Inside Out


Abel Ferrara, Go Go Tales, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.

AT A TIME when milquetoast Williamsburg postgrad circles are the subculture most visibly represented on New York City art-house screens, it might be worth recalling Abel Ferrara, grimy poet laureate of the Koch and Dinkins eras. Working his way from grindhouse and exploitation—his directorial debut 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976) was an out-and-out porno—to violent crime dramas and character studies (King of New York [1990] and Bad Lieutenant [1992]), Ferrara was, at the height of his powers, the city’s most ferocious, uninhibited chronicler of its underground networks and appetites.

The past decade has not been so kind to him. Just as the independent film boom of the 1990s ebbed, so did the notoriously volatile and uncompromising Ferrara find himself at the margins of distribution, with only a few of his last several films receiving limited releases in this country. This is unfortunate, because Ferrara’s talent and intensity remain a vital rarity within the world of independent filmmaking. Notwithstanding the DOA ’R Xmas (2001), the turn of the millennium has brought two of his best films—Mary (2005) and Go Go Tales (2007)—each revealing new facets of his hustlers and redemption seekers. These works are unusual territory for Ferrara: Mary traverses NYC and Israel following a filmmaker, an actress, and a television journalist as they struggle to understand and accept Christ beyond the realm of myth; as with his other characters, nothing will suffice but the most powerful of experiences.

Go Go Tales, on the other hand, is classic Ferrara filtered through a loose compendium of Mom-and-Pop Operation Fighting Against Gentrification clichés. The action takes place at Willem Defoe’s barely functional strip club, and Ferrara indulges in its comic possibilities with abandon. Camp stage performances (Asia Argento unforgettably smooching a dog) and camp real ones (Sylvia Miles’s piercing landlord) comprise the film’s skeezy (in a good way) raison d’être. Though slight, the metaphoric Tales gleefully expresses its director’s own position as a beleaguered, skin-of-the-teeth underdog and scheming focal point of a like-minded community of outcasts.

Ferrara’s three most recent films have been documentaries, and, like Go Go Tales, two of them reflect his fight for cultural survival. In Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Ferrara’s main concern is capturing the present Chelsea as a microcosm of outsider creativity and living, a community at the mercy of new management. Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009) is a staid and underdeveloped sociological study of the Italian city’s festering plague of poverty, drugs, and crime, whereas Mulberry St. (2009) acts as that film’s more personal flip side, with Ferrara exploring his Italian roots and current Little Italy neighborhood during the annual San Gennaro festival. Hard-core Little Italy store owners and neighborhood holdouts lament the decline of the once truly wild festival after the city’s successful efforts at cleaning up its vibrant gambling ring, while Ferrara intimates that his films’ distribution limbo, the stifling of ethnic pride, and the persistent pressure on independent filmmakers are intimately linked. A carnival spirit prevails by Mulberry St.’s end, mostly due to the irrepressible energy of Ferrara, shooting on the fly and playfully interacting with old friends, but a bittersweet shadow lingers. For how long remains to be seen: Ferrara is apparently at work adapting Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a film that could fully unleash his id once more.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Abel Ferrara in the Twenty-First Century” runs January 7–18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.