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I became familiar with Abel Ferrara from his first film, DRILLER KILLER. I am not going to consider his earlier porno only because I’ve never seen it, and have to praise IMDb for their astounding thoroughness in listing NINE LIVES OF A WET PUSSY. So Ferrara began in porn and Nick Ray nearly ended in it (I’ve never seen Ray’s segment of WET DREAMS, but I know those who have – bold of the old codger, but he got to show his own huge wang, apparently). DRILLER KILLER definitely set the tone for all Ferrara to follow. It was funny, it was hip, it was very New York: an artist is driven mad in his loft by the punk band rehearsing under him. You can guess how he goes postal from the title. The psycho’s paintings were really great, too. Ferrara followed this with MS. 45 starring Nastassja Kinski look-alike Zoe Lund. Imagine Kinski in a nun’s habit getting even with rapists by brandishing a .45. Yeah, again in New York.

Next was FEAR CITY, a B-movie noir that was Ferrara’ s equivalent of a 50’s crime thriller made in 1984. Of interest, but hardly as startling as his first two. It was obvious, however, that he wanted to climb out of drive-in pictures. He did so by going into TV (“Miami Vice” and “Crime Story”) and by making CHINA GIRL, a cheapie Romeo & Juliet that at least got legitimate release and distinguished itself by being stylistically lean and professional. Elmore Leonard’s crime novel became Ferrara’s film CAT CHASER, which went straight to video, though also rather intriguing (though not the end of Ferrara’s poor distribution karma). From there, he seemed better established and went on to do his most interesting works thus far, KING OF NEW YORK (which was initially a straight-to-video until Roger Egbert praised it into theatrical release) and BAD LIEUTENANT.

He followed these with BODY SNATCHERS, yet another re-make of the Don Siegal classic, but every bit as interesting as Philip Kaufman’s. DANGEROUS GAME actually has Madonna with Harvey Keitel and is also worth seeing, one of the Film-on-Film sub-genre [I’d love to see a coffee table book on Film-on-Film – have I said that before?]. As is often the case in post-French New Wave variations of these Film-on-Film excursions, it also incorporates the self-reflexive element of the film-within-film.

Next in Ferrara’s work, you absolutely must see THE ADDICTION, his widescreen black-&-white vampire philosophy dissertation with Lili Taylor and a suitably mad Christopher Walken cameo. It is one of Ferrara’s best and a top entry in the vampire canon – a rival of Romero’s MARTIN. Then there’s THE FUNERAL, a Chris Walken Godfather-type epic, with a certain incoherence brought about by curious flashbacks that only go into the past a couple of weeks and are never signposted. Characters that were dead wind up back on the screen for a while. Rumors around Ferrara holing up in his trailer and sometimes not even venturing on the set, indulging in substance abuse that led to an apparently gacked TV talk show appearance and also rumored rehab stay seem supported by the frayed edges of THE FUNERAL.

This is certainly not refuted by the content of THE BLACKOUT, which like THE BAD LIEUTENANT, was also scripted by Ferrara. Both are encyclopedias of addiction. When Matthew Modine chugs down two hotel bar vodkas, his face flushes bright red – reminiscent of Harvey Keitel’s shooting up heroin in BAD LIEUTENANT where he flushes red and then turns white. Both suggest artists taking that De Niro road of total Method – and the real deal.

THE BLACKOUT involves Modine getting sober in AA after seriously bottoming out. He is a major movie star on his way down. Before sobering, he meets up with porno film director Dennis Hopper – reminding me of when Hopper actually did a photo shoot for “Hustler”. Central motif in Hopper’s multi-screen porn happening (suggesting at times video artist Nam June Paik) is what appears to be Renoir’s NANA, his portrait of Emile Zola’s famous prostitute who comes to a bad end – not surprisingly life imitates art here. Some of the various planes of composition showing video and film simultaneously are among the more intelligent elements of Ferrara’s exposition.

Modine gets sober halfway through the picture and has a slip, one of the most harrowing variations of this I’ve ever seen. The AA scenes are presented with Ferrara’s mixed feelings, it would seem – which of course furthers the bio conjectures. Though obviously such recovery programs work, sobriety is made to look pretty vanilla in contrast to the dark blaze of glory a fatal end might bring (similar conclusions are suggested in Van Sant’s DRUGSTORE COWBOY and Boyle’s TRAINSPOTTING). I won’t reveal what happens – but whatever you do, don’t watch the trailer for this, or you will learn everything. One of the most interesting devices of THE BLACKOUT is that Modine actually gains knowledge of suppressed memories by further bingeing. Did he really do something very, very bad? All in all, it should keep anyone recently sober from picking up again in the near future. There is nothing more frightening than the regular black-outs of alcoholism – those horrific moments of waking and having to piece together what happened from your last memory. You don’t pass out, dig, you keep going – motored by an id that no longer has a jailer. That’s literally what DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE is about.

THE BLACKOUT seems wildly improvised, and I suspect Hopper had only a short time on the picture. His scenes look like they could have gelled if he’d had another take or two – but his rants are pure Hopper, if not his best work, and he seems a trifle uncertain of what he’s doing. Modine, on the other hand, may give his best performance ever, and the fact that this film to my knowledge was never released – and never released on DVD until 4 years after it was made, is a real shame. Whatever looseness the first third of the film seems to have is made up for by some really astonishing editing – including some long dissolves that are pure cinema language.

Ferrara’s straight-to-video NEW ROSE HOTEL is another matter. Taken from a short story by the same name in William Gibson’s collection BURNING CHROME, the text is probably required reading to understand what’s going on. I had read it. My friend Thom (a.k.a. “Spooky Puppy”) hadn’t and was completely confounded. The film opens with a night club scene supposedly in the future (one of those “20 minutes from now” futures) that more than suggests a pervading aura of heroin – a laid back reptilian energy that does not seem to be merely acting. One has to conjecture what might be going on behind the camera as well. Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken improvise wildly – or rather Dafoe is audience to Walken’s bizarre and somewhat successful monologues. They also produce the film together. The first two-thirds unfold in a relatively interesting sparseness – Ferrara’s approach reminds one of Wong-Kar Wai in the lowest budgeted cyber thriller since ALPHAVILLE. Like Godard, Ferrara to a lesser degree still turns some of his obstacles into assets.. But NEW ROSE HOTEL doesn’t have the incredible lighting of films such as KING OF NEW YORK – and a lot less money than THE BLACKOUT – all in all ROSE comes up short. The premise is genetic corporate espionage involving a hired Mata Hari-type. Of course, who’s working for whom? Enough on the plot, you’ll need a couple of surprises to get through this. Something seems to happen behind the camera in the last third – some incredible shit storm involving finances and/or drug abuse – the movie self-destructs completely. Entire chunks of footage we have already seen are recycled in a nearly random manor, suggesting editing under opiates – one scene’s as good as another, man, we gotta finish this fucking film. Dig, we’ll put Dafoe explaining everything in a voice-over. I am reminded of IMDb’s listing of Ferrara’s earliest effort, a short called NOT GUILTY: FOR KEITH RICHARDS. Hmmm. In contrast, one can check out Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE, an extremely interesting if damaged offering where at least the drugs sparked wiggy juxtapositions and did not render a sleeping ghost behind glass. Cocaine and psychedelics go a lot farther than junk in getting a film finished, it would appear. Lucky this column is so obscure or I might get in trouble. Ferrara is listed as having just finished R-XMAS with Ice Cube. I can’t get any info on this one, but I remain eager to see it. Ferrara is an unsung giant among more famous non-talents of less danger and no madness. When he arrives in Astro-Hell, let’s hope that he will be, like Scarface says, still standing.

Marc Olmsted