by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
It is not as unusual as it may at first sound…..a filmmaker with over 40 years of experience and over 25 films in the can is lionized in Europe but underappreciated in his home country. That has been the fate of many of the original American indies of the 1970s, including such celebrated auteurs as Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Amos Poe and Susan Seidelman, and a more recent crop that includes Harmony Korine and Todd Solondz. Most prominently on this list is the idiosyncratic filmmaker Abel Ferrara. The Miami International Film Festival is attempting to correct this by giving its Filmmaker Tribute to Ferrara this evening at the historic Gusman Center, along with a mini-retrospective of some of the director’s films that are screening throughout the week.
At a rather informal press conference held in the penthouse suite of the chic Raleigh Hotel, Ferrara was joined by his longtime cinematographer Ken Klesch (who also heads the World Cinema competition jury here) and frequent collaborator, actor Willem Dafoe. “In Italy when I was growing up, Abel Ferrara was a kind of cinema legend”, MIFF Festival Director commented to the assembled reporters and photographers. “I was shocked to find that a film artist who has won so many international awards and is held in such high esteem in European circles is not equally revered in his own country. That is one of the reasons we wanted to bring Abel here to Miami and to showcase his recent work for audiences that have not had a chance to discover them for themselves.”
Ferrara himself is sanguine about the love-them-overseas-ignore-them-at-home phenomenon. “I just go where the opportunities are”, he shared at the press conference. “For over a decade I lived in Rome, because it was in Europe that I could find support for my films and live in a film culture that was not only about the big budget Hollywood film.” Ferrara is back in his native New York and will offer a work-in-progress screening later this week of his new film MULBERRY STREET, named for the Little Italy neighborhood he now calls home.
Ferrara was born in the Bronx to an Italian-American family. Raised as a Catholic, the themes of the catholic church were have a later effect on his work. After making several short student films in the 1960s, he got his first directorial credit on a pornography film under an assumed name. Ferrarra first drew a cult audience with his notable grindhouse movie Driller Killer (1979), an urban slasher in the mold of Taxi Driver (1976), about an artist (played by Ferrara himself) who goes on a killing spree with a drill in hand. The film attracted attention and retains a cult audience to this day. He followed it with the even more exploitive Ms. 45 (1981), a "rape revenge" film starring Zoë Tamerlis.
Due to the buzz of his first two films, Ferrara was hired to direct a big-budget version of his oeuvre called Fear City (1984). It starred Tom Berenger, Melanie Griffith, Billy Dee Williams, Rae Dawn Chong, and Maria Conchita Alonso. He also found work on television, directing the Michael Mann-produced television series Crime Story (1986) and Miami Vice (1985-87). He returned to features in 1987 with China Girl (1987), a modern re-telling of West Side Story as a gang war between the Chinese tong and the Italian mafia; followed by Cat Chaser (1989), a gritty adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel starring Peter Weller.
In the 1990s, he helmed two of his most well known and revered films. King of New York (1990) is a highly stylized crime drama, starring Christopher Walken, Wesley Snipes and Laurence Fishburne. In 1992, Ferrara directed Harvey Keitel in an acclaimed performance as an out-of-control police officer with a foul mouth and an addiction to sex and drugs in the cult classic The Bad Lieutenant (1992). The film was a love-it-or-hate-it cult hit that pushed the enveloped on good taste and the sense of the police as enforcers of moral order. Its shocking violence and gritty dialogue made it one of the first films to receive an NC-17 rating.
The 1990s was a period of dislocation and disappointment for the director. A remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a limp thriller called Dangerous Game, starring Harvey Keitel and Madonna, were box office disappointments. The Addiction (1995), a black and white horror film starring Lili Taylor as a university student who succumbs to a vampire, and The Funeral (1996), which featured an all-star cast that included Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Isabella Rossellini, Benicio del Toro,and Vincent Gallo, barely received theatrical releases, despite high profile nominations for the films and Ferrara at the Berlin and Venice film festivals. He also relocated to Rome, where he was able to find European financial partners for the underseen films The Blackout (1997) with Matthew Modine and Dennis Hopper, and New Rose Hotel (1998), which reunited him with Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe. Despite winning two major award at the Venice Film Festival, the films were virtually unreleased in the U.S.
In the past decade, Ferrara has mainly worked in Europe, including the films R Xmas (2001), which starred Drea de Matteo and Ice-T and the religious epic Mary (2005), starring Forrest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, Juliette Binoche, Heather Graham, Stefania Rocca and Matthew Modine. The multi-plot film concerns an actress (Binoche) who stars in a Passion of the Christ-like movie about Jesus, where she plays Mary Magdalene, with whom she subsequently becomes obsessed. Ferrara received some of his most enthusiastic buzz in years for Mary, which premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2005. It swept the awards ceremony, garnering the Grand Jury Prize, SIGNIS Award, and two others. But in the U.S., it bypassed theaters and went straight to DVD, as did his follow.up film, Go Go Tales (2007), starring Matthew Modine, Bob Hoskins, and Willem Dafoe.
The Festival has resurrected several of these “lost classics”, including The Funeral, Go Go Tales, King of New York, Mary and New Rose Hotel, in a mini-retrospective of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, and will screen his newest film Chelsea On The Rocks, a documentary on the legends and denizens of the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York City, as part of tonight’s tribute. “Abel is a filmmaker who has made a body of work that deserves to be placed in the pantheon of independent filmmaking”, MIFF Director Finzi added. “I hope we are introducing these films to a new audience that will make them realize that Abel is one of America’s great filmmakers and one of its underappreciated cinema treasures.”