Notes on Ferrara



Christopher Walken as Frank White, in Abel Ferrara's 'King of New York'

Christopher Walken as Frank White, in Abel Ferrara's 'King of New York'

For this post, I want to take quite a different approach to my ‘Notes on The Terminator.’ With those notes I focused minutely upon a single brief moment in one film, lasting all of maybe ten seconds; here I wish to make some quick, fairly broad observations about two Abel Ferrara films I watched around the same time as The Terminator. Ferrara’s is a name I’d heard plenty about, indeed I even have a copy of the book on Ferrara by Nicole Brenez which my dad gave me, and have read a little of it, as much as I could make much sense of without having seen any of the films (now, when I’d love to be able to read it, the book is in storage on the other side of the world). I’d not seen any of the films until last month, when I got access to a copy of King of New York (1991). I watched it, I mostly enjoyed it, I downloaded the Schoolly D album afterwards. I didn’t entirely know what to think. Ferrara had previously been presented to me in my reading as a great, iconoclastic artist working within the world of “B-grade,” violent genre cinema, and any aspect of the film that made me scratch my head – in particular, the hilariously stupid portrayal of the police – I consciously set aside, decided that there must no doubt be some way to explain, to recuperate these absurdities within the Ferrara aura to which I, a Ferrara novice, as yet lacked access.


I didn’t know when I’d be likely to have a chance to see another Ferrara movie, but by chance, a couple of weeks later, somebody happened to lend my brother a DVD of Bad Lieutenant, the film Ferrara made immediately after King of New York, in 1991, and we watched it. What most immediately stands out in seeing these two films alongside one another is the great difference between them. Where the earlier film is all about the moving camera, the frenetic pace, the gaudy cinematography, Bad Lieutenant is mostly structured around a series of intense and discomforting unmoving long takes – if the menace of King of New York is largely in the editing and the disorientation and flashy excitement it offers, the menace of the latter film comes in the very lack of editing, the camera’s refusal to do anything but record the ever-increasing ugliness of its title character (Harvey Keitel) and his surroundings. The sound track is vitally important to both films, but in very different ways: King of New York is all about the late 80s NYC hip hop tracks, the gunshots, the squealing of tyres, all of which are in the service of creating the hazy, intoxicating atmosphere of Frank’s demented world; Bad Lieutenant, in contrast, makes crucial use of ambient sound (indeed, what little plot the film has is advanced through this use of ambient sound, as the radio broadcasts the results of the baseball games our lieutenant has placed bets on) and of the banal sounds of everyday life, within the home, within the car, within a dive bar.

These formal differences were striking, yet they coincided with a basic similarity at the level of character that forced me to re-evaluate how I saw these two films as the work of one artist. Both films have at their centre a portrayal of an extremely violent, sexually depraved, sadistic man who wishes to do good: the gangster in King of New York wants to fund the building of a hospital in his depressed neighbourhood; and Keitel’s bad lieutenant, when he isn’t too busy stealing cocaine from crime scenes and sexually assaulting teenage girls, is determined to catch two men who have committed an appalling rape. Both men are utterly earnest in their desire to do these good deeds, and the films seem to take this earnestness perfectly seriously. There is no Sopranos-like ironising of the stupidity and stunted moral sense of these men. This was one of the things about King of New York that I found hardest to accept – the expectation that I take seriously a character whose psychology seemed so poorly, simplistically drawn. When I got to Bad Lieutenant and found a very similar character in the midst of a film with such striking formal differences, it became apparent that there was something going on in the depiction of these characters that wasn’t simply ‘unrealistic’ human psychology.

These characters, I began to feel, shouldn’t really be viewed as ‘real’ individuals with ‘real’ individual psychologies, but more as types, types that Ferrara uses to explore questions of violence, depravity and sexuality in the contemporary world. In order to perform these explorations, Ferrara externalizes everything, gets rid of the whole idea of private emotions, the distinction between the individual’s private self and their public self-presentation, etc. These characters do not have any being underneath what they do and what they say; rather, they act themselves, in ways that are both strikingly similar and strikingly different. What makes both films such formally singular works is that, with each of these characters, Ferrara precisely follows their self-depiction, their self-presentation, so that all the formal qualities I’ve already talked about aid in this performance, this production of character: King of New York gives us a character who moves frantically, who creates his own being through this movement, through his ‘style of living,’ and so we get a movie that is all ‘style over substance,’ all about momentum and visual flashiness. Bad Lieutenant also gives us a drug-addled character who moves frantically, but his movements are so demented and hopeless that it is apparent that his real problem is stasis, his inability to move, to escape addiction, etc.; and so the camera movement and the editing and the sound all enforce this sense of stasis. What I think is most important about all this is that, because these are not psychologically ‘true’ portraits of individuals, the formal characteristics I’ve been discussing do not simply emphasize already-existent attributes of their characters; rather, these characters are created as much through the form of the films that carry their names as through their behaviour, their ‘humanity’.

These, then, are just some notes on how my sense of Ferrara as an artist developed through watching these two films. It’s a while since I watched them now, and my insights are not as clear as they would have been had I written this a month ago, but there you are. A new post is coming in a couple of days, which will outline more precisely what it is I hope to achieve with this blog.


5 Responses to “Notes on Ferrara”

  1. 1 Sam

    you should watch new rose hotel, it’s pretty great, and i think it has the same kind of thing going on with the characters’ psychology

  2. 2 catabloguing

    cool, thanks for the tip

  3. 3 catabloguing

    I like the fact that that michelle williams article is one of the “related posts” to this one

  4. I loved New Rose Hotel when it played as part of the Focus on Argento. Very special atmosphere.

    Great post Catabloguing. Have you thought about breaking up your paragraphs a little bit, these lengthier ones are a bit hard to read on the screen. Sorry to be annoying, just a little feedback.

  5. 5 catabloguing

    Thanks, Ronan. I take your point about the paragraphs, I’ll bear that in mind in future posts.

    I managed to see New Rose Hotel the other day. Very, very weird, but very good. I wasn’t in town when the Argento season happened, seems like it would’ve been great.

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