Out of State
From cult classic to Cannes, Abel Ferrara is the uncancellable auteur par excellence. Natasha Stagg settles in with the popcorn to muse on his silver-screen retrospective.
“This is a cursed corner”, John says, as we walk past the burned-out Middle Collegiate Church on East 7th and 2nd. A fire had almost destroyed it in mid-2020. Another fire, five years earlier, had made four apartment buildings across the street unliveable, killing two and injuring many. We look up at the church’s remnants and back down to 2nd Avenue, our gazes falling upon a pair. The dark-haired woman is likely in her early twenties and the white-haired man simply looks old. They pass us.
“Girlfriend?” John guesses.
“Probably”, says Daniel. “That was Abel Ferrara.”
As movie theatres reopen, an elephant in every room asks if programming will go ahead as previously scheduled, or if priorities have been reconfigured, due to some of 2020’s events. For its return, Cinema Village, on East 12th and University Place, planned a retrospective of Ferrara’s work, calling it the “centerpiece of reopening of independent theater” on its website. His newest film, Siberia (2020), didn’t get an in-person premiere, which seems a good enough excuse as any to celebrate his legacy now. I wonder, though, if there was something more to the decision to forefront this particular oeuvre, and not that of some other indie director who made a straight-to-VOD movie last year – say, Charlie Kaufman or Miranda July.
Ferrara is not twee or even PC, but he’s also what some might call un-cancellable – a label that seems to be saved for artists whose subjects are problematic yet treated lovingly: artists whose stories, dark as they are, escape accusations of exploitation or romanticisation. Ferrara has made a cult career of interrogating the uneven temper, hunger for power, and resulting shame of some (white-het-cis) fictional men – characters that, quite often, share many traits with the filmmaker. These men are usually around Ferrara’s age at the time he writes them. They are alcoholics, Bronx-born, filmmakers, sober, Buddhists, living in the East Village, living in Rome, taking Italian proficiency classes, married to a woman played by Ferrara’s real wife or ex-wife, the father of a kid played by Ferrara’s real child, and/or working on an upcoming project that shares the name and themes of Ferrara’s next film. These movies, the way Ferrara wants to do them, are necessarily exploitative, but they tend to surpass so much criticism because, by putting his own untoward desires and misbehaviours under a microscope, he interrogates their motives before a reviewer can. (As one wrote for Slant, “what saves it from presumptuousness and superiority is the readiness with which it admits its ignorance … Ferrara would make a great movie about Plato’s cave, or a great movie about that movie.”)
Dangerous Game was applauded for its uncompromised look at the snowballing effect of an auteur’s control over a big star
Still, the films playing at Cinema Village – The Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981), 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Pasolini (2014), The Projectionist (2019), and Tommaso (2019) –noticeably skip over the nineties, by far my favourite Ferrara era. His later films mostly see the mild-mannered Willem Dafoe as his recurrent muse and stand-in, whereas for an entire decade, Ferrara’s protagonists were largely played by a creepier Christopher Walken (King of New York (1990), The Addiction (1995), The Funeral (1996)) or a rougher Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant (1992), Dangerous Game (1993)). I can’t help but think that, with this omission, either the programming staff at the theatre or the filmmaker himself are playing it a little safe.
Ferrara no longer lives here in the East Village. He is only visiting to promote his films, I can assume, but maybe, too, he’s here to see how much the city has changed. He might have wondered, while watching the news from Rome: Is New York really New York again? Would young audiences be able to appreciate a portrayal of the city through the eyes of a corrupt white cop seeking redemption?
Better not to chance it, he may have concluded. And maybe leave the past alone, he may have told himself, while considering the most unsparing portrait of his frustration with Hollywood – and with himself for courting it – Dangerous Game. Here, a fictional director, Eddie (Keitel) pushes his lead actress, Sarah (Madonna) by breaking down her confidence. The character Sarah is difficult to extricate from the person, Madonna, one of the most conspicuous people in the world, in 1993 and now. And so, when Eddie calls Sarah a “commercial piece of shit” from behind the camera while she tries to recite her lines, we feel for each of them. Then, a sex scene proves too real for Sarah and a new level in the meta-film emerges. Sarah/Madonna looks at Eddie/Ferrara and cries, begging him to stop the scene. Her distress is more than convincing, especially for an early-nineties audience, only familiar so far with Madonna’s music career and her handful of PG roles.
Upon its release, Madonna expressed disinterest in promoting Dangerous Game. Ferrara, incensed, chalked up this decision as premature embarrassment for what she must have assumed would be a flop, like her previous Hollywood forays. On the contrary, Dangerous Game was applauded for its uncompromised look at the snowballing effect of an auteur’s control over a big star. And in a way, Madonna’s departure from the movie’s press cycle acts like a coda, revealing Ferrara’s real-life insensitivity towards his hitmaker. He and Madonna have reportedly never made up. I don’t know what I’m meant to feel, watching that uncomfortable filmed-on-film sex scene, knowing what I do about the difficulty it caused her. I just know what I do feel, which is that it gets closer to a universal truth than most performances I’ve seen. I wish it was playing on the big screen. Either way, though, sitting in a crowded movie theatre, eating stale popcorn, watching another of his movies about making a movie (Tomasso), and then that movie (Siberia), and some new, thrillingly masculine movies that are part of the programming because the directors have worked with Ferrara, feels like more than just a return to something. It feels like something new.
In 1980, the French newspaper Libération asked Marguerite Duras to write a chronicle for them over one year. The pieces could be as long or short as she liked, so long as she wrote every day. Duras said a year was far too long and proposed three months instead. “Why three months?” her editor asked. “Three months is one summer long,” she replied. “Agreed, three months, but every day!” the editor insisted. Duras didn’t have anything planned for the summer and almost gave in. But then she suddenly became terrified that she couldn’t plan her days as she wished. So she said: “No, once a week, about whatever I want.” The editor agreed.
Since 2017, Spike has invited Natasha Stagg to do the same: one text a week, of any length, on whatever she likes. A new installment of Out of State will be published online every Tuesday for ten weeks – one summer long. Last week, she wrote about the hubris of "immunity".
NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. She is the author of Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 (2019) and the novel Surveys (2016) both published with Semiotext(e).