Saturday, February 5, 2011

Great Underappreciated Filmmakers (2)


On the page, the basic outline of Mary, like all Ferrara films, is simple: Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), an American TV-talk show host, a la Charlie Rose is hosting a week dedicated to examining the 'historical Jesus' to coincide with the premiere of a new film, This is My Blood , a revisionist look at the life of Christ. This film within the film is directed and stars (as Jesus) the ruthlessly opportunistic and self-mythologizing director Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), and stars Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), who after having a spiritual meltdown when the filming wrapped, has quit acting and disappeared on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

 At a screening of  the film at Santa Monica's Aero Theater a few years ago, Modine said, "Abel is the guiltiest Catholic I've ever met. Mel Gibson has nothing on him." Childress is an odd conflagration of Gibson and Ferrara himself, and Ferrara again probes and prods his own process as a filmmaker within the film's text. Mary becomes a film seeking a WHOLE, an enlightenment that transcends the material image of Christ, and seeks the spirit of his redemptive voice.
Thus, like all of Ferrara's recent work, it disassembles as it assembles, and everyone - the filmmakers, the actors, and the audience, is worked into a frenzied lather of obsession and possession, vainly flailing for a meaning that is elusive, all-consuming, suicidal.  The journey is not too dissimilar from that of other Ferrara-surrogates (almost always pseudo or literal artistic bloodsuckers), in particular Harvey Keitel in Dangerous Game, Christopher Walken in New Rose Hotel, and Modine in The Blackout. Except this time, the plummeting quest is dispersed over three souls in emotional and/or intellectual conflict with both each other and the cultural void they find themselves slipping down. In this regard, it's the anti-Passion of the Christ, a ballsy destruction of the narrative of unpredictable transcendence. Mary bluntly slices and dices the image of Christ in contemporary visual culture: facing off faith with consumption --- and the inevitable dispersal and corruption of a value system.

Below is a revised version of an essay I wrote on Ferrara's piece-de-resistance for the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium in 2005:

King of New York (1990)

Zipping along in the hyper I-pod-chugging days of the 21st century, rarely do we take the time to stop and consider the implications of The Present. Meaning is that inevitable beast thrown into the mega-mix constantly shuffling, always seeking the Future through the glance two steps ahead or slipping into the flurried reveries of a long since Past. The come and gone - these are the secure, definable entities. The here and now, on the other hand, is that frightening ongoing project, the thing we nervously are forced to experience day in and day out, whether we like it or not. The MOMENT. And never more so than today, whose insatiable hunger for attainment dispels a notion of Immediate experience. This may help to explain the increasing need in the culture for films that either refuse to define time and place or elegize a safe, distant "otherworld" (the past or beyond). Future generations may look back at the films produced during this period and come to understand us as a people dissatisfied with the lot life has presented us. They may see our grandly expensive, fantastic concoctions as the escape from the Real encroaching, worldly dangers we have dispelled as myth and hyberbole. But they may also see that, every once in a while, our culture produces an artifact that has the bravery and gusto to hold up a canted, shattered mirror to the EXPERIENCE of modern society, revealing both its disturbed, unruly secrets, and its intoxicatingly ALIVE beauty.  One of the last standing, genuine "street poets," New York born and bred Abel Ferrara has made a (niche) career out of producing work that not only holds that above-mentioned mirror high, but coats and re-coats it with fluidly grease-and-sweat soaked strokes of fine-tuned though imploding intuition and lavishly Human abstraction--- reality through an operatic spiral of guilt, redemption, and piety.

Ferrara may be a key figure in the modern urban art world, but he is still regarded stateside as a marginal figure and a conundrum to the scope of canon-sanctioned contemporary cinema. He's more often than not dismissed as a footnote by the critical powers that be, who typically view the aura his films project as merely the chaotic, inscrutable fantasies of a gonzo smut peddler --- glibly manufactured imagery a smoke-stained breath away from indecency. Yet it is precisely these "disreputable" qualities that have allowed Ferrara to construct some of cinema's most searing and Serious investigations of twentieth-century American life, including the B-masterpieces Driller Killer (1979) & Ms. 45 (1981), Bad Lieutenant (1992), The Addiction (1995), The Funeral (1996), New Rose Hotel (2000), and R Xmas (2001).

His 1990 film, King of New York, starring Christopher Walken as the industrious white kingpin of a multi-ethnic criminal empire, epitomizes the very modern struggle of pomp and circumstance - the respect and awe of success in the economic marketplace - and reverberates with its collision of fear and security, glory and tragedy.

The film is built on a series of bold, violent gestures so pure in their aesthetic and intellectual construction that, when compared with its gangster-cliché contemporaries, the film takes on something like the veneer of a fine, aged wine amidst a cluttered landscape of partly emptied Bud Lights. King stripped away the glamorously nihilistic posturing of Scorsese and Coppola's white-centric criminal odysseys and ushered in an (albeit brief) renaissance of dark, socially-conscious roman noir. These films, which included New Jack City and Sugar Hill, represented the economi, racial and cultural realities of modern street life, the storytelling descended from the already cinematic narratives of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. Visually and sonically they turned the brutal lessons of blaxploitation inside out, celebrating the vice-laced danger of a life lived by the sword even as its emptiness and (self) destruction was graphically exposed. For the first time, a framework was given for the enigma of the millennial Gangsta.

Viewers of King of New York may remember above all else the creation of one of the most recognizable + definable of pop-culture personas. Frank White IS Christopher Walken. White/Walken reeks of the casual brutality, lithe movement, and disarming smile that has since been lathered into parody. Here, it is not only funny and creepy but downright frightening, and yet we're completely mesmerized by his Robin Hood swagger. The character has grand designs to construct a hospital in the Harlem ghetto, the first step in rebuilding his beloved New York on his own terms: "If I can have a year or two, I'll make something good. I'll do something. Something good. Just one year. That's all." But by the end if the film, the only time we've seen this immaculate edifice is as the design on a cake at one of the many political functions where Frank, dusting the blood of his eponymous suit, makes sure to put in good, unpretentious face time.

After being released from a long stint in prison at the beginning of the film, White unleashes a violent wrath that he continually justifies as being a sort of purification of the criminal process. Like many a striving gangst(er)(a) he has delusions of legitimacy and straight-time respect, but the lure of violence is too much. At their core, these figures believe the "exchange" cannot be separated from the compulsion towards violence ("I never killed anyone that didn't deserve it."), and that a self-fulfilling charity serves as a reasonable counterpoint. But this twisted repentance is no match for the Fate such an egomaniacal mantra is bound to uphold: You live by the sword, you die by it. The film's closing shots feature, in succession, a close-up of Frank's head tilting away from us in death and then, another close-up of Frank's hand clenching a clean silver handgun as it drops, lifeless. With this edit, we feel perhaps more than any other isolated moment captured on celluloid the power man's creations have over his fate. The control Frank (and us) once might have believed, is swiftly stolen, swept up in the climb of social and technological progress. As we sit in the middle of a maddening Times Square traffic jam, morality is stripped of its bearings, and the true confluence of Tragedy as Shakespeare once knew it is etched in the mind's eye.

Like much of Ferrara's other works, King lands in an uncomfortable netherworld where shifty neo-realism deliberately shakes hands with expressionist sculpting. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, Frank's underlings seal a contract with the leader of a Chinese gang pushing a racked-up form of cocaine as they sit in a small, empty theater watching a projection of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. That film's substitution of light and darkness for dialogue has never been duplicated, but in King, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's shifting, carefully molded shadows choreograph each succinct inner machinations of this genre opera with the same unsettling surrealism. Its bracing to watch this film today, for its visual field unabashedly celebrates the gaudy, pop and lock styling of the MTV-fresh 80s. This means above all else a rich echo chamber of color that soaks NY in the deepest congo blue you can imagine, occasionally puncturing it with sharply demanding blasts of red: the blood intricately splattered on a windshield; the sharp exterior of a speeding subway; the blinking neon of a Coca-Cola sign looming atop a gridlocked, pre-Giuliani Times Square.

Ferrara's hearing is just as unfiltered and unflinching as his vision. Borrowing from gangsta rap pioneer Schooly D, he gives a curdling, bass-heavy voice to a world perpetually draped in twilight, putting to shame Spike Lee's and Woody Allen's pretentious co-option of Copland and Gershwin in their evocations of the "spirit" of New York. Ferrara sees an unyielding landscape carefully sanctified in its vision, yet unprotected in its presentation. Frank White is its tortured saint, calm, collected, the anti-Scarface. As his henchman sink their noses deep in the tantalizing white powder, Frank is off in the corner, spinning his lanky frame, knocking knees with his lawyer girlfriend (who appears hypnotized into submission by Walken's poached gaze) in his own maddening daze, tripping purely to the bouncing old-school beats. Revered by the hip-hop community, Ferrara is perhaps the last surviving filmmaker who still respects the history and traditions of hip-hop, refusing to pin up gangsta posturing and sloganeering as window dressing. His love and respect for the hip-hop lifestyle is distinctively old-school, yet his aesthetic has progressed in line with the subsequently divergent subversion + pop-culture explosion of the culture.

In the end, King of New York doesn't have the intense, high-end aims of a Godfather or a Goodfellas (both released the same year ), and its hard-hitting look, sound, and feel already seems "dated." Yet, going beyond all that surface waxing pomp + circumstance, we find storytelling more emblematic than any other of a very specific and crucial time when transition into an indefinable VCR? future seemed to portend, all at once, boundless exchange and apocalyptic annihilation. In the long run, King should and most likely will be remembered alongside Mervyn LeRoy's Little Casear or Howard Hawks Scarface: The Shame of a Nation --- two other "B" pictures that also have come to represent the most honest portraits of their times as they weave through the timelessly complicit strands of crime and commerce.

New York is in the title and very nearly supplants Frank's as the anarchistic death which provides the film it's requiem. In the course of the narrative, we experience a feeling of the set, the natural aliveness of the surroundings, emptying the characters of individual destiny. We see its pull in the empty, mincing late-night subway rides, the warm Sunday after-church comfort of neighborhood bars, the luxury of penthouses reflecting the shimmering dazzle of the East River, and those wide, deep rain-soaked alleys running right up alongside it.

The film is one of the city's most relevant cultural artifacts, witnessing the mournful passing of old New York, the death of sin-soaked bright lights, and the invasion (sans birth) of a comforting, pastel Disney fantasia. Future generations can see King of New York, and they can see the terrible beauty that is the American dream.

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