Another year is almost gone, and there’s still no sign of Go Go Tales in the US. Why is it so hard for Abel Ferrara, one of the greatest living American directors, to get his movies shown in America? Not just shown–made, too. Go Go Tales, set in Ferrara’s native New York, had to be shot at Cinecittà with an Italian crew.
Abel Ferrara’s story (like the storyline in one of his films) is a simple one complicated by the world: a Bronx kid with bags under his eyes starts making low-budget films with a school friend. But no one is a “born filmmaker.” Vocation is the great Protestant myth and Ferrara, the Catholic, doesn’t buy it either. So he slowly makes his way up the ladder of respectability, starting in the most misunderstood and underrated genre of American movies: pornography. Next is a slasher film, the sort that’s now fashionable to treat at least a little seriously. Then the 1980s, a decade of urban grit and grime leading up to Cat Chaser, the last true film noir. The 1990s start. Ferrara makes two films that earn him a serious reputation largely because, though great films, they’re made in the most critically-overrated genre of American cinema: the underworld epic. From here, we moved forward to Body Snatchers, the greatest of all the body-snatching movies, better even that Don Siegel’s original, is followed by Dangerous Game, one of the most intelligent films ever made about filmmaking–a compromising movie about compromise. There’sThe Addiction, which would be called a “vampire movie” if Ferrara gave a shit about vampires. The Blackout, which positions Ferrara as the only American director who, when citing Cassavetes, means A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams and not Faces or Minnie and Moskowitz. New Rose Hotel, which prefigures Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover and Boarding Gate in the same way Dangerous Game prefigured Irma Vep. Ferrara’s films start being dismissed as “incoherent.” But it’s better to have an honest incoherence than a false simplicity. Truth-telling above storytelling.
A notion develops that Ferrara’s films are “over the top,” but this is a little silly. In movies, there is no minimalism or maximalism; no movie is more “total” than any another, more “cinematic.” There are only films and filmmakers that are careful and those that are reckless. Some are careful out of cowardice, and some are reckless for the same reason. Some are bravely reckless and some are bravely careful. And Ferrara’s films, starting with The Blackout, are as reckless as our thoughts: the mind’s got no pride, no sense of polite company. It thinks whatever it wants. They are lecherous, serious, religious, blasphemous. Some would call them revolting, but there’s nothing more tasteless than tastefulness.To say that Ferrara started in exploitation films is beside the point: for Ferrara, more than for anyone else, all cinema is exploitation, every thought and notion a little guilty. Reality is the prostitute of the camera and the microphone. An ordinary, compromised person, when faced with something Godly, as the characters of Bad Lieutenant and Mary are, wouldn’t know what to do. This guilt, this reckless human feeling that even the most ascetic can’t control, is something we have to accept. Nothing we do can ever correct our actions, but we’ve got to keep acting. We can’t go on, we’ll go on.
Willem Defoe plays Ray Ruby, an honest cheater, the owner of a down-on-its-luck strip club. The great tradition of American cinema views small-time crooks as sympathetic characters and big-timers as tragic figures. Ruby is both (a big-timer who commits a small-time crime–embezzling his performers’ salaries) and is therefore a sort of composite: a sympathetic figure. He’s a gambler and a big spender, because, like Ferrara, he has nothing. Wealth makes us cautious. There are no poor misers.
The rest of the characters belong in a screwball comedy cast at classic-era Warner Brothers. Sydney Greenstreet would fit right in. There’s Ruby’s hairdresser brother, a bulldog doorman, a hapless comic-relief cook, the landlady and Ruby’s Irish accountant. There are also the strippers, most of them heavily-accented immigrants. Defoe and the accountant have just succeeded in a lottery scam that’ll allow them to keep the club open. The problem is that they can’t find the ticket, and it’ll take the rest of the film for them to find it. Meanwhile, there’s a doctor who doesn’t know his wife is a stripper, a Jersey blowhard with money, a group of foreign businessmen who’ve been dropped off on the wrong side of the street by their bus driver, a lesbian couple who are having a baby and want paid leave. Complications.
Defoe’s final monologue as Ruby, presented in a long take interrupted by cutaways to his disappointed crowd, is disarming. It’s direct, earnest, completely without artifice, like something out of a late Chaplin. More A King in New York than King of New York. Like Chaplin’s late movies, it’s unidiomatic, which is what made A King in New York and Monsieur Verdoux infuriating to audiences at the time and what makes Ferrara infuriating now. It takes a brave man to treat his native language (cinema for Chaplin; New York City for Ferrara) like a foreign one. Chaplin made his postwar films as if he had no awareness of cliches or devices. They’re unencumbered–they’re truly free. And that’s the mode Ferrara has operated in since Dangerous Game: a liberating, embarrassing style.
Hitchcock made sympathetic films. Truffaut followed him in this. Ozu and Dreyer made empathetic ones, but in different ways. For Dreyer, empathy was the natural human condition–deep down, all people could relate to one another. But this empathy becomes clouded by our prejudices. For Ozu, empathy was an ideal to try for, a way of presenting the world. Ferrara, more than any American filmmaker, makes pathetic films. Go Go Tales is Ferrara asking us to look into the dark: a world steeped in shadows that obscure faces, overcast by ethically questionable actions. Sometimes we’re monsters, sometimes we do the right thing.
The happy ending of F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. You realize that such happiness is completely artificial, that the world doesn’t just come together and reward us for ordinary struggles. Go Go Tales ends on a cynical note, a final bit of dialogue over an image of Defoe being photographed with his oversized lottery check–but this ending, too, rings false, as if cynicism and hardship are something temporary. The club owner’s embarrassing happiness is the real truth, like Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands setting the table during the end credits of A Woman Under the Influence.