Sunday, August 19, 2007

Abel Ferrara Films

Abel Ferrara Spotlight, part II and III

Part Two: Sin and Redemption

The Addiction (1995): Rating 9/10

This is a very intelligent and creative take on a vampire film. While the usual vampire films feature topics of God vs Devil and basic religion morality, The Addiction adds a layer of existentialist philosophy along with discussions of man's hunger for evil on top of the regular religious conflicts.

Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor) is doing her ph.D in philosophy and at the film's start, she is watching horrific images of butchered Vietnamese at the hands of American soldiers. While walking home, Kathleen is troubled by all this savagery and is lost in her thoughts when she is suddenly dragged into an alley by a vampire (Annabella Sciorra).

The lighting is just wonderful in the scenes when the vampire descends on Kathleen. In the above shot, we don't ever clearly see the vampire's face and the mixture of light and shadows shows a terrifying image.

The next three pictures show how Kathleen's expressions change as she becomes an unwitting victim.

It is not very clear but in the next picture you can see the blood dripping on a satisfied vampire's mouth.

After this attack, Kathleen goes through a physical and mental change. She is constantly sick and throws up frequently. Her body is weak and her mind forces her to look for quick fixes like drugs to ease her pain. But it is her mental change that is even more drastic. Previously, she had been horrified at images of man's evil. Now, she only looks at the pictures of horror with cold gazes. She is trying to understand the evil but her emotional attachment to humanity is weakening.

"There is no history. Everything is eternally with us."

Her hunger and thirst grows to a point where she starts lusting for victims. She hunts down people close to her with some strangers thrown in the mix. She does not spare her teacher and even her closest friend. When her friend wants to be spared, Kathleen responds with "Prove there is no evil. Then you can go." She is still struggling to understand all the horror around her.

On a particular night, she lures a man. But this is not an ordinary man.

Peina (Christopher Walken) is a supreme vampire at ease with his situation. He quotes Nietzsche and gives a lesson to Kathleen on the meaning of being a vampire.

"You are a slave to who you are."

Then Peina inflicts more pain as he re-bites Kathleen with more gusto than her first experience.

"Eternity is a long time. Get used to it."

But Kathleen does not want to get used to it. She is tired of her life and tries to end it but she can't. In way of advice to cope with her situation, Peina tells her to read Sartre and Beckett.

After she dives into existentialism, she starts to make sense of the evil around her.

"Our addiction is evil."

She draws a conclusion between man's killing nature and even her habit of finding victims to satisfy her thirst. Her thesis impresses all the professors and she proudly gets her doctorate.

On the way to a party arranged by her, she is content and composed:

"We drink to escape the fact that we are alcoholics.... Existence is the search for relief from our habit and our habit is the only relief we can find."

In moment of her supreme confidence, she comes across a man on the street preaching the word of God and giving out fliers. The flier has an image of Christ on the cross. That simple photo throws Kathleen off balance. She screams "I will not submit" and goes into a fit of rage. In her anger, she and her vampire friends descend on innocent people in a gruesome blood orgy buffet.

But the fit of anger revealed something about Kathleen. Unlike the other vampires around her, she is still torn inside between religion. Peina & Casanova (Annabella Sciorra) have freed themselves from thinking about God because they have chosen the path towards existentialism. Kathleen can't completely give up a part of her catholic upbringing and she finally realizes that the only way she can save herself is by religion.

The final sequences of the film shows her finding redemption only by fully accepting the word of God and throwing aside everything else she has learned.

Bad Lieutenant (1992): Rating 9/10

As the title indicates, Harvey Keitel plays a lieutenant who commits every imaginable sin -- gambling, drugs, lying, stealing and killing. He is not afraid to speak his mind and even shocks his colleagues when he shows no remorse at learning about a nun getting raped. He is made part of investigating the nun's case but he is not interested. The only interest he has at the moment is trying to learn how the New York Mets will do as that will help ease the gambling debt he incurred by betting on baseball games.

He is not afraid of the criminals to whom he owes a huge debt. The following words convey his state of mind:"No one can kill me. I am blessed. I am a fucking catholic."

In a drugged state, he goes to the nun asking if she wants revenge on the two men who raped her. He is shocked when the nun tells him that she has already forgiven the men. He can't understand that.

After the nun leaves, he sees an apparition of Christ. At first he is angry and starts by throwing a rosary towards the image of Christ.

His emotions go from anger to sheer misery.

In the end, he finally comes to peace with himself and only finds redemption by going back to his religious roots.

This is not an easy role but Harvey Keitel has fully given himself to the role. He is both naked on screen in the physical sense and lays all his emotions bare for everyone to judge.

Both the above films had two very different characters but in both cases, the main characters only achieve peace by giving themselves completely to God.

Part Three: Cops and Killers

Fear City (1984): Rating 5/10

Beware. The killer is on the loose. But he does not just kill random people -- he targets prostitutes, exotic dancers and pimps. This does not please Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) who owns most of the girls getting killed. Matt is a former boxer and images of his fights are spliced in between the scenes to convey his anger. The killer is a karate fighter (and a follower of other Eastern martial arts) who is on a mission to clean the city of filth. Naturally, the film's climax is a battle between the two men and no prizes for guessing who wins.

Religion is a common theme or element in Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John's films and Fear City is no exception. Before his major fight, Matt heads to a church to ask God for strength. Overall, the film is typical of 80's TV -- dramatic scores, quick cuts, sloppy action and bad acting. The only thing carefully constructed is Melanie Griffith's strip show.

Note: there is a line of dialogue in the film which would have passed without much comment back in 1984. Matt is very angry and can't wait to kill the person hunting his girls. But he is asked to show some calmness by one of the mobsters, who has seen enough through the ages. He wants Matt to understand the enemy and says the following: "You can never prevent terrorism. You can only find its root and destroy it." Such words today would carry a completely different context.

King of New York (1990): Rating 8/10

Christopher Walken plays Frank White, a gangster boss who has just gotten out of prison. While he was away, his boys led by Jimmy (Laurence Fishburne) did his dirty work. Slowly, Frank's gang starts taking over all the illegal operations in New York. A trio of cops try their best to stop them. But no matter what Dennis Gilley (David Caruso) and his colleagues do, Frank's boys get out of jail because of their expensive lawyers.

In a interesting scene, Frank visits the head investigating cop and tells him that he is only killing gang members that were corrupt and immoral. He mentions that drug trade existed before him and will exist after him. All he is trying to do is to ensure that the illegal activities are run in a clean businesslike manner.


-- One can find shots of rosaries hanging in a car when a gang member is dying. The tiny hint of religion still finds its way among killers.
-- Wesley Snipes plays one of the trio of cops who do everything within and outside their power to stop Frank. In one scene, Snipes makes a harmless comment about a vampire. Little did he know that 8 years later, he would play a vampire hunting Blade.

The Driller Killer (1979): Rating 4.5/10

The following message is shown before the picture starts:

Coupled with the film's title, I imagined the noise would be from gruesome killings in the movie. But as it turns out, the loudness in the movie is because of the nonsense music played by a band which contributes towards driving an artist into becoming a killer with a drill.

Reno Miller (played by Ferrara himself) is an artist working on a piece that will bring him and his girlfriend much needed cash. But all around him there are distractions and noise. For example, in the downstairs apartment a band is constantly playing loud music at all times of the day. The constant source of noise prevents Reno from getting any rest or focusing on his work. Eventually, Reno starts to lose touch with reality and his nightmarish images start entering his daily life. His character is closely related to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. There is even a scene which is a tribute to De Niro's famous "are you talking to me?" monologue. Reno is looking at his masterpiece painting of a buffalo. He feels the buffalo's eyes are glaring at him and asks the creature: "what are you looking at?". In Taxi Driver, it was a mirror that reflected Bickle's dual personality. But in The Driller Killer Reno finds meaning in his painting.

**** A spoiler -- word about the ending ****

Reno runs around unleashing his terror on homeless people or whoever he comes across. At first, his killings are done when he is taken over by his dual personality. But by the end, the two personalities mesh and in his conscious state, he goes out to seek revenge on the woman who left him. In the film's final scene, his ex-girlfriend gets into bed thinking its her lover who is under the covers. The screen goes black and we can hear her asking her lover to come closer. We can only her muffled responses from Reno. The credits roll but we know what will happen to the woman.

The title and the weapon of choice may lead one to believe this is a slasher film. But despite few gory scenes of blood, the film spends most of its time examining Reno and showing his character's transformation. It will be interesting to see how the version Hollywood is remaking in 2008 will play out.

And finally, some shorts:

Ferrara started his career with a trio of shorts -- Nicky's Film (1971, 6 min), The Hold Up (1972, 14 min), Could This Be Love? (1973, 29 min).

The grainy video transfer of the silent short Nicky's film make it hard to understand the story but it appears to be about a character trapped in a nightmare. The Hold Up shows how a character who is guilty in stealing money is able to get away because of his connections. Such a theme would be explored in King of New York when Frank's men got away with murder (literally).

The most interesting of the shorts is Could This Be Love? which looks at how high society looks down upon middle class hard-working people. The film is about an artist who believes she is above the filth of society. Her boyfriend is no better even though the artistic shoe he designs appears to be completely unusable. The two throw parties where their like minded friends laugh at other people who they feel are below them. In terms of theme, this short stands out from Ferrara's other work which have focussed on the underground aspects of society where criminals and hookers thrive. Ferrara has also equally explored the layer of heroes and cops who fight the underground criminals. Quite often in his films, the two layers collide with justice sometimes taking a back seat to the harsh reality of life on the streets of America.

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