I love reading film biographies, and have recently read Cronenberg on Cronenberg and Lynch on Lynch (both edited by Chris Rodley, both excellent) as well as Woody Allen on Woody Allen (edited by Stig Bjorkman, also great). I’m gearing up to check out Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genuis by Christian Braad Thomsen, but frankly it looks rather daunting. I was pretty tickled to see that there was a book written about the American film-maker Abel Ferrara, still most famous for his controversial and seminal thriller Bad Lieutenant. The film was recently remade by Werner Herzog in a rather curious move, one which prompted Ferrara to damn him to hell, although Herzog’s response to this was better than any film could have been when he simply stated, “Wonderful, yes! Let him fight… I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is!”
Ferrara is a director who I’d often pictured as an incoherent and barely functioning drunk, terrorizing his cast and crew while openly weeping at icons of the Virgin Mary and smoking crack, and yet, after recently purchasing a whole stack of his old films, I found myself getting really into his whole style and wanting to know more about him. When I found a copy of Nick Johnstone’s book, The King of New York – named for Ferrara’s first high-profile film, starring Christopher Walken as a savvy New York gangster – I immediately bought it and excitedly settled down to learn whether my bizarre impressions of this very private and complicated director were in any way founded… I am unfortunately still none the wiser. In a nutshell, the text simply explains, in stultifying detail, each plot-point of all of his films. In my review of the book below I go into more detail about how not to write a film biography. This originally started as an Amazon review, but quickly turned into a blog entry because I had so much to say on the subject…
Here are my thoughts on Johnstone’s book:
Abel Ferrara (b1951) is a film-maker whose work is undeniably controversial, always toeing the line between art and exploitation. Some of his films are more successful than others (to put it mildly), but they all contain a certain unique blend of outrageous imagery, a slightly sleazy and shambolic quality, a dark, often absurd sense of humour, and a thinly veiled, deeply artistic sensibility. The care and craft brought to his films is exemplified by the intelligent scripts written by his long-time collaborator Nicholas St. John, and the effective performances by actors like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe. Ferrara remains a very strange character in the landscape of cinema however, building a career out of low-budget pornos, before moving on to art-house shockers like Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981), and finally finding a certain recognition and taking on bigger budget, glossier (some might argue way overblown and unsubtle) projects like Fear City (1984) and King of New York (1990). The zenith of his career is undoubtedly Bad Lieutenant (1992) – still one of the most agonizing and emotionally distressing depictions of addiction and Catholic guilt (his twin obsessions over the years) ever committed to film. After the critical success of Lieutenant he directed the big-budget sci-fi horror Body Snatchers (1993) and, following its relative failure at the box-office, has since remained steadfastly on the fringe, making occasional low-budget movies which seem somehow more experimental (The Addiction – 1995, The Blackout – 1997) and less focused and immediate (New Rose Hotel – 1998).
Above: Original poster for ‘The Driller Killer’ (1979). The cover for the video cassette drew so many complaints that it is often considered single-handedly responsible for the UK Video Recordings Act of 1984. The film was banned in the UK until 1999.
Above: Harvey Keitel is the ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992).
Nick Johnstone’s book, Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, therefore, had a lot to cover in charting the career of this underrated and often misunderstood director, yet somehow he seems to completely fail in ‘getting to’ Ferrara. It’s obvious that he’s a fan, this is demonstratively clear from the praise he heaps on Ferrara in his opening chapter. Johnstone quickly establishes the key influences on Ferrara’s work as R.W. Fassbinder, Pasolini, Polanski, Godard and Scorsese. He discusses the themes in Ferrara’s overall body of work to very nice effect and sets the book up in an agreeably conversational, slightly gushing manner. The style of Johnstone’s prose is, unfortunately, a little pedestrian, and as he repeats his assertions about artistic influences, reoccurring themes and visual motifs over and again, we begin to get the impression that he’s actually run out of material. I must admit that I had not connected the work of Ferrara with that of Fassbinder, and thought it was very astute of Johnstone to point out the overlapping themes in their work, but after it’s been mentioned around ten times in the opening chapter one can’t help but feel hammered down by what was otherwise a fine observation. Similarly, Godard and Pasolini are brought into the conversation so often that it begins to read like an exercise in ‘spot the reference’.
The main bulk of the book is remarkably slim on material, comprising almost entirely of scene-by-scene synopses of each film in chronological order. Here is where Johnstone genuinely runs out of inspiration and reveals himself unable to go beyond the most basic observations of the language of cinema. After reiterating his earlier points on style and form – although valid and, initially, quite interesting – he suddenly gets bogged down by his reverence for the subject. It’s certainly worth pointing out a visual trick, such as the use of colour schemes to chart a character’s journey (red for a ‘descent into hell’, white for ‘salvation’ or blue for ‘authority and sterility’), but this is hardly unique to Ferrara’s work, nor is the use of mirrors and reflections to show a character questioning their sense of self and their motivations, yet these techniques are discussed with a sense of awe and wonder. Johnstone goes so far as to point out the intertextual references in every film, which becomes very tiring (yes, film-makers like to acknowledge their influences, we get it) and he seems to delight in highlighting the trademark ‘nipple-shots’ (!) which Ferrara includes during scenes of sex and nudity in his work, which has the unintentional effect of making the book seem slightly grubby and adolescent. Further to this, the (literally) narrative approach taken in explaining the material is extremely frustrating, as anybody who isn’t completely familiar with Ferrara’s entire body of work will find spoilers littering the text. I’ve seen most of the films covered, but found myself skipping the chapter on Snake Eyes to avoid this. (The TV episodes of Miami Vice and Crime Story which Ferrara directed are also covered in great detail.) Each moment of each film is recounted and explained in terms a child would understand, and far from writing from the perspective of an academic or even a ‘film buff’, Johnstone comes across more like a clever teenager who’s discovered a selection of 18-Rated movies and is trying to relate them to his friends in as much detail as possible – bragging about the apparent subtleties he’s picked-up on…
Above: Poster for ‘Fear City’ (1984).
Above: Poster for ‘Ms. 45’ (1981) – Still Ferrara’s strongest, most satisfying and stylish film.
For what it’s worth, the chapter on Ms. 45 (my favourite of Ferrara’s films) is actually pretty good, and the section on Bad Lieutenant is suitably comprehensive, featuring a sourced interview with the script-writer, Zoë Tamerlis-Lund (who also plays Keitel’s drug dealer in the film), which is surprisingly insightful. Lund, an actress, writer and musician, is probably most famous for her role in Ms. 45, in which she plays the central character, Thana, to brilliant effect (the character is mute throughout the film), and in the interview she comes across as very intelligent and articulate – she died in 1999. Johnstone also briefly hits his stride with his analysis of The Addiction, probably Ferrara’s strangest and most misunderstood film (a vampire story about morality, guilt and, yes, addiction – which like Cronenberg’s The Fly is often misinterpreted as an allegory about the AIDS crisis) which he seems to take more time and thought over. I was actually quite startled at how profound the writing was in this chapter, as Johnstone seems to dissect the strange mindset of the addict in an almost eerie way; indeed, it turns out that he is himself a recovering alcoholic.
Above: Zoë Lund and Harvey Keitel in ‘Bad Lieutenant’.
Above: Zoë Lund in ‘Ms. 45’. The alternative title was ‘Angel of Death’.
Above: Poster for ‘The Addiction’.
Film critic Peter Bradshaw placed ‘The Addiction’ at the top of his list of the best films ever made for Sight & Sound in 2002, right above ‘Annie Hall’.
Above: Philosophy student and vampire: Kathleen (Lili Taylor) approaches her first victim, a homeless junkie, in ‘The Addition’.
There is an unfortunate sense of imbalance, however, when it comes to discussing Ferrara’s remake (or reimagining) of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (simply titled Body Snatchers). The Ferrara version has close links to both the original 1956 Don Siegel film and the 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman. However, Johnstone dismisses the ’78 version completely in his analysis here (because Ferrara doesn’t mention it in press interviews) and instead makes blithe comparisons to the original film. It’s clear he strongly dislikes the Ferrara version and considers it a complete waste of time and money, but then he barely gives it due consideration, and rather petulantly sums it up as ‘crap’. Sure, it’s not a great movie, but for a writer who seems to genuinely enjoy a film as openly derivative and trashy as Fear City, it feels as though he lets his emotions get the better of him (somewhat ironically) in dedicating only three pages of the entire book to Ferrara’s most expensive and high-profile film to date – one to which Roger Ebert gave a glowing review. (Ebert famously hated the Kaufman version.)
Main image: Carol (Meg Tilly) alerts the other pod-people with a mechanical scream in ‘Body Snatchers’ (1993).
Insert: Brooke Adams performs a similar move in the 1978 adaptation. Ferrara and St. John drew inspiration from several plot elements of the Kaufman version (including the creeping tentacles of the pods) but add to the paranoid atmosphere by setting the film on an American military base.
Having struggled through the book (minus the Snake Eyes chapter), what struck me most was the lack of input from Ferrara himself. Each chapter begins with a sourced quote from Ferrara about the film being discussed, along with additions from St. John and occasional press soundbites, yet he remains a curiously absent presence throughout the book (there is virtually no biographical information), and as a result of this, Johnstone’s pontificating on form and subtext seems less convincing and more like hearsay. Perhaps if Ferrara were a less private individual and more apt to give interviews and explanations of his work, Johnstone would have found himself on firmer ground and had more to work with. It’s possible that Johnstone approached Ferrara for an interview and was turned down, which would explain his reliance on sourced quotes, speculation and endless repetition. When reading a book dedicated to the work of a single director, the most interesting thing to hear about is their working process. Film-makers often have a unique and distinctive approach to collaborating with their cast, their writer, DP and crew, and with a genuine firebrand auteur like Ferrara you can bet there are a million great stories… of which we hear none. When you watch a film like Bad Lieutenant and witness the extent to which Keitel commits himself to the role, it leaves you wondering how the director managed to convince him to take on the part, and the nature of their relationship during the shoot. Zoë Lund is an actress and writer who had a troubled life (there is vague talk of ‘drugs’ from, of all people, John Cale) and collaborated with Ferrara on his two most successful films, and yet we’re privy only to one short interview with her, and we don’t even hear about how they met. The best anecdote in the book has Ferrara meeting a group of press in a hotel room and mischievously climbing into a wardrobe to give his interviews through a makeshift confessional box. It’s amusing, but it hardly tells us anything about Ferrara other than the fact that he’s eccentric.
Above: Zoë Lund as the mute seamstress Thana, in ‘Ms. 45’.
Mentally and physically abused by the ‘MEN’ in her life, she takes to the streets with .45 magnum…
Trauma and emotional scarring lead Thana to become an angel of retribution.
Something about the book which bugged me – something which goes beyond the blandness of commentary and analysis – is the fact that Johnstone keeps making mistakes about which actors play which roles. In King of New York, Laurence Fishburne (over)plays a sassy gang leader named Jimmy Jump, and Wesley Snipes is a tough rookie cop called Flanigan. Their characters are pretty distinctive (Fishburne chews the scenery so much he actually has to be seen to be believed!), but Johnstone manages to get them confused several times, discussing the wrong actor’s performance in a role, and then actually switching them around again, talking about the same actor playing another character. I had to re-read these parts to make sure (and any editor worth their salt should have noticed), but it’s clear that he couldn’t remember who played whom, and didn’t bother to go back and check out the credits to make sure. The book was written shortly after both Blade and The Matrix were released, so it’s not like we’re talking about Bud Cort here. He also manages to confuse a startled extra at the beginning of Body Snatchers with a character played by Forest Whitaker, who appears as a major character later on in the film, thereby questioning the logic of having Whitaker ‘forget’ that he’s already met the lead character before. The extra was a black guy too. I’m not saying that Nick Johnstone is racist, by the way, just easily confused and perhaps slightly lazy. There are also various grammatical mistakes along the lines of: “In this film… blah blah, which happens in this film.” and “In his review of… blah blah, which he wrote in his review.” This is ultimately the concern of the editor though, since nobody can write an entire book without making a few mistakes.
Above: Laurence Fishburne gets fresh in ‘King of New York’.
Above: Laurence Fishburne during the explosive drug-deal scene in ‘King of New York’.
Wesley Snipes plays it cool in ‘King of New York’.
In better understanding how this book came to be written, and why the author seems so lost, I had a look at his other credits, which include an unofficial biography of the actor Johnny Depp, and a book about the late Amy Winehouse. (I shudder to think what these books must be like!) The fact that Johnstone seems to specialize in this kind of celebrity filler stuff suggests that Abel Ferrara: The King of the New York was an attempt to write something of substance about a film-maker whom he admired. However, to quote from his chapter on Body Snatchers: “It’s poorly thought out, empty and mind-numbingly dull.”
Above: Abel Ferrara with his entourage.
For a great interview with Zoë Lund about Bad Lieutenant and her script writing process:
For more info on Ferrara and his future projects:
Above: Artwork from the film ‘Driller Killer’.