"The fact that we’re still making movies is a fucking miracle."
Abel Ferrara has, for most of his career—most of his life, really—been more comfortable amid scum and sewage and sin, the tawdry, oil-slick sleaze of pre-Giuliani New York, than he has polite society. He was, in his youth, into middle age, even now, at 69—a family man and ten years sober after a lifetime of insalubrious activities—not one to give a fuck. He's more 42nd Street than 54th, and yet he got a nice retrospective at MoMA a couple years ago. He cut his teeth on porn and exploitation that, while just as schlocky as anything else with a similar budget and penchant for perversity, is obviously made by a mad genius, one who doesn't entirely fit in with the other weirdos of New York. Consider the ferocity of his early films, the sordid living quarters of a soon-to-be-insane artist and the cacophonic rockers in the next room in his Video Nasty The Driller Killer (1979), in which Ferrara himself plays the psycho of the title; or the woman in nun garb seeking revenge against rapists and those who protect them in Ms. 45 (1981); or Fear City (1984), in which a killer of women, who also happens to be a crazy karate master, fights a former boxer-cum-gumshoe in a ridiculous scene of back-alley fisticuffs; or the modern Romeo and Juliet China Girl (1987) transported to Houston Street, Manhattan. The '90s were a productive decade for Ferrara, who released 11 works (features, music videos, made-for-TV stuff) and found more widespread success than before, particularly with 1990’s King of New York (1990, which features a towering turn from Christopher Walken), 1992’s Bad Lieutenant (naked Harvey Keitel), and 1996’s The Funeral (again with Walken), and yet even his most accessible, most crowd-pleasing affair, such as Body Snatchers (1993), has an insubordinate streak, a movie with more on its mind than monsters.
Though these films thrum with ignominious life, there is something sad about them, a sense of self-loathing in their mania. Maybe it's because they're the work of a drug aficionado, a man with a fidgety mind whose chemically-augmented thoughts whir around faster than frames are fed into a projector. Ferrara has been open about his proclivity for drugs, his addictions to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. They fueled his films. These self-destructive tendencies earned Ferrara a reputation for being a wild man, a bad boy, a reputation he has yet to fully shed. That he managed to put out so many good movies while being himself in such bad shape is something of a miracle. But isn't that what the movies are, 90-minute miracles?
Although Ferrara is known for his dirty habits and his films about old dirty New York, his work has, in recent years, become more taciturn, contemplative, slower in their stream-of-conscious accretion of scenes, dream-swoony, the camera often on the prowl, searching for faces. There's a restful soul to these films rather than the filth and fury of coked-up Ferrara. They're the work of a man who has made peace with himself. And still, this calmer, cleaner, more domesticated Ferrara continues to court controversy and run afoul of the people who pay for the movies to be made and distributed. Pasolini (2014) premiered in Venice and took almost five years to get a release stateside, and Welcome to New York (2014), based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault scandal, became its own scandal, and pissed off just about everyone, from the producers, financers, and distributors (similar to what happened with 1989’s Cat Chaser) to the real-life people who served as inspiration, and the film ended up being seen by very few people. Ferrara has always been drawn to the plights of solitary men, men of the arts, men squeezed by the clenched fist of modern malaise—men who, like Harvey Keitel's coke-huffing cop in Bad Lieutenant, want some kind of clarity, some kind of redemption, which isn't such an easy endeavor. Ferrara himself once said: "And listen, redemption is not something that happens because you think you see Jesus once, bro. It’s a day-to-day thing. It requires work. 'Oh, cool, I’m redeemed. Thanks. So that’s done.' It don’t work like that. What’s the man say? 'You gotta prove it all night.' That’s the fucking truth."
Ferrara's sober films are pervaded by a certain melancholy, a sense of time slipping away, and yet they never wallow in self-pity. They're curious, strange, and empathetic. There's a sense of dignity that's absent from his early works. The Projectionist (2019) follows a man who has dedicated his life to C-grade movies, and he ruminates on a once-gloriously gross city scrubbed and bleached into something shiny and boring. Pasolini imagines the final hours of the too-short life of the Italian filmmaker. A bartender at the end of the world searches for some semblance of purpose in the hypnagogic Siberia (2019). A director who bears a resemblance to Ferrara finds profundity in quotidian endeavors and contemplations in Tommaso (2019), with the director's real-life wife and daughter playing the corresponding parts in the film.
Zeros and Ones, Ferrara's newest, similarly follows a single man over the course of his own personal odyssey. It's ostensibly a realistic film, concerned with an Army man named J.J. (Ethan Hawke) going about his ambiguous routine in Rome; and yet it has the same strange air suffusing it as Siberia, just a bit filthier, the images grainier. It's a sort of hybrid work: in its depiction of a city at night and all the weird things that happen, it is closer to Ferrara's older works, and in its solemn, oneiric aura, it recalls his more recent offerings. It's difficult to discern what, exactly, is happening, and not just because the film is shot (by Sean Price William) in perpetual darkness. It is a work of austere obstructionism, an enigma without a solution. Only a sober man could make something so insoluble. Consider the disorienting scene early on in which Hawke watches a bedraggled version of himself singing and ranting on a tablet screen. The world of Zeroes and Ones is one that no longer makes sense, a world that is undeniably ours. I watched it twice and took notes and still fail to fully understand the film. It exists in the lacuna between eras, between the pre-pandemic and the post-pandemic, that time between night and day. The film feels, in the best way, like Ferrara and Hawke were bored doing COVID and decided to make a movie, figuring it out as they went. It borders on the incoherent, something partially remembered.
The stoical J.J. lives in a messy apartment, rides the almost-empty train at night; he wears a mask and passes other people whose faces are also obfuscated by masks. Zeros and Ones is, among other things, concerned with faces, with how we see ourselves and how we see others. If masks adumbrate identity, then maybe recordings are more honest, realer than reality. Hawke's once-eternally youthful face is now fissured from time, and there's a look of weariness about him as J.J. searches for something that maybe defies elocution, searching for something like solace in a nocturnal world of frightened people in masks and soldiers kicking in doors. It's another tale of alienation from Ferrara, who shows us a slightly seedier side to Rome, his adoptive city for the last 20 years, just the way he captured the filth and fury of New York for decades. As Ferrar said in an interview: "We film what’s in front of us. What’s in front of us is basically our modus operandi—the elements that are there and, really, where the creative drive comes from. Where the essential idea of a movie comes from… I really don’t know where that does come from, but it’s almost always just the beginning of it. That’s just a starting place." He goes on, "The power of the need to film to express ourselves to each other. It becomes more important every minute, for me."
J.J. is something of a voyeur with a camera, a filmmaker in his own way. It is his perspective through which the film is filtered, and everything he shoots looks sick with infatuation. In one of the film's nastier scenes, J.J. watches his cadre of Army pals waterboard a man; the film cuts to a blue-black shot from the perspective of J.J.'s camera, and, in laggy slow-motion, the camera zooms in as water ruptures off of his towel-covered face, the high-contrast black lines against blue background look like a modernist painting brought to life. In another scene, J.J. finds a woman slaughtered and laid out and his reaction is to record the body. Later, J.J. has sex with a woman and records it. The film takes a yellow-tinged perspective, the entwinement of the bodies in inky black and sunshine yellow before turning into the color bar screen that used to play when a television station went down. Barthes: "The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence—as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence…"
Siberia and Zeros and Ones are kindred spirits—the work of a man no longer burdened with addiction, unbeholden to the chemicals that used to spark his creativity. Together, they make a pretty good argument for sobriety. Jesus walked in the desert for 40 days, which is how long Ferrara was in a rehab clinic for. 40 days of sobriety is, for an addict, like a lifetime in hell. Withdrawal expunges every ounce of energy, sleep proves elusive, the mind aches and the body quivers. But on day 41, life feels fresh and new again. Things become clearer. Since kicking his addictions, Ferrara has found a new kind of clarity—his movies make less literal sense, maybe, but they have more to say. Siberia depicts the hallucinatory headtrip of a man (Willem Dafoe) who serves drinks in a small shack in the hibernal tundra. He encounters various people, most of whom don't speak English, as well as his own doppelganger, engaging himself in Jungian conversation, discussing his misfortunes, his mistakes, the irrevocable decisions that have given shape to his life. This concern with solipsism and dual identities is also evident in Zeros and Ones, with J.J. seeing recordings of himself not so dissimilar from what happens to Dafoe. The metaphors in both films, sometimes obvious and sometimes obtuse, cull from Freud, from Nietzche, from any of the authors one finds in an Introduction to Philosophy textbook; but Ferrara is completely earnest, completely vulnerable. You watch these films and feel the blood burning in Ferrara's veins.
Siberia was a peripatetic shoot. As Ferrara said, "We shot at the top of the Alps. Went to the desert in Mexico. It’s crazy shit. We shot in a studio in Germany. It’s like an odyssey. Like Alice in Wonderland for adults." Conversely, Zeroes and Ones is a one-setting film, and that one setting, Rome, seems, as captured in Ferrara's compositions, like a rain-slick realm of cobblestone and old marble erections, the occasional masked passerby looking down at their feet as they plod along the lamp-lit streets. It's Rome as less of an open city than an empty one. (Production began in November of 2020, a time when Rome was recording over 2,500 new cases of COVID a day.) With its miniscule budget and no-frills filmmaking, its sluggardly pace, like a man out for a nighttime promenade (Baudelaire: "What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters"), Zeros and Ones is a return to roots for Ferrara, and something entirely new. A man traipses through the city, a man who uses drones and takes Zoom meetings, a man who should, ostensibly, be saving people, a fruitless endeavor during a time of global tumult. "The world is the hiding place of God," J.J. says, quoting Christ. "To understand what's outside of you, you must use what's in you. If we hear what we already know, nothing new happens."