Tag Archives: Abel Ferrara

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY (1976)

Nothing Sacred

DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara (as “Jimmy Boy L”)

FEATURING: Dominique Santos, Pauline LaMonde, Joy Silver,  Abel Ferrara (as Jimmy Laine)

PLOT: Gypsy reminisces about her relationship with Pauline while working out how to keep her wild lover faithful to her alone.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: 9 Lives is a porno, but Abel Ferrara’s artistic direction coupled with the epistolary and dreamy nature of the narrative make this an odd porno.

COMMENTS: A piece of trivia: the review for Blue Movie has gotten about fifteen hits a day since it was first posted. That’s not because it’s particularly insightful,1 but because 366 gets a bit of overseas traffic for “blue movies“—and few I’ve seen come “bluer” than Abel Ferrara’s 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. Any systematic discussion of movies (weird or otherwise) would be remiss not to include cinema’s less respected peer, pornography. Since mankind could sculpt, then paint, then photograph, there has been a healthy inclusion of carnality in art. Film is no exception, and so it was without trepidation that I dove headfirst into 9 Lives.

The tone is set immediately, with the opening credits intercut with a graphic scene that flirts with abstraction via novel camera focus and expressionistic lighting. The story proper begins with a narration playing over a steamy encounter with “the French stable boy”, which we quickly learn is being read from a letter to Gypsy (Dominique Santos) from her on-again, off-again lover, Pauline (Pauline LaMonde, Ferrara’s girlfriend at the time). Through Gypsy’s emotional lens, we witness Pauline’s insatiable sexual appetite, her transcendent approach to pleasure, and her unbridled freedom. Various segments illustrate Pauline’s character: an encounter with a gas station attendant while her husband waits in the car; her upbringing—and its Lot-ian results—under a strict, Catholic father; and a long-term affair with her Nigerian lover, Nacala (Joy Silver). All the while, we return to Gypsy talking directly to us as she maneuvers to retrieve Pauline and keep her to herself.

What could have been a mindless framework for an anthology of loosely related set-pieces becomes something considerably more under Abel Ferrara’s oversight. Gypsy’s mysticism appears throughout; her name indicates her archetype. Ferrara himself plays another archetype—the religious, domineering father—in one of the episodes, breaking the incest taboo in his very first film. 9 Lives‘ rape scene, however, suggests Ferrara’s future. Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and even New Rose Hotel all explore sexual violence and guilt. We expect that from gritty dramas; much less-so from dirty movies. The movie climaxes with a nebulous scene that underlines the film’s contrast between dreaminess and physicality while mirroring the opening: Pauline with Nacala, together, intercut with shots of Gypsy wandering with aimless purpose through a forest.

It works well enough as a story (I was interested in the development of Gypsy’s and Pauline’s relationship), and Abel Ferrara gets the job done, as it were, as a straight-up pornographer. However, I highly recommend watching the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray with Samm Deighan’s commentary. She provides the film’s context and a thorough sketch of the director as a young man (he was 25 at the time). Beginning as he did in hardcore film, I’m not surprised that Ferrara remained on cinema’s fringes throughout his career; the passion that robbed him of mainstream success, however, is the key to his oeuvre’s staying power.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opium-stoned hostess introduces several sexual vignettes, and though slightly classier than the usual cum pageants, it’s impossible to achieve a Lady Chatterley-like decadence when you’re saddled with an Al Adamson-like cast… a must-see embarrassment!” –Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADDICTION (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

FEATURING: Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco

PLOT: An NYU grad student is bitten on the neck one night, leading her down a rabbit hole of moral and physical degradation.

Still from The Addiction (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Addiction strips away the clichés from the vampire formula, replacing bats and theatrics with a personal disintegration reminiscent of Repulsion.  What it lacks in weird imagery is more than made up for by its melding of Sartre, heroin addiction, and the supernatural, as well as the eerie atmosphere established by its chiaroscuro photography.

COMMENTS:  Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has made New York-centric films with a grindhouse flavor and an aspiration to artistry.  In Ms. 45 (1981), he took on the rape-revenge film; with Bad Lieutenant (1992), he made a Scorsese-esque crime drama.  Similarly, The Addiction is a one-of-a-kind vampire movie, marrying urban realism, graphic horror, and several films’ worth of existentialist banter.  Although the latter attribute occasionally renders the film inaccessible, it also grants the characters’ neck-biting intrigues an unexpected gravity while making Ferrara’s serious cinematic intentions very clear.  This is The Hunger for the smart set.

I Shot Andy Warhol star Lili Taylor plays Kathy, who’s en route to getting her Ph.D. in philosophy when a late-night run-in with a mysterious seductress (Sciorra) leaves a bloody gash on her neck and spurs a metamorphosis from mousy student to loud-mouthed blood junkie. In a series of violent encounters, Kathy’s newfound aggression (coupled with severe photosensitivity) spreads like a virus to her friends, professors, and even the strangers who harass her on the street. Late in the film, she meets an elder vampire named Peina (Walken) who teaches her to control her addiction while quoting William S. Burroughs and Charles Baudelaire; the ending that follows is puzzling but weirdly suggestive, as orgiastic indulgence and Catholic guilt come into play.

The Addiction is shot in high-contrast black and white, bringing expressionistic shadows in conflict with a tendency toward naturalism, especially as Ferrara’s camera prowls the classrooms and hallways of NYU. Taylor gives a stand-out performance as a woman rotting from the inside out, matched by her poetically hard-boiled voiceover. When she enters a university library, for example, she growls, “The smell here’s worse than a charnel house.” These lurid monologues color our perceptions of Ferrara’s New York like the saxophones in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, drawing us deep into Kathy’s dissipation. And Walken, as usual, is the voice of demented authority, cavorting around Kathy’s exhausted body with his slicked-back hair and daffy energy. He’s only in one scene, but he casts a long shadow across the preceding film.

At times, The Addiction teeters dangerously close to being unforgivably pretentious; it’s packed wall-to-wall with philosophical jargon, grandiose statements about hell and morality, and vampiric metaphors for sex, drugs, and genocide. But the film’s saved by its (and Taylor’s) sheer conviction that something intelligent and well thought-out is being said. Even when the film’s open-ended chronology and its abstract conception of vampirism threaten to make the plot totally incomprehensible, you can hold onto Ferrara’s sincere interest in spiritual redemption and moral culpability. In the end, this thematic integrity, when brought out through Taylor’s uncompromising performance, blasts away any doubts: this is a totally different species of vampire movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one wild, weird, wired movie, the kind that really shouldn’t be seen before midnight… Scary, funny, magnificently risible, this could be the most pretentious B-movie ever – and I mean that as a compliment.”–Time Out London