"We’ve got to eat away at ourselves until
there’s nothing left but appetite." So says one junkie to
another in Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), a movie a cop
who is consumed by appetite. His reason for existence is to steal,
smoke, snort and shoot-anything and everything that will keep him
high. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t even play. He ingests.
"I make films about good versus evil, internally
and externally," Ferrara once said in an interview for New
York Magazine. "What else are you going to make movies about?" The
lieutenant of the title personifies Ferrara’s claim perfectly:
He is the good guy and the bad guy, and in the end, the bad-ass
Forty-three year old Abel Ferrara has made more than
thirty films, most of them unavailable, many of them probably unwatchable.
He and his buddy, Nicholas St. John, started making movies as teenagers
in Peekskill, New York. St. John would write the scripts, Ferrara
would film them. Since 1976 they’ve worked out of a loft in New
York City’s Union Square. His early films teetered on the edge
of exploitation; many find his later films repulsive. His characters,
and the demons that chew away at their souls, live in a purgatory
populated with addicts, psychos, two-bit hoods, adulterers and
What makes these films interesting, and Ferrara’s
career fascinating, is his uncompromising perversity. His first
films were set in the underbelly of the East Village; later, his
characters moved uptown, but emotionally they’re still in the gutter.
In 1979 Ferrara and St. John collaborated on their
first commercial feature: A nasty little thriller called Driller
Killer, about a pissed-off artist who takes a battery-powered
drill to the skulls and sternums of the New York City homeless.
The movie is a mess, full of the kind of mistakes that could kill
a career (bad acting, clumsy plotting, incoherent editing, a meaningless
soft-core lesbian shower scene). But within its lurid excess there
is a style, and in its backhanded social commentary–the painter,
unable to finish his current work, vents his frustration on the
defenseless–Ferrara found a cult audience.
That audience has stayed with him. His next film
was Ms. 45 (1981), about a mute garment worker who gets
raped twice in one day and decides to take revenge on the Y chromosome
by shooting any guy who looks at her sideways. In a finale worthy
of Sam Peckinpah, she dons a nun’s habit and shoots up a costume
party. It’s an early hint of a standard Ferrara theme: His protagonists,
obsessed with revenge, or on a quest for redemption, invoke the
symbols of the Roman Catholic Church for a kind of ersatz absolution.
In Fear City (1984), Tom Berenger, as the
owner of a string of strip clubs who is searching for the psycho
who’s killing his girls, asks for forgiveness from his priest before
he goes out and beats the guy up. In Dangerous Game (1993),
movie director Keitel exhorts his lead actor, who plays a scene
in which he verbally abuses his wife, to talk "to God, to
God." And in Bad Lieutenant, Keitel (again) sets free
the two slimeballs who raped a nun. In the lieutenant’s drug-addled
mind, it is the only kindness he can offer.
Ferrara’s characters exist in a world where that
which is normally deemed sacred is warped, and the twisted call
the shots. Christopher Walken, playing a vampirish drug czar in King
of New York (1990), offers to build a new hospital in the Bronx
with heroin profits. And in the TV pilot for Crime Story (1986),
Dennis Farina (as a police detective who carries the weight of
the world on his eyelids) tells a bad guy, "I’m gonna find
what you love the most and I’m gonna kill it."
Ferrara once said in an interview for Film Comment: "We’re
just trying to make one good movie. Not even one good movie-we’re
just trying to shoot one great scene." His later films are
filled with brilliant set pieces. Crime Story ends with
a jaw-dropping shootout in a department store, the camera gliding
like a manta ray, set to a driving Todd Rundgren drumbeat.
Body Snatchers (shelved in 1992, released
in ’94), Ferrara’s remake of Don Siegel’s classic Invasion of
the Body Snatchers (1956), is best in the scenes of the pod
people methodically loading up trucks with their useless human
shells. And Dangerous Game shows us an unnervingly real
rape scene that occurs on a movie set. It’s the kind of shutup-and-watch
moment that Ferrara revels in.
But nothing Ferrara has done is as hypnotic, or difficult
to watch, as Bad Lieutenant, in which Harvey Keitel chronicles
a man’s descent into utter depravity. Keitel is brilliant. Tormented,
vicious, reduced to the simplest dialogue, he creates a picture
of a cop so amoral he is bereft of any need for decency, love,
or compassion that he seems to operate in his own dimension.
Ferrara frames him in wide-angled, desolate spaces
(an all-night market, a church, a hallway) where no other human
intrudes. Scenes happen in real time: the lieutenant shooting up
with his junkie friend, or forcing two teenage Jersey girls to
watch him masturbate, or agonizing over the last few minutes of
a baseball playoff series game upon which he has placed a large
bet. He has essentially gambled his life on the series, and with
loss after excruciating loss he tumbles further into hell. He asks
the nun to identify the neighborhood crackheads who raped her.
He pleads to be her avenging angel so he can release his pain.
She rejects him, and in the scene that follows, the lieutenant
has a vision of Christ stepping down from the cross, a Christ who
could forgive him. So what does the lieutenant do? He calls Jesus
a "rat-fuck" before collapsing into a series of screeching
Bad Lieutenant is Ferrara’s masterpiece: a
film that at first seems to be a graceless study in addiction,
but then gradually reveals its backstory.
We meet him on the worst day of his life, and then
things get real bad. It’s a nice Ferrara touch that the only character
in the film with a name is a junkie whore (played by Zoe Lund,
who wrote the script). She is called "Magdalena."
Ferrara’s next film, Dangerous Game, is an
intricately structured study of a director, Eddie Israel (Keitel),
who is making a movie about one tortuous night in the break-up
of a bizarre marriage.
Ferrara cuts back and forth from Israel and his actors
discussing their scenes, to the film – within – a – film being
shot, to the story of Israel’s struggle in making the film.
Much of the dialogue rings hollow, but the movie
is relentlessly disturbing; the constant shift in realities disorients
us like it does Keitel’s character. When he confesses his infidelities
to his wife, we can’t be sure if he’s rational.
Dangerous Game features a terrific performance
by Madonna, as the actress in a three-way tug-of-war with her costar
(James Russo) and her director.
She is the kind of gutsy actor Ferrara is drawn to.
When she signed on for the film, she referred to him as a "lowlife." Ferrara
was delighted at the description. He seems happiest searching for
his cinematic rewards in the darkest, deepest corners of humanity. MM