Abel Ferrara, who has never made it a secret that his films are his life, celebrated his 50th birthday last week. Anyone who doesn’t understand why that seems a near miracle to his fans should camp out at Anthology for the Ferrara retrospective that begins this Friday with King of New York (1990). A bloody epic of cocaine, power, corruption, and redemption in the pre-Giuliani Empire City, the film suggests that Ferrara, with his Bronx-bred Catholic guilt and gut-level understanding that what the nuns try to beat out of you always returns with a vengeance, would be the perfect director for a biopic of the soon-to-be former mayor. Considering that Giuliani has devoted himself to obliterating the down and dirty aspects of New York that fed Ferrara’s fantasy and reality, it might be a marriage of artist and subject made more in hell than heaven.
It also might take Ferrara down a path that diverges in one crucial aspect from his remarkably consistent oeuvre. Pettiness, the mayor’s distinguishing characteristic, is a vice that has never figured in the makeup of Ferrara’s leading characters. From Zoe Tamerlis’s mute rape victim turned revenge killer in Ms. 45 (1981) to Lili Taylor’s blood-sucking philosophy student in The Addiction (1995), from Harvey Keitel’s self-annihilating cop in Bad Lieutenant (1992) to Christopher Walken’s enigmatic drug lord in King of New York, they have a grandeur of vision—however paranoid and delusional—and a mordant humor that’s irresistible. Ferrara’s heroes and heroines are his alter egos, and the love and attention he lavishes on the actors who play them is a kind of wish-fulfillment. The best of Ferrara’s films (King of New York and Bad Lieutenant lead the pack) achieve a perfect balance between pulp excess and structural restraint. But even when all else fails, the films are vehicles for memorable acting. Walken’s performance in King is as mesmerizing and unpredictable as anything Brando ever did, and even in the pose-y, played-out New Rose Hotel (1998), his death scene is as startling and acrobatic as Olivier’s in Hamlet.
Time-capsule-worthy portraits of the urban underbelly at the end of the 20th century, Ferrara’s films get better as they get older. Trust the shlockmeister to have known that rap would be the aural landscape of the ’90s, that sex would never be free of the anxiety of tainted blood, and that police brutality would haunt the headlines week after week. Ferrara not only promises to appear in person at screenings along with members of his stock company of actors and technicians but has also contributed his own pre-MPAA-approved prints of several films, including the version of Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser (1989) that the author likes best and the European cut of Dangerous Game (a/k/a Snake Eyes, 1993). The retro concludes with a two-week run of the director’s cut of The Blackout (1996), a slightly different version from the straight-to-DVD U.S. release. While not quite vintage Ferrara, the film has a hallucinatory presence and drug-crazed insistence that wipe most Amerindie genre flicks and their European counterparts off the map.
More psychodrama than thriller, The Blackout is Ferrara’s Vertigo, an involuted tale of love, loss, guilt, and obsession. Matthew Modine stars as Matty, a Hollywood glamour boy who’s haunted by the fear that he may have killed his girlfriend, Annie (a zonked Beatrice Dalle), while on a crack-and-alcohol bender. Annie goes missing from the set of Nana in Miami, a softcore remake of an obscure 1950s French costume film, which itself was adapted from Émile Zola’s novel about prostitution. (It’s the twisted film-buff side of Ferrara that makes him use clips from Christian-Jaque’s Nana rather than from Renoir’s silent 1926 masterpiece.) The evil genius manipulating both Matty and Annie is the director of the film within the film (Dennis Hopper), a stand-in for Ferrara himself. But Hopper gives a dismal and disruptive one-note performance—a parody not of Ferrara, but of himself in Blue Velvet. Modine, on the other hand, does his first serious acting since Full Metal Jacket (although given the depths to which Matty descends, he should have suffered at least one bad hair day).
Like New Rose Hotel, The Blackout circles around in time until it implodes. Both films seem to have found their structure on the editing table. There are about a dozen inspired moments in The Blackout, including one right near the opening when we see a plane coming in for a landing and the camera lurches wildly to remind you of the feeling a passenger gets when the wheels touch down. The Blackout is all about the confusion of inside and outside and the loss of boundaries, but mostly it’s a film about spiraling into failure—a raw exposé of self that made one fear that Ferrara would never come out of the hole he dug here.
Which is why it’s sad that R-Xmas, Ferrara’s latest film and his most economical, witty, and controlled work since The Addiction, isn’t part of the retrospective. R-Xmas is an anti-Sopranos portrait of a middle-class couple who deal drugs for a living and want to buy their kid the toy of the year, which has sold out of every store in New York. Although you might not want to take your mom to see it, it is a movie about and for grown-ups, a rare but not necessarily desirable commodity in the eyes of distributors. Ferrara is back from his dark night of the soul; it’s indie film culture that’s gone unconscious.
A film you might indeed take your mom to, Joel Hershman’s Greenfingers is based on a British newspaper story about prison gardeners. Hershman is American, but the film is a totally British affair, combining the manners of Masterpiece Theatre and the moxie of East Enders. Rising star Clive Owen made a big impression a decade ago in Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes (a perverse little movie about brother-sister incest) and then languished in TV-series-land until Mike Hodges cast him as the neurotic writer-gambler in Croupier. Here, he proves that he can also play a regular bloke, albeit one with an unintentional violent crime in his past.
Transferred for the last year of his murder sentence to a minimum-security prison, Colin (Owen) discovers his green thumb and also learns how to forgive himself, thanks to the friendship of a wise elderly lifer (David Kelly) who’s dying of cancer. Colin’s gardening talent attracts the attention of a famed horticulturist (Helen Mirren) who takes him on as an apprentice but panics when she discovers that her daughter Primrose is also blossoming as a result of his attention. Owen and Mirren are fun to watch, but the film, despite the many shots of gardens in full bloom, lacks visual distinction. Hershman is also a little too eager to gloss over his leading character’s past—not to mention the British penal system, which, as a whole, is hardly as progressive as the experimental model shown in Greenfingers. In recent weeks, there’ve been a bunch of articles about inmate gardens in U.S. prisons. I’d bet an American remake is already in the works.
Michael and Mark Polish’s debut feature, Twin Falls, Idaho, was a cloying oddball love story involving adult male Siamese twins; their follow-up, Jackpot, is another piece of whimsical Americana. A talentless country-western singer, Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries) has a face that’s the visual equivalent of a whine and an attitude of permanently frustrated entitlement. He abandons his wife (Daryl Hannah) and young daughter to pursue his dream of becoming a karaoke star. Accompanied by his African American manager (Garrett Morris), who seems to be the only black male on this Midwest music circuit, he travels from one backwater club to another, barely picking up enough prize money to keep going, but finding enough pretty women to keep him in clean sheets every night. Since Sunny is physically unattractive, inept in bed, and a misogynist who sends his wife lottery tickets in lieu of child support, his popularity is a mystery to me.