For virtually his entire career, Abel Ferrara has seemed to occupy a liminal space in film criticism, not unlike the spaces his characters seem to so often find themselves in — seedy bars, brothels, hotel rooms, all way stations on the road to nowhere. He’s frequently derided by critics as too idiosyncratic for the mainstream, a kind of failed Scorsese or Cassavetes, a crank dabbling in crime films, weirdo genre freakouts, and macho forms of tortured indie realism. Once his films stopped receiving theatrical releases, around the time of The Blackout and New Rose Hotel, he became largely the purview of festivals. But the handful of critics that love him are obsessed, as duly noted in the 2003 book Movie Mutations, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. Ferrara is one of the key structuring figures of the book who, alongside other distinctive, arguably eccentric auteurs like Monte Hellman, Jean Eustache, and Phillipe Garrel, represents a unique, personal vision of the world, unencumbered by commercial concerns. Nicole Brenez, also a contributor to Movie Mutations, has herself written an entire book about the director, minimalistly titled Abel Ferrara, that constitutes one of the most engrossing, long form investigations of a contemporary director’s body of work in recent memory. She is a graceful writer and an intimidating thinker, and it would take thousands of words to even begin to summarize the moral framework that she erects around Ferrara’s filmography. But she offers some simpler inroads to his oeuvre, particularly his combative relationship to genre — Ferrara has made mainstream cops-and-robbers TV episodes, slasher and rape-revenge flicks, gangster pictures, and even a vampire movie. But perhaps his greatest whatsit is New Rose Hotel, a cryptic sci-fi thriller from a William Gibson short story that doubles as a morose film noir and a kind of profound treatise on the instability of images in the modern world.
The male gaze is all over this, but it’s been mutated into something approaching poetry.
New Rose Hotel has a simple enough narrative, one that Ferrara seems initially uninterested in developing except as something onto which he can hang an idea or mood. Christopher Walken is Fox, a corporate spy who works with with Willem Dafoe’s X, as they attempt to lure a Japanese scientist to jump ship from one corporation to another. They enlist a prostitute named Sandii, played by an impossibly alluring Asia Argento, to seduce the scientist and make him fall in love with her, at which point she will persuade him to leave his family and job. Of course while preparing for the job, X falls in love with Sandii for real, and is devastated when he finds out that she is a double agent involved in a larger conspiracy to kill off the competition. Even this cursory synopsis doesn’t do justice to how weird the film is, how Ferrara so totally disrupts any conventional sense of narrative and instead creates a kind of hallucinatory, free-form jazz breakdown. Walken in particular seems to be ad-libbing his entire performance, spouting off bizarre jargon in his uniquely halting, sing-song cadence, while Dafoe plays the doomed love interest mostly straight. There’s a dangerous, anything-goes vibe to the whole endeavor, as if it could collapse at any moment, and Ferrara is running full steam ahead to keep it all from falling apart. The opening brothel scene, in particular, is a beautiful catastrophe, as Ferrara attempts to wrangle Walken and Defoe’s disparate acting styles, occasionally inserting Annabelle Sciorra into a scene to bring order to the chaos and drop some exposition with a bemused smile; all the while the camera is fascinated by Argento’s movements. The male gaze is all over this, but it’s been mutated into something approaching poetry. It feels as if Ferrara is trying to excavate some kind of ecstatic truth from the rubble, assembling gestures and sensual movements into a sort of hot-house, opium-den longueur.
Here, Ferrara is expressing his concerns for encroaching millennial doom (this was released just before Y2K) and the commodification of love (and lust). As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has observed, the film “gives the impression of not being set anywhere in particular,” with almost every scene shot in close up and a “global nowhere of small screens, where the day-to-day reliance on data and video draws basic facts into question.” Indeed, Ferrara shoots the film in both 35mm, something approximating the grain and texture of 16mm, and fuzzy, hyper saturated video that resembles some of Godard’s experiments circa his Histoire(s) du cinema cycle. The audience doesn’t see anything that happens outside the walls of the various hotels that characters meet in, leaving most of the film’s ‘action’ confined to glimpses on hand-held devices (the film’s only attempt to create some kind of future tech). Behind the cheap interiors and various cavorting of the characters, Ferrara manages some breathtaking mise en scene; one features X and Fox conversing in standard shot-counter-shot, but with each of their faces visible in mirrors on the ceiling, so that both occupy each shot simultaneously; another finds X shrouded in chiaroscuro lighting, flitting in and out of shadows. Eventually, when the ‘twist’ occurs, Ferrara circles back to reexamine the first two thirds of the film as X pieces things together and realizes Sandii’s betrayal, retroactively saturating the film in unreliable narration. The whole movie is a virtual panopticon, a tower of babel where images and sound diverge, and everything is just a ghost in the machine. Brenez observes in her book that Ferrara is “a poet who justifies the existence of popular forms.” She continues: “Ferrara’s work introduces disorder into a cynical world; misunderstandings begin here, since some critics attribute this disorder to the films themselves. His films are increasingly accused of being badly made, murkily motivated, and confused.” New Rose Hotel is, in fact, very confused, and quite murkily motivated, which is of course the entire point of the film. It is not, however, badly made, as Ferrara shows he is in complete formal control. It’s a breathtaking work, a struggle between cynicism and despair for a future tinged with regret and longing. Love doesn’t conquer all, but we go on anyway.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.