Happy birthday. I guess the respectable thing—the relevant thing—would have been to wait to until a milestone year, to wait until your 60th to write this letter. But you'll have nothing of respectability or relevance, so neither should I. What kind of a fan would I be if I only remembered your birthday once every decade?
Are you ever gonna get Jekyll and Hyde made? It seems like a good project for you, because you're one of the last directors to believe in evil (but then again, you're the director of lasts: The Addiction, the last true "post-war" film; Cat Chaser, the last film noir). Out of all of the versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I like yours the most, and I find the ending the most terrifying, because what wins out is not the unthinking alien force, but the human capacity for evil. The humanity's persistence is more horrifying than its defeat.
I guess the big question here is why I'm writing a letter that I have no intention of sending and every intention of letting strangers read. Am I, as they say, "writing for myself?" I always though the worst advice you could ever give someone was "write what you know," because people merely write what they think they know. They write what they're familiar with, which isn't the same as what they understand. I think you'd agree with me on this: it's better to always write about the unknown, to always be lost, to always have the potential to be proven wrong or embarass yourself. After all, how can you trust a man who puts nothing at stake?
I saw a movie a couple of weeks ago and I didn't like it very much, and I don't think you would either. It was called Cyrus, and it had a lot of good actors in it, which was a plus, but it left me cold. I've come to realize that it was because, like in so much "independent" American cinema, there was nothing at stake, neither for the characters nor for the authors. The movie had a pretty good plot: this schlubby guy and this wonderful, beautiful woman fall in love, but her grown son gets in the way. But the love of the schlubby guy and the beautiful woman was never on screen. We were expected to assume it, and whenever they went on a date or spent some time alone together, we got a montage sequence set to acoustic guitar music. There were some pretty shots, and some sound-bites from their conversations peppered in and it looked like a commercial for AT&T or Valtrex. The directors, who are brothers, didn't gamble; they barely showed the couple kissing. They evaded the issue, maybe because they realized that if they were to give their audience an actual love scene, there would be some people in the audience who wouldn't believe it. And you—you have no problem showing audiences all sorts of things you believe in but they might not.
The audience can think the movies in Dangerous Game or The Blackout or Mary are shit, they might not get the marriage in 'R Xmas, they might think the philosophy in The Addiction is corny, or that the Chelsea Hotel in Chelsea on the Rocks is not a special place. Those director brothers probably believe the love between their characters is a genuine thing, but I don't think they believe in their belief, because if they did, they'd put it up on the screen the way you cast your wife in Dangerous Game because you believed in her and the idea that she was lovely, regardless of whether an audience would believe that she was really Harvey Keitel's wife. They don't think it's true enough to give it the possibility of failure, the way Fuller offers us his unvarnished beliefs or Godard offers us his declamations or Wang Bing shows us his sooty men. The way the later Chaplin (whose last few films Go Go Tales reminds me of) offers up himself, his public persona, his wiry body and his opinions on everything from war to widescreen to rock music. When a director puts his or her beliefs up on the screen like that, it's not an attempt at oppressing the audience, but the chance to be proven wrong, to disappoint. I wanna say that this is what painters and poets do, but goddammit, you're not a painter or a poet, you're a filmmaker and that's all you'd ever want to be, because it's in your blood. To put it bluntly: filmmaking is not a habit.
I admit that I think the movie they're making in Mary is terrible, and that none of the stripteases in Go Go Tales are sexy. I am ambivalent about some of the ideas in King of New York, and pretty much all of Ms. 45. But these things don't matter, because what I believe in is the ability of movies to express these ideas and for you to be honest about how dearly you hold them. There is no evasion in an Abel Ferrara movie. Maybe you're a masochist, like Nick Ray, that you put yourself out there for people to laugh at. And, as if to make it harder, you're one of the last filmmakers to believe in truth and to believe in evil. There is, I think, a fear of subjects outside of the two most superficials ones: mortality, and the aging of the author (which shouldn't be confused with the condition of old age). Superficial, because they are inevitable and cannot be changed. It'd be a better world if every goddamn director who felt the need to make a movie about their ambivalence about entering middle age or adulthood instead made a movie about this culture's treatment of the elderly, or the life of debt it forces its twentysomethings to assume if they want to get anywhere. Even then, making good films (or making films "in the right direction," whether socially / politically or formally, the way Noah Baumbach or Nicholas Winding Refn do) does not make one a great director.
I recently watched Carlos, the Olivier Assayas miniseries. I think you'd like it. I don't know if you know, but Assayas once said that Dangerous Game was one of the most daring moments in the history of cinema, and I'm inclined to agree with him, because it's a film that presents the audience filmmaking itself and then gives them the opportunity to deny it, to walk out and say that the whole thing just isn't worth it. It shows movies in all of their ugliness, and it takes a lot of faith in filmmaking to show them that way: as the exploitation of reality and of human emotions. People call you an art filmmaker (whatever that means) who started in exploitation movies, but I know you don't see a difference between the two, because the moment a director calls "Action!," someone gets exploited. It's a guilty business. I've read that the movie was supposed to be called Snake Eyes, but believe me, Dangerous Game's a much better title: it gets at the heart of the matter, and it's good to think of filmmaking as poker or a roulette wheel or chess, all played for very high stakes.
This letter isn't for you, it's for me, because there's nothing I can tell you that you haven't taught me already with images, sounds, cuts and actors, which are better than words. I am a student writing to his teacher. But—and this sounds like a paradox—I think you should never do something for yourself for yourself. Better to do something for yourself for others. Abel, I know that you set out to make a film because you have a love or a doubt or a notion or a story or a character but you finish it for an audience, even if that audience never gets around to seeing your movie. Even then, the audience often hates it. You made New Rose Hotel for them, but most of them probably hate it. I had this idea that I'd write a letter to you that I would never send because I love your films and because I wanted to put that love into words, but I wouldn't have sat down to write it out if I didn't want someone else to read these words, and if I didn't believe in my belief in you and immodestly hope that some stranger would in turn believe me.
Maybe this is a letter about itself. The more I write it, the less it seems to be about Abel Ferrara; I think it's more accurate to say that it's about belief, which you have in spades (along with guilt, which requires belief anyway), and which seems to be missing from so many films nowadays. Not enough people believe in what and how they're putting things up on the screen, and if they do, they're often afraid to admit it. In a time when any image or word can be re-contextualized, re-calibrated, re-sized, committing to any one thing becomes terrifying. A filmmaker with strong opinions on form might be terrified of subjects, and one with faith in an idea might be afraid to put it into too strong an image. In short: for all of its achievements, 21st century cinema is permeated by a fear of itself.
Werner Herzog recently remade one your films, and I know you're sore about it, though you probably take some comfort in the fact that his movie made even less money than yours did. But you should also take some comfort in the fact that though Herzog constantly puts his body in danger, there's no danger to his cinema. I think he can be very funny, but he's a fraud. He goes into the jungle and the Arctic and comes back with the same story every time. It goes without saying that he doesn't believe in movies (duh). Am I completely certain all of this is true? No, but for now I believe that it is and I'd rather plunge in foolishly than stand at the edge of the water my whole life, wondering whether it's warm or cold. You've given me a lot, and all I can give back is a piece of advice: don't slouch so much.
Sincerely, the best, good luck, your fan, always, with love, truly,