Abel Ferrara's New Miracle

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Abel Ferrara's thriller "Zeros and Ones," shot in Rome during the pandemic, is something new and exciting for the American renegade.

By Greg Cwik

"The fact that we’re still making movies is a fucking miracle."

—Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara has, for most of his career—most of his life, really—been more comfortable amid scum and sewage and sin, the tawdry, oil-slick sleaze of pre-Giuliani New York, than he has polite society. He was, in his youth, into middle age, even now, at 69—a family man and ten years sober after a lifetime of insalubrious activities—not one to give a fuck. He's more 42nd Street than 54th, and yet he got a nice retrospective at MoMA a couple years ago. He cut his teeth on porn and exploitation that, while just as schlocky as anything else with a similar budget and penchant for perversity, is obviously made by a mad genius, one who doesn't entirely fit in with the other weirdos of New York. Consider the ferocity of his early films, the sordid living quarters of a soon-to-be-insane artist and the cacophonic rockers in the next room in his Video Nasty The Driller Killer (1979), in which Ferrara himself plays the psycho of the title; or the woman in nun garb seeking revenge against rapists and those who protect them in Ms. 45 (1981); or Fear City (1984), in which a killer of women, who also happens to be a crazy karate master, fights a former boxer-cum-gumshoe in a ridiculous scene of back-alley fisticuffs; or the modern Romeo and Juliet China Girl (1987) transported to Houston Street, Manhattan. The '90s were a productive decade for Ferrara, who released 11 works (features, music videos, made-for-TV stuff) and found more widespread success than before, particularly with 1990’s King of New York (1990, which features a towering turn from Christopher Walken), 1992’s Bad Lieutenant (naked Harvey Keitel), and 1996’s The Funeral (again with Walken), and yet even his most accessible, most crowd-pleasing affair, such as Body Snatchers (1993), has an insubordinate streak, a movie with more on its mind than monsters.

Though these films thrum with ignominious life, there is something sad about them, a sense of self-loathing in their mania. Maybe it's because they're the work of a drug aficionado, a man with a fidgety mind whose chemically-augmented thoughts whir around faster than frames are fed into a projector. Ferrara has been open about his proclivity for drugs, his addictions to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. They fueled his films. These self-destructive tendencies earned Ferrara a reputation for being a wild man, a bad boy, a reputation he has yet to fully shed. That he managed to put out so many good movies while being himself in such bad shape is something of a miracle. But isn't that what the movies are, 90-minute miracles?

Although Ferrara is known for his dirty habits and his films about old dirty New York, his work has, in recent years, become more taciturn, contemplative, slower in their stream-of-conscious accretion of scenes, dream-swoony, the camera often on the prowl, searching for faces. There's a restful soul to these films rather than the filth and fury of coked-up Ferrara. They're the work of a man who has made peace with himself. And still, this calmer, cleaner, more domesticated Ferrara continues to court controversy and run afoul of the people who pay for the movies to be made and distributed. Pasolini (2014) premiered in Venice and took almost five years to get a release stateside, and Welcome to New York (2014), based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault scandal, became its own scandal, and pissed off just about everyone, from the producers, financers, and distributors (similar to what happened with 1989’s Cat Chaser) to the real-life people who served as inspiration, and the film ended up being seen by very few people. Ferrara has always been drawn to the plights of solitary men, men of the arts, men squeezed by the clenched fist of modern malaise—men who, like Harvey Keitel's coke-huffing cop in Bad Lieutenant, want some kind of clarity, some kind of redemption, which isn't such an easy endeavor. Ferrara himself once said: "And listen, redemption is not something that happens because you think you see Jesus once, bro. It’s a day-to-day thing. It requires work. 'Oh, cool, I’m redeemed. Thanks. So that’s done.' It don’t work like that. What’s the man say? 'You gotta prove it all night.' That’s the fucking truth."

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