Sunday, December 21, 2008

Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, by Nick Johnstone

(pb; 1999: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"Abel Ferrara's controversial movies always push the censors to the limits and provoke powerful critical reactions.

"Now comes the first major portrait of the New York maverick director who is revered as an auteur as often as he is reviled as a sensationalist.

"From The Driller Killer (1979) onwards, Ferrara's films have courted controversy and kept him firmly on the wild side of mainstream movie-making.

"Ms. 45 (1981)
"Bad Lieutenant (1992)
"Dangerous Game (1993)
"The Addiction (1995)
"The Funeral (1996)
"The Blackout (1997)

"Nick Johnstone assesses the movies with a sharp critical eye and offers a rare insight into a very private director and his close circle of collaborators.

"For years little has been known about Ferrara. Now The King of New York throws a bright and revealing light on one of cinema's darkest talents."


Johnstone initially provides a few surface-but-key-facts about Ferrara's private life to give readers (who may not be familiar with Ferrara's ouevre) a sense of Ferrara, the man (outside the director's chair).

Mostly, though, Johnstone provides sharp, almost-shot-by-shot analyses of the films in Ferrara's cinematic career, starting with the low-budget, shockingly violent Ms. 45 (1981) and ending with Ferrara's underappreciated-and-masterful The Blackout (1997). (Ferrara, since publication of this book, has had other directing/writing gigs, but Johnstone's analyses -- for obvious reasons -- don't address those films.)

Johnstone, in a compelling way, writes about Ferrara's raw-noirish shooting style and recurring, often-Catholic-faith-based motifs (the ravaging of innocence, redemption, etc.). If you get anything out of a Ferrara film, Johnstone says, it's that you can't get to heaven -- if it exists -- without going through the bleakest of addictive hells first.

These themes of Ferrara's are partially formed and/or reinforced by those in "Abel's stable," the actors, screenwriters and technicians whom Ferrara consistently works with. (The phrase "Abel's stable" was coined by actress/screenwriter Zoë Lund, who co-scripted one of Ferrara's most infamous films, Bad Lieutenant [1992]; Lund has also acted in some of Ferrara's films, most notably playing Thana, the gun-toting, twice-raped main character in Ms. 45, under the moniker Zoë Tamerlis.)

First and foremost in Ferrara's "stable" is Nicholas St. John, longtime friend who's scripted most of Ferrara's more striking films, including Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981), King of New York (1990), Dangerous Game (1993), The Addiction (1995) and The Funeral (1996). St John, a school-chum of Ferrara's, grew up much the same way Ferrara did -- in rough, poor, Catholic neighborhoods. Soundtrack musicians in Ferrara's "stable" include: Joe Delia (who's soundtracked three-quarters of Ferrara's films) and rapper Schoolly D (who soundtracked King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Blackout and New Rose Hotel.)

Actors in Ferrara's "stable" include: Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Victor Argo, James Russo, Paul Calderon, Nicholas De Cegli and others.

One of the things that makes this an excellent read is that Johnstone, like Ferrara, has an informed appreciation of film history, and the directors and writers who helped shape that history -- directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Robert Bresson, John Cassavetes, Roman Polanski, and Martin Scorsese. (Ferrara's films often include homage/mirroring-other-films scenes in his own movies: the aforementioned directors are often the men who helmed the films that inspired Ferrara's "homage" scenes.)

My only nit about this book is that Johnstone confuses Wesley Snipes's and Laurence Fishburne's roles in King of New York (1990). It was Fishburne who played Jimmy Jump (not Snipes, as Johnstone claims); it was Snipes who played Thomas Flannigan, a cop itching to bust Frank White [Christopher Walken's character] (not Fishburne).

This is strictly a read for Ferrara enthusiasts, film-school/creative-types or anyone who's looking to expand their knowledge of certain, darker avenues of filmdom.

Well worth your time, this. Check it out.

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