When highbrow pundits, scholars and the thoroughly misguided AFI listmakers inevitably catalogue the "final word" on great American filmmakers, it wouldn’t be surprising if Abel Ferrara’s name was mistakenly left off the roster. The missing link between cinema’s art houses and grindhouses, this New York-based agent provocateur’s work is easy to dismiss as exploitative trash at first glance. He has primarily worked in B-film genres (slasher films, rape-revenge films, street crime films), he’s more than willing to indulge a viewer’s (and his own) base appetites for onscreen sex and violence, and a patina of sleaze seems to color even the more reputable of his films. Clearly, the cards of legitimate autuer-ship, dealt from the powers that be, seem stacked against him.
But Ferraraphiles know that beneath the aura of in-your-face smuttiness beats the heart of an artist, one consumed with the concepts of good and evil, fact and fiction, damnation and redemption. Look past the crudeness and occasional vulgarity of his films and you’ll find a man questioning issues of faith, forgiveness, amorality, and in later works, the blurred lines between fact, filmmaking and madness. Drawing equal inspiration from European art films and the gutters of his hometown, Ferrara’s films are singular experiences from a singular voice. Critics and box office appeal be damned: his cult of fans know that Ferrara is a rare case of the real deal.
Many a neglected American director has found fervent defenders across the Atlantic, so it’s not surprising to find a British author and book company publishing the first serious treatise on the cult filmmaker’s work. If nothing else, Abel Ferrara: The King of New York attempts to give the devil his due as a serious chronicler of urban transcendentalism. author Nick Johnstone leaves no stone in this King’s empire unturned, wading through Abel’s complete body of work (ten features films, one made-for-TV movie, one music video, one television pilot and two Miami Vice episodes) and dredging up ample evidence that Ferrara, despite his low-life tendencies, deserves a place in the pantheon of modern film greats.
Eschewing the typical director’s biography approach for a more scholarly approach, Johnstone presents a compelling case for artistic integrity, sifting through the director’s output to unearth direct and indirect homages to such European masters as Bresson, Godard and Dreyer in Ferrara’s work. Grouping the filmmaker’s work into three "movements" similar to the way one would look at a painter’s or conductor’s oeuvre, the author painstakingly goes through each film and underlines their thematic consistencies. The use of recurrent motifs and symbols such as red, neon lighting (signifying hell) and religious iconography (crosses and Madonna statues are prevalent in all of Ferrara’s films) are all touched upon and explored, with special attention paid to such later, richer works as Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction. Critics and articles praising the director’s work are liberally quoted, lending credence to Johnstone’s thesis. Suddenly, the notion of Ferrara as nothing more than a sleaze merchant seems monumentally absurd.
Johnstone, an author who has written prominent biographies on fellow maverick artists such as Sean Penn, Patti Smith and Radiohead, has certainly done his homework, the odd wrong credit or two notwithstanding (his repeated inability to distinguish Lawrence Fishburne from Wesley Snipes is a minor fly in the ointment). His ability to pick out visual quotes and references from a variety of sources shows an astute eye. The mixture of a strict academic tone with a fanboy’s eagerness in his writing, however, can make for some rather stilted and purplish prose at times; his reference to Ferrara as "Manhattan’s Pasolini…a Times Square Polanski" seems lifted from a college sophomore’s essay. It also seems odd that, in lieu of the depth of exploration here, a few of Ferrara’s more questionable leanings aren’t probed a bit further. While Johnstone isn’t above attacking his hero’s lesser works (Ferrara is accused of "screw[ing] up in a majestic style" in his remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Ferrara’s consistently leering nipple close-ups and woman-on-woman love scenarios are repeatedly mentioned but never questioned, leading one to believe that the director’s less admirable qualities don’t quite fit into the author’s canonization conceit.
Abel Ferrara: The King of New York has its flaws and shouldn’t be considered the final word on Ferrara’s career. It does, however, make for a damn fine first word on a director who deserves more ink than he’s received in the past. Johnstone’s insightful essays on two of the filmmaker’s bona fide masterpieces, Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral, make the book required reading for those who aren’t convinced that the Bard of the asphalt jungle deserves a place amongst the giants. By tracing a lineage from Europe’s leading filmmakers with similar form/content, heaven/hell obsessions to Ferrara’s complex tone poems of sin and redemption amongst the barrios and boweries, Johnstone has made a grand case for taking the "sleaze merchant" seriously. For longtime fans, the ones who’ve already been hip to the cause, it will pave the way to future, stronger writing on Ferrara as well.
– David Fear