responds "No, l'm not hungry. You're hungry. See, you're eating. Just because you're
hungry doesn't mean !'m hungry".
The nature of the relationship between these two men is suggested up by their
very different living spaces. Although Shane is tormentad by inner demons, everything

118

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

in his apartment is neatly ordered, whereas the calm, relaxed Abner occupies a room
characterised by disorder and chaos. When Shane visits Abner, he descends into a
symbolic realm where the decor is determinad by his own mental turmoil, but the
inhabitant has achieved that state of placidity Shane desires. Abner and his
surroundings function less as autonomous elements within the narrativa than as
externalisations of the protagonist's state of mind.
The initial contrast between Abner calmly writing at his desk and Shane nervously
pacing back and forth is reinforced when Shane sits down and puts his feet up on a
table, 12 self-consciously trying to mimic that noncha!ance which comes so naturally to
Abner (even in this position, he cannot stop his toes twitching). Shane's first
confrontation with Kyle Hadley essentially repeats this scene. Once again, Shane
confronts someone whose behaviour he wishes to duplicate, and if Hadley's selfcontrol is more overt than Abner's, Shane's attempt to imitate him is correspondingly
extreme: he pulls out a gun and threatens to start shooting.13 The excessiveness of
Shane's gesture suggests a secret wish to be Hadley, to assert such absolute power
over women, money and other people. Hadley and Abner rep resent ideals of
masculinity to which Shane can only aspire, and the two men are linked by a small but
fascinating detall: the carton of cold Chinese food Shane finds in Abner's fridge is
absolutely identical to the one from which Hadley is seen eating. 14
1

Footnotes

1- Not to be confused with Rod Serling's Western series ofthe same tille, which ran from 1965 to 1966.
2- Anatomy of a Werewo/f (1992). Unpublished manuscript courtesy of Douglas Metrov. Ferrara insists
that The Loner's budget was closer to $2 mili ion.
3- Randall Sabusawa, e-mails to !he author, May 22nd and 31st 2003.
4- Larry Gross, conversation with the author.
5- Abel Ferrara, conversation with the author.
6- Larry Hankin, e-mail to the author, August 16th 2002.
7- Joe Delia, e-mail lo the author, February 20th 2003.
8- Douglas Metrov, e-mail lo !he author, June 27th 2002. According to Larry Gross, The Loner's
broadcast was interrupted beca use of unexpected developments at one of the political conventions taking
place in 1988 (an election year).
9- These interracial romances suggest that Ferrara was still exploring China Girl's theme.
10- The His Girl Friday clip is just one of severa! cinephile references in The Loner. The name Michael
Shane evokes Brett Halliday's pulp detective Michael Shayne (hero of several1940s B-films, as well as
a TV series), the villain is named Kyle Hadley, after Robert Stack's character in Douglas Sirk's Written
on the Wind, while !he casting of Constance Towers, best known for her roles in Samuel Fuller's Shock
Corridor and The Naked Kiss, surely connects with Ferrara's abortive attempt to introduce a Fuller
tribute into China Girl.
11- Although the exact location of Abner's room is not made clear, il would seem that he is a permanent
guest somewhere in Shane's apartment.
12- Shane's pose anticipates our first glimpse of Johnny, his right leg nonchalantly slung over a cinema
seat, in The FuneraL
13- This scene will be repeated a third time, only with Shane playing the opposite role, when Jake Willis
is revealed as Jessica's stalker. As Jake explains lo Jessica, "1 only did it because of you. Because you
humlliated me the other night". The sequences involving Jake restate The Loner's themes in a comic
mode. Jake's attempts to assert his masculinity are total failures, and he is consistently defined as nonmale. "No! bad if you like women" comments Shane at one point, and though he is ostensibly referring to
Jessica, the line is preceded by a shot showing both Jessica and Jake.
14- Compare !hose video cameras which link Matty's psychiatrist with Mickey Ray in The Blackout.

11: THE LONER

119

12

CAT CHASER (1988)

"Here's a guy, a normal guy. What did he do? He didn't do anything. That's what he's
trying to say: 'Hey, l'm in lave with sorne woman. Her marriage to her husband is over.
What am 1Going wrong? Now what? Someone wants to kili me? l'm justa normal guy
under normal circumstances. What do 1 know about Uzis under the bed, or South
American generals with their own personal hit squads, or Jiggs Scully kind of guys?'
And he is. lt's wrong. Except, of course, the question of adultery. That line in the book
where Jiggs says to him 'lf you think that getting a blow job from a married woman's
the same thing as committing adultery.. .'. The point being, where exactly is Moran
coming from anyway? lt's an adulterous affair, no matter how you look at it. Cat
Chaser's a tough one to tal k about beca use to me it was a film we n.eVer finished. lleft
the editing because the opportunity to do King of New York came 'up. And that's a
cardinal sin for a director. The version that played in England is not quite, let's say, the
best version of the film that it could be. Somebody slapped it together and added sorne
stupid voiceover. l'd reedit it if we had time and there was a reason for it."
Abel Ferrara, Samhain 19, February/March 1990, p. 13 and Film Comment,
July/August 1990, p. 44
"Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They
cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. Rashomon portrays such human
beings - the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better
people than they really are. lt even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going
beyond the grave- even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks
to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from
birth; it is the most difficult to redeem."
Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography (1981), p. 183

Whereas all of Ferrara's previous theatrical features were based on original


screenplays by Nicodemo Oliverio, the first script for Cat Chaser - adapted from
Elmore Leonard's excellent 1982 novel- was written by Alan Sharp (who had already
worked for Cat Chaser's producers William Panzer and Peter S. Davis on Sam
Peckinpah's 1983 film The Osterman Weekend): a draft dated October 19th 1983
bears Sharp's name as sale author, though Ferrara insists it was actually written in
collaboration with the producers. After John Mackenzie, who was attached to the
project as director, dropped out, Joseph Ruben was brought in, but soon lost interest.
According to Francis Delia, who directed Freeway1 for Panzer and Oavis, "1 may have
had something todo with Abel directing Cat Chaser. 1was working with Davis/Panzer
towards getting financing on Trouble Bound, which 1 co-wrote with Darrell Fetty.
During that period, 1sat with Bill Panzer at the Formosa bar in Hollywood (where 1had
originally met Bill through Abel), and strongly suggested Abel for the job toa pissedoff Bill, who had just discovered his director for Cat Chaser had backed out".2 With
Ferrara (whom Panzer would later describe as ''The most interesting director l've ever
worked with ... well, him and Sam Peckinpah"3) on board, a new screenplay was

120

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

12: CAT CHASER

121

commissioned from Elmore Leonard: when that proved unsatisfactory, the final draft
was written by James Borrelli, with uncredited input from Ferrara and Peter Weller.
According to editor Anthony Redman, "When Peter Weller was making a film, you
weren't allowed to call him Peter: yo u had to call him by the na me of the character he
was playing. 1couldn't bring myself to call him 'George', so l'd just call him 'Daddy-0'.
That seemed to be okay". 4
George Moran (Weller), owner of a small Miami hotel called the Coconut Palms,
learns from down-at-heel prvate eye No len Tyner (Frederic Forrest) that the Dominican
woman staying at his hotel with Puerto Rican piano player Mario Prado (Robert
Escobar) is Anita DeBoya (Adrianne Sachs). Her brother Andres (Tomas Milian) used
to head Trujillo's secret police in the Dominican Republic, and is current!y mrried to
Mary Delaney (Kelly McGillis). Though they have never acted on the impulse (or even
met recently), Mary and George, who both come from Detroit, are in lave with each
other. Anita and Mario are taken from the hotel by ex-cap Jiggs Scully (Charles
Durning) and Andres' faithful employee Corky (Tony Solano). The next day, Jiggs
appears with Andres, who offers to buy the Coconut Palms. George refuses, and
returns to Santo Domingo, where, as a U.S. Marine, he had been stationed in 1965
during the American intervention. George is eager to re-establish contact with Luci
Palma (Maria M. Ruperto), a teenage sniper who had taken him prisoner but spared
his life. To George's surprise, Mary turns up in Santo Domingo, and the two begin an
affair. Mary plans to divorce Andres, but does not want him to think she is doing so for
the $2 mi Ilion settlement he insisted on in a pre-nuptial agreement. A newspaper advert
George placed asking Luc to contact him results in the appearance of numerous
young girls. George is also contacted by Rafi (Juan Fernandez), a small-time hustler
who claims he might be ab!e to track down Luci. When they arrive back in Miami, Mary
continues meeting George, but finds Andres becoming increasingly suspicious. Jiggs,
who has been spying on the lovers, asks George to find out where Andres has hidden
his emergency cash: George suggests Jiggs turn in a false alarm, then follow Andres
when he runs with the money. Rafi appears at the Coconut Patms with Loret (Kelly Jo
Minter), a prostitute he fails to pass off as the supposedty dead Luci Patma's sister.
Noten entists Rafi in Jiggs' scheme, and the three of them arrange an explosion,
ostensibly the work of left-wing terrorists, outside the De Boya house. Andres discovers
that Noten and Rafi were involved, and has them killed. Befare dying, Rafi shows
Andres a photo of Mary kissing George. Andres forces Mary to signa form making their
divorce settlement an 'option', then tells her to leave. Next morning, Andres sends the
Mendoza brothers to castrate George, who overpowers them. Jiggs catls the police
anonymously and claims that a bomb is about to go off at DeBoya's house. As the
building is evacuated, George arrives to pick up Mary and attempts to inform Andres
about Jiggs' plan. Andres, accompanied by Corky, nevertheless takes what he thinks
are the suitcases containing his money, and lets Jiggs follow him to a hideout. Andres
and Corky try to shoot Jiggs, but Jiggs turns the tables and kills them instead. Jiggs
discovers that the suitcases contain magazines. Realizing Mary has swapped
suitcases, he goes to the Coconut Palms, where he finds Mary and George reading a
letter from a happily married Luci Palma. When Jiggs demands the money, George
shoots him dead.
lf this convoluted story matches the film's complicated pre-production history,
post-production appears to have been no simpler. Ferrara and Anthony Redman
assembled first a 157-minute workprint (a video ofwhich has been screened at various

122

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

retrospectivas), then a 110-minute version with a Chick Corea score (which was
previewed). Ferrara abandoned the project when it became clear that he would not be
allowed to control the final cut, and the producers took over, reducing the film to 90
minutes and adding a voiceover narration (written by William Panzer and delivered by
an uncredited Reni Santoni) which serves more to express cynicism about motivations
than underline plot points. The narrator's stance is not that of either a character or an
impersonal observer, but rather, as Tom Milne has pointed out, "that of the all-seeing
authorial voice, commenting, suggesting avenues of exploration, finally appending a
resonant moral question mark to the happy ending".5 Ferrara has often criticised the
final cut, complaining "even 1 couldn't follow it"6, but although the story is hard to follow,
it's certainly not impossible, and presents sorne of the same difficulties as other Ferrara
films (especially New Rose Hotel).
Nevertheless, the workprint is considerably more impressive. By comparing it with
the release version, we can see that particular damage was done to the scenes
involving George's affair with Mary, severa! of which were completely eliminated, while
the fact that George, like Mary, married into money has been obscuted. Additionally,
certain scenes which play as long takes in the workprint (George's first conversation
with Andres, Rafi introducing himself to Mary and George) were shortened and
interrupted with close-ups and reaction shots" in the release print. ~f course, these
inserts had been filmed by Ferrara, and it is quite possible he would have chosen to
use them had he seen Cat Chaser through to final edit 7, but the workprint, with its
wealth of sequence shots, anticipates Ferrara's mature style much more overtly than
the producers' version.
The finished product (which went straight to video in America, though it had a
theatrical release in England) reveals ctearly enough Ferrara's determination to
faithfully adapt the work of a writer he admired (the production notes mention how the
director "stalked the set with a dog-eared copy of the book tucked into his jacket
pocket"), with much of the dialogue taken verbatim from the novel (in marked contrast
to Alan Sharp's screenplay): as Leonard himself complained about most films adapted
from his work, "they always want to change things - why pay a million dollars for
something then go change t?".a The casting is superb, with Weller, McGillis,
Fernandez and Milian incarnating Leonard's characters to perfection (though Weller
lacks the beard of the book's George Moran, instead being photographed to
emphasise his resemblance to Ferrara), while Durning and Forrest are simply beyond
perfection (it is impossible to imagine any other actors playing these parts). The film
does differ from Leonard's original in severa! crucial respects, sorne, though not all, of
which can be traced to the necessity of condensing a 275-page bao k into a 157 or 90minute film. In certain instances, the condensation process itsetf assumes a structural
significance, precisely indicating the nature of Ferrara's interest. Compare the following
three scenes in the novel with their cinematic equivalent:

1- In Chapter Ten (pp. 125-130 in the Avon edition), Rafi unexpectedly turns up at
the Coconut Palms with Loret, whom he tries to pass off as Luci Palma's sister. George
listens to their story, pretends to believe it, and lets them stay at his hotel.
2- A few days later, in Chapter Eleven (pp. 147-149), Georg e decides he has had
enough of Rafi and tells him to "Take your little hooker and get the hell out of here".
Their argument ends with George pushing Rafi into the swimming pool. George is then
obliged to rescue Rafi, who cannot swim.

12: CAT CHASER

123

3- In Chapter Fourteen (pp. 177-185), George returns from his conversation with
Jiggs and questions No! en about the scheme to rob Andres.
Whereas Alan Sharp stuck more or less to Leonard's structure for these three
scenes, Ferrara (and/or his collaborators) audaciously has them take place not over
the course of severa! days, nor one after another, but smultaneously. In the film,
George arrives back at the Coconut Palms and finds Nolen talking to Rafi by the
swimming pool. Nolen greets him with a comment about his "casual Hilton Hotel
attire", and Rafi says "So good to see you again". lgnoring Rafi, George asks how
No len knew he'd been at the Hilton, and Nolen says he found out from Jiggs. As Nolen
wanders away, Rafi tells George about some "bad news", but George simply" shouts
"Wait up there, Nolen". As Rafi introduces Loret, who claims to be "the sister of Luci
Palma", George sarcastically acknowledges their presence for the first time. Rafi and
Loret continue explaining the details of Luci's 'death', and George attempts to discover
the extent of Nolen's involvement with Jiggs while asking Loret to "Shut up for a
second". After some more dialogue with Nolen, George tells Rafi to "Take your hooker
and get the hell out of here", then continues talking to Nolen, whose insistence on
repeatedly referring to Mary as "your lady" causes George to push him into the
swimming pool. As Rafi accuses George of "fucking DeBoya's wife", Loret points out
that Nolen is drowning, obliging George to jump into the pool and rescue him.
This sequence (which survives in the release print with only minar changes)
represents Ferrara at something close to his best, the decision to have these three
separate scenes take place at the same time imbuing them with a meaning not even
hinted at in the novel. Although George is here interested solely in the 'plot', Ferrara
reminds us of those claims life tends to make on even the best-organized fictions,
for Rafi's expectations are diametrically opposed to George's. Rafi sees this as the
moment when his beautifully constructed scam will begin, but to George he is
nothing more than a nuisance, his con so transparent it is not worth acknowledging.
lf George barely appears to notice Rafi and Loret, their background babble exacerbates his annoyance about the danger Nolen has placed him in, Nolen's needling
references to Mary provoking George to deal with the multiple claims on his
attention by throwing one of them into a swimming pool, an action which, far from
simplifying the complex emotional interactions, creates another situation that must
be resolved.
Ferrara had already created scenes like this for The Driller Killer (wherein Reno
was required to pursue his career as an artist while dealing with emotional and
financia! ob!igations) and The Loner (which ended with Michael Shane playing the
piano while taking two phone calls), and one can find many such moments in John
Cassavetes' films, most obviously Shadows' dance studio scene, during which Hugh
has to deal with Ackerman, who is offering him employment he regards as humiliating,
his manager Rupert, who is encouraging him to take the job, and his brother Ben, who
wants to borrow money. 9 Cassavetes and Ferrara are fascinated by the idea of life as
improvisation. Their characters must meet narrative obligations while responding to
numerous unpredictable and often contradictory demands, a process that can be
incredibly taxing and (as we will see in King of New York's 'Chicken Hut' scene)
potentially stimulating, the ability to adequately reconcile these influences being for
both filmmakers the surest indicator of either 'humanity' or 'spirituality' (it makes little
difference which term we use).

124

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

lf Fear City, which also focused on a protagonist wrestling with his past, fudged
its traumatic flashbacks, Cat Chaser makes the period that haunts George relevant by
emphasising how it still determines his everyday existence: compare the way George
moves down a war-torn street in Santo Domingo- edging along walls, pausing at every
cornerto - with the manner in which he negotiates Nolen's hotel room after Jiggs' first
appearance, recreating, almost gesture for gesture, his actions of 23 years earlier. 11
Cat Chaser's signature camera movement, a slow inward track, serves to link
George, Mary, Andres and Jiggs, defining them as variations on the same emotional
problem: the desire to rema in detached from events and people. lf George and Mary's
passionate affair seems to place them outside this pattern, the businesslike way Mary
goes about snaring George and disposing of Andres testifies to a practicality exceeding
even her husband's: although the narrator insists, quite justifiably, on Mary's
resemblance to George (underlined by such visual details as George's reflection in
Mary's sunglasses during the reading of Luci Palma's letter), she has at least as much
in common with the man she chose to marry, something Ferrara stresses by
introducing both Andres and Mary standing with their backs to George.!
Andres' violent assault on his wife can certainly be related to those power games
found in 'normal' marriages (it is particularly apt that he is using his technique for
extracting information from political prisoners), but even though we se,e Mary's terror,
we al so recognize Andres' genuine pain (in the workprint, an earlier scene begins with
Andres sitting alone as tears rol! down his face). In China Girl, Ferrara prevented our
deriving any satisfaction from the climactic killing of ostensible villain Tsu Shin by
having it take place off-screen. Here he achieves the same effect by going to the
opposite extreme: Andres' death is filmed in such explicit detail that, although he is
being humiliated in the way he formerly humiliated others, we are unable to experience
a vicarious thrill from it. In a similar vein, the casual way George dispatches Jiggs after
calmly phoning the police is by far the most sadistic act of violence in the film (the
twisted smile on his face is virtually orgasmic). George's motivation is slightly softened
in the release print, which has Jiggs demand that George give him the $2 million and
keep the remaining $200,000, observing 'Tome that's two hundred thousand bucks for
sitting on your butt watching the ocean rol! in". In the workprint (as in the novel),
however, Jiggs' line is "You and the widow, you're gonna have more money than you'll
ever spend". Ferrara's emphasis was on the fact that George kills Jiggs out of sheer
obstinacy: since Mary will inherit her dead husband's estate, she and George do not
need the money in the suitcase. George may be the most coldly calculating of all this
film's characters, but like Al in Edgar Ulmer's Detour, he nevertheless feels obliged to
interpret his actions in a favourable light (his skill in this exceeded only by Mary, who
has somehow managed to convince herself that she married a professional torturer for
reasons other than his wealth): although he calmly tells Jiggs exactly how to go about
disposing of Andres, then sits back and waits as Jiggs carries out this plan, George
apparently believes himself to be telling the truth when he insists "1 didn't give Jiggs
anything". Self-deception is Cat Chaser's central concern, something especially clear
in the workprint.12 The following dialogue (taken almost verbatim from Leonard's novel)
was excised from the release version:

Jiggs: "You Catholic?13


George: Sort of.
Jiggs: So tell me if you're doing anything wrong. lt's in the intention where the guilt is.

12: CAT CHASER

125

Your intention is to give me information. Once that happens, it's out of your conscience
and into mine, and 1think 1 can handle it.

George: Yeah, you might be from New York, but you didn't learn to think like that at
Fordham.
Jiggs: Nah, never quite made it, Georg e. But yo u want to get philosophical and discuss

whether getting a blow job from a married woman is the same thing as committing
adultery, or you want to make life easier for yourself?"
Of course, none of these individuals can be described as free agents, and Ferrara
places them within the context of an America whose morality is defined by the profitmaking requirements of multinational corporations: consider the narrator's cmments

about George fighting in the Dominican Republic to make "democracy safe for Gulf and
Western". This emphasis on social pressures ensures that Mary never conforms to that
misogynistic clich of the femme fatale leading an innocent man to his doom, but it
does not exonerate her from responsibility. Although George compares himself and
Mary to "little kids who played together" (a line removed from the release print), their
capacity for self-deception sets them apart from those children we see fighting and
begging in Santo Domingo. The suitcases fui! of money everyone is pursuing can be
interpretad as either Hitchcockian MacGuffins or proof that American society is being
subjected to a Marxist critique, and there is surely sorne significance to the fact that
one of the two individuals not solely concerned with financia! gain is a Communist. Luci
Palma belongs with those female exemplars of un-neurotic normality who recur
throughout Ferrara's oeuvre (this is among the few American films in which a
Communist represents a moral ideal against which the behaviour of others is
measured). Of course, it is difficult to think of a young girl running across rooftops
shooting at professional soldiers as exactly 'normal', but Ferrara's comments about
George being a normal guy encountering abnormal circumstances apply far more
precisely to Luci, her passage from a teenager asking Georg e if he prefers The Beatles
or The Rolling Stones to the married woman with "five big childrens (sic) going to
school"14 referencing a healthy way of life with which nene of the other characters have
any meaningful contact.
lf Nolen also stands outside the general tendency towards exploitation and
acquisitiveness, he does so in a peculiar way, by appearing to embody it in its purest
form: George, Andres, Jiggs, Mary and Rafi seem willing to do virtually anything for
money, but only Nolen refuses to invent elaborate justifications. Whereas George and
Mary have convinced themselves that they are, by at least certain definitions, on the
side of the angels, Nolen's explicit articulation of this attitude ("We made a pact, us
against them, shirts against the skins") foregrounds its inherent ludicrousness.
Although his actions appear to be motivated by greed, he regards the entire scheme
as a game (he describes Andres as "the guy with the prize"), the outcome of which is
less important than the buzz derived from playing.15
Ferrara's workprint reveals that Nolen used to make a precarious living as a bitpart actor, 16 and now treats his life as if it were an elaborate piece of theatre. Alienated
from those 'fixed' identities everyone else insists on maintaining, Nolen embraces
Jiggs' production of 'The Plot Against DeBoya' not for its financia! possibilities, but as
an opportunity to participate in a theatrical event: "lt's the best part l've read for in ten
years" he tells George in the workprint. As Nolen's claim that George "felt something,
a kinship" and the narrator's observation that Nolen is "going down a road (George)

i
l!i

T
:i

'11

126

,.,

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

could have gane down" suggest, George and Nolen are mirror images, George
embodying that total detachment Nolen works so hard to achieve. In this sense, Cat
Chaser is essentially The Driller Killer with Tony Coca-Cola elevated to the status of
protagonist:1 7 Reno and Nolen retreat into fantasy as a way of dealing with their
inability to negotiate that cynical human jungle through which Tony Coca-Cola and
George move so easily. The reason for Ferrara's most important departure from
El more Leonard thus becomes clear: in the book, Nolen survives the carnage; in Alan
Sharp's screenplay he is killed during the climactic shootout; in the film he is murdered
two-thirds of the way through. Even the manner of his demise is significant, for Ferrara
has him drown in a swimming pool, the fate Leonard (and Sharp) allocated to Rafi. The
change is brilliant, for whereas this death had a certain relevance to Rafi, it is far more
appropriate for Noten, who 'drowns' while navigating dangerous 'waters' in which he
has no idea how to 'swim'. This aspect of the film was well caught by Tom Milne, who
described Nolen as "perhaps the real focus of the story: the cat who is being chased,
inexorably hounded to his death by all the dogs" _18
The nature of Cat Chaser's achievement can be summed up by means of a
comparison with China Girl: both films stand at the exact mid-point of Ferrara's career,
offer more-or-less explicitly Marxist critiques of American capitalism, and focus on
clandestina romances whose discovery would place the lovers in m9rtal danger. But
whereas China Girl's central characters are innocents existing in, and destroyed by, a
corrupt society, Cat Chaser's 'romantic' leads emerge triumphant only because of a
capacity to surpass their enemies in cynical self-interest. As this juxtaposition
demonstrates, Ferrara here finds himself at something of an impasse, unable to
conceive of protagonists who are not either flawless or hopelessly compromised. The
task of reconciling these positive and negative figures will be undertaken in the masterpieces that follow.
1

Footnotes
1- Released in 1988, the same year as Cat Chaser, Francis Delia's Freeway makes use of several
Ferrara collaborators, including production designer Douglas Metrov, composer Joe Delia, storyboard
artist Matt Golden, and actors Darlanne Fluegel and James Russo. lt contains a few thematic echoes of
The Gladiator.
2- Francis Delia, e-mail to the author, April 3rd 2003. Trouble Bound was eventually directed by Jeffrey
Reiner in 1992: according to Delia, "Finances forced meto sell my rights to the script and detach myself
as director, only to see a good script miscast with Michael Madsen and Patricia Arquette, and thoroughly
butchered".
3- William Panzer, e-mail to the author, May 7th 2003.
4- Anthony Redman, conversation with the author. Frederic Forrest can be seen calling Weller 'Daddy-0'
in the actual film. Weller directed his own Leonard adaptation, Gold Coast, in 1997.
5- Tom Milne, review of Cat Chaser, Monthly Flm Bul!etin 671, p. 359. According to Anthony Redman,
the producers originally wanted to record a first person narration by George Moran, but Peter Weller
refused to deliver the new dialogue written by William Panzer, and instead wrote his own voiceover which
was faithful to Elmore Leonard. This was rejected by Panzer and Davis.
6- Jim Shelley, "Sympathy with the Devil", The Guardan Weekend, February 6th 1993, p. 19.
7- According to Anthony Redman, it was Panzer and Davis who insisted on the scenes being edited this
way.
8- Lawrence Donegan, "Get Elmore", The Guardian, June 6th 1998, p. 6.
9- For a detailed analysis of this sequence, see Ray Carney's The Fifms of John Cassavetes:
Pragmatism, Modemism and the Movies (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 42-43.
10- The flashback footage of war-torn Santo Domingo does not appear in Ferrara's workprint.

12: CAT CHASER

127

11- George's inability to transcend his past is embodied by Jerry Shea, a Coconut Palms employee who
constantly hums old songs.
12- Notice how George's account of the time he met Andres at a country club differs from Andres'
recollection of the same event. Both characters tell the 'truth' while concealing facts that would reflect
unfavourably on themselves (Andres' cheating at golf, George's tacit support of a dictatorship).
Unfortunately, George's version was heavily truncated for the release print, while Andres' was completely
removed.
13- This question willlater be asked of both LT in Bad Lieutenant and Kathleen in The Addiction. Aside
from some Catholic icons visible in OeBoya's bedroom and one brief shot showing a painting of Christ
being carried out of OeBoya's house, all religious references were removed from Cat Chaser's release
print: the slow track in to the church George sees in Santo Domingo, George telling Andres "there's no
place like home and no friend like Jesus", etc.
14- In the release version, Mary's reading of these words from Luci Palma's letter is obScured by a
voiceover.
15- Note the visual and verbal emphasis on games: the football match George is watching when Jiggs
first appears; Andres' history of cheating at golf; the tennis players visible as Mary leaves the Hilton; the
polo match that provides Mary's excuse for visiting Santo Domingo.
16- In the workprint, George tells Nolen, "You better stick to acting", and George responds "That's what
l'm doing, man. What's the difference?" In the release print, George's line becomes "You better stick to
drinking", but Nolen's response remains intact, despite the fact that it no longer makes sense!
17- Mario Prado (who pathetically tries to assert that masculine control which comes naturally to George)
and Rafi bear a greater supeliicial resemblance to Tony, but the former is quickly expelled from the
narrative (and hardly appears in the release version at all), while the latter's 'smooth' act eventually breaks
down, revealing an extreme vulnerability.
18- Milne, p. 360.

opposite: Artwork for Cat Chaser's U.K. video sleeve.

128

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

12: CAT CHASER

129

130

above: Charles Durning as Jiggs in Cat Chaser.

above: Frank Whte (Christopher Walken) shakes hands with Freddy Jackson while Jennifer (Janet Julian) looks on in King of
New York (an event not seen in the release version)

below: Andres DeBoya (Tomas Milian) and Corky (Tony Solano) open fire in Cat Chaser.

below: Larry Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito in King of New York.

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

13: KING OF NEW YORK

131

13

KING OF NEW YORK (1989)

"1 enjoyed making that very m u ch. That was un usual in that a lot of the scenes ca me

out of a, l guess you'd call it, improvisational thing. In rehearsal we'd say, 'Well how
about if 1 say this? What if the scene's about this?'. A lot of the dialogue was fairly
spontaneous. 1 think Abe! Ferrara likes to work that way. A lot of directors would
discourage that, but he in fact encouraged it- he's a very enthusiastic director, which
is a good thing. lt's 'Yes, yes, do that! Oh 1lave that, that's good, change that, yeah
yeah!'. There's nothing like getting a positive response."
Christopher Walken, Film Comment, July/August 1992, P. 62
"Abe! gave me a great gift in that he rea!ly let me do my thing in that m6vie. For which
l'm eternally grateful. lt was real cathartic. There were some scenes' 1 had sugges-

tions and feelings about and Abe! would just go, 'yeah, yeah, yeah, man! Go ahead!'.
Abel's beautiful that way, because he gives youroom, he trusts you. Plus on that film
there was !ots of improvisation - between me and Walken, me and Garuso, me and
Snipes. All of it was like, 'One, two, three, gol'."
Larry Fishburne, Neon, September 1997, p. 76
"lmprovisation is a funny concept because the basis of any great improvisation is
great material, a great script, to begin with. And then it's very hard to say where it
starts and stops. These scenes have been discussed and worked on and written
together, so who knows where that improv begins or where there are real !in es? ...
every scene is in some sense an improvisation."
Abel Ferrara, Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 21
"An aesthetics of jazz would almost be a type of non-aesthetics. Aesthetics, in
principie if not in practice, focuses our attention on those attributes of a work of art
which reveal the craftsmanship and careful planning of the artist. Thus the
terminology of aesthetic philosophy - words such as form, symmetry, balance emphasizes the methodical e!ement in artistic creation. But the improviser is
anything but methodica!: hence these terms have only the most tangential applicabi!ity to the area of jazz. The very nature of jazz demands spontaneity; were the jazz
artist to approach his music in a methodical and ca!cu!ated manner, he wou!d cease
to be an improviser and become a composer. For this reason the virtues we search
for in other art forms - premeditated design, balance between form arid content, an
overa!! symmetry - are !argely absent in jazz. In his act of impulsive creation, the
improvising musician must shape each phrase separately while retaining only a
vague notion of the overall pattern he is forging. Like the great chess players who,
we are told, must be able to plan their attack some dozens of moves ahead, the jazz
musician must constantly struggle with his opaque medium if he hopes to create a
coherent musical statement. His is an art markedly unsuited for the patient and
reflective."
Ted Gioia, The lmperfect Art, p. 55

13: KING OF NEW YORK

133

Ferrara's willingness to abandon Cat Chaser becomes easier to understand in


light of his next project, which decisively inaugurates the director's mature period: as
Joe Delia recalls, "1 always felt that Abe! was at the top of his game with King of New
York, and that it was his best film. Working on the film was great, and we covered a lot
of different stylistic ground with the m usic. My first idea for the main theme was to be
in the vein of a Miles Davis style muted and echoed trumpet backed with a complex
rhythm played on synths and rhythm section. lt played well against picture, but 1 think
that Abe! and Nicky wanted to avoid a jazz vi be to the film. At one point Abel suggested
using the Autumn movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. l'm sure it was Nicky's idea,
being that Nick seemed to have a good knowledge of Classical music, especially by
ltalian composers. At that point 1 had also written a contrapunta! theme fof strings,
which everyone seemed to like. The trick was to integrate my theme into the Vivaldi.
The opening of the film begins with the strains of Vivaldi, then works it way into my
original theme, and then into a song 1 wrote and sang on called Piece of the Rack. We
hear this combination of themes throughout the film. 1 think it was a great choice on
Abe! and Nicky's part to abandon a jazz sounding score in favour of a more Baroque
feeling. Originally the big party scene was scored with the song Pump Up the Volume.
lt was beautiful!y edited, frame by frame to the music by Tony Redman. In reality
nothing could have ever come clase to that choice of music for the scene. Predictably,
at the end of the day the song was not available. This is often the case on films that
are done on a low budget, plus the fact that at that very moment a film was being
released titled Pump Up the Volume, making a deal on the song impossible. Editors
and directors often temp in songs that are unattainable, and when it comes to finishing
the film the second choice usually ends up not working nearly as well as the te mp. We
tried hard to write an original song that could replace it, coming up with a song called
Piece of the Rock, which worked well in the opening but not so well in the party scene.
We ended up settling for a song called Am 1 Black Enough for You?. We had to do a
transfer of the song to a two track machine with vari~speed and sped the song up as
much as it could stand. lt ended up never matching the tempo of Tony's edit, and my
recollection is that he (Redman) hated it. Although it might have been a good enough
song on its own, it could never come clase to Pump Up the Volume in the context of
the film. There's one scene in the film where Freddie Jackson appears and sings a
song titled Dream On. 1 started by writing a simple chord progression and melody.
Nicky carne up to my house for an afternoon and we cobbled together a nice lyric and
had the song. 1 believe that a singer named Haywood Gregory carne in and sang the
demo, and everyone loved it. 1 got a cal! from Randy Sabusawa telling me that he was
working on getting Freddie Jackson in to sing the song, and that Freddie would lip
synch it in front of a band on the set a couple of days later. The day carne for Freddie
to come up to my studio in Tappan and do the vocal. 1 had gotten the demo out to him
and he was prepared and ready to give me a final vocal in a take or two. The engineer
Gregg Curry was adjusting levels on Freddie's mic when 1 noticed that Sabusawa was
on the phone with Abe!. Randy had been instructed to tell Jackson to record his
speech, which was to precede the song, as part of the recording session. 1 guess the
idea was that he would possibly have to lip synch his entire speech (a nearly
impossible task) as well as the song. 1 have no idea why this particular direction had
become an issue and it made no sense to me. Randy got off the phone and told
Freddie (who was already nervous enough about his acting debut) that he should
record his speech in the event that he might have to lip synch it. Once Jackson heard

134

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

this it was a deal-breaker. Freddie, who was the most laid back and professional
person you've ever met, was on the phone with his manager in an instant. 1 was
surprised that the director was willing to lose a majar singing star, who was probably
doing the song for little payment, for not complying with such a preposterous demand.
In the end it was all worked out. Freddie refused (rightfully) to record the speech and
gave a perfect vocal performance on Dream On, in one take, with justa couple offixes.
As it turned out, 1 think that most of Freddie Jackson's en-camera speech was left on
the editing room floor. Abe! wanted an all black band to play behind Freddie when he
lip synched his song. 1 got Haywood Gregory, Abe Spel!er and Tony Garnier to play
bass. 1 think Abe! was a little pissed off at me beca use 1 cast myself in the band, but 1
assured him that if 1 wore a pencil thin moustache and slicked my hair, 1 could look
pretty ethnic. lt was a moot point anyway, since the band is hardly seen in the
background. The shoot went on for two days up at the ballroom in Harlem, and
Haywood couldn't make the second day. We ended up getting someone who could
pass for him to play guitar, and it worked out. Freddie did a great job on the song
Dream On, and it played back all day, setting a great mood in the roofn".1
King of New York would be the first of severa! films in which Ferrara cast Vctor
Argo: "1 suppose he likes my work. When 1 did King of New York, he didn't know me
at all. 1 was recommended by my agent in ltaly, Vittorio Squillante, vvho co-produced
King of New York. 1 met Abe! in California, 1 auditioned for him in New York, and 1 got
the part. Abe!, like most terrific directors, if he trusts you as an actor he'll leave you
alone. But 1 had to ask him: 'Who is Bishop?'. And he and the author decided that
Bishop was pure goodness. There were certain things in the film that 1 objected to, and
1 said to him, 'Listen, Bishop wouldn't allow policemen to act that way. He's by~the
book, yo u know?'. There were cops sticking the finger at me, or shooting up a bar.
Bishop would never al!ow that! And even though he shot those scenes, on my objection
1 think he too k them out, beca use Bishop is a by-the-book cap". 2
According to production designer Alex Tavoularis, "Francis Ford Coppola's
colleague Fred Roos recommended meto Abe! for King of New York. lt was a great
break for me. 1 liked Abe! from the outset. He had a different approach to film-making
than what 1 was used to. He wanted to make this movie without the requisitas of
Hollywood film production, and without consideration to all the influences that attract
viewers and always compromise intent. As the designer, 1 was compelled to follow
through. Although the effort to create the sets for this movie was considerable, 1
couldn't let it appear evident. In a few cases, this meant simply finding the right
locations and leaving well enough alone, but mostly it was a lot of hard work".J
lt was on this film that Ferrara first worked with Charles Lago! a, who would become
his production designer on Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction and The Funeral, as well
as contributing to the New York scenes of Snake Eyes: "1 first met Abe! after being hired
to assist Alex Tavoularis on King of New York. 1 was still very green, had done a bunch
of work but not much as far as a feature film was concerned. What 1 remember of the
collaboration with Abe! and Al ex and Bojan Bazelli (DP) was a lot of discussion on how
we balanced what Abe! wanted in an emotional effect coupled with a visual impact.
Although Abe! likes the visual excitement you can bring to a piece, he always labours
over what the emotional truth of any scene should be. This, 1 think, is why his films have
impact. My work with him has been the most interesting of my career''.4
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the series of nine m8sterpieces running
from King of New York in 1989 to 'R Xmas in 2000 is the fact that, although the

13: KING OF NEW YORK

135

second film, Bad Lieutenant, appeared three years after the first in 1992, the
remaining entries were produced at an average of one every twelve months. These
short schedules, far from being limitations Ferrara overcame, themselves played a
crucial role in his achievement: while the reliance on improvisation was doubtless
necessitated by practica! as well as artistic considerations, the films' insistence on the
holiness of impulse is vita!ly linked to their method of production. Even without the
testimony of Ferrara and his collaborators, onscreen evidence would be more than
sufficient to convince us that actors were encouraged to invent dialogue rather than
recite a text. But 'improvisation' is, as Ferrara has noted, "a funny concept", and one
that needs to be considerad in more detall, especially since written screenplays exist
for all the films: four are originals attributed to 'Nicholas St. John'/Nicodemo OliVerio5;
one is by Oliverio in collaboration with others and adapted (albeit very loosely) from a
novella; the rest were co-written by Ferrara himself. But the creative personality
remains consistent no matter whose na me is on the credits. The only evident difference
between the films written by Oliverio and those written by Ferrara is the greater
willingness of Oliverio's characters to articulate their psychological problems (the
director's refusal to accept these articulations at face value being a separate concern),
but even this could be a coincidence: the protagonists of Oliverio's early scripts are just
as inarticulate as those of Bad Lieutenant and The Blackout.
As Ferrara has revealed, the point at which a script ends and improvisation
begins may be far from clear to either the director or his cast. Relevant public
statements range from Ferrara's insisten ce that Oliverio "just gave me the entire script
of Ms.45, shot-for-shot, line-by-line. 1 didn't even know that he was working on it" to
Matthew .Modine's description of total chaos: "Abe! would say 'You'll take something,
take some coke - who knows what's going to happen?'. Nothing was rehearsed, or
even scripted". 6 Allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration in both cases (Zoe
Tamerlis/Lund has testified that in Ms.45's early stages "the only material that existed
was vague descriptions of severa! scenes"), the truth is probably somewhere inbetween, with the screenplay itself in a constant state of flux. 7 The contradictory nature
of improvisation was suggested by composer Elliott Carter, who describes a musical
score as essential in that it prevents "the performer from playing what he already knows
and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques". B
lf The Driller Killer was heavily improvisad, Ferrara's work in the next decade
moved in the opposite direction. When improvisation reappears in King of New York,
it does so with a force which is more moral than aesthetic. lmprovisation, however we
choose to define it, becomes the standard Ferrara uses to measure his characters and,
indistinguishably, his actors. While Ferrara condemns individuals who insulate
themselves within pre-packaged personalities, the ability to 'improvise', to respond
creatively during social interaction, suggests the presence of qualities that make these
people the objects of such tender observation by their creator. Precisely what those
qualities are will be difficu!t to define - especially since, by definition, they are nothing
'precisely'- but Ferrara has dedicated himselfto discovering where they might be found
and in what form they might express themselves.
The most obvious place to begin is Jimmy Jump's fast food order in King of
New York. The scene shows Jump, played by Larry Fishburne (though the part was
originally intended for James Russo), entering a Chicken Hut restaurant to arder
lunch. The other principal actor in this scene- which ends with Jump being arrested
for one of the numerous murders he has committed- is David Batiste, who plays the

136

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

part of a waiter. Here is the sequence as it appears in a draft of Nicodemo Oliverio's


screenplay dated December 3rd 1988:
INT: CHICKEN HUT
Jump enters to see place hopping with low-life trade and, ata large table, a small group
of poor KIDS with a HARRIED MOTHER trying to gather them together. The kids
complain loudly they want dessert or, at the least, shakes to share. The waiter at the
counter sends so me of the kids away.
WAITER
"Get away from the counter if you're not gonna buy anything. There're other people
waiting."
Jump passes and goes to the counter where waiter stands ready.
WAITER
"Yes, may 1 help you?"
JUMP
"Yeah. Gimme a super bucket of extra crispy. A quart of cole slaw, 'extra mashed
potatoes with gravy, an' a couple dozen mufflns ... Make su re non e of the morons drool
on it, alright? An 1 want a!l white meat... those veins an' shit in the dark stuff look like
friggin' tape worms ... "
Jump looks at the kids standing sad-eyed at the dessert men u on the wall. Waiter asks,
WAITER
"ls there anything else?"
JUMP
"Yeah. You sell soda? 1want a two liter bottle of root beer."
WAITER
"AII we have is Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and SI ice."
JUMP
"What about birch beer?"
WAITER
"Just Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and ... "
JUMP
"Forget it... just get me my arder..
Jump turns to the kids and sees the wall menu. Also advertised: a Chicken Birthday.
He tells the waiter,
JUMP
"Hey, 1want one o' them party hats too ... an' give someto these kids ... (To Kids) Pick
whatever yo u feel like for dessert... it's on me."
The ecstatic kids turn to their mother to see if it's alright to accept Mother, at table with
young baby in high chair, looks up and smiles at Jlmmy; he smi!es back. She nods and
mouths the words, 'Thank you'. Jump grins and the kids give a loud cheer and attack
the counter, one screaming '1 want a shake', another '1 want cookies', another '! want
ice cream' etc. The waiterfinishes with Jump's arder and he turns to Jump with the bag.
He tallies that up plus the kids' stuff.
WAITER
"That's $37.60 all totalled."
Jump looks at the man.
JUMP
"1 want some bags of ketchup, too."
1

13: KING OF NEW YORK

137

The man looks at him a beat and then goes under the counter and gives Jump a
handful of ketchup packets. Jump picks up the birthday hat, the bag of food and, after
smugly eyeing the waiter, turns away making no m ove to pay. The waiter stands in awe
a beat then calls,
WAITER
"Hey! Wait a minute ... "
Jump ignores the man and goes to the mother sitting in silent wonder and hands her a
thousand dallar bill.
JUMP
"Make su re they get whatever they want."
She looks, eyes wide. Jump goes to leave when his eyes focus outside: jaw drOps: HIS
POV: Patrol cars and COPS surround the entire area.
In the film itself, the scene's verbal text is as follows:
Waiter: "Yeah, can 1 help you?
Jump: Can you help me? Hey, you can start by giving me fifteen pieces of chicken,
motherfucker. Mix it up, 1want barbecue and 1want crispy. You getting this al! down?
Waiter: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jump: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 1want three pieces of corn and 1want, uh, yeah, gimme eight
spare ribs and gimme, uh, twelve pieces of shrimp, uh, onion rings.
Waiter: You want tartar sauce or ketchup on those, man?
Jump: 1want tartar sauce. You got any, uh, patato salad?
Waiter: No we ain't got no patato salad. (Noticing children standing next to video
games.) Look, get away from the games, alright? You ain't got no money just get away
from the games, alright?
Jump: What the fuck's the matter with you, talkin' to them like they're nobody?
Waiter: They ain't got no money, man. Yo, is that it?
Jump: Yeah, that's it. Make sure you get my food, get it now, and don't be droolin' on
it, man. And 1better not get non e of that cat. 1want chicken. (Gives money to children.)
Here you are. Here. Now go play the games. (Gives money to the children's mother.)
No offence, ma'am, uh, but just you make su re they get what they want. Go ahead, go
ahead. You all go play them games, hear? Play them games. Here baby. He re, go play
the games. Go ah ea d. (To waiter) Yo, what's happenin' with the food, man? What's up?
1ain't got all day, y'know?
Waiter: That'll be 56.70 total.
Jump: Did 1 say 1was finished? l want something to drink. Maybe 1 want sorne birch
beer. Y'got birch beer?
Waiter: Nah, we don't have no birch beer.
Jump: You don't even know what that shit is. Y'got any root beer?
Waiter: Nah, we ain't got no root beer.
Jump: Yeah, well, how much is this?
Waiter: 56.90.
Jump: 56.90? Fuck you very much."
Ferrara is asking us to make an important distinction between these two individuals,
for what Jump/Fishburne has grasped, and the waiter/Batiste has not, is that even
mundane interactions can form the basis for complex improvisations. The shot (taken

138

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

from Jump's viewpoint as he enters the restaurant) of the apprehensive waiter suggests
that he feels threatened by Jump's assertive body Janguage, explaining why his "Yeah,
can 1 help you?" has an aggressive undertone he is probably unaware of. Jump,
however, not only perceives the aggression, but adopts it as the key for his subsequent
'performance', the sarcastic "Can you help me?" and threatening "motherfucker", though
they might appear unmotivatedly combativa, being responses to the waiter's hostility.
When the waiter tells sorne kids to leave the video games alone, Jump takes this as his
cue to begin 'playing' a variation on the initial 'theme', giving money to the children and
their mother while continuing to enquire about his food.
Of course, this entire sequen ce is superfluous in terms of 'plot', sin ce the only
narratively relevant piece of information, Jump's arrest, could easily have been
contained in a !in e of dialogue (the mature films are notable for their elliptical narrativas,
with plot points elided in favour of random discursions). lf another director had even
bothered to shoot such a scene, the pay-off would undoubtedly have been the police's
unexpected entrance. But, as handled by Ferrara, Jump is already jiJggling so many
balls, throwing off energy in so many directions, that the cops' arrival 8ecomes just one
more thing for Jump to cope with, of no greater or lesser importance than his lunch.
Life lived at this leve! of energy and invention is, by its nature, incapable of dividing
experiences into categories, defining sorne siQnificant and worthwhile, others trivial.9
As Jump's dying fit of laughter confirms, life is approached either with total
commitment, or not at al!.
lt is he re, however, that we must consider Ferrara's right to be called King of New
York's 'author', for, as he has admitted, there were times when the actors had more input
than the director. Many people seem to believe that a filmmaker's artistic vision exists in
its totality befare the cameras turn: filming thus involves translating this vision to celluloid,
the actor's job being to help realize the original concept in all its purity. This restrictiva
conception of the director's function bears a marked resemblance to that widespread
misunderstanding of a commander-in-chief's role described by Tolstoy: "The activity of a
commander-in-chief does not at all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when
we sit at ease in our studies examining sorne campaign on the map, with a certain
number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans
from sorne given moment. A commander-in-chief is never dealing with the beginning of
any event - the position from which we a!ways contemplate it. The commander-in-chief
is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he can never at any moment
consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is
imperceptibly shaping itself, and at every moment of this continuous, uninterrupted
shaping of events the commander-in-chief is in the midst of a most complex play of
intrigues, worries, contingencias, authorities, projects, counsels, threats, and deceptions,
and is continually ob!iged to reply to innumerable questions addressed to him, which
constantly conflict with one another",10 Whereas many directors attempt to minimize
those elements of chance and collaboration which attend such a situation, Ferrara (like
Renoir, Cassavetes and Rivette) realizes that embracing them will makes his work far
richer than it would have been if created in a state of solipsistic isolation.
Given the vast difference between the 'Chicken Hut' scene as found in King of
New York's screenplay and the actual film's dialogue, it seems reasonable to assume
that Fishburne and Batiste were left essentially to their own devices. But if this is an
abdication of directoria! responsibility, it is a carefully considerad one.11 This sequence
is susceptible to the above reading not due to any stylistic intervention on the part of

13: KING OF NEWYORK

139

Ferrara, who shoots from angles chosen to allow the actors maximum freedom, but for
the simple reason that Larry Fishburne (who later singled out Jimmy Jump as his
favourite role) is a skilled improvisar and David Batiste is not: even Fishburne's
repeated 'uh's have a rhythmic function, whereas Batiste's 'yo's and 'man's sound
blatantly artificial (he can't even remember the correct price of the food, which leaps
from 56.70 to 56.90 in a matter of seconds).
By way of contrast, consider the scene in Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper where
John LeTour (Willem Oafoe) and Marianne (Dana Delaney) sit in a hospital cafeteria
discussing their relationship. The characters are positioned befare a large white pillar,
and in arder to stress their lack of communication, Schrader cuts toa view from behind
the pillar: Dafoe and Delaney rema in visible on either side, but the wall interposes itself
between them, an image which downplays the specific nature of LeTour's
estrangement from Marianne in favour of a metaphor, the visual pattern predetermining
the relationship's failure as well as expressing it. Although such metaphorical externalization is widely admired in contemporary cinematic culture, Ferrara would never place
the behaviour, relationships and motivations of his characters into such neatly labelled
boxes, the distrust of psychiatry so evident in The Blackout traceable to his belief that
no individual can ever be summed up, no action seen as the expression of a straightforward impulse, no relationship reduced to a metaphor.
Jump's decision to give the children and their mother money while leaving the
restaurant without paying for his food provides a model example of politics in action.
Jump intuitively contributes to that redistribution of wealth his boss Frank White
(Christopher Walken) undertakes in a more thought out manner by using drug deals to
raise money for a South Bronx hospita!.12 But if Jump's improvisations reveal his 'true'
nature, Frank's remain far more mysterious. Frank is a new kind of protagonist, ene
who can confront the filmmaker on equal terms. Ferrara's obsession with motivational
intricacy has now reached a point of such complexity that it becomes necessary to take
a leap into unexplored territory. In the opening shot, the camera tracks through a
prison, stopping outside a cell in which Frank is sitting with his back to the door. A baten
wielded by a guard appears from screen-left and bangs against the bars, attracting
Frank's attention. The door swings open and Frank walks out, peering almost directly
into the camera. At this point, we can interpret his gaze as directed at either the guard
who opened the door or, more abstractly, the freedom that awaits. A later image of
Frank standing by a Plaza Hotel window is susceptible to similar exegesis, but just prior
to this is a shot that cannot be understood in such a way: as Frank takes a shower, he
stares at the camera, confusion playing over his face as he sizes up this mysterious
intruder befare turning away, satisfied he has taken the camera's measure much as it
had been attempting to take his. According to Walken, this "happened kind of accidentally-on-purpose, but for me it's the moment when you know exactly what the movie
is".13The film thus becomes a game between Frank White/Christopher Walken and the
motion-picture camera, a game these two evenly matched opponents play for the
highest stakes imaginable.
Whereas those scenes staged by Jump take the form of group 'jam' sessions
which remain comprehensible to viewers and participants alike (even if the latter
sometimes find the experience fatal, as with King Tito's discovery that the suitcase he
believes to be full of money actually contains Tampax "for the bullet hales"), Frank is a
'solo' artist whose improvisations cannot be traced to pre-existing ideas. Select a scene
at random and study the details of Walken's performance: even by attending to no more

,.,;"'i

140

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

than his facial gestures, we find the visible thoughts and emotions changing at
something like the speed of light while remaining at best only tentatively linked with the
situation at hand, indicating a realm no one else has, or will be given, access to.
Whereas all the other Palladium diners, notably the woman who remarks that she has
"heard a lot about you, and it's all bad", shield themselves behind one-note identities,
Frank's "Don't believe everything that Pete writes in the columns, beca use, well, anyway
1, l've been reformed" reveals nothing in the way of practica! information, but suggests
a world of possibilities.14 Consider also Frank's curious dance moves as he is reunited
with Jump and the other gang members; the high-pitched voice he occasionally resorts
to in this scene; the way he rubs his cheek and nose befare asking why Jump never
visited him in prison; his off-camera look (at Ferrara?) as he tries on the dead
Colombian's glove; his decision to pronounce the word 'starved' as 'schtarved' during
the meeting with Arty Clay; the way he demands that Bishop handcuff himself to a chair,
noting "it's a stupid thing to do" (a line not in the script). Even when he tries explaining
himself to Bishop, Frank's actions - the snarl after saying King Tito's na me, the spit after
saying Emil Zapa's - suggest depths barely implied by his words. The protagonist's
'motivations' are revealed more through interpretativa imagery than anything Walken
does: Frank's disgust at the poverty he witnesses is conveyed by rain falling on a
limousine's windshield rather than actual tears, just as his ambitionp are clarified by
having him stand behind a window in which the city's reflection is visible. But the actor's
face says far more than the director's camera ever could: we may be able to 'read' the
above shots adequately while seeing King of New York for the first, or certainly the
second, time, but something like 15 viewings have not enabled meto fee! that 1 have
definitively understood even the smallest element of Walken's performance.
lt should then be clear why the various factions arraigned against Frank and Jump
are so totally inadequate. The underworld crime lords - Emilio El Zapa (Freddy
Howard), King Tito (Ernest Abuba), Arty Clay (Frank Gio), Larry Wong (China Girl's \
Joey Chin) - all reveal precisely those mechanically contrived personalities Ferrara
defines as anti-human: that they also demonstrate a wide range of objectionable
characteristics (most of them are racists, Zapa and Tito force women and children into
prostitution, Wong, who is first seen watching Murnau's Nosferatu, 15 exp!oits his own
peop!e like a modern-day vampire) fo!lows logica!ly on from this, and though we may
experience no particular satisfaction when they are executed by Frank and his gang
(as Ferrara told Mark Kermode, "! don't know how you could enjoy somebody dying,
no matter who or what they are"16), we are hardly encouraged to feel remorse. Two
other characters whose deaths Frank is responsible for also relate to this pattern:
Frank's duplicitous associate Joey Dalesio (Paul Calderon) and Lieutenant Roy Bishop
(Victor Argo). Da!esio, this film's Tony Coca-Cola, places his every action and gesture
at the service of a scrupulously maintained 'smooth' persona, the contrast with Jump
being so strong that one can fully understand the latter's otherwise quite unmotivated
antipathy (his initial comments about Dalesio - "Y'need to Jet me bust a cap in that
moon-headed motherfucker's ass, boy. He's a fucking glitter boy. He's looking to get
sprayed, laid, played and slayed, y'hear what l'm saying?" - convey a marked
hostility).17 But Dalesio is imbued with a new complexity during the scene in which, like
Cat Chaser's Rafi, he breaks down and pleads for his life befare being dragged off
kicking and screaming.18 Although he may regard smoothing over rough edges to
create that untroubled surface favoured by an advertising culture as the most serious
moral crime imaginable, Ferrara here transforms a character for whom we had

13: KING OF NEWYORK

141

previously felt no sympathy into someone from whose agonies we are unable to rema in
detached (significantly, as he orders Dalesio's death, Frank withdraws behind a rigid
mask of harsh cruelty which contrasts strongly with his usual flexibility).
A similar process is undergone by Bishop, who is introduced sitting in front of a
computer studying Frank's police record, a position he again retreats to a few scenes
later. One could hard!y ask for a clearer statement of Bishop's inability to comprehend
his opponent: this attempt to 'find out' about Frank by studying his past history, or at
least the cut~and-dried part of it contained on a computer file, is doomed to failure
(compare Gypsy's Tarot reading in 9 lives of a Wet Pussy), for Frank, like Ferrara,
lives entirely in the moment (as he tells Bishop, "1 don't need forever") and changes
from second to second, no sooner having taken up a stance that may its8lf be
incomprehensible to those around him than he abandons it in favour of something new
(interestingly, the only majar scene in the screenplay to be omitted from the film has
Frank reminiscing about how his life changed when he was 16 years old). Frank's
desire to keep open a hospital in New York's poorest area itself underlines his determination to avoid easy comprehension, and it is appropriate that Larry Wong should take
this as evidence of "just how fucking crazy you real! y are".
Nevertheless, this is hardly all there is to say about Bishop and his squad, none
of whom belong in the same category as Frank's gangland victims: if King of New York
depicts a battle for supremacy between Abe! Ferrara and Frank White, then it will
clearly be necessary for the director to match his protagonist in mercuriality, flexibility
and unpredictability. At severa! points, Ferrara lets us think we know where a scene is
going, only to pul! the rug out from under our feet:19 as the Schoolly D song heard
during the end credits reminds us, "yo u can't believe everything yo u see and hear". The
following are only the most obvious examples:
-As members of Frank's gang enter his hotel suite, they appear to be hostile, making
uncomfortable, vaguely threatening conversation about the contents of Jump's paper
cup. Although we have already been made aware of a connection between Frank and
this gang (they had shown the dying Emilio El Zapa a newspaper headline concerning
Frank's release from prison), we do not yet know what Frank's actual relationship with
Jump and the others is, and take their hostility at fa ce val u e. But, after a few seconds,
Frank breaks into a dance and the group embrace him, revealing the earlier dialogue
to be part of a friendly game.
- Frank's initial conversation with Jennifer (Fear City's Janet Julian in a part that was
to have been played by Zoe Lund), the partner of his lawyer Abraham Cott (Jay Julien),
is markedly inimical, with Jennifer telling Frank "you belonged where they put you", and
caustically remarking "1 thought people like you didn't believe in the legal process", to
which Frank responds "1 thought people like me were the legal process". Yet, as the
smile which breaks out on Jennifer's face when Frank tells her he "would !ike to take
you on a subway" implies, and subsequent scenes confirm, Frank and Jennifer are
actually lovers engaging in sorne light-hearted banter.20
-As Frank watches Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones on stage, a look apparently
of displeasure crosses his fa ce. We assume Frank is responding negatively to the play,
but subsequent dialogue suggests he may have been thinking about the fiscal cut
announced for a South Bronx hospital that afternoon.21

142

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

~ Bishop and two other members of his squad - Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and
Thomas F!anigan (Wesley Snipes) - whom we are here meeting for the first time,
confront Frank inside the theatre, exchange some contemptuous remarks and drive
him toan isolated location where they open their car's trunk and reveal Zapa's corpse.
Our overwhelming impression is that they are a bunch of fascist brutes. But the very
next scene shows these cops attending an lrish wedding, and reveals severa! different
sides to their personalities: the African American Thomas is married to a white woman
with whom he has two children; Dennis makes a generous and genuinely humorous
speech; and Bishop is depicted as a considerate man who finds it difficult to separate
himself from his work.22

As in Crime Story, a continuity is suggested between the police and the


underworld ~ even Arty Clay's question to Frank, "You think you're gonna live long
enough to spend that money?", is echoed by Bishop's "What makes you think you're
gonna be around long enough to see that?" - a continuity reinforced by the choice of
Vctor Argo, a splendid character actor usua!ly associated with Mafil types, to play
Bishop. What ultimately redeems Bishop's squad is the same thing that redeems White's
gang: their commitment to each other and belief in the rightness of their actions. That
these actions and commitments are placed in the service of law and arder on the one
hand, drug dealing and murder on the other, is supremely irrelevant: ~e are asked to
evaluate individuals on the basis of their behaviour at any specific moment, and during
those scenes in which the police bemoan their ability to protect the people of New York,
we share their point-of-view much as we earlier shared Frank's. David Caruso is here
castas a cop who will stop at nothing to bring in the bad guy, while in China Girl he was
a gangster determined to carry out a racist attack on a law-abiding Chinese family, and
in Crime Story a thief who considered himself "the best in Chicago", but he is clearly
playing the same character in al! three films: compare the moment in China Girl when
Mercury demands action against the Chinese restaurant with the scene here in which
Dennis asks Bishop to attack Frank and make it look like the work of a rival gang.
The car chase which results when Dennis and Thomas, along with severa! other
cops, ambush Frank in a nightclub reprises the opening of Crime Story, making many
of the same points with even more technical skill (editor Anthony Redman's work is
simply beyond praise). But Ferrara here goes the ear!ier film one better, for whereas in
Crime Story we identified with both sets of participants, the equivalent scene in King
of New York appears at a much more advanced stage of the narrative and involves
two opposed groups whom, though they hate ea eh other with a pass ion, we ha ve come
to like. The result is that, during the lengthy chase, we are set loose without a moral
compass, unable to determine what we should be feeling, how we should be
responding. As the dying Jump laughs uncontro!lably and Dennis attempts to revive
Thomas, many viewers will be searching desperately for those signposts that te!l us
precisely how to react in such films as Bambi, E. T. and Terms of Endearment, and,
upon realising that they are absent, may conclude that Ferrara is either incompetent or
immoral. lt would be more accurate to describe King of New York as modern
American cinema's most complete rejection of violen ce.
The end of this sequence, in which Dennis, after killing Jump, kisses the dead
Thomas while saying "1 Love you" (a gesture not found in the screenplay), provides the
payoff to a string of homosexual references. A barely concealed fear of homosexuality
unites most of the characters: Larry Wong describes Frank as a "cocksucker" and

13: KING OF NEW YORK

143

refers to him as Dalesio's "boyfriend", Arty Clay combines homophobia with racism in
his comment about Frank "fucking the sambas in the joint", Thomas informs Jump that
in prison he'!l be "somebody's bitch", Jump, who can think of no greater insult than to
call Dalesio and his friends "homos", asks a dying Thomas where his "girlfriend" Dennis
is, and Dennis himself tells Frank "1 heard you got AIDS getting dicks up your ass in
prison", to which Frank responds "1 thought about you every time 1jerked off, dickhead"
(even the Schoolly D song heard during the end credits features the lne "What l
thought was a girl was nothin' but a fag"). The contradiction between that virulent
homophobia expressed by King of New York's masculine characters and the fact that
their deepest feelings are reserved for fellow males is both foregrounded and resolved
in a declaration of lave which provides the film's most touching moment.23
As Dennis' 'AlDS' comment suggests, his hatred of Frank may be a defensive
reaction against sexual feelings, but Frank's reply implies an ambiguity of a different
kind. ls it even an insult? Might Frank not respond, as he did when his claim that he
wanted to be mayor generated appreciative laughter, with astonishment that anyone
should think he was kidding? When asked if White's 'mayor' comment was sincere,
Walken replied "Absolutely: he's sincere every time he opens his mouth",24 so perhaps
White's true secret, either unexpressed or expressed only fleetingly in one of those
uninterpretable facial tics, is that his sexuality is as impossible to pin down as
everything el se about him. 25 Consider Frank's female bodyguards, two attractive
women - Melanie (Carrie Nygren) and Raye (Theresa Randle, whom Ferrara had
wanted to cast in The Loner) - who are even more mysterious than Frank himself. Uke
Thana, they hardly ever speak (Melanie utters a single, barely audible comment, Raye
makes two or three brief remarks), while the triangle they form with their employer
irresistibly recalls Reno, Carol and Pamela in The Driller Killer. The idea that these
women might be lovers is neither confirmed nor denied (Raye blows smoke into
Melanie's mouth during the nightclub scene), but the nature of their relationship with
Frank is suggested by two linked scenes (both involve Frank standing outside a room
exchanging glances with Melanie) which raise more questions than they answer. The
first occurs in the Plaza Hotel: Melanie, wearing only underwear, sprawls on a bed
loading her gun; Frank walks by the room, stops outside the partially open doorway,
and exchanges a look suggestive of mutual sexual attraction with Melanie. The second
takes place in a bedroom at the party where Carter (Michael Guess), who is pretending
to be interested in Frank's dope, has left a muscular young man named Carlos to test
the drugs. As Melanie licks cocaine off Carlos' chest, Frank and Raye pass by, almost
certainly on their way to another bedroom, and Frank exchanges a glance with
Melanie, the expression on his face, though difficult to interpret (it is partially obscured
by a bead curtain), appearing to be one of jealousy. Far from 'exp!aining' Frank's
relationship with Melanie and Raye, this sequence suggests a tantalizing new
possibility that renders it even more ambiguous: if Frank feels jealous, it is by no means
certain who he is jealous of.

Footnotes

1- Joe Delia, e-mails to the author, January 1st and March 11th 2003.
2- Victor Argo, interviewed by Sean McCarthy, Flm lreland 94 (2003).

3- Alex Tavoularis, e-mail to the author, April 2nd 2003.


4- Charles Lagola, e-mails to the author, February 27th and March 10th 2003.

144

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

5- Nicodemo Oliverio's collaboration with Ferrara ended when !he two men fell out following The
Funeral's completion. Oliverio is currently working with French director Erick Zanca on a proposed
American remake of Zonca's film Le Petit Voleur (The Little Thief, 1999).
6- Neon, February 1998, p. 10.
7- The first screenplay for what eventually became King of New York was entitled Murder One. A
description ofthe project which Ferrara gave to journalist Paul Wilner in 1985 suggests that Murder One's
narrative was significantly different from King of New York's: "lt's a modern detective story about a
character named Frank White - who James Remar is going to play- who wants to be the crime king of
Manhattan. He's got machine guns and he's killing people, taking on every established hood in town. lt's
almos! like a Joey Gallo tri p. Meanwhile, he's living at the Plaza and going to Broadway openings. Then
the cops frame him in an Abscam-type deal, where they video tape him killing three police officers, and
he becomes Frankie the Cop Killer, Jesse James, the heaviest cat in town. When the cops come after
him, he says 'l'm coming after you. Every cop 1 see is dead'. We're only filming the last two weeks of this
guy's life".
8- Quoted in John Rockwell's Al/ American Music (1983).
9- Compare Victor Argo's remarks about Ferrara in Rafi Pitts' documentary Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty:
"One night he calls me up at about three o'clock in the morning. He says, 'Vic, come over, l've gotta
explain something to you'. So 1 go over to the house, and we play the guitar together and we sing. And
he's explaining the script of New Rose Hotel ... bu! not only is he explaining the script of New Rose Hotel
to me, but he's playing the guitar, he's gota harmonica strapped on, he's playing the guitar, he's playing
the harmonica, he's singing, and the cellphone rings, and he's talking on the cellphone. So he's doing five
things at once, and he did them all well".
10- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book XI, Chapter 11.
11- Ferrara's comments to an audience at the Cinmathque Francaise (following a screening of 'R
Xmas) in 2003 are relevan! here: "Everything is designed, everything. Even if we leave it alone, it's
designed in !he fact that we left it alone".
12- The children's ward scene was probably conceived as an answer to The Third Man's hospital
sequence, during which Holly Martins is shown young victims of Harry Lime's drug racket. Oliverio's
screenplay contains more allusions to The Third Man, notably a climactic chase through a subway tunnel
(which may also be a tribute to Fritz Lang's Man Hunt).
13- Time Out, May 11-18 1994. Bad Ueutenant's protagonist will also look directly into the camera, only
to be assured by Zoe Lund that there's "nobody there".
14- In the screenplay, the woman's comment is essentially the same, but Frank's response is "Don't
believe everything they pul in the papers. 1 been reformed".
15- The screenplay has Larry watching a Chinese-dubbed version of Tod Browning's Dracula.
16- The /ndependent, June 21st 1991, p. 18.
17- In arder to grasp the tradition in which Ferrara is working, consider how each major character in King
of New York can be related to one of !he Marx Brothers: Frank is Groucho, Jump is Chico, the silent
female bodyguards are Harpa, and Joey Dalesio is Zeppo.
18- This scene cannot be found in the screenplay. lndeed, the whole idea of Dalesio betraying Frank
seems to have been added during filming.
19- These instances of obscurity mostly occur during the early part of the film: as in The Driller Killer,
Ferrara offers us ambiguity and confusion precisely where we are primed to expect clear-cut exposition.
20- Compare the first scene between Torello and his wife in Crime Story.
21- Another possibility, suggested to me by Nicole Brenez, is that Frank identifies with Brutus Jones. The
screenplay has Frank "watching the show with intensity".
22- In the screenplay, these two scenes appear in reverse order.
23- Whereas bisexuality was the norm in Could This Be Love, 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy, The Driller
Killer and Fear City, gayness is conspicuously absent from Ferrara's subsequent films, reappearing
only in highly coded forms (though The Funeral's screenplay has Jean and Helen kissing "gently and
for a long time"). New Rose Hotel is a special case, in that it is impossible to determine whether or
not Sandii's bisexuality is 'real' or part of an elaborate act. Ferrara was interested in filming Cookie
Mueller's story Two Peop/e and Marcia Haufrecht's play Ma, both of which deal with bisexuality. He
was also developing a project entitled Victoria, in which Vincent Perez would have played a
transsexual.
24- Time Out, op cit.
25- Could this be what Frank has in mind when he tells Bishop "l've done things in my life that you
wouldn't even think about"?
1

13: KlNG OF NEW YORK

145

above: The police attack Frank White's gang in King of New York.

opposite: Vctor Argo in King of New York.

be/ow: Janet Julian and Christopher Walken in King of New York.

13: KING OF NEW YORK

147

148

above: David Caruso, Larry Fishburne, Wesley Snipes and David Batiste in King of New York's 'Chicken Hu!' scene.

above: Wesley Snipes, Vctor Argo, David Caruso, Larry Fishburne, Giancarlo Espositio and Theresa Randle
in King of New York.

below: Frank White talks lo Larry Wong (China Girl's Joey Chin) in King of New York.

below: Lucille Oliver and Christopher Walken in King of New York.

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

13: KING OF NEW YORK

149

FBI: THE UNTOLD STORIES (1991)

14

"Two propositions:

1. One of the most progressive forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and
nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.
2. One of the most reactionary forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonflction
merge, trade places, become interchangeable."
Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Orson Wel\es's Essay Films and Documentary Fictions"

(Piacing Movies, p. 171).

In June 1991, Ferrara partially directed a pilo\ for FBI: The Untold Stories. This
series ~ which ran on ABC from September 1991 to June 1993 - was developed by
Craig Kellem, who recalls that "1 had been working at Universal, and then became an
executive at The Arthur Company (which was linked to Universal), where l developed
this series about the FBI. 1 didn't create the series - the idea was brought to us by a
couple of writers. What happened then was typical: basically, the network had bought
a reality show which they had mixed feelings about, so they started looking for sorne
kind of an angle, hoping to give the show a certain artistic merit. They carne up with
this 'pie in the sky' laundry list of artistes whom they believed were perfect. One of the
names on the list was Abel Ferrara. 1 thought that was a totally bizarre idea, since 1
couldn't imagine him being interested in doing something like this. But we had a
meeting and, to our great surprise, managed to bring him onto the show. lt was
hilarious, because when you're doing a series about the FBI, you need to avoid
making something that's simply an advert for the bureau, but you also have to treat
them with a certain amount of deference, otherwise you're not going to get their
cooperation: and here we were with this director who looked-like he belonged on one
of their wanted postersl Basically, Abel was a sweet, innocent guy- not at all a cynical
Hollywood 'player' - who knew little about the realities of dealing with network TV's
creative and financiallimitations. He hadan ambitious vision for the show that allowed
him to get excited about it. He wanted todo a tough, gritty piece that would be really
uncompromised. And for a while, it worked: he was getting his way, and there were
great stories coming back from the shoot. But his approach was destined for doom:
the show was never going to work the way he envisioned. At so me point, the truth rose
to the surface, and Abelleft the show. 1brought in a director named Chuck Braverman
to complete it" .1
According to Randall Sabusawa, "This show was not one of the highlights of our
careers. 1don't list it in my credits. We shot the pilot. Ken Kelsch was the DP. We went
through files provided by the FBI, and chose the case of the 1979 murder of a federal
judge from San Antonio, Texas named John Wood. There was a book written on the
case called Orty Dea/ing. The Bravo channel had just aired their version of the case.
lt ihvolved the Chagra brothers, Jimmy Chagra and Joe Chagra, who were drug
dealers from El Paso, Texas. The story was that Jimmy hired a hit man to take the
judge out because he was going to be tried and sentenced by this judge, who was
nicknamed 'Maximum John Wood'. The guy convicted of the murder was Charlie

150

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Harrelson, a gambler who had been up on murder charges befare. Turns out it was
Woody Harrelson's dad. A great story. 1 produced the first leg. We started out doing
interviews in NYC with the FBI guy in charge of the case- Jack Lawn - who was then
working for \he NY Yankees. A day at \he FBI in Washington, where Abel and 1 kept
joking about what kind of file they had on us. On to Marion Federal Prison near St.
Louis to interview Charlie Harrelson. He talked to us and did sorne card tricks. A real
slick character. 1 can't recall who wrote the questions, but 1 think Abel did most of the
talking from our side. Then on toSan Antonio todo the 're-creation' of the murder (as
well as Harrelson's arrest) with actors. A San Antonio local was cast as John Wood
while Charlie Harrelson was played by LA actor Barry Cullison, an interesting guy wh~
enjoyed working with Abe l. Mary Kan e took over here. While the Arthur Company kept
the logistics going, Mary and 1 kept the hands on production on track. Eventually, we
were fired. The pilot was in the can, but 1 don't think we stuck around for the post. 1
would think they used all that we shot. 1really don't think they would have done it over.
The crew was only Abel, Ken, a sound guy and myself for the first leg, with a filled out
crew in San Antonio for the re-creations (which Abel directed). 1 thin k they wound up
airing our episode mid-season, not as the pilot. We were writing and casting Bad
Lieutenant while we did the FBI gig. 1remember flying to LA right after shooting in San
Antonio, and going straight into Bad Lieutenant".2
Ken Kelsch recalls that "Harrelson killed the first federal judge in a century. He
had 6 cunees of blow with him when he was arrested. He held himself hostage after
he shot his tire accidentally (he was a car mechanic, but couldn't change a tire) in a
state of cocaine-induced paranoia. We interviewed his stepdaughter (who slept with
him), re-enacted the crime in San Antonio, shot sorne interviews in NYC, and
interviewed Charley at Marion Federal Pen".J
Zo8 Lund's writing rsum includes the pilot for this series, which she identifies
as Crackdown (presumably a working title). According to Randall Sabusawa, "1 don't
remember zoe having much todo with the FBI thing. 1can't substantiate that".4 Robert
Lund recalls Zo8 "talking about dad Harrelson. 1 do remember that she was writing
something about the FBI for Abel. Zo8's meticulous monthly appointment books from
1991 mention numerous meetings with Abel for the FBI project".5
According to executive producer David Buelow, "Abel wrote the screenplay with
Zoe Lund, but he always wanted to improvise scenes, which isn't the kind of thing that's
looked on kindly in television. Abel tried to avoid executive types, and he used Mary
Kane as an intermediary, sin ce he was obviously comfortable with her. He filmed all the
documentary stuff, and started working on the reconstruction. He shot a good deal of
that, and we did an assembly of the material, at which point it became clear to Abel that
he wasn't achieving what he had hoped for, and he left. Chuck Braverman took over,
prepared a new screenplay, and directed the scenes that still needed to be shot. 1 really
don't recall which scenes Abel did, but l'm sure he was responsib!e for a large
percentage of the programme, even though his name doesn't appear on the credits.
This show was intended as the pilot, but it ended up being screened mid-season,
purely because of some executive who wanted the series to start with a segment he
had been personally responsib!e for". 6
Barry Cullison recalls that "The pilot was about Charlie Harrelson, who murdered
a judge in Texas. The government spent more money trying to salve this case than they
did investigating the Kennedy assassination. Abe! orignally wanted David Caruso to
play Harre!son, so 1 was very much aware that 1 was sma!l potatoes. 1 went into the
1

14: FBI: THE UNTOLD STOR!ES

151

audition and behaved quite brashly, eventua!ly storming out of the room. To my
surprise, Abel carne running after me and said 'Okay, okay, you got the fuckin' job'.
When he showed me the interviews he'd already filmed, 1 said 'What do you need me
for? This stuff says it al!'. But 1 guess these decisions were out of his hands. Abel was
pretty disgusted with TV it wasn't his kind of thing at all, and he seemed far more
interested in the Bad Lieutenant project, which he was in the process of casting. When
we were on the set, 1 was introduced to this woman, Teresa Starr, who was Charlie
Harrelson's real stepdaughter. She was going to play herself. So l'm standing around,
and Abel's saying 'Why's this guy just standing around? What're we paying him for? He
should do something'. So he suggested 1 write a scene involving the stepdaughter, with
whom Harrelson had been sleeping. The scene was based on conversationS this
woman had with Harrelson in a bathroom - conversations that had been secretly
recorded. So 1 wrote this scene, and we started shooting it. l'm doing this scene with
the woman, who is playing herself, and Abel shouts 'cut', looks at me, and says 'Come
here'. He takes me outside and says 'Don't get so clase to her'. 1say 'Aren't 1supposed
to be attracted to this woman?', and Abel says '1 wanna see her tits'. 1had no idea what
he was talking about, because he couldn't show her tits on TV anyway, but 1 did it the
way he wanted. While Abel was working on that pilot, he shot enough footage for a
feature film. But eventually the whole thing just evaporated, and Abe! was replaced by
Chuck Braverman, who was the kind of slick television director they probably wanted
in the first place. Some of Abel's footage was used in the final version, notably the
scene where 1 actually shoot the judge. Braverman was responsible for all the scenes
where !'m in Las Vegas, as well as the scene where !'m talking to my lawyer".7
According to Chuck Braverman, "1 shot most of the reconstruction, and went to
Washington OC with a small crew to shoot wraparounds and sorne interviews. The
other interviews were shot by Abel. What sticks in my mind the most is when 1 had to
ca!l Abe! (according to DGA rules) to tell him 1was replacing him. Of course, he airead y
knew he was off the show, but it was one of the most awkward moments 1 can
remember. 1don't know whether he knew 1was doing what 1was required to do, but he
was a gentleman on the phone. Coincidentally, he had hired my actor brother Bart
Braverman for a part in The Gladiator sorne years earlier".B
Ferrara's episode of FBI: The Untold Stories, entitled The Judge Wood Case,
is structured as follows:9
w

1- The segment begins with a pre-credits sequence in which we see Judge Wood
(Tomrny Townsend) leaving his house and being shot down, a reconstruction directed
by FerraraJO We are then shown 'file footage' frorn various television news shows,
followed by a few words from host Pernell Roberts (all of Roberts' host footage was
directed by Braverman).
2- The opening credits are followed by an interview with FBI agent Jack Lawn
(intercut with more file footage). Like most of the interviews, this was directed by Ferrara.
3- A dramatic reconstruction (by Braverman) set in a courtroom, where Jimmy
Chagra (Gregory Sierra) and his lawyer brother Joe (Vic Trevino) discuss their planto
have Judge Wood murdered.
4- A reconstruction (by Braverman) set in a Las Vegas casino, where Jimmy Chagra
meets convicted murderer Charles Harrelson (Barry Cul!ison), who is accompanied by
his wife, Joann (Randi Brazen). Harrelson agrees to take care of Judge Wood.
5- A reconstruction (by Ferrara) showing a gunman letting down one of the tyres

152

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

on Judge Wood's car, then shooting the judge (the slow motion sequence that began
the show is seen again here, though at normal speed and with slightly different
footage). This reconstruction is intercut with an interview with special agent Mick
McCormick (by Ferrara).
6- A reconstruction (by Braverrnan) showing Jimrny Chagra in Las Vegas with his
wife, Liz (Charlie Spradling).
7- A reconstruction (by Braverman) set in a Las Vegas hotel room, where we see
Harrelson's ~tepdaughter Teresa Starr (Donna Wilkes) meeting Liz Chagra, who gives
her a package containing money for Harrelson. This scene is interrupted by interviews
with Starr and special agent Ron lden (both shot by Ferrara).
8- Following sorne more comments from Pernell Roberts, Jack Lawn (in an
interview shot by Ferrara) explains how, after Jimmy Chagra was sent to prison, the
FBI learned of Harrelson's involvement with Judge Wood's murder. We then see a
reconstruction (by Braverman) showing the prison visiting room being soundproofed,
and two FBJ agents secret!y recording conversations.
9- A reconstruction (by Braverman) showing Liz Chagra visiting !her husband in
prison.
10- In a reconstruction by Braverman (who recalls shooting it near Palmdale,
California), we see Harrelson, high on cocaine, driving into the desert, shooting the tyre
on his car while trying to get rid of what he believes is an FBI hom ing device, and
holding off the police by taking himself hostage. This scene is intercut with brief
interviews with Starr and McCormick (both shot by Ferrara).
11- A reconstruction {by Braverman) showing Harrelson meeting his lawyer, Joe
Chagra, in prison, intercut with an interview with special agent Robert Zane (by
Ferrara).
12- A reconstruction (by Braverman) showing Joe Chagra talking to his brother
Jimmy in prison while their conversation is recorded by the FBI agents frorn scene 8.
13- Following an interview with Robert Zane (by Ferrara), we see a reconstruction
(by Braverman) showing the police searching for Harrelson's gun in a river.
14- Fingerprint specialist Russell Davey explains how Joann Harre!son's prints
were discovered on a gun permit issued to 'Fa y King'. A reconstruction shows the
permit being analysed. Although Braverman doesn't recall directing either the interview
or the reconstruction, it seems likely that they are his work.
15- File footage of Joann Harrelson and Teresa Starr is followed by a
reconstruction (by Braverman) showing Starr visiting Harrelson in prison, intercut with
an interview with Starr (by Ferrara).
16- Following some file footage of Starr and Harrelson, the narrator informs us
that Judge Wood's neighbour Chrys Lambros remembered bumping into a stranger on
the day of the murder, and we see an actual FBI tape showing Lambros being
questioned under hypnosis. In an interview conducted by Ferrara, Larnbros recalls the
stranger, and we see a slow motion, black and white reconstruction (also by Ferrara)
of her encounter with Harrelson.11
17- A brief reconstruction (by Braverrnan) showing Joe Chagra walking down a
corridor, followed by an interview with Mick McCormick (by Ferrara).
18- After another interjection from Pernell Roberts and some file footage of Teresa
Starr, we see an interview with Starr (by Ferrara), followed by file footage of Joann
Harrelson, Liz Chagra, Charles Harrelson and the Chagra brothers, and an interview
with Jack Lawn (by Ferrara).
1

14: FBI: THE UNTOLD STORIES

153

19w An interview with Charles Harrelson (by Ferrara). This scene begins with
Harrelson walking towards the camera and shaking Ferrara's hand (the only part of
him that is visible).
20w An interview with Ron !den: although the earlier interviews with !den were
directed by Ferrara, this final interview (conducted against a different background) is
by Braverman. The show ends with a summing up from Pernell Roberts.
lt is not difficult to understand why an artist so dedicated to discovering the truth in
externa! reality (as opposed to imposing his own 'truth' on that reality) would have been
drawn to the documentary form, and although comments on Ferrara's ambitions for this
project must remain !argely speculative, a tentative pattern is nonetheless cler. Jack
Lawn (but really all the FBI agents), who appears only in documentary footage,
resembles Tony CocawCola, being inflexible, rigid, and dedicated to an abstract system
which cannot be questioned ("lf yo u believe in the system, you believe in it when it works
for you, but you also must believe in it when it works against you"), while Charles
Harrelson, who is 'played' by both himself and an actor, is given a more multiwfaceted
treatment: he is an object of romantic/oedipallove for his stepdaughter, a demonic figure
in Chrys Lambros' memories ("His eyes ... were so compel!ing, they were so piercing ... it
sounds corny to say this, but it's like they were that evil"), a cool professional in Las
Vegas, a victim of injustice in his own account, and a paranoid junkie in the desert scene.
When the police surround him, Harrelson points a gun at his own head while screaming
"Who do you think you are? l'm Charles Harrelson!".12 Although Ferrara did not direct
this sequence, sorne of his ideas are undoubtedly still evident: as so often in his work,
declarations of self, assertions that one's identity is straightforwardly coherent, are a
form of suicide. The irony he re is that Harrelson seems to be the only 'character' whose
identity is in a state of flux, 13 and when the 'real' Harrelson is shown admitting "1 have
deep regrets about a lot of things", we may recal! that Ferrara was eager to begin work
on his next project, which would deal with aman who has done "so many bad things".
The words "l'm Charles Harrelson" bring to mind another contradictory figure
who declared "l'm Charles Foster Kane", and it is tempting to believe that if Ferrara
had been allowed to pursue his vision for this show without externa! interference,
what he might have ended up with would have resembled one of Orson Welles'
cinematic essays, such as F for Fake (1973) or the TV series Around the World
with Orson Welles (1955)14 But whereas Welles' own personality held together
those remarkable works, only Ferrara's right hand appears in FBI: The Untold
Stories: his name is not even on the credits, which attribute the direction solely to
Charles Braverman.15
Yet, even in the form in which this episode currently exists (the only form we are
ever likely to have), Ferrara's obsessions are visibly present, the merging of fact and
fiction being a theme that would soon domnate his work. The question of whether
cinematic reality can ever have an unproblematic relationship with externa! rea!ity is
explicitly addressed by Chrys Lambros, who describes the experience of being under
hypnosis in the following terms: "My mind became used like a film camera, and
everything that 1 saw was seen from the standpoint of stopwaction. Everything was a
frozen frame". Of course, mergings of fiction and nonwfiction are the stuff of which
'reality' TV shows are made, and this may have been precisely what attracted Ferrara
to the project. The idea of intercutting 'real' interviews with reconstructed scenes in
which the interviewed individuals are portrayed by actors was obviously not Ferrara's,

154

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

but he can sure!y be credited with obscuring those divisions that usually exist between
fiction and documentary by having Teresa Starr (playing herself) and Barry Cullison
(playing Charles Harrelson) re-enact scenes from Starr's relationship with Harrelson.
Although the reconstructions Ferrara shot with Starr were not used (an actress, Don na
Wilkes, plays Starr in those scenes directed by Braverman), he presumably intended
a Brechtian effect: far from being caught up in a fictional scenario, we would have been
forced to question our emotional involvement with these shadowy figures pretending to
be somethihg they are not, or something they once were.16 lt is certainly to be
regretted that the bathroom scene Cullison recalls shooting does not appear in the final
version, but despite Ferrara's humorous explanation of why the actor should keep his
distance from Starr ("1 want to see her tits"), he was obviously correct when he insisted
that these performers not convey any sense of intimacy. The world of FBI: The Untold
Stories is one of emotional distance, in which crimes and identities are not absolutes,
but rather vague possibilities, labyrinths without centres (to use Borges' description of
Citizen Kane) wherein the 'truth' will never be known, and may not even be knowable.
Snake Eyes, The Blackout and New Rose Hotel are justa short step away.

Footnotes
1- Craig Kellem, conversation with the author, May 22nd 2003 and e-mails to the author, May 25th and
27th 2003.
2- Randall Sabusawa, e-mails to the author, May 21st and 22nd 2003.
3- Ken Kelsch, e-mail to the author, May 22nd 2003.
4- Randall Sabusawa, e-mail to the author, May 21st 2003.
5- Robert Lund, e-mail to the author, May 21st 2003.
6- David Buelow, conversation with the author, May 22nd 2003. According to Craig Kellem, Ferrara's
assembly is "probably somewhere at Universal and next to impossible to find" (e-mail to the author, May
28th 2003).
7- Barry Cullison, conversation with the author, May 23rd 2003.
8- Chuck Braverman, e-mails to the author, June 18th and 19th 2003.
9- Thanks to Chuck Braverman for going through this episode scene by scene and identifying the sections
he directed. The segment runs 24 minutes 36 seconds. By my calculations, Ferrara was responsible for
7 minutes 29 seconds (6 minutes 7 seconds of interviews, 1 minute 22 seconds of recreations),
Braverman for 11 minutes 21 seconds (9 minutes 48 seconds of recreations, 24 seconds of interviews, 1
minute 9 seconds of host footage), the remainder consisting of file footage and credits.
10- FBI: The Untold Stories' prologue anticipates that of New Rose Hotel, though since Ferrara did not
edit the footage, may not have planned to run it in slow motion, and almost certainly did not intend using
itas a pre-credits sequence, this is surely coincidental.
11- Ken Kelsch's black and white photography here anticipates his work on The Addiction.
12- Harrelson's stance resembles that of Body Snatchers' Dr Collins, who shoots himself after being
surrounded by alien invaders. The connection between Body Snatchers' aliens and those torces which
threaten Charles Harrelson is extremely clear: compare Jack Lawn's speech about "the beauty of our
particular system" with the transformed General Platt's "it's the race that's important, not the individual".
13- A further irony is provided by the narrator, who informs us that 'When Charles Harrelson learned that
he would have to go befare a police line-up, he gained thirty pounds, cut his hair, and pulled out sorne
teeth. But Chrys Lambros recognized him right away".
14- Appropriately enough, the episode of Around the World with Orson Welles that most resembles
FBI: The Untold Stories is The Tragedy of Lurs (aka The Domlnici Affair), which was also abandoned
befare completion by its director.
15- The only one of Ferrara's collaborators whose name remains on the credits is production manager
Mary Kane.
16- This idea is briefly expressed during the flashback showing Chrys Lambros' encounter with Charles
Harrelson, in which Lambros appears to be playing herself.

14: FBI: THE UNTOLD STORIES

155

15

BAD UEUTENANT (1992)

"Ufe moves on, whether we actas cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to
impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we
shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or
despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become
a source of beauty, joy and strength, iffaced with open mind. Every moment is a go!den
one for him who has the vision to recognize itas such. Life is now, every moment, no
matter if the world be full of death. Death triumphs only in the service of life ... All that
matters is that the miraculous become the norm."
Henry Miller, The World of Sex (1940)
" ... every cap is a criminal
And all the sinners saints."
The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the De vil
"There is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28

Zoe Lund and Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant.

156

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Like King of New York, Bad Lieutenant finds Ferrara revisiting themes and
collaborators familiar from his early work: Ms.45 star Zo Tamerlis, now Zoe Lund,
has a small part and co-wrote the screenplay, while The Driller Killer's DP Ken
Kelsch reappears as cinematographer, a role he will fi!l on all but one of the
subsequent films.1 Even the opening credits, accompanied by a radio broadcast,
recall those of The Hold Up.
Bad Lieutenant stars Harvey Keitel as LT, a New York cap with a drug ha bit and
a spiralling gambling debt. When a nun (Frankie Thorn, from Mark Manos' curious Fritz
Lang tribute Liquid Dreams) is raped, LT sees the $50,000 reward as a way of paying
his bookie. By eavesdropping on the nun's confession, he discovers she knows her
attackers, but has forgiven them. After talking to the nun in the desecrated church, LT
imagines being approached by Christ, who turns out to be an old woman returning a
stolen chalice the rapists sold to her pawnbroker husband. The woman takes LT toa
nearby building where the rapists, Julio (Fernando Velez) and Paulo (Joseph Michael
Cruz), are watching television. LT gives them what money he has and puts them on a
bus. Turning up for a meeting with his bookie, he is shot dead.
According to Ferrara, ''The film was based on a song 1 wrote called The Bad
Lieutenant which has lines that go, '1 push through the crowd because !'m the man in
charge/Drinking my coffee, l'm talking with the sergeant'. That's basica!ly what 1 ha d.
And a cheque for $40,000 from Ed Pressman. What possessed him to give me that
money, 1 don't know. Nicky St. John (Oiiverio) didn't want to write it for reasons of his
own. So Zo Lund carne in. We worked together. She wrote it very quickly, at least the
first draft - and we needed a draft in two weeks". 2
Ata 1992 Cannes press conference, Nicodemo Oliverio explained that "1 think
Harvey and Abe! both ask very very tough questions. My problem is the answers. And
if !'m not ready to give an answer which 1 believe in 100 per cent, 1can't do it. 1have

15: BAO LIEUTENANT

157

to take the answer which is the truth as 1 understand it. And that's why 1 opted not to
work on Bad Lieutenant, basically for Christological reasons". As Ferrara told an
interviewer, "Nicky is a believer. Bad Lieutenant is the work of a conflicted person. So
zoe, myse!f and Harvey maybe, but Nicky doesn't have those questions. He believes
in the word of Christ, he does not question the word of Christ". 3
According to Zoe Lund, "1 thought that Abe! and 1 were going to write it together,
but 1wrote every word of that screenp!ay. To begin with, Abel told me about a story he
had read on the front page of the Daily News concerning a cap who caught the people
that raped a nun. lt was a little story that didn't have much todo with Bad Lieutenant.
But it gave him the idea of doing something about a nun who is raped. So 1wrote this
story involving Jesus Christ, which became Bad Lieutenant. And Abe! had the
courage, the balls to do it. 1 was so proud of him for that: bravo! He's a very good
director, but he didn't write a word. We were together often over the course of three
years. But 1 wrote the whole thing in, 1 think, two-and-a-half weeks or something like
that- the entire screenplay. l wrote the first draft in practically a single night". 4
Randall Sabusawa insists that "Zoe did write it, but the premise was something
Abe! came up with. 1know because he ran it by me a thousand times. lt kept changing.
lt grew from more of a rock 'n' rol! type cap who succeeds in spite of himself to a cap
with more base desires. 1just kept telling him that he had to get it down on paper. That's
where zoe ca me in. She added a lot, but the premise was integrated with a true story
that happened in Spanish Harlem where these kids brutally raped and tortured a nun.
Bo Diet! was the cap who caught the kids. We contactad Bo, met him, and put him in
the film. The gambling thing 1 think was Abel's idea. The essence of Bad Lieutenant
was the cap and the nun story, and the cop's downward spiral. 1have respect for Zoe's
contribution, but 1was privy to the genesis of the story, and that ca me from Ferrara". 5
Francis Delia al so remembers how "Abe! pitched Bad Lieutenant to me for five years
befare it was finally made".6
Anthony Redman recalls that "We were already in pre-production on Body
Snatchers when the financing for Bad Lieutenant finally came through. Body
Snatchers was a big-budget movie, and 1 was worried that Abe! would end up doing
this small film instead: 1 said to him, 'You're not going to rob me of a big payday for a
small payday'. But it worked out fine, and we did both films, one after the other. Bad
Lieutenant was shot very quickly. Abe! didn't even have permits for the locations he
was using. When 1looked at the footage, 1 said to him, 'so much of this stuff is out of
focus, the only way 1can edit it is by making that the style of the film'. We were like,
'okay, let's forget about focus, focus is for wimps'. 1 remember editing the scene with
LT and the Jersey girls, and feeling that the scene started too abruptly, so 1suggested
Abe! shoot something to make the transition less abrupt- the shot where LT looks over
and sees the car was filmed towards the end of the schedule, the same day we filmed
those scenes with LT in Ariane's apartment. As usual, 1 started editing pretty much as
soon as Abe! began shooting, and had a cut assembled shortly after the end of
principal photography. There were a few changes made, but the version that ended up
being released was pretty close to my flrst cut. Ed Pressman didn't like the end of the
Korean grocery store scene, where Harvey empties a box of lollipops over his own
head, so we took that out - 1was really against this, as it seems to me that the scene
now has no ending. Working with Abe!, there always tended to be one scene which
would preve a particular problem, and that we'd do severa! cuts of- the problem scene
here was the nun's confession, which we recut a number of times" .7

158

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

According to Charles Lago la, "Bad Lieutenant was my first chance to design for
Abe!. He was incredibly invested in what he could do with that script At first, 1 didn't
see it. 1 thought the script was terrible. 1 suppose that's where a great director can be
great. His vision wasn't on the page. He wanted the lieutenant to be so bad it would
make you squirm. 1think he accomplished that. People have said tome 'that film is so
violent', yet there is little or no overt violence. lt makes you feel like yo u have been
through a violent experience without 'on the nose' blood and visual violence. The visual
concepts we .discussed were simple: keep it real, make the sets and locations deeper
in the belly of the beast than anyone could expect. Abe! once said 'we want not only
the suburban moviegoers but also the hip urban audience to feel uncomfortable in this
place'. That's enough direction for me. While working in his Ioft or scouting locations,
we had many discussions that brought us to this question: How do we make this film
on budget with a three week shooting schedule? Abe! taught me something on which 1
have relied many times on many projects: 'Lets first eliminate anything we think would
be wrong, such as certain colours from the palette, so as not to distract from the
drama'. While scouting, we would constantly return to this question: ls'there anything
about this place or this set that would lead our audience out of the moment?. We would
then do things to sets or locations that would help the audience hold their focus and
suspend disbelief. Abe! was always aware and savvy about what the audience
impression would be. And then, 1 think, he would top the expe~tation. In Bad
Lieutenant, of course, Harvey Keitel had a lot to do with that as wel!. 1felt and knew
from the beginning of this project that Abe! and 1 had a found a way to communicate.
For some, that's no easy task. He is nota very verbal person. 1don't mean he can't be
articulate. He can. 1mean he flnds a lot oftalking tiresome. He is a very feeling person.
1 always felt that when 1was working with Abe!, 1 was working on the cutting edge, or
at least working with a director who could take us to the edge. He is also a guy with a
huge heart. Once, on 117th Street, while making Bad Lieutenant, 1 witnessed Abe!
pulling a small child out of the way of a car that was backing into a parking spot. l'm
the only one who saw it. He put the kid down on the sidewalk, checked to see she was
safe, and walked on. lt happened within 100 feet of our shooting location that day. No
one else saw it. He never mentioned it. Neither did 1".8
The different tones of King of New York and Bad Lieutenant are set by their lead
actors: if Christopher Walken challenges us to penetrate an ambiguous sutface,
Harvey Keitel surrenders himself, confessing his darkest secrets (compare Walken's
look at the camera in King of New York with Keitel's in the final shot of James Toback's
Fingers). We are unsure what a Keitel character is thinking only when that character
lacks self-knowledge, and while King of New York was an 'objective' work, one in
which we observed the protagonist without sharing his viewpont, Bad Lieutenant is
'subjective', insisting we see the world through LT's eyes. Yet the visual styles of these
films are not really that different (there are only a few point-of-view shots in Bad
Lieutenant, and even those have a far from straightforward function), and it is worth
recalling that Bad Lieutenant was initially a vehicle for Walken, while King of New
York's lead was to have been James Remar.
Keitel's tendency to appear nude in his recent films, although the subject of many
derisive comments (naked male stars still being fairly uncommon), is merely a symptom
of his desire to stand defenceless befare the camera. Bad Lieutenant would be
inconceivable without Keitel, whose expressive features tell us everything about LT (as
Ferrara has said, "what you see is Harvey. That's what the camera is on. And whatever

15: BAO LIEUTENANT

159

that reveals is the truth about Harvey"). What we know of events may be mediated by
LT, but since this knowledge is conveyed by Keitel's fa ce, we loo k at LT as much as with
him, sharing his viewpoint while observing it from a critica! perspectiva: to quote the
television announcer's description of Darryl Strawberry, "The expression on (his) face
says it all" (a phrase later used by Fax in New Rose Hotel).
Consider the scene which begins with two women, identified in the credits as
Ariane (Robn Burrows) and Bowtay (Victoria Bastell), performing a sex act. Bowtay, the
more obviously feminine of the two, is kneeling naked on a bed while Ariane, who has
short hair and wears masculina clothes, pretends to rape her. Since this is uncontextualised, we are placed in the position ofvoyeurs observing a curiously artificial (since the
women are obviously performing these actions for the benefit of an observer)' display.
Although the following shot shows LT drinking, thus defining the previous image as his
viewpoint, the scene would have played quite differently had these two shots appeared
in reverse arder. As it stands, we see what LT sees without realizing we are doing so:
when LT appears onscreen, we re-evaluate our previous position, our voyeuristic status
now revealed. Yet, since we have just identified with LT, we cannot dismiss him as
simply pathetic, and are instead obliged to recognize the humanity we share with this
tortured individual. Ferrara now cuts to LT dancing with Bowtay, and we observe their
relationship in a new light. While the first two images presented a degrading spectacle,
the third suggests genuine tenderness, something underlined by the fourth shot, in
which Ariane joins the dance. Just beca use these women are (we assume) professional
prostitutas does not mean they are inhuman, and if LT can find respite in their company,
Ferrara's mora!ity is flexible enough to allow him that right.
The transition from this to the final shot- a naked, grief-stricken Keitel facing the
camera, arms outstretched - may seem abrupt, but if we have been following the
emotional (as opposed to narrative) movement, it's function should be clear: the
actor/character is appealing for his audience's understanding and sympathy. 9 Our
changing response can be gauged by the way we perceive the accompanying song,
Johnny Ace's Pledgng My Lave: when Ariane and Bowtay are 'performing', the music
provides an ironic counterpoint; while LT is dancing, it's rhythms seem perfectly attuned
to onscreen events; and when LT expresses his anguish, it externalizes that
tenderness he suppresses. And the complexities do not end here, for LT later returns
to this apartment and makes a phone call. Since he has his own key and Ariane is
asleep on the bed, we must reassess whatever tentative conclusions we had made.
Perhaps Ariane and Bowtay are lovers reminiscent of The Driller Killer's Caro! and
Pamela, with LT Paying their rent.10 The only thing of which we can be certain is that
if Ferrara had chosen to include another scene set in this location or featuring these
characters, we would have to revise our opinion once again. The questions Ferrara is
asking - How well do we really know anybody? How often do we force individuals into
the Procrustean bed of our preconceptions? - may seem facile when stated directly, but
that is exactly the point: Bad Lieutenant invites us to consider their implications
emotionally, rather than pender them theoretically or intellectually, and if we fail to
respond we will understand no more than the cap who tells the nun he "can't imagine
how you feel right now".
A comparable effect is achieved when LT abuses two young women from New
Jersey after finding them driving without a licence. This extraordinary 8-minute
sequence, which takes place in real time, features a similar interplay between identification with opposed viewpoints and detached contemplation, being divided into shots

1,

160

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

favouring LT's point-of-view, shots which almost (but not quite) favour the girls'
viewpoint, and the more distant perspectiva we observe LT masturbate from.
Commentators have described this section as difficult to watch, a difficulty entirely due
to our being denied the comfort of observing from a single position. Although by this
point we are familiar with, and toa degree understanding of, those demons tormenting
LT, Ferrara en sures we also know exactly how the Jersey girls perceive this encounter.
The detailed performances from these two non-actresses convey precisely what it feels
like to be pul.led over, find oneself in trouble with the authorities, and gradually begin to
realise one has encountered trouble of a quite different kind, the expressions of
disbelief, the nervous laughter, and the way the driver almost buries her head in the
steering wheel all having an astonishingly naturalistic quality. But the scene is not
broken up in the neatly packaged way this implies: it is quite possible to share LT's
viewpoint during shots which favour the girls, and the girls' viewpoint in shots which
favour LT. More often, however, our identification will fluctuate within each of the (often
quite lengthy) takes, and m ay differ not only from viewer to viewer, but from viewing to
viewing. Every time 1 watch this sequence 1 notice something else: another small
gesture, another barely hinted at emotion, another possible motivation.
These three viewer positions - violator, victim and detached observer - are also
brought into play during the nun's rape, and, though this event has be~n the subject of
much controversy, Ferrara's uncompromising morality is at its purest here. Bad
Lieutenant's clmax involves LT rea!izing that the rapists are flawed human beings like
himself, and not, to use Ferrara's own words, "a couple of fucking spics to waste and
get $50,000",11 something underlined by the shot of Julio and Paulo in LT's car, their
positions - one in front, the other in back leaning over the front seat - duplicating those
adopted by LT's sons as they were being driven to school: according to the director, "At
that point those kids are his kids ... They became his children, and then he carne to
sorne kind of realisation",12 and if LT communicates little to his biological sons except
mascu!ine aggression, the message he passes on to these surrogate 'sons' differs
radically for reasons which will soon beco me apparent
lf we are to understand why LT does so many admittedly terrible things, we must
also understand why two young men would violate a nun. To this end, the rape and
LT's abuse of the Jersey girls are structured identically: the bright red light, rapid
editing and energetic sound of Schoolly D's Signifying Rapper all convey how it feels
to invade a church and commit a horrendous act while high on drugs_13 We will be
punished for our complicity during the !ater scene in which, as LT points a gun at the
rapists to make them realize how helpless their victim must have felt, Ferrara has
Keitel aim direct!y into the camera, but even while the rape is occurring we are forcibly
reminded of the nun's pain, the close-ups of her anguished face and constant
presence of her screams on the soundtrack ensuring we are never unaware of her
horror. As in the Jersey girls scene, we are also given a distanced, more analytical
perspectiva, but the rape's extremity means that the distancing effect must be
correspondingly extreme, which explains why, at the sequence's mid-point, Ferrara
cuts to a shot of Christ in agony on the cross.
But LT's implication in the rape is far more thorough than this implies, his humiliation of the Jersey girls connecting with those homicida! impulses suggested when
he arrives at a murder site and finds two young women dead in a car: in one of the
few shots unambiguously defined as being from LT's POV, Ferrara's camera focuses
on the girls' bloody faces befare moving downwards, appreciatively noting their
1

15: BAO L!EUTENANT

161

shapely bodies. The scene directly preceding the rape shows LT drifting off into a
drugwinduced haze (the transition between these two sequences is actually a match
cut from Zo Lund to the church's Madonna), while the one directly following shows
him waking up (in a different location): the suggestion is that LT has somehow
dreamed this event. Specific images, such as the nun being assaulted from behind,
echo the earlier sex act petiormed by Ariane and Bowtay, which was presumably
staged by LT and is again recalled when LT locates the rapists and finds ene of them
'directing' a woman to dance (notice how, when LT later approaches the nun, she
appears momentarily startled, as if thinking the rapists had returned).
Ferrara is not interested in either clearwcut morality or the play of ambiguity for its
own sake, the shifts between emotions and points of view being undertaken because
what he values is not this emotion over that, or even an awareness of conflicting values,
but the transition from ene position to another: the ability to be in a constant state of moral
and emotional flux is a prerequisite for the achievement of full humanity. Natice how Bad
Lieutenant focuses on areas and vehicles of transition. Though LT is superficially among
Ferrara's few settled protagonists, we seldom see him at heme ("1 hate that fucking
house" he informs Lite), and when we do, he is either sleeping in the living room orsniffing
cake in the hallway. LT is usually observed in his car, in corridors, in doorways, on streets,
on stairs, huddled up in corners, or in apartments belonging to other people. Yet, as the
way Ferrara's camera constantly tracks either behind or ahead of Keitel suggests, these
physical transitions are externa! manifestations of a spiritual state. Whereas King of New
York deliberately confused us to shake up our preconceptions, Bad Lieutenant
foregrounds how trivial the information we usually demand from narrativas really is.
Virtua!!y nothing is revealed about LT's past because how he reached this point is as
irrelevant as where he is going next: what Ferrara emphasises is neither LT's tortured life
nor his final redemption, but the movement from one state to another.14
Harvey Keitel's tendency to use cinema as a confessional is here given its
definitiva embodiment: the sequence in which LT begs for forgiveness shows Keitel
appealing directly to a camera advancing befare him as he crawls towards Christ
(something anticipated when LT first enters Zoe's apartment and looks directly into the
camera, only to be told there is "nobody there"). Yet China Girl's association of religion
with sexuality suggests that even this slightly unorthodox view is far from the whole
story. The more ambiguous areas Bad Lieutenant touches on can be summed up by
a single question: ls the camera male or female? lf the camera's gaze is imbricated
with that of both Jesus Christ and a viewer defined as nonwmasculine, then the film's
relationship to Catholicism becomes highly problematic.
lnformation about what LT sees is often provided by the manner in which the
camera/viewer looks at him, this 'look' itself being mediated whenever LT becomes the
object of a female, and more often than not critica!, gaze. Numerous scenes include
shots (often positioned to underline their significance, for instance by the use of clase
ups or highly charged cutaways) of women looking at LT: Zo, the nun, JC's mother,
the woman with the chal ice, the Korean shopkeeper's daughter, LT's wife, his mother,
his infant daughter, and the nurse who regards him contemptuous!y when he claims to
be checking hospital security. This latter encounter is immediately followed by LT's
attempt to spy on the nun's medica! examination, his seemingly unassailable position
as voyeur disturbed when the nun turns around and stares directly into the camera.
Whether or not she actually sees LT remains unclear, but the effect is unambiguous:
the masculine gaze has been returned.

162

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

The next sequence, LT's abuse ofthe Jersey girls, can thus be viewed in a larger
context as an attempt to restare the balance of power. Here are two young women
who will do exactly what they are told, LT's insistence that the driver clase her eyes
while miming fellatio indicating the psychological needs being addressed. The girls'
situation - as females told precisely how to act by a commanding male voice resembles that of the actresses playing them, and though this will be more evident to
anyone who has seen Snake Eyes (in which Harvey Keitel again stands off-camera
and 'directs' a woman by alternating precise instructions with abusive comments), the
Lieutenant's role as an ersatz filmmaker is clear enough, Ferrara having actually
commented on the resemblance ("we're both the men in charge, me from the
directoria! point of view"15). The filmmaker's willingness to implicate himself connects
with his increasing reliance on improvisation: his democratic working method has
made it necessary to formulate a camera style explicitly foregrounding the masculine
auteur's surrender of power, favouring a viewpoint potentially both masculina and
feminine, but in practice especially hospitable to female appropriation.;16
This 'feminine' style is particularly clear whenever Ferrara: (in a surely
unconscious salute to those 'actualities' with which cinema began) places his camera
at a distance to encompass as much as possible (his lack of interest in past and future
events becomes more understandable once we realize that his fascination with the
present is so voracious it leaves room for little else): obvious examples include LT
walking through the Korean grocery store; LT waking up in his living room as family
life goes on around him; and LT huddled in the corner of a dark building. Bad
Lieutenant's climax demonstrates this technique at its finest. The event is filmed by
an unmoving camera: as LT sits in his car, another car enters the frame, a volee
shouts "Hey, cap!", shots ring out, and the second vehicle drives away, revealing, but
just barely, LT's dead body. A crowd gathers, sorne pedestrians loo k in the car, others
walk by. A bus and finally a truck drive past, intervening between the camera and the
Lieutenant. On the soundtrack we again hear Pledgng My Love, its lyrics now
suggesting a religious interpretation (''1'11 forever !ove you, the rest of my days. 1'11
never part from yo u and your loving ways"). The tone recalls W.H. Auden's Musee des
Beaux Arls:
In Breughel's /carus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisure!y from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Pondering how !ittle impact lcarus' fa!l has made, Auden communicates the event's
wondrous nature through his emphasis on "the white legs disappearing into the green",
the "forsaken cry", the understatement of "a boy fa!ling out of the sky". Yet the
miraculous is also present in the everyday: hence that evocative description of the
"expensive de!icate ship" sailing "calmly on", and the sun shining "as it had to".
Although Auden stresses the magnificence of lcarus' hubrls, common experiences are
felt to be of equal, and perhaps greater, value.

15: BAO LIEUTENANT

163

Ferrara achieves a similar effect at the end of Bad Lieutenant. The camera is
placed ata distance to reveal how little impact LT's death has on the world around him,
but also to demonstrate the autonomy of those people walking backwards and
forwards. This is precisely the point Ferrara has been working towards: LT's lesson has
finally been passed on to the viewer. Ferrara's style ensures the absence of any
onscreen hierarchy: a shot showing LT watching television in a bar will give equal
prominence toa woman quietly drinking nearby, justas a shot of LT waking up on a
couch will be dominated by the actions of his children. Though one person may prove
inferior to another, this judgement does not exista priori. Consider Ferrara's description
of how he filmed the ending: "We just staged the event. Hid the camera in a yan, had
it take place at rush hour, and waited to see what wou!d happen. We had a few extras
in there, and 1 was saying to passers-by, 'Hey man, somebody just got shot in that car
across the street'. Then you'd see them walk into the frame".17 Ken Kelsch confirms
Ferrara's account: "There were about 6 extras in on the gag. The camera was hidden
in a van with a long lens. The black guy who starts the who!e thing rolling was in on
it".1B We may find it surprising that a director would leave the details of such an
important moment to chance - certainly we cannot imagine Stanley Kubrick working
this way - but the shooting method here becomes part of Bad Lieutenant's value
system. Rejecting the 'masculine' ideal of filmmaking - an omnipotent creator providing
'texts' we are required to do little more than consume - Ferrara gathers various
components together in a context which, though determined by the artist, does not
preclude alternativa readings or manipulate individua!s to ensure their conformity with
a 'message'. Like the Jersey girls, people he re behave as they would in reality, so me
of them staring, others giving the cara brief glance, others not reacting at all. Justas
LT's obsessions are simply extensions of what society deems 'normal', so the
miraculous nature of his redemption is related to the miracle of everyday existence.
Though Ferrara would never be crude enough to spell this out, life goes on, and while
it is possible to interpret Bad Lieutenant's clmax as uncompromisingly pessimistic, it
can equally be seen as among the most genuinely optimistic in American cinema.
Bad Lieutenant's finale connects with that of King of New York - which also
ended with the leading character dying in a car (though in a sense it more specifically
recalls Frank's execution of Dennis Gilley) - a link underlined by the crucifix and
Madonna on the dashboards of both the taxi Frank dies in and LT's car. But whereas
in the former film these icons indicated how far Frank was from achieving redemption,
in the latter they refer to LT's success, reinforced by the fact that Frank's death was
communicated to the viewer via a series of looming (masculine) close-ups, while the
Lieutenant's is filmed in a very different (feminine) manner. Asto how this 'female' style
relates to Ferrara's Catholicism, we should remember that although what LT believes
to be Christ's gaze actually belongs toa woman, it never quite relinquishes its previous
association (since it is impossible to describe LT's visionas mere/y imaginary). There
are echoes here of Larry Cohen's God Told MeTo (1975), which also depicted a New
York cap wrestling with his Catholic background while coming faceto face with Jesus,
the cop's discovery that Christ has both male and female genitalia anticipating Bad
Lieutenant, 19 in which the camera's 'look' is generally identified as fe male, and Jesus'
forgiveness specifically associated with three women: JC's mother, who understands
LT sufficiently to know which drug he needs, and who is shown sitting on a sofa
decorated with Christ imagery (a juxtaposition that would be crude were it not so
touching); the woman with the chalice who appears in Christ's place; and the nun.

164

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

During his first two encounters with the nun, LT observes her but attempts to
remain hidden, while his third encounter has him eavesdropping on her confession.
The manner in which this is filmed- with intercut close-ups accompanied by the voice
of an unseen priest, and the establishing shot saved for the end - emphasises its
narrative implausibility (LT just happens to be there when the crucial confession is
made, much as he happens to be there when the chalice is returned), testifying to a
disdain for logic of truly Shakespearian proportions while anticipating the climactic
scenes' more radical ambitions by hinting at divine intervention. We might say that the
film traces LT's gradual progress from the objective to the subjective, marked by his
willingness to cease being a voyeur reducing the nun to an object for the look, and
beco me a reflective suriace conveying her message. There is a clear contrast between
the nun who pardons her violators and the vengeful actions of Ms.45's Thana, a
contrast underlined by Thana's appearance in a habit if Thana's attempt to murder
every man who crosses her path is seen as in some way justifiable, Bad Lieutenant's
recognition of the necessity to end a cycle of violen ce - initially made by the nun who
turns "bitter semento fertile sperm, hatred to lave", and communicated to LT, who in
turn passes it on to Julio and Paulo (and, by implication, the viewer) - suggests a
constantly maturing vision unparalleled in contmporary cinema.
1

Footnotes

1- Kelsch had actually renewed his collaboration with Ferrara a couple of years earlier when he worked
on the video for Schoolly D's King of New York, then on the pilot for FBl: The Untold Stories in 1991.
2- Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 21. Ferrara can be heard performing his song The Bad
Lieutenant during the end credits of the film's rescored video version, as well as in Asia Argento's video
diary Abel Asia. In Rafi Pitts' documentary Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, Ferrara claims that Bad
Ueutenant hada $2 million budget, and was shot in 18 days.
3- Gene Gregorits, "Abel Ferrara: The Sex & Guts lnterview" (2003). Oliverio's screenplay for The
Funeral includes sorne dialogue which recalls Bad Lieutenant: Jean claims that a statue on her chest of
drawers is "Maria Goretti ... the Pope beatified her seven or eight years ago ... she was stabbed to death
because she refused to have sex with sorne guy... she was twelve years old at the time ... and befare she
died she forgave the man that did it". In the actual film, Jean's statue is said to represen! Saint Agnes
(''They slit her throat because she refused the advances of sorne guy. She was twelve years old at !he
time. They still have her headless body in some church in ltaly. She's the patron saint of purity"), and the
reference to forgiveness is missing. lt is not difficult to understand why this change was made: Maria
Goretti was actually beatified in 1947, whereas The Funeral takes place a decade earlier.
4- zoe Lund, from an interview conducted by Nicole Brenez and Agathe Dreyfus on July 3oth 1996,
published in Balthazar No. 5, Spring 2002 (my translation).
5- Randall Sabusawa, e-mail to the author, May 21st 2003.
6- Francis Delia, e-mail to the author, April 3rd 2003.
7- Anthony Redman, conversation with the author.
8- Charles Lagola, e-mails to the author, February 27th and March 10th 2003.
9- Although the way Keitel stands with his arms outstretched clearly connects LT with Christ, it is worth
noting that the workprint version of this scene includes the sound of a distant police siren: when Keitel
holds his arms out and walks across the room while making a curious high-pitched noise, he is simply
trying to imitate the police car Uust like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause).
10- The heavily censored R-rated U.S. video of Bad Ueutenant eliminates this entire section, but
replaces it with a different scene (described in the filmography) involving LT, Ariane and Bowtay. This
footage makes it perfectly clear that LT has set Ariane up in an apartment, and that Bowtay is a friend of
Ariane's. lt is intriguing to discover that Ferrara shot a scene clarifying the relationship between these
characters, but chose not to use it (at leas! initially). What further proof could anyone require that those
frequent moments of obscurity in his films are deliberate choices rather than evidence of incompetence?
According to Zoe Lund, "For reasons that were deeply personal at the time, Harvey gave off a peculiar

15: BAO LlEUTENANT

165

vibration when he neared any female. This necessitated the cutting of the scenes between LT and his
mistress. lt also made it imperative that sorne of the material from those scenes be given to a new
character. A woman who mayor may not really be his mistress, but is certainly his dope connection and
his medium: My character. The two scenes involving the woman called 'Zo8' (Abel dubbed her that in the
credits without my knowledge) were written in the midst of production" ('Bad Lieutenant: How the
Screenplay Evolved', January 23rd 1997).
11- Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 21.
12- lbid.
13- Signifying Rapper is heard at severa! points in the film, being used in much the same way that Orson
Welles used TomasoAibinoni's Adagio for Organ and Strings in The Trial (1962). Unfortunately, copyright
problems led to Signifying Rapper (which, like Bad Lieutenant, is about masculinity in crisis) being
replaced with organ music during the rape scene on most video releases. Anyone familiar only ~ith this
version has not experienced the film Ferrara made.
14- Consider Gavin Smith's description of Ferrara: "1 have never seen Abel Ferrara sit. He is constitutionally incapable of staying put or containing himself- everything about him is vivid, dramatic, kinetic,
unpredictable" (Sight and Sound, April 1997, p. 6). Ferrara often uses a handheld camera to follow his
protagonists (see LT's walk though the hospital and the nightclub, The Driller Killer's opening shot, X's
meeting with The Expeditor in New Rose Hotel, the husband's journeys through his apartment building
in 'R Xmas, etc.): moving individuals thus appear to remain immobile at the frame's centre, while the
stationary world surrounding them is set in motion. lt is only by embracing society that these characters
can escape their own solipsistic identities, and Bad Lieutenant's final shot underlines LT's spiritual
progress by showing his car moving into a static trame.
15- Sight and Sound, February 1993, ibid.
16- !t is worth noting that 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy's implicitly feminist critique of porn film conventions (cf.
Gypsy's "My present is your present, but yours is not mine. 1 share my moments with you, 1 live my life
with you. But not with your consent, not with your knowledge") was both deepened and complicated by
Ferrara's insistence on defining the viewer as female.
17- Sight and Sound, February 1993, p. 22.
18- Ken Kelsch, e-mail to the author, March 12th 2003. According to Kelsch, Ferrara had already used
this 'trick' while staging the scene in which Reno watches a crowd gathering around aman who has been
stabbed in The Driller Killer.
19- This is also a recurrent theme in zoe Lund's work. In her unfilmed screenplay Free Will & Testament,
for example, Bianca tells the "Legend of the Lake", which involves two lovers who are "no longer man nor
woman but one mythic Being. Blended together, beyond death. A drowning Hermaphrodite".

opposite: Harvey Keitel as the nameless protagonist of Bad Lieutenant.

166

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

15: BAO LIEUTENANT

167

r
.

'

'

'

abo ve: LT (Harvey Keitel) takes control of a crime scene in Bad Ueutenant

above: Australian poster for Bad Lieutenant.

below: The nun (Frankie Thom) is raped in Bad Lieutenant.

below: The Bad Lieutenant sits in a bar watching Strawberry lose another game on television.

! !

168

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

15: BAO LIEUTENANT

169

above: Meg Tilly in Body Snatchers.


opposite top: Marti's pod double is bom in Body Snatchers.
opposite centre: Billy Wirth in Body Snatchers.
opposite bottom: One of Body Snatchers' pods struggles to be bom.
bottom: Ferrara subtly conveys the fact that Steve (Terry Kinney) has been replaced with an alien double by framing him as
a mirror relection in this strikingly composed shot from Body Snatchers. Steve's son Andy (Reilly Murphy) is seen at the
image's bottom right.

16: BOOY SNATCHERS

171

16

BODY SNATCHERS (1993)

Russel!: "1 just want the woman 1 married. That's all l'm asking.
Claire: The woman yo u married is standing right in front of you."
Dialogue frohl Snake Eyes

The idea of filming Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (originally published as a
serial by Collier's Magazine in 1955) for the third time was initially prop~sed in 1987 by
producer Robert H. Solo (also responsible for the 1978 remake). Larry Cohen (whom
Solo had fired from his 1981 production of 1, the Jury) provided two completely
different screenplays, the second of which was rewritten by 'Raymond Cistheri'
(possibly a pseudonym, though he also has a 'story by' credit on the 1972 blaxploitation
film Melinda), then by Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli in 1990. At this point the film
was to be directed by Gordon. Paoli worked on .the project for six months befare being
replaced by Nevin Schreiner (whose name does not appear in the' credits). When
Gordon had to begin shooting Fortress (1992}, Ferrara carne onboard, working with
Nicodemo Oliverio on another seven or eight drafts {with additional contributions from
actor Billy Wirth). The finished film ~ shot almost entirely on location in an abandoned
Air Force base outside Selma, Alabama - premiered at Cannes but barely made it into
American cinemas, sitting on the shelf for over a year befare receiving a limited
release.1 The most unfortunate side-effect of this is that Ferrara's first, and to date last,
widescreen production was encountered by most viewers in a panned-and-scanned
video transfer.
Far from the commercial chore one might have expected, Body Snatchers is
among Ferrara's most personal and despairing works. The central character is Marti
Malone (Gabrielle Anwar), a seventeen-year old travelling with her father Steve (Terry
Kinney), stepmother Caro! (Meg Tilly) and half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy). Steve, a
scientist working for the Environmental Protection Agency, visits an Alabama military
base to conduct tests on radioactiva waste stored there. The base has been infiltrated
by an alien lile form that kills people while they sleep and replaces them with 'pod'
doubles. Andy is disturbed to find all the other children in his day~care centre making
exactly the same drawing, and later witnesses Carol's death and the birth of her 'pod'.
Marti - who has become romantically invo!ved with pilot Tim Young (Bil!y Wirth, whom
Ferrara had hoped to cast in King of New York) ~ narrowly avoids being taken over
when she fal!s asleep in the bath, then hides with Andy while Steve tries to find help.
After witnessing Dr. Collins (Forest Whitaker) commit suicide rather than surrender,
Steve returns and tells Marti and Andy he has found a way out. As they drive through
the base, Marti realizas that Steve has already been taken over, and when Tim
witnesses their struggle, she grabs his gun and shoots her father. Ti m seizes control of
a helicopter while Marti and Andy are arrested. Tim rescues Marti, and they departin
the helicopter, accompanied by Andy, who appears at the last minute. Once in the air,
they find that Andy has been taken over, and Marti is forced to kili his double. Returning
the next day, Marti and Tim bomb the base, as well as trucks spreading the alien
me nace, but their efforts may ha ve been futile.

16: BODY SNATCHERS

173

~''

'"

n'!'1
. '..'!
1

.1

'

i
According to Ferrara, "1 always loved 'Martian' movies. 1 used to dress up as a
Martian when 1was a kid, and go out and terrify the neighbours. What we had to work
with was already so powerful, 1don't feel that 1 had a 'great contribution' to make. The
greatness was already there in the original story. The parallel of AIDS in the 90s is a
mueh more frightening thought than communism in the 50s. Obviously it's a metaphor
for something, unless you're going to take the thing as a documentary and say 'the
Martians are here'. For the kids in the film, it's about finding a sense of identity, of their
own individuality, that's missing from their own lives. lt takes a cause to rally around,
and ideals to believe in, to make them aware of their humanity, and to fight for it.
There's a conflict between society and the individual who is always standing ins)de his
own body, and yo u can say, 'Oh, there's a billion people in the world', but there's really
only one person, and that's yo u". 2
Joe Delia recalls that "Abe! gave me a cal! during shooting and told me to get on
a plane to Selma so 1 could meet Lance Young, who was the executive in charge of
production from WB. This was Abel's flrst shot ata studio film and he really put himself
on the line to see to it that 1 was onboard. He felt that if 1 carne down, met with the
producer and hung out on the set, it would help my cause a great deal. Abe! insisted
that 1 bring a keyboard down with me. 1wasn't su re if he thought 1was going to plug it
in on the set and play for the extras or what, but figured if nothing else we'd have so me
fun playing a couple of Dylan tunes when he got done with the night's shoot. Selma
had a really strange vi be to it. You could still feel the ghosts of the civil rights movement
and a tinge of the old racist south in the air- yet, they seemed to welcome the wild crew
of Northern film makers and the influx of money they brought into the otherwise
depressed town. 1 arrived and went to the air force base to meet Lance and see Abe!
in action. The shoot was going well, and of course 1never used the keyboard that 1 had
schlepped down there, other than to accompany Abe! on a late night version of
Knockin' on Heaven's Ooorback at the house. WB finally agreed to hire me on, but with
the stipulation that it would be a step deal. 1 would get one amount to start writing
themes and sorne cues to the rough cut, and by a certain date they would either sign
me on as composer or not. The first cues were sent in and approved by WB, prompting
calls of congratulations from an executive. The deal was settled. We never approached
scoring in a traditional way with any of Abel's films. Normally, a composer is brought in
at the end of editing, views either a locked cut or clase to a final cut, then a spotting
session is done with the director and maybe a producer and editor and you decide
where music will go, discussing style, emotion, pacing, etc. With Abel's films 1 was
usually around during the editing and often the shooting of the films, so it was more of
a work in progress. We never ever did a spotting session per se. On Body Snatchers
there was a lot of pressure on everyone to perform, given the budget and scope of the
film. There were something like six names credited to screenwriting and plenty of notes
and re-writes coming in from the execs on any number of issues. During the editing,
demos of cues were being done and were enthusiastically approved by the producers,
including a theme written for a romantic scene between the two lead characters that
was scored with voices simulating the sound of a choir. Everybody seemed to like it
and for all intents and purposes it was a keeper. At this point we had cut a deal with a
mid-town video house that had a division that specialized in doing jingles and news
lagos. The studio used synclaviers, and we thought it would be a good alternative to
doing a live orchestral score. They were eager to try to get into feature film work and
ended up giving us a good rate. We worked in a small production room with an

174

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

engineer anda guy who would input my score in to the synclav system. Luckily we had
a very good hourly rate, as the process was painfully slow. The initial sessions went on
over the course of about two months, and 1 was amazed at how much patience Abe!
had for doing this score. Occasionally he'd blurt out something like 'Joey, what the fuck
are we doing here? - These people do toothpaste commercials', but in general we had
fun working, and the score was sounding great. Editing was being done in LA, and
there were regular screenings for producers and WB brass. The work-in-progress
score was qubbed in for the screenings, and good feedback on the mu sic was routinely
coming in. Sometime in the middle of August we took a break from doing the demos
and prep for the final score while the film was being locked. 1too k a week off to hang
out in Montauk and my brother Frank carne out to visit. After an afternoon of hacking
up a perfectly nice little golf course on the east end of Long lsland, we arrived back late
in the day to a message on the machine: 'Hi, this is Mark Solomon's office, please cal!'.
1 knew something was up and called Tony Redman. He had the tone of a school kid
who was telling you that you were in trouble with the principal. 'Joey.. .' Joey... you're in
trouble now'. He kept saying it, and laughing. 1asked him what the fuk he was talking
about, and he went onto tell me that there had been a screening that day for the big
wigs at WB, and that all hell broke loase. When the scene came up with the 'voices'
cue, one of the top guys stood up in the middle of the screening and s~arted screaming
'there are those voices again, 1hate those voices ... where's the composer? ... 1 told yo u
1 hate those voices'. Tony kept laughing, and my heart just san k. 1 immediately called
Solomon's office and they told me that there was a 12 noon screening on the Warner's
lot the next day. For the next three hours 1 worked out the arrangements to get from
Montauk NY to the Warner's screening room in LA by noon the next day. WB paid for
everything first class and Nicky (who was called in on a much less pressing issue) and
1travelled together, arriving just in time to screen the film. Doug Frank sat next to me
and told me what was going on. At this point there was still no main theme to the film
and of course the voices had to go. We agreed that in the next week 1would deliver at
least a demo of the main theme and if everyone liked it, the whole issue would be
resolved. The title track was written, produced, presented, and, to my great relief,
received with outstanding reviews from the guys at WB. From the technical and
production point of view, Body Snatchers was Abe!'s most chal!enging and 1 believe
best film. Bojan's photography was just amazing, as was Redman's editing job. The
film had a great look and feel, but generally was thought to have problems in the
casting. One of Abe!'s great strengths as a director was choosing the right talent and
drawing out their best performances. The secondary characters were so strong that
they couldn't help but overshadow the young leads. (China Girl had a very similar
casting situation.) Who could forget Meg Tilly- 'Where you gonna go, where you gonna
run, where yo u gonna hide? Nowhere, 'cause there's no one like yo u left'- or the scene
towards the end where Forest Whitaker puts the gun to his head, not to mention, R.
Lee Ermey's drop dead performance?". 3
Body Snatchers places the family centre-stage for the first time in Ferrara (LT's
wife and children only appear briefly in Bad Lieutenant, as do Johnny's wife and child
in The Hold Up). Ferrara's non-biological 'families' comprise a curious, ad-hoc
collection of individuals ~ Reno's relationship with his girlfrend Caro! and her female
lover Pamela in The Driller Killer, Matt's 'fami!y' of strippers in Fear City, the
O'Donnells' function as surrogate parents to Torello in Crime Story ~ while his
biological families tend to be incomplete: The Gladiator's Jeff Benton is being raised

16: BODY SNATCHERS

175

by an older brother, the two married couples in Could This Be Love are childless, the
incestuous family in 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy lacks a mother, and the Monte brothers
in China Girl are fatherless (as is The Loner's Michael Shane), while Tye and Yung
Gan have no parents at all. Body Snatchers' family - consisting of Steve Malone, his
second wife, their six-year old son, and a teenage daughter from the father's previous
marriage - has a similarly makeshift quality. As Tag Gallagher has observed, "families
fare badly under most better American directors"4, and one need not look far for
evidence that those energies celebrated in the couple are felt to be irreconcilable with
the institution of marriage (an entire genre, the melodrama, is given over to this
subject).
The decreasing importan ce of the family unit is among Body Snatchers' central
concerns: Marti's reference to Caro! as "the woman who replaced (my) mom" anticipates Carol's replacement by an exact doubJe5, and the parents' transformation into
alien 'pods' is related to the traditional nuclear family's fragmentation and collapse6.
Marti's claim that the invaders had "destroyed everyone 1 loved", though toan extent
sincere, contradicts her earlier description of travelling with the family as "a month in
hell", and although she shows genuine affection for her half-brother, even risking her
life in an attempt to rescue him, the manner in which- she disposes of his doppelganger
by throwing it from a helicopter develops logically out of these tensions, mirroring the
'playful' gesture she used to push him away in the opening sequence Uust as the way
she kills her father's double by pulling the trigger of a gun Tim is holding relates specifically to her Oedipal conflict).
But Ferrara connects what many see as an isolated phenomenon to wider
movements in American culture. The alien takeover functions as a metaphor
("obviously it's a metaphor for something") for the way certain individuals insulate
themselves by manufacturing ene-dimensional personas. Body Snatchers represents
Ferrara's most complete statement on this subject since The Driller Killer, the
emotional withdrawal of Tony Coca-Cola now threatening to become a universal
principie. Although the intervening films contain similar characters, they are mostly
minar figures: Fear City's serial killer; severa! gangsters, most of whom are killed off
during the opening scenes, in King of New York; Bad Lieutenant's bookie who, like
King of New York's Joey Wong ("This conversation made me realize just how fucking
crazy you really are"), takes the protagonist's unpredictability as evidence that he is
"sick in the fucking head". Ferrara indicates the precise nature of that retreat from
human interaction these characters represent by having the bookie share with Tony
Coca-Cola a name, 'Lite', suggesting a mass-marketed soft drink.
Mass-marketing is essentially what Body Snatchers' invaders offer: the
transformad General Platt (R. Lee Ermey)'s insistence that "when al! things are
conformed, there'll be no more disputes, no conflicts, no problems any !onger... it's the
race that's important, not the individual", though it may sound sinister, is the kind of
speech we might hear from a Disney executive. Yet this idea is complicated by its
imbrication with the 'life as theatre' theme explored in Snake Eyes. For Ferrara,
reducing the self to a theatrical persona negates everything which makes us human,
but by the same token it is impossible to conceive of human relationships that do not
in some way involve performance. Ferrara's distinction between delicately nuanced
improvisation and inert role-playing requires careful exploration: the smile Caro! gives
to a guard as she enters the base can obviously be defined as 'false', in the way that
word is commonly app!ied to smiles, but Carol's alien double later gives exactly the

176

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

same smile to Steve (after Andy insists "my mommy's dead"). The pods foreground
those emotional problems the characters already suffer from: consider the sequen ce in
which Caro! massages Steve's back, responding to his moans of "[ [ove you" by saying
"Yeah, llave you too, yeah" in a bland monotone. Of course, Caro! does not 'mean' this:
she is simply repeating her husband's words as a way of deceiving him. But Steve's "1
lave you" is in no way more sincere or heartfe!t: like his wife, he merely says what is
expected in this situation, and we will not grasp the invasion's significance until we
realize that Ca rol would probably ha ve made exactly the comment she does make, and
been just as 'insincere', even if she had not been taken over by an alien life-form.
Ferrara's argument is reinforced by the way he utilizes the base (an idea of Larry
Cohen's), with its mindless conformism and rows of identical houses. lt is perhaps an
oversimplification to say that Body Snatchers, almost uniquely for contemporary
Hollywood, treats America's armed torces with the complete and utter contempt they
deserve, but to a large degree this is the case. One can hardly imagine an institution
more likely to arouse the wrath of an artist who so implacably rejects institutions of any
kind, for the military mentality is by its nature opposed to complexity, moral judgements,
sensitivity, femininity - all those values Ferrara defines as indispensable. The aliens,
like the zombies in George A. Romero's thematically similar 'Living Dead' trilogy,
represent not so much an invasion by outside forces as the final triumph of an interna!
menace: they have clearly chosen to launch their plans for (we assume) world
domination from the base beca use it seems like!y that if the soldiers beco me unthinking
robots without emotions or wills of their own, nobody will notice.
The soldiers' relationship with their pod doubles is reminiscent of that between
Reno and Tony Coca-Cola, the latter embodying an ideal of detachment the former
strives in va in to achieve, and if General Platt seeks to transform himself into precise!y
the kind of automaton he eventually becomes in the invaders' hands, his initial
appearance suggests how far he is from achieving this goal. This is not to say that
Platt's earlier incarnation is preferable to his later one: there is hardly anything to
recommend in the aggressive authoritarian reaching for a drink while attempting to
provoke a fight with Steve Malone ("/ have nothing to worry about? You want to explain
that?"), and little to prevent us preferring the soft-spoken, reasonable figure he
becomes when urging Dr. Collins to surrender. But just as we were encouraged to
observe Reno's killings in a[[ their horror while remaining aware that they were
motivated by emotions Tony Coca-Cola had transcended, so Platt's neuroticism
indicates he is sti!l a human being, and thus more worthwhile than his alien double.
The surrender of individuality, though particularly acute in the army, is
widespread, its protean nature being demonstrated by Jenn Platt (Christine E!ise),
General Platt's daughter. No one can quite believe that this teenage re be[ is related to
the uptight Genera! ("Don't 1 look the part?" she asks sarcastically), and it is amusing
to see that Steve, though the product of a hippie background, reacts to her muchas an
older generation would once have reacted to him: he expresses astonishment at her
clothes, and becomes furious when she laughs while he is complaining about Marti's
drinking. Yet Jenn is more like her parents than anyone realizes, something subtly
implied by the end credits, which bill R. Lee Ermey's character as 'Gen. Platt' and
Christine Elise's as 'Jenn Platt'. Not only do the General and his daughter have the
same name, they have the same outlook on life, with Jenn, who is almost a female
version of Tony Coca-Cola, retreating behind an artificial 'punky young out-of-control
tearaway with a cynical outlook on life' identity which may differ from the General's

16: BODY SNATCHERS

177

'harsh authoritarian' persona in detail, but substantially reproduces it in structure, her


automatic approval of the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA. Goal! Hippies
saving the planet") being the mirror image of her father's mindless hostility. lt is a tribute
to Ferrara's subtle and complex morality that Jenn's description of the soldiers as
"dicks" conforms with the director's own evaluation while being totally opposed to it: if
Ferrara, by virtue of his all~encompassing humanism, has earned the right to make
such a judgement, Jenn has not. Neither she nor her father are willing to think for
themselves or perceive the world as anything other than a collection of ready-made
categories into which every person and situation can be neatly placed. Tellingly, they
are both transformad into 'pods'.
As in Dawn of the Dead, only individuals who transcend societal structur8s can
successfully resist becoming 'zombies', and in both films these individuals include a
black man and a woman, whlle Ferrara adds a feminine white male, Tim Young.
Various sides of Tim's personality are revealed by the truth game, during which he and
Marti each hold up ten fingers, dropping one when the other person makes a statement
they cannot assent to. 7 This sequen ce stands as a model of narrative and thematic
exposition rooted in precise character observation, the sense of two people who know
little about each other easing their way into a relationship being conveyed with
marvellous economy and delicacy. The contrast here is between Marti's raw emotionality (note the genuine shock on her face as she discovers that Tim killed someone in
Kuwait) and Tim's more guarded reactions, emphasised by havng Tim drop a finger
after Marti states "1 never hide my feelings".
Tim's emotional reticence s different in kind to that of the other soldiers, particularly Pete (G. Elvis Phillips), whose rugged machismo is unchanged by his transformation. Pete's friendship with Tim has much the same function as Jenn's friendship with
Marti, in that these minar characters underline how sensitive the protagonists are by
comparison, and it is significant that Pete and Jenn pair off at the 'Top Gun' club just as
Ti m pairs off with Marti (a variation on the good couple/bad couple opposition found, for
example, in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Peckinpah's The Getaway).
Nevertheless, Tim and Marti hardly represent an ideal, and it is precisely ther
tendency to react emotionally that accounts for the climax's curious tone, suggested by
Marti's voiceover comments as she and Tim bomb the aliens: "They had destroyed
everyone lloved. Our reaction was only human. Revenge, hate, remorse, despair, pity.
And most of all fear. 1 remember feeling all those things as 1 watched the bombs
explode. How 1 hated them". Ferrara here goes beyond the earlier films by Don Siegel
and Philip Kaufman, for though his aliens have no positive connotations whatsoever
(he has too much interest in life on this planet to share Spielberg's fascination with
hypothetcal extra-terrestrials), their deaths are presented so ambiguously that,
whatever the narrative tells us we should be feeling, we are almost persuaded to see
things from their point-of-view. As in King Vidor's Northwest Passage (1940)- where
what we are told is that the Native Americans are responsible for atrocities, but what
we are shown is a peaceful vi!lage being butchered - the imagery of destruction is
especially emotive, recalling newsreel footage from the Vietnam war (compare the My
Lai photographs in The Addiction): one shot in particular, of a little girl covering a head
wound with her hand, seems explicitly intended to prevent us either sharing the attitude
implied by Dr Collins' "You cal! what you are life?" or experiencing any of that exhilaration offered by lndependence Day (given the massive success Roland Emmerich's
execrable film enjoyed three years later, Warner Bros. decision not to widely release

'i

178

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Body Snatchers appears particularly prescient- one doubts it would have connected
with an audience willing to applaud such mindless chauvinism). lt is perhaps this
aspect which suggested Body Snatchers as a suitable follow-up to Bad Lieutenant:
Ferrara has not forgotten LT's demonstration ofthe need to renounce vengeance.
Yet, astonishingly, those stylistic decisions which distinguish Body Snatchers'
clmax have been widely interpreted as less an implicit rebuke to contemporary
American cinema's gung ho attitude than as evidence of incompetence: Andy Dursin
sees the e.nding as "hurried and awkward (and possibly refilmed?), the conclusion
doesn't ring true with the rest of the film, and gives one the impression that the
filmmakers seemingly ran out of ideas"B; Tim Lucas describes it as "basically a series
of elegiacally filmed explosions" lacking "an important degree of tension"9; and Nick
Johnstone dismisses itas "big budget crap".10
This obtuseness can perhaps be linked to a general misunderstanding of 'style'.
As director of photography Bajan Bazelli observed, Ferrara "doesn't just want
functional film language.. He wants film language that's expressive" .11 Body
Snatchers has an Ophulsian expressiveness, communicating it~ ideas visually.
Autonomy is frequently established by framing individuals head to foot as they move
from left to right while the camera smoothly tracks alongside: examples include a shot
of Marti entering her house on the base for the first time, and the sequence in which
Andy runs away from his day-care centre. This latter scene introduces Tim, anda vital
point is swiftly made by having him move in the same left to right direction while
soldiers in the background and vehicles in the foreground move right to left. This motif
is taken up later when we see General Platt ordering trucks to carry alen pods out into
the world, and the General's Aide walking towards the General after Tim and Marti
depart: in both instances the camera tracks with the person who is moving, but the
movement is from right to left, with the characters framed in either medium-shot or
close-up. Whatever problems humans may have, they still possess a free will which is
valued stylistically and thematically, but the fact that the one kind of camera movement
both differs from and mirrors the other suggests certain ambiguities, reinforced by an
early shot in which the camera swoops across a forest to discover the Malones' car, an
image mirrored near the end when the camera moves back over the forest, reversing
the previous shot's trajectory. The precise balance of similarity and difference between
humans and aliens, rather than being simp!y stated, beco mes the materia! out ofwhich
a visual poem is written.
Another camera movement favoured by Ferrara is a forward track which initially
shows (or appears to show) a character's viewpoint, but ends with that character
entering the frame. We can see this in Cat Chaser as George Moran returns to the
Coconut Palms and finds Rafi waiting, and in Body Snatchers when Jenn discovers
her mother asleep, when the camera tracks through the Malones' house as soldiers
knock on the front door (a!though we might have assumed that this shot represented
Marti's viewpoint, she eventually appears from a different part of the frame), and in
reverse as Steve walks through Dr Collins' office, with the camera focussing on Steve
prior to adopting his point of view. Though we may emphasise intensely with certain
characters, we are not tied to their viewpoints, since Ferrara provides enough
information for us to see more than any onscreen individual.
One of Body Snatchers' most important stylistic devices has been described by
Bazelli: "The compositions are very much off-centre, people over in the corners of the
frame. That helps achieve a fee!ing of weirdness, uneasiness". In 'Some Visual Motifs

16: BODY SNATCHERS

179

of Film Nof,12 J.A. Place and L.S. Peterson discuss an image from Fritz Lang's
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) which shows DanaAndrews and Joan Fontaine
embracing on the frame's right. According to Place and Peterson, "The 'normalcy' of
this typical couple in lave ... is undercut by their unsettling positions in an unbalanced
frame". Lang uses stylistic means to make us question what we regard as 'normal', and
Ferrara's unbalanced frames have a similar function. When Marti and Tim begin
playing their truth game they stand on the left of the screen, while the right is filled with
mist from a nearby swamp in which alen pods are being grown. We are reminded that
Marti and Tim's courtship is taking place against the background of an encroaching
authoritarianism which, though literally traceable toan outside mena ce, is related_ toa
very 'human' tendency (one seen in particularly crude form on a military installation).
The tenderness and vu!nerability both characters display ensure that even if the alen
threat were to vanish, their relationship would eventually suffer from having to exist in
a context where tenderness and vulnerability are considered weaknesses.13 These offcentre compositions and unpredictable camera movements, as well as tilted angles
and jagged framings in which the actors are partially cropped off-screen, also have the
dual (indeed contradictory) function of reinforcing a general atmosphere of paranoia
while conveying Ferrara's respect for these characters' individuality, their freedom from
any restrictive definitions his mse-en-scene might impose.
This stylistic approach he!ps make sen se of the final shot: as Marti and Ti m land
ata nearby base, the camera pans down to show a soldier signalling. The suggestion
appears to be that this soldier is an alien, the human race's eventual destruction
being a foregone conclusion: but it is difficult to find anything overt that would support
this reading - all we see is a man in uniform standing on an airstrip. The sense of
menace is conveyed entirely through cinematic means (the repeat of Carol's "Where
you gonna run?" speech on the soundtrack, the gloomy grey sky in the background),
the most notable of which is also the most subtle: the downward camera movement
exactly duplicates an earlier shot in which we were shown Carol's double standing in
a street. We need not literally assume the soldier has been taken over, since that
spirit of conformity represented by the aliens is already present in American life.
Ferrara's mature films often contain unreadably ambiguous climaxes: his constantly
probing intelligence cou!d never be satisfied with resting on past achievements or
repeating previous discoveries, his need to explore both the limits of his art and the
experience of being alive in today's world inspiring him to expand the boundaries of
what is achievable in cinema. His next film would take him about as far as it is
possible to go.

2- Abel Ferrara, Moving Pictures lnternational (Cannes), May 15th 1993, Sight and Sound, February
1993, p. 23 and Film Comment, July/August 1990, p. 42.
3- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, February 2nd 2003.
4- Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Fi/ms (University of California Press, 1986), p. 478.
5- lt is nicely ironic that Carol's double is initially played by Jennifer Tilly, who was willing to appear as a
nude 'body double' for her sister Meg.
6- In her introduction to De la Figure en Gnral et du Corps en Parlicu/ier (De Boeck Universite, 1998),
Nicole Brenez makes a connection between the incredibly aged 'double' under Steve's bed and the fact
that Steve doesn't look much older than his daughter (the childish song Carol sings to him during the first
night in their new home begins with the words "He's young, but you're old"). The alien invaders are thus
linked to Oedipal tensions, and it is worth noting that 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy's incest scene also involves
a father (played by Ferrara himself) who seems to be virtually the same age as his daughters.
7- This scene, perhaps the best in the film, was written by Billy Wirth, the actor who plays Tim: "My par!
wasn't really fleshed out, so Abellet me write this scene. lt was based on a real game called '1 Never' that
was going around LA at that time, and was a good way of getting to know people" (Billy Wirth, conversation with the author, December 22nd 2002). Notice how Marti's statements are all contradicted by her
later actions: she shoots someone, hides her feelings, and goes up in a helicopter.
8- Movie Ca/lector 8, pp. 38-39.
9- Video Watchdog 23, pp. 12-13.
10- Nick Johnstone, Abe/ Ferrara: The King of New York (Omnibus Press, 1999), p. 160.
11- Fangora 118, p. 26.
12- Published in Film Comment, January/February 1974, though more easily accessible in Bill Nichols'
Movies and Methods (University of California Press, 1976).
13- Another unbalanced composition occurs when Marti argues with her father after returning home late:
the characters are framed in a doorway on !he right, while the left of the image is occupied by a wall.
Needless to say, all this is completely lost in the panned-and-scanned video.
1

Footnotes

1- Jonathan Rosenbaum believes preview screenings were deliberately manipulated to tell Warner Bros.
what they wanted to know, namely that the movie wouldn't make a dime. As Ferrara told Scott Tobias,
"The executive in charge of the film (Lance Young) was actually the guy Tim Robbins modelled himself
after for Robert Altman's The Player. This executive was in a corporate war. He was hired by Warner
Bros. for a lot of money. He was a young kid, and now they were going to muscle him out of there. And
they got him in a sexual harassment suit. You couldn't believe what these guys did to him, and once they
got rid of him, the last thing they wanted was a film of his to be a great success. Because then !he
stockholders would say 'You spent a fortune on this guy. lt cost us a fortune to gel rid of him. Whose idea
was it to gel rid of a guy who was making us money?'. lf the executive was still at the studio and still held
in high regard, Body Snatchers would have come out".

'1'

180

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

16: BODY SNATCHERS

181

above: Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) and llm try lo escape from the Body Snatchers.

above: Carollooks on as Steve (TeiTy Kinney) is transformad in Body Snatchers.


be/ow: Marti narrowly avoids becoming a pod in Body Snatchers.
be/ow: Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) shoots a pod soldier as she escapes from the base with Tim (Billy Wirth) at the end of
Body Snatchers.

182

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

16: BODY SNATCHERS

183

17

SNAKE EYES (1993)

Tom Charity: "Do you think people can change?


Abel Ferrara: "1 think people are always changing. Constantly."
Time Out, April16-23 1997, p. 15
"Seems, madam? N ay, it is. 1 know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me trUiy. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But 1 have that within which passes show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe."
Shakespeare, Hamlet. 1. ii. 76-86
"What is our life? a play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
Where we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spectator is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that's no Jest."
Sir Walter Ralegh, What /s Our Lite? (1612)

Although Snake Eyes is, along with New Rose Hotel, Abel Ferrara's masterpiece
to date, it has something in common with other cinematic milestones: like L' Atalante,
La Regle du Jeu, Citizen Kane, Viaggio in Italia, Lola Montes, The Searchers,
Vertigo, Peeping Tom, L'Avventura, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Mikey and Nicky
and Heaven's Gate, it was originally greeted with either indifference or outright
contempt. There may be good reasons for this phenomenon (which is certainly not
confined to cinema - consider Stravinsky's Rite of Spring), the perceptual challenges
posed by these works tending to make them almost impenetrable on first viewing: as
Marshall McLuhan has argued, "when they are initially proposed, new systems of
knowledge do not look like improvements and innovations. They look like chaos" .1 Yet
the experience offered by Snake Eyes is potentially available to anyone who watches
with an open mind: as Jacques Rivette observed of Howard Hawks, "The evidence on
the screen is the proof of Hawks' genius: yo u only have to watch Monkey Business to

17: SNAKE EYES

185

know that it is a brilliant film. Sorne people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to
be satisfied by proof. There can't be any other reason why they don't recognize it".2
According to Ferrara, "People always ask how 1 make a movie, so 1thought l'd put
it on film. This goes even further. We tend to work with people who are willing to put it all

on the line. Keitel's character, Israel, is a very stylised director, like Adrian Lyne.
Everything is smoke, the tonalities are together. He is important, not a cult director like
me. Snake eyes is a losing hand. lf you roll two enes, that's a losing throw. When 1wasn't
in a mood to get into a conversation, and people'd ask 'What movies are you going to
do next?', l'd say Snake Eyes. And they'd go 'Wow, sounds good', 'cause there's
something about it that sounds official, but meanwhile there never was a movie that_ went
with it. All we had was this tille to shut people up. But there's a porno film called Snake
Eyes so we couldn't use itas a title. MGM was afraid of getting sued. The guy who made
that film knew me in the 70s, and he knew Oliver Stone as well, and he was acting out
of resentment: 1 was making the kind of films 1 wanted to make, Stone was making these
big fi!ms, but this guy was still making the same kind of stuff he'd been doing for the last
twenty years. He tried to get MGM to release one of his films in return for his letting them
use the title, but it was some unbelievable piece of crap, like the rape scene from Death
Wish for an hour and a half. Anyway, MGM gave me this generic list of titles, and 1chose
Dangerous Game beca use that seemed to have at least some relationship to what the
film was about".3 The porn film entitled Snake Eyes was directed by Cecil Howard for
his company Command Video in 1985: as Howard recalls, "In the mid-70s 1 was sub
renting (Times Square, Broadway) a back office from Alex Beck, whose main business
was selling foreign film rights and at times putting film projects together. That's where 1
met Abel. On occasion we would talk movies. 1was really impressed with his energy. His
backer, Arthur Weisberg, happened to be my distributor in the Detroit area. 1followed his
successful career and ran into him a few times. lronically, 1 had purchased a script
entit!ed Fear City, and when 1got wind of Abe! making his Fear City 1scratched my title.
1 had made Snake Eyes and Snake Eyes 2, and was prepping Snake Eyes 3 when 1
heard of Abel's Snake Eyes. 1 immediately contacted him and we had lunch. 1 told him
it was a series that was copyrighted and trademarked and it was mine and 1did not want
to give it u p. That was the last time 1saw him, although he did call again about the title.
1guess he was angry with me. 1shot Snake Eyes 3, but as 1was not su re of the outcome
with Abe!, 1 used another title, just in case".4
Snake Eyes begins with director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitei)S leaving his wife
Madlyn (Nancy Ferrara) and son Tommy (Body Snatchers' Reilly Murphy) in New York
and travelling to Los Angeles, where he begins shooting Mother of Mirrors, a film starring
Eddie's old friend Frank Burns (James Russo) and popular television actress Sarah
Jennings (Madonna). The characters they play are Russell and Claire, a married couple
whose decadent lifestyle becomes complicated when Claire undergoes a religious
conversion which Russell considers to be a sham. As filming progresses, Sarah sleeps
with both Frank and Eddie, leaving the latter's hotel room seconds befare Madlyn and
Tommy's unexpected arrival. Madlyn retums to New York when she learns that her father
has died, and Eddie follows shortly after. As Madlyn prepares for the funeral, Eddie
spontaneously decides to confess his infidelities, and an infuriated Madlyn throws him
out. Eddie returns to Los Angeles.
According to production designer Alex Tavoularis, "For Snake Eyes' film within a
film, there was a set on a stage, so the entire stage was the set. The constructed set was
an interior and part of an exterior of a house, the home of the main players. lt was

[i

186

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

modern, like Neutra or Schindler, but without any of the warmth. This was the only ven u e
in the movie where we sought to stylize. The other scenes were approached with a
similar intent as King of New York. ReaL" 6
Art director Charles Lagola recalls that "On Snake Eyes, 1 really only did the New
York unit stuff. lt was a couple of interiors and a couple of exteriors. One of the greatest
moments of guerrilla film making happened on that show. 1 can't remember if we had
wrapped or were prepping, but there was a blizzard in NYC. 1 go to the Ioft that day for
1 don't know what. Producer Diana Phillips is there, by herself. Phone rings. lt's Abe!. The
following conversation takes place:
Diana: 'You what? You want to shoot now? Today? But there's a blizzard'.
Abe!: 'lf there wasn't a blizzard, 1 wouldn't want to shoot'.
Diana: 'The Lincoln Tunnel is closed. Holland Tunnel's closed. Most
businesses are closed. Harvey Keitel isn't even in NY'.
Abel: 'That's OK, we'll just put the coat on someone and shoot him walking through the snow'.

Diana: 'OK, what coat? Everything is closed. lt's a blizzard'.


Abe!: 'Come on!!! we can do this'.
So Diana and myself erilbarked, found the wardrobe person and wardrobe. 1 seem to
remember that person walking 40 blocks in the Plizzard to get there, hand-carrying the
wardrobe. People would do that for Abe!. Someone to shoot? The aotual DP lived in
Jersey and couldn't get to Manhattan. The first AC lived in Manhattan. But he didn't have
a camera: 'Get on the phone. Find a camera'. 'What about film?' 'Call Andrea (2nd AC}.
Doesn't Jimmy have a camera? We can find it. The light will be gane in 5 hours. Let's
gol' We shot it. 1forget who was wearing the coat. 1 think 1even wore it for one take". 7
The complex reality/fantasy game played in Snake Eyes links Ferrara with those
fi!mmakers, notably John CassavetesB and Jacques Rivette, who have interrogated the
concept of 'performance', investigating that narrow line separating 'acting' from 'being',
assembling films on an improvisational basis in which impulses are privileged and
narratives become deformed as actors express their free wills. Essentially, this is that
'termite art' which, according to Manny Farber, "goes always forward eating its own
boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager,
industrious, unkempt activity".9 Like La Regle du Jeu's Marquis, who wants neither
rabbits nor fences on his estate, works in this tradition seek both coherence and chaos,
measuring their success by how c!osely they approach, without quite succumbing to,
complete breakdown. The inherent dangers are suggested by Dennis Hopper's The
Last Movie (1971), which ends with randomly selected shots featuring the cast drift.ing
in and out of character; or Agnes Varda's Lions Love (1969), in which Shirley Clarke
(ptaying 'herself'} refuses to go through with a suicide attempt, insisting (in footage that
may or may not have been staged by Varda, who eventually appears on camera to
demonstrate how the scene should be played) "1 just can't do it, Agnes. l'm sorry, l'm not
an actress"; or Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again (1973), a film which, though
c!early of enormous importance to the people who made it, is constructed in a manner
which underlines the viewer's exclusion from on~screen events. The division that once
distinguished Ray's characters (recall Jim Stark's "You're tearing me apart") shift.s onto
the formal leve! once Ray takes centre-stage as a performer, and We Can't Go Home
Again, like The Janitor (an episode of Wet Dreams in which Ray played the divided
protagonist), manifests the most extraordinary split between a Bazinian faith in the
camera's ability to convey 'truth' simply by recording an externa! world on film, and Ray's
determination to manipulate and distort the resulting footage.

17: SNAKE EYES

187

These works are all either impllcltly or explicitly about filmmaking, about groups
dedicated to creating fiction (though this fiction-making activity is often lite itself), but
whereas Rivette's formal ambitions developed against an experimental background we
tend to think of as distinctively European, the performative studies undertaken by Capra
and Cassavetes appear more securely anchored, both narratively and in their seemingly
direct relationship with 'reality'. The overlap is nonetheless considerable, and if this is
emphasised by Snake Eyes, Ferrara has a distinguished predecessor in Bob Dylan's
Renaldo & Clara (1978). Dylan's masterpiece has much in common with Rivett_e's Out
1 (1971): both films are notable lar their extended running times (the Rivette lasts 13
hours, the Dylan 4); both attempt to sum up 60s ideals; both mix fiction and r~ality,
forcing brief, disconnected fragments of severa! possible narratives into an ostensibly
'documentary' framework; both introduce elements from other art forms (music and
theatre). Yet Renaldo & Clara also recalls Capra: consider the early scene in which
record executives discuss the commercial formulas and financia! imperativas ("lt's not
gonna be heard unless it gets on the radio") Dylan's artistic aspirations must negotiate.10
The composition - with Dylan, ostensibly the central figure, relegated to the frame's
margin - foregrounds those practica! obligations within which artists are required to
function, and Dylan can hardly fail to recall Capra's visionary dreamers - Longfellow
Deeds, Jefferson Smith, George Bailey- who expressed themselves through the limiting
systems and conflicting demands by which they were surrounded_11 Yet expression here
also involves withdrawing from too active involvement, the sequences in Renaldo &
Clara which show David Blue playing pinball providing a neat metaphor for the improvisational styles of Dylan and Ferrara: the decision to shoot this game has been made by
the auteur, but the ball's precise trajectory will be outside his control, determinad by a
combination of chance, luck and the player's skill.
Dylan and Ferrara insist on the continuity between domestic conflicts and events
taking place in a wider arena. While Renaldo & Clara connects quotidian interactions
with the unjust imprisonment of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Snake Eyes establishes
a link between repression of feeling and the Holocaust: as Eddie observes during the
final rehearsal tape, 'The ultimate is to feel pain and suffering. Then you have a chance
to survive. Because sorne rat-fucking bastard who's leading a little girl, a llttle seven-year
old girl with a Star of David on her chest, to a concentration camp, that rat-fucking
cocksucker isn't feeling anything. lf he was, he couldn't take her to the gas chamber".
These films also have blatant autobiographical overtones: both feature the
directors' wives in parts which echo their real-lite 'roles', both refer to infidellty (though
the Dylan, in which Joan Baez has the same function as Madonna in Snake Eyes,
places less emphasis on this), both deal more or less overtly with their creators'
marriages, and both were made as those marriages were on the verge of collapse.
Ferrara must have known that casting his wife as the spouse of a maverick director
would not so much encourage speculation as positively demand it,12 an issue explicitly
addressed in Snake Eyes' workprint when Sarah, puzzled by Eddie's insistence that he
is happily married, says "l'm assuming that the script yo u wrote is at least semi-autobiographical". The film's screenplay (dated November 18th 1992) contains several
references to Bad Lieutenant (Sarah mentions "the last film you two did; the one where
you shot up on screen. lt can't happen llke that with me ... it can't be glucose you shoot"),
and makes Burns (whose Christian na me is given as Jimmy rather than Frank) a standin for Nicodemo Oliverio: Burns insists that the director and himself are "like brothers ...
we been together since we're sixteen", and tells Sarah "He was my best friend,

'i

.- 1

188

ABEL FERRARA- The

Moral Vision

Jennings ... 1 knew 'im before he got married, befare he had kids, befare he made films ..
befare you were even born. We made movies where nobody got paid and where l put
up my own money to buy the raw stock ... we TALKED about everything and were a
tea m" _13 But whereas certain elements in the actual film support an autobiographical
reading (the offscreen individual Eddie addresses as 'Nick' during rehearsals is
obviously Oliverio), others either negate this or inflect it in a different direction: Eddie's
memories of the Marines are drawn from Harvey Keitel's experiences, while the actor's
troubled relationship with Lorraine Braceo is said to have influenced his characterization.
To give an idea of how playful this aesthetic game can get, consider the role of Mother
of Mirrors' cinematographer: as shooting begins, Eddie can be heard asking the opinion
of 'Ken', presumably Snake Eyes' DP Ken Kelsch, yet when we see the clapperboard
for Mother of Mirrors, the DP is identified as 'V. Noto', and whereas many of Ferrara's
technicians appear as themselves, 'V. Noto' is played by Victor Argo.14 At one point we
are even shown Snake Eyes' clapperboard (which must be particularly confusing for
anyone who thinks they are watching something called Dangerous Gamf), on which the
photography is, of course, attributed to 'K. Kelsch'.
'
On the sutiace, theSe reality/fantasy gamesmay sound as trivial as those of, say,
Wes Craven's New Nightmare or Living in Oblivion, but Ferrara never allows us to
forget that gambling is only meaningful when genuine stakes - carrying with them the
danger of losing everything if one is unlucky enough to roll 'snake eyes' - are involved:
for him, filmmaking is "like any gig that you're gonna take to that leve!, that's gonna
determine how you live or die. lt's nota gameto us".15 One can better understand
Snake Eyes by comparing it with other films about filmmaking, most of which adopt two
terms of reference: a 'realistic' one for the portrayal of activity on or around the motion
picture set; andan 'unrealistic' one for the movie being made. To present the film within
and the film without on equal terms (as Snake Eyes does) might lead to the collapse of
those barriers which separate reality and fiction. From what we are shown, Mother of
Mrrors would appear to be every bit as intense and resonant as Snake Eyes itself, and
while this is the logical result of Ferrara's steadfast refusal to impose val ue judgements
on anything or anyone, it also indicates an epistemo!ogical problem: if the performances
in Mother of Mirrors are as 'convincing' as those in Snake Eyes, what does this say
about Frank and Sarah? That they are superb actors, capable of endowing fictional
characters with realistic attributes? Or that they are, in a far wider sense, bad actors,
importing the mannerisms and gestures they use on-set into their everyday relationships? These questions suggest avenues of exploration but are misleading, for they
imply that the ways we present ourse!ves in theatrical and social situations are somehow
different, a distinction Ferrara will not allow us to make.
Renaldo & Clara juxtaposes an argument between Steven Soles and Ronee
Blakley with Blakley's rendition of her own composition Need a New Sun Rising: the
Blakley/Soles sequence, filmed in one take and mostly seen via mirrors, emphasises the
couple's failure to communicate - Sole's jealousy is expressed in petty bickering about
how long Blakley is taking to get ready, Blakley's sexual frustration and alienation
conveyed via insults and hostility, the two of them eventually resorting to physical
violence. Need a New Sun Rising, which directly follows, provides a marked contrast:
here, Blakley eloquently articulates intense feelings, her vocal pass ion and energy being
at the opposite extreme from her stumbling inarticulacy during the previous scene. Both
Ferrara and Dylan link artistic discourses with social enes, but whereas Dylan sees the
'pure' selfs expression as a real possibility, identity for Ferrara can be manifestad only

17: SNAKE EYES

189

:"1

through social interaction. Renaldo & Clara's identities, like those of Snake Eyes, are
almost infinitely malleable, capable of being taken up and abandonad as swiftly as the
various narrativa fragments, but whereas the identities assumed by Dylan's (and
Warhol's) collaborators are inconsequential (this being the fundamental point about
them}, every persona adopted by Eddie Israel has a concrete effect no amount of stylish
improvisation will erase.
Notice how Snake Eyes introduces Frank's party with a shot of a boxing match:
the visual quality informs us we are looking ata television screen, but there is no 'border'
around the picture to confirm this. Ferrara intercuts boxing and glimpses of party-goers
without establishing the television's presence until the scene is almost over (evet:~ then
the TV is only barely visible at the bottom ofthe trame). The result is that screen 'fantasy'
and the party's 'reality' are imbricated rather than stratified, the eschewing of 'traditional'
editing patterns underlining how thoroughly that line between reality and fiction has been
eroded while hinting at the violent undertones this world conceals.16 Superficially genteel
social interactions are here motivated by aggressive impulses, and the participants in the
restaurant scene, though they maintain a scrupulous decorum, are not dissimilar to wild
animals probing for weaknesses: an agent attempts to eliminate Frank ("1 know he's your
friend and everything Eddie, but are you really sold on Burns?"), then back-peddles
when her bluff is called ("lf that's your choice, 1 back it"), only to have Eddie close in for
the kili ("You just tried to get rid of himl What do you mean, you back it? ... Y'hear the joke
about the actor that walked into his agent's office? He opened the door, walked in. The
agent stood u p. 'Helio'. He lied"), the polite manner in which this conversation ends
("Nothing personal taken") disguising its hostility. Ever since Could This Be Love,
Ferrara has demonstrated an astonishing sensitivity to conversational nuances,
stressing the way in which most verbal discourse conceals far more than it reveals.
When Sarah and Eddie are joined in a bar by Richard Belzer and a friend of Sarah's, all
four jostle for 'star' status, remaining constantly attentive to attempts at marginalization:
Eddie's question about Belzer's work is interpretad by Sarah as a play to exclude her
from the conversation (while Belzer attributes her lack of interest to egotism), and when
she later asks about her friend's father, Belzer sees this as an opportunity to mock her
earlier attitude ("My father's dead, if anybody's interested''), The scene is shot in a single,
evenly balanced take, with nene of the four individuals given prominence (something
which itself carries a strong moral charge), and is bracketed by shots of the bar's other
patrons adopting rigorously controlled poses. These highly nuanced social games, trivial
though they seem, are defined as both widespread and deadly serious. Frank may have
been speaking sarcastically when he asked Sarah if she was worried about her c!oseups, but in a world where there is no distinction between 'acting' and 'being', relegation
toa {social or artistic) bit part involves a confrontation with oblivion.
This helps explain why Ferrara chose to have Sarah played by sorneone who is
generally considerad a 'bad' actress. Whether or not negative judgements on
Madonna's thespian skills can be justified is completely irrelevant, since it is the
perception of her inadequacy with which Ferrara is concerned. lf we are tempted to
define Madonna's acting in Snake Eyes as superb or dire, we will soon be obliged to
either examine our prejudices concerning 'acting' or risk misunderstanding the film:
when Frank cuts a scene in exasperation at Sarah's performance, Ferrara does not tell
us if we should agree with Frank that she is "full of shit in this scene", or with Eddie that
she is "wonderful in this scene". We are denied Hollywood's traditional indicators of
'good' or 'bad' acting, those shortcuts to understanding which imply that Lina Lamont

190

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

(Jean Hagen) in Singin' in the Rain is 'talentless', or that Eva Lovelace (Katherine
Hepburn) in Morning Glory is 'gifted', and any evaluation we make must be strictly our
own Uust as we must decide for ourselves whether Claire's religious discoveries are
genuine or, as Russell maintains, "shams").
Sarah is provided with attributes viewers are invited to project onto the actress
playing her, 17 the scene in which Eddie/Harvey Keitel bullies Sarah/Mad.onna into
displaying emotion by calling her a "commercial piece of shit" functioning as both a
reference to Madonna's extra-diagetic persona and a possible demonstration of how the
actress was treated by Ferrara. The presence of a performer notorious for her inability
to 'act' on screen reinforces Snake Eyes' emphasis on people unable to 'act' in life, a
thesis ironically confirmed by anecdotes which suggest that tensions evident on the
Mother of Mirrors set either reflect or were reflected by those on the Snake Eyes set.
One gossip piece published in a British tabloid describes an incident which could almost
be an outtake from the film: "Madonna was reportedly dealt a humiliating snub on the
film set when she asked co-star James Russo to go out to dinner with h6r. Russo asked
'ls it business or pleasure? Because if it's pleasUre l'm not interested'.! Madonna was
furious, walked away in a huff, and had dinner alone".18 According to Nancy Ferrara,
"In the beginning she wanted to read the script, do the lines and that was it. lt was not
just the lines - the lines were the last and most meaning!ess thing in this. Abe! and
Harvey started really to get into the emotion and she was very apprehensive about
going forward with that. She really held back a lot, she didn't like it at al l. She just never
expected that and had never worked that way befare. Somewhere in the first three
months they broke her down and she got it"_19 Madonna has told interviewers about
scenes in which Sarah manipulates Eddie and Frank, destroying their friendship and
emerging as a new star: this is precisely what happens in the screenplay, which ends
with Mother of Mirrors' triumphant premiere, but the 229-minute workprint (described in
the filmography) reveals that this aspect had most likely been eliminated befo re shooting
began, making it difficult to understand Madonna's complaint that "The director is the
one in control, and everyone else is a pawn for them. You have control over your
pertormance when the camera is going, but you can take that performance in the editing
room and completely change the character. That's what happened to me with Abe!.
Because it was an entire!y different movie when 1 made it- it was such a great feminist
statement and she was so victorious at the en d. lloved this character. But he edited out
all the brilliant things that 1 said telling Harvey and James's characters to fuck off. He
took my words off me and turned me into a deaf mute, basically. When 1 saw the cut film,
1 was weeping. lt was like someone punched me in the stomach. He turned it into The
Bad Director. He's so far up Harvey Keitel's ass, it had become a different movie. lf l'd
known that was the movie 1 was making, 1 would never have done it, and 1 was very
honest with him about that. He really fucked me over".20 Ferrara believes that "she
expected to be on equal ground with Harvey and Jimmy. You know, you're not on equal
ground. Harvey is on a different plane. She could have learned a lot, buL. she didn't.
She was just in the wrong place. She accused us of sucking Harvey's dick, of being
afraid of him, or intimidated. But we just learned from him, and respectad him. And
Madonna didn't know we were filming her. We were fi!ming during rehearsals, a month
befare we started shooting. She had no idea we were gonna use it in the film. She felt
betrayed ... and she used that asan excuse".21
According to Joe Delia, "We went to the Venice film festival for the premiere of
Snake Eyes. There was a section of the theatre roped off for all the principals from the

17: SNAKE EYES

191

film and 1 had the pleasure of sitting next to Mr. Cecchi Gori senior. There was so much
anticipation in Venice for the film, but once the screening was over you could feel that it
was a bust. Midway through, 1 !ooked over, and the elderly Cecchi Gori was sleeping
soundly- the rest of the audience on the verge. ! actually liked the film myself. There was
a nice reception afterwards ata fine restaurant and we had a great time hanging out with
Giancarlo Gianni and other aristocrats of the ltalian cinema. Afterwards, 1 rode back on
a prvate boat to the hotel with Nicky and Keitel. Harvey griped about the picture for the
whole trip, and when 1 to!d Abe! later he to!d me that Keitel didn't even sit for the
screening. Madonna disliked the film as wel!. There was a screening at ene of the
screening rooms in town (l think in Tribeca), and Madonna showed up. Befare the.lights
even came up, she bolted out of her seat and made a break for the lobby. 1 was standing
talking to Joe Pesci (he thought it was interesting}, and 1 could hear Madonna saying in
a loud voice: 'Abe!, this isn't the movie 1 signed on to do'. lt was no surprise that she
distanced herself from the film. The original script was much more accessible than what
was put down on film. l think this is why Madonna disliked it. Her character was originally
played up more as a TV star, which was all but abandonad in the film. She just had no
idea what she was in for". 22 Anthony Redman recalls Madonna phoning him to complain
about the final cut: "She was crying on the phone, saying 'Tony, what happened to the
film we made?' 1 just said 'Well, we decided to take it in a different direction'".23 With the
best will in the world, it is impossible to believe Madonna's aesthetic judgement might
have been superior to Ferrara's, and difficult not to agree that "She's a fuckin' jerk ... Like
we sit around taking out the best scenes in the movie to spite her. You know how
paranoid you gotta be to fuckin' say something like that?".24 Nevertheless, l suspect
Ferrara is secretly rather pleased with the whole affair, confirming as it does his
insistence on the necessary crossover between life and art: as with Out 1 and The Last
Movie (as well as Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, to which the climactic scenes specifically refer}, events in this film not only paralleled those of the shoot, but may have been
designed to do so. Consider Ferrara's humorous account of his working relationship with
Harvey Keitel: "1 kept my eyes closed; all for the sake of art! The show must go on. 1don't
trust this guy even when he's right in front of me ... He goes for everything he could
fucking get, then he gets paid on top of it. Imagine that- having to watch your wife near
him. S he didn't loo k like she was having too bad a time either. 1 said 'You didn't have to
look like you were that happy"'.25
The difficulty of determining where life leaves off and fiction begins, of saying how
far is too far, of deciding at precisely what point a rape scene filmed with raw and
uncompromising rea!ity becomes a genuine rape, is directly confrontad when Sarah
attacks Frank after shooting Russell's rape of Claire. What happened during the filming?
Although we saw every detail, it is impossible to say, just as the manner in which Sarah
upbraids Frank- "He can't fucking act, man. He has to fucking do everything for real. .. He
has to drink to play a drunk. He has to fucking ... He didn't have to have ... "- demonstrates
how she is herself unable to articulate her feelings: about to accuse the actor of having
actually raped her, Sarah suddenly realizes that is not exact!y what happened. What did
happen is presumably indistinguishable from what Eddie, Frank and Sarah expected to
happen: a partial erasure of the !in e separating reality from performance (the workprint
takes this even further by having Heather Bracken's air stewardess ask "Are they really
fucking?" when she finds Eddie obsessively rep!aying a videotape of the rape scene).
Eddie shares with Sarah both a desire to 'perform' and an inability to do so more
convincingly, suggested by the opening shots of him using the material at hand - a

192

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

spaghetti dinner with his wife and son - to convert reality into a theatrical event,
illustrating how awful Madlyn's mea! is by making comical choking sounds.26 As with
Jean-Paul Sartre's waiter in a cafe, whose mechanistic movements suggest he is
"playing at being a waiter in a cafe", Eddie is acting the role of 'husband and father',
much as he will later act the role of 'filmmaker', and although his job is to construct
fictional scenarios, he is repeatedly confrontad with situations which bring his ability to
make 'scenes' into question. Russell and Claire's chamber drama may explore
emotional extremes, but the world they occupy is a prvate one in which their "argument
between Heaven and Hell" (to use Eddie's phrase) can be played out on its own terms,
following its own solipsistic logic. Eddie's life often parallels his film in ways of which he
is surely aware27- compare Russell's "1 need these things" with Eddie's "You gotta give
me what 1 need" - but despite his insistence on improvising during filming, the real world
continually introduces unforeseen elements, demanding a leve! of improvisational skill to
which he is seldom adequate: Madlyn and Tommy's unexpected arrival requires him to
invent an excuse about hanging up the phone, smooth down the bed, turn on the light,
puff up the pillows and hide an ashtray in order to eliminate all trace of S8.rah's visit; his
argument with Frank has to be delayed while Eddie prepares the 'set' by removing three
other people from the trailer, a process which takes almost as long as the subsequent
conversation and involves a number of decisions about how best to ha~dle the actor's
friends (one man exits immediately, another shakes Eddie's hand in a friendly fashion, a
woman refuses to leave until Eddie roughly grabs her arm); most complexly of all, his
shouting-match with Madlyn has to negotiate the sudden appearance of Tommy, whose
presence obliges Eddie to assume a nonchalant pose in the midst of an unendurably
painful moment.28 Though Ferrara refuses to present scenes from Eddie's film less
authentically than scenes from his life, we are nonetheless asked to distinguish between
Russell and Claire's eloquently expressive monologues and the halting, repetitiva
progress of Eddie and Madlyn's dialogue. 29
Ferrara aims to destroy his characters' complacency by spoiling their tightly
written scripts. In Ms.45 and Cat Chaser, neatly ordered existences are disrupted by
eruptions of violence, the terms in which Ferrara has discussed Thana ("when the
worst happens to her, she thinks- yeah, 1 can deal with this, 1 can turn it around, l'm
no victim") and George Moran ("just a normal guy under normal circumstances")
suggesting it is precisely their willingness to take whatever life throws at them that
interests him. Eddie is frequently obliged to display emotional generosity as a result
of having misjudged a situation: he greets his wife with the words "Change your
mind?" because he mistakenly believes his lover has returned, and later tells Madlyn
"1 don't wanna discuss anything now. 1just wanna concentrate on my work", only to
discover she has just learned of her father's death. Consistently in Ferrara, individuals
who claim to know where they are going have the rug pulled out from under them. For
this director, as for Ophuls' Lola Montes, life is movement, the ability to adapt to a
constant!y changing situation being valued above all else, and Ferrara (like Walter
Brennan - "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?" - in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have
Not) treats his everyday encounters in much the same fashion, throwing spanners
into the most smoothly functioning works. Rafi Pitts' documentary Abel Ferrara: Not
Guilty - in which Ferrara can be seen turning casual meetings into improvisational
opportunities30- offers amp!e evidence that this filmmaker's life and art f!ow together
so naturally that it becomes impossible to say where one ends and the other begins,
primarily because one doesn't have to end before the other can begin:31 P.J. Delia,

17: SNAKE EYES

193

who was an extra in The Blackout, recalls how "lt seemed on that set that everything
had the potential to be in the film- if the camera was rolling, it kept rolling",32 while
lsabella Rossellini claims "there's so much confusion on his set you never know if the
camera is on or off, if they're fighting for real or doing a scene".33 Justas Ferrara's
films are not postmodern texts operating inside a self-contained universe with no
reference to externa! reality, so his sets are not worlds apart cordoned off from the
pressures, anxieties and emotions of everyday life: in the director's own words, "lt's
not my films, it's my life. A film is not a 90-minutes thing. A film is everything that 1
am".34 The qualities Ferrara seeks in his characters are identical to those he looks
for elsewhere: human beings, he believes, will reveal themselves in all their
richness when confronted with the unexpected, and whereas most narrtives
actively encourage us to interpret behaviour as 'coherent' in a manner unthinkable
outside the privileged real m of fiction, the way we react to Reno in The Driller Killer
or Eddie in Snake Eyes has far more in common with the way we react to our loved
ones, friends and even casual acquaintances. In such masterpieces as Welles'
Citizen Kane, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Ford's The Searchers, Preminger's Anatomy
of a Murder, Ray's Bigger Than Life, Fuller's Shock Corridor and Cimino's The
Sicilian, actions express comprehensible personalities: even when they are contradictory (as in the Welles, the Ford and the Cimino) or motivated by lack of selfknowledge (as in the Hitchcock and the Ray), they are traceable to a consistent
interna! core. We can usually make 'sense' of these characters, and when we
cannot, there remains the possibility that, were we to be provided with additional
information, we just might: even when they lie, mislead, or descend into madness
(as in the Fuller and the Preminger), they do so from the basis of a salid identity,
although this identity may be known only to themselves. But the mysteriousness of
Snake Eyes' world is, like that described by Maynard Mack in his essay on Hamlet,
"not simply a matter of missing motivations, to be expunged if only we could find the
perfect clue",35 Ferrara's interest in states of transition inspiring him to portray
individuals who, rather than holding on to a fixed position or moving from one fixed
position to another, are many things simultaneously: if these people are constantly
being surprised, they also have the ability to surprise us. Eddie would be incapable
of misrepresenting himself for the simple reason that he has no fixed identity he
could mislead people asto the nature of (it is significant that Ferrara did not use the
screenplay's voiceover narration): there will be no 'Rosebud' to even tentatively sum
up Eddie, no hope of ironing out his contradictions, of reconciling his various
personalities. Consider the following:
- When Eddie rehearses and discusses motivation with Sarah, he treats her as an
intellectual equal.
- After leaving Frank's party, Eddie asks Sarah to dance with him. Sarah puts her
sunglasses in Eddie's pocket, and they dance by a swimming pool as Eddie sings a
popular song (the difficulty he has remembering the lyrics adding to the scene's
tenderness).
- In bed with Madlyn, Eddie describes Sarah as "very LA". Madlyn asks if Sarah is
beautiful or if she "wears a little makeup and bleach?", and Eddie laughs, observing
"that's all a lot of money, sweetheart" (this scene appears in a different context - befare
Eddie has slept with Sarah- in the workprint).
-As filming progresses, Eddie begins verbally abusing Sarah on the set.

194

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Which of these scenes tells us how Eddie genuinely feels about Sarah? Clearly, all
and none of them. The Eddie who serenades Sarah by the pool is at that moment every
bit as sincere as the Eddie who laughs at her while in bed with his wife,36 justas the
Eddie who calmly discusses Mother of Mirrors with the actress is the same person who
later castigates her for merely following his screenplay ("You gave me back the horseshit
1gave you"). The conflicting aspects of Eddie's character are nowhere more evident than
when he sits on a plane mellowly drinking wine while looking ata video monitor on which
he can be se~n screaming at his lead actress (the many sides of Sarah's own personality being indicated by the cut from her talking passionately during rehearsal to her
telling superficial jokes in a restaurant). Yet Ferrara would never dream of creating a
protagonist less intelligent and aware than either himself or his audience: as Eddie's
description of his life as a 'charade' implies, any difficulty we may have reconciling the
family man, whose lave for his wife and child is obviously genuine, with the philanderer
who casually embarks on an affair in Los Angeles, is something we share with the
character rather than a judgement we impose on him.
Eddie's 'charade' is vastly preferable to that of Frank Bums, a desdendant of Tony
Coca-Cola who attempts to insulate himself within an aggressively macho persona.
Whereas both Eddie and Sarah are able to explore multiple 'roles', there is no essential
difference between Frank and Russell, the character he plays in Mo(her of Mirrors.
Russell resembles King of New York's Bishop in his misguided attempt to understand
the present through the prism of the past, his marriage collapsing because he cannot
accept his wife's ability to change.37 Frank is easily identifiable as a certain type of Method
actor, condemning Sarah's "you didn't fuck me, you fucked the gir! in the script" claim as
"Method shit" while justifying his own drinking, drug-taking and abusive behaviour as
indispensable to the preparation of a part. lf del1cate emotional interaction is Ferrara's
ideal, Frank is the actor as scene-hog, treating every encounter as an opportunity to
indulge in bravura displays of 'intensity', turning all dialogue into monologue.
Yet Ferrara refuses to Jet us forget how difficult creating the illusion of intimacy in
the midst of chaos must be. At one point we see Frank walking downstairs and sitting at
a table: we initially assume Frank is alone, but when the camera swings around, we
realize he is in character as Russell, the seemingly deserted room being full of technicians whose presence he must ignore in arder to carry out even this simple action. A
similar point is made immediately after the rape scene: while Eddie rushes to comfort
Sarah, Ferrara cuts to Frank pacing about like a caged animal. Despite all those
defences against sensitivity Frank erects, the filming has obviously disturbed him.
What we have he re is ene of the great humanist styles: Ferrara uncovers hidden
emotions with a tenderness which may itself be what these films are 'about'. No
matter how much emphasis we place on Ferrara's thematic concerns, it cannot be
stressed too strongly not only that his themes are never abstract, but that the subordination of Grand Statements to casual details itself has thematic implications, the
metaphysical overtones developing organically from modest ambitions ("People
always ask me how 1 make a movie, so 1 thought l'd put it on film") and precise
observations of a particular time and place (February 1993, snow in New York, Amos
& Andrew advertised outside the Chateau Marmont and the side of a bus in Los
Angeles). Although they hint at Ferrara's philosophical interests, the story about
Hermes which Eddie relates to Tommy and the "Doomsday Has Arrived!" billboard on
Sunset Boulevard38 are primarily there to evoke the experiences of sitting in bed
reading to your son or driving around LA after dark.

17: SNAKE EYES

195

Consider the sequence in which Frank, Sarah and two other women discuss
acting while smoking marijuana, a discussion completely uncontextualized both in
terms of location (there is no establishing shot, and the entire scene is filmed in
close-ups) and position within the narrativa: Frank and Sarah seem at ease together,
though the last time we saw them they were at each other's throats.J9 The dialogue
is virtually direct authorial comment, with Sarah observing "lt's not about acting, it's
about feeling. How can he act if he doesn't feel? ... What is the difference between
acting and feeling? ... How do you feel it unless you act it? ... You can't play a drunk
unless you drink, right? So why do you have to be in lave with meto be in lave with
me? You have to deserve the privilege". Although this may sound schematic, it is
brought to life by the rambling manner in which Madonna delivers her monologUe (as
if it were of no great importance), by the way in which Ferrara's camera moves
sideways to frame one of the women (suggesting that the look on this minar
character's face might be more important than any number of extractable 'ideas'),
and by what follows: Sarah claims the phrase "deserve the privilege" sounds like a
tampon commercia! which she then attempts to improvise ("for when there's a heavy
flow of bullshit"), at one point forgetting the inspiration for this particular digression
and having to ask what the tampon's name was, finally collapsing in hysterical
laughter.
For Ferrara, 'themes', like 'identities', cannot be reduced to essentials, but only
exist during momentary interactions which by their nature are impossible to pin down.
When asked if he believed in God, Ferrara replied ''l'm tryin' not to think of it in these
terms that have been hangin' me up my whole life. 1 mean, God hasn't been defined.
That's the definition of God, right?"40 Replace 'God' with 'the self' and you have an
eloquent summary of Ferrara's concerns, but this imbrication of religious and psychological elements, though it should not surprise us in the work of an artist for whom
everything is interconnected, suggests the problematic nature of the films'
metaphysics.
Ferrara's Catholicism is extremely unusual, organised religion's moral absolutes
having no place in, and being fundamentally incompatible with, his vision: ever since
The Driller Killer, he has insisted thatactions cannot be judged outside the specific
contexts in which they occur (which is not the same thing as saying they cannot be
judged at all - this is as far from fashionable amorality as it is possible to get), and the
discrepancy between this viewpoint and faith in absolute goodness (or badness),
though successfully negotiated by China Girl and Bad Lieutenant, is here tackled
head on. Simply put, if human beings express themselves through more or less
complex layers of more or less sincere theatrical performance, then is there an inner
core, a 'soul', wherein the unarguable truth of what we are resides? This is the question
posed by Snake Eyes (as wel! as Hamlet, which also used a series of overlapping
fictions to interrogate the distinction between 'being' and 'seeming'), and the answer,
which Ferrara confronts unblinkingly, is perhaps not. The film's structure can be
compared to an onion: we see rawer and rawer emotions stripped away and revealed
as essentially performative, eventually discovering there is nothing at the core. Snake
Eyes revisits Body Snatchers' loss-of-identity theme from the opposite end of the
emotional spectrum, but comes to virtually the same chilling conclusion, the terms in
which Ferrara described the earlier film- "lt's a question of self- what makes you you.
And when that's threatened, it's the ultimate horror"41 - being equally applicable here.
Consider what happens after Eddie's argument with Mad!yn:

196

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

- We see Eddie on aplane returning to Los Angeles asan air stewardess (Heather Bracken,
the nurse who looked accusingly at LT in Bad Lieutenant) tells him she !oves his work:.
- Eddie drinking and taking drugs alone in his hotel room while a rehearsal tape of him
discussing the Marines plays in the background.
- Eddie imagines Madlyn telling him that if he thinks his life is so admirable, he should
teach his son to !ie, drink and take drugs.
- Frank and Sarah rehearse a scene from Mother of Mirrors.
-A shot showing Eddie asleep next to the air stewardess.
- A clip from Burden of Dreams (1982), Les Blank's film about the making of
Fitzcarraldo, in which Werner Herzog expresses doubts concerning the morality of
filmmaking.
-A rehearsal tape in which Eddie discusses Mother of Mirrors' theme.
-A shot of Eddie lying unconscious by a toilet, vomit visible on the floor.42
- In a scene from Mother of Mirrors, Russell walks up to a seated Claire and shoots her
in the head.
Eddie's loss of control is mirrored by the way these climactic scenes spiral
downwards until they reach a state of total incoherence in which the moment of greatest
clarity, Madlyn's speech, is a hallucination. Whereas that video footage showing Eddie
talking about the Marines is related to the surrounding action (it is playing on a television
in the room where Eddie is drinking), the subsequent rehearsa! tapes are more
ambiguous (Are they playing on Eddie's television? Are they f!ashbacks?), while the
Burden of Dreams clip, though the thematic point of its inclusion is clear enough
(Herzog's view of filmmaking as "too crazy and ... just not what a man should do in his
!ife all the time" being one that Ferrara at least has a certain sympathy with), is even
more difficult to assimilate in narrative terms (ls Eddie watching this? lf so, why?).
Similarly, the confidence with which Eddie can be heard discussing Mother of Mirrors
during the final rehearsal tape receives less emphasis than the uncertainty indicated by
his final line: "You know what l'm talking about, don't you?". But the most ambiguous
sequence is the last one. 1 have described it as showing Russel! shooting Claire, but
there is no reason not to assume that what we are seeing is Frank shooting Sarah. In
the scene as filmed, Russell approached Claire, aimed a gun at her head, then wa!ked
away without pulling the trigger_43 According to Madonna, "the way (Ferrara) edited it,
he completely changed the ending. He had me killed, which was never supposed to
be",44 something that is blatantly obvious from the finished film, in which the death of
Sarah/Ciaire is conveyed by a flash of light and a gunshot on the soundtrack: as Ferrara
once observed, "We're not making documentarles. 1 don't mean to sound like the Godard
quotebook, but a gun going off in a movie is nota gun going off'.45 We understand both
what has supposedly happened and the means by which the illusion was brought about,
and are free to 'read' the look on James Russo's face as belonging to either a man who
has just killed his wife, ora man who has failed to carry out this act.46
Just as we were earlier obliged to redefine what we meant by 'good' and 'bad'
acting, so here we are encourag'ed to consider what we mean when we say that
someone in a film has been 'killed'. Ferrara's inquiry into the distinction between fiction
and reality ends as it must: in confusion. A climax in which Frank unambiguously killed
Sarah wou!d actually be less despairing than what we have, involving as it does the
artist's declaration that he has !ost faith in everything: the existence of a soul, the
performer's ability to successfully create an identity, art's power to mediate conflict (or
1

17: SNAKE EYES

197

even maintain a semblance of coherence). Neither belief in an unquestioned series of


absolutes such as those heard in the song Blue Moon ("the only one my arms could ever
hold"), which plays under the opening and closing credits (the latter in Bob Dylan's ironic
rendition), nor the triumphalist assertion of Paul Michael Glaser's The Cutting Edge
(1992), showing on the plane as Eddie returns to New York, are viable options for
Ferrara, but even the relative coherence of Bad Lieutenant is felt to no longer be
achievable. Whereas LT's decision to confess his sins and beg forgiveness was
presented as a positive act, the attempts of both Eddie in Snake Eyes and Claire in
Mother of Mirrors to do the same thing, to "confess every fucking thing (they) ever did
and ask for pardon", to "serve (their) sentence and be cleansed", lead only to disaster. lf
we could see Ferrara at the end of Snake Eyes, he might resemble the Jean-Luc
Godard of Numero Deux (1975), a defeated figure slumped befare an editing bench with
his face buried in his hands, exercising no control over the images randomly appearing
and disappearing on the screens behind him.
Yet no Ferrara film could be totally despairing, and Snake Eyes contains one of the
most idyllic visions in his oeuvre: as in all great tragedias, the protagonist's destruction
is brought about by the failure of a utopian ideal. Unable to believe in religious
orthodoxy's unchanging inner self, Ferrara propases that those qualities generally
associated with the 'soul' may be nothing more (and nothing less) than the ability to
stand outside the world of performance, an ability here demonstrated solely by Madlyn.
Contrast Eddie's return home with Madlyn's unexpected arrival in LA: in the former
scene, a surprised Madlyn is genuinely glad to see her husband; in the latter, a surprised
Eddie must play a self-consciously theatrical role in arder to regain mastery. lllusion and
reality are identified with, respectively, Los Angeles and New York: if Ferrara does not
present Eddie's problemas existing only in a specific location, he nevertheless sees the
surrender to irresponsibility as flourishing in particularly flagrant form on the East Coast,
Madlyn's description of Eddie as "nothing but a Hollywood piece of crap" being especially
apt. The fundamental difference between Los Angeles and New York is that the latter is
associated with Madlyn: Handel's G Minar Sonata Op 2 No 8 can be heard under both
the New York pre-credits sequence and a later scene in which Eddie returns home, but
is also used when Madlyn arrives in California. The values with which Madlyn is linked
are those of an older, more graceful age, and though Ferrara has little interest in arguing
that the past's ideals were superior (anymore than Shakespeare believed in the literal
existence of Falstaff's England), he connects the surrender to performative conceptions
of self with a nihilism increasingly .prevalent in contemporary America.
Though its sexual politics are superficially more conservativa than those of Could
This Be Lave, 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy, The Driller Killer and Fear City, Snake Eyes
develops the earlier films' definition of bisexuality as a natural state. Ferrara would be
the last person to deliver a homily on the emptiness of loveless sex (Carol's
relationship with Reno and Pamela was neither loveless nor promiscuous, instead
being linked with an attempt to redefine the concept of family): if he condemns the
affairs of Eddie, Frank and Sarah, it is because they are pursued for ulterior motivesSarah believes they will be good for her career, while the two men use sexto reinforce
masculine self-images perceived as under assault The inability to experience pleasure
is so taken for granted that Ferrara does not even need to depict actual intercourse:
the essential point about Frank's lovemaking with Sarah, Sarah's with Eddie and
Eddie's with the air stewardess is made by their identical aftermaths, the lovers lying
stiffly side by side, not communicating in any way. The only exceptions are those

198

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

scenes in which Madlyn and Eddie make lave, wherein Ferrara shows the physical act
to demonstrate Madlyn's unselfconscious bliss.
lt is Eddie's inability to reconcile his various selves that inspires Madlyn's ghostly
denunciation: "What do you want to say to me, Eddie? What do you want to explain to
me? Do you want me to forgive you? Do you want me to condone what yo u do? lf yo u
think duplicity is so admirable in a person, 1 want you to teach your son how to lie. lf
you think drugs and alcohol are so wonderful, then 1want you to go out and buy some
for our son. lf you think infidelity's such a virtue in a person, then 1 want you to bring
one of your girlfriends over here and fuck her in front of your son. That's al! 1want from
you, Eddie. 'Cause a boy should learn from his father''.47 Though this again suggests
a conservative stance (like Gypsy's in 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy), Madlyn's morality is
not so different from The Driller Killer's free lave philosophy as it may appear, since
her accusation that the values her husband propases are diametrically opposed to
those he lives by - is primarily concerned with hypocrisy. Eddie Israel both is and is not
Abe! Ferrara, and if Eddie's working method duplicates his creator's, he also bears a
marked resemblance to those directors (of whom Ferrara cites Adrian Lyne as
representativa) whose artistic and prvate worlds remain resolutely separate, who
consume vast quantities of drugs while portraying drug dealers as villains (a charge
levelled against The Blackout's Matty when his Miami dealer sells hinJ cocaine while
discussing "that movie where you played a cap, where you fucking killed all the cake
addicts"), and preach the holiness of fidelity while seducing every actress they
encounter. Although Eddie's sell-out is of a subtler kind (the film he is making anticipates his marital rift, just as Snake Eyes foreshadowed the end of Ferrara's own
marriage), his inability to distinguish between illusion and reality has a very specific
point, for Eddie's 'film' consists not simply of Mother of Mirrors, but of everything he
does in Los Angeles. There is obviously an enormous difference between the life Eddie
leads at home (and which he seems to find eminently satisfying) and the dream world
he creates in Hollywood (similar to that created by the Joe Dallesandro character in
Walerian Borowczyk's La Marge). Eddie can only engage in casual affairs because he
does not perceive them as 'real': in Ferrara's own words, "To his character, Eddie, all
the time was Eddie time. That character couldn't see past himself',4B and it is essential
that we see what Eddie does not To Eddie, the air stewardess is nothtng more than a
casuallay, but Heather Bracken, in the space of three shots lasting less than a minute,
manages to create a fully rounded human being. We live in a culture which places
individua!s within categories, 'sensitivity', 'sincerity' and 'intelligence' not being qualities
commonly attributed to air stewardesses. lf we were to overhear an air stewardess
flattering a wel!-known filmmaker, most of us would automatically assume that the
woman either wanted something or was simply being polite (Eddie's response, "How
kind of you", implies the latter). Yet Bracken delivers her dialogue in a way that
suggests she is completely sincere, that Eddie's work really has touched her. Ferrara
is determined to destroy al! limiting modes of understanding, and while Snake Eyes'
final scenes drift towards a breakdown so thorough it can barely be contemplated, a
world of possibilities is opened up by that shot of Bracken gent!y touching Eddie's fa ce
while mouthing the words "l'm sorry".
lf the viewpoint of this masterpiece, which encourages us to perceive so much
more than its protagonist, can be associated with any one character, it is certainly
Madlyn. Although the fictional world inhabited by Eddie in LA is one he has manufacturad personally, the New York world is the creation of his wife, and while the latter
w

17: SNAKE EYES

199

pravides Eddie with his c!earest shot at happiness, he cannot wait to plunge inta the
inferna af the film set, even using a farewell dinner with his family as an appartunity ta
begin performing. Yet at same leve!, Eddie realizes what he is daing: his final denunci~
atian by Madlyn is a product of his awn mind, while his admission that he hates plane
food indicates a subcansciaus resentment af the existence he neurotically embraces.
In the final audition tape he talks, with remarkable insight, about "haw we destray the
lave that we've all had in our lives and fucked it up ... Why? Lack of strength, lack af
caurage, fear... despair. Yau want me ta give up drinking? Yau want me ta give up
drugs? You want me to give up fucking? Yau want me ta give up something? 1 can't
give it up. You want meta give it up? 1can't give it up. And that lave is withdrawing. lt's
dying". Here is sameane wha has all the taols necessary to understand that a state af
perfect joy is within easy reach, yet, like Othello's "base lndian" (or 'Judean') wha
"threw a pearl away, richer than all his tri be", still manages ta avaid it: Eddie's snatching
af defeat fram the jaws af victary, his chances far achieving happiness in this life being
far greater than thase of any other Ferrara prataganist, is at the heart of Snake Eyes'
tragic visian.

Footnotes

1- Marshall Mcluhan, Understanding Media. Leslie A Fiedler proposed a similar theory in Love and Oeath
in theAmerican Novel: "Great analytic or poetic works, depending for their acceptance on an intimacywith
language and structure which may seem at first reading strange or even obscure, often have to wait long
for their popularity" (p. 187). The hostility which greeted Ferrara's New Rose Hotel would further prove
the accuracy of these claims.
2- Cahiers du Cinema 23, May 1953.
3- Abel Ferrara, The Guardian, June 2 1994, p. 8, inteJView with Liza Bear and conversation with the author.
4- Cecil Howard, e-mails to the author, November 15th and December 21st 2002. Ferrara's original title
was used for the French release (as well as the London Film Festival screening). When Brian De Palma
made a film called Snake Eyes in 1998, the end credits noted that "The title Snake Eyes is used by
arrangement with Command Video and Command Cinema Corporation": "1 said no way, but De Palma, 1
guess, carried on ... had to have it. So they made an offer my lawyer couldn't refuse" (Cecil Howard, email to the author, December 21st 2002). In 1977, one of Howard's protgs, Chuck Vincent, directed 1
Want More (aka Joy), which, according to David Flint, starred Sharon Mitchell as "a woman who is
molestad by two burglars ... and subsequently becomes a marauding female rapist, attacking men across
New York". Could the director of Ms.45 have seen this film?
5- In Nicodemo Oliverio's screenplay, the protagonist is nameless, referred to only as The Director. The
name Israel presumably refers to The Bib/e's Jacob, whom an angel renamed Israel, which means 'one
who wrestled with God'.
6- Alex Tavoularis, e-mail to the author, April 2nd 2003.
7- Charles Lagola, e-mail to the author, March 1Oth 2003.
8- Russell's '1 need these things' speech ("lf 1 wanna stay out all night, 1 will. lf 1 wanna get drunk, if 1
wanna do cake, 1wiiL lf 1wanna go out and find some cunt on the street and fuck her up her ass, 1wiiL")
is taken almost verbatim from the play performed in Cassavetes' Opening Night ("You wanna go out and
get drunk? You wanna take dope? You wanna go out with some guy at four o'clock in the afternoon and
be with him?"). In his Cahiers du Cinema inteJView, Ferrara described Opening Night as "a good film".
9- "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art", Negatve Space (Studio Vista, 1971), p. 135.
10~ Snake Eyes' workprint opens with a similar scene showing Eddie caving in to his attorney and agent,
who insist that Mother of Mirrors will not be made unless Sarah is cast. The screenplay includes the
following voiceover commentary from the director: "And so it begins. The compromises take hold and your
vision begins to slip from your hands ... ". lt is surely no accident that a copy of Erich Van Stroheim's Greed
screenplay can be glimpsed in Frank's trailer, Greed being perhaps the supreme example of what
happens when artistic ambitions conflict with the forces of commerce.
11- For more on this, see Raymond Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge
University Press, 1986).

11

200

"'~'' ~~

ABEL FERRARA- The M0ral Vision

V\

~ ~4

tf'

12- Jane Campion, who had directed HaJVey Keitel in The Piano, was originally cast as Madlyn. Keitel
suggested Nancy Ferrara as a replacement when Campion proved unable todo the film. Nevertheless, the
screenplay makes it abundantly clear that Madlyn was based on Nancy Ferrara Here is how the director
originally described his wife in voiceover: "She too was once an actress. The first time 1saw her she was on
stage. 1t was lave at first sight and after nine years 1 still lave her. Her theatricality, her brains, her
independence". Compare that with Ferrara's description of Nancy: "She's an actress. When 1 met her she was
on the stage. 1 was like a 'stage door Johnny'. She was like this super fax in this Tennessee Williams play This
Properly /s Condemned. So 1 was with these hipster guys, hoping to get picked" (Fatal Vtsions 18, 1995, p. 4).
13- Although 'Nicholas St. John' is credited as sole writer, the screenplay is labelled "A Ferrara/St. John
original", suggesting a collaborative effort (the same description appears on King of New York's U.S.
trailer). According to Ken Kelsch, "Nick was only sparsely present during the Snake Eyes shoot, though
he was there quite a lot while we were filming The Addiction and The Funeral" (e-mail to the author,
February 16th 2003).
14- According to Vctor Argo, "1 didn't have any lines, so 1figured l'd do it if 1could play him gay. Abel said
'sure'. But every time 1 came up with a line, l'd crack everybody up. So they had to cut all that out. The
movie wasn't about a gay cinematographer" (from an interview with Richard Harland Smith, Shock
Cinema 18, Spring/Summer 2001, p. 24). Ken Kelsch believes Argo might have modelled his character
on Nestor Almendros, with whom the actor had worked while filming Martin Scorses8's episode of New
York Stories, bu! Richard Harland Smith informs me that "1 asked Vctor if he had basbd his character on
anyone in particular, and he said he didn't. He made the choice to have fun with a nothing par!. One of
his 'bits' was that he would repeatedly fire workers on the s8t ("Freddy? Freddy? Where's Freddy? Freddy,
you're fired'). Anyway, his gay DP was definitely not based on N estor Almendros" (e-mail to the author,
February 28th 2003).
15- The Guardian, April11th 1997, p. 8.
16- New Rose Hotel takes this sequence's formal experimentation in a somewhat different direction.
17- The story Sarah tells about her experience of being raped is apparently drawn from Madonna's own
life: according to Ferrara, "lt did happen, but then nobody believes it because she made it unbelievable.
lt was a very heavy sequence. 1 didn't know she was going to tell that story" (quoted in Andrew Morton's
Madonna, p. 69).
18- Rick Sky, "Move Over, Darling", The Daily Mirror, March 18th 1993, p. 17.
19- Andrew Morton, Madonna (Michael O'Mara Books, 2001), pp. 194-195.
20- The Face, October 1994.
21- Gene Gregorits, "Abel Ferrara: The Sex & Guts lnterview" (2003).
22- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, February 17th 2003.
23- Anthony Redman, conversation with the author.
24- Quoted in Kent Jones' "The Man: Who Cares?".
25- Fatal Visions 18, February 1995. In a similar vein, Anthony Redman recalls his fiance watching
Snake Eyes in Ferrara's apartment, and angrily stalking out after viewing a scene showing Redman
having sex with Madonna (as part of !he home movie Russell shows Claire): apparently, Nancy Ferrara
had jokingly told the fiance that "Tony begged Abel to let him do this".
26- Eating is always problematic in Ferrara: as Nicole Brenez has suggested, "By preference, one drinks,
butwhen one eats, the act involves demented guzzling (The Driller Killer's pizza sequence), a cannibal orgy
(The Addiction), ora magic sweet (The Blackout)" (Trafic 43, p. 55, my translation). Thana's kitchen in
Ms.45 becomes a place to store not food but human remains, while the only meal she prepares is made from
a corpse and intended for a dog; the wife in 'R Xmas consumes nothing but a mouthful of her daughter's
meal; The Hold Up's Johnny departs for work without eating breakfast ortaking his lunch; no food is served
in the 'low rent' bar visited by Could This Be Love's Jacky and Renee; The Driller Killer's rabbit is never
eaten; Michael Shane is interrupted befare he can finish his meal in The Loner's pre-credits sequence; King
of New York's Jimmy Jump doesn't get to eat the food he orders; nobody actually eats during the breakfast
table scenes in either Bad Lieutenant or Body Snatchers; and Fear City's Matt mus! be compelled to eat
by Carmine. This aspect of Ferrara's oeuvre is neatly summed up by one of Christopher Walken's ad-libbed
comments in New Rose Hotel: "Waiter! Coleslaw for everybody! Too bad there's nobody here".
27- Theatre productions also frequently overlap with offstage lives in Jacques Rivette's films.
28- Compare the moment in Roberto Rossellini's Europa '51 when George (Aiexander Knox), on the
verge of a raw emotional confrontation with his wife, Irene (lngrid Bergman), glances behind him to ensure
that he cannot be overheard by their guests. In Snake Eyes' screenplay, the scene is completely different:
there, the director simply tells his wife that he wants to leave her (in the film, he is attempting to save the
marriage by being honest about his infidelities), and Tommy does not intervene.

17: SNAKE EYES

201

29- Significantly, the only dialogue in Snake Eyes which does not appear to have been largely improvised
occurs during the scenes from Motherof Mirrors. lt is precisely the absence of a 'script' that causes Eddie's
discomfort during his argument with Madlyn, justas the absence of a 'script' will make X feel uncomfortable
when his motivations are interrogated by Sandii during an improvised scene in New Rose Hotel.
30- Even the most seemingly pointless of these improvisations has tremendous resonance: when a young
woman in Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty asks Ferrara why people are filming him, he replies "Because it's my
last day on earth. We're doing a new TV show. lt's called Last Da y on Earth. .. 1 don't have too much time
left". This is the Ferrarian ideal: to treat every moment as the only moment and live each day as if it were
one's last, without preserving energy for later use. Whereas Godard insisted that tracking shots were a
question of morality, with Ferrara we might claim that improvisation is a question of morality.
31- Ferrara's concerns are not laid to rest when the cinematic text achieves its final form: one of his
current projects, Mary, is about an actress who plays Mary Magdalene in a film, then continues exploring
the role after shooting has been completed.
32- P.J. Delia, e-mail to the author, February 23rd 2003.
33- lsabella Rossellini, interviewed for Channel 4's series Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1998).
34- Sight and Sound, April 1997, p. 9.
35- Maynard Mack, The Worfd of Hamlet (1952). lt is also worth recalling Herman Melville's comments to
Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of this great allegory - the
world? Then we pygmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended".
36- Similarly, the Sandii who begs X to marry her in New Rose Hotel may be every bit as 'sincere' as the
Sandii who ultimately betrays him.
37- The screenplay makes this point particularly clear by having Russell tell his wife that "You've called
our life together a lie; you've decided, mid-way through the drama, you want to change your character...
you want to conform ... you want to change who you are ... and that's treachery".
38- Compare the "ltAII Happens Here" sign at the end of Bad Lieutenant. In both cases, these billboards
were found on location. Ferrara discovers reflections of his themes in everyday reality, rather than altering
reality to express his concerns.
39- The workprint places this sequence earlier, to quite different effect: notice that Sarah's hair, which had
been cut by Frank a few scenes earlier, is here back to its full length.
40- The Guardan, op cit.
41- Viflage Voice, December 1992, p. 66.
42- Bathrooms and restrooms in Ferrara are rarely used for a conventional purpose: they are places to
meet (Could This Be Love), to have sex (9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, The Driller Killer), to dismember a
corpse (Ms.45), to encounter a possible murderer (Fear City), to question a mobster (Crime Story), to
argue in (The Driller Killer) or argue about (Bad Lieutenant), to vomit (The Addiction, the Cat Chaser
workprint), to kili (Cat Chaser), to stare at the camera (King of New York) ora wound (The Addiction),
to drink or inject blood (The Addiction), to experience fear (Body Snatchers, where this happens twice),
to change clothes (China Girl, California), to contemplate suicide (The Funeral), to take drugs (The
Blackout), to conspire (New Rose Hotel), evento pretend one is urinating (Cat Chaser). When individuals
actually urinate, they do so on the living room floor (Snake Eyes), in a dark alley (The Funeral), or over
somebody's shoe (King of New York). All activity has been displaced from its 'normal' location.
43- One of the images originally intended for use in this sequence - a shot of Russell screaming as he
holds a gun to Claire's head- can be glimpsed on a video monitor in the workprint. In the screenplay, this
scene (which appears ata much earlier stage) is described as follows:
"He cocks the pisto! and puts it to her head.
BURNS
"... bang ... "
He lowers the gun and steps away."
44- The Face, ibid.
45- Sght and Sound, February 1993, p. 23.
46- Crime Story also ends with one character (Torello) approaching someone who is seated (Luca) and
threatening to shoot them. A version of Crime Story prepared for European theatrical release contains
an altemate ending in which Torello actually does shoot Luca, a change brought about by manipulating
the existing footage in much the same way that Ferrara manipulated the footage which ends Snake Eyes.
47- There is another echo of Crime Story here: the scene in which Torello imagines a conversation with
his dead partner.
48- Fatal Visions, op cit.

202

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

above: Eddie directs Sarah in Snake Eyes


above: Sarah in bed with Francis Burns (James Russo) in Snake Eyes.
below: Francis in Mother of Mirrors (Snake Eyes' filrn-within-a-film)
below: Francis, Sarah and Eddie rehearse a kitchen scene that only appears in the workprint of Snake Eyes.

17: SNAKE EYES

205

18

THE ADDICTION (1994)

"Phi!osophy is a prison. lt disregards the uncustomary things about you. The result of
individual thought is applicable only to itself."
Bill Gunn, Ganja & Hess (1973)
''The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man."
Wittgenstein
"Out of paradoxes,
Man creates his world.
He cannot clean his sockses,
And says 'The world is soiled'."
Poem recited in Dusan Makavajev's WR- Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

The Addiction provides evidence of Ferrara's willingness . to measure his


aesthetic progress by revisiting favourite themes, plots and motifs. The central
character is Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), a philosophy student studying at New York
University whose life changes when she is dragged into an alley and bitten by a woman
named Casanova (Annabella Sciorra). Kathleen becomes a vampire, and after initially
attempting to resist, she siphons blood from a derelict's arm, then proceeds to attack
strangers, as well as her professor (Paul Caldaron), her friend Jean (Edie Falce), and
an anthropology student (Kathryn Erbe). Peina (Christopher Walken), a man she
approaches in the street, turns out to already be one of the undead. He educates
Kathleen in the nature of vampirism. After the conferral of her degree, Kathleen invites
faculty members to a party at which her former victims, now vampires themselves, are
also present. At Kathleen's bidding, they turn on the guests. Sated with blood, Kathleen
staggers into the street and collapses. She is taken to a hospital where she attempts
to commit suicide by letting in light, but is prevented from doing so by Casanova.
Approached by a priest, Kathleen begs forgiveness and appears to die, but is later
seen placing a flower on her own grave.
Nicodemo Oliverio recalls that The Addiction "started with a concept, which is that
vampirism is a metaphor for the evil that lurks in all of us and only has to be awakened.
That's what got me to sit down and write it; it seemed so clear to me, so obvious and so
perfect. lt just fell together. lt was very quick writing -less than a month. 1gave it to Abel,
and every so often he'd try to get it set up. You know how it is- it just wasn't happening.
Then one da y, Abel came up and said, 'You know what? 1think we're going to make that
movie'. And after all that time, it got going really quickly once the decision was made.
Like two weeks later it was starting. Vampirism is only a symbol. Underneath, this movie
is talking about the evil that is embodied in every individual. There must be a reason why
we're capable of doing things like that. 1 mean, we can tal k abbut World War 11 Germany.
We can talk about Turkey and the slaughter of the Armenians. We can talk about
Vietnam. We can tal k about Yugoslavia today and what's going on there. There must be
something within people that allows them to do those things. The image of the va mpire

18: THEADDICTION

207

seems perfect, because it's something that doesn't seem to want to go away. We have
this character who's very educated, who should be very wise - certainly she knows a lot
and she's well-read - who falls prey to the same evil instincts as everybody else. We
don't seem to learn, and 1 wrote a line to that effect for our vampire- we just go around
and around and we never seem to learn".1
According to Charles Lagola, "1 remember Abe! saying, 'hey, we're making a
va mpire movie, but if it looks like a va mpire movie, we'll blow it'. 1 understood that sort of
direction. The process of elimination and augmentation brought us toa reality base in the
sets and locations. Another thing he said that has served me well is 'don't design the set
so it tips off the scene'. A simple idea? Yes, yet sometimes not so simple in practice".2
Anthony Redman recalls that "1 couldn't edit The Addiction, because 1was wrking
on anotherfilm, but 1kind of kept an eye on the rus hes, just in case 1had to step in at some
point, and one thing that struck me was a shot showing the shadow of a tree as Kathleen
approaches a derelict. lt made me think of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People. When 1 saw
a cut of the film, 1was horrified to find that this shot had been edited in such a way that
you couldn't really see the tree. 1said 'you guys have ruined the best shot in the film'! So
they went back into the editing roorn, and let this shot play out at its fulllength". 3

r:

i.i!
1';

According to Joe Delia, "Schoolly D's song Eternity ca me from a track 1wrote for
the film. lt had a rap feel to it, with scoring on top of the track. 1thought it would make
a good song, and suggested that Schoolly write a song called Eternity's a Long Time,
taken from a line of dialogue in the film. Schoolly told me that he couldn't make the
word 'eternity' work in the song, and changed it to 'forever is a long time"'.4
The Addiction resembles severa! previous Ferrara films (Kathleen's siphoning of
b\ood from a sleeping dere!ict certainly connects her with The Driller Killer's Reno),
but its main reference point is clearly Ms.45, the similarities between these two works
being so extensive that a single plot synopsis will suffice for both: a young woman living
alone in New York is dragged into an alley and assaulted, a traumatic event which
encourages her to roa m the streets randomly selecting victims whom she can attack in
turn, the clmax occurring at a Halloween party where she butchers the guests. Yet the
variations are more relevant than the repetitions: whereas Thana was raped while
returning home after buying groceries, Kathleen is assaulted during a night of aimless
wandering; whereas Thana's assailant was a man, Kathleen's is a woman; whereas
Thana was changed by her experience, Kathleen's ordeal brings to the surface
tendencies already present; whereas Thana was denied access to language, Kathleen
uses words as weapons; and whereas the emblems of Catholicism in Ms.45 (notably
the nun's habit worn by Thana) were empty signifiers, The Addiction portrays religion
in a manner both more serious and more troubling.
Although this book is unambiguously (and unapologetica!ly} auteurist, cinema's
collaborative nature often makes it difficult to assign responsibility. To take a minar
example, notice the striking shot in Body Snatchers - directed by Ferrara,
photographed by Bajan Bazelli - in which Steve climbs through the base clinic's
window, the camera tracking with him past the wall intervening between actor and
camera. Asimilar shot could have been seen five years earlier in Patty Hearst (1988)
- directed by Paul Schrader, photographed by Bazelli. This image also turns up in The
Addiction - directed by Ferrara, photographed by Ken Kelsch - as Kathleen brings the
professor back to her apartment. s The question of authorship here could be resolved
only by seeking out testimony from the various participants (if then); and the far more
important influence of screenwriter Nicodemo Oliverio is even tougher to calculate,

208

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

especially since Oliverio's job did not always end once his screenplay had been
completed. Ferrara insists that "These films are written by him, and he's on the set
every day. He's watching all the shots. He's directing right along with me".6 According
toKen Kelsch, "Nicky was the ultimate clarifier. Abe! would always go to him for shades
of meaning"_7 In an interview conducted by Maitland McDonagh in 1995, Oliverio
claimed that he and Ferrara "think on the same wavelength. Or at least we understand
each other. We've been friends for more than half our lives, and we don't agree on
everything, but we do know how to work together. Whether Abe! concurs 100 percent
with everything l'm saying in the film or not, 1can't say. But if he asks why this or that,
and 1have an answer that holds together in the context of the film, he trusts me". 8
While 1 primarily value Ferrara's films for their intensely cinematic realisation, it
has to be admitted that The Addiction's script is superb (a considerable amount of
pleasure can be derived from simply reading it), both the resemblances to Ms.45 and
the religious elements being almost entirely Oliverio's contribution. 9 The structure is
apparently straightforward: Kathleen's intellectual understanding of the society she
inhabits, sophisticated though it may be, necessitates a rejection of Spiritual values.
Whereas Peina's belief system is strong enough to overcome his physical needs,
Kathleen's studies justify the actions she initia:lly attempts to resist, the ending - in
which, like Dr. Hess Green in Ganja & HesS, she begs God's forgiveness and is
absolved of her sins- depicting surrender to a Truth that was befare he.f- the whole time.
1do not wish to argue that Ferrara has rejected his writer's plan: on the contrary, much
of the film's brilliance is due to its vivid realization of Oliverio's ideas. Notice that our
first view of Kathleen shows her tace illuminated by the light from a slide projector, a
touch that both indicates how the character will eventually allow herself to be defined
by the discourses she encounters, and serves to connect her with Casanova, whose
face is also covered by shades of light and dark on her initial appearance in the alley
(this motif reappears during Kathleen's suicide attempt, which involves bars of llght
slowly moving towards her}.
Like Casanova, Kathleen orders potential victims to tell - notas k- her to go away:
their failure (as she sees it) proves them incapable of rejecting evil with any conviction,
and thus deserving of their fate. The missionary she invites to her graduation party is
(aside, for very different reasons, from Peina) the only person who resists Kathleen,
thus anticipating the role Catholicism will soon play in her redemption. Yet Ferrara does
not feel the need to stress this point: far from being presented transcendentally, the
missionary is an unimpressive figure, handing out pamphlets to uninterested
pedestrians while saying "Hear the good news. God laves yo u", and it is surely ironic
that he survives not because he rejects Kathleen with conviction, but rather because
there is no convenient alleyway for him to be dragged into. Kathleen {and Casanova)'s
insisten ce that her victims are collaborators is here revealed as blatant self-justification.
As in the work of Robert Bresson a seemingly minar detail, such as the bursts of
Mozart in AMan Escaped or Jeanne's appearances in Pickpocket (or LT's look into
the camera in Bad Lieutenant), anticipates the protagonist's elevation to a state of
grace. Consider The Addiction's various references to childhood: when Kathleen
stays overnight in an infirmary, the image of a clown decorates a wall, while the doctor
ca!ls her by the childish na me Kathy; as she injects herself, Ferrara cuts to home movie
footage of a little girl; Kathleen is juxtaposed with a boy looking at a photograph in a
Holocaust exhibition; just befare her attack on Jean, Kathleen asks "What makes you
think you've been forgiven for lying to your mother as a child?", and afterwards sits in

18: THE ADDICTION

209

her room holding a child's shoe;to when Kathleen stumbles out of the party, she cres
"mama", her bloodMsoaked appearance making her resemble a newMbornMbaby; as she
lies in the hospital bed, the sound of a child singing London Bridge can be heard in the
background; and after the priest asks "Are you a Catholic?", she replies "1 was
baptised". The implication is that for all her intellectual achievements, Kathleen's
redemption will be brought about by reMestablishing contact with values she has
'known' since early childhood, and ifwe pay attention to these subtle hints, the final act
of transcendence, though apparently emerging from nowhere, will preve to have been
meticulously prepared for.
In many ways this is an example of what Paul Schrader labels 'disparity': "a
growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality... which casts suspicion On the
nonemotional everyday; the viewer suspects that there might be more to life than dayM
toMday existence ... One of the dangers of the everyday is that it may become a screen
in itself, a style rather than a stylization, an end rather than a means. The everyday
eliminates the obvious emotional constructs but tacitly posits a rational one: that the
world is predictable, ordered, cold. Disparity undermines the rational construct".11 But if
The Addiction is Ferrara's most Bressonian film, there is an unbridgeable gap between
Bresson's "The point is not to direct someone, but to direct oneself'12 and Ferrara's "You
gotta be there for the actor. That's the point of directing. You gotta know where he's
gonna be and you gotta be there to give it to him. Beca use when the bottom line comes,
he's the movie. The camera's not on the director'' _13 As Schrader has pointed out, for
Bresson "the realistic surface is just that Ma surface ~ and the raw material taken from
reallife is the raw material of the transcendent... Transcendental style stylizes reality by
eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of
human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their
relevance and power. Transcendental style, like the mass, transforms experience into a
repeatab!e ritual which can be repeatedly transcended".14
Although O!iverio's screenplay for The Addiction could have been handled in the
way Schrader describes, Ferrara would have been incapable of making such a film, his
primary, and possibly only, allegiance being to the representation of reality in all its
messy, irreducible completeness. The realistic surface, far from being 'just' a surface,
is what these films are 'about', and if we are to glimpse a religious vision, we will be
obliged to look within, ratherthan through, the images. The artist who constantly comes
to mind is Jean Renoir, and it should be obvious to anyone even vaguely familiar with
Renoir and Bresson that combining the vitality, expansiveness and generosity of the
former with the minimalism of the latter is no mean achievement. One might profitably
compare Ferrara with Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah's protagonists, like those of Bresson
and Schrader, are engaged in a desperate, usually suicida! quest for self~realization,
yet whereas little attention is paid to the other inhabitants of those societies depicted
in Pickpocket and American Gigolo, Pat Garrett and Pike Bishop are consistently
juxtaposed with ordinary people going about their lives. Notice the care with which
Peckinpah choreographs his extras during Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid's early Fort
Sumner sequences: each one is a living individual who is engaged in a specific activity
and has little or no interest in Garrett's star entrance. The opening battle in The Wild
Bunch, which shows small-town lives disrupted by violent conf!ict, has much the same
effect. Yet Peckinpah does not idealize this community, the violence of the Bunch and
their opponents being in many ways a purer version ofthe Temperance Union's represM
siveness, or that sadism displayed by the children torturing a scorpion.

210

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

So in The Addiction, the cruelty of Kathleen and her fellow vampires is measured
on the one hand against those genocides which defined the twentieth century, on the
other against that simple humanity displayed by the doctor who holds Kathleen's hand,
the taxi driver who attempts to help her, the passers-by who rush to her aid when she
collapses in the street, the nurse (Heather Bracken, reprising herBad Lieutenant role)
who tells her "nobody's gonna let you die", and the priest who administers last rites.
Like Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, Kathleen sees her actions as inconsequential in the
context of mankind's propensity for mass destruction, but remains unaware of
something she encounters every day: the disinterested, almost instinctual need to
comfort a fellow human being in distress. lf Peina is correct in his assumption that "it
takes a special person to see pain and do something about it", the world he occupies
would appear to be full of 'special' people. While Kathleen insists "some things are
more important than others", Ferrara believes the precise opposite: for him, nothing is
more important than anything else, no individual more valuable than another, this shot
neither more nor less significant than that shot. The proposition that the Holocaust
leaves one with little option but to abandon faith in humanity, seeihg virtually any
atrocity as trivial by comparison, is denied by individual images, such as the sequenceshot depicting Kathleen's first hospital visit: Ferrara begins this shot by showing an old
woman with a walking-stick proceeding through the corridor, moves his camera to
revea! a policeman talking to Kathleen, then foilows Kathleen as she Sits down next to
a woman and an injured man. The implicit answer to Kathleen's philosophy can be
found in Ferrara's mise-en-scene, the woman walking past and the injured man being
granted a stature equal to that of the protagonist. Ferrara usually focuses on individuals
who are marginal to America's mainstream, and his films often end up privileging
characters who are marginal to their own narrativas (Could This Be Love, Cat
Chaser): whereas Kathleen believes herself to be the only important person in her
world, relationships with other people inevitably involving "the violence of my will
against theirs", Ferrara reminds us of the many other human beings with whom she
regularly comes into contact, and whose pain is as important as hers -as he told Gavin
Smith, "You got to get outside yourself, you can't just walk round thinking, 'The only
thing that counts is me'. Yo u got to think about something other than yourself'_15 lf the
filmmaker is representad by a single character, it is surely the priest, played by Father
Robert Castle, who insists on greeting everyone he passes. As we saw in Jonathan
Demme's documentary Cousin Bobby (1991), Castle's religious beliefs are neither
abstract nor reactionary (he is committedly left-wing), the saving of souls existing for
him on a continuum with such practica! considerations as the need to repair a hale in
the middle of a street, and Ferrara implies an affinity with Castle by having him deliver
the voiceover narration which opens The Addiction.
A similar point is made during the scenes involving Kathleen's fellow philosophy
student Jean. As with the other female exemp!ars of un~neurotic normality who appear
throughout Ferrara's oeuvre, Jean embodies those properly human qualities the
central characters have lost contact with, and to which their behaviour is constantly
referred. Like the similarly named Jeanne in Pickpocket, Jean is associated with the
protagonist's salvation while being hostile to her metaphysical musings. But although
the difference between the friends' outlooks is already evident from their My Lai conversation, Ferrara does not come down firmly on one side of the argument: Jean's defence
of Lieutenant Calley's prosecution and Kathleen's insistence on taking a wider view
("How can you single out one man? ... How did he get over there? Who put the gun in

18: THE ADDICTION

211

his hand?") are both perfecUy valid, but whereas Jean's ideas flow from her natural
sympathies, Kathleen is already displaying an ability to justify her actions by seeing
them in the context of a greater force before which she as an individual is helpless
("Kierkegaard was right. There is an awful precipice before us. But he was wrong about
the lea p. There's a difference between jumping and being pushed"), and it is significant
that the sequence ends with Kathleen and Jean walking in different directions Uust as
Father Castle and Casanova will later be seen walking away from each other):
vampirism in The Addiction has much the same function as cortisona in Bigger Than
Life or the hotel in The Shining, bringing to the surface potentia!ities already present
in the protagonist. lf Jean's considerate nature is indicated by her gift of flowers,
Kathleen's final act, the placing of a single flower on her own grave, suggests she has
come to see the world through Jean's eyes: just as Snake Eyes' spiritual ideals were
embodied by Madlyn, Kathleen's religious awakening, rather than involving surrender
to a hazily defrned deity, is here explicitly linked to Jean.
In her achievement of balance (she can eat and read philosophy books at the
same time, much to Kathleen's disgust), Jean provides a clear contrast with such figures
as Kathleen, Casanova and Peina, who have allowed their frner instincts to be overruled
by intellect. Whereas Jean interacts with others, the vampires occupy an essentially
solipsistic universe: both Peina and Casanova are introduced talking to themselves, and
all three characters directly confront the camera
Casanova addresses her initial
challenge to the viewer, Peina stares into the camera after draining Kathleen's blood,
and Kathleen spits the Dean's b!ood into Ferrara's lens. Non e of them can adapt their
beliefs to the situations and people they encounter, 16 a limitation shared in a somewhat
different form by Kathleen's professor and the anthropology student (significantly,
neither has an actual name). The professor descends from two figures with typically
negative connotations: Tony Coca-Cola and the phi!osopher who is horrified to discover
that a disciple has given his theories practica! application (see my comments on Joe
Barker in The Gladiator). While Ferrara would probably agree with the student who
quotes Protagoras' "man is the meas ure of all things" and the professor who insists "we
should all hope to feel pain so that we can seek pardon", the shortcomings of these
characters are discernible from their tendency to speak as if reciting dialogue for which
they feel no emotional affinity. Whereas traditional Catho!icism denies the concept of
free will, The Addiction relocates this denial in the secular arena: Casanova's belief that
"We are not evil beca use of the evil we do. We do evil because we are evil" could not
be further from the worldview of Ferrara, who discovers in confession the possibility of
finally taking responsibility for one's own actions (the fact that what Kathleen eventua!ly
chooses to embrace is 'God' being of far less relevance than her realization that she has
the abilityto choose17). For Ferrara, we do not do evil because we are 'evil', but neither
are we 'evil' because of the evil we do. His body of work eloquently refutes the
proposition that people 'are' one thing consistently: our evaluations of Pauline, Reno,
Thana, Frank, LT, Eddie, Kathleen, the Tempios, Matty and Sandii can only be
provisional, subject to revision and change from moment to moment.
The Addiction has been accused of anti-intellectualism18- a charge that could
also presumably be Jevelled at Snake Eyes (Eddie's "the ultimate is to feel pain and
suffering" speech) and the screenp!ay for Mary (in which Maree Reale tells a journalist
to "stop analyzing and feel. Feel with your heart, not with your brain"). Nicodemo
Oliverio's writing suggests a certain affinity with that branch of religious fundamentalism which, in Leslie A. Fiedler's words, "derives from the extreme Calvinist emphasis
R

h
'1
;
.!1

'l

,212

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

on Grace and on the personal nature of salvation; and ends by despising everything
but Grace - rejecting learning and scholarship and intelligence itself' _19 This, however,
is precisely where The Addiction's director comes into conflict with its screenwriter.
While Oliverio regards vampirism as "a metaphor for the evil that lurks in all of us",
Ferrara sees 'we do evil because we are evil' as simply another of those alibis for
amorality indulged in by Cat Chaser's protagonists. What this filmmaker rejects is less
educated intelligence than the tendency to place experiences into neat theoretical
packages: a:lthough Peina perceives the world as "a graveyard, and we the birds of
prey picking at the bones" while Kathleen insists it is a "charnel-house" and wonders
why mankind insists on "spreading the blight in ever-widening circles", Ferrara also
shows us individuals with a rather different outlook, his point being that the hellish world
these vampires live in is, like Eddie lsrael's, their own creation.20 The world of Jean,
the doctor, the priest, the nurse and the taxi driver is not only justas real, but takes far
more courage to inhabit: acknowledging (as opposed to ignoring) My Lai and
Auschwitz whi!e retaining a basic faith in humanity requires greater strength than
Peina's simple withdrawal, something Kathleen, like Hamlet, ends by ~cknowledging.
Ferrara's distrust of philosophical thought is rooted in his assumption that one can
only understand existen ce by experiencing it as a whole: there is no short-cut, no way
to digest life in capsule form, and this resistance to theoretica! formu)ations assumes
such awesome dimensions in the mature films that Ferrara has little option but to
reinvent his chosen art-form. Whenever The Addiction demonstrates a hostility towards
'theory', that hostility itself becomes a theory, thus obliging the film to find a new position
which, once reached, must immediately be abandoned. The process is similar to that
Nicole Brenez identifies in Jean Louis Schefer's L'Homme Ordnare du Cinema: "To
describe what he was talking about, Schefer inventad a new syntax which works in such
a way that, just when you believe you are able to reasonably get hold of a firm thesis,
suddenly the idea slips away by means of a false grammatical relation and the
movement throws you back at the text like a spinning top".21 The discovery that The
Addiction and L'Homme Ordnare du Cinema explore similar ideas confirms Brenez's
belief that "a film can think as well as a theoretical text, which becomes a wonderful and
challenging thing when they think exactly the same things",22 and it seems far from
coincidental that Schefer compares his hypothetical viewer with a vampire ("This
sudden raising within us of a phantom existence, of an unsuspected vampire").
We have already seen how Ferrara critiques his earlier works: Bad
Lieutenant's transcendent vision, for example, is overturned by Snake Eyes, where
religious conversions are defined as potentia! escapes from reality. One might claim
that The Funeral functioned as a similar critique of The Addiction's religiosity were
it not the case that doubts about Catholicism can be found in The Addiction itself. All
the films following Bad Lieutenant contain ambiguous endings, and in each case the
motivation is a genuine inability to pretend that onscreen events can be neatly
understood. On the most basic leve!, what happens during The Addiction's
epilogue? We see Kathleen walking away from a gravestone which bears her name,
the dates 'Oct. 31, 1967 - Nov. 1, 1994' ,23 and a Biblical quotation: "1 a m the
resurrection - John XI. 25". In voiceover, Kathleen says "To face what we are in the
end we stand befare the light and our true nature is revealed. Self~revelation is
annihilation of self". Since this directly follows Kathleen's acceptance of God's
forgiveness, there is a temptation to believe that Kathleen's 'soul', finally at peace,
has been set free from her body. The scene can be read in this manner, but not

18: THE ADDICTION

213

without a sense of disturbance. Kathleen's slow walk carries neither positive nor
negative connotations, and though the final tflt up to a statue of Christ implies
transcendence, the white sky visible in the background, while not exactly denying
these implications, certainly undermines their validity (Ferrara's decision to shoot the
film in black and white is triumphantly vindicated here- this shot would not have the
same effect in colour). Even the voiceover comments, despite suggesting
redemption, sound a cautionary note in the work of an auteur who believes that
human beings do not have a 'true nature' which could even potentially be 'revealed'.
lndeed, despite the fact that this scene takes place in daylight, there is no reason not
to believe that Kathleen is still a vampire, and we are forced to wonder if there is any
real difference between that eternallife posited as a Christian ideal, and the erldless
suffering which characterizes the protagonist's undead existence (Peina's advice,
"Eternity is a long time. Get used to it", would be relevant either way).24
The Addiction explores much the same area as Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess. Gunn
suggests an irreconcilable spilt between the redemption promised by white Christianity
(representad by the cross) and Hess' African-derived immortality (representad by the
Myrthian dagger), defining these two influences as, respectively, artificial and genuine
(the difference being specifical!y identified as that between "desire and need"). Al! the
characters are performers, consistently delivering monologues through which they
attempt to hold the attention of (George Meda), seduce (the prostitute), reveal
themselves to (Ganja), convert (Reverend Williams), or otherwise influence a listener,
and while these monologues are judged as either successes or failures (ranging from
Meda's stumbling anecdote about a film-director friend to the childhood recol!ection
with which Ganja holds us spellbound), they are alike in their solipsism, presenting a
series of pre-packaged identities while foregoing that interaction which privileges real
communication (the reducto ad absurdum being an ambulance driver who asks Ganja
a series of questions in a dul! monotone). White society's tendency to view identity as
negotiable, communicable, reducible to essences and fundamenta!ly inconsequential
("What is there to -know about Ganja?") compares poorly with the vampirism which
comprises Hess' black inheritance. Whereas the Myrthian Queen flashbacks captivate
us with their hypnotic power, Hess' conversion to Christianity is depicted via slowmotion shots of him running through a field which seem to have wandered in from an
after-shave commercial, and if the clich prevents our taking Hess' salvation seriously,
this is precisely Gunn's point.
The questions with which The Addiction is wrestling are brought into sharp focus
by the S-minute section centring on Peina. lt is easy enough to see how Peina fits into
Nicodemo Oliverio's structure: he is what the protagonist would have become had she
not repented, his insistence that Kathleen learn about herself by studying Sartre,
Beckett and Burroughs being completely opposed to the conclusion Oliverio eventual! y
reaches. Peina lives in a world above other individuals while Kathleen, despite her best
efforts, still wrestles with human impulses: Whereas Kathleen must walk down a flight
of stairs in arder to enter her apartment building, Peina's flat is ascended to by elevator.
Yet this also associates Peina with a heavenly existence, the interior of his apartment
- containing salid oak furniture, throne-like chairs, an enormous old-fashioned bed and
modern paintings - itself being a mass of contradictions. But Peina's real function is
conveyed by Christopher Walken's performance: as in King of New York, Walken has
been cast for his constant unpredictability, his tendency to render even the simplest of
actions ambiguous. Whatever this character's 'purpose' may be, the on-screen

l
'1'
.!

il

:
'1

'

214

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

realisation consistently demonstrates Ferrara's determination to free us from al!limiting


viewpoints (even those of his screenwriter), al! structures of meaning which encourage
us to understand individuals through thematic prisms rather than paying clase attention
to their gestures and intonations. lt is impossible to convey in print the precise manner
in which Peina says "maybe later" after Kathleen refuses his offer of tea, the way he
moves his arms while shouting "No, what do yo u want from me?", the flourish with
which he licks his finger befare running it along the edge of a razor blade, the loo k that
crosses his face as he makes a praying motion with his hands (a gesture also used by
Jack Scalia in Fear City), seems about to slip into sorne prvate reverie, then snaps to
attention and asks "Have you read Naked Lunch?". Peina is ostensibly this film's Tony
Coca-Cola figure, but whereas the one essential fact about Tony and his descendants
is that they are incapable of change, Peina embodies Ferrara's ideal: he is "always
changing, constantly".
The meticulous pattern worked out by Nicodemo Oliverio thus tel!s us we are to
regard Peina one way, while the actual scene tel!s us ... what? Not th~t we are to see
Peina as a more positive character than was implied by the written text, but that we
should stop thinking in these terms. Whenever one of his films stands on the verge of
outlining an extractable 'theory', Ferrara begins shaking up the viewer, reminding her
to remain constantly alert, and it is obviously .relevant that this problematizing of the
material involves a play with gender roles. In Oliverio's screenplay~ Casanova is a
young man, Peina a woman: Ferrara retains the characters' names, roles, and most of
their dialogue while making Casanova a 'masculina' woman and Peina a 'feminine'
man (notice how Walken manipulates his long hair). lf The Addiction is in any way a
religious work, it is so not because it subscribes to Catholic dogma. For Ferrara, as for
Wil!iam Blake (and the Pasolini of Medea), "everything that lives is holy", spirituality
residing not in the invocation of God's forgiveness, but in details - the way Casanova
wags her finger as she departs, the curious poses Kathleen strikes in front of a mirror
- which by their nature cannot be reduced to illustrations of this or that 'theme'. As in
King of New York, Walken's direct stare at the camera challenges us to confront him
in all his complexity, stressing how we can never really 'know' another person. Though
it would be unjust and inaccurate to describe Ferrara as a primitiva, his fi!ms are stylistically pre-Griffithian in their refusal of those filmic codes which segmentalize
experience and assert (like Kathleen in her repeated demand that potential victims tell
her to leave them alone "like yo u mean it. .. with conviction") that inner feelngs can be
expressed in a coherent manner (a close-up of twitching hands conveys 'insincerity',
low key lighting indicates 'evil', a speech about childhood trauma provides 'motivation'),
and one can readily grasp why critics who fetishize easily interpretable aspects of the
cinematic text should be so hostil e to an artist who shows the truth to be "right in front
of you if you get out of your own ego". 25 lt is in the precision of Ferrara's style that we
find the most eloquent answer to Kathleen's life-denying philosophy: for this director,
the devil is in the generalisations, the angel in the details.
Footnotes
Maitland McDonagh, "The Addiction of Evil'". Fangora 147, October 1995, pp. 15-16.
Charles Lagola, e-mail to the author, March 10th 2003.
Anthony Redman, conversation with the author.
Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, May 12th 2003. Eternity can be heard during The Addiction's end credits.
lt later appeared on Schoolly D's Rese!Vor Dog album (1995), with Ferrara's inspiration acknowledged.

1234-

18: THE ADDICTION

215

5- More variations on this shot can be found in China Girl, The Funeral, The Blackout and 'R Xmas, as
well as a scene added to the R-rated version of Bad Lieutenant.
6- Nh:;k Hasted, "Sick Stories of Sin and Slaughter". The lndependent. April 3rd 1997, p. 8.
7- Ken Kelsch, e-mail to !he author, February 17th 2003.
8- McDonagh, pp. 14-15.
9- The Addiction's screenplay is dated July 1991, which means that it predates the Snake Eyes
screenplay by 16 months.
10- In !he screenplay, this shoe belongs to a little girl named Beth whom Kathleen has jusi butchered.
Since the attack on Beth and her mother was not included in Ferrara's final cut, !he shoe now seems to
be a memento of Kathleen's own childhood. Lisa Casilla, the actress who played Beth's mother (Mary),
is still listed in the credits, and presumably appears during the climactic massacre (though no child
vampires are visible).
11- Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film (Da Capo, 1972), pp. 42 and 70.
12- Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer(1975).
13- Quoted in Kent Jones' "The Man: Who Cares?".
14- Schrader, ibid, pp. 63 and 11.
15- Sight and Sound, April1997, p. 9.
16- For Kathleen, people are no more real than the images she views, their suffering merely raw material
enabling her to indulge feelings of moral outrage or Nietzschean superiority (depending on her mood).
The point is neatly made by a shot juxtaposing Kathleen with the traumatized anthropology student's
mirror reflection: rather than engaging a fellow human being in conversation, Kathleen appears lo be
addressing a screen image, a reflecting surface onto which she can project her own intellectual concems
(tellingly, the scene begins with her watching atrocity footage on television).
17- Although Oliverio's screenplay has Kathleen say "As ifwe have a choice" while accepting the host, this
dialogue has been eliminated from the film, a change that strikes me as crucial. Ferrara insists on defining
redemption as something we mus! struggle to achieve, rather than something !ha! can be forced upon us.
18- See Rob White's review in Sight and Sound, April 1997, p. 34.
19- Lave and Death in the American Novel, p. 430.
20- Compare Hamlet's debate with Rosencrantz about whether or not Denmark is a prison, during which
he concedes "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Tome it is a prison." (Ham!et,
11. ii. 253-255).
21- Nicole Brenez, 'The Ultimate Journey", English translation available on the Internet.
22- Nicole Brenez, Film Quarler/y, Fall 1998, p. 49.
23- lt would seem that Kathleen's party/massacre is held to celebrate no! only the conferral of her degree,
but also Halloween and her 27th birthday. In !he screenplay, however, the dates are Oct. 31 1959- Nov.
1, 1991: so Kathleen originally 'died' after turning 32, !he age at which Christ was crucified (al leas!
according to certain interpretations of The Bib/e).
24- In !he screenplay, the ending is as follows:
"Ext: Cemetery, day.
A woman's hand places a bouquet of tulips on grave.
Angle: Tombstone:
'Kathleen Conklin
Oct. 31, 1959- Nov. 1, 1991'
KATHY(VO)
"Like the bones of Ezekiel's tale ..
The woman, having placed the flowers, stands and looks down; there is a striking similarity to Kathy.
KATHY(VO)
"He put sinew and flesh and life back where there was none ... "
She looks a beat then turns and walks slowly away. Hold shot until she arrives at front of row then gets
into cab. lt drives away.
KATHY (VO)
"Like the bones of ancient Israel. . He swept the valley clean."
Pan from the cab rnoving along street downward to expose a worker setting a stone at the head of another
plot nearby:
EPITAPH: '1 am the resurrection'.
He works his shovel. Continue to pan until frame is filled with the res! of the facade:
'Kathleen Conklin
Nov. 1, 1991-'
Roll titles and music. Hold."
25- Sight and Sound, April 1997, p. 9.

216

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

above: Kathleen prepares lo draw blood from !he arm of a derel'ct in The Addlction.

opposite: The Addiction's Peina (Christopher Walken) inslde hls curiously furnished apartment

be/ow: Kalhleen talking to a cop (Michael Fella) in The Addiction.

218

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

18: THE ADDICT!ON

219

above:
Pastar advertising the British theatrical ralease of
The Addiction.

right:
U.S. video sleeve for The Addiction.

llll

\Nl.\llllLLA

1~YLOR

.SCIORRA

opposite:
Casanova (Annabella Sciorra) attends Kathleen's
party/massacre in The Addiction.
be/ow:
An unfilmed scene from Nicodemo Oliverio's
screenplay for The Addiction.

INT; LIVING ROOM

Jean iS s:Liting- loking- a t. t.v, and playing~ith a larga hourglass . she looks up as Kathy
walks in.
KATHY

rm ready
.JEAN; (about the haurglass)
Nhere'd you get th.is?
liATll!f

It was my motJer's .

Wbat

uwh~

tlwm ]IITmnl

Kathy turns it upside down. 'l'hey watch the


grairts of sand pour through.
JEAJ>l (mockhg)
Like the days. of

ou~

lives.,.

aliw.

AATl!Y
'!'Uey'ro not days at "a.l,l. They're proof of
deterrnhism. They have no choice but to go
through the "mall hole. From ere to tnere,
(sh turns it over) trom; h<'re to there.
(turns it) fiom here to there..
(She puts it
aside) There' s no choice. That' s not t])e da'ys
of our livea that's us.

18: THEADDJCTION

221

19

THE FUNERAL (1996)

"1 grew up in a very idyllic, beautiful neighbourhood full of Mafiosi, and was raised to
be a nasty motherfucker. Everyone's your enemy, it's a siege mentality. Fuck
everybody. lf you gotta kili them, great. Kili them befare they come back and kili you.
That kind of idiocy. So l'm sure it's reflectad in the work."
Abel Ferrara in Canal Plus' Le Journal du Cinema (1997)
"AII those people. What are they doing? What are they thinking? We're all going to die,
all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us lave each other, but it doesn't."
Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the
Ship, 1998, p. 10

Like his cinematic idol Jean~Luc Godard, Abel Ferrara makes films which can
all be described as in some sense transitiona!. Nevertheless, The F1uneral appears
to mark the beginning of a distinct new phase comparable to the late works great
artists (in all fields) turn out as they approach death. Eric Rohmer claims that "as far
as l know, the history of art offers us no example of an authentic genius who, at the
end of his career, had a period of real decline. Rather, beneath the seemingly
unrefined or meagre appearance, we are prompted to seek evidence of the desire for
simplicity that characterized the final works of a Titian, a Rembrandt, a Beethoven or,
closer to us, a Bonnard, a Matisse, ora Stravinsky" 1, and when, in 1988, London's
South Bank prepared a series of retrospectives celebrating late works in film, theatre,
literature, music and dance, Nicholas Snowman introduced the season, entitled End
Games, by noting "Whether going gently or raging 'against the dying of the light',
there seemed to be a shared experience in Shakespeare's hard-earned happy ends,
Mah!er's anguished progress towards resignation and Chap!in's Limelight".2 On the
same occasion, Leslie Hardcastle observed that late films "all have one special
quality: they are relaxed. They restate favoured themes, frame favoured actors,
rework old scenes. lntriguingly, almost all of the films are critically controversia!. For
if 'late work' summons up age, experience and mellowness, it can also be revolutionary. One recalls the damning reviews of Hitchcock's Vertigo and the total dismay
and shouts of derision aimed at Dreyer's Gertrud. Both are now regarded as their
director's greatest masterpieces. Perhaps this is a necessary price to pay for
maturity. For what looks essentially familiar, so assured, so simple, so clichd, is in
fact exhaustively complex, speaking to a coterie but a!so with a universality once
grasped never forgotten".3
Ferrara is hardly the first filmmaker to enter this phase early in life (he was 45 at
the time of The Funeral). Far from being an epilogue, the late period can representa
long and rich flourishing of creativity: Rohmer's remarks on Jean Renoir were made in
1952, 17 years befare Renoir's last film, while the late masterpieces of Ford and
Hitchcock are spread out over clase to 20 years, Chaplin's over 16 years, Hawks' over
11 and Fuller's over a quarter of a century. Penelope Houston noted how young Orson
Welles was when he began working in this mode: "Welles' The lmmortal Story has

19: THE FUNERAL

223

been likened to such films as Dreyer's Gertrud, Ford's 7 Women, Renoir's Le Caporal
pingl; works whose qualities - the serenities and certainties, but also the fitful
discontents- are reflections of their makers' age. The comparison has seemed apt; yet
the shock is to realize that there should be no comparison, that Welles in his fifties had
somehow caught up with the masters of a previous generation". 4 But one could go
even further and suggest that Welles had been exploring these areas since his first
film, made when he was 25. Similarly, this cinema's characteristics have been present
in Ferrara's work from the beginning. Reviewing Francis Ford Coppola's The
Godfather Part 111 (1990), Richard Combs noticed "a ramshackleness about the filmits stray characters ... the specifics of the Vatican plot - which is not unlike the
carelessness of the 'late' films of certain other directors"5, and if The Funeral
demonstrates the same 'carelessness', there is hardly a shortage of similar examp!es
in Ferrara's oeuvre.
Set in 1936 (not 1930, as the British poster claims), The Funeral begins with
Johnny Tempio (Vincent Gallo), aka Johnny Temple, watching The Petrified Forest
(1935) in a New York cinema. Later, a coffin containing Johnny's dead body arrives at
the Tempio house for a funeral attended by his older brothers Ray (Christopher
Walken, replacing the originally cast Nicolas Cage) and the mentally-disturbed Chez
(Chris Penn, who a decade earlier, in James Foley's At Clase Range, had played
Walken's son), both Mafiosi. Also present are Ray's wife Jean (Annabella Sciorra),
Chez's wife Clara (lsabella Rossellini) and Johnny's fiance Helen (Gretchen Mol).
When a priest (Father Robert Castle) arrives, Ray takes refuge in a car, where he
recal!s the time his father made him execute a family enemy. Flashbacks show Johnny
attending left-wing meetings with his friend Ghouly (Paul Hipp), and attacking strikebreakers. When Ray and Chez begin supporting the bosses at the behest of fellow
mobster Gaspare Spoglia (Benicio Del Toro), Johnny's protests lead to conflict,
culminating in Gaspare's stabbing of Ghouly. Chez recalls beating up Johnny after
discovering he had been having an affair with Gaspare's wife, Bridgette (Amber Smith).
Ray interrogates Gaspare, whom he suspects was involved in Johnny's murder.
Pretending to be convinced of Gaspare's innocence, Ray lets him go, but later orders
his execution.6 The real assassin turns out to be a young mechanic (Patrick McGaw)
who almost talks Ray into letting him live by claiming Johnny raped his girlfriend.
Forced to admit this is a lie, the mechanic begs for merey but is murdered by Ray, who
then tells Chez to bury the body. When Chez returns to the house, he shoots two
bodyguards, fires at Johnny's dead body, kills Ray and commits suicide.
Described this way, The Funeral appears to have a linear, traditional storyline,
but the finished work downplays narrative while privileging philosophical debates.
According to Adrian Martn, "Like Stanley Kubrick's stories, Ferrara's narratives do not
'advance' in the normal, conventional way- even when what they narrate is perfectly
linear. Rather, they dwell, fascinated, on a particular plateau, a 'descriptiva' plane on
which is etched an entire way of life, until a sudden turn lifts events to the next plot
plateau. This leaves pockets of story or pieces of worlds, cast adrift as islands
between large seas of ellipsis, especially in The Funeral where- as is often the case
in Ferrara's films- a radical edit takes out, at the final phase of the work's elaboration,
a lot of connective tissue"_7 lndeed, The Funeral's screenplay contains a great deal
of material removed from Ferrara's final cut: Ray beating up Jean; neighbourhood
children discussing superstitions; Chez te!ling Johnny about how he accidentally
killed a dog, then attacking Johnny with a knife; hints of a lesbian relationship

224

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

between Jean and Helen, etc. The scene in which Ghouly insults Gaspare also
originally ran longer, with Ghouly introducing Gaspare to three unemployed women B,
then taking a shit in the pocket of Gaspare's coat (which is why Gaspare says "You
got a real problem with bodily functions" when he finds Ghouly urinating). But the
most important deletion occurs after Gaspare and his henchman Bi!ly (Phi! Neilson)
murder Ghouly: although no reprisals are mentioned in the film, Oliverio's screenplay
includes the following sequence (a still from which was used on the back cover of
Artisan's U.s. DVD):
"Ext: Chez's club. Day.
Ray, sitting against car, leans off and puts out cigarette on ground as he sees car
approach. Next to him is Chez. They look and see Gaspare, as he drives clase. Exits.
The brothers wait by car. Gaspare takes out of his pocket a pair of dead parakeets and
shows them to the brothers.
GAS PARE
"Yo u gotta be kiddin' ."
He tosses them on the ground.
RAY
"1 figured you'd realize it was us."
Gaspare looks at Chez and then back to Ray.
GAS PARE
"Hey, Ray... in my fuckin' milk box?"
RAY

"Why? Your kids see 'em?"


GAS PARE
"Yo u really think that piece of shit is worth more bloodshed?"
RAY
"You didn't come over here to make excuses, Casper."
GAS PARE
"There's no excuse needed, Ray; Ghouly was nobody; he was an asshole; 1know yo u
must have better things to think about than him."
Ray looks at Chez and says nothing.
RAY
"Yeah, but 1 wanted to know what you're thinkin' about..
GAS PARE
' 1'11 tell you since the fact you send me a pair of dead birds shows what a fuckin' moran
you are. You probably think l'm gonna try an' talk my way into reconciliation. Just so
you don't misunderstand me; 1 fuck you, your brothers an' your mother's cunt, Ray.
There's nothin' worse than a punk, yo u know? An' l'm way too busy to be bothered by
this. The only thing matters tome is my business. Alright? l'm an American; money an'
business're al! 1care about."
Gaspare toughly turns to the trunk of his car and opens it. lnside is Billy, tied and
gagged, alive but very battered.
GAS PARE
"This Ghouly thing is interferin' with my business."
Ray and Chez in silence. Gaspare looks at Ray a beat then pulls a pisto!, aims at his
bodyguard and fires once into Billy's forehead. He throws the gun next to the corpse
without emotion and clases the trunk. Looks at them.

19: THE FUNERAL

225

GAS PARE
"Now 1 don't wanna hear nothin' more about him. We all got better things to do. Grow
up, Ray... "
Gaspare readies the keys and walks to get into the car. Starts it up and leaves."

My soul, 1 miss you So


1will wait for you
Until you return
(Fin quanno turni a me)

One small change seems especially revealing. In the film, Ray tells the mechanic
that "When l'm dead l'm gonna roast in hell, 1 believe that. But the trick is, get used to
the idea while we're he re, 'cause ... ", then abruptly shoots the man without finishing the
sentence. In Oliverio's screenplay, we discover that what Ray had been about to say
was "... we ain't the kind of people that change". Why did Ferrara elimina,te this
dialogue? The answer, surely, can be found in that statement quoted at the head of
Chapter 17, which might stand as a summing up (if summing up were possible) of
Ferrara's personal philosophy: "1 think people are always changing. Constantly".
According to Ferrara, "The Funeral was made ata tough time in my life when 1was
going through sorne really heavy changes. Nicky wrote it in 1991 after his son died. lt's
no picnic. When 1read his stuff, it's mind-blowing. 1get very jealous. 1went to the same
school as him and 1got better grades than him. 1didn't know he was doing it until he sent
it to me. lt's a continuation of what we always do, taking on certain kinds of themes". 9
Production designer Charles Lagola remembers The Funeral as "my favourite
experience with Abe l. 1was one of the first people he called when actually making this
film seemed like a reality. He was nervous. He said, '1 never made a period picture'
(though 1 know he worked on period things), ' ... and 1 just don't want it to look, like ...
brown ... like all the other early 20th century pies'. There was a flashback scene where
we did agree we should make that look brown, thereby contrasting with the 'not brown'
rest of the movie. What was wonderful about making that film with Abel is that he
trusted me so much. We scouted and scouted and scouted, beca use we couldn't afford
to build everything, and Abe! wanted the scope that locations can offer. There, of
course, lie some of the challenges. We shot most!y in Brooklyn, mid-1990s, and we're
trying to make this look like 1933-37. Abel relied a lot on my research. l would show
him pictures and renditions of what 1wanted to do, and he always said 'yes, that's it'. 1
think that is because our personal communication had become so facile. At one
moment, when the fiscal obstacles were making it really tough, Abe! put his foot down
and said 'if that's where Char!ie thinks we need to shoot this scene, then that's where
we are going to shoot it'. 1 don't know that 1 have ever befare or after fe!t su eh respect
for what a production designer does" .10
Joe Delia recalls that 'There was a scene in The Funeral that needed either
scoring or a song and we decided that maybe a folk song in ltalian would be the right
choice. The scene is when we first see Gallo lying in the casket. 1wrote a melody and
thought if it had an authentic Neapolitan lyric it would be just the right touch. Again,
Nicky carne to Tappan to write lyrics for a song. He spoke ltalian fluently and was
familiar with the nuances of Neapolitan dialects. The song was titled Addio Amata Mia,
which translates to 'Farewell My Beloved'. lt was tru!y a sad song. The verses when
translated to English:

"My father, Alfred W. Delia, was my first choice to sing the song. An amateur singer
in the truest sense of the word, 1 knew he would be able to infuse the simple folk song
with the right .amount of authenticity and pathos, without sounding contrived the way a
professional singer would. Pop practicad the song for days, then ca me over to the studio
in Tappan to do the vocal overdub over the solo guitar track. My mother carne along,
and Nicky was there to help him with his phrasing and pronunciation if he needed it. My
mom sat in the studio, kibitzing and basically co-producing the session: 'Freddie - it
goes, one-two-three, one-two-three, it's a waltz, it's in three quarter time'. At the end of
the day we had a perfectly charming and wonderful rendition of Addio Amata Mia in the
can. 1was su re there would be no question his performance would mak~ the final cut of
the film, but at sorne point a decision was made to bring in another vocalist. lt was
heartbreaking for me for two reasons. First, it was the definitiva version of the song, and
secondly, 1 had to tell my Dad that he was being replaced. He took it with such grace
and dignity and was grateful to have had the chance to spend such a nic~ afternoon with
family and friends. Pop's replacement was an actor who had appeared in a few of Abel's
films named Robert Mi ano, an intense actor and trained singer who ca me in and gave
a flawless, professional reading of an otherwise earthy Neapolitan folk song lamenting
the 'countryside being so desolate'. The nightclub scenes in The Funeral were shot at
a small club in Harlem. The first day started at BAM, and by 8:15 an altercation erupted
that nearly resultad in an all out fist fight. One of the actors had been injured quite badly
on location about two weeks earlier and had blamed one of the other actors for the
injury. This was the first time the two had seen each other since the incident went down,
and upon first seeing each other a shouting match began. Abe! ran up, got between the
two guys and tried to get it under control. Befare yo u knew it, Kenny Kelsch jumped off
of his camera, said a few words, and within seconds the whole beef was cooled out. 1
had been asked to puta group of musicians together who would fit the look of the period.
Playing was a consideration, sin ce we planned to do at least one song live on the set. 1
called in a drummer named Ron Thomas and a trumpet player named Jan Sigel, and
someone suggested a sax player whose na me escapes me. My first call for the upright
bass player was unavailable for the shoot, so 1 was put in touch with someone who
sounded right for the part. 1 can't remember the guy's name, only that he had a bad
attitude from the beginning. lt was always about the money with this guy, but he finally
agreed to the SAG scale al about $500 lar the day's shoot. As lar as 1 recall, the AFM
didn't cover musicians on camera, and SAG waivers were obtained for the day. We had
two songs planned for the shoot. One was a song Abel and 1 wrote called Tonight Wi/1
Be the Night, a bawdy blues number that Chris Penn belted out live on the set, with the
band backing him, and the other an up tempo swing tune that had been recorded for
playback. We always called it Ghou/ie's Dance, after the character played by Paul Hipp.
Nicky had told me about sorne guy his father, or one of his uncles would see in a bar
back in the thirties that did a funny dance, like a crazy chicken, and he wanted it to be
something like that. Paul worked out a dance for the scene, which happens befare he
gets whacked in the alley. The first part of the scene takes place in the back room, and
Abel decided that he wanted to go with the band playing the tune live. The playback

How sad a day


Even the sun's gane down
1'11 never forget you
Farewell my beloved

226

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

This night is so dark


The countryside so desolate
What sadness
Farewell my beloved

With the sun comes a peace


But the warmth doesn't fill my heart
You are my life
Farewell my beloved

19: THE FUNERAL

227


track on Ghoulie's Dance was entirely too fast and complicated to re-create without
rehearsal, so the band did their best to get the general vibe of the tune live. Between
takes, 1 looked over to this bass player, and he was making a gesture with his fingers
indicating that he wanted more money for playing anything live on the set. During the
break, 1 went outside and told Abel that the guy was breaking my balls about money
while we were in the middle of the shoot. Abe! just said, 'Fire the fucking asshole. Who
needs him?'. 1 told Abel that we did, sin ce we already had shot footage with the guy in
the scene, not to mention that we did need a bass player. 1 talked to the guy, and he
stayed through the rest of the day's filming".11
lf The Funeral sums up the great Ferrarian themes, it also stakes ~ut new
territory. Although late works are notable for their simplicity, their tendency to eliminate
superfluous detall, Ferrara can here be found expanding his frame of reference: it is
both ironic and typical that the more his films take in, the 'purer' they become, and
whereas most of them take place during a few days (with King of New York, The
Addiction and New Rose Hotel occurring over the relatively epic space of severa!
weeks), The Funeral is simultaneously the most highly concentrated - the central
action is restricted to a 24-hour period - and the most wide-ranging, with flashbacks
depicting events going all the way back to the brothers' childhood. Not only does
Ferrara make use of a technique - the flashback (and even the flashback-within-aflashback) - antithetical to his fascination with life lived in the here and now, but he does
so in a work already set in the past (the family's name, Templo, is an ltalian word
m.eaning 'time'): as he confessed at the Venice Film Festival, "1 was a little hesitant
about doing a period piece beca use most of the ones 1 see are cinematically dead in
the water".12 Ferrara handles the period setting much as he did in Crime Story,
painstakingly recreating it (though a little has clearly been made to go a long way) in
order to forget about it, the actors unencumbered by concerns about whether their
speech and gestures are authentically 'in period'. As for the flashbacks - used
uncertainly in Fear City, with greater clarity, though still traditionally, in Cat Chaserthey can perhaps be compared to Snake Eyes' film-within-a-film, suggesting connections with the main action while shying away from direct parallels.13 The sequen ce in
which a young Ray commits his first murder both explains and does not explain his
actions in the present, while many of the flashbacks would appear to have no 'point'
whatsoever: events are depicted without overt authorial comment, scenes are shown in
the 'wrong' order14 (as in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury) or truncated
befare reaching their clmax, and, as so often in Ferrara, we are frequently thrown into
the middle of a situation in which we are not familiar with either the individuals involved
or how they relate to each other.15
Ferrara is unimpressed by the tendency to use flashbacks tendentiously: as he
told Kent Jones, "You gotta make something happen up there: something's gotta go
down or there's no sense turning on the camera. There's gotta be an event that
you're gonna turn the camera on for, and if that event isn't there, what's the point?
What're you shooting? Are you doing this shot so you can go to that shot?",16 a
question which might be restated as 'Are you doing this flashback so you can go to
that flashback?'. Meaning is interna! rather than externa!, contained within individual
sequences rather than their relationship toan overall structure. The flashbacks serve
to open out the Templos' incestuous world, adding jagged edges to Ray's smoothly
conceived plans. Seen this way, the unfinished quality of these scenes, rather than
being either accidental (despite Vincent Gallo's claim that injuries sustained during

228

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

filming prevented him completing his role) or incidental, is perhaps the most
lmportant thing about them.
The sequences structured around Gaspare Spoglia provide a good example of
Ferrara's method. Rather than establishing the nature of Gaspare's business dealings
with the Templos and the ostensible reasons for their antipathy towards him, The
Funeral plays down these aspects. Gaspare's relationship with the three brothers is
comparable to Tony Coca-Cola's relationship with Reno in The Driller Killer: he
maintains a Scrupulously stylish front, revealing no human feeling or weakness, and
while the Templos seek to conform with a similar masculine model (as suggested by
the opening shots of Johnny, his right leg aggressively slung over a seat in front of him,
watching Humphrey Bogart's tough-guy routine), Gaspare demonstrates how far they
are from achieving this goal. Notice how Gaspare's wave as he enters Chez's club
exactly reproduces a gesture made by George Raft in Raoul Walsh's The Bowery
(1933). Gaspare has presumably seen The Bowery and is deliberately recreating
Raft's action. But whereas Gaspare gets the gesture down pat, the Templos' own
attempts to imitate Hollywood's macho icons are laughable failures (which is precisely
why the three brothers r8tain Ferrara's interest and sympathy).
In observing the Tony Coca-Cola char~cter's progress, we find a pattern
emerging: Tony himself was detached from human concerns, but few real demands
were made of him; Cat Chaser's Rafi began in much the same mode, but eventually
revealed a genuine vulnerability; Joey Dalesio kept his 'cool' front in place throughout
most of King of New York, but ended up pleading for his life. Gaspare's confrontation
with Ray clearly echoes the latter film - once again, a mobster is placed in a position
where he must convince a criminal played by Christopher Walken to let him live. Yet,
unlike Dalesio, Gaspare sustains his gangster act right to the end, facing almost certain
death with a witty remark and a stylish gesture (the way he taps his teeth after being
told Johnny was sleeping with Bridgette is priceless). Ferrara is here acknowledging
that importance attributed to performative conceptions of self (in particular, though not
exclusively, for the American male). As the sequence in which Ray tells Johnny's
corpse "you look better now than you ever did"17 suggests, failure to conform with
accepted models of masculine behaviour carries with it the threat of something more
terrifying than physical death, and if Ray perceives this conformity as tantamount toa
declaration of individuality ("We're justa bunch of street punks. Nobody's watching us,
we gotta act a certain way. We're free to do anything we want"), it is only because the
tendency to believe oneself a free agent is this brutal ideology's defining mark.
As usual, an alternativa to all this is embodied by the female characters: Johnny's
girlfriend, Helen; Clara, whose small-talk about food connects her with Ferrara's other
representativas of un-neurotic normality (Could This Be Love's Cathy, The
Blackout's Annie 2, Bad Lieutenant's Jersey girls); and the more articulate Jean,
named after a similar character in The Addiction.18 Yet these women, although
privileged by The Funeral's mise-en-scene, are consistently relegated to subordinate
positions by the three brothers: notice how Chez prevents Clara intervening in his
argument with Johnny by forcing her into the frame's background. As Jean tells He!en
in the kitchen, 'The Temples pass themselves off as tough, rugged individualists, and
we fall for it. But they're criminals. They're criminals because they've never risen above
their heartless, illiterate upbringing, and there's nothing, absolutely nothing romantic
about it".19 Moments in which Ferrara resorts to direct thematic statement are few, so
the presence here of dialogue which has the director's unambiguous support registers

19: THE FUNERAL

229


all the more powerfully. Nevertheless, although, as in China Girl, Ferrara is perfectly
willing to break whatever aesthetic rules he has set himself when motivated by simple
human concerns, his work seldom moves from Ato 8 without taking severa! detours.
The Funeral's kitchen scene begins with Jean selecting a glass, throwing it to the
ground in misdirected anger (she had previously been arguing with Ray), suddenly
finding her action amusing, shrugging and picking up another glass. Helen enters, and
Jean asks if she would like sorne whiskey. Helen shakes her head, but Jean gives her
the drink anyway. This is followed by Jean opening up to Helen, talking about her
marriage, eventually being reduced to tears. In the space of a few minutes, two people
who barely know each other have begun to share their most intimate feelings; ~ut Jean
suddenly becomes hostile (even though Helen has said only five words- "1 think Chez
is different" - throughout the conversation), mumbling "Now l'm talking to you" and
storming out of the room. We have seen how each Ferrara film qualifies or contradicts
the preceding one, but this process actually operates at a much deeper leve!: every
moment qualifies the moment befare it. His films refuse to sit down and behave: just
when we start to get a handle on where they are going (in other words, at the point
where extractable ideas begin to form), they immediately shoot off in another direction.
Robert Heilman has suggested that tragedy deals with individuals who are
divided, torn between conflicting values and desires - as opposed to melodrama, in
which the world is divided (into good and evil, heroic and cowardly, right and wrong).
Ferrara's work belongs to a tragic tradition: indeed, we might describe the series of
films which begins with The Driller Killer and ends with Crime Story as being about
tragic protagonists who make the mistake of believing themselves melodramatic
heroes, attempting to resolve interna! conflicts by lashing out against externa! enemies
representing those aspects of their psychological make-up they hope to repress. The
mature films work rather differently: although the notion of 'an eye for an eye' is never
far from the surface, Tony Monte, Luci Palma and LT all reject revenge. The oeuvre can
be seen as a series of interlocking motifs, one coming to the surface as others move
underground (and later re-emerge in new forms): whereas Body Snatchers depicted
a society in which Tony Coca-Cola's emotional evasions had become a universal
principie, relegating the vengeance theme toa subordinate position, The Funeral finds
Ferrara applying lessons learnt in recent years toan individual who resembles Reno,
Thana, Matt Rossi, Rick Benton and Mike Torello. Whereas Bad Lieutenant's protagonist is turned from the path of retribution, Ray, though tempted to Jet Johnny's killer
live, pursues his obsession with 'justice' to the end. Yet it may be more profitable to see
this film as a complete reversa! of The Addiction, in which Kath!een's hellish existence
was interspersed with vague hints of redemption that culminated, albeit ambiguously,
in salvation. Similar hints appear here: Jean's suggestion that "maybe we need a
miracle", and the priest's response- "Pray for yourself. Then you'll be able to receive
it" - imply that Ferrara is once again preparing us for a miraculous event. The irony is
that this is precisely what doesn't happen, The Addiction's gradual build up to the
revelation of God's grace being replaced with an equally meticulous preparation for
Chez's outburst of psychotic violence. Whereas the earlier film positioned Father
Robert Castle's appearance near the end, The Funeral introduces him early on, then
has him depart neverto return, and although the way redemption could be achieved is
unambiguously outlined in the mechanic's "you have the chance to do something good
instead of something bad, and that's better than justice", this plea is ignored by Ray,
who promptly shoots the man dead.

230

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

lf Bad Lieutenant stands as Ferrara's most positive religious statement, his


subsequent films document a crisis of faith comparable to Bergman's in Through a
Glass Darkly, The Communicants (aka Winter Light) and The Si len ce: but whereas
The Addiction made an unholy concept, vampirism, express an essentially Catholic
perspectiva, The Funeral uses the eponymous religious ceremony to explore a world
in which spirituality has no place. Although Ferrara's camera seeks out the crucifix on
Johnny's coffin, this signifier is almost as empty as the nun's ha bit worn by Thana, and
while Catholicism's trappings are everywhere apparent, their function is to underwrite
and reinforce those structures of crime, prvate property and violence that have
supplanted true spiritual feeling: Ray's introduction to killing (which echoes the endings
of Crime Story and Snake Eyes) is explicitly a ceremony (his father compares it toa
Bar Mitzvah), the Phallus which is ritually passed on from father to son being
representad, with extraordinary resonance, by a spent bullet casing ("Carr this with
you. Nothing will cost you more"). Religion in The Funeral is repeatedly seen as
corrupted by monetary concerns, and although the Communist Mich~el Stein (David
Patrick Kelly) describes criminals as revolutionaries, the man young Ra:y executes has
to be killed beca use he "robbed the property of you and your brothers". Far from being
radically opposed to capitalism, organised crimS represents its best interests. Ferrara
underlines those clase ties between the underworld and 'legitimate' business by
casting Robert Miano, who had played a Mafiosi named Enrico in China Girl, as a
strike-busting factory boss a!so called Enrico, but even here The Funeral refuses all
didacticism: Enrico's meeting with the Tempio brothers portrays three opposed
viewpoints - Enrico's explanation of why it has become necessary to lay off workers
and pay less to those he keeps, Johnny's disgust at an attempt to break up the union,
Ray and Chez's pragmatic willingness to assist whoever pays them - even-handedly,
allowing each one to come across as reasonable and, within its context, justifiable.
Ferrara may have come a long way since The Hold Up, but he is still working in much
the same vein.
Like Ferrara's earlier 'split' protagonists, Ray projects his personal flaws anta
others (he uses the same dismissive phrase - "people like you" - to describe both
Gaspare and Johnny's killer): whereas Kathleen and her fellow vampires, like Chez
here ("lf God wanted me in peace, he would see to it himself'), at least took their
philosophy seriously, Ray's invocations of determinism ("lf 1 do something wrong, it's
beca use God didn't give me the grace to do what's right. Nothing happens without His
permission, so if this world stinks, it's His fault. l'm only working with what l've been
given") are blatantly opportunistic.
The way this nightmarish world creates such hopelessly fracturad individuals
(who in turn perpetuate the nightmare) is suggested by Johnny's susceptibility to being
influenced by what he sees: we observe him watching The Petrified Forest and a stag
film, looking on as Ghouly has sex with Bridgette, staring at Gaspare during a party,
listening attentively to Michael Stein's speech, and, as a child, standing by while Ray
commits murder. Like his namesake in The Hold Up, Johnny is an essentially passive
protagonist, the film's narrative being something that happens to him rather than
something he controls. But The Funeral's flashback structure suggests that, despite
Ferrara's emphasis on life lived in the present, what we are is at least partly determinad
by the weight of our past: everything Johnny sees leaves an indelible mark on his
personality, and it is the sheer impossibility of reconciling these disparate experiences
that accounts for his split nature. The contradiction between, say, left-wing politics and

19: THE FUNERAL

231

organised crime should be obvious, though the former's attraction for Johnny is
undoubtedly linked to Michael Stein's assertion that "it is only the criminal. .. that can
best lead this country from the corruption and shallowness of their greedy and dying
capitalist mentality... every new idea, every movement forward for humanity, was at one
time or another criminal",20 and while Johnny's insistence that the bosses have the
pollee but "the workers have got us" is doubtless sincere, his naivety is immediately
underlined by Sali (John Ventimiglia), who points out that "whoever pays has got us" (a
line not in the screenplay). As in Cat Chaser, Ferrara exposes those alibis for amorality
his characters invent.
lf Johnny's 'macho' behaviour has a self-consciously 'acted' quality, as th~ugh he
were mimicking cinematic icons without Gaspare's precision (he insists that "radio and
the movies keep us alive. 1 would say life is pretty pointless ... without the movies"), this
may be because he imitates heterosexual role models as a way of denying
homosexual impulses. Although the film's present tense scenes portray Helen as
Johnny's grieving fiance, she is neither mentioned nor glimpsed in the flashbacks. Her
absence creates a vacuum which is, for all intents and purposes, filled by Ghouly, who
even comments on the subtext of his relationship with Johnny when he reveals that "My
penis is a little bit sore. 1 was wondering if maybe there's something 1 should know
about". Ghouly is referring to the fact that he just fucked Johnny's 'mistress' Bridgette,21
apparently at Johnny's request, and certainly under Johnny's fascinated gaze. But
Bridgette is not simply Johnny and Ghouly's sexual go-between: Johnny has obviously
chosen to seduce her because she is the wife of Gaspare, a man he professes, for
reasons that are never specified, to despise. Making lave to Bridgette after seeing her
have sex with Ghouly is the closest Johnny can cometo sleeping with both of the men
he secretly desires. Freud's analysis of those paranoid delusions ca u sed by repressed
homosexuality are relevant here. According to Freud, one form of paranoia can be
expressed in the phrase "1 do not lave him- 1hate him". This, clearly, is at the heart of
Johnny's attitude towards Gas pare, 22 but it also explains why Johnny, while watching
Ghouly screw Bridgette, should insist that "You're a pig, Ghouly. You're a filthy, filthy
diseased pig. You're the kind of person they should keep out at the border instead of
quarantining TB patients".
By contrast, Chez's psychological problems seem more straightforward: he has
reacted to the monstrosity of the world he lives in by going insane. A volatile mixture of
compulsory heterosexuality, Catholicism, brutality and tender feelings with no
legitimate outlet is behind the remarkable (and seemingly improvised) sequence in
which Chez offers a young prostitute (Carrie Slaza) $5 to go home, then reacts to the
woman's suggestion that he give her $10 and have sex by forcing $20 on her, insisting
she has sold her soul, and violently assaulting her while screaming "Don't fuck with the
devil" (the screenplay has Chez simply drag the woman into a boiler room and beat her
up). The fact that Chez's sexual attack, like the later scene in which he rapes his wife,
ends in a gesture of tenderness makes it clear that this character's psychosis is caused
by a constant friction between his gentle nature and the violence he has been expected
to witness and enact, a split specifically embodied in his singing, a reminder of the very
different life he could have had if his background did not so decisively link him with
crime (music having much the same function for Chez as communism has for
Johnny).23 Being torced to look on while one's older brother commits murder is clearly
a form of child abuse, and the climactic scene in which Chez, like his father, finally turns
the farnily's history of violence against himself not only provides a perceptive analysis

232

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral V1sion

of abuse's cyclical nature (further demonstrated by the shots of Ray and Jean's
children playing with toy guns), but al so implies that Chez is actually the sanest of the
brothers.24 Although those early shots of neighbours watching Johnny's coffin arrive
make the Templos' neurotic obsessions (as well as their invocations of determinist
philosophy) appear ridiculous and immature - suggesting alternative, healthier ways of
living (as Ferrara said at Venice, "These guys could live another life. They could make
a choice and get out of the gangster life. And by having that choice, that opens up a
whole other world"25) - the possibility remains that, in the absence of Jean's hoped-for
miracle, the only realistic solution is the one finally proposed by Chez, the climactic
image of the coffin closing being Ferrara's equivalent of the shut door which ends
Coppola's The Godfather. Chez's suicide is not far removed from Doctor Collins' in
Body Snatchers (both characters are motivated by a refusal to sacrifice their souls),
and perhaps represents that "total reversa! of heart" hoped for by the priest. Ferrara
was perfectly willing to accept Gavin Smith's claim that "by killing himself and his
surviving brother (Chez is) putting an end to his family and its heritagr of violence",26
and the climax indicates that, in his 'illiterate', muddled and psychotic way, Chez has
intuitively reached the same conclusion as Kay (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather Part
11: "This must all end".27

Footnotes
1- Eric Rohmer, "Renoir Americain", Cahiers du Cinema 8, January 1952. Translated as 'The American
Renoir' in ATaste for Beauty (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 174.
2- End Games programme (1988), p. 2.

3- lbid, p. 30.
4- Richard Roud (ed), Cnema: A Critica/ Dictionary (Secker & Warburg, 1980), p. 1055.
5- Monthly Flm Bulletn 687, April 1991, p. 92.
6- In the screenplay, Sali informs Ray that Gaspare "admitted to hirin' the kid befare Juli whacked him".
But since the mechanic had already confessed to having killed Johnny beca use "he gave me a beatin' in
front of my friends and my girlfriend", it seems likely that Sali is simply telling Ray what he wants to hear.
7- Adrian Martin, "Neurosis Hotel: An lntroduction to Abel Ferrara", 12th Brisbane lnternatonal Flm
Festival Catalogue, July/August 2003.
8- One of these women, named liz, was played by Ferrara-regular Heather Bracken. Although Bracken's
dialogue ended up on the cutting-room floor, she can be seen in the background while Ghouly dances,
and her name is still included on the cast list.
9- Abel Ferrara, quoted in "Willing and Abel" by Rob Nelson, Cty Pages, November 27th 1996 and Sght
and Sound, April 1997, p. 8. Oliverio's screenplay is actually entitled The Frst Forty-Eight Hours of John
Temple's Eternty (The Funeral).
10- Charles Lagola, e-mail to the author, March 10th 2003.

11- Joe Delia, e-mail to the author, January 19th 2003.


12- The Movie Show (Sky), 1997.
13- Flashbacks can be found in all of Ferrara's subsequent theatrical features, and two of his music
videos.
14- To take only one example, a scene in which Enrico meets with the Templos in Chez's club appears
prior toa scene showing the club's opening night. Even those verses of Gloomy Sunday heard during the
opening credits are in the wrong arder. Many Ferrara films contain footage which is blatantly not
positioned in the place originally intended: in Snake Eyes, scenes showing Eddie reading to his son and
talking to Madlyn about Sarah supposedly occur in Eddie's L.A. hotel suite, but are actually set in the
family's New York home; in New Rose Hotel, X's conversation with Fax about giving up their planto make
Hiroshi defect ("we're no closer to pulling this off than the first time you thought of it") is heard after Sandii
has become par! of the scheme, though (as the screenplay reveals) it was initially placed befare Sandii's
introduction; less obviously, Kathleen's attack on a taxi driver in The Addiction immediately follows her
encounter with Peina, whereas the screenplay places it considerably earlier.

19: THE FUNERAL

233


15" The Funeral actually begins in the middle of another film (The Petrified Forest).
16- Kent Jones, "The Man: Who Cares?".
17- Ray's dialogue over Johnny's coffin would appear to have been entirely improvised, since it does not
appear in the screenplay.
18- Ferrara underlines Jean's structural importance by having her first appearance coincide with his
director credit.
19- Jean's dialogue is even more explicit in the screenplay: "J made the mistake of thinking that because
they are social outcasts in an increasingly boring and non-descript society, their liberated politics would
carry over in their relationship with others. lt was the opposite; they're criminals because they were raised
without consciences".
20- After Stein delivers this speech, the screenplay has Johnny tell Ghouly "You heard what he said. Only
criminals can be real leaders. You finally got sorne ontological validation".
21- This point is obscured in the film, which reverses the arder of these two scenes: Ghouly's 'p.enis' line
(which appears to have been improvised) is now heard befare he has sex with Bridgette.
22- A pair of slow tracks in to Johnny staring at Gaspare during the opening night at Chez's club speak
vol umes. ls the expression on his face one of hatred, fascnation, or confusion?
23- Chez's singing is given far less prominence in the screenplay, which notes only that "He's so bad it's
funny".
24- This point is clarified by the screenplay, which includes a scene showing Chez confiding in Helen:
"You know, l'm not like my brothers. 1can't live like they do an' not feel anything ... 1 don'! have the guts 1
used to ... 1feel sorry for sorne of the things 1done ... it's funny... most of these things nobody even knows
about... so it's not like l'm sorry 'cause 1 been caught... it's different... lt's like l'm sorry 'cause 1 done
wrong... Somethin's happenin' tome ... l'm gettin' scared". lt is clearly this encounter Helen has in mind
when she later says "1 think Chez is different".
25- The Movie Show, !bid.
26- Sight and Sound, April1997, p. 8.
27- In the screenplay, Chez shouts "No more" befare he starts shooting.
above: Ray Tempio (Christopher Walken) prevents Chez (Chris Penn) from attacking Gaspare, who has jusi executed his own
henchman in a scene cut from The Funeral (see pp. 225-226).
bottom: Chez, Johnny (Vincent Gallo), Ghouly (Paul Hipp) and friends in The Funeral.

234

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

19: THE FUNERAL

235

20

CALIFORNIA (1996)

"Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all
relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females
only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete
automation and destroy the male sex ... the male is a mere member of the species,
interchangeable with every other male. He has no deep-seated individuality, which
stems from what intrigues you, what outside yourself absorbs you, what you're in
relation to. Completely self-absorbed, capable of being only to the degree and in the
ways they attempt to defend themselves against their passivity and against their desire
to be female ... he is, therefore, doomed to an existence of suffering relieved only by
occasional, fleeting stretches of restfulness, which state he can only achieve at the
expense of some female. The male is, by his very nature, a leech, an emotional
parasite and, therefore, not ethically entitled to live, as no one has the right to live at
someone else's expense. Justas humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by
virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women
have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a
righteous and good act, an act highly beneficia! to women as well asan act of merey."
Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto (1967)

Ji

ji

Abel Ferrara directs Mylene Farmer in California.

236

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Ferrara met French singer/songwriter Mylene Farmer when she was stranded in
New York by the great blizzard of January 1996, and agreed to direct a video for
California, which was shot on location in Los Angeles during February of that year.1
The song provides a poetic account of Farmer's arrival in LA, conveying the singer's
impressions of experiencing a foreign city while suffering jet lag. lnstead of illustrating
the lyrics, Ferrara retained only a few details (such as "Marlboro smiling at me") and
created a new narrative, comparing and contrasting a celebrity (a film star according to
publicity materials, though the actual video contains nothing to suggest this) and his
wife with a pimp and a prostitute. Farmer plays both the wife and the prostitute, while
Ferrara regular Giancarlo Esposito appears as the star and the pimp.
As California begins, Ferrara's camera tracks past a Los Angeles building
decorated with feminine silhouettes. The following images show similar storefronts,
neon signs, billboards and a palm tree. The viewpoint is that of a passenger in a
moving car, the entire sequen ce being strongly reminiscent of Eddie and Madlyn's drive
through LA in Snake Eyes. On the soundtrack we hear a pollee radio and a siren,
though their significance will not be apparent until later.
The next sequence introduces the star and his wife as they prepare for an
evening out. The woman has dressed in a white top and black skirt which the man, after
careful consideration (he makes her turn around for his inspection, as if she were a
slave on an auction block), decides he does not like. Selecting a blackjacket, he hands
it to his obviously reluctant wife. We then see this woman sitting befare a mirror as her
husband approaches with pearls (barely visible in the video, though they can be clearly
seen in the 'making of' documentary), pulls her hair back and kisses her. There are
clear thematic echoes of Vertigo, the man's precise demands recalling the similarly

20: CALIFORNIA

237


neurotic behaviour of James Stewart's character in Hitchcock's film. The star seems
concerned that his wife's clothing will draw attention away from himself (he has airead y
dressed in a dazzlingly white shirt), the woman's evident annoyance suggesting
resentment at being merely a supporting player in her husband's universe.
At this point, Ferrara cuts toa motel room - different from yet strangely reminiscent
of the star's bedroom - and introduces a prostitute and a pimp, the other characters
played by Farmer and Esposito. The prostitute appears to be demonstrating how she
attracts customers, but the pimp suggests that her virtually parodie movements are not
what he requires. We see the prostitute in front of a mirror as the pimp places. an
appropriate jacket (which she attempts to shrug off) around her shoulders, gives her
pearls and kisses her. A connection is thus made between two sets of characte.rs, the
actions of one- from Farmer's initial appearance in a doorway to Esposito's gift of pearls
and kiss by the mirror- finding an echo in those of the other (one of the motifs used to
create mirrored worlds being an actual mirror). Ferrara sees little difference between
prostitution in marriage and the more obvious kind, and the following section cuts so
rapidly between these two couples engaged in similar activity {culminating in their
departure from, respectively, a dingy motel and a luxurious house) that we may be
uncertain which pair we are watching at any given point (continuity is deliberately
obscured, with the pimp's t-shirt appearing and disappearing). Whereas Ms.45's Thana
saw all menas collectively responsible for acts of violence towards women, California
implies that all women are united as victims of male violence. The power games played
by the star and his wife merely duplicate those enacted in more overt form by the pimp
and the prostitute, the violence already evident in the latter relationship {in the greater,
though at this point still mild, physical expressions of contempt and resentment)
externalising that hostility existing beneath the surface of the former.
The following sequence, showing the star and his wife driving to a party,
foregrounds the woman as our identification figure, with shots either privileging Farmer
or representing her viewpoint. This would hardly be remarkable were we not in the
middle of a. period that privileges masculina viewpoints, a tendency only our most
ambitious filmmakers dare oppose. Yet it was not so long ago that strong assertive
actresses dominated American cinema, and this is the time we feel Ferrara longing for.
lndeed, it may explain why he undertook the project- this is, after all, a video in which
Mylene Farmer is unquestionably the dominant personality and in which those identification patterns found in such star vehicles as All 1 Desire, Christopher Strong,
Mildred Pierce and Now, Voyager still operate. The female star's right to exist at the
centre of her world is asserted within a narrative predicated upon her subordination to
the mal e, and every textual detail is amenable to feminist interpretation: far from being
neutral data, those enormous billboards seen by the wife suggest a culture in which
'mal e' and 'female' roles are cut to imposed patterns. 2 Each billboard evokes a gender
ideal which is either specifically feminine {the smiling woman in the 'Estee Lauder
Perfume' advert) or specifically masculine {the Marlboro cowboy). The violence found in
a pimp's brutal relationship with a prostituta not only exists, in more surreptitious forms,
in what we like to think of as society's more sophisticated circles, but is the inevitable
product of an ideology which places its members in mutually exclusive categories
arranged according to gender. As Ferrara brilliantly suggests by having the Marlboro
advert superimposed over Farmer's face (via a reflection on the car window), there
could hardly be a more unlikely couple than the perfect man - that virile adventurer
always ready to journey into the wi!derness with nothing but his horse and a Marlboro

238

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

cigarette for company- and the perfect woman - the ever-smiling homemaker happily
applying Estee Lauder perfume as she awaits her husband's return.
The next scene, in which the car drives past prostitutes picking up customers,
implies that women in a patriarchal world can only have genuine relationships with
other women. Shots of the wife are intercut with shots of prostitutas until the one played
by Farmer appears. When the car arrives at this point, Ferrara again uses a reflection
to show an image of Farmer as prostituta superimposed over an image of Farmer as
wife. Although the following shots show these women looking at each other (recalling
that moment in Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique when Veronique
realizes the woman she photographed in Poland was her exact double), this
recognition lasts for only an instant,_ and is disrupted by the pimp - who violently taps
the prostitute's head {Ferrara again emphasises the similarity between prostitution and
marriage by superimposing this action over the wife's face) befo re threatening her with
a knife- in collusion with the star, who prevents his wife from helping the woman.
When they arrive at the party, the star is greeted enthusiastically while the wife is
ignored, but California's mise-en-scene reverses these priorities, keeping Farmer at
the forefront of the frame and tracking with her as she walks: what is important to
Ferrara is less the events themselves than the. manner in which they are perceived by
a marginalised female protagonist. Unable to forget her doppelganger,. the wife departs
after rearranging her clothes in the ladies' room. Ferrara here shows how easily a
'respectable' outfit can be adapted into something more appropriate for a prostitute,
and again a mirror is used to suggest the link: the wife's costume change is mostly
filmed via its reflection, the implication being that she is about to experience Jife on the
mirror's other side.
We next see the wife standing on a street looking at something offscreen. The
following shot reveals this to be the prostitute's dead body, which is taken away in an
ambulance. The wife is approached by the unconcerned pimp (in case we should be in
any doubt as to who is responsible for the prostitute's death, Ferrara inserts a
flashback glimpse of the pimp threatening her with a knife), and they leave together.
The final scene, which lasts a mere 16 seconds, needs to be described shot by shot:
1- lnside the motel room, a medium shot of the pimp kissing the wife. He moves down
her body and out of frame.
2- A flashback to the wife sitting in front of the mirror in her house.
3- The wife, as at 1, removing her hairpin.
4- A flashback to the dead prostitute.
5- An almost subliminal view of the outline around the prostitute's body.
6- The wife, as at 3. She finishes removing her hairpin.
7- A subliminal glimpse of the video's clapperboard, with Ferrara's na me visible.
8- A flashback to earlier in the day, showing the pimp standing without a shirt in the
motel.
9- The wife, as at 6. She lifts her hairpin and begins stabbing down violently at the
pimp, who remains offscreen.
10- A flashback showing the star in his house walking rapidly forward.
11- A flashback to the wife as we first saw her, standing in a doorway.
12- Another subliminal glimpse of the clapperboard.
13- The wife, as at 9 (but with the camera slightly closer), stabbing down at an
offscreen space.

20: CALIFORNIA

239


14 and 15~ Two briefflashback shots, connected vi a a jump cut, again showing the wife
standing in a doorway.
16- The wife stabbing downwards, as at 13. Blood splashes onto her shoulder.
17- A flashback showing the wife and star arriving at the party.
18- The wife stabbing downward, as at 16, then standing up and leaving the frame.
19- The previous shot dissolves to a flashback showing the prostituta looking directly
into Ferrara's camera as she first sees her doppelganger.
lf music videos often contain extremely rapid editing and defy rules of cinematic

continuity in arder to define themselves as existing within a hermetic entertainment


world of mindless spectacle, Ferrara uses these techniques for specifically Political
ends. Superficially, the wife takes revenge for her murdered double by killing the man
responsible, and in this she clearly descends from Thana (as well as many other
vengeful figures in Ferrara's work). Yet an even closer resemblance is inferred by
Ferrara's editing, for the wife's revenge, like Thana's, is really u pon men in general, and
it is surely significant that the pimp disappears after the sequence's opening shot: as
in Ms.45, men are found to be collectively guilty (the doubled casting of Giancarlo
Esposito itself implies this), and at precisely those points where we might expect to see
the pimp's body being pierced by a hairpin, we are instead presented with flashback
glimpses of the star, who, since he had prevented his wife from intervening, bears (like
Matt in Fear City) a real, if indirect, responsibility for the prostitute's death. Yet the
insertion of flashbacks to the wife in her earlier docile mode suggests that, in her
complicity, she must share at least so me of the blame: revenge is enacted purely on a
symbolic leve!, the wife attacking the entire culture that made this murder possible.
California here violates those realist principies upon which most narrative cinema,
Ferrara's included, is based, rendering the text incoherent: but one can hardly claim the
director is unaware of this, sin ce, as in Snake Eyes, he has deliberately fractured its
surface by inserting subliminal glimpses of the clapperboard. 3
Although the music video industry usual! y requires little but empty pyrotechnics (or,
the other side of the same coin, the inert classicism of Jonathan Demme's The Perfect
Kiss), Ferrara here uses the !inguistic freedom - a freedom, that is, in terms of the
options available once those disciplines associated with classical Hollywood have been
forsaken - of the video form not to indulge in bravura stylistic displays, nor to apply
methods that have served him well elsewhere, but rather to clarify his feminist concerns.

Footnotes
1- Ferrara has actually directed a number of music videos, but California is clearly the most ambitious,
and thus worth discussing at length. The other videos are dealt with more briefly in the filmography.
2- As Nicole Brenez has claimed, "Ferrara here demonstrates that there is no difference between a wife
and a prostituta, or between a woman anda publicity billboard" (from Brenez's presentation of California
in the ARTE series Court Circuit, 2002. Translation mine).
3- Ferrara also showed a clapperboard at the start of his video for Schoolly D's King of New York (1990),
which is discussed in the filmography.

'

240

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

21

SUBWAY STORIES:
TALES FROM THE UNDERGROUND (1997)
"lt does take a force of will to maintain sanity. In my view, when we wake up in the
morning the first thing people do is reinvent reality for themselves. The human mind is
the only con,'sciousness in the universe. We've created everything out of nothing, and
we're all we've got. lf you and 1 swapped minds, we'd both be shocked - it would be
like being on sorne other planet. We all agree to intersect on sorne leve!, but when
there is a real clash of incompatible realities - as in the Rushdie situation - both sides
are convinced of what and where they are. To compromise is, again, a force ofwill. You
have to feather the edges of your reality - that's how the world works."
David Cronenberg, Time Out, Aprii28-May 51999, p.16

In 1995, Rosie Perez suggested that HBO ask New Yorkers to send in stories
about the New York subway. Ten of the more than 1000 responses were selected, and
ten directors hired to adapt them for the cable .::inthology Subway Sto~ies: Tales from
the Underground. Ferrara shot his 8-minute contribution during the summer of 1996,
working with severa! regular collaborators: the screenplay was by his then-girlfriend,
Maria Hanson1, the DP was Ken Kelsch (who also photographed six of the other
sections), and The Funeral's Gretchen Mol appears in one of the main roles. Entitled
Love on the A Train, Ferrara's episode (which appears ninth in the film) focuses on
John T. (Mike McGione), a newly married trader in municipal bonds whose carefully
regulated existence is disrupted when he encounters a woman, referred to in the
credits only as 'The Girl' (Rosie Perez), on the A train and develops a curious, quasisexual relationship with her. Meeting at the same time every morning by a pole in the
subway car, the two go through a series of seductive moves without directly acknowledging each other. After nine months of this, John tries talking to the woman, but she
reacts contemptuously. Eventually, John ends their 'affair' by switching to the F train.
Later, entering the underground with his pregnant wife (Gretchen Mol), John runs into
the woman again and they exchange glances. When asked who she is, John truthfully
insists he doesn't know.
Superficially, John T. has little in common with Ferrara's previous male protagonists. An anal retentive, Republican-voting trader in municipal bonds, John's life is so
meticulously organized that there is nothing his limited outlook cannot assimilate: as
his name's evocation of Rio Bravo's John T. Chance indicates, he lives in a world of
traditional male authority which may never have existed, and is certainly an
anachronism in this unpredictable milieu.2 The da y marking his marriage's third month
is seen by him "in terms of a quarterly report. Things were better than expected", and
it is typical that even his random sexual encounter should be played out in such a
carefully regulated fashion, occurring at the same time in the same place every
working day.
Yet beneath this tightly controlled surface, John suffers from the same conflicts
that tormented Reno, Mike Torello, Michael Shane and LT. Torn between that security
offered by his marriage and the theoretical Jure of passion, he appears to settle for
conventional domestic bliss, but remains open to temptation. John's resemblance to

21: SUBWAY STORIES: TALES FROM THE UNDERGROUND

241


Ferrara's earlier characters becomes clearer when we understand that, like Reno, he
is unable to distinguish between the real and the imaginary. Two possibilities are
proposed: either the affair John T. has with this anonymous woman is genuine, or it
occurs entirely within his imagination (as in The Blackout, superimpositions are used
to suggest a lack of contact with reality), Perez being nothing more than a commuter
who catches the same train every day, remaining unaware of John's existence until he
attempts to advance their 'relationship' a stage further by initiating a conversation (seen
this way, John's description of Perez's contemptuous response as "our first fight" is
absolutely hi!arious).
Should we gravitate towards the latter explanation, the film will stand revealed as
an assault on masculina sexuality, John's obsession with his phallic 'pal' and
references to Robert Ardrey's The Territorial lmperatve being particularly pointed in
their absurdity. But nothing in Ferrara is ever simple or straightforward, and, as usual,
performance provides the key to 'reading' this work. Everything Rosie Perez does every move she makes, every facial gesture -can be interpreted in two ways: her initial
movements, though they appear sexual, are not necessarly so; her frantic rush
through the carriage could imply either desire for John or a need to steady herself by
holding onto a pele; her disgust at John's attempt to engage her in conversation is
motivated either by a wish to maintain the non-intimacy of their relationship, or an
understandable lack of interest in a stranger's clumsy chat-up line; even their final
exchange of glances could mean either 'There's that man with whom 1 once had an
un usual affair' or 'lsn't that the lunatic who tried to proposition me on the subway?'.
Love on the A Train's parad y of mal e sexual response is thus far more complex
than it might at first appear: the audience cannot sit back and complacently condemn
the lead character's neuroticism, but must acknowledge a certain complicity with it. John
T.'s behaviour simply extends what our culture defines as 'normal', and we can no more
state with absolute certainty that his 'relationship' was imaginary than we can claim with
any confidence that our own desires are not, in their own way, every bit as bizarre.
The implicit answer to all this is, as usual, provided by a woman who stands
outside the world of neurotic sexuality. lf John's preoccupation with 'The Girl' recalls
Scottie's fascination with Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo, then the role of Midge (Barbara
Bel Geddes) is taken by John's wife, whose healthy outlook is contrastad with her
husband's obsessiveness. Just as The Addiction began with Kathleen and Jean
heading off in different directions, so here Ferrara immediately establishes the
distinction between John and his spouse by having John travelling north into
Manhattan's business district while his wife goes south to her kindergarten class.
Everything we need to know about the wife is conveyed by Gretchen Mol's
performance: as so often in this oeuvre, an actor is allowed to build a character from
virtually nothing, Mol's conversation about the spontaneously affectionate activities of
children at her kindergarten, although seemingly of no significance whatsoever,
registering as this brief but charming vignette's moral centre.

Footnotes
1- Ex-model Maria Hanson's 1986 assault and subsequent encounter with America's legal system was
sufficiently notorious to inspire a 1991 TV movie, John Gray's The Maria Hanson Story.
2- As Nicole Brenez has pointed out, the model of masculine sexuality with which John T. tries to conform
is best represented by King of New York's subway scene.

242

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

22: THE BLACKOUT

243

Dennis Hopper as Mickey Ray


in The Blackout.

22

THE BLACKOUT (1997)

"The male 'rebel' is a farce; this is the male's 'society', made by hm to satisfy his
needs. He's never satisfied, because he's not capable of being satisfied. Ultimately,
what the male 'rebel' is rebelling against is being male."
Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto

'\

il

"The aim of the use of terrible pictures is, the more you see them, the more you don't
even look at them ... The image of a movie when we began was in arder to remember.
TV is done to forget, and that's what we are doing. We forget in two seconds. At the
same time we're looking, we forget."
Jean-Luc Godard, Film Comment, September/October 1998, p. 54
"1 found myself sitting in the library, and again sitting there alone. lt seemed that 1 had
newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream. 1 knew that it was now midnight,
and 1was well aware that sin ce the setting of the sun Berenice had been interred. But
of that dreary period which intervened 1 had no positive, at least no definite comprehension. Yet its memory was replete with horror - horror more horrible from being
vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. lt was a fearful page in the record of my
existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. 1
strived to decipher them, but in vain; while ever and anon, like the spirit of a departed
sound, the shrill and piercing shriek of a fema!e voice seemed to be ringing in my ears.
1had done a deed- what was it? 1asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering
echoes of the chamber answered me, -' What was t?"'
Edgar Allan Poe, Berenice

The Blackout begins with 'flavour-of-the-month' actor Matty (Matthew Modine in a


role intended for Matt Dillon) returning to Miami after shooting severa! films in Los
Angeles. He propases marriage to Annie (Beatrice Dalle), a French model whom he
believes to be pregnant with his child, and together they visita nightclub whose owner,
Mickey Ray (Dennis Hopper in a role intended for Mickey Rourke), is directing a shoton-video adaptation of Emile Zola's Nana in which Annie is starring. After attending a
fashion shoot, Annie admits she has had an abortion, insisting this was what Matty told
her todo during a telephone conversation he claims not to remember (even after Annie
plays him a tape-recording of it). Annie disappears, and Matty, becoming increasingly
dependent on drugs and alcohol, joins Mickey as he parties with two young women. At
a diner, Matty meets a seventeen-year old waitress (Sarah Lassez, who has an intriguingly similar role in Gregg Araki's Nowhere, made the same year) also named Annie,
and takes her back to Mickey's club. Mickey dubs her 'Annie 2', and films her trying on
a black wig which makes her resemble 'Annie 1'. Eighteen months later, Matty is living
in New York with an art dealer named Susan (Claudia Schiffer) while attending AA
meetings and seeing a psychiatrist. Haunted by dreams of having killed Annie, he visits
Miami and asks Mickey to put him in touch with her. Matty begins drinking and taking
drugs once again. Annie arrives, expresses her disgust, and departs. At Mickey's

22: THE BLACKOUT

245


nightclub, Matty sees a video which shows him strangling Annie 2. Mickey admits to
having disposed of the watress' body, and te lis Matty to leave. Matty goes to the beach
where he encounters Susan. Despite her pleas, he swims out to sea and drowns. The
final shot shows Matty reunited with Annie 2, who asks "D'you miss me?".
The Blackout's screenplay is credited to Maria Hanson, Christ Zois, and Ferrara
himself: "The original story was about a guy who murders a woman for leaving him,
coupled with the blackout story. And 1 wanted to write it myself, because with Bad
Lieutenant l'd had the idea and got Zo Lund to write it. 1 managed to get out 30 pages
or something. Marta was doing most of the writing. 1 don't think there was a personal
angle. l was trying to get away from that after Snake Eyes. The idea was, let's do
Hitchcock, a take on Vertigo, where a guy investigates a murder and finds he
committed it. But then it came back around with the break-up of my relationships with
Nancy and Marta". t
According to Christ Zois, "Marta was a mutual friend of Abe! and myself. She was
the one who introduced us. Marta and Abe! had already completed an outline for The
Blackout which included a therapy scene. Because of my background as a psychiatrist, they initial!y wanted me to provide some technical advice for this scene (l had
previously worked as a consultant for an ABC series, which was also about
psychiatry). 1 met Abe! in his Ioft, and we spoke for five hours about the psychodynamics of the characters. Eventually, Abe! asked me to take a crack at writing the
screenplay. All three of us wrote parts: 1 guess 1 ended up being responsible for
something like 40 per cent, though it's difficult to be precise, since so much of the film
was improvisad, particularly the scenes involving Dennis Hopper. Maria certainly
wrote the scene with Matty and Mickey in a car. The film was shot in the space of a
month (1 don't recall much of a rehearsal period). l was on the set every day, working
closely with Abe! and the actors (especially Claudia Schiffer), and playing an
uncredited role as Matty's psychiatrist. l improvisad that scene with Matthew Modine,
asking the kind of questions 1 would have asked his character if he'd been one of my
patients. When l showed Abe! the footage, he was very pleased. M y son Elia was al so
in the film: he's the video cameraman that Matty kicks".2
A draft of the screenplay dated July 9th 1996 (one month befare principal photography began) differs significantly from the released film. Little of this draft's dialogue
bears much relationship to what appears on-screen, and it contains severa! scenes
that were either left on the cutting room floor (Matty and Mickey p!aying pool in a Cuban
strip club; two visits to a psychic who insists that Matty "return to the scene of the
crime") or never shot (an opening sequence showing Matty working on a violent action
movie). In the screenplay, Annie is not French, and there is nothing to suggest that
Susan is an art dealer.
Matthew Modine recalls that "Abe! sent me this script. 1 read it, and immediately
felt like taking a dump on it, because 1 thought that it was abso!ute pornography, and
there was no way that 1 was gonna make this film. He kept calling up and calling up and
raining emotions on me, explaining that it was in fact about something else, that those
were just words, that what that person says doesn't mean anything. lt's a much deeper,
darker story about somebody loving the wrong person, falling in !ove with somebody
who doesn't !ove you back, and then getting into a relationship with somebody el se that
you're not capable of toving, and always thinking about the other person. On top ofthis,
you have the confusion of drugs and alcohol. l've seen a lot of actors go down that path.
Some are dead, and some are almost dead".J

'

!i

li

!li
'1'

jli

11
,.,

246

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

According to Joe Delia, "1 had heard that Nick St. John, who had been with Abel
from the time they were kids, was no tonger talking to him, and that Abe! had a new
writer. Everybody went down to Miami in August 1996 for the shooting of The
Blackout, and assembled at a defunct nightclub that was used for the main set.
Modine, Hopper, Beatrice Dalle, and Steven Bauer were on the set for the nightclub
scenes: as soon as Hopper arrived, he took one look at the chaos and went nose to
nose with Abe! about the script and his character (my wife P.J. recorded the whole
thing on video). 1 had hired a womanwho played blues guitar to be in the band on the
set. Ferrara was pretty unhappy with my choice, and read me the riot act for bringing
this 'fifty year old broad' down (it's ironic, since he was the one who had introduced
me to her in the first place, and had pitched me on her playing). He was on her case
the whole time, telling her how to play. Finally, he grabbed the electric guitar out of her
hands and told her 'do it like this'. The amp was set really loud, and had a long
sustained sound in the room. Abe! played the same two notes over and over, and they
sounded great. He told the sound guys to run the Nagra, and kept ptaying these two
really loud notes, which were captured on tape. When we finally got ~round to doing
m u sic for the film, Abel's two notes on the guitar, backed by a drum machine, became
part of the opening scene. The band played a lot on the set as Abe! rehearsed the
actors and blocked the scenes. Once the cameras began rolling, Schoolly O started
to sing, and the place came alive".4
Lucllle Grace, who can be seen playing with Joe Delia and Schoolly D in the first
nightclub scene, believes that Ferrara "handles his actors like he handles most things.
He is very personable and persuasiva, which is necessary for the art of directing. He did
as well as circumstances allowed, given the idiosyncrasies of Beatrice Dalle, the actress
from France. S he didn't have as much patience with Abe! as the other, more seasoned
actors, and we were al! very entertained, watching her throw her occasional tantrums.
Abe! is extremely patient with his actors, and always gets what he's after. 1 couldn't really
tell how much improvisation was taking place: 1 noticed no scripts being used, but the
actors were obviously well-prepared". 5
Joe Delia's wife P.J. Delia was present as an extra on the nightclub set: "Abe!
insisted on everyone smoking. lt really gave the place an 'out with the players' look. 1
was quitting smoking at the time, because 1 had learned 1 was pregnant. 1 didn't look
pregnant, but Abe! was very conscious of it, and treated me like 1 was made of china. A
PA came running up and popped a Cuban cigar into my mouth. lt could only be
described as phallic in size. 1 was smoking like everyone else, but not inhaling. That set
was unforgettable. The dancers were everywhere. There were dewy South Beach legs
and breasts in every direction as far as one could see. You couldn't see very far beca use
of the smoke. lt was at least 90 degrees inside. Steamy, smoky, and dark. lt was a large,
defunct dance club, essentially one gymnasium~sized room with black walls and
fixtures. lt was filled up with groups of people, each with a mission. An anthill of activity.
The filming or set ups would be going on with Abe! shouting or gesticulating in one area.
On the other side would be Dennis Hopper imitating Abe!, shouting or gesticulating at
the scantily-clad dancers. There was choreography being rehearsed on stage. Joe's
band was playing most of the time. A Cuban girl in a merry widow and five-inch heels
was inside a cage that was being dropped from the ceiling and hauled back up every
few minutes. 1 was shooting a lot of this with a video camera, and may be in the film that
way. 1 got some great footage. 1 accidenta!ly walked right into a scene with Matthew
Modine at one point: Matthew just grabbed my hand and wordlessly whisked me into a

22: THE BLACKOUT

247


litt!e tango move, winding me against him before flinging me at arm's length back out of
camera range. The filming did not even pause for that". 6
According to Ferrara, "The character Dennis Hopper p!ays ended up being based
on Nicholas Ray - that's why we called him 'Mickey Ray'. Dennis told me how, in the
early 70s, Nick was staying at his house in New Mexico, and the guy ran up a $30,000
phone bill! Dennis found him a job teaching somewhere, and Nick immediately put his
students to work making a film called We Can't Go Home Again. When Dennis visited
Nick, he found him running around trying to supervise all this chaotic activity. So Dennis
is kind of imitating Nick Ray in The Blackout". 7
Vincent Lamberti was one of severa! actors whose roles were greatly redu_ced in
the editing: "l'm barely in that. 1 had a few good scenes with Dennis Hopper that we
improvised. He and 1 got along great. But as punishment for Beatrice Dalle and 1 running
off together, Abel cut all my scenes. 1 tried to get them back. 1 even tried to get them from
the distributor. Abe! has them in his Ioft. He even showed me them once in his Ioft one
night when 1 was over: 'Remember this Vince, these were good fuckin' scenes too, if you
didn't go stealing my best lady, motherfucker!' (laughs). 1 played one of Dennis Hopper's
filmmakers. And 1 had a scene with Matthew Modine, and Beatrice. 1 had sorne good
stuff. 1t was al! cut out". B
Joe Delia recalls that "When filming was completed, Abe! had me stay a few extra
days in Miami, because he wanted meto be a second unit video cameraman. He had
me shoot all of these weird set-ups that would be put on video screens in the club. !'m
not su re how much of this footage made the final cut. lt was mostly quasi-S&M kind of
stuff, and 1 guess dream sequences. Once we got back to New York, Abe! thought we
might be able to get outside money to finance the score, and told me to hold off on
making a deal if anyone should cal! with an offer. 1 fina!ly gota cal! to meet with someone
named Jan ice Ginsberg at the Ioft with Abe! and his new screenwriter. Jan ice walked in
dressed for business, and opened her attach caseto show an impressive catalogue of
film scores that her company, CAM, represented. CAM - an old, established, ltalian,
family-run music company- has a catalogue that includes most of the films of Fellini and
the great composer Nino Rota. Abe! dismissed Janice's opening remarks and, half
laughing, asked her: 'You got money for us? How much money do yo u have for us, huh?
How much fucking money do you have?' Janice was bewildered: 'Do you mean right
now?', she asked, and Ferrara shot back 'Yeah, how much money do you have right
now for this film?' Yo u had to know Abe! to understand that he was basically putting her
on, but 1 felt really bad for her anyway: she was obviously a nice person, and had the
ability to get The Blackout's music financed and produced. lt would be the first time a
Ferrara film would have outside money put into the m u sic, and there was a real prospect
of getting the score released as a legitimate soundtrack record on a majar label (also a
first). lt was baptism by fire forJan ice. Over the next few months, Jan ice and 1stayed in
daily contact, and became clase friends, determined to make the music deal happen.
We worked out budgets and travelling plans for people to come out to the studio, and
poured through thick contracts between her company, myself, and the film company.
Finally, by about Christmas time, we had a deal in place. Janice had pulled the whole
thing together".
According to Jan ice Ginsberg, "Abe! originally wanted to sample Sly Stone's ff You
Want Me to Stay, but we only had a certain amount of money, and what he wanted to
do would have eaten up half our budget. Since Joe and Schoolly D had never really
worked together befare (they had only worked directly with Abel), 1 said to Abel, 'Let's

248

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

get them together, with your help on the lyrics- 1'11 fund sorne time in the studio, and we'll
see if we can make an 'original song' intensive score, instead of the usual score with a
handful of licensed tracks: if yo u like what's happening we'll push forward; if not, 1'11 get
you the Sly Stone song'. Something did gel, and we gota really cool R&B/rap score. We
were very creative. Abe! and Schoolly wrote lyrics, while music for the songs was cowritten by Joe and Schoolly".10
"Music production commenced out at my studio in Tappan in January of 1997",
recalls Joe. Delia. "l was teamed up with Philadelphia rapper Schoolly O, the selfproclaimed inventor of 'gangsta rap'. For the most part, he programmed the drum
machine and made up the rhymes while 1 wrote a lot of the music for the songs. He
constantly referred to me as an 'elderly white man', and 1 dubbed him the 'grandfather of
rap'. During the sessions, 1 went into a near fatal reaction to the penicillin 1 was taking for
a dental procedure, and lost every square inch of skin on my body. lt was really terrible
when it got to the skin on my hands peeling off. 1 had to wear these thin rubber gloves for
most of the sessions in arder to play, and Schoolly started calling me 'Doctor Phibes'". 11
'
Jan ice Ginsberg recalls how "We brought on various special guests,
great session
players as well as an interesting mix of singers, notably actress Gretchen Mol on two
songs. Of course, Schoolly sang on severa! traCks. Harper Simon did a piece for us that
we used on the soundtrack al bu m, though it didn't make the film. The1 songs and score
melded really well into a thematic unity that we were all proud of, and U2's Miami was
perfectas well. Abe! was very involved in the music for the film: the soundtrack album
he left mostly to me and Joe, but he was immersed in the film, and very active in playing
with pieces that were sent back and forth to him, sometimes re-recording pieces to
make them work. He uses music well in his films, raising the levels when it doesn't
compete with dialogue, and taking chances. He is confident in how he uses music,
treating itas a majar character, whereas so me filmmakers use it more as a sound effect.
He is also very open to including people you might not have considered, such as
Gretchen, or Jill Wolfe, a model-singer hopeful who sang sorne feelings on a track called
Breathless: Joe and Schoolly messed around in the studio and made it sound haunting.
We also hada hip-hop mixer anda DJ on board".12
According to Joe Delia, "lt was Abel's decision to take every individual track of
music and input it into a pro-tools system, so as to remix all the songs as he wanted
them in the film. lt was confusing to meto do this, since we had already spent two weeks
doing stereo mixes of the songs which sounded fine. The PI ayer, which is used at the
beginning of the film, as Modine comes out of the airport, sounded great in the rough
cut with the stereo mix: in the final version, the balances seem way off to me. In April,
an editor moved into my studio for a month to digitize every track of the score into a
computer. The guy finally moved out the day my son Jacob was born on April 8th 1997.
Not a minute too soon. The Blackout was the last film 1 worked on with Ferrara. l'm
grateful for the experience 1 had with him, and for what he taught me in a run that !asted
22 years, but by the time The Blackout finally wrapped, 1 think we'd simply had enough.
Abe! inspired many of us todo our best work- 1 truly miss working and hanging with him.
Nicky had not taken my calls for the last couple of years, and it wasn't until my
relationship with our 'old friend' (as Nicky was now referring to him} was over that we
finally got together to talk about it. We spent an afternoon talking, eating pasta and
ltalian pastry, while our wives chatted and the kids ran around the house". 13
The Blackout is a direct descendant of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, specifically those whose narrators have committed unspeakable acts.14 In The lmp of the

22: THE BLACKOUT

249


Perverse and The Telf- Tale Heart, the crime is an Oedipal one: the former's 'hero'
disposes of a relative (who may be his actual father), while the latter's sees his victim
as a father figure, the intent in both cases being to obtain the symbolic phallus by first
killing, then becoming, the Father. In The lmp ofthe Perverse the phallus is representad
by an estate, which is to be thought of as having sorne practica! value, but not even The
Te//- Tale Heatfs narrator can explain his fascination with the old man's eye ("Object
there was none. Passion there was none ... For his gold 1 had no desire"), and though
both storytellers repeatedly insist on their sanity (indeed, The lmp ofthe Perverse's first
two-thirds are dedicated entirely to the protagonist's blatantly spurious justification for
his actions), they are driven by an undeniable urge to have their crimes pu~licly
acknowledged, thus accruing the respect due them as our society's most valued figure,
the patriarch.
Of more immediate relevance to Ferrara's film are those stories in which the victim
is a woman. Whereas the central characters of both previous tales took toan extreme
behaviour defined by their culture as 'normal', the narrators of The Black Cat and
Berenice are disturbad by their inability to 'play' a masculina role more convincingly. The
phallus, though still the object of obsession, has somehow been misplaced, a concept
repugnant to The 8/ack Cafs protagonist, who strenuously resists his wife's suggestion
that their male cat, Pluto, is a witch (traditionally a female) in disguise, taking pains to
point out that she was not "serious upon this point" and insisting "1 mentan the matter at
all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered". Nevertheless,
the narrator soon begins referring to Pluto as 'it' rather than 'him', and eventually takes
revenge by hacking out one of the cat's eyes. lf this eye imagery, alongside the
strenuous denial of madness, recalls The Tell- Tale Heart, Poe's emphasis here is on
those forces patriarchal civilization seeks in va in to repress, his description of the second
cat's "red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire" challenging that clear-cut distinction
between the sexes around which the narrator's view of reality is organized.15
This challenge is also made in Berenice, among the finest of the tales. As in The
Fall of the House of Usher (though one should also mention William Wilson's schoolhouse, wherein "it was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its
two stories one happened to be"), we are presented with a mansion that mirrors its
occupant, the manner in which Poe's narrator evokes "the frescos of the chief saloon ...
the tapestries of the dormitories ... the chiselling of sorne buttresses in the armory - but
more especially... the gallery of antique paintings ... the fashion of the library chamber and, lastly... the very peculiar nature of the library's contents ... of which latter 1 will say no
more" suggesting a gradual descent into the psyche's most deeply buried regions.
Haunted by his failure to complete the Oedipal trajectory ("the noon of manhood found
me still in the mansion of my fathers"), the protagonist develops a tortured fascination
with his female cousin's teeth, which are associated with a phallic power he does not
possess. As Poe's description of the teeth- "long, narrow, and excessively white, with the
pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible developmen!" implies, the phallus has here been found in a place where it cannot exist, except as an
object of unthinkable horror: concealed inside the vagina dentata. Although the narrator
insists "their possession could alone ever restare me to peace", he remains aware that
any value Berenice's teeth might have is purely symbolic ("1 more seriously believed que
tous ses dents taient des ides"), and once he has wrenched them from the prematurely
interred woman's mouth with "sorne instruments of dental surgery", they are finally
perceived as nothing more than "thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances".

250

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

Like Poe, Ferrara attaches no importance to plot details, which he regards as


irrelevances at best, active nuisances at worst, and The Blackout displays a cavalier
disregard for narrativa exceeding that of even his previous work. To take only the most
obvious gap, why, and under what circumstances, is Matty permitted to see the 'snuff'
video? ls it an accident? We are not told (any more than we are told how Poe's Arthur
Gordon Pym survived his apparently certain death and returned to civilization). We
simply observe Matty standing befare a television screen watching the tape while
Mickey (who is inexplicably holding a gun) looks on.16 As in The Driller Killer and
Subway Stories, the possibility that events may be taking place within the protagonist's
mind is neither confirmad nor denied, the fact that Susan's first 'appearance' in Miami
(as she talks to Matty on the phone) is specifically identified as a fantasy bringing into
question the seeming reality of her second appearance (on the beach as Matty is about
to commit suicide}, which might otherwise seem merely implausible.
Consistently in Ferrara, we observe characters from a detached position rather
than seeing through their eyes: in the director's own words, "When 1 go to a movie, 1
don't want to march single file behind one particular character. 1 just want to watch ~ to
observe. 1 believe that audiences should have to make their own choices, and think
about what they're watching".17 But we are al$o frequently obliged to piece together
events in much the same way as the protagonist. lf Ferrara's films are often difficult to
follow, this is because their narrativas are by no means clear to the on-screen participants. The disorientating quality of The Blackout's structure is supported by Ferrara's
stylistic choices: as he told Gavln Smith, "The real breakthrough is the AVID digital
editing programme and the way you can use it to !ayer shots, putting shots on top of
shots. lt's right for The Blackout beca use what you want is a dream, that's what we're
trying to get at. The problem we always had using opticals and dissolves befare was that
you don't do them yourself, just like the whole reason we don't use Steadicam- because
we don't control it. Now on the AVID we can control opticals".18 The reason for Ferrara's
interest in dissolves is not difficult to grasp: his cinema is one of moral ambiguity, and a
dissolve is more ambiguous than a cut. Prior to The Blackout, Ferrara's most overt use
use of this device occurs in The Driller Killer as Carel reads out a newspaper account
of Reno's murders: a disso!ve from Reno in one position to Reno in a slightly different
position conveys the character's realization that his homicida! fantasies might be real.
Like Reno (and Berenice's narrator), Matty reacts to the pressures of maintaining a
mascu!ine front by commltting a violent act he is unable to either recall with precision or
completely forget, his suspicion that he is failing in sorne essentially male role being
estab!ished during the opening scenes, wherein Matthew Modine's gentle and
unassertive behaviour is contrasted with the brutal macho posturing of Steven Bauer,
who narcissistically stares at his reflection in a pair of sunglasses while saying "1 got
mine ... we're goin' upstairs. Be jealous ... Madonna was here ... she said that Matty's got
a big, y'know... alright, you're not a fag, okay".
Whereas The Driller Killer's Reno could assert his manhood by telling Ca rol "You
don't know nothing about painting", in The Blackout it is Susan who comprehends the
masculine world of art, leaving Matty to ask "How much did this painting cost? ... This is
your business ... What is this, a basin or something people used to wash their faces in?
1 mean, who cares?". Matty's verbal outbursts are motivated by a suspicion that, like
many mal e noir protagonists, his masculinity has been placed under assault, forcing him
to actively avoid those 'female' positions he nonetheless constantly finds himself
occupying: "Are you fucking her" he asks Mickey, who immediately responds "No, l'm

22: THE BLACKOUT

251

fucking you" _19 In many ways, Matty's dilemma is related to his choice of profession:
according to Jodie Foster, "A lot of mal e actors secretly feel very demeaned by acting,
beca use they feel like it's a girl's job ... thinking about emotions, talking about emotions.
Being exploited for your looks is much harder on the mal e actors than it is on the women
actors, because frankly it's part of women's culture to know that their fa ce and their body
is part of who they are. Their appearance has everything to do with their relationship to
the world, and 1 think guys aren't really used to that". 20 The Blackout's French video
release includes footage of Ferrara shooting a dream sequence - not used in the actual
film - showing Annie and Su san ignoring Matty as they dance together, neatly illustrating
the protagonist's fear that his phallic function has been rendered redundant. But thE! key
moment occurs during Matty and Mickey's party with two 'fly girls',21 one of whom
casually unzips Matty's trousers: when Matty asks the woman to "slow down", she
comments on the sheer oddity of "A man saying slow down". According to Matthew
Modine, "This girl starts to pull off my pants and go down on me. 1say 'Hey! Slow down!',
because no-one told me that was going to happen. This girl looks over at the focuspuller and says 'Oh, rightl A guy telling a girl to slow down - what the fuck is that?' Which
is a good line, and is in the movie". 22 Here we see both the potential rewards of Ferrara's
improvisational style and the intelligence of his decision to cast Modine - an actor
unlikely to drink, take drugs or behave abusively - as a violent alcoholic junkie: in arder
to play this character, Modine had to actively suppress his own natural gentleness,
which is exactly what Matty is doing_23
Like George in Cat Chaser and Matt in Fear City, Matty is haunted by the memory
of violence. These characters cannot Jet go of their pasts, and if George's return to the
Dominican Republic in search of Luc Palma directly parallels Matty's return to Miami in
search of Annie, it may be that The Blackout's protagonist was given the same first
name as Tom Berenger's character in Fear City to emphasise their resemblance:
unable to forget the murders they have committed, both men eventua!ly find peace by
taking a second life, and it is a testament to how much tougher Ferrara's more recent
film is that whereas Matt disposes of a doppelganger representing his darkest impulses,
Matty has little option but to commit suicide. Yet Matty also shares a first na me with the
actor who plays him, Matthew Modine seemingly being used much as James Fax was
in Performance (1970), a film described by Marianne Faithfull as a "psychosexuallab"
run by Dona!d Cammell, with Fox as "the prime experimental animal"_24
The Blackout's equivalent of Performance's Turner (Mick Jagger) is Mickey Ray,
but whereas Turner's unlocking of Chas' personality was seen as something positive, at
least embryonically (all of Cammell's films end on the verge of a potential great leap
forward), Mickey is an unambiguously negative figure, the character from whom he most
c!early descends being Tony Coca-Cola. Mickey is exactly what one would have
expected Tony to become eighteen years later: having given up on music, he has
opened a nightclub in which he is busy shooting 'artistic' video-films and repeating halfremembered pieces of cinematic theory (he is unable to recall whether Godard claimed
the cinema to be truth twenty-four times a second or twenty-four times a minute) instead
of debating the correct pronunciation of "oop sha dooby". 25 lt is also tempting to
compare Mickey with Eddie Israel, but if Mickey's insistence that actors (Bauer and
Nancy Ferrara} arguing on the sidelines should "make this work related, use it... don't
spew it all over here" does suggest a similarity, 26 such connections only underline how
different these characters are. A pattern has been emerging whereby each Ferrara film
critiques elements from an earlier one: if LT could beg forgiveness and be redeemed,

252

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

for Snake Eyes' Eddie (and Motherof Mfrrors' Claire) this was no longer a viable option;
if The Addiction's vampires took ideas seriously, Ray's philosophical musings in The
Funeral were merely opportunistic; and if Eddie, whatever his limitations, sincerely tried
to make the most honest film of which he was capable, Mickey uses the language of
high-seriousness (or garbled remnants of it) to shore up a cynical money-making
operation. At one point he outlines his club's card scheme (a speech that appears to
have been entirely improvised by Hopper): ''That green card gets you into the backroom,
that red card. gets you in he re, yo u sign your waivers at the door, that blue card gives
you access to the editing and to all the other rooms, man ... the gold card gets you in
bed. You're in the picture, brother". As Hollywood insiders will undoubtedly be aware,
this is a parody of the card system traditionally used to control set access, but Mickey
has gane the studios one better by actually having people pay to be in his film ("We're
racking the money in coming in, getting the people coming in, and then. .. if they wanna
pay more they can be in the film themselves"}.
Mickey is the rational, manipulative intelligence to Matty's irrational, passive victim:
two uncontextualized (and obviously improvised) comments he makes prior to Matty's
arrival at the club - "1 understand what it is, but do you understand what it is?" and "You
don't know me. 1 know you" - are ostensibly addressed to his script girl (the former) and
nobody in particular (the latter), but only make sense once they are understood as part
of an ongoing discourse with Matty himself_27 Mickey is both an armchair philosopher
whose disciple gives his ideas flesh,28 and, like Tony Coca-Cola, a living embodiment of
everything for which the protagonist unsuccessfully striveS, having constructed an
artificial front stylish enough to release him from the obligation of relating spontaneously
to other human beings,29 whom he defines in the language of Hollywood sequels
("You're Annie 2. There's an Annie 1").30 As in Body Snatchers, this kind of emotional
withdrawal is on the verge of becoming a universal principie, giving a chillingly
apocalyptic undertone to Mickey's claim that "video is the future". lf Eddie Israel could not
distinguish between rea!ity and fantasy, at least there was a reality for him to distinguish
fantasy from. In The Blackout, Steven Bauer describes Matty and Annie's kiss as "a real
kiss", Mickey draws a !ine between the 'real' (or the 'pure') and the 'fake' (or 'symbolic
jive'), and Matty himself claims Annie's pregnancy "meant that we had something that
was real", but their words remain abstract. Like the protagonist of Michelangelo
Antonioni's Blowup (1966), Matty inhabits a world where it is no longer possible to trust
the evidence of his (and therefore our) senses, where the choice is not between reality
and fiction, but between two different kinds of fiction. Consider the introduction to Mickey
Ray's club. As this sequen ce begins, we see what appears to be norma! nightc!ub activity
(people dancing, musicians playing, etc.). A minute later, Mickey shouts 'cut', revealing
that we had been looking at the filming of his work-in-progress. Yet the more we find out
about Mickey's club, the more we realize that our first impressions were correct: what we
had been watching was no less 'real' than anything else in The Blackout. The fictionalisation process is not limited to specific locations and situations, but insidiously pervades
every aspect of life: Matty and Annie's reunion is 'filmed' by Steven Bauer (who pretends
to operate an invisible camera}, while Mickey records their dancefloor embrace. Mickey
later refers to the resulting footage as 'dailies', encouraging Matty to judge it from an
aesthetic distance ("you gotta see the good with the bad ... know when your acting is shit,
know when you're faking it, know when you're fucking lying"), and it is but a short step
from this to his half-ironically describing Matty's en-camera murder of Annie 2 as the
"best fucking work you've ever done ... your best pelformance".

22: THE BLACKOUT

253

''Video is the future" thus connects with Matty's insistence that Annie join him in a
toast "to our future together", which she significantly mispronounces as 'to your future
together".31 The stages by which Matty succumbs toa consequenceless fictional world
are marked by repeated enquiries concerning whether or not he will act in Mickey's
production of Nana, his eventual acceptance of a starring role in the snuff film shot by
Mickey representing his final surrender. But while Mickey is a demonic figure presiding
over and revelling in the merging of fiction and truth, his approach is nota million miles
away from that of his creator, his 'set' virtually parodying one of those Abe! Ferrara sets
on which, to quote P.J. Delia, "lt seemed that everything had the potential to be in the
film". Why would Ferrara imbricate his own working methods with those of a ch?racter
representing everything to which he is opposed? The answer is complex. At one point,
Matty describes what Mickey has labelled 'The moment of ahh', a concept he illustrates
by recounting Mickey's conversation with a prostituta: "Ahh, would you like to come in?
Would you like to, ahh, would you like to have a drink? Or wou!d you just like to, ahh,
give me a blow job right now?" (dialogue that does not appear in the screenplay). 'The
moment of ahh' marks a hesitation between the pull of social responsibility and the urge
to satisfy more basic needs. These are the two extremes Ferrara's protagonists vainly
struggle to reconcile, yet the space separating them might be traversed in the time it
takes to say "ahh": although 'cool' detachment is consistently defined as antithetical to
emotional openness, the one is often indistinguishable from the other, since freewheeling responsiveness can easily become a pre-packaged formula. This is why
representativas of the death force (Gypsy, Tony Coca-Cola, Pazzo, the Death Car driver,
Luca, Kyle Hadley, George Moran, Joey Dalesio, Lite, Frank Burns, Gaspare and
Mickey) are so often portrayed as mirror images or doppelgangers of those individuals
who, whatever else there is to be said about them, retain Ferrara's sympathy (Pauline,
Reno, Matt Rossi, Rick Benton, Torello, Michael Shane, Noten Tyner, Frank White, LT,
Eddie Israel, the Ternpio brothers and Matty).32 The difference between these two sets
of characters may be only a hair, but it is nonethe!ess at the heart of Ferrara's moral
vision: his spontaneous improvisers constantly threaten to become rigid role-players
because both traits relate to aspects of his personality.
Mickey leads an inert existence not because he refuses to embrace improvisation
(quite the contrary), but because he fails to learn anything from the improvisational
process (Matty's final visit to Miami can function as a return to the past only because
Mickey - like all Tony Coca-Cola characters - is incapable of growth): it is not so much
that his 'film-video' remains open to externa! reality's influence as that this 'reality' is so
heavily marked by the stuff of fiction, so cut off from genuine feelings, that its
unmediated representation can hardly prove disruptive or problematic. As those shots
of Matty being transportad into Miami by plane, airport car and limousine indicate, the
protagonist never makes contact with the world through which he moves for the very
good reason that his life has been arranged to facilitate this abstraction. Matty's "What
the fuck is acting anyway?.. 1 don't know the difference between life and acting
anymore. lt's all started to blur'' suggests the nature of his problem, and though he
insists "that's not me, that's my brother"33 when a woman points out his picture in
severa! magazines, he actually has little more substance than his public image.
Whereas LT could seek forgiveness, Matty cannot even recall, let alone atone for, his
violent actions, the ability -to, in Mickey's words, "record our own image" serving as both
a memory substituta and an alibi for amorality pernicious enough to make The
Addiction's vampires look !ike profound moralists: paying active attention to life as we

254

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

are living it, or even acknowledging that we are 'living it' in any significant sense, is no
longer necessary, since it will always be possible to rewind the tape and catch up on
what we have missed, and if Matty is unable to remember either his demand that Annie
have an abortion or his murder of Annie 2 until he has been confrontad with audio and
video recordings, he is simply taking toan extreme a widespread tendency. 34 As Mickey
says (when asked if he has slept with Annie), "lt's nota question of 'did 1?'. lt's 'do 1
remember?"',35 and whereas Matty is destroyed by the revelation of what he has done,
Mickey can pisown his own role in the murder of Annie 2 ("You get out of my fucking life,
out of my fucking mind, out of my fucking memory. Get out of here. Out, out, out, out,
out, out, out") with an absolute conviction that brings to mind Tony Coca-Cola
("Everybody ouf').
Ferrara's attitude towards the Tony Coca-Cola character becomes more caustic
with each film: whereas Tony himself caused little real harm (particularly when
compared with Reno), Mickey, no matter how fervently he might insist otherwise, is
directly responsible for Annie 2's death. Yet TheBiackout's screenplay has a different
emphasis, presenting Matty notas Mickey's helpless victim, but rather as someone who
refuses to take responsibility for his actions. There it is Matty who tries to shift the blame
onto Mickey by saying "You motherfucker, look at what you let me do ... 1 hope you got
what you wanted", while Mickey's response is less a denial of responsibility than a
justified attempt to expose Matty's hypocrisy: "You hope 1got what 1wanted? Oh man.
You're so full of shit it's a miracle your eyes aren't brown. You can't take responsibility
for anything. You're a falling down drunk and a fucking junkie and it's always somebody
else's fault. l've been cleaning your dirty ashtrays and wiping your ass for longer than 1
can remember. Every mess you've gotten into has always been because of this,
because of, 1don't know what, but never because you're a fucked up piece of shit. Oh
no, not you, you're the big shot movie star, you get all the attention. Everyone else is
justan extra in that great epic; The Life of Matty. Matty always gets the girl in the end.
Well you got this girl, real good, didn't you? You choked the fucking life out of her! But
wait a minute folks, it's not Matty's fault, it's everyone's favorite villain Micky's fault
instead. He did it. And we all know what his punishment is going to be. He's going to be
sentenced to a lifetime of Matty's self righteous, 'Boa hoo, it wasn't my fault' fucking
shit... an innocent girl is dead. She's dead because of you! You, not me. You get it?
Show sorne balls for the flrst time in your pampered fuckin' life. Own up to it for once.
Loo k in the mirror and say '1 murdered a young girl who never hurt anyone'. Now here's
the hard part, asshole, go on with your life. Live with it. Live with it the way every other
poor slob in the world has to live with their wrongs, real or imagined. No one is taking
the garbage out for you this time Matty. You're on your own on this one".
As Ferrara matures, the screenplays from which he works tend to become not
blueprints, nor even jumping-off points, but rather immovable objects whose assumptions
these constant!y fluid fi!ms can either test themselves against or simply reject. Ferrara
sees Matty as someone who needs to embrace his femininity, whereas co-screenwriter
Christ Zois sees him as someone who should accept his masculinity (ie. 'grow up'). Prior
to his involvement with filmmaking, Zois wrote severa! books on 'short term therapy', 36 a
psychoanalytic method which (according to one catalogue description) "does not allow
the patient to remain hidden behind his or her defenses. Here ... is a book that goes to
the heart of therapeutic space where tensions run high and resistance is strong". Another
summary notes how Zois "focuses more on measuring your unconscious defenses, ie
the ways you hide buried emotions from yourself. He then helps the reader see how to

22: THE BLACKOUT

255

!,

use that information in arder to salve some of his/her problems". This is clearly the
approach being taken by Matty's analyst (played by Zois himself), but lar from
promoting psychoanalysis, Ferrara unambiguously discredits it:37 although superfi~
cially mature, the analyst's philosophy is, for all intents and purposes, indistin~
guishable from Mickey Ray's, and constantly present video cameras are used to
connect these seemingly antithetical figures.38
Zois' character descends from Dr Louis Judd, the glib psychiatrist played by Tom
Conway in Ca! People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943), yet, typically, Ferrara
deals with him fairly, refusing even a hint of caricature: nothing in the way he is filmed
or the dialogue he says (which, according to Zois, was entirely improvised, and
represents a typical therapy session) tells us how to evaluate the man or his work.
Ferrara's evaluation of the psychiatrist becomes clear only when this character is
considerad contextually: Zois' observations are not necessarily wrong: he actually
displays remarkable perception when he notes how dismissive Matty is about Susan
and implies that Matty's wish for Annie to "cut that umbilical cord" reveals a passive
nature ("Do you consider yourself a passive person? ... You're the helpless baby... you
don't want to take charge of your life"). But the fact that these comments are only more
thought out variations on what Mickey has to offer ("When are yo u gonna fucking take
responsibi!ity? ... Grow up, motherfucker") suggests the real problem (already
indicated by practically the first line of dialogue: Matty's "1 wanna be free of my past...
1 can't get on with my life until 1 salve my past"). Matty may cometo understand his
hidden motivations, his repressed desires, but this knowledge does not help him one
iota outside the psychiatrist's office (significantly !ocated in a bunker so securely
hidden from the world that even Matty feels compelled to comment on its oddity), and
eventua!ly preves actively harmful: as had previously happened with Mickey, Matty's
decision to follow somebody else's advice, here the psychiatrist's suggestion that he
go to Miami, results in a death.
Similar issues are addressed by the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, during which
Matty stands befare an American flag and gives a speech to mark the end of twelve
saber months. Like psychiatry, the AA offers isolated (not to mention short-lived)
solutions to complex problems, 39 and the applause which greets Matty's appearance
reveals that even he re he cannot escape the notion of performance. Such institutions as
the AA and psychoanalysis insist that by tracing addiction back to its source "all will be
released".40 Rather than defining alcoholism as a product of capitalism's strains and
tensions, theAA rewards Matty's sobriety with hard cash: a coin (albeit one whose value
is merely symbolic) engraved with a slogan ~ 'To thine own self be true" ~ which
reinforces his solipsism. The assumption is that society, rather than being flawed in
some fundamental way, is governed by a series of reasonable 'rules' (the same
assumption is made by most American films that have pretensions to seriousness). Yet
Ferrara is among the most unreasonable of directors, and any solution he appears to
offer will sooner or later be revealed as either inadequate or simply beside the point, the
pre~credits sequence contrasting those ways of knowing implied by the analyst's
cerebral comments with the ocean's mysterious depths.41
Ferrara had previously been willing to put his faith in femininity, and in many ways
this is also true here.42 Although they apparently represent Fair Maiden and Dark Lady
~ good girl and bad, mother and whore ~ the two Annies exist outside Matty's solipsistic
universe, and his tendency to mistake these autonomous individuals (who constantly
merge in his hallucinations) for literary archetypes surely accounts for his later

256

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

confusion: the Dark Lady's traditional association with death is so strong that Matty fails
to realize he has actually murdered the Fair Maiden! Annie, Annie 2 and Susan -all
inhabit a practica! reality into which they unsuccessfully try to draw Matty (with Mickey
pulling him in the opposite direction). lf Annie's attempt to puncture Matty's romanticism
(as he touches one of her nipples, telling her "no one does it like me", she responds
"Everybody in the world can do that. .. just like you ... 1 do that alone, and 1 feel the same
thing") has a cynical quality, Annie 2 and Susan relate to those female exemplars of
unneurotic normality encountered in past works, the performances of Sarah Lassez and
Claudia Schiffer displaying a marvellous warmth and depth: notice how Annie 2 reacts
to Mickey's offer of a 'joint' by saying "Sure, l'll smoke a joint" with a slight laugh, her
tone, while not overtly sarcastic, underlining the ludicrous artificiality of the role Mickey
is playing. The clear, well-balanced compositions and straight cuts which distinguish
Annie 2's introductory scene are themselves something of a relief, coming as they do
after severa! sequences marked by dissolves and crowded, chaotic trames: this
character represents a world existing outside those neuroses that characterize Mickey
and Matty's everyday life, a world in which acting, far from being an obs9ssive pursuit,
is associated with the high school play.43 lt is this world Susan constructs for Matty in
New York, just as Madlyn did for Eddie in Snake Eyes, but whereas Eddie failed to
recognize that potential for happiness staring hii"n in the face, Matty i~ destroyed by
exposure to the truth: his dilemma cannot be resolved by anything except the selfannihilation he finally embraces.
Matty's suicide lacks the positive implications of Chez's in The Funeral, and
Catholicism, intermittently present throughout Ferrara's oeuvre as a genuine source of
salvation, is here barely visible, being directly referred to only when Susan tells Matty
"When 1 was a little girl, 1 also had bad dreams, and my grandmother took me to
church ... there was this priest with a long beard. He really scared me. And he put a big
black robe around me and he read The Bible to me, and all my bad dreams went
away". 44 Matty's sarcastic response- "You think 1 should go to see a priest?"- suggests
that religious deliverance, although it may have been relevant to Susan, is simply nota
viable option for him.45 lf redemption in Bad Lieutenant had to be experienced moment
by moment (with the notion of eternity not even entering into the picture) and The
Addiction rendered the concept of life after death problematic, The Blackout presents
an afterlife it cannot take seriously for even a second, an empty signifier relating to
nothing but Ferrara's loss of faith. The final image- a naked Annie 2 greeting a clothed
Matty with the question "D'you miss me?" - shows Matty succumbing to Mickey's
cosmetic 'reality', and conveys a feeling of desperate, irremediable loss. This ending,
which virtually remakes that of 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy, again finds Ferrara's themes
overlapping with Poe's: it is only after becoming aware of her death that Matty can see
Annie 2 as a sexual being. Leslie A Fiedler's account of the necrophiliac strain in
America's literature functions admirably as an exegesis of The Blackout's climax: '"The
grave's a fine and private place', the poet Andrew Marvell had naively observed, 'but
none, 1 think, do there embrace'. He is, of course, egregiously wrong; in a score of
sentimental novels (as well as in the tales of that supereminent necrophile Poe) the
grave preves the only marriage bed; and the dust of those who cannot on earth embrace
without guilt mingles innocently there. For death which punishes also forgives, which
seems to sunder really joins. lt is the night side of the Great Mother herself a terrifying
(but delicious) name for the lapsing of male consciousness into the female unknowing,
from which it fell originally to pain and division and endless desire".46

\l,

22: THE BLACKOUT

257


lf Ferrara no longer believes in redemption, his work's highly emotional (some
would say hysterical) tone suggests why he could never succumb to the nihilism of a
Joel Caen, for whom little can be believed in and none of it matters. The Blackout's
anguished atmosphere conveys just how intensely everything matters, and communicates that sense of utter devastation implied by the finalline of Pasolini's Medea (1970):
"Nothing is possible anymore".

Footnotes
1- Sight and Sound, April 1997, p. 8.
2- Christ Zois, conversation with the author, February 22nd 2003.
3- Matthew Modine, The Movie Show (Sky), 1998.
4- Joe Delia, e-mails to the author, March 24th and 25th 2003.
5- Lucille Grace, e-mail to the author, May 17th 2002.
6- P.J. Delia, e-mail to the author, February 23rd 2003.
7-Abel Ferrara, conversation with the author. Although severa! commentators claim that Dennis Hopper's
character is named 'Mickey Wayne', he clearly refers to himself as 'Mickey Ray': the character is identified
as 'Micky' in the screenplay, and 'Mickey' on the film's end credits. Hopper's account of arriving at Harpur
College and seeing Nicholas Ray shooting We Can't Go Home Again certainly evokes The Blackout's
atmosphere: "These people met us at the airport. He had a crew with a band and everything. lt was so
funny, all these kids shooting ... They'd just built a big crane, and when they went through the airport door,
the crane fell over and fell apart. Nick was screaming and directing these kids, it was wonderful. 1thought:
'My God! What has he done here?' He had 'em all running around like a film company'' (quoted in Bernard
Eisenschitz's Nicho/as Ray: An American Journey, p. 434). There are certain similarities between The
Blackout and Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950), a film with which Ferrara is unfamiliar.
8- Vincent Lamberti, from an Internet interview with Adam Barnick (2003). In The Funeral, Lamberti can
be seen pulling the mechanic out of the freezer.
9- Joe Delia, e-mails to the author, February 23rd and March 24th and 25th 2003.
10- Janice Ginsberg, e-mails to the author, January 21st and 22nd 2003.
11- Joe Delia, e-mails to the author, March 24th and 25th 2003.
12- Janice Ginsberg, e-mail to the author, January 22nd 2003.
13- Joe Delia, e-mails to the author, March 24th and 25th 2003.
14- Ferrara's interest in Edgar Allan Poe was confirmed the following year when he contributed toa CD
containing readings from Poe's work. In King of New York's screenplay, Frank's lawyer is identified as
Jennifer Poe.
15- Much the same point could be made in relation to The Narrative of Arihur Gordon Pym of Nantuckefs
climax, wherein Pym's phallic canoe, whose "ribs were of a tough osier, well adapted to the purpose for
which it was used", is finally engulfed by a castrating 'chasm' containing "wide, yawning, but momentary
rents" anda "shrouded human figure" which, like the black cat, is referred toas 'it', rather than 'he' or 'she'.
16- In the screenplay, Matty, his memory jogged by an encounter with a waitress, points a gun at Mickey
and forces him to play the video. After learning that Mickey hid Annie's 2's body behind a wall (shades of
The 8/ack Cat) in "a halffinished high rise near the beach", Matty visits the building (a hotel), where he
imagines Annie 2 saying ''l've been impatient waiting for you to come. lt's about time ... You want meto
forgive you. ls that it? ls that what you carne here for? ... Be with me. We can be together''. Matty then
smashes a hale in the wall and "reaches inside, feeling around. He finds something. He takes hold of it
and tugs. He screams as he rips pieces of cloth and debris out of the wall. Matt looks down at his hand.
In it is a swatch of pink fabric with a name tag pinned to it. lt reads Annie". Ferrara can be seen shooting
this scene in Canal Plus' Le Journal du Cinema documentary, though the dialogue is significantly
different, with Annie 2 insisting "there's nothing to forgive".
17- The lndependent, June 21st 1991, p. 18.
18- Sight and Sound, ibid.
19- Mickey's line does not appear in the screenplay, and was obviously improvised by Hopper.
20- Jodie Foster, interviewed by Mike Figgis on September 24th 1998 for the series Hollywood
Conversations. Quoted in Projectons 10, pp. 42-43.
21- In the screenplay, these women are not Mickey's friends, but rather air stewardesses whom Matty
met on the flight into Miaml. According to Anthony Redman, this scene was shot in Miami's

258

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

1\

Fontainebleau Hotel, where Jerry Lewis had filmed The Bellboy. The Fontainebleau is mentioned twice
in Cat Chaser's workprint.
22- Neon, February 1998, p. 10. Compare the moment in Snake Eyes when Eddie attempts to fake an
orgasm while making lave with Madlyn.
23- Other games: Dennis Hopper plays an out-of-control director (which speaks for itself); Beatrice Dalle
plays a model-dabbling-in-acting while a real model-dabbling-in-acting, Claudia Schiffer, appears in a quite
different role; the investor Mickey promises to cast in return for financing is played by Peter Cannold, who
really was one of The Blackout's backers; Matthew Modine sings the Mickey Mouse Club theme, a
reference to his performance in Full Metal Jacket; and Modine's previous film, Renny Harlin's CutThroat
lsland, is alluded to when we see a photo of Modine with Geena Davis. Modine has joked about playing
'the girl' in Harlin's film, and it was surely this suggestion of sexual ambiguitywhich frequently attaches itself
to Modine's characters that inspired Ferrara to cast him as Matty. The screenplay contains sorne additional
in-jokes: Matty does "a Christopher Walken King of New York spoof', and we learn that he has worked
with Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme (who directed Modine in Married to the Mob, as well as
producing Subway Stories- when asked how the Demme film went, Matty responds "hated everybody").
24- Rumour has it that Cammell conducted a similar 'experiment' on the set of his final film, Wild Side
(1995), having the then-heterosexual Anne Heche make lave to Joan Chen as a way of bringing out what
he perceived as Heche's latent lesbianism.
25- Mickey Ray reappears in Ferrara and Scott Pardo's screenplay Mary unde~ the name James
Sparrow: according to one character, Sparrow "lives in this strange Ioft. You never know who's gonna drop
in. lt's kinda like Warhol's factory ~ or at least that was the vibe 1thought James was going for. That or the
tortured trust fund artist".
26- When Steven Bauer tells Nancy Ferrara "l'm fucking Madlyn", it is almost as if Sn?ke Eyes' world has
begun bleeding into that of The Blackout.
27- Notice that we never see the club's exterior, and have no means of relating it geographically to other
locations: Ferrara suggests both that Mickey's club is a world apart, insulated from externa! reality, and,
conversely, that the disease associated with it has spread (like the spider web that forms part of its decor).
As with those self-contained 'rooms' in Berenice, 9 Uves of a Wet Pussy and The Driller Killer, this
space is par! of a psychological (rather than literal) landscape- which is why it is perfectly appropriate for
Mickey to address Matty befare Matty has actually arrived.
28- In this Mickey resembles Ms.45's Laurie, The Gladiator's Joe Barker, Cat Chaser's George Moran
(who comes up with a plan to get rid of Andres DeBoya, then sits back and watches Jiggs carry it out)
and The Addiction's philosophy professor. All these characters derive from Rope's Rupert Cadell, and
Mickey's final appearance- in which he angrily denies responsibility for the murder carried out by Mattybears a striking resemblance to the last scene of Hitchcock's film.
29- lf the supreme Ferrarian virtue is an ability to respond sensitively when confrontad with autonomous
individuals, it should be obvious why, even in a world where, as in Renoir, 'everyone has their reasons',
those characters descended from Tony Coca-Cola should so often come across as villains (they would
probably be the heroes of a Joseph L. Mankiewicz film).
30- A habit shared by Steven Bauer's character, who greets Matty's return to Miami (but also anticipates
his tate) by misquoting Jaws 2's tagline: "Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water''.
31- lt seems likely that this mispronunciation is a genuine on-camera mistake by Beatrice Dalle. In the
screenplay, Annie does not mispronounce this line.
32- Poe is again relevant here: Arthur Gordon Pym admits that his friend Augustus, who rationally manipulates the novel's helpless narrator ("1 could not help being interested in what he said") into a horrendously
irrational 'adventure', "thoroughly entered into my state of mind. lt is probable, indeed, that our intimate
communion had resulted in a partial interchange of character". Notice how LT's name in Bad Lieutenant
is actually contained within that of his doppelganger: Lite.
33- Although Matty is joking at this point, he will later be quite serious when he uses these words- "That
ain't me"- to insist that the tape-recorded voice telling Annie to have an abortion belongs to someone else.
34- Consider the following passage from an article about Google: "In a way, Google is metamorphosing
into a kind of prosthetic memory for mankind. The availability of such a powerful search tool means we
can become more relaxed about forgetting data and information. After all, why go to the trouble of
remembering things when you can always retrieve them from the Web?" (John Naughton, "Web Master",
The Observer, December 15th 2002, p. 27).
35- This dialogue is not in the screenplay: according to Christ Zois, "The lines were a Hopper improv. They
fit so well into the flow of the film" (e~mail to the author, May 7th 2003).
36- Christ Zois' books include Short-Term Therapy Techniques (with Margaret Scarpa) and Think Like a
Shrink: So/ve Your Problems Yourself with Short-Term Therapy (with Patricia Fogarty).

22: THE BLACKOUT

i!

259

37- As with those 'bad' performances given by James Russo in Snake Eyes and Christopher Walken in
New Rose Hotel, Ferrara uses Zois' limitations- asan actor, as a psychiatrist, as a screenwriter- to the
film's overall advantage.
38- Zois told me that when he was a psychiatrist, he really did film his therapy sessions with a video
camera (subsequently using the recordings as both a reference tool and a teaching aid). As with !he "11
All Happens Here" sign in Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara allows externa! reality lo enrich his open-ended
explorations of human experience (rather !han distorng that reality in arder to make it reflect preconceived ideas).
39- The link between Alcoholics Anonymous and psychiatry would have been even clearer if Ferrara had
retained a nightmare sequence wherein Matty imagines his psychiatrist (Christ Zois) andAAsponsor (Ken
Kelsch) as Kafkaesque authority figures accusing him of vaguely defined crimes: according lo Kelsch,
"the scene was basically about arriving at the truth of the situation ... cross-examination, so to speak. lt
was entirely improvisad" (e-mails to the author, February 24th and May 5th 2003). Part of this scene
(which probably evoked the same paranoid atmosphere as Nicky's Film) can be glimpsed in The
Blackout's British and French trailers: we see Kelsch standing behind Matty saying "Complaints have
been lodged at the precinct concerning somebody that you know", to which Matty responds "lt sounds to
me like l'm being accused of something". This scene does not appear in the screenplay. Ken Kelsch is
briefly visible atan AA meeting in the released film, though his status as Matty's sponsor is not made clear.
40- 1am alluding here toAifred Hitchcock's comments on psychiatry: "1 think it would be interesting to talk
about fear and how it first carne to one. Psychiatrists will tell you that if you have certain psychological
problems, that ifyou can trace them back to, say, your childhood, all will be released, and of course 1don'!
believe it lo be true at all" {The Men Who Made the Movies, 1973). Notice how Matty resorts to banal
psychological 'explanations' for his alcoholism, uncovering its roots in childhood.
41- Much the same point will be made in Ferrara and Pardo's Mary screenplay, wherein a psychiatrist
attempts to deny the validity of Maree Reale's spiritual quest by insisting that she is suffering from "a
documentad physiological condition".
42- Notice that Annie's final (and seemingly improvisad) line is "1 don'! want lo lose my time". Of course,
'losing time' is precisely Matty's problem.
43- Compare the scene in which Annie 2 answers Mickey's questions about acting by recalling her role
in a high school play with the moment in Could This Be Love when Cathy responds to Jacky's interest
in painting her portrait by talking about an artist at Caney lsland who painted her "for a buck". In both
cases, the obsessions of one character are contrastad with the healthier perspectiva achieved by another.
44- Although this scene cannot be found in the screenplay, it was not improvisad: according to Christ Zois,
"1 wrote it the day befo re !he shoot for Claudia, for a couple of reasons. 1) lt fit in with the recurring !heme
of Matty's quest for redemption. A quest he could never complete because of his alienation. When Susan
reaches out lo him in this scene, he again demonstrates that he cannot allow her to be useful to him. He
will not let her be clase lo him (as the psychiatrist points out). When he looks into Susan's eyes he sees
a reflection of his own self hate, nota loving, caring, intimate partner. 2) 1wanted to provide Claudia with
sorne reviewable lines and place her character in a more assertive mould" (e-mail to the author, May 7th
2003).
45- The irony, of course, is that despite his sarcasm, Matty chooses to visita secular priest: the psychiatrist to whom he tells all his bad dreams, but who fails to make them go away.
46- Lave and Death in the American Novel, pp. 56-57. Appropriately, one of the poems in which Poe
explored precisely this !heme is entitled For Annie: "Thank Heaven! The crisis -ffhe Danger is past,!And
the lingering illness/ls over at last -/And the fever called 'Living' lis conquered at last./. .. And 1 rest so
composed,/Now, in my bed,ffhat any beholder/Might fancy me dead/ ... And ah! let it never/Be foolishly
said/That my room it is gloomy/And narrow my bed;/For man never sleptl!n a different bed -/And to s/eep,
you must slumber/ln just such a bed./My tantalized spirit!Here blandly reposes,/Forgetting, or
never/Regretting, its roses -/ ...And so it lies happily,/Bathing in many/A dream of the truth/And the beauty
of Annie -/Drowned in a bath/Of the tresses of Annie./ .. .And llie so composedly,/Now in my bed,/(Knowing
her love,)ffhat you fancy me dead -/ ... But my heart is brighterffhan all of the many/Stars in the sky,/For
it sparkles with Annie -/lt glows with the light/Of the lave of my Annie -/With the thought of the light!Of the
eyes of my Annie". lt is also worth nothing that G/oomy Sunday, heard during The Funeral's opening
credits, includes the line "Death is no dream for in death l'm caressing you".

opposite: Matty and Susan {Claudia Schiffer) in The Blackout.

260

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

1'

above: Matty (Matthew Modine) and Mickey shoot pool in The Blackout, a scene not used in !he final cut.
opposite: Beatrice Dalle in The Blackout.
below: Matty is reunited with Annie (Beatrice Dalle) in The Blackout.

262

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

22: THE BLACKOUT

263

264

above: Abel Ferrara directs Matthew Modine during the making of The Blackout.

above: Abel Ferrara composing a shot during !he making of The Blackout.

below: British press ad promoting the opening of The Blackout

below: Matthew Modine and Beatrice Dalle in The Blackout.

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

22: THE BLACKOUT

265

23

NEW ROSE HOTEL (1998)

"lt was like every attitude or action which reveals a man's underlying character; they
bear no relation to what he has previously said, and we cannot confirm our suspicions
by the culprit's own testimony, for he will admit nothing; we are reduced to the evidence
of our own senses; and we as k ourselves, in the fa ce of this detached and incoherent
fragment of recollection, whether indeed our senses have not been the victims of a
hallucination; with the result that such attitudes, which are alone of importance in
indicating character, are the most apt to leave us in perplexity... The bonds between
aurselves and anather persan exist anly in our minds. Memary as 'it graws fainter
loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with
which, out of lave, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe ather people, we
exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows ather
people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying".
Maree! Proust, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu
Peter Bogdanavich: "Wauldn't you say that The Blue Angel was the anly time Dietrich
really destroyed a man?
Josef Van Sternberg: S he did not destroy him - he destroyed himself. lt was his mistake
- he should never have taken up with her."
Who the Devil Made 1t (Aifred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 241
Annie: "You think 1 lave you?"
Matty: "1 know you love me."
Dialogue from The Blackout

'

Fox (Christopher Walken) and Sandii (Asia Argento) 'rehearse' in New Rose Hotel.

266

ABEL FERRARA - The Moral Vision

The central part of William Gibson's 'sprawl' trilogy (which includes Johnny
Mnemonic, filmed by Robert Langa in 1995), New Rose Hotel started out as a short
story in the pages of Omni magazine, and was reprinted in the Gibson anthology
Burning Chrome (1986). Set in a futuristic world (locations include Japan, Vienna and
Marrakech), the narrator is a nameless character who tells of his friend Fox's
involvement with two 'zaibatsus' - multinational corparatians cantrolling entire
economies. Fax has become obsessed with Dr Hiroshi Yomiuri, a talented researcher
working for Maas Biolabs GmbH. Fox and the narrator arrange Hirashi's defection to
Hosaka, a rival corporation. Sandii, a young waman the narrator meets in a bar, is
recruited by Fax, who plans to have her tempt Hiroshi into leaving both his wife and
Maas. The narrator falls in lave with Sandii, who promises to join him in Shinjuku after
Hiroshi defects. The plan appears to be a success, with Hirashi vanishing from under
the eyes of Maas' security, but Fax soan learns that a fatal computer virus has killed
Hiroshi, as well as Hosaka's most important scientists. Discovering Sandii has
disappeared, and remembering a computer disk he found in her bag, the narrator
realizes that Sandii had been recruited by Maas as part of a scheme to eliminate their
competition. Hosaka kili Fax in a department stare, and the narrator, knowing it is only
a matter of time befare they catch up with him, retreats to one of the New Rose Hotel's

23: NEW ROSE HOTEL

267


coffin-like 'rooms', where he tries to work out the precise nature of Sandii's betrayal
as he awaits certain death.
The rights to New Rose Hotel were purchased in the late 80s by Edward R.
Pressman (the film was initially to have been produced by Malcolm Melaren - Julien
Temple was considerad as director at one point), who commissioned a screenplay from
William Gibson and Gibson's long-time collaborator John Shirley (writer of Pressman's
1994 production The Crow) for Kathryn Bigelow to shoot on location in Tokyo:
according to Ferrara, Bigelow "took Gibson and demoralized him. When she got
through with this guy, he didn't even know his own name. She killed him. When 1talked
to Gibson, 1 said 'you want to help?' He said 'if you need me you're in bad shape'. She
had him thinking he couldn't write a script, that he was useless. 1 don't know hoW this
guy even survived that. She wanted her way. You should read the script he wrote for
this - if it wasn't called New Rose Hotel yo u wouldn't know what the hell it was" .1
lndeed, Gibson's script (set entirely in Tokyo) is truly awful: the narrator is given a
name, Chaney (because he's a man of a thousand faces?), Fox is turned into an
Australian (he addresses everyone as "mate" or "old son"), and the hotel room
becomes a seedy but spacious environment that plays a larger role in the plot (it is
where Sandii takes Chaney after their first meeting). Gibson adds severa! 'big budget'
action scenes, in line with Bigelow's desire to have Arnold Schwarzenegger play the
lead, and even changas the ending so that Chaney survives.
Although Bigelow abandonad New Rose Hotel, one of her subsequent films,
Strange Days (1995), bears a striking resemblance to this project (as does Rising
Sons, her 1992 episode of Wild Palms, a series in which Gibson makes a cameo
appearance). In 1993, Gibson noted that "Abe! Ferrara might be making a film of New
Rose Hotel, but 1 don't want anything todo with it", while in 1995 he informad Sight
and Sound's Manohla Dargis of "a very dark, extreme/y dark script by zoe Lund".
According to Robert Lund, "Zoe wrote a screenplay in July 1993, and Gibson said it
conveyed the sense of his story better than any he had read, including his two
unsuccessful attempts at adaptation. She was asked to shorten it by the producer (her
vision compelled her to include prolific screen directions, which tended to make
producer types with their one-minute-per-page mentality assume the film would be
overly lengthy). She submitted a shortened version in October 1993, but never heard
back. zoe was quite explicit in her identification with Sandii. The intrigue, the conniving,
Sandii's ability to present different selves in different situations, were all idolized by zoe
(and practicad toa great extent in her own lile). She had hoped, of course, to play the
role in the film".2 Zo's often remarkable screenplay, in which the central character is
named Johnny (a name shared by the protagonists of her novel 490 and screenplay
treatment Kingdom for a Horse, as well as severa! Ferrara films), remains essentially
faithful to Gibson.3
The film Ferrara eventually shot in 1997, taken from a script by himself and Christ
Zois, also stays clase to the short story: as in Gibson's original (and Bad Lieutenant),
the central character is nameless (the credits identify him only as 'X'). The three lead
roles are played by Willem Dafoe (X), Christopher Walken (Fox) and Asia Argento
(Sandii). Ferrara recalls that "When Edward Pressman told us he was definitely
committed to making this William Gibson story, 1felt obligad at Jeast to give my opinion.
The read turned into a revelation. Gibson puts you into image overdrive. A tattoo on the
inner thigh of a 14-year old motorcycle magazine centrefold. Sandii, the girl named in
that great Bruce Springsteen song, and the name of my grandmother, the only Jewish

268

ABEL FERRARA- The Moral Vision

woman to marry into my father's family of six brothers. No one knows if the girl was
always working for Maas, or if they turned her. Fox says they turned her- he doesn't want
to believe he's been duped by a 14-year o/d. The student outsmarts the professor. Who
knows if she !oves our guy - that's what he's thinking at the New Rose Hotel. He's gotta
think back to every event - and now we go right to the short story and start from the
beginning. lt's Rashomon, we play the scenes over again. 1 can't wait till we show the
same scene exactly the same way, only knowing she's nota little baby. What is he gonna
be thinking, _lying there waiting to die? lt's all about despair, like The Blackout".4
William Gibson insists that "My actual involvement was not too much. 1 had a
couple of long conversations with Christ Zois, the screenwriter, before he started
writing, and 1 talked with the director extensively while he was cutting it. lt actually feels
to me as though !'ve been very involved with it, because ten years ago 1wrote about
five drafts of a New Rose Hotel screenplay, and 1 could never get it going. That
flashback thing stopped me, my emotional investment in the material stopped me, and
so forme it feels like the end of a very long process, although 1can't take any aesthetlc
credit, or responsibility, for the finished product". 5 According to Christ iois, "1 wrote that
screenplay pretty much by myself, but would discuss everything with Abel. William
Gibson told me he Jiked what J'd done very much. 1don't think 1 was aware of the earlier
screenplays until after my own draft had been completed, at which ppint 1 was asked
to read them by the Writer's Guild in case there was sorne kind of credit arbitration. 1
wasn't on the set as much as 1 had been while working on The Blackout". 6 Asia
Argento remembers Zois being "very present during rehearsals and at the beginning of
shooting, but then 1believe he and Abel hada falling out, and Christ vanished. 1think
he used to be Maria Hanson's shrink: that's how he beca me a screenwriter. Rehearsals
didn't last very long. Abel would get bored: he'd pretend to go out to buy a corn muffin,
and never come back. Sometimes 1left with him. The best way to understand what he
wanted from me was to listen to his constant chain of thoughts about the movie: all the
possibilities were contemplated and then destroyed. Abel is the ultimate p