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March 27, 2006

The Beatific Vision Of Abel Ferrara

"Who's that hanging on the cross up there?" asks Abel Ferrara, in a very rhetorical tone, on the director's commentary for his first feature, The Driller Killer.


The film opens on a relief of Michaelangelo's Pieta, and then in a series of shots pulls back to reveal a chapel, drenched in lurid light, into which Ferrara himself walks. This scene is more or less extraneous to the narrative (which is simultaneously a document of boho New York in the late 70s and a serial killer movie by way of Polanski), but, much like the cruciform imagery featured so prominently in Scorsese's exploitation picture Boxcar Bertha, it is an auspicious entry point to a career to which a deep subcurrent of Catholicism will be integral.

In fact, Catholicism is as intrinsic to Ferrara's work as it is to Scorsese's, with whom he shares a passion for the underbelly of New York City (which, with its Irish and Italian roots, is itself a deeply religious bedrock from which to draw inspiration). Although it isn't until the early 90s that Ferrara's films become explicitly spiritual, his earliest work certainly bares the same marks of a Catholic upbringing as his later efforts; these tell-tale signs are corroborated by the images of the church in The Driller Killer and the nun's habit worn by Ms. 45 at the climax that film, but are, in and of themselves, a bit more abstract, coming into sharp focus only when considered in summation. I'm thinking primarily of the violence. In the case of Driller Killer and Ms. 45, both intended as drive-in friendly efforts, this is par for course; but when taken in concert with the seemingly incidental but undeniable ecclesiastical imagery, and the focus on redemption that later becomes essential to Ferrara's work, the bloodletting takes on new significance.


Catholicism, after all, is a religion awash in red. It shares with protestantism a focus on a symbolic representation of transcendence through pain and suffering - Christ on the cross - but takes matters further by making the literal transubstantion and sacramental consumption of flesh and blood one of the tenets of the faith. And then there are the saints. I remember sitting through Mass as a child, poring through the traditional lives of the martyrs and the images therein: Lucia, holding her eyeballs on a plate; Bartholomew, bearing the flayed skin of his own face; Sebastian and his arrows; Joan in flames. This is excellent fodder for a little boy's imagination! And, although church doctrines would refute the specifics of this claim, it also engenders a subconscious association between extreme violence and ultimate redemption. Is it any wonder, then, that Catholic filmmakers like Scorsese and Ferrara, lapsed though they may be, have a predilection not only towards violent incident, but extremely violent imagery? Ferrara's camera lingers on spilt blood and perforated corpses with a respect that borders on the ritualistic.

Of course, if this point of reference is accurate, it must be noted that the appropriaton of violence has certainly shifted. The persecutor and the martyr have merged into a muddy mix of intentions that must be overcome if redemption is to be found. In The Driller Killer, murder is a means of clarity; in Ms. 45, it is an act of charity. Neither character in these films are saints, but they are striving towards some manner of justification (and, in the case of the latter film, some perverse degree of martyrdom). Ten years on, in King Of New York, the murderer will be aspiring towards absolution. By Bad Lieutenant, he may just have achieved it.


It is by this point that Ferrara has begun to utilize that narratively empty Christian imagery of his early films. Bad Lieutenant, one of the most spiritual films ever made, is an undiluted concentration of Ferrara's religious concerns. Is this Ferrara's personal addition to the lives of the saints? I'd hesitate to go that far, but its parabolic value is nonetheless immense. The film represents a peak so pure that it's no surprise to find Ferrara retreating from it over the following decade, returning to his previous degrees of allusion (at least until his most recent film, Mary, which I have yet to see).

* * *

If my thesis here is that Abel Ferrara's films are, on an intrinsic level, works of Catholic art, then I'm tempted to augment it with the following theoretical shot in the dark. Matthew Clayfield writes, in his contribution, that Ferrara's work is, on a formal and thematic level, feminist; I agree with this, to an extent, but (and I'm wildly digressing from Matt's point here, using it as a platform for my own theory), in as much as Ferrara finds in the fairer sex an equalizing factor, I wonder if he also doesn't work against feminist thought (at least in the modern sense) in his reverence for women as maternal figures - in a distinctly Marian tradition. This is a complex similar but separate from that of the Madonna-Whore: the latter half of that duality, as prevalent as it may or may not be, is overwhelmed by the former. In Dangerous Game, Harvey Keitel's character is compelled to express sincere contrition to Madlyn, his wife and the mother of his son, who as such is the one woman presented without sin (it must be noted that she is played by Ferrara's actual wife, Nancy). And in Body Snatchers, the most explicit image of evil is the stepmother - the faux-mother, the most insidious impostor imaginable. This concept is too abstract at the moment for me to formalize any further, but it's something I'll certainly be considering as I explore Ferrara's work further (I'm particularly curious as to whether Mary might undo it altogether).

* * *

I want to write about the apparently maligned Dangerous Game (nee Snake Eyes), which I admire greatly. But let me cast aside my critical hat for a moment and switch my perspective to that of a filmmaker, and note that the film contains, in bits and pieces, one of the most accurate depictions of the directorial process I've ever seen in a work of fiction: the intensity of a hot set, the crew members swarming in and out, each on their own individual missions and, in particular, the on-set dynamic between Keitel, as the director, and his actors - or, I should say, his actress. The way he darts up to Sarah (Madonna) before a take and gives her gentle, slightly rushed directions, and tells her that she needn't worry about the camera because it will follow her, gave me a distinct sense of deja-vu. Perhaps this is because, as Kent Jones suggets, this isn't necessarily a performance:

"Keitel appears and reassures her, and also encourages her ("You go where you have to go"). It is unclear whether Madonna is waiting for the crew, whether the crew is waiting for Madonna, whether or not this is scripted. An eagle-eyed viewer who gets a glimpse of the clapboard will see, "Snake Eyes, A. Ferrara, K. Kelsch." Did they just use a clapboard for the movie within the movie and forget to put Mother of Mirrors on it, or was Ferrara encouraging the ambiguity, or is this really the beginning of a shot for Snake Eyes?"

I was also fascinated by the disparate performances this Keitel/Ferrara amalgamation draws from Sarah and Frank (James Russo). Frank is, frankly, a terrible actor, or at least is being directed towards a terrible performance. Sarah's, on the other hand, is quite good. In a telling moment, Keitel runs through one of Frank's scenes himself, giving the material far better treatment than his leading man does. He is, it seems, so afraid of the autobiographical nature of the film he's making that he's undermining the performances as a defense mechanism.

Thankfully, Ferrara, in casting Keitel as his alter ego, was a bit more selfless.

* * *

Prior to this blog-a-thon, my awareness of Ferrara was limited to long-ago viewings of The Addiction, Body Snatchers and King Of New York. All were vague memories by the time this topic was proposed in January; since then, I've revisited the two of those that are available on DVD, and watched for the first time the other titles referenced in this post, as well as New Rose Hotel. Consider me a convert; I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of his films, to reading more about them and, especially, to any corrections, refutations or extrapolations those more well-versed in his body of work might be able to make to the neophyte thought processes presented above.

And special thanks to Girish for delivering the last-minute Bad Lieutenant cap for this post! Visit his entry for links to all other Blog-A-Thon participants.

Posted by David Lowery at March 27, 2006 12:01 PM


enjoyed this blog, having been raised a devout Catholic as a child...i used to think I could relate to Scorsese in so many ways, mingling violence with the purity of faith....and i still can connect with his work...i haven't seen any of ferrara's films, unfortuntaely....i know i need to....any one you would think would be the best to introduce myself with?....(i remember being a twelve or thirteen year old trying to sneak out of the video store a copy of BAD LIEUTENANT, but my mother caught me...)

Posted by: frank at March 27, 2006 12:19 PM

Good stuff, David! I really, really have to revisit Bad Lieutenant--it's been so long since I've seen it. As for Dangerous Games:

"In a telling moment, Keitel runs through one of Frank's scenes himself, giving the material far better treatment than his leading man does. He is, it seems, so afraid of the autobiographical nature of the film he's making that he's undermining the performances as a defense mechanism."

That's a really perceptive comment! Totally sheds new light on this film for me ...

Posted by: Zach at March 27, 2006 06:33 PM

David, I also thought that there was a manipulative, hectoring side to Keitel in Snake Eyes (the way he baits Madonna by calling her a "commercial piece of shit"; telling Frank to "dig down into fucking hell", etc).
All for the sake of Art, of course! :-)
Also, as a filmmaker, I wonder what you thought of this line he speaks to Madonna, referring to the script (it made me laugh out loud): "You're giving me back the same horseshit I gave you!"

Posted by: girish at March 27, 2006 07:45 PM

Forgot to say: Loved your post, David! So wide-ranging and ambitious!

Posted by: girish at March 27, 2006 07:46 PM

Thanks, guys.

Zach, when I read back over this post upon waking this morning, I realized that I'd relegated to an afterthought a discourse on Dangerous Games/Snake Eyes equally interesting (if not far moreso) than Ferrara's religious influence. A second post may be coming along at some point, but for now I'll just say that the film made me wonder how many directors might be able to play their lead roles better than their actors - myself included - but are simply too afraid to. (On the other hand, imagine, say, Buffalo 66 if it had starred someone other than Vincent Gallo!)

I think Keitel's character literally hates Frank; as far as he is a consummate artist who cares about the film as its own entity, he probably wants nothing more than to accept that list of optional costars the CAA agent offers him.

On the other hand, I think he loves Sarah, and thus (like a good director!) plays her like a harp, giving her tender direction one moment and tearing her to pieces the next. I was reminded quite a bit of Cassavetes, watching him work with her.

And as for the "horseshit" line, Girish - I'll just give you a take based on my own experience. When I write something personal, very frequently I wind up hating the script - sometimes because it's just too close to home to deal with, and also because, in trying to expunge my own feelings, the writing is simply, literally, bad. But because of my connection to the material, I'm unwilling to excise anything, and so I hand it over to the actors and hope that they elevate it into something special. Which sometimes happens; and sometimes bad writing is bad writing.

I ran into this problem on The Outlaw Son; I remember on the set, telling the actors to just get rid of lines because they were "ridiculous" or "terrible" - or, as Keitel would put it, "horseshit." And now that I'm editing the film, I realize...I wasn't judicious enough!

Posted by: Ghostboy at March 27, 2006 09:01 PM

Fascinating anecdotes, David. They make a lot of sense...

Posted by: girish at March 27, 2006 09:24 PM

Frank, I was eleven when Bad Lieutenant came out. I remember staring at the ads in the paper, aware that there was something about it that was getting people riled up, but not quite sure what that something was. I can't believe it took me so long to see it. I strongly recommend checking it out; I'd also strongly recommend still not letting your mother catch you.

Likewise, Zach, I'd love to hear what you think of it if you have a chance to revisit it. Of those that I've seen, it's certainly Ferrara's most simple, transparent work, but in the same sense it's his purest effort. I agree with Darren over at Long Pauses, who suggests that it's his best film, if not his most interesting.

Posted by: Ghostboy at March 28, 2006 01:54 AM

David, I'm so glad a Catholic blogger took up the specifically Catholic character of Ferrara's films. I was raised in a fairly conservative Protestant environment -- one, in fact, suspicious of Catholicism -- and so any religious reading I do will be good on the grace and the redemption but weak on the tradition and the ritual. I'm sure that's why I find Dreyer and Bergman much easier to write about than Ferrara, Scorsese, or Bresson.

Your observation about the violence inherent in the stories of the martyrs is spot-on. It remindes me of the difference between the Catholic Crucifix and the Protestant Cross -- yours displays the suffering body of Christ; ours is empty because Christ is risen. As a subject of meditation (and as a work of art), the two crosses have very different effects.

Posted by: Darren at March 28, 2006 12:42 PM