Abel Ferrara's Fear City (1984) is playing on MUBI June 19 - July 18, 2016 in the United States.
Abel Ferrara’s first feature film, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, which I have not seen, was a late-70s porno made three years before his cult hit The Driller Killer. Paired with the director’s politics, his debut is likely an orgy of contradictions: rugged but titillating, primal and intellectual, feminist yet exploitive of women’s bodies. Ferrara’s most profound work isn’t political in any usual sense. His films don’t have a message or agenda, and if any other filmmaker were to make them, they would be mute or problematic—shocking sex and violence without significance or pathos. He has a unique way with images and cuts, creating meaning through feeling, and not the other way around. He often works within the confines of genre and exploitation films, but never feels imprisoned. There’s artistry brewing inside, thoughtfulness in what can seem like heinous chaos.
Catholic iconography, racial tension, misogyny, economic inequality and the underbelly of New York City—the thematic trademarks of Ferrara’s cinema—swirl hypnotically in his oeuvre. The sex and violence we expect are always linked to a social structure or economic system. You can’t read his language like classical literature; you won’t find significance in symbols or metaphors. His images are coded to be understood as emotions first and politics second. He immerses us in the wounded subjective, giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the brink of madness. But there’s more to it than that: another layer, a fuller perspective. It’s about life on the fringes, about how even those who typically have power can be enslaved by the city.
In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel’s character, a drug addict too far gone, is both the oppressor and the oppressed (the latter leading to the former). He is wallowing in sin, followed everywhere by his guilt. There is no hope, not a chance of redemption. During the climax, Keitel cries out to a hallucination of Jesus in a church, asking for help and forgiveness, but when he kneels before the bleeding Christ, his redeemer disappears. If you feel the film in this moment, you can only come to one political conclusion. This is peak Ferrara.
But Fear City, a neo-noir without a mystery, an exploitation film with an anti-violent stance, a skin flick that stabs the male gaze in the eye, is a compromised film. Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger), an ex-boxer who killed one of his opponents in the ring, and his friend Nicki (Jack Scalia) manage strippers, assigning them to different clubs around the city. Their business is threatened when a psychopath runs amok, assaulting and murdering the women after their shifts. A by-the-book cop, who already despises Matt and Nicki and their business, is put on the case, antagonizing the two friends and suspecting they’re somehow involved with the sudden attacks.
The film is oriented around nude women and outbreaks of fetishized violence, but there is a subversive morality, too, a baiting and switching of our expectations. An opening sequence that intercuts neon lights outside of strip clubs with a dance by Loretta inside, pops with lively colors. As the moment develops and the inciting incident takes place, Ferrara cuts between men cheering for a nude Loretta and the killer violently attacking one of the dancers outside. The edits are as sharp as the killer’s scissors. Our gaze, along with the men in the club, are perpetrators of the murder.
Matt has internalized the city’s madness. Before confronting the killer, he goes to confession for a sin he hasn’t committed yet: the murder of the man who has been attacking the women. This fantasy of violence, which Ferrara implicates us in, is a reaction to racial conflict, Catholic guilt and misogyny. How all these parts fit together is unclear. A crucifix is tucked under Matt’s shirt, with him wherever he goes. The cop on the investigation is black, turning the racial hierarchy upside down and putting a person of color in a position of control. Rather than keeping women in the background as objects for visual pleasure, they, and Lorreta especially (she is Matt’s ex-fling and best dancer), are not at the mercy of the men. The city—its neon lights, shadowy alleys and littered sidewalks—are juxtaposed with acts of violence. The fear isn’t tied to just one serial killer but the entire place, oozing with corruption and crimes of passion. Unlike Ferrara’s best work, the recognizable textures are flat. The diverging ideas don’t come together; the deeper layers of meaning are displaced. Ferrara seems lost in the filthy, labyrinthine backroads of New York.