Last week, I was happy to finally see Abel Ferrara’s film Welcome to New York, a biopic about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a member of France’s Socialist Party and managing director of the International Monetary Fund. As Ben Sachs notes in his review, this is the first Ferrara film to play in Chicago theaters since 1998, so even though I had a fairly ambivalent response to the film, I still appreciate being able to see the film, period. (That said, there’s some controversy over whether or not the version currently in exhibition is in fact the definitive version, meaning the one the director wants us to see, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.) As a director, Ferrara means different things to different people. To J. Hoberman, he’s a “cine scuzz-meister” and the last great proprietor of the pre-Giuliani New York milieu; to Nicole Brenez, he’s an innovator along the lines of Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, someone who radically reconstructs genre archetypes and levels the barriers between avant-garde and narrative forms. He’s worked in grimy exploitation, sci-fi, psychodrama, crime thriller, porn, and supernatural horror, and his best films tend to be an amalgamation of all that and more. Dealing in moral ambiguity and a carefree, essentially detached view of cinematic realism, Ferrara’s films appear unintentionally comical and deficient to the uninitiated, but such deliberate obfuscations are what make his work so vital. One must approach a Ferrara film, however inane and seemingly foolish it may seem, with the same feeling and incertitude demanded by life itself, a tough ask for audiences in an age of increasingly diagrammatic, ready-made cinema. You can find my five favorite Abel Farrara films after the jump.
5. Cat Chaser (1989) Simultaneously sultry, sleazy, and politically aware, this Elmore Leonard adaptation, cowritten by the author himself, isn’t highly regarded among Ferrara fans, but I like the artistic tension created by the headstrong director matching wits with the equally headstrong writer. It was, of course, butchered by the studio, and various versions—including a 157-minute director’s cut—have popped up here and there, but no matter which one you come across, the joys of Leonard’s tight structure and Ferrara’s visual mastery are evident.
4. New Rose Hotel (1998) A techno-futurist corporate thriller that remixes Hitchcock’s Notorious and also doubles as Ferrara’s examination of his own relationship with Asia Argento, who appears as the femme fatale. It sounds like a busy film, and it is in certain instances, but it’s also incredibly graceful and beautiful—a colorful, dissolve-heavy depiction of sexual desire as mankind’s most defining emotion, an idea the director explores often but never more compellingly than he does here.
3. The Driller Killer (1979) More than Bad Lieutenant and Ms. 45, this is my favorite “down and dirty” Ferrara movie, the kind of film that almost feels dangerous to watch. This is most valuable today as both an illustration of New York bohemia just before the dawn of the Reagan years and a particularly poetic piece of trash cinema, but the psychological insights into the minds of struggling artists and lapsed Catholics also fascinate, especially as they compare to the director’s fascination with flesh and blood.
2. Body Snatchers (1993) Collaborating with fellow trash cinema iconoclasts Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon, Ferrara made one of the best studio horror film of the 90s with this adaptation of the famous Jack Finney novel. Compared to previous adaptations, Ferrara’s film strays furthest from the source material, but the sense of paranoia and anxiety is nevertheless palpable, ably mixed in with the director’s pet themes of conformity and nihilism. Like his gangster movie The Funeral, this has a stunningly ambiguous conclusion that leaves the viewer with the same sense of unease experienced by the characters.
1. Dangerous Game (1993) A gut-wrenching movie, and probably the director’s most personal. It’s a corrosive ode to the filmmaking process that manages to find beauty and wonder in some truly ugly scenarios. The film’s movie-within-a-movie conceit offers jarring lapses into documentary style and video formatting, informing the volatile atmosphere created by Ferrara’s stand-in Harvey Keitel, perhaps the director’s most important onscreen collaborator. As the critic Camille Nevers wrote, this is “the film in which [Ferrara] is ultimately not just foreman as well as architect but also active spectator and implicit and central actor.”