As the man himself might say: Who da fuck is Abel Ferrara?
The self-taught pioneer of post-porn punxploitation—The Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981)—Ferrara positioned himself as a lumpen Scorsese with his Little Italy–set youth gang film China Girl (1987) and relatively big-budget adult gangster King of New York (1990). He came into his own in the mid-’90s with the astonishing one-two punch of Bad Lieutenant (1992) and The Addiction (1995), with Madonna’s best movie—Dangerous Game (1993)—appearing in between. (Soon after writing in the Voice that Bad Lieutenant elevated the “scuzzmeister” to “a new plane,” I bumped into Ferrara, literally, during the intermission of David Mamet’s Oleanna: “Hoberman?” he croaked. “Ya check’s in the mail!”)
Ferrara’s oeuvre has always juggled the sacred and the profane, although things got a bit more dicey after The Funeral (1996), his last movie to get widespread U.S. distribution. Still, he managed to survive the millennium in style: Witness Mary (2005) and Go Go Tales (2007), the latter of which, after a midnight screening four New York Film Festivals ago, is finally getting a run as part of Anthology’s tribute, grandly titled “Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century.”
A highly personal movie, Go Go Tales finds Ferrara in a frenzied yet pensive mode. Virtually the entire movie is set within the tawdry NYC confines of Ray Ruby’s Paradise, an institution that equally suggests an off–Wall Street titty bar and the magic theater from Steppenwolf (and was constructed for the movie in Rome’s Cinecittà studios). Paradise’s nonstop sweat-perfumed hubbub is immediately established with a blast of Archie Bell & the Drells to herald the contortions of a hula-hooping stripper. The beat goes on for some 90 minutes of choreographed pole-writhing, lap-dancing, and flamboyant backstage catastrophes—notably a tanning-bed fire—interspersed with the machinations of club proprietor and compulsive gambler Ray Ruby (up-for-anything Willem Dafoe) as he dodges his numerous creditors and schemes to game the Lotto.
Shtick runs rampant. Sylvia Miles’s foul-mouthed harridan landlady installs herself at the bar and channels Joan Rivers, shrieking about the Bed Bath & Beyond she’s going to bring in to replace the Paradise at $18,000 per month with a 99-year lease. Midway through, Asia Argento—the Queen of I-Don’t-Give-a-Shit—coolly erupts into the proceedings for a show-stopping number that involves the exchange of bodily fluids with her pet Rottweiler. Not to be outdone, Dafoe (so deadpan in his hamming as to function as a one-man Wooster Group) follows up with a ludicrously sensitive lounge song, delivered amid a phalanx of writhing strippers.
This improvisational field day for mouthy actors has obvious affinities with John Cassavetes’s strip-club-set The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and backstage drama Opening Night. Still, as its title suggests, Go Go TalesM is something kinder and gentler—a lovingly wrought urban fable, part low-rent Fellini, part latter-day Damon Runyon. (The dapper skeevy Dafoe and his bellowing major domo Bob Hoskins could be Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit in a skid-row revival of Guys and Dolls.) When, in the movie’s most passionate scene, the beleaguered Ray Ruby defends his Paradise as a cathedral of free expression, Go Go Tales strips itself bare. No amount of writhing pulchritude or gutter language can conceal this movie’s essential innocence.
In addition to Go Go Tales, Anthology is reprising Mary—Ferrara’s anguished, nutty response to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—and premiering his three most recent films, each concerning a specific place. Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009) is an ambitious tourist piece that, alternating between documentary interviews and staged scenes, struggles to plumb the Neapolitan depths. The affably elegiac Chelsea on the Rocks (2008) pays lazy homage to New York’s most notorious bohemian hotel. My favorite, the video documentary Mulberry St., goes further downtown for a triumph of off-the-cuff schmoozing in which the frequently on-camera Ferrara celebrates the heartburn charms of Little Italy’s annual Feast of San Gennaro.
In a sense, Mulberry St. is an extended gloss on Scorsese’s Mean Streets, particularly the scene in which Harvey Keitel complains that “with that feast on, ya can’t even move in your own neighborhood,” and Robert De Niro replies, “I hate that feast with a passion.” Ferrara loves it. San Gennaro is a living tradition, another show that must go on! Stocked with local celebrities and garrulous performers from Ferrara’s previous films (including Go Go Tales and China Girl), Mulberry St. is a festival of self-dramatization in which it is impossible to judge whether Scorsese captured or invented the essence of Little Italy street jive. In either case, Ferrara has preserved it. In 50 years, this warm, cheesy, sometimes rancid slice (of life) will be a holy relic.