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Abel Ferrara: The Last Rebel

Written by: FFT Webmaster | August 5th, 2011

It is a well known trick of the trade that American artists are sometimes more appreciated outside of their home country than in it. The past two centuries are littered with the names of famous American painters, musicians, dancers and filmmakers who had to travel the pond to Europe in order to receive recognition (and to make a living wage). That tradition continues to this day and one of the exemplars of this irony is the American filmmaker Abel Ferrara, who will be feted this week at the Locarno Film Festival in Italy. At the esteemed event held in the Ticino canton, Ferrara will receive the Pardo d’onore Swisscom, the prize for career achievement, awarded every year to a contemporary director for an outstanding body of work.

On Friday evening, August 5, Ferrara will be presented with his award in the resort city’s famed Piazza Grande, the site of a series of outdoor screenings and special events. For the occasion, his latest film 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH, starring longtime friend and collaborator Willem Dafoe, will be presented as an exclusive preview of extracts, since the film is still in production. The film is co-produccd by Fabula, Funny Balloons and Wild Bunch, further evidence that American indie directors of a certain stripe can only find the necessary coin for their productions in Europe (think Miranda July, Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, Whit Stillman, Hal Hartley and a host of others). On Saturday, August 6, the director will give a master class for attending filmmakers, industry and the general public. In addition, the Festival is screening some of the major films from the auteur’s oeuvre including MS. 45 (1981), KING OF NEW YORK (1990), BAD LIEUTENANT (1992) and MARY (2005).

Ferrara is the kind of iconoclastic talent whose individual vision clashes with the  traditional industry powers that be but finds a champion in the European press and with European industry executives and financiers. Perhaps, as Olivier Père, Artistic Director of the Locarno Film Festival has suggested, the appeal of Abel Ferrara is his reputation as “a maestro with the soul of a rock rebel and a distinctive spirituality, whose focus on suffering is reflected in his films.” It is easy to understand why Europeans respond favorably to the major themes in his somewhat exploitational canon of films, which deal with sin and redemption, love and violence, and the conflict between faith and individual behavior. These, of course, are also the themes of some of the great European film auteurs, so Ferrara’s immersion in these, while also offering an off-kilter American twist, is nearly irresistible for a European cult audience.

Ferrara has been shaking things up and pushing the envelope since the star of his fable career in the 1970s, a period when the Hollywood studios were in sharp decline and individualistic directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian de Palma and Robert Altman were making films that would redefine the cinema experience. Ferrara’s origins belie his later obsessions. Born in 1951 in the Bronx section of New York City, Ferrara was the product of a strict Catholic home. He attended the film conservatory at SUNY Purchase, where he directed several short films, which are actually available on DVD collections. After graduation and finding himself out of work, he directed a pornographic film titled 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY in 1976, which starred his then-girlfriend. This early stint led him into the world of underground genre filmmaking, and his first film in that direction was the grindhouse actioner THE DRILLER KILLER (1979), which was his first to find a cult audience. In the urban slasher film, which capitalized on the themes of Martin Scorsese’s successful TAXI DRIVER (1976), Ferrara played the lead role, an artist who goes on a killing spree with a drill in hand. The low budget film made a good amount of money on the cult film circuit, so Ferrara was given a bigger budget for his next film, a “rape revenge” film with feminist overtones titled MS. 45 (1981), which starred Zoë Tamerlis, who later scripted BAD LIEUTENTANT. The film only increased his cult following. Ferrara was next hired to direct FEAR CITY (1984), a seedy melodrama set in a Times Square strip club, which offered choice roles in the early careers of Tom Berenger, Melanie Griffith, Billy Dee Williams, Rae Dawn Chong and Maria Conchita Alonso. His success with these genre films led him to television, where he directed episodes of the Michael Mann-produced television series MIAMI VICE (1985) and CRIME STORY (1986). His next few films on the big screen, CHINA GIRL (1987), THE  GLADIATOR (1987) and CAT CHASER (1989) were not big box office winners, but he retained a cult following that was highly loyal to every new project.

His fortune took a turnabout in 1990  with KING OF NEW YORK, an evocative if brutal gangster film starring Christopher Walken as gangster Frank White, who runs a group of black drug dealers, including one played by Laurence Fishburne. The cast also included such rising talents as Wesley Snipes and David Caruso. As with most of Ferrara’s films, the screenplay was written by his boyhood friend and frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John. The film was a big indie hit and set the stage for what is perhaps Ferrara’s best known and most successful film. BAD LIEUTENANT (1992) featured a fierce performance by Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel as a foul-mouthed, sex-and-drug-addicted police officer who wrestles with guilt and eventually seeks redemption in the Catholic church. Both Ferrara and Keitel were nominated for Independent Spirit Awards and despite its controversial content, the film was lauded by critics.

With the success of those two films, it was not long before Hollywood came calling. Ferrara was hired for a remake of the sci-fi classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1993) for Warner Bros.; and DANGEOUS GAME (1993), starring Keitel and Madonna, for MGM. Neither film scored at the box office and Ferrara’s Hollywood option was dropped. He also could not easily adapt to the Hollywood system of scrutiny and interference, so he returned to independent filmmaking, directing two well-received movies: THE ADDICTION (1995), starring Lily Taylor as a university student who succumbs to the will of a vampire, and THE FUNERAL (1996), a taut thriller with an impressive cast including Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Isabella Rossellini, Benicio del Toro and Vincent Gallo. His next projects, THE BLACKOUT (1997), with Matthew Modine and Dennis Hopper, NEW ROSE HOTEL (1998), which reunited him with Christopher Walken, and ‘R XMAS (2001), with Ice T and Drea De Matteo, were embraced by his supporters but did not do much for his career.

His next project represented a definitive change of pace but still adhered to his Catholic roots. In MARY (2005), he made an unabashedly religious-themed film about an actress (played by Juliette Binoche) who becomes obsessed with her role as Mary Magdalene in a movie about Jesus. The film, which also starred Forrest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, Heather Graham, Stefania Rocca and Matthew Modine, premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it swept several top awards including the Grand Jury Prize. The film was championed by critics but got a very limited theatrical release in the United States. As was true throughout his career, his films were lionized in Europe and virtually ignored in North America. The same held true for GO GO TALES (2007), a dark comedy starring Matthew Modine, Bob Hoskins and Willem Dafoe.

In April 2011, Ferrara began shooting his first feature in four years. 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH, starring his frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe and the director’s long time companion actress Shanyn Leigh. The film is shot in one location, a cramped apartment, during the course of the last 24 hours before the biblical apocalypse. It has been rumored that the film will be ready for a Fall festival premiere, but so far it has failed to be listed as one of the titles at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival. As evidenced by the director’s career, this one will probably make the scene on the European festival circuit and have limited visibility in his home country. For this reason, Ferrara has been spending more time in Rome, making a base in Europe where he is revered as a major film artist.

The Locarno Film Festival’s honor this week only reinforces his stature as among the most independent of the independent filmmakers, a cinema rebel who remains true to his own vision and his own code. In this sense, his being awarded the Festival’s Pardo d’Onore is in keeping with some of the major filmmakers who have received the tribute in the past 23 years, including such giants as Manoel de Oliveira, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, Wim Wenders, Alexander Sokurov, Hou Hsiao-hsien, William Friedkin, Alain Tanner and Jia Zhang-ke. For more information on the Locarno Film Festival, which continues for the next 10 days, visit:

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