The Driller Killer. 1979. USA. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Courtesy American Genre Film Archive
From the gutter to the stars, a filmmaker stays true to his roots
Born in the Bronx in 1951, Abel Ferrara has New York in his blood. What began as a hobby making shorts on 8mm is now an almost 50-year filmmaking career that, with two films premiering in 2019 (the documentary The Projectionist at the Tribeca Film Festival and the semi-autobiographical Tommaso out of competition at Cannes) and a near-complete retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, shows no signs of stopping.
A central character in all of Ferrara’s work has always been the city itself. From the back alley sludge of Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981) to the penthouse views of King of New York, Ferrara’s camera trawls every corner of the city. One can imagine a feature-length edit of establishing shots and cityscape b-roll from his filmography alone.
Though he departed NYC for Rome after the attacks on September 11th 2001, New York remains the heart of Ferrara’s work. Far and away a different view than the romanticized Big Apple you get in most films, Ferrara’s New York feels like home.
King of New York (1990)
“From now on, nothing goes down unless I’m involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold in the park, I want in. You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. Now it’s my turn.”
Backed by an infinitely quotable script (“Room service, motherfucker!”), an unstoppable cast that includes Christopher Walken, Larry Fishburne, Steve Buscemi, Wesley Snipes, and David Caruso, and a Schoolly D soundtrack that weaves together hip-hop and classical, the third installment of the Territorial Trilogy (following 1987’s China Girl and 1989’s Cat Chaser) King Of New York is Ferrara’s vision crystalized.
The film begins with Frank White (Walken) being released from Sing Sing and heading immediately to his suite at the Plaza Hotel. Frank is born anew as a long tracking shot follows him out of the endless parade of prison doors, into the light of day, and into the back of a limo.
Frank is another one of Ferrara’s anti-heroes, a benevolent gangster who wants to make his mark by saving a hospital. A bizarro Robin Hood whose dope-dealing robs from the poor to impress the rich.
But while he was away, rival gangs took over the turf that Frank worked hard and paid dearly to acquire, and he means to take it back. Frank and his crew go scorched earth across the boroughs, a walking tour of violence against his rivals, only to end up back at the Plaza with the city laid out before him.
’R Xmas (2001)
“This is the best Christmas ever!”
The last film Ferrara would make before leaving NYC for Rome, ’R Xmas premiered Un Certain Regard at Cannes but made only $850 at the box office opening weekend. It’s another gangster with a heart of gold tale, told this time as a renegade Santa Claus story starring Lillio Brancato Jr. (credited only as ‘the Husband’) and Drea De Matteo (‘the Wife’).
After opening with an intimate portrait of a seemingly well-to-do Upper East Side family, the Husband and Wife get in their car and drive across the city to a stash house where they divvy up a shipment of heroin for distribution on the street.
This is where much of the film takes place: on the streets, on corners and basketball courts — a zoomed-in vision of the sprawl seen in King of New York. The couple knows that New York is too big to take all for themselves, so they stick to their own turf and try to not step on anyone’s toes.
While the Wife knows there’s a risk in dealing drugs, there’s also money to be made and people in their community to take care of, including their daughter Lisa. With Christmas around the corner, Lisa has her eye on a hot-ticket item: a ‘Party Girl’ doll. After failing to bribe a toy store employee for the doll, the couple goes to a pawn shop to purchase one.
While the Wife makes the purchase, the Husband is kidnapped by a rival crew (led by Ice-T) and held for a hefty ransom. The Wife hits up her corners, gathering funds to free her husband. Then she’s back in the car — the city reflecting in its windshield, off its hood — back on streets both familiar and daunting.
Welcome to New York (2014)
“It’s a little bit dark, but it seems to be perfect.”
While ’R Xmas and King of New York revel in the city’s sprawl, Welcome to New York represents the flipside: tight and claustrophobic. [Ed. note: Welcome To New York used Endcrawl, which publishes this site.]
Most of the film takes place in various interiors — an office, a hotel, the cabin of a plane, jail, a dimly-lit apartment — and even when we do venture outside, the camera never looks above street level: no skylines, no bridges, no room to stretch your legs. Here, New York is reduced to what little personal space it affords its residents, emphasizing the paranoia and loneliness of city life.
This can be especially frustrating as the viewer longs to escape from the wretched Devereaux, portrayed pitch-perfectly by Gerard Depardieu, with labored breathing and wet grunts punctuating every scene.
The film is a fictionalized account of 2011’s arrest and trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (then head of the International Monetary Fund) for the sexual assault of a 32-year-old maid at the Sofitel New York Hotel. Though a disclaimer mentions that the case was thrown out due to lack of evidence, Ferrara makes no bones about how he thinks it went down.
Devereaux spends the first third of the film indulging in debauchery. Immediately after the assault, he’s at a restaurant with his daughter and her boyfriend, and compares his bouillabaisse to a “sex party”. Later in the film, he squirms and mumbles his way through a brief stint in jail until he’s released on house arrest to a $60,000-a-month apartment.
Here, he whiles away the hours, chomping soggy cigars and laughing alone at Truffaut’s Room & Board. When confronted about the assault by his wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), Devereaux claims all he did was “jerk off on her mouth” and whines about his “sickness”. The audience is being punished along with Devereaux, locked up with him as it were, with the city Ferrara usually so lovingly depicts completely of reach, if not out of sight altogether.
Abel Ferrara Unrated screens at MoMA through May 31st.
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Saving the Theatrical Experience
From the gutter to the stars, a filmmaker stays true to his roots.