La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
BRAD STEVENS / Abel Ferrara

BRAD STEVENS / Abel Ferrara

My first encounter with Abel Ferrara took place when I was 15 years old, in 1982. That was the year a British company called Vipco decided to release a video cassette of The Driller Killer (1979) with a particularly graphic sleeve depicting one of the eponymous protagonist’s victims screaming as a drill penetrates his forehead. This cover image, more than anything in the actual film, was largely responsible for attracting the attention of Britain’s moral guardians, who launched a campaign to ban what they described as ‘video nasties’, a campaign which resulted in a piece of legislation – The Video Recordings Act – that required anyone wishing to distribute a film on video to first obtain the state censor’s permission (which was not always forthcoming). Though the VRA is still on the statute books, it has been rendered irrelevant by the internet, thanks to which virtually everything – from violent Italian horror films to fan-subtitled transfers of Mikio Naruse rarities – can be obtained at the click of a mouse. But back in 1982, The Driller Killer still had the lure of forbidden fruit. Vipco’s cover promised something along the lines of a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest (not that I then knew who Herschell Gordon Lewis was), and inspired me to rent the film when it turned up at one of our local video stores. But right from the opening scene – in particular the second shot, which shows a man whom I know now but did not know then was the film’s director, Abel Ferrara (credited under the pseudonym ‘Jimmy Laine’), walking through a church – I could almost instinctively tell that I was seeing something much more intense and deeply felt than the simple exploitation film I had expected. I was already an admirer of Martin Scorsese, and immediately made a connection between The Driller Killer and the conflicted Catholicism of Mean Streets (1973). And I clearly remember being convinced that the film must originally have been called something else, and been retitled The Driller Killer by its video distributor (for another consequence of living in the pre-internet era was that information about marginal areas of cinema was difficult to come by). I can now appreciate the title’s sly humour, its spit-in-your-face punkishness, its sly play on the term ‘killer diller’. But during my teenage years, when I tended to see the line between ‘art’ and ‘exploitation’ as far more clear-cut than I do today, I had difficulty accepting that a work of such obvious complexity and sincerity could have such a crude title. I wonder what I would have thought back then if I’d known that Ferrara’s previous film was a hardcore porno entitled 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976)!

Today, Abel Ferrara is a director of ‘arthouse’ films, such as Mary (2005) and 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), whose marginal distribution is the inevitable result of catering for the tastes of viewers interested in something other than wish-fulfillment fantasies. As the existence of La Furia Umana’s book demonstrates, Ferrara is today regarded by a small but passionate group of devotees as a modern Van Gogh whose lack of commercial and critical success during his lifetime will almost surely lead to posterity ranking him as one of the key artistic figures of his generation (in my opinion, only Hou Hsiao-hsien and Monte Hellman can be considered his equals among contemporary filmmakers).

In the context of a cinematic culture whose most popular and critically acclaimed films demand that we feel complacently superior to onscreen characters, narrative structures, and even our fellow audience members (see especially Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and the Coens), Ferrara can be seen as belonging to a much older humanist tradition in which there are no easy answers and, to use the words of Jean Renoir, “the terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons”. While reading Richard Poirier’s The Comic Sense of Henry James (1960) recently, I was struck by a passage about James’ approach which could just as easily be applied to Ferrara’s. According to Poirier, James’ early fiction “provides a beautifully full example of a problem that has beset almost all the great American novelists. Their works offer evidence of the persistent difficulty of using characters to illustrate ideas while at the same time investing them with a dramatic and personal vitality that breaks the bounds of any assigned representational function…Precisely because his mind was saturated with ideas, James feared lest he used characters merely as illustrations of them…The question is felt on every page – who is exploiting the life of another human being?…’Am I guilty,’ James seems always to be asking, ‘of violating the dramatic freedom of this character in order to place him in some system of meaning?'”. This might stand as an admirable account of Ferrara’s cinema, in which, as soon as any individual or relationship seems to be in danger of representing an abstractable point, they are immediately spent spinning in a different direction, leaving us either breathlessly attempting to keep up, or, as more usually happens, loftily declaring that the source of our inability to find ‘meaning’ should be located in the films themselves, rather than our way of looking at them. Both James and Ferrara make a distinction between what Poirier calls ‘fixed’ and ‘free’ characters, but Ferrara goes James one better, in that his supposedly ‘fixed’ individuals are sometimes hard to distinguish from the ‘free’ ones: if The Addiction‘s Peina represents everything that is dead and incapable of change in Ferrara’s moral universe, then why is the actor who plays him, Christopher Walken, so vital and unpredictable, his every movement a surprise to us?

Ferrara’s refusal to treat characters as illustrations of this or that extractable idea is surely what has doomed him to misunderstanding by today’s arbiters of taste, who mistake depth for shallowness, compassion for lack of viewpoint, complexity for crudity, precision for randomness (particularly the case with New Rose Hotel), and whose attitudes demonstrate the accuracy of Marshall McLuhan’s claim that whenever genuine innovation is introduced into an artform, it is not initially perceived as innovation: it is perceived as a mess. Yet Ferrara’s messiness is not neatly separable from the kind associated with the frantic schedules and low budgets of exploitation cinema. It is striking just how close, in terms of both style and theme, Ferrara’s recent, more superficially ‘respectable’ work is to The Driller Killer, Ms.45 (1980), and even 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. It is by negotiating the line between art and exploitation, good and evil, morality and amorality, that Ferrara’s oeuvre has managed to remain so magnificently alive in a period dominated by various forms of surrender to the death force.

Brad Stevens