There are perhaps few filmmakers more contradictory than Abel Ferrara. His overlooked 1993 film Body Snatchers provides an unintentional metaphor for his unusual career.
There are times during Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York when you can feel a defiant filmmaker pushing back against the moralizing status quo. When he gives voice to trampled idealism and unapologetic carnality. Those fleeting moments of clarity make the rest of this disjointed, unfocused mess all the more painful. Cinema owes a debt of gratitude to auteurs like Ferrara and Gérard Depardieu, but there’s simply no dramatic necessity for this film to exist.
The art and the artist are undoubtedly strange bedfellows, and while there is a vast ocean to explore in terms of this relationship, the tempestuousness rarely ever seems to get its time on screen. This is no different for Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini – a biopic about the last days of Pier Paolo Pasolini – where several times the idea is talked about, even spoken about with the same kind of verve that one would use to discuss the lurid sexual details that are illustrated on-screen, but that push and pull is not actually articulated on-screen. Pasolini was certainly a complex man, a Jack-of-all-trades in the art world, and Ferrara does an excellent job talking about this – his role in politics, his poetry, his novels, and, of course, his films – but the director spends little time showing us that influence. The biopic of an artist, I believe, begs the question of that relationship and that influence. “It’s either I kill myself or I do it,” he says about making movies. Though the film is certainly honorific, it’s not completely explorative.
With the release of two films in 2014, Abel Ferrara has had one of the biggest years in his long and rich career. Welcome to New York, which premiered at the Cannes film festival, was a confrontational splash that divided audiences and critics alike. As the Toronto International Film Festival was underway, the film jumped back into the headlines too, as Ferrara began a media fight over the negotiation of an R-rated cut of the film, which he refused to endorse. This revelation came at a particularly apt moment, as Toronto presented Ferrara’s second film of the year, Pasolini. It seemed only appropriate that, while waging a public battle over censorship, Ferrara’s new film about a man rumoured to have died because of his art would be premiering.
New York City holds a large cinematic history of being a hotspot for noirish sleaze, a stage for a morally ambiguous society held together by a justice system without empathy or remorse. The playground was manifested in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as a window to the subversive end to the American Dream, a place underneath the hopeful symbols of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. The apocalyptic mood of Scorsese’s revelation was transplanted into the works of Abel Ferrara, a Bronx-born local whose early focus on the deep evils of his immediate landscape labeled him a mainstay in exploitative film. After The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981), Ferrara continued his narrative strength of depicting the consequences of homicidal justice-seekers with Fear City, regarded as a relative failure due to its mainstream compromises without mainstream appeal. Nonetheless, Ferrara’s transitional work still manages to translate, from a mind of schlock-aesthete, an answer to Taxi Driver as well as a foundation to Ferrara’s more self-serious works.