Abel Ferrara’s Battle with the Irrational

Religious faith is utterly irrational. By calling myself a Christian, I claim to believe at least this: that we are all born into a fallen world and that each of us is in need of grace, an undeserved forgiveness possible only through the sacrifice of Christ. It makes no sense. From a rational perspective, it’s not terribly different from a belief in “Leda and the Swan” or the practices of New Age mysticism. All might otherwise be described as man-invented responses to the irrational tendencies of human experience — things like creativity, desire, curiosity, grief, suffering, injustice, and good ol’ existential dread. Faith offers a kind of all-encompassing framework of understanding, a culturally- and historically rich narrative that provides, at the very least, the appearance of meaning, even if not Meaning itself.

To watch the body of Abel Ferrara’s films, as I’ve tried my best to do over the last month and a half, is to see a man wrestling obsessively — sadomasochistically, even — with the Irrational. The stylized violence, the scenery-chewing performances, the gratuitous and exploitative female nudity — all are window dressing. What’s at stake here is nothing less than the very possibility of grace. If looking at a woman lustfully is ultimately (or Ultimately) no different from committing adultery itself — if, in other words, each of us is equally depraved, equally culpable — then all of us are trapped in a world very much like Ferrara’s, where good and bad have blended to a shade of deep, dark gray.

It’s this quality, I suspect, that led Brad Stevens to name his critical biography Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, and it’s also what other participants in today’s blog-a-thon have called Ferrara’s “humanism.” I don’t think humanist is the right word for him, though. His films, in fact, seem to me to be deeply cynical. While his characters often act badly with the very best intentions — I’m thinking of Tom Berrenger’s washed up boxer in Fear City, Christopher Walken’s Robin Hood-like drug lord in King of New York, and the husband and wife of ‘R X-Mas — and while Ferrara refuses to rule over them as a moral judge (and prevents us from doing so as well), he most definitely situates them in a world corrupted tragically and completely by our cultural institutions (capital, politics, and religion, to name just three) and by man’s basest instincts. It’s an ugly, ugly place.

But despite its ugliness, Ferrara’s world is occasionally illuminated by brief moments of redemption, and I’m tempted to say that, in each case, its an explicitly transcendent, transhuman redemption. These are Ferrara’s encounters with the Irrational. The most obvious and affecting example is the bad lieutenant, who, after witnessing the victimized nun’s extraordinary forgiveness of her attackers, confronts the very Source of her strength before performing a charitable act of grace himself. That same moment is reenacted in The Mother of Mirrors, the film-within-a-film in Dangerous Game. Sarah Jennings’ (Madonna) character has experienced a kind of religious epiphany that has allowed her to reform, and in doing so she has brought into relief the depravity of the world she and her husband have created. There is a specifically Christian character to these transformations in Ferrara’s work, just as there’s a specifically Christian character to, say, Bresson’s and the Dardennes’.

Briefly, I want to add, also, that I think this battle with the Irrational is part of what makes Ferrara an American filmmaker. We are a confused and compromised lot, are we not? Two centuries later, our political rhetoric remains heavy with allusions to the protestant work ethic, to the Deistic ideals of the Enlightenment, and to the One God under which our Nation stands. Meanwhile, we consume, degrade, exploit, and dehumanize with the best of ’em. Which is probably why we’re so fond of transcendent redemption as a concept — so much so that we’ve made it a hallmark of American tradition. What I most appreciate about Ferrara is the messy collision of his cynicism and, for lack of a better word, his faith: grace is never cheap in his world, and that’s as it should be.

Until this point in my post, I’ve carefully avoided making any aesthetic judgments on Ferrara’s work. Counting the early shorts, I think I’ve now seen fourteen of his films, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s a director of genuine importance whose films are almost all fundamentally flawed. Bad Lieutenant is, I think, his most coherent and best picture; Dangerous Game is his most interesting; and King of New York is his most traditionally entertaining. Ms. 45 is probably the best low-budget exploitation film I’ve ever seen (for whatever that’s worth); and, given a choice of which of his films to rewatch tonight, I’d pick New Rose Hotel without a moment of hesitation.

If I were a bigger fan of Ferrara’s work, I’m sure I could put together a well-reasoned apology for the pacing problems, the tone problems, the performance problems, and the basic narrative problems that characterize, to various degrees, all of his films. (Even as a fan, though, I doubt I could justify his misogyny — I’m talking to you, Cat Chaser.) Part of me wishes he would find a strong-willed producer and editor, people willing to reign him in just enough to un-kink the various lines of thought that wind through his work. The ideas are compelling, and the execution is occasionally stunning. (I really, really love those long takes in Bad Lieutenant and Dangerous Game, especially the scene between Zoe Lund and Harvey Keitel, and Madonna’s “What do you want from me?” moment in front of Eddie Israel’s camera.) Until that happens, I’ll continue seeing his new films and, I suspect, continue being frustrated by them.

See also:

[with more to come]