1976: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver premieres to widespread acclaim, winning the year’s Palme d’Or and solidifying its director’s reputation as one of the foremost representatives of New Hollywood. Amidst rampant corruption in New York City, with crime rates skyrocketing and the city’s debt mounting to unsustainable levels, the movies of the moment seemed to actively reflect the realities at hand. As the conservative myths peddled in the immediate post-war years had come to a crushing end, first tarnished by Vietnam and then fully dispelled by Watergate, traditional Hollywood entertainment needed to keep up with the times—and if the epoch’s defining discontent was to be harnessed by an industry made increasingly precarious by the ever-growing influence of television, then new popular forms were needed. And Scorsese, along with the likes of Coppola, Friedkin, and Cimino, supplied exactly that, introducing modernism into the Hollywood studio system, elevating consumer objects to the level of art, and temporarily redefining the aspirations of popular entertainment—or so the conventional story goes.
Around the same time Scorsese was premiering his film in Cannes, a flat-broke, fresh-out-of-film-school Abel Ferrara was sneaking into the industry through its back door—in the porno and grindhouse theaters that offered an alternative to the “socially engaged” studio product of the day. Ferrara's feature debut was the hardcore porno 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976), in which the director lovingly depicts himself in the nude, engaging in orgiastic activities with his then-girlfriend and the partner of his screenwriter Nicholas St. John. (Years later, in the 2010 documentary Mulberry Street, Ferrara would explain the...let’s say unfortunate circumstances that led to this curious artifact: “It’s bad enough paying a guy 300 dollars to fuck your girlfriend and then the guy couldn’t even get it up...I lose the short straw and now I’m screwing in the movie.”) 9 Lives, with the salacious pun of its title, is the kind of movie that Travis Bickle unwittingly drags Betsy to in Taxi Driver, and this distinction—between a filmmaker who makes the trash and the one who critiques it—is the supposed difference behind New Hollywood and its bastard, X-rated brethren: one of these kinds of movies is of its world, assumedly so entrenched as to see nothing outside of itself; while the other is above it, allowing for the critical distance presumed prerequisite for legitimate forms of art-making.
It’s no surprise, then, that ever since 9 Lives Ferrara has worked mostly on the outskirts of the American film industry, funding most of his films through independent financiers, or in more recent years, with the help of public arts agencies in France, Italy, and Belgium. Despite their avid cinephile following in the U.S. and abroad, Ferrara’s films continue to be widely ignored, often failing to generate critical attention or secure theatrical releases in their native country—unfortunately the fate of most movies too putrid for the gatekeepers of so-called good taste and too elegant for those who fetishize negligence. Now working with hitherto unseen efficiency, the fruits of an extended period of sobriety, perhaps, Ferrara released two fast-and-loose documentaries in 2017, Alive in France and Piazza Vittorio, and is set to premiere three features this year alone. (The Projectionist, a documentary about the owner-operator of a cinema in New York, played Tribeca a week ago and Tomasso, a narrative film starring Willem Dafoe, will be unveiled at Cannes in a few days’ time.) During this season of burgeoning productivity for the 67-year-old, the Museum of Modern Art is now exhibiting Abel Ferrara Unrated, a retrospective that runs until the end of the month, encompassing nearly 50 years of his career and including close to 40 works, which run the gamut from fiction to documentary, made-for-TV features to major studio productions. From the porn theater to the MoMA—this is the trajectory of Ferrara’s career, and it is, aptly, one rife with contradiction.
In the years since their original release, many of Ferrara’s pre-2000s works have been embraced by a certain crowd of critics and scholars. In 1996, film theorist and Godard collaborator Nicole Brenez started an annual seminar on the director’s work at the University of Paris, culminating in the release of her 2007 book on Ferrara, which was translated by Adrian Martin and published in the University of Illinois' Contemporary Directors Series. (For our purposes, the first sentence will suffice: “Abel Ferrara is to cinema what Joe Strummer is to music: a poet who justifies the existence of popular forms.”) On June 30, 2000, John Ford biographer Tag Gallagher posted his seminal essay Geometry of Force, the most enlightening of all Ferraran treatises, which compares the director’s formal techniques to that of unimpeachable figures such as John Ford, Douglas Sirk, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau. As disparate as their paths of inquiry often are, Gallagher and Brenez each argue for the aesthetic worth of Ferrara’s cinema based on appeals to an exterior source. In demonstrating a formal or thematic continuity between, say, The Addiction (1995) and the phenomenology of Hegel (Brenez), or King of New York (1990) and the mysticism of Simone Weil (Gallagher), these authors—by their very tone and manner—remove these films from their seedy context, placing them instead in the tradition of a canon presumably in no need of justification. A handy trick to reclaim basically any director, this argument by analogy can often obscure the values of a particular object of study. In Ferrara’s case, even when this approach elucidates important aspects of the work (as is the case with Gallagher, less so with Brenez), it also runs the risk of betraying the unmistakably troubling and productively incoherent parts of the director’s best films. No sprinkling of Georges Bataille or lathering of the Iliad could ever disguise the fact that these are sordid, ramshackle, derelict affairs—cheapo genre flicks, living on the edge of precarity, that have been willed into existence by sheer force of id.
It takes some mental gymnastics to find a coherent political position in the director's first non-pornographic film, The Driller Killer (1979). Here a much younger, far less sober Ferrara plays the role of an artistically impotent painter who proceeds, with neither motivation nor recourse, to slaughter a not insignificant number of the residents of New York City’s mean streets. In this pulpy tale about a bohemian on the brink of madness, one sees shades of Antonioni’s counter-cultural portrait Blow-Up (1966), another film that conflates artistic creation with intractable murder. But where Antonioni positions his photographer—and by extension the world from which it emerged—at a remove from the killing, Ferrara permits no such division: his protagonist, living in the slums of late 1970s Union Square, is fully submerged in the decrepit environment, and, being driven psychotic by it, transfers his creative drive into a murderous one. Blood and paint are made indistinguishable.
Whereas The Driller Killer reacts to economic anxiety endemic to New York City circa the late 1970s (and here we can think of the main character as the flip side to Scorsese’s taxi driver), the film Ferrara released just two years later, Ms. 45 (1981)—whose power to piss people off remains constant three decades on—engages with a different set of complicated signifiers. Here our anti-hero is a woman, a mute seamstress named Thana (a 17-year-old Zoë Lund, who would later co-write Bad Lieutenant), and the stultifying milieu is New York’s Fashion District. After being raped twice in the film’s first ten minutes, once while walking away from work, then again upon arriving at home, the reserved twenty-something soon transforms into an insatiable angel of death. Her targets? Any and all men—from a chump who leers at her on the street, to a would-be pick-up artist at the bar, and eventually, to her casually misogynist boss, whom she gleefully mows down at the company’s Halloween party. Her hostility is not unleashed in any direction in particular—towards, say, a guilty party—but to her surroundings as a whole, as though her rebellion had to be understood in the broadest terms imaginable.
It’s here crucial to note that where the director’s New Hollywood contemporaries tend to keep their hands clean by clearly demarcating at which point their protagonists' mentality deviates from their own, Ferrara fully participates in his characters' excesses. How, then, if his films dive headlong into nihilism and pornography, can they also be artistically valuable? Is it not so that nihilism, which is incapable of seeing good, and pornography, which reduces everything to its coarsest elements, are incompatible with our criteria for determining value? Assuming Ferrara’s films are just highly potent distillations of a subjectivity seeking its own satisfaction, are we justified to call these works art, or should we refer to them by another name, perhaps one more appropriate to the topography of their disposition, which is nothing if not base?
Ferrara reached his creative peak in the early-to-mid 1990s, with the release of the noirish gangster film King of New York (1990), the eschatological character study Bad Lieutenant (1992), his first and last studio-backed productions Body Snatchers (1993) and Dangerous Game (1993), and a brief detour into the scuzzy exploitation filmmaking of his youth with The Addiction (1995). Even as they move between production models and genre templates, Ferrara's films of this period are near uniform in their concerns. As New York’s fiscal crisis had come to a close and crime rates diminished at a steady rate, Ferrara continued to associate himself with the knaves, crooks, and blood-suckers of the increasingly pristine, gentrified city. Frank White, a kingpin released from jail after a decade in the slammer; LT, a New York City detective chasing after his own gratification; and Kathleen Concklin, a philosophy student cum vampire whose killing spree is second only to Thana’s—all of these characters reminded viewers, at a time when the city’s corruption had gone fully above board, that crime is by origin natural, the workings of fate, and that good, on the other hand, is an impossibility of the will.
The reading of Brenez and others that injecting and snorting, beating and killing, are here some kind of revolutionary act—a subversion of power, returning docile bodies to their naturally recalcitrant state—only serves to distort these films’ provocative indeterminacy. In a contemporary cultural landscape where filmmakers go to great lengths to ensure viewers that depiction does not in fact equal endorsement; where the masses are apparently incapable of discerning their own right from their own wrong; and where the movie house has become a site of moral correction akin to the church, schoolhouse, or prison—here, Ferrara’s films challenge reductive, all-too-prevalent forms of engagement. These movies have no escape hatches.
Just as his protagonists’ lives cannot be made meaningful through political-revolutionary means, so their suffering yield none of the spiritual release that allows the likes of Scorsese, Dreyer, and Bresson—all of whom approach the existential crises of the 20th century from uniquely Judeo-Christian points of view—to conclude, after wallowing in misery for hours on end, that despite the depravity of human nature, there remains a reality in which beauty and purpose and love are attainable. By delighting in their own sinfulness, Ferrara’s everymen evince a religious commitment to suffering for its own sake. Their toils elicit no positive effects. The revolutions of social theorists mean nothing, and religion is equally unintelligible. For them, then, the unexamined life is the only true option.
As propulsive, infectious, and watchable as Ferrara films can be, they often pose a problem for those who wish to raise these films' stature by appealing to a higher purpose. Absent are the devices that would enable critics to ensure their readers that, though they may bear witness to an unending carnival of hedonism, they can rest assured that this parade of bad behavior reveals something profound about a fallen world corrupted by patriarchy and capitalism. Here the subject and the act of filmmaking are one and the same thing: the assertion of a self into a void of indifference. Thus, when the films so fully commit to demonstrating the impossibility of goodness, how can Ferrarans elevate them by appealing to categories of beauty and morality which the works themselves reject? Is this not evidence of an anxiety that propels us, in the process of legitimizing the willfully illegitimate, to smooth what is obviously jagged and make sensible what is intended to be profane? Would it have been more appropriate for these films to remain in the Salon des refusés whence they came?
Perhaps Ferrara's later works provide some sort of answer to these questions—however elusive or uneasy or irresolute. In Welcome to New York (2014), the director stages his own personal reckoning with the avatar he created back in 1976. A beastly Gérard Depardieu plays Monsieur Deveraux, an alias that couldn't be attributed to anyone other than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF who was arrested in New York for the sexual assault and attempted rape of a black hotel maid. What differentiates this heathen from, say, Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant, is his total lack of self-awareness—his complete inability, in the face of the mildest of indignities, to accept his own depravity and the consequences of it. The man fusses, whines, and appeals for better treatment based on his status. And when confronted with the facts of his crime, he absolves himself of all guilt ("I am an addict"). This could very well be interpreted negatively, as an indictment of a geo-political system in which crime has been made lawful, but it also, however faintly, demonstrates Ferrara's retroactive understanding of the merits of suffering: you can only begin to look for a cure if you first know that you're ill.
In his older years, as filmmaking has become more of a habit and less of a personal exorcism, the possibility of goodness has gently crept in. Even when depicting the final day in the life of an artist who was senselessly killed (Pasolini) or when confronting the literal end of the world (4:44 Last Day on Earth), Ferrara finds through these thinly disguised movies, whose budgets in no way allow for the fulfillment of their uncompromising vision, an acceptance for the world in all of its purposelessness. The act of filmmaking, previously an assertion of the alienated self, now becomes an opportunity for the creation of community. Just as his previous works collapsed the distance between the director and his onscreen surrogates, here the film crew (a recurring cast of collaborators) becomes the indirect subject of the movies themselves. Not only are these late works about externalizing love but they are bonafide acts of it. In the end, all is grace.
"Abel Ferrara Unrated" runs May 13–31, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.