In 2021, Abel Ferrara released Zeros and Ones, an atmospheric but disjointed no-budget thriller. The war thriller is pretty underwhelming fare, but its mere existence attests to the tenacity of its creator (the American director shot the film in Rome within the limitations imposed by COVID-19). But Zeros and Ones’ merits seem almost secondary, as it’s a monument to Ferrara’s dictum that a director’s sole obligation is to overcome any impediment and get the thing made, channeling the hustler/philosopher spirit of his patron saint: Pier Paolo Pasolini. It seems that nothing will stop Ferrara from pursuing his muse; he has an insatiable desire to keep creating in the face of critical indifference, commercial failure and financial peril. Since Ferrara’s teens, he has found a way to keep making cinematic projects happen: from his early excursions in pornography to his exploitation breakthrough, from his uneasy relationship with major studios to his heyday in the early 90s, and now to his existence as a self-described “desperado.”
While Zeros and Ones appears like a creative impulse in search of a subject, much of the work Ferrara has made in the years since he was heralded as a legitimate auteur uses his own life as a canvas, blending fiction and documentary to arrive upon a unique form of self-discovery. Documentaries like Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009) and Piazza Vittorio (2017) chronicle Ferrara’s own assimilation into the complexities of Italian life, as the filmmaker turned his back on a New York whose brutalities he had documented like few others, but had now been rendered inhospitable by an influx of capital which turned Manhattan into an enclave for the wealthy. Ferrara seeks out life in all its candor and discomfort, and if New York is no longer amenable to such treatment, then he must set out in search of a new demimonde. What could be termed Ferrara’s “exile cycle” is concerned with characters struggling to accept the death of what they once knew, and thought would last forever, living in conditions of permanent indeterminacy.
Abel Ferrara’s films of this period address the destruction of worlds, and the persistence of exiled spirits looking to stake a claim for their personal version. In Go Go Tales (2007), Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) has created his own bubble of certainty: the Paradise Lounge, a struggling strip club. But the Paradise is underwritten by Ray’s brother, Johnie (Matthew Modine), a wealthy hairdresser who decides that he is pulling the plug on the venture, and Ray’s irascible landlord, Lilian (Sylvia Miles), who threatens to turn the Paradise into a branch of Bed Bath & Beyond, with its “18 thou a month” and “90-year lease.” Go Go Tales speaks to the flattening of the landscape; the film presents a version of New York which has already been swept away, an approximation of the old city that has succumbed to the weight of homogeneity. Ray functions as a cautionary tale: he has persisted beyond the point where his world makes sense; he is trying to fit his vision into an inhospitable setting. Ferrara grasps that he could so easily have fallen into that trap, clinging to the remnants and praying for a jackpot — Ray contrives a plot to fix the lottery, to play capital at its own game and come away with his world intact. Abel Ferrara understands that there is no magic ticket, that creativity is often a matter of self-preservation.
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At the end of Go Go Tales, there is a reprieve: Ray finds the winning lottery ticket that has been hidden somewhere in the Paradise; he collects his $18 million and saves the club. But Ray’s victory is pyrrhic, as he kvetches over the taxes that will be extracted from his winnings, and brings up the possibility of a second scam. The close-up of Dafoe which ends the film suggests that Ray has merely extended his misery, that no amount of money will permit his entry into a world he had sought to keep at bay within the confines of the Paradise. 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) was the point when Dafoe became Abel Ferrara’s primary onscreen proxy, taking the mantle once occupied by Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken to play out the filmmaker’s addictions and anxieties. The Ferrara/Dafoe relationship has been so enduring and intense because it developed at the point when Ferrara’s life collapsed into his work, when he confronted his exile by creating a dramatic world populated by players drawn from his life.
The destruction of the old world is complete in 4:44, taking on the dimensions of an extinction event, playing with predominant tropes to confront the loss of everything that had once leant social weight to personal expression. Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh) wait out the end of the world in their New York loft; the TV tells them that the ozone layer has been so depleted that nothing can be done to prevent a deadly barrage of radiation coming at 4:44 a.m. Ferrara uses the premise to confront his own status as an artist and recovering addict — the end of the world here is referred to as :the end of the dream,” and this could apply equally to the assumption of New York as an artistic haven, or the use of drugs as an escape hatch. In 4:44, there is no place left to hide from a reckoning with what the dream has rendered upon the physical realm. The movie finds Abel Ferrara in a contemplative frame of mind; the old bravado seems to have given way to an understanding that a new era of austerity is at hand. Yet the knowledge of this loss permits the artist to arrive at a truer recognition of self, to cast off all previous encumbrances and allow the fatalistic spirit to become a crucible, forging fresh perspectives.
Like the artists in 4:44 who are staring into the abyss, Abel Ferrara approaches the obliteration of his world as an opportunity to slip the surly bonds of time, to redraft creativity beyond the signifiers of success, and penetrate the illusion of mastery over the senses. This was the point at which Ferrara learned to “just be” in his art; the finished work becomes a testament to restless existence that is at peace with its own fragility. Just as Cisco tosses his tortured journal into the jaws of the dying city, so Ferrara resolves to rediscover life unadorned. And in order to do so, the city must be razed. “The end” with which 4:44 culminates is a remote thing, anticipated through screens and punctuated by soundbites; the relationship between the artist and the world is one mediated by the mechanisms which grind on inexorably to the precipice of death. The recovering addict Cisco finds his new fix; he is besotted with the footage of shared grief, the icons of an enlightened order explicating the failure to avert disaster. Cisco struggles to unearth a moment of clarity amidst the dream’s demise, throwing himself at the mercy of the image.
Abel Ferrara took the idea of getting lost even further in Welcome to New York (2014), which plays on the 2010s scandal involving IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn to tell the story of George Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu), who is touted to be the next president of France, but has an indefatigable sexual appetite, and is arrested when he sexually assaults a maid in his hotel room. Devereaux has a world to lose, and he sets about disassembling it with gusto. By transgressing the boundaries, Devereaux commits to self-exile, lost in a wilderness of his own cravings. In the film’s uncut version (substantial cuts were made to the sex scenes to secure an R rating in the U.S., much to Ferrara’s fury), Devereaux is a symbol of the forces let loose on post-Rudolph Giuliani New York: they are imperious, unaccountable and rapacious; the city is theirs for the taking. There is ample room for metaphor in Welcome to New York, yet Ferrara chooses not to lean in to this; he keeps his distance, but this distance tells its own story. Ferrara shoots Devereaux’s protracted sex parties as a series of static medium shots; there are none of 4:44’s rapturous coital close-ups, no dramatic peaks and valleys, simply a steely-eyed stare; the camera functions here as an interlocutor, documenting Devereaux’s excesses with lacerating clarity.
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By holding back, Abel Ferrara articulates that this is a New York he no longer recognizes; it has to be viewed from afar now, it is invested with a spirit he no longer comprehends. Nevertheless, Devereaux’s downfall must be witnessed in all its unseemly detail on behalf of the city’s ghosts, those cast out of the upscale redoubt where Devereaux and his ilk take their consumption to new extremes. Devereaux commits to a tasteful demise in which the service class lose human form against the imperial skyline, and anyone who strays into that path is similarly dehumanized. The workers are there to facilitate needs, whatever they may be. Welcome to New York is above all a story of addiction; Devereaux is as trapped as any junkie, and the film shares connective tissue with Ferrara’s vampire film The Addiction (1995) in its cold characterization of an all-encompassing lust. Devereaux feels nothing for the women he uses; his vaunted values and political aspirations serve as cover for securing the longed-for object, the impetus for his sickness. Ferrara prolongs Devereaux’s torture beyond the point of endurance; it becomes agonizing to be around him, to wallow in the muck with him. Devereaux avers that “No one wants to be saved,” and he applies this dictum most rigorously to himself.
Abel Ferrara sought a refuge from the machinations surrounding the release of Welcome to New York by reconnecting with the ideal. The filmmaker’s search for a new locus of definition had intensified his connection to the cinematic muse. Cinema is not merely a surrogate for action, but the purest distillation of life’s energies; to be trapped in the light is a sustaining force. Pier Paolo Pasolini is a talisman of possibility, and Ferrara’s account of the Italian artist’s final days revels in the ambiguous territory that the subject staked out. Beginning as Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) puts the finishing touches to Salò (1975), Pasolini (2014) is attuned to the contradictions inherent in the subject’s life — he was a devoted communist who championed a proletarian identity, yet he was not averse to paying young men for sex; he led an outwardly sedate life, living with his mother in a modest abode, yet he had a radical heart, heeding the convulsions of his inner life. Art exists in the space these incongruities open up; the dramatic world offers a framework in which our ambivalence is permitted to be explored in all its sensuality, masochism and repugnance. To risk exile by delving into these impulses is the most invigorating renunciation.
Like Abel Ferrara, what drove Pasolini was his passion: he conceived of the artist as an antagonist, unearthing the political in everything, willfully drawing the ire of those institutions which instill acquiescence, certain that “Pounding away on the same nail can bring down the house.” To follow one’s preoccupations can become a defining gesture in the face of moralists who seek to reduce expression to a pool of expedient discourse that serves the priorities of power. Pasolini reminds us that”to scandalize is a right” and that “to be scandalized is a pleasure”; to provoke with a purpose can remind us that we are more than “strange machines colliding into each other” or “a race of gladiators that are trained to have, possess and destroy,” as Pasolini describes those who have fallen under the spell of consumerist values. Salò captures the spirit of bourgeois fascism with such acuity that Pasolini foresaw the tide of hell rising to envelop him; yet he ran to meet it. He accepted that danger is a crucial part of forceful art; to risk being rejected and reviled lends the sexual, artistic, political and philosophical spheres their vitality.
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To have worked as a public intellectual during Italy’s Years of Lead (a period of deadly political instability which saw a wave of terrorism) was to grasp that a true artist exists on a razor’s edge, and must follow their own tarnished star towards a nebulous revelation. What Abel Ferrara took from Pasolini is the understanding that judgement has no place in the process. The artist must set out to analyze the self’s competing strands, and situate them in a zone of openness and curiosity, embracing a humanism which admits the lowliest of subject. Ferrara’s jumbling of languages in Pasolini offered a way forward, reaching towards a medium in which modes of communication become equivalent, like the subject’s conception of the novel he is working on which will blur the lines between essay, journalism, fiction and poetry. Pasolini declares that “narrative art is dead” — classical storytelling had become incapable of addressing the exigencies of the times, and Ferrara took the Italian filmmaker’s lead in adapting to his circumstances.
Tommaso (2019) is cinema as a form of processing, it is Abel Ferrara’s clearest attempt to actualize his sense of exile in a cinematic form which is malleable enough to encompass the ethereal and the quotidian. The director offers the viewer a little window into his world as he prepares for his next project, presenting a drama which has more in common with his recent documentary work, immersed in the world around it, capturing passersby in the background as they crane their necks to see Dafoe’s clearest surrogate for Ferrara walking the streets of Rome. The focal filmmaker finds the spiritual and the domestic existing cheek by jowl as he deals with his sixth year of sobriety, life as the father of a three-year-old daughter (Anna Ferrara) and the disintegration of his marriage to a younger woman (Cristina Chiriac). Tommaso plays out like an enhanced home movie; Ferrara’s home is turned into a soundstage on which his actual daughter and wife recreate the reality of their lives within a dramatic idiom. Ferrara and Dafoe’s lives in Rome merge into a composite picture of the American exile abroad; for Tommaso, life becomes about placing yourself at the mercy of new conventions, falling into the rhythms of a new humility.
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Uncertainty has crept into this version of Abel Ferrara’s story; he finds himself grappling with the gravity of responsibility, resisting the old impulses which bolstered a deceptive state of invulnerability in the past, and seeking to atone for his years of absence by cementing a new presence — Tommaso reminds his wife that “loving someone is being present.” This presence requires emotional work which can drain the vibrancy of an inner life: Tommaso learns how to go beyond ego and turn towards others, to intertwine his fate with those closest to him; he accepts the burden of someone else’s world, and he is alert to the progress of his recovery. The project on which Tommaso is working would become Siberia (2020); its development is the means by which Tommaso turns over the doubt, suspicion and insecurity which plague his marriage; the place where the extremities of his subconscious can be safely transferred into dispatches from an exiled spirit. In a cultural climate where to be pretentious is the worst crime a commercial artist can commit, Ferrara has the audacity to be self-indulgent; he reserves the right to tell his story frankly and unapologetically, to take command of the domain over which he still has control. The process captured in Tommaso demands an excision of those parts which no longer accord with his growth as an artist, father, husband and addict; taking inventory of the heart, learning a new language and becoming attuned to the peculiarities of a new locale.
Siberia is the other side of Tommaso, operating in a liminal state of consciousness between dream and reality. In Siberia, the exile is manifested in a figurative context in which Dafoe plays Clint, who has fled his previous life to run a bar nestled in a frozen valley “at the end of the universe,” catering to a clientele of multifarious wanderers. Clint has disengaged from the game, telling one patron who plays a gambling machine that “I don’t want to win.” Repudiating the terms of the contest leaves Clint free to set off with his dog sled into this inhospitable landscape, clambering into crevasses where multiple selves and stories vie for supremacy. The inventory which began in Tommaso necessitates a journey into the Siberian catacombs, as Clint interrogates himself in an attempt to decipher “the language of the soul.” For Clint to arrive at a state of equilibrium between interior and exterior, a painful colloquy with the cast members of his life is needed; he passes through a variety of landscapes, each representing a phase of maturation, a burgeoning state of awareness, the course of experience; he is constantly alighting and acclimating himself to fresh rejoinders that transport him to the next lesson. In the course of his travels, Clint begins to grasp the frailty of the form and the vulnerability of the vessel.
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Siberia is as much an essay as an adventure: Abel Ferrara combs through the detritus to find the inherited traits, the memories leant a fresh perspective, the eternal recurrence of the journey he is on. What is rendered is an impression, the only true testament to the struggle, the exiles huddling against the tundra. Clint is advised to “be human, fuck up, shake your ass, dance,” and succumbs to the abandon of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” an anthem not merely to a peripatetic spirit, but something elusive, forever pursued, idealized in its absence. Clint’s lesson is that to be exiled is to see with different eyes; as all the sacred spaces have been destroyed, the exile is left to sort through the wreckage and draw what sustenance they can, to “respect the presence of sleep” and the possibility of dreaming. Few artists have dreamt more boldly and defiantly in their exile than Ferrara; he has faced up to the dark towers of commerce and coercion, the systemic violence that is rationalized and sanctioned to peak efficiency by the prevailing conditions. As Abel Ferrara has grown further estranged from the mainstream, he has constructed a body of work in heated conversation with itself, expatiating upon his passions across the breadth of its scenery, in the hope of charting a circuitous route to the unifying illumination.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.