Friday, January 3, 2014

THE CINEMA OF ABEL FERRARA TOLD THROUGH IMAGES AND STILLS


My existence is about making movies - Abel Ferrara


From slasher films & cult movies (The Driller Killer & Ms. 45) to minor mainstream success (The King Of New York) to the grassroots indie cinema he makes today (Chelsea On The Rocks & 4:44 Last Day On Earth) Abel Ferrara has done it all. He's probably the only filmmaker to get the same type of respect from both European cinephiles and golden era hip-hop fans (not many people can say they've worked with both; Juliette Binoche as well as Schooly D). Following Jim Jarmusch, who had a relationship with hip-hop culture long before he aligned himself with The Rza, Ferrara was the next indie/arthouse filmmaker to embrace hip-hop and incorporate it to in his work.
He was a staple in the American independent film renaissance of the 90's, he directed Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant), Chris Penn (The Funeral) & Forest Whitaker (Mary) in their best performances and has never been afraid to step outside of the comfort zone he's commonly associated with (the gritty streets of New York City) with films like; New Rose Hotel (an adaptation of a science fiction/cyber-punk short story) and Body Snatchers (a remake of the classic horror film).
Only in the last decade has he started to get the recognition he truly deserves. By the late 90's/early00's, he couldn't get a film financed by an American movie studio so he sought out European financing and churned out a series of interesting, unique & original works in a short period of time (Mary, Napoli Napoli Napoli & Go-Go Tales) which eventually got him a second wind in America with 4:44 Last Day On Earth.
What many people also fail to realize is that Ferrara had an additional hill to climb in the world of film in that he started out as a porn director (Ferraea's status in the adult world wasn't that of Al Goldstein but it's still not common/easy to make the transition from porn to "regular films"). But that's the beauty of Abel Ferrara - he breaks all molds and shatters all clichés of what an American independent filmmaker is supposed to be. As you'll see in the images below, Abel Ferrara is tough to pin down and categorize. He isn't afraid to experiment and come up with new techniques but he also has no shame in exploring the materialistic & sometimes cliché world of "money, drugs & women"



RELIGIOUS IMAGERY

Where I come from you're not raised to think on your own. It's not that you're pushed to read the Bible. The Bible is read to you - Abel Ferrara

You don't need to be a film analyst to see that religious imagery (usually Catholic or Christian) is a driving force within the cinema of Abel Ferrara. All of his films (even the ones not represented with images in this section) feature at least one key scene set in a church (Bad Lieutenant & Mary) or Ferrara places a cross somewhere in the open so the audience can see it clearly (notice the tattoo on the back of the male lead in Napoli Napoli Napoli).
And even though we're bombarded with crosses & porcelain Christ figures, Ferrara isn't trying to convert his audience or show that Catholicism is right. His films aren't pro or anti Catholic. It's clear that Catholicism has been ingrained in him to the point where it’s become a part of who he is and it rubs off in to his work (even though he claims to no longer practice the religion). 
Naturally these religious symbols follow & weigh over the heads of characters who make wrong choices or are bad people (see the cross above Drea De Matteo's bed in 'R Xmas) or these religious symbols follow characters in danger as a form of protection (note the cross behind Tony in China Girl)
New Rose Hotel
The Driller Killer
Bad Lieutenant
The Funeral
Mary
'R Xmas
Napoli Napoli Napoli
Chin Girl



CHARACTERS ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
In a large chunk of Abel Ferrara's films we get a scene where our main characters have been pushed over the edge (usually due to their own poor choices in life) to the point where they have a nervous breakdown and become momentarily helpless. These moments often happen under some type of religious setting or within a church (to a certain degree, this is an extension of the previous category). Towards the end of Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel, a crooked police officer, has a spiritual moment with God and asks for forgiveness. 13 years later Ferrara recreated that same scene in Mary with Forest Whitaker (who plays a fraud talk show host & adulterer). Both Keitel & Whitaker even deliver the same line in their respective movies: "Please forgive me. I've done so many bad things". In The Funeral, Chris Penn snaps after seeing his younger brother (played by Vincent Gallo) dead in a coffin.
What usually follows these breakdown moments are dramatic actions that affect the people around them and it changes the course of the film.
It should be noted that most of these characters, who end up crying like babies, are men played by actors who either have a tough exterior (Harvey Keitel) or are big & intimidating (Forest Whitaker & Chris Penn).
But not all his characters are men that are driven over the edge due to poor choices. In Ms. 45 our main female character is raped twice in the same day which causes her to snap and become a vigilante/serial killer, while in Mary, Juliette Binoche plays an actress who has a breakdown/spiritual awakening after a grueling experience making a religious movie.
Bad Lieutenant
The Blackout
Mary
The Funeral
Mary
Ms. 45


NOT SO RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE
No matter how spiritual or existential Abel Ferrara gets, there's a good chance we'll still get plenty of violence in his work. He's toned it down quite a bit in the last decade but when King Of New York, Driller Killer & Ms. 45 are some of your most popular films (and still maintain a steady cult following) shoot outs, stabbings and other violent acts will always be associated with your work.
Bad Lieutenant
Ms. 45
King Of New York
The Driller Killer
Pasolini
Dangerous Game


T&A...
...and what's the point of having the guns & shootouts without the T&A to go along with it?
Sometimes there's absolutely no depth or legitimate explanation to having half naked women in his films. It's like they're just there as props or eye candy. But other times he does delve in to the hidden dark sexual desires of his characters which makes for interesting cinema.
Similar to the violence in his past work, Ferrara has toned down a lot of the T&A and objectification of women since Go Go Tales (a story set in a strip club)…




MOMENTS OF INTIMACY 
And to counter all the sex, drugs & violence, Abel will occasionally throw in a sweet or intimate moment between his characters (something that usually gets overlooked in his work)
China Girl
Mary
New Rose Hotel
Welcome To New York
4:44 Last Day On Earth



HIP-HOP CULTURE
Abel Ferrara is also one of the few/earliest (prominent) filmmakers to work with Hip-Hip artists (some icons) in front of & behind the camera...
Ice-T (RXMAS)
Pras of The Fugees (Go Go Tales)
Schoolly D (King Of New York)




BLENDED SCENES
Some time during the late 90's Abel Ferrara added a new stylistic touch to his cinema by incorporating blended scenes. I'm not talking about one scene simply bleeding & overlapping in to the next (although he does do that now also). In all of Ferrara's recent work, starting with The Blackout leading up to his last film (4:44 Last Day On Earth) we get these almost collage-like moments where various images and moments from previous scenes all start to play on top of the current scene in an almost chaotic yet hypnotic way...
New Rose Hotel
The Blackout
R 'Xmas
Mary
4:44 Last Day On Earth


RECURRING SHOT: THE FERRARA GLARE
Another overlooked moment in Abel Ferrara’s work is his version of the “glare shot” (something commonly found in the work of Kubrick and more recent filmmakers like Denis & Refn). On numerous occasions we see characters in his films looking directly in to the camera or at someone/something just off camera in a zoned out/creepy manner…
New Rose Hotel
Go-Go Tales
King Of New York
Mary
Ms. 45


RECURRING SHOT: THE SCREEN
A regular moment that's also common in Abel Ferrara's work is a scene involving one of his characters zoning out at the images on a screen (movie screen, laptop or television screen). Although this is highlighted in his most recent film (4:44), where television & video chats are a key element to the story, "the screen" has played a major role in Ferrara's work going all the way back to King Of New York.
King Of New York
The Addicition
The Blackout
Pasolini
4:44 Last Day On Earth


RECURRING SHOT: SIMILAR USES OF LIGHT
Body Snatchers
Dangerous Game
Bad Lieutenant
King Of New York



THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ABEL FERRARA
Like David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and a few other filmmakers we’ve explored in this series, Abel Ferrara places himself in his films whether it be literally (Driller Killer & Ms. 45) or through a character. In Dangerous Game Harvey Keitel plays a movie director that looks like Abel Ferrara around the time he made it. In The Blackout & Mary, Matthew Modine (another Ferrara regular) plays an emotional, passionate, self absorbed, somewhat unstable film director, and you can’t help but wonder if it’s supposed to be Ferrara in the same way Jeremy Irons (the director character in Inland Empire) or Justin Theroux (the director character in Mulholland Drive) are supposed to be David Lynch. 
Abel Ferrara in The Driller Killer
Abel Ferrara in Ms. 45
Harvey Keitel as a film director/extension of Abel Ferrara in Dangerous Game
Matthew Modine as a film director/another extension of Abel Ferrara in Mary
Abel Ferrara directs Matthew Modine on the set of The Blackout
Abel Ferrara in Napoli Napoli Napoli



NEW YORK F*CKIN' CITY

As an old-time New Yorker, it's not that I miss the '70s and '80s or whatever. I miss the fact that there was a certain kind of energy that exists when people can live for nothing - Abel Ferrara

When it comes to the big apple on the big screen, Abel Ferrara deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, vintage Woody Allen, early Jim Jarmusch and any other contemporary filmmaker who represents NYC. Like the aforementioned filmmakers, Ferrara explores his own little niches & pockets within New York city. While Jarmusch was synonymous with the artsy downtown scene of the early 80's; Spike Lee with specific neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Woody Allen's world of the upper class society of the upper west side; Ferrara explores the crime, shadiness & grittiness of NYC with films like Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, Fear City and the obvious King Of New York. Abel Ferrara also uses a lot of the same New York City actors as Jarmusch, Lee and other fellow filmmakers (Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buschemi, Paul Calderon, Harvey Keitel, etc).
In recent years Ferrara has used Italy as the backdrop for his work (Go-Go Tales & Napoli Napoli Napoli) but no matter how many films he makes overseas, he still returns to New York (most recently for his last two film; Chelsea On The Rocks & 4:44 Last Day On Earth).
Fear City
King Of New York
Chelsea On The Rocks
China Girl
4:44 Last Day On Earth
Mulberry Street
Welcome To New York




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