Monday, August 12, 2013


There's a great Abel Ferrara Q&A from the 2011 New York Film Festival on YouTube that I've been listening too for the last couple of months that gives a lot of insight in to his career. Thanks mostly in part to the support of New York City's film community, Abel Ferrara has kinda "resurfaced" over the last couple of years - His last film, 4:44 Last Day On Earth, had a good run, Anthology Film Archives gave a great retrospective on his recent unseen works and his previously unreleased films are a little easier to come by online and on DVD now. But things weren't like that for him for quite some time.

Abel Ferrara feels he was somewhat blackballed in the movie industry sometime around the late 90's. Sometimes filmmakers use that black balled thing as an excuse for bad box office numbers or the inability to get a film financed but Ferrara sorta has a valid point. It’s odd that a filmmaker can go from making Bad Lieutenant (one of the best films & best lead performances of the 90's) to barely being able to getting a small indie film financed. Maybe it was his string of interesting/odd/misunderstood/frustrating post-Bad Lt. works like; Body Snatchers, Dangerous Game & The Addiction that kinda turned producers & financers off. Maybe there were some behind-the-scenes things we don’t know about. Whatever the case may be, Ferrara put out some interesting work in the late 90's that hasn’t really stood the test of time (The Funeral) or has gone virtually unknown (New Rose Hotel) at no fault of his own and in my opinion they should be revisited...

I like New Rose Hotel more than I think I'm supposed to. From the bad reviews to the low ratings on IMDB & Rotten Tomatoes - everything is telling me to hate this movie but I just can’t. There's something about this lost random gem that I really enjoy. Unlike other misunderstood maverick filmmakers who find more fans & support in Europe with their recent questionable work (Melvin Van Peeples, Alex Cox, Monte Hellman, etc) Ferrara actually has good & consistent work that just has a tough time getting distributed sometimes. His work is fun to dissect and write about even when it’s problematic.
New Rose Hotel, adapted from the William Gibson short story of the same name, is a moody, atmospheric, sensual, science fiction tale that falls under the cyberpunk genre (the film was actually given Gibson's blessing). But unlike other classic cyberpunk science fiction films, New Rose Hotel doesn’t have super robots (Robocop), cool laser guns (Bladerunner) or virtual reality (Lawnmower Man). There isn’t even a huge emphasis on computers or getting lost on the Internet which is usually what these kinda stories are about (The Matrix, World On A Wire, Hackers, etc). It’s barely science fiction. In the same vein as Cronenberg's eXistenZ, Abel Ferrara lightly hints at all the futuristic aspects of the world he creates instead of shoving flying cars & robots down our throats. Besides Bladerunner, New Rose Hotel has a much darker tone than the other films in the cyber punk genre. It takes place in darkly lit lounges, night clubs and of course...hotel rooms. These settings make sense as New Rose is just as much a neo-noir as it is a science fiction tale.
Years before this was made, a pre-Hurt Locker/Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow was set to direct an adaptation of it before Abel Ferrara but after some creative differences between her and Gibson, she dropped out of the project and went on to make Strange Days - another cyber punk story that has a few similarities to not only New Rose Hotel, but a lot of Gibson's other stories as well...

When I talked to Gibson, I said you want to help? He said if you need me you're in bad shape. She [Bigelow] had him thinking he couldn't write a script, that he was useless. Believe me I 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." You wouldn't know what the Hell it was. Then they got rid of him, they didn't want him around anymore. Then they were going to do the version with Schwarzenegger and they put in 300K for this Creative Artists writer out of LA and were gonna write it as an action movie and get Schwarzenegger to play it. - Abel Ferrara (Indiewire)

Immediately after watching this I read Gibson's short and honestly feel that the film honors the original story. Any time you adapt someones work (especially a cultish writer like Gibson) you're always gonna get loyal literature fans complaining about something but Gibson gave this film his blessing which is good enough for me. Unfortunately, I think New Rose Hotel was stuck with the stigma that Johnny Mnemonic left behind a few years earlier (another sci-fi film adapted from a Gibson story that failed at the box office) and people didn’t wanna give it a chance. Additionally, Abel Ferrara isn’t exactly the first filmmaker who comes to mind when you think of science fiction. Maybe people just weren't ready for an Abel Ferrara science fiction movie. He isn’t from the same school as Paul Verhoven, The Wachowski's, David Cronenberg but with New Rose Hotel he didn’t try to be a someone he's not. He brought William Gibson in to HIS world and brought along a few of his regulars (Christopher Waken, Willem Dafoe & Asia Argento)

In the not-too-distant future, the world's two biggest corporations (Maas & Hosaka) are feuding with one another for control over the best patents, cures and other worldly inventions. The brightest mind behind many of these genius developments, a scientist by the name of "Hiroshi", is currently employed by the Maas corporation and Hosaka is looking to steal to him away. This is where "Fox" (Christopher Walken) and his partner "X" (Willem Dafoe) come in to play. Fox & X are "headhunters" whose job is to essentially convince/persuade workers to go from one company to another. If Fox & X can get Hiroshi to come over to the Hosaka corporation they'll be paid $100 Million. To persuade Hiroshi to switch employers, Fox & X hire an Italian prostitute ("Sandii") to seduce him. This is the basic plot. After that it’s a bit difficult to follow. X falls in love with Sandii, Fox becomes fascinated with Hiroshi, there's a huge plague, Fox throws an orgy and a good portion of what we see in the first half of the film is played out again as slightly altered flashbacks towards the end. The dialogue is a bit up its own ass at times (hey, I like this movie very much but its true). Much of the script (especially the lines delivered by Christopher Walken) seems more concerned with sounding smart, existential, cool & scientific instead of making any sense. The basic plot is pretty easy to decipher but you may find yourself questioning if what a lot of Walken & Dafoe are talking about really has anything to do with the film.

Certain themes and the overall style of New Rose Hotel went on to influence Ferrara's later work like Mary (2005) & 4:44 (2011). In New Rose Hotel we see a lot of chaotic editing (which we hadn’t really seen in Ferrara's films up to that point) and the use of mixed media and different types of cameras all in the same film (some of the footage is grainy, reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels, while most of the footage looks like a normal movie). This type of filmmaking is all done throughout Mary. Many themes in New Rose Hotel like plagues and the end of the world are the basis for 4:44. Ferrara even tips his hat to Kubrick (the hotel room that Dafoe stays in towards the end of the film looks like the room at the end of 2001). I can see how some of the acting in the film could be a little off putting. Christopher Walken is more quirky & strange than usual to the point where you find yourself laughing more at how he pronounces certain words instead of focusing on the overall performance which can be pretty distracting. The performance and look of Fox is very similar to the character he plays in Donald Cammell's Wild Side. But hey, some people who love Walken's quirkiness may get a kick out of his portrayal of Fox. Asia Argento, who's never been more beautiful, is a little flat & awkward at times (although I've heard some describe her performance in New Rose Hotel as "raw") but you find yourself not really caring too much because of how naturally beautiful she looks. Dafoe's presence is kinda downplayed in my opinion but Ferrara made up for that with Go-Go Tales.
On a more positive note, New Rose Hotel features cameos and quick appearances from the likes of John Lurie, Anabella Sciorra & Victor Argo

Ferrara has an understanding & love for cinema that many directors don’t which is a shame because his reputation among the average person aware of who he is keeps him in that King Of New York/Ms. 45/Bad Lieutenant box when he's got a lot more to give (he’s currently working on a script about the final day of Pier Paolo Passolini). Ever since Bad Lieutenant it seems like he's been trying to stretch himself more as a filmmaker and dip in to different genres like the apocalypse (4:44), science fiction/"the information age" (New Rose Hotel) and hybrid fiction/documentaries (Hotel Chelsea) yet people (mostly Americans) aren't very receptive for some reason. New Rose Hotel has a lot in common with Vinterberg's It’s All About Love. Both films are beautiful chaotic messes that have great casts, cover many issues and are set in an odd disorienting vision of the not-so-distant future.
If you go in to New Rose Hotel expecting Ferrara's regular raw, gritty New York City style of filmmaking found in Bad Lieutenant or Ms. 45 you're setting yourself up to be disappointed. If you have an open mind and are looking to expand your view on him as a filmmaker (which New Rose Hotel will surely do) this may be the film for you.

Now...if you're looking for vintage Abel Ferrara then look no further than his 1996 mob drama; The Funeral...

I'm not very keen on writing about mob movies. Everything has already been written about the great ones by people more qualified than I (Godfather, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, etc) and all the other mob movies out there are just bad, formulaic carbon copies of the great ones that aren't really worthy of being written about (too many to name). That’s the interesting thing about the mob genre - there’s not much middle ground. Mafia films are either classic pieces of art or bad & overrated. There aren’t too many that are just simply "good" or "solid". Abel Ferrara's The Funeral may not be on the same level as The Godfather or Goodfellas but it shouldn't be grouped in with all the other bad & overrated mob films out there. The Funeral is pretty unique. Besides the mafia/organized crime angle it touches on family (blood family, not mafia family) along with communism & socialism. Ferrara inst a novice to the mob/organized crime genre (King Of New York & China Girl) but this is by far his best work within that realm. In my opinion this was his last undeniably good film for quite some time until he re-emerged with Mary (2005) & Go-Go Tales (2007). According to co-star Vincent Gallo, Abel Ferrara spent a good portion of his time on set in his trailer smoking crack instead of directing but I find that a little hard to believe.

This film was pretty much considered a flop in the U.S. (like most post-Bad Lieutenant Ferrara films) when it came out and I honestly don’t get it. Over the years it’s become one of those movies you find in the discount DVD bin section at the video store for $7.99 (that's how I came across it). How is it possible that a film with one of the greatest ensemble casts of the last 20 years (Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Benecio Del Toro, Vincent Gallo, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rossellini, the underrated Victor Argo and a quick appearance from David Patrick Kelly) managed to fall in to obscurity? More importantly, in an era when large ensemble casts were pretty much only used for those multi-storyline post-Pulp Fiction style films in American independent cinema, Ferrara didn't fall in to that madness and made ONE cohesive story as opposed to 6 different stories that all connect to each other in the end. The Funeral is different from other mob films as there's minimal violence (when compared to stuff like Goodfellas or King Of New York). Its more about the internal family problems between two brothers: "Ray" (Christopher Walken) & "Chez" (Chris Penn) and how they handle (and ultimately deal with) the death of their youngest (communist) brother "Johnny" (Vincent Gallo) who was gunned down by a rival crime family run by "Gaspare Spoglia" (Benecio Del Toro)...or at least that's what we're supposed to believe.

The Funeral is without a doubt Chris Penn's greatest performance. Take his intensity from the final minutes of Reservoir Dogs and spread it out through an entire movie and you'd kinda get the gist of what I'm talking about. His performance is so draining & heavy it almost gives you a headache watching him act. Most performances concerned with depression (which Chez is surely suffering from) focuses more on the sad & crippling aspect of it while Penn's performance focuses more on the angry & aggressive side of depression. And Chris Penn's large size adds to it, giving the Chez character an intimidating presence. There’s one scene in particular that’s a bit odd & hard to watch where he has his way with a young girl. Say what you want about the cinema of Abel Ferrara, and trust me there's plenty to say both good & bad, but he can get an intense performance out of his actors - Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Forest Whitaker in Mary, Willem Dafoe in Go-Go Tales, etc. This was also one of Christopher Walken's later rare good performances along with Catch Me If You Can (a performance he was nominated for that still manages to go unnoticed).

It's tough to take Walken seriously in his more recent work but there's no misguided humor about his performance in The Funeral (especially in the scene when he confronts the man who killed his brother). Ray & Chez are both big tough gangsters but when they confront each other they revert back to being little kids - in a scene towards the beginning Walken leaves the house when Penn arrives and refuses to come back until he leaves (clearly something a child would do). Penn & Walken's grieving in The Funeral makes me miss the brother I never even had. The presence of the female characters (Sciorra, Rossellini & Mol play the "mob wives") may come off as minor at first but in one scene Anabella Sciorra kinda steals the show with a monologue about how sick & fed up she is with the mob way of life and her husband. Unlike classic female performances in gangster films (Diane Keaton in The Godfather or Lorraine Braco in Goodfellas) Sciorra comes off a lot tougher and less neurotic (although still a bit vulnerable & sad).
My only complaint about The Funeral is the lack of Isabella Rossellini. Also, there’s just “something” about The Funeral that was screaming for Michael Madsen’s presence. Given the size of the cast, The Funeral could have easily been a 2-1/2+ hour film if done right but at the same time its fine the way it is. There’s something about a 90-something minute mafia film that’s a breath of a fresh air in a sea of 3+ hour epics.

I find myself kinda sympathizing for some of the characters in The Funeral more than I do in other mob films. There's no celebration of the crimes they commit or the flashy violent lifestyle they live whereas in stuff like Goodfellas we're kinda supposed to think these guys are "cool" (Goodfellas is still one of the most important films of the 90's and there would probably be no Funeral without it). At the end of the day The Funeral could be looked at as a film that shows the realistic & ugly side of mob life and the consequences that come with that lifestyle. The Funeral is more along the lines of Donnie Brasco (specifically Al Pacino's character) or the mob sub plot in Ghost Dog where we see old, broken down, tired gangsters in their 50's & 60's still carrying out hits, taking orders and hanging out in smoke-filled basements (nothing really "cool" about that). This is a quietly depressing & drab film with an ending that takes the phrase(*SPOILER ALERT*): "everyone dies in the end" a little too literal. The lighting is always dark and all the dominant colors in the film are darkish & grey and you genuinely feel bad for Vincent Gallo as he lies on the ground whimpering (literally) and dying from a gunshot to the belly. The Funeral features plenty of "Ferrara-isms" - religious symbolism (specifically Catholicism), the focus on Italian American families, Christopher Walken & Victor Argo and occasional spurts of violence). For reasons ranging from rawness & grittiness to unconventional editing & storytelling, Ferrara can be an acquired taste for some (he’s one of those American filmmakers who’s appreciated more by Europeans than fellow Americans). If you’ve read my write-ups on Mary & Go-Go Tales you’d see that the cinema of Abel Ferrara is quite challenging, but he’s currently one of my favorite filmmakers to write about (along with Terrence Malick & Carlos Reygadas).

The Funeral can be enjoyed by most people (cinephiles to average movie goers who like a gangster film). Some may be a little let down by the final act as well as the discovery of who actually killed Vincent Gallo, but I personally didn't have any problems with it. Ferrara could have taken a more conventional route to ending his film and he didn't.


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