The phenomenon of Abel Ferrara’s career is so strange and singular it boggles the mind whenever one thinks about it. It’s trajectory pretty much parallels that of David Cronenberg: starting off in abrasive, cheapo-sleaze exploitation (The Driller Killer, Ms. 45) before finding critical success in more restrained psychological dramas (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) then opting to push his stylistic obsessions into increasingly extreme, abstract territory (New Rose Hotel, Mary). However, while Cronenberg gradually edged his way out of disrepute and is now considered a national treasure, Ferrara can barely get a film made; over the past ten years, he’s directed four major masterpieces (Go Go Tales, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Welcome to New York and Pasolini) and not one has received proper theatrical distribution.
Ferrara’s cinema is propelled by a sense of intense, grotesque physicality accompanied by graceful drift. He combines chiaroscuro lighting, languorous long-takes, richly detailed milieus, and lengthy cross-fades that pile different compositions on top of each other. Like kindred spirit Martin Scorsese, he takes an intense interest in dangerously non-empathetic (bordering on sociopathic), self-destructive individuals and films them in a way that avoids moralising or suggesting that he thinks he’s above them. However, unlike Scorsese, who always tries to find some aspect of his subjects that he admires, Ferrara’s camera is remarkably unflinching and unflattering, which – needless to say – means his films are often brazenly sincere and open in a way that borders on the uncomfortable. This isn’t to say that they’re unhopeful; on the contrary, Ferrara’s films usually end on a note of rapture that doesn’t absolve his self-loathing, narcissistic monsters but demonstrates a very idealistic belief in cinema’s ability to render their struggles perversely noble by infusing them with such a grand depth-of-feeling.
Did you know?
- Ferrara’s second feature The Driller Killer was one of the infamous “video nasties” of the early 80s, and was banned in the United Kingdom until 1999.
- As a student, he directed a pornographic film for extra money.
- Ferrara is still causing controversy. 2014’s Welcome to New York, a thinly fictionalized re-creation of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, has attracted a defamation lawsuit from the man himself.
- Willem Dafoe, who’s starred in four of Ferrara’s best films.
- Cinematographer Ken Kelsch.
- Filmmaker John Cassavetes, a major influence of Ferrara’s work. Go Go Tales was directly inspired by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
Film you should watch: New Rose Hotel, a cyber-punk espionage tragedy and (arguably) one of the greatest films ever made.